Kefir: The dairy “swiss army knife”

One if the things we’re interested in doing is maintaining a good variety of healthy foods, but in a way that is affordable and sustainable. At this time, due to where we live, we cannot  get a cow or goats for milk. Despite this, we still want to be able to produce simple dairy products on our own without having to depend on the market for every dairy product. We still have to purchase milk, which we get raw from a local farmer.

Enter Kefir – an ancient fermented milk drink that has been around for eons. We think that kefir is the swiss army knife of dairy for those looking to be able to use one item to produce a variety of other items. Kefir on it’s own is much like yogurt and offers all the same benefits, but in bigger doses and with less work. If kefir grains are added to fresh milk, they will ferment the milk within 24 hours. Once fermented, the resulting kefir can be left to sit for another 1-3 days during which time it will separate into curds and whey. The curds can be eaten, or further refined into “laban” which can be used as cottage and cream cheese right away. Or, salt can be added to this laban and becomes the basis for harder cheeses like cheddar and Parmesan cheese. Also, kefir can be fermented to different lengths and strengths producing different tastes and usefulness.

This whole process does not require refrigeration and is a good way of getting usefulness from milk without energy use. Further, the kefir grains are constantly growing and multiplying, thus keeping the owner in a constant supply of kefir grains to eat, use, or share with others.

This is all in addition to many health benefits known to accompany kefir!

If you’re looking to add a “tool” to your simple life arsenal – particularly if you have access to a fresh supply of milk – consider kefir! You won’t be disappointed!

Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

We get quite a few questions about our chicken coop from time-to-time, so we thought we’d put together a post with some pictures of our chickens in their home environment.

Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

Backyard Garden Chicken Coop

Choosing the location
We thought long and hard about where we wanted our chickens on our property, and in what kind of place we wanted them to live. We live in a normal neighborhood where chickens are quite unusual, and so we didn’t want to be the bane of our neighbors existence by turning the backyard into a petting zoo or litter it up with junked up buildings and contraptions. We have just under an acre of property with a wooded section at the very back. We placed the coop as far from the house as possible. Honestly, we did this for a couple of reasons. First and foremost was an expectation that it would stink. There’s no smells to speak of unless you stick your noggin directly in the hen house or just don’t take care of the birds. Also, we garden extensively and didn’t want our wandering chickens to eat the fruits of our labor. That too has not proven to be a problem. We let our chickens free range a little each day (usually), and they’ve never wandered more than 100′ from their coop. This is in part because we wrangle them like sheep if they go where we don’t want them.

Choosing the coop design

Modified "Garden Coop" design

Modified "Garden Coop" design

After much searching around, we found plans online for a The Garden Chicken Coop. We really liked some of the features, but quite honestly, found it lacking in a few ways. That’s not to speak poorly of the design or designer. It’s a plan that allows for customization. We also didn’t care for all the materials used or some of the design. We heavily modified the plans, keeping primarily the main rough framing concepts and the roof design. Everything else we switched around. It was a good starting point.

To the original Garden Coop Design, we first added an external clean out door so we could clean the contents of the hen house out and place them right into a waiting wheel barrow. The existing design had the clean out door much smaller and inside the coop which made little sense to us. Yes, we could get a wheel barrow inside the coop, but that’s far more cumbersome than doing it from outside.

Garden Coop with Modified Cleanout Door

Garden Coop Modification: Front Clean out Door

Secondly, the existing design had the chickens walking up a ramp/ladder into the floor of the hen house. We chose to place this on the side so that we had more floor space. This also allowed us to build a floor that completely slides out for cleaning.

Chicken Ladded going into side of chicken coop

Garden Coop Modification: Chicken Ladder going into side of chicken coop

Since we got into this poultry stuff for eggs, we also wanted an easy way to get access to the eggs. The Garden Coop design had one small door and seemed like it would require at times, blindly reaching into this little door to fish out eggs. It also required using some of the hen house floor space for the egg boxes which might make them get crapped in more often, thus making the eggs even more dirty than they already get. We solved this by building external nest/egg boxes with a hinged roof. This makes fetching eggs simpler and also allows us to easily replace the nest box bedding. The original design was described as being fit for up to 8 birds. We had 10 (lost one due to illness) and currently have nine in ours now. The nest box changes gave us room for an extra bird or two.

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes with Accessible lid

Garden Coop Modification: Egg/Nest Boxes with Accessible lid

While we really like cedar, it seemed a bit overkill and also more labor intensive as an outside wall material. Instead, we used OSB for the inside walls and T111 siding for the outside wall sheeting. We trimmed the outside with pine 1x. We chose Australian Timber Oil By Cabot  for the outside finish since we had used this on our children’s fort and swing set with much success. We also added two vents (one on the front, one on the back) to make sure that there was plenty of ventilation which is very important with chickens. This was easy to do, however we could not center the vents on the walls because of our roost location inside. No big deal.

Garden Coop Modification: T-111 siding

Garden Coop Modification: T-111 siding

The original plans also called for a clear roof. Since this was wooded, we knew that there would likely be leaves and other debris on the roof and didn’t really feel like looking at it all the time. Also, we wanted to make sure the chickens got plenty of shade when needed. We decided on Ondura roof sheeting. It was reasonably priced, opaque, and very easy to work with.  It comes in a variety of colors. We chose brown since we had used the same material and color on our children’s fort.

Garden Coop Modification: Ondura Roof

Garden Coop Modification: Ondura Roof

Lastly, the plans called for the door to swing to the inside. We changed this so that it open to the outside. This just made the construction easier in some ways and also makes it easier to get into the coop without letting chickens out, and also without swinging the door into them.

Building the coop
We’re a pretty handy set of people, so it took about one day to get the framing finished. It took another afternoon to place the inside/outside walls on, another day to stain the entire coop, and about a day and a half to place all the hardware cloth in place. The roof took about 3 hours. This was done with the help of a friend, so two adults for most of the project.

Is it safe for the chickens?
The Garden Coop design calls for burying the hardware cloth about a foot under ground on all sides of the coop. We thought this was good advice and followed it. We’ve not lost a chicken yet to a predator (pretty amazing since we live in the mountains of PA!). We’ve seen no signs of attempted break-ins either. This is a very secure design if followed carefully.

Future additions & what we’d do different next time
One of the downsides of our coop’s distance from the house is that it’s far from a power source. We plan on running some wire down to the coop so we can install some lights on a timer to keep egg production up. We also want to have the option of having a heat lamp if it gets too cold, and also a heated watering dish. We’ve already purchased the timer and lights, but haven’t mustered up the gumption to trench  190′ of power line down to the coop.

Had we to do over again, we would have made the back wall of the nest/egg boxes also hinged to make it even easier to clean. It’s not cumbersome now, but could be slightly better. We’d also have extended the area under the nest boxes to create a shelved “locker” on the outside to store our galvanized feed cans in. They currently sit under the egg boxes. We’ve not had any problems with animals, but would like them to stay a bit cleaner. We might still do this later on as an upgrade.

Lastly, clean out doors on the front AND back would be great. That would make every area of the hen house cleanable from the outside without crawling into it. We can make do as is, but it would have been nicer that way.

Finishing the Root Cellar

When we moved into our house years ago, we had no idea that we had a root cellar. From our point of view, we had a wet, nasty closet area off our foundation that needed to be cleaned up and made to stop leaking. Needless to say, as we came to understand the value of root cellars and what they were, we were glad that we had not been able to make a significant change to our root cellar since moving in.

We were able to put an insulated door on the root cellar, paint it, run electricity to it, and build shelves turning it into a great place to store our potatoes, sweet potatoes, homemade wine, canned goods, etc.

Vented Root Cellar

A good root cellar has a few components – good insulation, high humidity, and good ventilation. We had plenty of humidity, plenty of insulation (the ground) but no ventilation. We fixed that by adding vents. This was easily done by drilling holes in the foundation (through the cement block) and running 1 1/2″ PVC pipe through the side, then up through the flower beds outside. We used a bend at the top to keep out rain and a screen on each one to keep the critters out.

Root Cellar

The way this works, the supply vent should bring cold air (when it sinks) down the pipe and into the root cellar. The source pipe goes nearly to the floor and the vent pipe on the adjacent wall has a vent at the top, to let the rising hot air escape. We decided to give it a little assistance by adding a powered fan to the vent. This was done using a few PVC fittings from Lowes and carving out a spot for an old computer exhaust fan wired to a 12v DC cordless phone power cord. We then plugged it into a timer like this to have it come on at the cooler parts of the day to cool off the root cellar and keep the fresh air moving through.

Root Cellar with Shelves

Lastly, we added shelves made from furring strips. This was a cheap alternative to purchasing shelves and allowed us to make custom-fit shelves for the root cellar. It took just under four bundles of furring strips (10 to a bundle) to finish – so for about $40, we were able to build simple shelves that would allow the air to circulate through the shelved items.

We plan on covering the nasty floor that is currently there with some small gravel. This will allow us to spray water on the floor that will then evaporate to maintain the humidity at or around the 95% humidity that root cellars need.

If you don’t have a root cellar, they’re easy to make in many homes. Just find a non-heated section of your basement (preferably with no window), wall it off with well-insulated walls and a door and vent it. Most people tend to aim for an ideal temperature in the mid 50’s. This keeps things like apples, potatoes, onions and garlic, sweet potatoes, etc. good for just about the entire winter.

In our case, this allows us an energy-free (mostly – when the fan isn’t running) means of preserving the freshness of our summer harvest. If you don’t yet have a root cellar but enjoy growing your own produce – consider a root cellar as your next DIY project!