Altopia Farms

Altopia Farms

Chickens: The Gateway to Self-Sufficiency

It has been quite a while since I've made a blog entry so before I get started I'll give you a quick update. I retired with 23 years of service last April. I hung up my Green Beret and multicam uniform for a set of bib overalls and a hoe. More than that, we sold the 10 acre farm we had in Cadiz, Ky and I bought 20 acres 60 miles to the south in Erin, Tn. As part of that deal, we gained some great neighbors, access to their 200 acres and a singlewide trailer, timber rights to build a log home, and a cooperative homesteading arrangement. Needless to say, there were many tons of household goods, tractors, implements, tools, a bulldozer, guns, ammo, stored food, livestock and more that had to be moved. We have been so busy. I barely have time to read friend's posts on social media, much less write an article. Somehow I also managed to teach a few classes for our members. Maybe this article will help to break my work rest cycle and get me motivated to blog about the progress of the log house and general homestead activities. Anyway, on to chickens. I've had chickens most of my life, except for a few years as a single soldier in the Army when I lived in the barracks. My Grandfather raised game birds and that's how it started. Eventually, we ended up northwest of Fort Campbell, Ky where I was assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group. Like many, we started out with a few birds just for eggs. A couple years ago we were maintaining a flock of 100 layers and I had plenty of Cross Fit customers that loved our free range eggs. We also raise about 50-75 broilers, turkeys, ducks and heritage pigs on pasture each year for our own consumption. Raising chickens isn't all that complicated. You have two choices, buy baby chicks and raise them to sexual maturity or buy birds that are already laying eggs. Baby chicks can be ordered from a hatchery, purchased from your local farm store, and often there is someone on craigslist hatching them for sale. If you order from a hatchery, typically there is a minimum order of 15. The day old chicks need each other to keep warm on the journey from the hatchery to your door. Often there will be a few dead chicks, especially if you order in winter and the delivery man puts them next to the wall of the delivery truck. In all honesty, this is not my recommended method for getting your first egg layers. It will require that you provide some feeders, waterers, heat lamp, a brooder and chick starter feed (unless you grind your own). The chicks will need to be kept under a heat lamp in non drafty area at 95 degrees the first week. The temperature can be lowered by 5 degrees per week. Once they are fully feathered they will be perfectly fine, even in winter. It will take 4-7 months to get your first egg from these chicks. That's a lot of time for things to go wrong. It's also a lot feed and time. With an initial cost of around $3 per chick and several bags of starter and layer feed, you can buy birds that are laying from someone on Craigslist for $10-$20 each. Of course they will need feeders, waterers and some sort of living space. We save eggs and hatch them in incubators. The cheap and easy method for brooding the chicks is to buy a 2ft x 3ft x 18 inch tall plastic tote from the Dollar Store. Build a frame from 1 inch square wood with legs that keep it a few inches off the floor of the tote. Cover it in 1/4 inch hardware cloth so when the chicks poo it falls to the bottom of the tote. We line the tote with old newspaper to absorb moisture and easy clean up. You can transfer the chicks to a cardboard box for a few minutes while you roll up the soiled newspaper for compost and clean the tote and hardware cloth with the garden hose. You can keep them in the garage, outbuilding or a spare room. We keep them in the house for a week or so after they hatch and then move them to the greenhouse. The 250 watt heat lamp not only keeps the chicks warm but helps with heating the greenhouse. After a another month we move them to their own pen. Since we keep a few roosters in our free range flock (so all are eggs are fertile for hatching), we don't put the smaller birds in with them until they are of similar size. The roosters will mount them and possibly kill them. Once they are big enough they all go into the eggmobile. The egg mobile is an old 32 foot camper frame with a chicken house built on top of it. The floor is old fence wire so the droppings fall through the floor and onto the ground. This is how we fertilize the pasture. The eggmobile gets moved around once every few days. Our chickens free range during the day and go back in the coop to lay eggs or get water. The eggmobile has milk crates for nest boxes, several roosting poles, waterers and feeders. I have 55 gallon drum mounted on the tongue of the trailer with a spigot and hose to fill the inside waterers. They can get about 30% of their food from grass and weeds and a little more from bugs and worms. We supplement their feed with some type of crop we grew, corn, sunflowers, wheat, kitchen scraps etc. Or you can buy pelleted layer feed. The chickens are trained to the eggmobile.  As long as I move it at night, when I release them in the mornings they go right back in that evening. If I move it during the day, the majority of them will stand around where the coop was, even though it has only been moved forward 32 feet from there, it confuses them. Chickens are pretty resilient and if kept fed, watered, given space to roam and a dust bath, will rarely get sick. The most common problem is lice. Don't worry, they don't like humans. Occasionally they will get worms. Diatomaceous earth in their dust bath helps with the body parasites, I don't really think it does much for the worms. If its really bad, I mix up some permethrin in a spray bottle and treat them individually. If I detect worms I'll mix piperazine in their water and confine them until they drink it all. When we raise meat chickens they start out the same way but they end up in 10x12 foot pens on pasture. they get moved daily and eventually free range during the day. They have a 21% protein feed in the mornings and in the evening when its time to lock them up. At 10-12 weeks we process them for the freezer. I have successfully bred the Cornish Cross meat birds with each other and improved the meatiness of Heritage breeds by crossing them. Don't let the internet hype fool ya. They can be a sustainable meat bird if not overfed. I had a Cornish Cross hen for 4 years and she laid enough eggs to keep us in broilers without buying chicks. The only reason she died was because the neighbors dog killed her. There are no dual purpose breeds, at least not in my opinion. I'm spoiled. When I see a chicken ready for the pot, it needs to have some big breasts and thighs. A typical dual purpose breed has sunken breasts and is just too scrawny for my liking. There edible but if I have a choice, I'll raise Cornish Cross or one of the politically correct variants like Red Rangers. Hope you enjoyed this article. If you want some chickens for eggs, just do it. Once you get a few chickens, you'll want some meat chickens. Then some ducks. Eventually a couple goats. Then you'll sell that house in town or the subdivision and move out to the country, where real freedom awaits. De Oppresso Liber AL    

Hog Processing on the Homestead

We recently processed two sows here on the homestead. Traditionally "hog killin'" is done in fall when the temperature drops and stays that way. Thanks to modern refrigeration, we do it whenever we are about to run out of pork. Screenshot_2015-11-29-11-25-50 It is a time consuming process to take a larger animal from the hoof, to something the average person would recognize in the supermarket, especially of there are products that require further processing. To start off, plan accordingly and gather all necessary supplies. Setup and cleanup are the most time consuming parts of this type of endeavor. Ensure the animal is healthy and isolate it from the others. I withhold food (not water) for 24 hours to lessen the volume in the digestive tract. This helps avoid accidental contamination of the carcass with bowel contents and makes the gutting process a little easier. Since I like to cure bacon, ham and fat with the skin on, I scald the hogs then scrape the hair off. This adds more work but I feel it is worth it. It makes better use of the all the animal. We render the fat into lard for cooking and occasionally making soap. It's also good to have some cubed up fat to grind into lean meat such as venison. BTTL header Scalding requires a vessel large enough to accommodate the size of the hog and a heat source. I use a propane burner to keep extra hot water handy and use wood to get the scalding barrel up to temperature. Around 150 degrees will loosen the hair from the follicle and make it easier to pull out. If it gets to hot it will set the hair and you will be forced to skin it or shave the hair, which is even more labor intensive and leaves unsightly hairs in the follicle (this is why production pigs are white). I also use pine tar to make the hair sticky and lye to help remove the "scurf" and get a good clean scrape. [gallery ids="2805,2812" type="rectangular"] You are also going to need some knives, a sharpener, soap, water, some coolers with ice to cool and transport the meat. I also like to have a large pan to catch all the offal (guts) in. This keeps them of the ground and clean so you can sort through and harvest any organ meats and do an internal health inspection. The whole process can be done on a table by pouring the scalding water onto the  carcass with burlap covering it to hold in the heat, but I assure you it is much easier if you have a rope and a tree or a tractor with a front loader to lift it up and down and dip it in the scald tank. Once I have everything ready, I dispatch the pig  and cut its carotid artery, I  hang it by its Achilles tendons on a gambrel and let it bleed out. Then it's time for the scald. I use bell scrapers to remove the hair and it takes some elbow grease, about 30 minutes worth. Once it is dehaired I gut it and then lay it on a table to part it out.  If I am going to saw it up into chops I will leave the loin whole and put it in the chest freezer to harden and run it through the meat bandsaw. [gallery ids="2814,2813" type="rectangular"] With these two pigs, I made 25lbs of hot andouille sausage, 5lbs each of breakfast sausage, Italian sausage and peperoni, 40lbs of bacon, jowls, and fatback, one prosciutto and one country ham, 8lbs of capocola, two quarts of lard,  and used 10lbs of fat and lean mixed with 20lbs of venison for 30lbs of summer sausage. I still have a Boston butt and two picnic shoulders in the freezer. [gallery ids="2889,2811,2810,2815" type="rectangular"] I could have easily taken them to a slaughter house but for the price they charge to do what I did myself, it's not worth the time and energy saved. I bought these as piglets 2 years ago for $70 and raised several litters from each which I sold, ate or bartered. They have been on pasture and here recently, left over milk and whey. The bacon is so good, I can't believe I let myself trade/sell/give some of it away, but I'll make more. Don't forget to stop by CAG Main, we offer this as a class as well. Stay tuned for how I built my smokehouse, how to cure bacon and other affairs of plain livin".



Review: MMI Raider Tent

As some of my followers already know, I am a fan of a lightweight tent for bugging out verses a simple, cheap tarp or trying to go all Joe Teti and make something from sticks. Sure, if I only have enough money for a tarp, that's what I'm getting and I will learn to do the best I can with it. However, I have been there and done that for years as a Green Beret. Truthfully, the Army poncho isn't much more than a tarp, albeit a little smaller and a little lighter. The Army shelter half, that's heavy and isn't much more than technology from the War of Northern Aggression. BTTL header [caption id="attachment_2629" align="alignright" width="300"]wpid-20151026_1743332.jpg.jpeg Tent loosely packed into it's carrying case, still slightly damp from the rain. The scale is calibrated.[/caption] First let me qualify myself a bit, 16 years as a Green Beret in the 5th Special Forces Group. For those that don't know, "The Legion" covers the Middle East. So whether it's desert, woodland US, rain, snow,  I've spent more nights sleeping in a bivvy sack, sleeping bag, on the hood of a HMMWV, under a HMMWV, on an M1 Abrams or on the rooftop of a building adjacent to some bad guys. When you are bugging out, or bugging home, (these terms will be used synonymously)  you should have a cache network. I'm getting older and I'm not the spry young Special Forces guy I once was. I also prefer some comfort when at all possible. Therefore, I have devised a network of caches, as you should, to help you met from point A to point B. That's either to or from work and on alternate routes. This allows me to start off with nothing and get what I need during my travels without becoming a looter (like most so called "preppers" will become....the zombies are coming!). In some cases this isn't possible. In those cases you carry what you need for that season and scenario. I have said before, the size of your bug out bag is inversely proportional to your skills. Low skill level equates to needing more stuff and vice versa. There are always exceptions and common sense reasons that this can change. Personally, I prefer to add a lightweight tent to my bob. It allows me to be 100% positive I will always have a quick, reliable, dry shelter. So, on to my review of the MMI Catoma Raider one man tent. Why a one man tent? Cross loading and autonomy. If you are bugging out as a couple or family, if one of you goes down, the others could be left without shelter. If each person carries their own tent, everyone will always have shelter. You wouldn't carry just one means of protection right? What if one of you needs to move to another location for some reason (service a cache) while the others stand guard? Larger tents can take quite a while to set up and take down. Also, you sometimes need more than one person to set them up.wpid-20151025_134357.jpgwpid-20151025_133023.jpg Out of the box, the MMI Raider Tent weighed in at 2.08lbs. Not too shabby for a full on all weather shelter. I commissioned my 14 year old son to set it up. As a control measure he did not know I was timing him. Unfortunately, the instructions were non visual, yet he still figured it out and had it set up for the first time in a little over 8 minutes. The take down was 4 minutes and 35 seconds. We both spent the night in the tent over two days. The temp only hit the mid 30's but with a green "Army Patrol Bag" ($19.99 surplus) it was comfortable. By the way, that sleeping bag weighs in at 2.4 lbs, compresses to a size slightly larger than the Raider tent. Seems like a winning combo to me for the weight and space. It rained in the early morning hours of the first night and there were no leaks. It rained most of the next day and though we were in and out of it, it stayed dry. The tent beaded up the rain like a champ, no need for silicone spray out of the box. I am 5'10" and felt I had plenty of room. I placed my boots near my head and still had room for a small bag. The design of the tent doesn't promote condensation collecting on the inside and dripping on you. As you can see in the photos, there is the inner part that can be used as a stand alone mosquito style tent, and the outer cover that protects against the elements. Or you could just carry the outer cover for half the weight and space. The outer cover can be adjusted all the way to ground level to prevent cold air from entering yet with just a little gap, allows for fresh air to circulate. If you are 6' 6" , it may be a little tight. If you are more than 40" all around, you may have some trouble. I timed my son setting up the tent a third time and it went from me tossing it to him, to ready in 6 minutes and 16 seconds. We also discovered that it was easier to roll both halves of the tent up together which had it packed up and ready to go in just over 3 minutes. We didn't test the set up time after we figured out the new technique. I really liked the Coyote tan color of the tent. As you can see (or maybe not) in one of the photos, a 5 minute hasty camouflage job made it virtually disappear into the Fall backdrop of Western Kentucky. I'm certain I could make it disappear in most any foliage (did I mention MMI makes thermal mitigating hidesites and net systems that actually work against thermal scopes?). [caption id="attachment_2623" align="aligncenter" width="660"]wpid-20151025_134038.jpg Hasty setup and camouflage of the Raider tent. about 10 minutes. Picture is from about 40 feet away.[/caption] A bug out shelter should be more than a shelter, it should also serve as a hide. If you are lost in a national forest, by all means shoot off your best Batman Signal but if you are bugging out because you are in a warzone or in a SHTF situation, a low profile may be in order. [caption id="attachment_2628" align="aligncenter" width="5312"]wpid-20151026_174829.jpg The Raider tent is stuffed into my Cryptek pattern baseball cap. The tent pegs to the left and the spreader to the right.[/caption] All in all, I'm glad I have this tent, though I think my son has commandeered it for himself. I'm willing to carry the 2lbs that fits within the space of a baseball cap (you could probably stuff it in a Nalgene bottle). I'd also add the 2.4lbs of a surplus army sleeping bag that takes up almost twice that space. Both for the peace of mind knowing I will never need to expend massive amounts of precious time and energy to build a Discovery Channel survival shelter, as long as I have my BOB.  It's also a tremendous benefit that I can set it up or take it down while I'm waiting for my Ramen to boil.  Additionally, I can't pack up my leanto style pine pole shelter, that I spent hours and 2000 calories building on my first night, and carry it with me during my bug out. Don't get me wrong, those basic shelter building skills are essential but if you are using them, either you weren't ready or things have gone terribly bad. That's worth $179 to me, despite the weak plastic clip on the guy line that pulls tension on the tent. I know we can't all afford that price and will opt for a tarp, a cheap Ozark trail tent, a poncho, a shelter half or what have ya, but its like anything else. You make due until you can get something better. As always, prioritize your readiness funds. I'll be getting two more of these tents in the future. That's this Green Beret's assessment. Take it, or leave it. De Oppresso Liber Firearms, Tactical & Defense Training

Buckets of Wheat: What are you going to do with them?

We have had quite a run on homesteading supplies at the Back to the Land Store since the beginning of the stock market’s giant swings. When folk begin to realize that life as they have known it might not be their future, they often start to purchase items that they never thought necessary before. It seems that the very first thing they want is a non-electric water pump, the second is a wood cook stove and the third is sealed buckets of wheat berries. As I see them leave the store with their new found treasures, I often wonder if they know what to do with that wheat. With the internet close at hand, recipes and techniques are readily available, but bread making is one of those skills that you really “knead to get your hands into”. Much of it is technique that only experience will teach, but it surely helps to work closely with someone who has already experienced the glorious triumph of a perfectly baked loaf and the disappointment of a failed one. One “knead” not reinvent that wheel. Let the CAG know when you are interested in attending a bread-making class so that we can schedule it. When I teach bread baking, I usually start with quick breads like biscuits, cornbread and popovers and then move on the yeast breads and sourdough. Each type has its own chemistry and techniques which are surely worthy to learn, but, times being as they are, I think learning to make sourdough bread is the most practical skill to learn.BTTL header To explain why I chose sourdough, I knead (there it is again) to point out that the characteristics that separate the types of breads are the types of grains and the types of leavening agents. While quick breads are simpler and easier to make, most depend on baking powder, a combination of baking soda and cream of tartar. Baking powder is inexpensive and easy to use. However, it has a relatively short shelf life. It should last 6 months after opening and longer if not opened, but it loses its potency over time. Packaged dry yeast will also lose its potency as it ages. Keeping it in the freezer helps, but it also has a finite life span. Sourdough cultures, on the other hand, can survive forever with very little care. Now, pay attention! I am not talking about what the Amish call sourdough or what was called Friendship Bread when it was all the rage in the 80’s. That bread, although “friendly” to the palate, will drive you crazy. It has to be fed well and often. Potato flakes are usually used to keep it going and unless you have a lot of friends and cousins with whom to share a cup of kindness, you find yourself having to discard a quantity of your stash every week - not to mention the stress of having to remember to feed the baby and bake every week whether you want to or not. I am talking about the kind of culture originally derived from the combination of flour, water and wild yeasts that are present in the air. In older times bakers kept their culture alive by adding some of the dough from an earlier batch to a new batch of bread and thus the culture stayed alive and active. Although they didn’t understand the chemistry behind it, the old timers knew that it worked. Today we can start with a dehydrated, dormant version of an ancient culture, turn it into an active culture and keep it long enough to pass it on in our wills. If the word “sustainable” did not generate such negative feelings in me, I would use it to describe sourdough bread. Establishing a culture and learning to make artisan bread from stored wheat can assure that you and your family will always be stocked with bread without having to visit the grocery store. Artisan Sourdough Bread20150922_160119 1 cup sourdough culture 6-8 cups all purpose flour, divided (depends on the flour) 4 ½ cups water, divided 1 ½ Tablespoon sea salt The process looks like this. The night before you intend to bake, remove your saved culture from the refrigerator.
  1. Take out 1 cup of your stash and combine it with 3 cups flour and 3 cups water. Mix and cover to “work” for about 12 hours. Add a cup each of flour and water to your stash and put it back in the refrigerator for the next baking.
  2. The next morning add 1 ½ cups each flour and water to the mix and allow to rest for an hour.
  3. Add more flour and salt until a soft dough is formed. I use a stand mixer. When the dough cleans the sides of the bowl, I have added enough flour. Knead for 10 minutes on medium speed or by hand, if you prefer. Sourdough will be slightly softer dough than those made with yeast, but it should hold its shape without slumping.
  4. Place the dough in a large, covered straight sided container which has been sprayed with cooking spray. I use a semi-transparent bucket with measurements so I can calculate how much the dough has risen.
  5. After it has doubled in size, gently punch it down and divide evenly. Round it. Rounding is a technique that forms the smooth “cloak” on the outside. Place the loaf on parchment paper that has been sprinkle with coarse cornmeal or grits. Believe me, this is the easiest way to handle it. I have tried all the other methods just so you won’t have to.
  6. Allow to rise about an hour depending on the temperature in the room. Sourdough may not double in size. About 40 minutes before baking, set your oven to 450 degrees. If you have a baking stone, place it on the middle shelf and a jellyroll pan on the bottom shelf.
  7. With a razor blade, slash the tops in some artistic design, but be sure to make the slashes deep enough to allow the loaf to open up and all the way down to the bottom. Otherwise, it will bulge out in places that you did not plan. Paint the loaves with an egg-wash made by beating one egg with 1 tablespoon water.
  8. I use a peel (like the pizza man) to transfer the loaves to the baking stone. Not only does it keep me away from the oven and support the loaves, it makes me look like I know what I’m doing. As soon as the loaves are in, pour one cup of water into the pan on the bottom and quickly close the oven door. Steam is sourdough’s friend.
  9. Bake 30 minutes or until a thermometer reads 200 degrees. Cool completely on a rack.
  10. Enjoy.
There is a lot more to making bread than mixing some four, yeast and water then tossing it in an oven. As Al over at CAGmain says, "We can provide you the 80% solution on the internet, the other 20% requires hands on experience, otherwise, it's all just theory."
I hope you enjoyed my first article in this collaboration between The Back to the Land Store and the Crisis Application Group. We look forward to developing this relationship as a training and education venue that one might call a "Readiness University".
Mrs. Pam
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