Archive for the ‘Good Ideas’ Category

Caring for Eggs, and Why We Don’t Wash Them

Folks often ask us how long eggs can last, or how they should care for eggs. The simple answer is that refrigerated eggs will stay food safe for a long time. The long answer turns out to be a bit of a rabbit hole.

It makes sense that egg longevity varies with handling. Temperature is the most important variable, but another is washing. Did you know that eggs are naturally covered in a water-soluble protective coating? This is called the cuticle, or bloom, depending on who you ask. The egg shell seems hard and solid, but it’s actually more like a mesh at the microscopic level. This mesh allows moisture and gasses to pass through the shell, along with things like microbes and contaminants that may be around. The natural bloom coating helps seal that mesh and limit contaminant passage through the shell.

When industrial eggs are collected, they are washed. That washing process removes the natural protective layer. Some industrial producers apply a replacement layer, and some don’t do anything. Isn’t it just like our high-intervention food supply chain to remove a natural barrier only to add a synthetic barrier back? We don’t think this is natural, so we don’t wash our eggs.

But what if they have dirt, or mud, or poop on them? Well, we don’t sell those to the general public. Often we eat them ourselves, or share them with folks who understand why they are dirty. But doesn’t that impact profits? Yes, which is why industrial producers do wash their eggs. We strive to provide management practices that help minimize egg contamination, such as giving the hens a path to the nest boxes that will help clean off their feet. We keep absorbent materials in the laying boxes.

In our own kitchen, sometimes we wash the eggs right before we use them, so that exterior dirt doesn’t fall into the bowl that we are cracking the eggs into. We almost always crack our eggs into a separate bowl before adding them to a recipe, just to be sure that the eggs are good.

If you’d like more reading about how egg handling impacts longevity, see this article:
http://www.motherearthnews.com/real-food/how-to-store-fresh-eggs-zmaz77ndzgoe.aspx

Are we required to collect North Carolina sales tax for backyard eggs?

I spent far too long researching this topic, so my hope in writing this post is that other North Carolina egg producers will be able to skip some of that research and answer their tax questions.

The most important point to take from this article is that it should not be considered tax advice! Ask your accountant. If your accountant doesn’t know, point your accountant to the resources below. Or, do like I did and call the NCDOR.

The answer comes from North Carolina General Statute 105-164.13, Retail sales and use tax. It says: The sale at retail and the use, storage, or consumption in this State of the following tangible personal property, digital property, and services are specifically exempted from the tax imposed by this Article:
Section 4b says: “Products of a farm sold in their original state by the producer of the products if the producer is not primarily a retail merchant…” and then carries on about ice used to transport those products. This seemed to indicate to me that we were not required to collect sales and use tax on eggs from our chickens.

One thing that seems strange to me is that North Carolina refers to us as “producers” when it comes to eggs. When I called the NCDOR to ask if my understanding of the statute was correct, the fellow on the phone said “Are you the producer of those eggs?” I said “Well, I didn’t lay them…” Once we determined that we were considered the producers, he agreed that our egg sales would be exempt from NC sales and use tax.

It is important to note that just because the egg sales are exempt from tax collection doesn’t mean that we can disregard sales tax. The correct way to account for the sales is to include them in line 1 of the E500, and then “back them out” on line 3. So if we have $100 in egg sales for the quarter, they don’t want to see a zero on line one, but rather 100 on line 1 and 100 on line 3, which will equal zero in the end.

Another important note is that the exemption does not apply if the producer is primarily a retail merchant. So the way I understand that, if we had a country store and happened to keep chickens in the yard behind the store, we would need to collect sales tax on the eggs that we sell, even though we would still be the producer.

And while we’re on the topic of compliance with NC laws concerning poultry, don’t forget to apply for your free poultry dealer license if you are going to sell any live birds in the state. Even though we don’t regularly sell birds, we keep ours current for the occasional flock thinning sale.

30-Gallon Barrel and Pipe Automatic Chicken Feeder

We saw a few great ideas on Youtube about using PVC drain pipe parts to make a chicken feeder out of a bucket or barrel. I found a good local source for 30-gallon blue barrels that came from the soda bottling plant. Just as with the many 55-gallon barrels that I have used for rain collection, I don’t buy used barrels unless I am confident about what they were last used for. In this case it was easy to tell, since the barrels still had the markings from the soda bottler, and they had a distinct smell of Mountain Dew.
The theory is to set the elbows so that they stick through the sides of the container, requiring the chickens to stick their heads into the 4″ hole to eat. This should minimize waste and make it much harder for mice and other critters to get to the food.

Looking Down Into the Barrel

Looking Down Into the Barrel


Each elbow is attached to a block of wood with a screw like this one:
Attachment Screw

Attachment Screw


And then I ran a second screw up from the bottom of the barrel into the same block. For a second feeder I used a slightly cleaner method of one block to serve all four pipes.
A Cleaner Option

A Cleaner Option


I used a 4-1/4″ hole saw to make the holes in the barrel. This is the outer diameter of the drain pipe, though not the outer diameter of the flange on the elbow. This made it necessary to use a 3-inch long piece of 4-inch pipe to protrude through the barrel.
Before attaching the elbows to the wood, I cut a section of the lower flange off to allow the feed to flow into the opening. I had to guess about what size to use, and went with about an inch on the first feeder. This proved to be not quite enough, especially for a pelletized feed. 1-3/4 inches worked a little better.
The barrels that I purchased were “closed top,” meaning that the only way in or out is through the small bung hole. To build the feeder I had to cut the top off with a reciprocating saw, just as I usually do when making rain barrels. This left us with a need for some type of top. What we came up with was a storage cover like this one:
Plastic Barrel Top

Plastic Barrel Top


The cover is about 3″ larger in diameter than the top of our barrels, so it is a pretty loose fit. On one feeder I secured it with a bungee cord, but on the second I just used a brick on top. You can find the covers here.
One idea that we tried, but do not recommend, is to put a lip on the outside of the short length of pipe, like this:
Don't do this!

Don’t do this!


We thought this might reduce waste further. Instead it created a place for young ones to get stuck. One little hen that we named “Chuck” because she kept getting stuck eventually died because we didn’t realize that she was in there.
Chuck is too small to use this feeder safely!  She kept getting stuck.

Chuck is too small to use this feeder safely! She kept getting stuck.


If the chicks are small enough to get both of their feet into the elbow, then they are doomed. We have also had a chick get stuck on the feeder with the larger bottom opening when it ran out of food. She got into the elbow and stuck her head through the slot sideways, which she wouldn’t have been able to do if the feeder had been full. I would say that the safest bet is to keep these feeders available for full-grown birds, and not use them with chicks.

Coop Door Positioning

Chicken Ramp

Chicken Ramp

In some places the door that the chickens use to access the coop is called the “pop hole.” We learned with our prior houses that having this door elevated a foot or so off the ground has several advantages. I should say that it’s no problem for a healthy chicken to hop up to get through the door, so there aren’t really any disadvantages. By having the door elevated, the bedding litter on the ground say out of the opening. The height provides one more level of defense from predators and pests, at least from short, non-climbing ones. If the chickens use the little ramp that we made for them, we find that they track less mud into the house on rainy days. The ramp is hinged so that we can fold it up as an extra door barrier. The primary door is a piece of 1/16″ thick aluminum that is automatically operated on a vertical slide.
Ramp in Place

Ramp in Place

Roosts

This angle was too steep, making the poles too close together.

This angle was too steep, making the poles too close together.


The roosts in our coop are slanted so that the girls can more easily get on them, but notice that they are attached to the wall on the low end of the slant instead of the high end. This allows us to fold the whole contraption up against the wall if we need better maneuvering space in the coop, such as for a periodic shoveling. The bottom of the rack is attached with two regular interior door hinges, and ropes tied to the ceiling determine the angle when the roosts are lowered. If the angle is too steep, then the rungs will be too close together and the birds will poop on each other. If the angle is too narrow, then the rack takes up too much space in the coop.
Roost Angle

Roost Angle

Commercial Nest Boxes, Ideal Nest Box Height

When our neighbors moved away, they gave us a nice metal nest box with plastic bottom liners. We built this box into the new house, with access doors on the back.

Metal Chicken Nest Box

Metal Chicken Nest Box


View from the outside

View from the outside


This box is positioned quite strategically. First, we have it positioned on an outside wall so that we can easily collect eggs. Second, the height is such that it is lower than the lowest roost. This is to make it an undesirable place to roost (sleep, that is) for the girls. Notice that it isn’t on the ground though. We wanted for the chickens to have access under the box, so that they can keep that area free of bugs, snakes, and other undesirables. You can also see in the second nest box picture above that there are two access doors. This is so that we can more easily control any birds that might be in the nest box when we are collecting. A smaller opening is easier to block than one as large as the whole nest box back.

Using Hardware Cloth Instead of Chicken Wire

We learned several lessons from our first chicken coops, and we designed our new house to be more safe and comfortable for the girls, and less demanding for us to service and maintain. Our recent property expansion included a storage building, and rather than make the coop a stand-alone structure, we decided to build it as a temporary enclosure on the porch of that building.
This strategy spared us from having to build one wall and a roof.
Even with our first chicken houses we knew that rodent and pest protection were as important as predator protection. We used 1/2″ hardware cloth in those houses, which was effective against mice. A larger-than-usual flood destroyed one of our old houses, but I was able to salvage enough hardware cloth from it to make a floor for the new coop. There were a few damaged areas in the large pieces, so I cut those areas out to make clean rectangles, then attached slightly oversized patches with stitches of stainless wire. It took me about half a day to make the single large floor piece this way, though it would have gone a little faster if I had been using new hardware cloth instead.

Hardware Cloth Patch

Hardware Cloth Patch


Here's more detail of how the stainless wire threads through the weave of the hardware cloth

Here’s more detail of how the stainless wire threads through the weave of the hardware cloth


Chicken Coop Floor Protection

Chicken Coop Floor Protection


For the next step I made a box out of treated lumber that we salvaged from our former driveway bridge.
In this picture the hardware cloth is just resting under the lumber, not permanently attached yet.

In this picture the hardware cloth is just resting under the lumber, not permanently attached yet.


The concept for this house is to have hardware cloth for the bottom few feet, and siding from there up. We live in a moderate climate, so drafts in extreme cold are less of a concern than having good ventalation. To help make the coop mouse-tight and more predator resistant, all of the areas where hardware cloth meet the wood are made with a sandwich of wood. For an example, see the picture below. In that picture, the left side of the frame is “up” and we are looking at the floor of the coop on the right. The floor piece bends up to fit between the outermost 2×8 and the inner 2×4. The 2×2 that runs vertically sandwiches the two lower wall pieces. The bottom of the wall hardware cloth is sandwiched between the 2×8 and a piece of 2×3/8 lath that I ripped on the table saw. All of the wood near the ground is treated. There is some concern about the chickens having access to treated lumber, but those concerns are overridden by the need to have the house stay together. We use a composting deep litter of wood shavings on the floor that is several inches thick, so the 2x4s pictured below are almost entirely buried.
Mighty Chicken Fortress

Mighty Chicken Fortress


Hardware Cloth Top Detail

Hardware Cloth Top Detail


The second picture shows how the hardware cloth terminates at the top of the opening.

Rethinking the VSB Opener

After years of success with the automatic chicken coop door opener from Europe, it was time to build are new expanded chicken house. This was a great opportunity to refine the system a little. The two goals were to consolidate the timer and actuator into a single box, and convert the two to a single, lithium battery power source. Update: experience showed that the batteries did not last long enough. I speculate that this was because of the litte power supply circuits. I removed the batteries and connected a wall-wart type of AC adapter instead, which has been working fine.

Here is the result:
Combined chicken coop door opener and timer
Here’s a tour of the components. You probably recognize the VSB circuit board and mechanical timer. These days they ship a solid-state timer, but I think it is a drop-in replacement. There are three other circuit boards. The one in the top, middle, near the black push-button switch, is a battery status indicator. When the switch is closed, there are LEDs that light up to indicate the battery charge level. The other two circuit boards are little adjustable power supplies from China via eBay. They are very simple to use- volts in on one side, volts out on the other side. The tiny brass screw on top of the little blue component is the adjustment. As shipped, the screw is set for a high output voltage, so it took around 15 counter-clockwise turns to get it into the adjusting range. I adjusted the one on the left to 1.5 volts and connected it to the timer, then adjusted the one on the right to 6 volts and connected it to pins 1 and 2 on the VSB. I shorted pins 5 and 6 as before with a jumper (to bypass the on-board optical sensor), and connected pins 3 and 4 of the timer to pins 3 and 4 of the VSB. There are a few extra slots on the terminal strips because I’m planning to use the same supply voltage to power our water level monitoring system on the rain barrel. These slots will also make it easy to add another two or three lithium cells in parallel, should it turn out that the battery duration is not sufficient.

The VSB Chicken Coop Automatic Door Opener

Pastured-chicken keepers know that chickens will normally return to a coop to sleep, and since many of their predators are nocturnal, we can keep them safe by simply closing the door to their coop. Manually closing a door each night and opening that door the next morning may sound fine to someone who is used to keeping dogs, but we are cat people, and not really interested in that sort of commitment.
The alternative is some sort of motorized coop door on a timer or daylight sensor. These days there are several to choose from, but a few years ago when we first started looking for a system, there was really only one viable option, the VSB system from Europe. We used that system as-delivered with a mechanical timer for a few years, and it worked out well.
The actuator system is contained in a single rain-proof plastic enclosure with a transparent cover. The components in that box operate on four AA alkaline batteries. The door motion comes from a small geared motor that winds a very durable thread/string around an axle. The motor/gearbox is mounted to a circuit board that features a light sensor, a potentiometer for adjusting the light sensor, input pins for an external light sensor or timer, and limit switches.
VSB Chicken Door Opener Circuit Board and Motor
The design is very clever. Instead of using mechanical limit switches that would wear out and be susceptible to environmental challenges in the coop, the system uses non-contact reed switches that are operated by magnets. These are visible in the photo running vertically just to the right of the pivoting plastic arm on the lower left, and running horizontally between the sliding switch in the middle of the board and the large blue capacitor.
The connections on the lower right corner are as follows. Pins 1a and 1b are electrically common, and go to the negative side of the supply voltage at the AA batteries. Pins 2a and 2b are also electrically common with each other and go to the positive side of the AA batteries. The remaining pins across the bottom are referred to in the instructions as 3, 4, 5, and 6. In the photo, 5 and 6 are shorted with a yellow jumper. This jumper causes the circuitry to bypass the optical sensor (located just below and to the left of the blue capacitor, and just above the potentiometer. The potentiometer is where one would adjust the light sensor, and as I understand it, pins 5 and 6 could also connect to a remote light sensor. When the circuit is closed, then the door is closed.
Pins 3 and 4 are connected to the timer in our setup, though in the photo they aren’t connected to anything. When those pins are shorted, the door will close. When the system is in “door closed” mode, the motor will unwind the string until the sliding switch in the center of the board slides to the right. This is an indication to the logic that the door is now resting on the bottom of its track, since the string is slack. In door open mode, the motor winds up the string until a knot in the string hangs up in the small hole in the piece of white plastic on the lower left side of the board. When that knot hangs up in the small hole, the plastic arm lifts, and the magnet opens the reed switch.
Our opener worked well for the first few years. We would have to periodically adjust the timer to account for seasonal changes in the length of the day, but that was to be expected. The batteries lasted a long time- at least several months, and perhaps a year at times. It was slightly inconvenient that the two systems used different batteries, but not a big deal.
All of that worked well until our big flood in the summer of 2013. The system was submerged while powered for some time, and I didn’t have any expectations for it to work again. I removed the expensive parts from our wrecked chicken coop and tossed them in a cardboard box for over a year, when our new chicken house was ready for a door actuator.
The circuit board is potted with some sort of clear varnish, so I had hopes that maybe the circuitry was OK. I removed the motor from the board and took apart the gearbox, cleaning each gear and packing with fresh grease. I cleaned and lubricated the motor, which seemed fine.
Gearbox Housing
Gears
Spool
With 6 volts applied to the motor leads directly, it worked great. But when I reconnected the motor to the circuit board, I couldn’t get it to work. There was probably some water damage to the circuitry after all, which is certainly not a surprise considering the exposure. I wrote to the manufacturer in Germany to see if they could suggest any further troubleshooting or if they could supply any parts, and they offered to send a new circuit board and motor for $65 with shipping. This was an appealing option, since the new system all together would have cost closer to $200, and I really only needed the board itself. Since I was starting fresh with the new chicken house, I decided to make a few changes to the door opening arrangement, and I’ve made another entry to describe those changes here.

Using a Trampoline as a Chicken Tractor

Trampoline as a Chicken TractorIn the earliest days of our chicken hobby, we thought we would have the girls in a chicken tractor. This idea was quickly squashed when we realized that our tractor was perhaps large enough for three birds, and we had 26. Even with just three, we would have needed to move the tractor almost daily, and it was just too heavy for that, even though we had worked hard to try and make it light-weight. The next iteration in that plan was to make a larger enclosed pen with an open bottom, that we could move less frequently. One of us had the idea to try using a trampoline. It’s round, so it provides a maximum surface area for the amount of material used, and it’s a sturdy, ready-made frame with a cover that provides some shade, but also allows some sun in. We picked up a 100-foot roll of 1/2″ hardware cloth from the local hardware store, and found two trampolines on Craigslist. One was a nice 14-foot version that we paid a little for, and one was a cheap 12-foot version that we got for free, since it had been balled up in a windstorm. The trampoline pen worked well. It was easiest to move them with two people, but it was possible to move them with one person too. Two wheelbarrow tires on one side would have made it easier to move. As we became less interested in the chicken tractor idea, we would just scoot trampolines around to provide cover for the girls while they grazed in the pasture. We never did get around to enclosing the larger trampoline, though even without the hardware cloth it still provided some good protection from aerial predators. And best of all, if we felt like we had too much energy, we could go bounce on the trampolines too! Although we would make sure there weren’t any birds underneath of course.