dead carniolans on the snow
Dead Carniolan Bees on the Snow – Mar 07, 2011

Spring made its first appearance early in the second half of February; we had a nice stretch of very warm weather. This short warm stretch, however, was the death knell of the Carniolans. They broke their winter cluster in anticipation of spring; the warm weather left and was replaced with -40 degrees. The Carniolans quickly consumed the remaining food stores and starved to death. The Italians, on the other hand, have come into the real onset of spring quite well.

It snowed today. It does not look like spring outside at all. Spring is out there, I know it. It was in the mid-50s (teens, Celsius) yesterday; the robins were out, the geese were flying north, and the scout bees were out in full force attempting to find any early flowerings. As I worked in the yard, the scouts would periodically land on me; they would leave soon after realizing I had very little nectar or pollen to offer.

With the nice weather yesterday, and a relatively well feeling self, I set to work to clear a series of eye-sores from the backyard. Those who know me, know that I am pro-compost. (I even wrote an iPhone/iPod app for compost; it was an attempt, and the app is in need of updating). The backyard-eye-sores were/are out of control heaps of compost-to-be from the winter. A soggy mound of thawing vegetable-matter. The hounds have been finding ways over, under, around, and through the wire fencing around the compost area. The compost had to move. With a total capacity of a mere 405 cubic feet (11.1/2 cubic meters), and an apparent need for more, a new compost bin or set of bins needed to be built.

triple bin compost system
Three bin compost system schematic

I liked the idea of a multi-stage system. Two or three bins in a row, and using the left most or right most bin for fresh, uncomposted material. As the material begins to become the good stuff it is moved into a fresh bin. By moving composted or partially composted material into the bin or bins next to the first, you free up more space for more uncomposted material, as well as exposing ready-to-use compost in the other bin or bins. The system works well when you are generating enough compostable waste to keep feeding the system. With a stockpile of winter-compostables, we should be in good shape to keep the system fed. The compost also needed to move to free up room for Melissa’s next endeavor.

open-air coop
Open-air 10×8 chicken coop

Chickens. Soon, Melissa and I will be overlords to our own flock of heritage and specialty-breed chickens. Much like how I am interested in bees, and how to sustainably maintain hives of them, Melissa has jumped head-first into the chicken-pool. We attended an University of Minnesota Extension short-course on small-scale poultry farm management. It was a very informative course and we learned enough to be confident that a small flock would work on our quarter acre (1/10th hectare) homestead.

As winter seemed to ebb and flow in its predictably unpredictable fashion, Melissa tossed around the idea of a flock. If were to get chickens, where we would they live? Not keen on raising a flock of battery hens, the birds would need an area to pick, peck and poke at as well as just mosey about and do what chickens do in addition to a swanky coop. Early in the winter, Melissa thought along a narrow strip of property between our house and our property line. This idea eventually was tossed out because our utility meters are located on this side of the house/property. The meter reader would not be pleased to have to battle chickens to get to the meters.

The next idea was to put the coop in the front portion of the yard. Last year, during a heavy wind storm, we lost several trees in the yard. This freed up a great deal of space and our plan was to fence off a section and plant apple trees (bees love apple blossoms and I love apples – it is a win-win). We thought we could carve a section for a coop and pasteur for chickens. This was the idea that was winning when we headed off to the small-farm-short-course in St. Paul.

After some thought on this location and bit of learning at the short-course, we decided to leave the apple trees to the front yard and put the chickens in the rear. This brought us back to the question of “How well do hounds and chickens mix?” Having witnessed our hounds take down rabbits in the yard, we felt that it would be smart to assume they could easily take down a chicken that was not paying attention. The answer to this quandary is part new backdoor, and part new separation fence through the backyard. I may detail the door requirements and project in a later post; but the fence pretty simple – inclusive of the back gate, parallel and inclusive to the sidewalk through the yard toward the current backdoor, going to a corner of the kitchen addition. A small gate would allow access from the chicken-yard to the area where the hounds will be located.

open-air poultry houses
Open-air Poultry Houses

Norton Creek Press publishes a wonderful book on Fresh-Air Poultry Houses. By utilizing a smart design for our coop, as well as winter-hardy birds, we are hoping to minimize the need for external heat in the coop. Melissa liked one of the designs that is pictured on the cover. We are sticking with the spirit of the design, but because of where the coop will be located – attached to our existing garage – the roof line needs to be modify to accommodate water run-off from the garage onto the coop roof. Inside the coop, the ceiling will mimic the correct roof line to provide the correct air circulation.