Author Archives: Robert

The chainsaw

It is firewood cutting time again.  I have such good memories of cutting firewood with my dad when I was younger, and I look forward to this time each year.  I’ve assembled a few topics on the matter, below.

The Saw – there are saws out there for all types of jobs, in all price ranges.  I grew up using a Stihl 034 AV Super.  When I began shopping, I was almost ready to buy a Husqvarna, though.  They are lower priced and seem to enjoy a good reputation from those that own and use them.  Of course I created a spreadsheet to compare all of the models I was considering.  What I discovered was that although the Stihl saws were commanding higher prices, they also had greater power.  When you divided the two to arrive at a dollars per horsepower ratio, the Stihl seemed to win every time.  Therefore it is worth it to pay more, because you’re getting a more powerful saw.  This was true on the older models for which I was searching; I don’t know that this works on new models as I never considered buying a new saw. As with the woodstove and the rototiller, I mirrored my dad’s product selection.  I actually have two now,  the 036 model and the 034 AV Super.  They are the same saw, just different model years and are both part of the 1125 series family, which allows for parts interchangeability.  I highly recommend these older saws from the late 1980’s and 1990’s compared to the current models.  Things just aren’t made the way they use to be.

Safety – I always wear glasses and earplugs when cutting.  I’ve never owned a pair of chainsaw chaps, but a pair is on order.  I was sold on them when I read a review saying that one should consider them an $80 insurance bill to protect against a $3500 ER bill or worse.  Read the manuals because they tell you a lot about how to safely operate the saw.  The manual will also tell you not to lend your saw to anyone who hasn’t also read the manual.  This is smart, not only from a personal safety/liability standpoint, but also from a mechanical point of view.  The average firewood saw runs at 13,500 rpm, and damage to you and/or the saw can happen in a hurry if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Repair and Maintenance – Regarding the maintenance schedule, you can find that in the saw’s manual.  A good alternate reference guide can be found here.  Things will go wrong with your saw and you can fix it yourself.  Doing so will save you a lot of money.  Buy a book called the illustrated parts list to help you identify what parts you need to replace and also to know how things fit together.  I buy all of my parts on eBay, used.  They are all still in good usable shape and I think are better than the aftermarket Chinese junk.  Also, it is a lot cheaper than buying factory replacement parts.  One $5 tool you should have if you plan on doing your own maintenance is a piston block which will hold your crankshaft in position to allow you to remove the clutch or flywheel.  I have found Arborist Site to be a great resource when searching about how to diagnose a problem or fix something.  There’s a lot of useful knowledge on their message boards.

Operations – Use fresh fuel in your saw.  I use Wal-Mart brand bar oil to save money, but Stihl brand 2 cycle mix in the fuel.  The mix oil is expensive but high quality and is formulated for your machine.  Mid or high grade gasoline is purchased in 5 gallon containers and immediately treated with Sta-Bil preservative.  The mix is made in a smaller 2.5 gallon can with the oil on an as needed basis.  The fuel and mix goes a long way.  In our home we almost exclusively heat with wood and only 5 gallons of gasoline and 1 gallon of bar oil were used for the entire season to provide all the wood we needed.

Cutting day – I take a fully stocked tool box to the woods with me.  This consists of the following: scrench, extra bar, extra chain, spare bar nuts, fuel, bar oil, tiny screwdriver, round files that fit your chain, an old paintbrush (for brushing away dust before opening oil and fuel tank lids), axe, splitting maul, plastic felling wedges, spare fuel, air and oil filters and also a box of various spare parts.  I bring enough parts that I could swap out a clutch in the woods if I had to.  I do this because I sometimes drive several miles from home to cut firewood and won’t want to be caught without the ability to make repairs.

Thanks, Robert.

Mangel beets for our pigs

We’ve got six pigs in the backyard that are getting pretty big.  We’ve been feeding them since May and plan on keeping one for ourselves and are selling the rest to friends.  This is being done as part of our larger overall goal of being able to raise as much of our own food as possible.  And we love bacon, ham, sausage, etc.

They receive a standard feed ration from the local grain elevator of 18% protein, that is made from corn, soybeans, etc.  We supplement this as much as possible with things we grow or glean.  This summer I grew about 30 double row feet of mangel beets.  I learned from the Deliberate Agrarian website that they are an old fashioned livestock feedstuff.  These puppies grow really big, up to 24″ in length.  And the pigs love them!  When these beets are thrown into the pen the pigs literally spin around in circles like a helicopter rotor!

Pigs love to eat freshly picked mangel beets

Pigs love to eat freshly picked mangel beets

Why pigs and not cows?  Some of you know that I grew up on a farm raising beef cattle and so that would be the natural progression for me.  A steer, when raised properly will take one and a half to two years to finish its journey to slaughter weight, where a pig only takes six to eight months.  Feed conversion ratios are also very important.  A beef steer has a feed conversion ratio of something like 13:1.  (this will vary widely depending on the system/style of feeding) That is 13 pounds of feed to one pound of meat gain.  They have very large frames and therefore have a much higher ‘maintenance requirement’ and an animal must meet its maintenance requirements before it will ever make gains.  Pigs, on the other hand, have a feed conversion ratio closer to 4:1 or less.

In other words, it is way less expensive to raise a hog than a steer, when combining the above ratio and the timeline.  That is why pigs and chickens have traditionally been called the mortgage lifters – they’re more profitable!

Thanks, Robert.

Starting the Fall Garden

Last winter I built a greenhouse out back.  By the time it was finished it was too late to be starting seeds for the summer garden because it was already getting warm outside.

A few days ago I whitewashed the greenhouse using some hydrated lime mixed with water and applied with a broom.  This provides some shade so that it doesn’t get too hot in there.  Each rainstorm will wash away a little bit of that whitewash and so as weather cools, the ‘greenhouse effect’ will be stronger.

Inside I prepared some beds and planted kale, spinach, mache, lettuce, arugula, beets, kohlrabi and radishes.  I moved in a few kale transplants that we started outside a month ago, too.  This way we have a succession planting of kale.  As we plan better in future years we will do more of this.

According to some of the Eliot Coleman books we’ve read, we are a little late in doing this planting.  Better late than never!  I’ll let you know how it turns out.



Eat your crust!

Yes, it’s been a while since we’ve written, but this couldn’t wait.  A few days ago we were sitting around the table at mealtime and I was encouraging our son to eat the crust from his toast.  I told him that the crust is where all the nutrition is, and that it will also put hair on his chest.

And that is just when the bombshell was dropped.  Courtney spoke up with an “actually.”  Actually, that is probably not true, she said.  Think about it, the composition of that crust is not any different than the rest of the bread.  Nothing gets concentrated there.   If anything the vitamins and minerals become broken, denatured, less useful, etc due to the higher heat that is experienced in the crust.  A flood of emotions came over me as I realized I had been lied to my whole life.  I was troubled.  I was bothered.  But then, I became elated.  Thank you, Mrs. Food Scientist for enlightening us and opening our eyes to the truth once again.

For the record: there was no disputing that eating crust puts hair on your chest.

Thanks, Robert.

The drip irrigation installation

Here’s more info on the drip irrigation.  I’m sharing this because of a comment (this is long overdue – sorry!) from the last drip irrigation post requesting more pictures.  That reminded me that I had a terrible time finding information myself on drip irrigation.  There is an excellent guide that a neighbor told me about at Toro.  It was way too detailed and technical for me, though.  I wasn’t going to be investing in tons of equipment, filters, pressure regulators, etc.  I just wanted to hook a few tapes to a barrel and call it a day.  Well, I just set out one afternoon and hooked it all up to see if it worked.  It did!

Here’s some more pictures and detailed descriptions on how I did it:

This is the 2″ threaded PVC nipple installed in the hole near the bottom of the barrel.  It is attached with JB Weld.  Then a brass shutoff valve in installed before finally connecting the hose.

I use garden hose as my supply lines.  Using a drill bit in my cordless drill, I placed holes where I want my drip tapes.  The above blue thingy has  a barb on one end that connects to the hose and a tape lock nut on the other end to grip the tape.  The brand is Netafim and I got them from Farmtek.  Each drip take has its own shutoff valve.

Another view.  I have noticed better performance where I set the barrel to be higher than the beds.  Gotta love gravity!  Using a few cement blocks or some scrap 2×4 shims will do the trick.

We are using uniform bed sizes everywhere, measuring 30″ wide and 20′ long.  Another benefit to that decision is that the feeder lines and drip tapes can be gathered up and reused next season as long as we make the beds the same size again.

After using it for several months, there are a few things I’d like to point out.  First, the epoxy breaks very easily.  At one point, I had a shovel or hoe leaning on the barrel and I bumped it.  The tool fell right on the pipe that is sticking out of the barrel, broke the seal, and the water began leaking.  Another time, I bumped the pipe with my foot and broke the weld.  Applying a second, heavier layer of epoxy does help strengthen, but I’d be interested in researching a new idea, such as putting a nut on the inside and outside with rubber washers sandwiched in between.  That would be much stronger.  That’ll go on the list of projects for the winter.

Another concern has to do with the potatoes.  When I hilled them up, I buried the driptapes.  Shouldn’t be a problem, I speculated, since this tape is designed to be buried up to eight inches in soil in commercial applications.  Those same commercial application, however use an irrigation pump to achieve the optimum amount of water pressure in the lines.  Using my gravity based system the pressure is much lower.  The lines in the potato beds are buried under several inches of our clayey soil and are pinched.  Some of the beds don’t have water going to the ends and the potato plants are drying out.  I’m resorting to hand watering for those spots and it’s getting old.

A follow up article was posted in June 2015.

Thanks, Robert

Understanding Solar Flare Terminology

Back in the 1990’s my father and I were getting into amateur astronomy.  We had a pretty cool telescope (Meade LX200) and would spend evenings finding all sorts of galaxies and nebulae.  It was a ton of fun, and we were nerds about it too, forcing everyone in the house to keep the lights off so our night-vision wasn’t ruined.  Also, if we needed to run inside the house to get something, we’d wear two pairs of sunglasses.

Since that time I’ve been on the email list (sign up here) where you are kept abreast of the current happenings in outer space, such as comets, near earth asteroids, meteor showers, and solar flares. Another great email alert system comes from the Australian government (sign up here).

This is a timely article because we are entering another peak in solar activity, which follows a very predictable 11 year cycle.  More frequent alerts are coming and they are sometimes difficult to understand, so I wanted to share some information and resources.

The flares are measured as soon as they occur and are given a strength-based label , C, M or X.  Class C and Class M flares are frequent and don’t really cause much noticeable interference, unless you are a ham radio operator working on the very high frequencies.  X Class flares are much more rare and depending on their size and direction, they could cause a lot of damage.

What does this have to do with homesteading?  Well, let me just tell you by sharing an example of the extreme so that you can make sure you understand this terminology and be prepared.  The largest solar event in recent history was in 1859 and has been termed the Carrington Event.  See this wikipedia article for the full scoop, but for now just know that it was a solar flare that caused telegraph lines to become charged to the point where operators were shocked and some stations even burned down.  The interconnected telegraph lines acted like a giant antenna and focused this inbound energy from the sun.  In our hyper-technological age, the effects of a storm of that magnitude would be devastating to our vastly larger and increasingly interconnected power grid.  The result could be short or long term power outages, depending on the level of severity.

Here are just a handful of recent examples:

2003 – The Halloween Storms – a series of flares send CME’s towards our planet creating heavy disturbances in high frequency radio transmissions.  Also, the Wide Area Augmentation System used by the FAA to provide navigation information to aircraft was put out of commission.  Flares measuring X10, X17 and X28 were recorded.  The X28 was not earth directed, though.  The damage was caused by the X10 and X17.

2000 – The Bastille Day event – X5 class flare launched a CME towards Earth causing a large geomagnetic storm.  No damage reported.

1989 – On March 6 an X15 class flare occurred, resulting in a CME that hit our planet on March 9.  This was strong enough and direct enough that the power grid in Quebec collapsed for 9 hours.

I use the above as a reference when reading the alert emails I receive.  Knowing that we only need be concerned about X class eruptions rules out most of the notifications.

What can we do about it?  Be informed –  Subscribe to the above alert systems.  When a large flare produces an earthbound CME, unplug sensitive electronics.  Reduce grid dependency – heat your home and cook with a wood stove, that kind of stuff.  You never know what may happen in the future, and knowing how to perform basic homesteading tasks could serve you well.  This answers one of the ‘why’ questions on why we try to learn the old ways of doing things.  Its not only fun, but does serve as a backup plan for the unknown, no matter how small the risk.

Thanks, Robert.

Some things I have learned about living in the country

As you know we moved waaaaaay out to the country.  We love it but we recognize there are some trade offs and here are some of them.

During the drive into town we get to see dozens of tractors, we also get dozens of goldfish crackers all over the floor of the van.

Neighbors are considered anyone within a 5 mile radius.  One particular neighbor has a very large stained glass picture of a ram’s head in their front room window.  Nice.

I have replaced noisy neighbors with noisy cows.

Dust has become part of the decor.

Sometimes my house smells like chickens, the live variety not the lemony-herb roasted kind.

Neighbors rallied together after a crazy driver was spotted on a nearby county road.  Police arrived, spoke with the offender and returned to inform us that “everything’s okay” the out-of-towner  was actually a “pretty famous bull rider.”  The police officer reassured us that he had actually seen him ride in person.  Ahhh, fears calmed.

No more little notes on our door about how irritating it is that our dogs bark on Tuesday nights from 6-7 pm.

The bad manners of the neighborhood dogs make our dogs look like saints, and that is hard to do.

Of the many things that can and do wake me up in the morning, flies have been added to the most wanted list.

I’m almost positive our local crop duster is no other than daredevil Evel Knievel.

It’s official city slickers are afraid of dirt – on their clothes, on their shoes, on their cars and on their kids.

My country friend recently complimented me on choosing the perfect color couch – Colorado Dirt Brown.  It’s the new camouflage thank you very much!!

We don’t wear white after labor day or before labor day.

Oh I could go on and on.  We realize it’s not the life for everyone but we LOVE it!!

Thanks, Courtney

We’re still here!

Its been quite a while since we’ve posted anything, but here’s a sampling of what we’ve been up to lately:

Here’s the wide view.  The 30×100 foot garden is along the left, pathway for the truck in the center, and then a 30×30 foot squash/watermelon/pumpkin patch on the right.  A few chicken pens are visible way in the back.

Zucchini in the front, cucumber trellis in the middle row with Armenian, pickling and lemon cucumbers.  The lemon cucumbers are by far our favorite.  Behind the cucumbers are runner beans that aren’t climbing, and then two beds of kale, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce and cauliflower.

Two rows of sweet corn, 100 row feet of potatoes and then one row of artichokes.

Here are our leeks and onions.  Looking a little thirsty, but also tasty!  The rest of the three or four beds were failed direct seedings of beets, parsnips and carrots.  Not pictured is our four Belgian endive plants that we’re very excited about.

In the foreground are two large tomatillo plants.  Further back are several rows of tomato plants.  They are struggling terribly.  It’s due to a mixture of a late start, transplant shock and overall bad tomato growing conditions in our area.  We’ve been told that tomato blossoms shatter when the temps are beyond mid nineties.  We do have at least one tomato, despite all this.  Not pictured are two rows of direct seeded herbs that never came up (except for the cilantro) and we think it is that we didn’t water them enough.

Courtney grew a row of Hopi Red Dye Amaranth in front of the sunflowers.  Outside the fence you can see our 15 plants of rhubarb that we transplanted from our friend earlier this spring.  We did not harvest these at all this year so that they could focus on putting down roots.

And now on to the animals.  Well, you missed the broilers – they’re already in the freezer.

Here are our Buff Orpington laying hens.  We have 13 of them, along with 7 Americauna hens.  The Buff Orpingtons are a dual purpose breed that are great for eggs and meat.  We plan on breeding our own and never needing to buy chicks again.  Courtney has an article planned for the future describing in full detail how we chose this breed.

We started the season with four Broad Breasted Bronze turkey poults, which are all now dead.  Three died of supposed genetic disorder where they go lame.   The fourth was lost to a fox… another story for another day… still not over it.  Above you can see a beautiful heritage Bourbon Red turkey that is 20 weeks old that we bought this past weekend along with the three Blue Slate chicks.  The blue slates will breed, so hopefully we’ve got a male and a female in the bunch.

Originally I had planned on buying two pigs for the year.  Courtney convinced me that we needed to tell everyone we have the “Three Little Pigs” so I had to get one more.  I love piggies, so it was an easy decision.  They love their mudhole and eat anything we throw in to them.

And of course how could we forget Cowboy and Wolfey!?  They absolutely love the wide open spaces we have out here in the country.  And how about that lawn?  We have a dirt lawn, and don’t really care.  Grass requires water, a lawnmower and wouldn’t grow anyways with the dog and kid traffic.  We’d rather spend our time on stuff we can eat.

All in all, life is great.  We’re very busy, but doing things we love.

Thanks, Robert.

Drip irrigation

We love our arid climate, but realize that it can make gardening a challenge.  On average, we get less than fifteen inches of rain per year, which is almost 1/3 of what I am used to growing up in Pennsylvania.  In an attempt to provide more consistent and conservation-minded water to our garden we’re installing a drip irrigation system utilizing 5/8″ drip tape gravity fed from 55 gallon plastic barrels.

In the above picture, you’ll first see that I have elevated the barrel on a few cinder blocks in order to create slightly more water pressure from gravity.  The barrel was originally a white color and I painted it black so that a.) sunlight penetration is reduced which will prevent algae growth and b.) the water will heat up in the barrels.  Using warmer water will reduce shock that the plants might have if the water was colder.  A threaded PVC nipple was JB Welded to the side of the barrel one inch up from the bottom.  It is one inch above the bottom because I don’t want to draw any sedimentation into the lines that may collect at the bottom.  Between that and the hose I have a brass shutoff coupling.  The supply line running between the beds is the cheapest garden hose I could find.  I cut pieces to fit each row of beds.

Each bed has two driplines running down the length of the bed.  Beds, by the way are 30″ wide and 20 feet long.   Everything is uniform, which will allow interchangeability.  We plan on getting several years usage out of the tapes and this way we can easily install them next year, not needing to worry about where each tape goes.  Each tape line begins at the supply line, coming through another shutoff valve.  That shutoff valve has a barb on one side that you push into the hose (I used a cordless drill to make the appropriate size holes in the supply hose first) and the other side connects via a coupler to the 5/8″ drip tape.  The tape and the shutoff valves are from Farmtek.  At the other end of the tape, fold it over on itself twice to crimp closed and then fold lengthwise.  Then slide a 1″ section of drip tape over the fold to hold it together.

Having every line on a valve gives you maximum control of water.  Some beds contain a crop that is harvested early in the season, and once done you could turn that bed off to save water.

To calculate how much water you’ll need, we estimate that each bed will need 1″ of water per week.  A bed if fifty square feet.  That translates to ( 50 / 12 x 7.48 ) 31.16 gallons per bed per week.  Said differently, I’m dividing fifty by twelve to find the cubic feet of water that 1 inch of rain on that bed would represent.  One inch of rain would be 1/12th of a cubic foot of rain.  One cubic foot of rain water on a 50 sq ft bed is 50 cubic feet and that would be twelve inches of rain.  Then convert to gallons by multiplying by 7.48.  Most of our lines are set up to water seven beds at once and I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that each bed is getting an even amount of water.  So, you could fill your barrel to the 30 gallon mark every day of the week and know that all seven beds are getting 1″ of water over the course of seven days.

Click here for follow up posts in August 2012 and June 2015.

Thanks, Robert.

Gaining Firearm Familiarity

I grew up on a farm and was always around guns.  My brothers and I did a lot of target shooting for fun as well as spending considerable time patrolling fence lines for pest control.  There is a certain comfort level that exists with firearms.

The same is not true for Courtney.  This does not mean she is an anti-gunner, but rather that she does not possess that basic level of knowledge and experience of proper firearms handling and proficiency. She wants to learn, though.

So, where do we start?  I do not recommend trial by fire, putting her out on a firing line and saying “point and squeeze!”  Courtney and I started long ago, slowly, on the living room couch, reviewing an unloaded weapon.  First start with identification of parts and functions.  I went over a rifle, shotgun and handgun, showing how to work each type of action and also correct identification of which cartridges go with which firearm. I store my pump action shotgun with a full magazine but an empty chamber.  Knowing how to quickly hit the slide release will turn that item from an expensive club into a firearm.

Repetition is key to learning.  Once the basics are learned, you can begin handling and operating.  Depending on they type of firearm, dry firing or the use of snap caps can be employed here.  Determining whether a gun is loaded, loading the gun, aiming, firing and reloading can all be practiced first in the living room before heading out to the range.

Once at the range everything should be natural and safe.  Having a basic familiarity first will help alleviate any uncertainty or apprehension.  I would also recommend that your trigger happy shooting buddies stay home for the first range visit with your wife.  You don’t need an audience.

Thanks, Robert.