Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Let there be light

In between my experiments with an automated coop door, I made a simple LED coop light. Now, I dropped the plans to extend daylight since the chickens are still laying even with the short days. They're a bit inconsistent: some days three eggs, today only one, but I want to see what their natural response is before I try to change it. And to be honest, with almost 5 dozen eggs sitting in the refrigerator (even after giving lots away!), I don't really need to increase production.

Anyway, I do need a light when I go out there after dark to lock things up and check on them. Since there's no AC power out there, I rigged up an efficient light using six standard white LEDs and the 12V lead-acid battery that will eventually also power the auto-door. Works great! There's more than enough light for me to see: in fact when I turn it on, the ducks usually come over to see what I'm doing and the chickens start getting down from their roosts. Back of the envelope calculations are that it could run continuously for about 3 days on that battery, so the 2 minutes/day I use it should be no problem at all. It'll be interesting to see how the battery fares when the temp consistently drops below zero!

I'm considering making this a standard product over at the site so let me know if you're interested. Tentative price is about $15-$20 for the 6-LED light fixture, just needs a 12 volt battery to run.


I can't believe it's been a month since my last post here. I've been spending a lot of time over at forum (I'm that CedarLake guy :-) that I've been neglecting my own readers.

It's past Thanksgiving, which means Winter is well ensconced here in Minnesota. Lows tonight should be hovering a bit above zero, and the birds seem to be doing just fine. They don't like the snow much, but they do eventually come outside. I'm working on providing them with liquid (as in not ice) water since the coop/run is too far from the house to run power. I'm still taking the 1 gallon waterer inside at night, but I have a water supply in a 6-gallon tub buried in the ground. With just a 6" thick flat of wood chips sitting on top of it for insulation, the water remains liquid except for a thin skin of ice on top. I use that to refill the water supply for the ducks each morning.

Two things I want to try:
1) Building a solar heater for the water: this will just be a mini-greenhouse that houses the water supply that the birds can walk into to take a drink.
2) Since I know that the underground tank will probably stay liquid, I would like to try an automated waterer using it. Only problem is I haven't found a battery-powered submersible pump yet. I have lots of aquarium pumps, but they run off 120VAC.

The greenhouse I'd like to try building this week sometime, but I have too many projects...

As a former co-worker used to say "got more balls in the air than a giraffe!"

Friday, October 31, 2008

Cheap tricks

I've been contemplating how to best insulate the coop against the coming cold weather. I have heard good things about Foil-Bubble-Bubble-Foil insulation and was planning on purchasing some. Then I remembered I have a garage full of thick, multilayer corrugated cardboard! The stuff traps air, so it should be good for some insulating properties and it's free, so it cost nothing to try. I lined the ceiling and East & West walls of the coop with it. Since the coop is on the East side of a hill, it gets a fair amount of shielding from our Northwest winter winds, but every little bit helps.

I can't say how it compares to "normal" insulation, but on one of the nights last week where the outside freshwater tub froze over, I had put the bird waterer in the coop and it emerged frost-free the next morning! So the inside is definitely above freezing when the outside was in the upper teens/low 20's. My next experiment will be to line the inside of the cardboard on the ceiling with cheap aluminum foil so it will reflect radiated heat back down. I also plan to line the inside of the North wall with plastic film and fill the space with shredded newsprint for more insulation. Need to set up some temperature sensors so I can see how much difference all this is making. That's something I can do tomorrow if I have time.

I'm still keeping the fresh air vents, but I need to block them from direct wind, or there will be strong, cold drafts inside come winter since they face North-South.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Keeping up

A month ago I wondered when they'd start laying. Now I wonder how we're going to get through all these eggs: we have about 4 dozen, of which 18 are store-bought! My five RIR hens are laying on average three eggs per day. Today I found four. Time to break out the souffle recipes, I guess.

I finally found time to start building my LED (Light Emitting Diode) lighting system. There are three 1 Watt LEDs mounted to an aluminum heatsinking block that is screwed into the ceiling of the coop. I'm using a surplus 12Volt Lead-Acid battery from an emergency light that I got for about $6 (yay Ax-Man surplus!). Tonight I tested it and it's bright enough to get the birds off the roosts and looking around for something to eat. Next will either be a timer that will run the light for four hours every day, or depending on how much I get done, my Bluetooth remote monitoring system will be ready so the computer in the house can turn the light on and off as necessary. It would actually work right now, but while the Bluetooth module on the monitor hardware has 300' range (Class 1), the one on the PC only has 30' range (Class 2), so they can't "see" each other over the distance between house & coop.

But first I have to get other chores done: like getting my Xterra roadworthy again after the accident in August. Snow's coming: gonna have to stop driving the car soon.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

About flippin' time!!

The first egg was actually laid two days ago, but I held off saying anything to my (now) 8 year-old so he could think the chickens were waiting for his birthday to lay eggs :-)

Monday, September 22, 2008

In vino veritas

Walking around the back of the property with my seven year-old son, we came across a bunch of vines I had seen before and wondered about. But this time they were loaded down with familiar-looking fruit. Is it really what it looks like? Tight clusters of small purple berries, with a hazy bloom. Really? Pluck, taste. eww! Sour, but yes, they're grapes!

Now to some of you this is old news, but I had never seen wild grapes before. Did I mention I am (OK, used to be :-) an avid winemaker? So one week later, now I have 10 lbs of grapes, crushed, with two gallons of pure water and two pounds of sugar and a packet of Montrachet gently bubbling in a fermenter! My first batch of wine in over two years and the first ever made from raw fruit.

It's a small pleasure, but an important one. You see, when we moved into this place almost three years ago, I wanted to make my first mead to celebrate. Never got around to it. Now the celebration is late, but more fitting: the wine is made from grapes growing on my own little patch of land. And that is infinitely more satisfying.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Hey, laughing boy: no eggs yet

Yeah, I'm a Daffy Duck fan (anyone catch the reference :-)

In the news: drakes don't lay eggs! Yup, both my ducks are showing those unmistakable signs of being male Mallards! Good luck getting eggs out of them!

The hens -- we now clearly have 5 pullets & two cockerels, one of which has started to crow, albeit quietly -- should start laying any day now. Every morning I open the coop hoping for a little brown egg and am greeted with nothing but impatient birds in a hurry to get out and start scratching for stuff.

Patience, they say, is a virtue. I ain't the virtuous type apparently :-)

I'm known as HeyLaughingBoy on a number of online forums. Shout if you see me anywhere!

Friday, August 8, 2008

Electronic reminders

Hmmm. Been a month since the last post. Only exciting thing around here was finding the mysterious single stalk of wheat growing amongst my potatoes! Courtesy of a "bird bomb?" Dunno.

A while back I mentioned that I was working on a small system to monitor the coop temperature. Well, I'm still working on that mainly because the solar cells I was going to use to charge the batteries aren't as good as I thought.

But now I have even more reason to get it done. Last night I was sitting here at about the same time when I looked outside wondering why I could hear dogs barking in the distance and realized "crap, I didn't put the birds to bed." Around here dogs barking at night can mean they hear coyotes so I grabbed a flashlight and went running down the hill. Luckily everyone was OK and the ducks were even in the coop (I usually have to herd them in) so all I had to do was close and latch the door. They were a bit annoyed by the light but otherwise OK.

Since the remote computer I built has inputs for reading switches, I'm going to put a "door closed" switch on the coop and have a short program running on the PC so if it's after dark and the door isn't closed, it sounds an alarm in the house. Hopefully I'll never need it, but if nothing else, it'll be a fun little project. Ah, the magic of wireless technology.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Few pics

No content today, just posting some pics for someone who wants to see...

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Geekin' out

So I have two short term plans for the coop.
1) Solar lighting
2) Temperature monitoring

On the Solar front, I confirmed tonight that I can get bright light from a 1W white LED (Light Emitting Diode -- a high-efficiency solid-state light) from about 3.6V at around 200mA. For the non-electronically gifted, this means that I can get a lot of white light from three Nickel-Cadmium (NiCd) rechargeable cells in a manner that doesn't require sophisticated control circuitry. If I just connect the battery to the LED, I will get clean bright light that easily beats fluorescents for efficiency. LEDs are rugged, efficient, last essentially forever and are easy to work with. They're just not cheap compared to incandescents!

I have already stripped two solar-powered driveway lights of their solar cells and they put out about 4V in the light coming in the room. It should be trivial to build a solar battery-charger and just put a switch on the coop for light as needed. The battery should run a single LED (bright enough to illuminate the entire coop) for about six hours. That'll be enough light to see inside after dark and I'm hoping that two or three will be enough light to continue egg production in the dark winter months. If I'm so inclined, it's a simple matter to build an automatic switch to turn the light on when it's dark outside.
So that's this weekend's agenda.

The more exciting news is that I have a working wireless module. For the past month or so I've been learning about Bluetooth. I built a small industrial computer (like 2.5"x3" small!!) that can be powered by a little battery I have charging right now and I can communicate with it wirelessly. Why is this exciting? Well, I can add a few temperature sensors to measure inside & outside temperature and I should be able to put this unit in the coop where it can be battery powered and relay temperature data to a host computer 300' away in the house. No wires needed!

Hope to get that up and running within a week or so.

Should make it much easier to run all my planned experiments with solar and geothermal heating.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Home on the range

Well, my very "rustic" looking coop is usable. Need to put some hinges on the main door, fix the last bit of roof and cut a "bird door" but the birds have been living in it for a few days.

I've been letting them out when I get home at about 6:00pm and locking them up for the night at 9:00. They're smart enough to go inside when the sun begins to go down. It doesn't get dark until about 9:30 so they're still safe at that time.

Starting today, though, I decided to try leaving them out all day. Not exactly free range, but they're not "cooped up." Yes, that was a pun :-)

The pen is about 10'x30' and includes a juniper bush and some other small bush I can't identify and long grass. I came home to find the hens hanging out under the juniper, having flattened the 2' high grass into a nest.

These crappy pics are taken with the camera in my phone since I lost my Fuji camera. I also started digging a small pond for the ducks. It's only about 20 gallons right now, but eventually it should be about 2'x6' or so and a foot deep. Small enough so I can fill it easily and drain to clean it out periodically. Wonder how much mud they'll create!

The ducks love the "pond." They'll jump in, swim around and then hop out running around screaming at nothing and jump right back in. Now I know where the Daffy Duck character came from!

I also put two 4-foot roosts in the coop. Right now, they're fairly close to the floor since the birds are still fairly small, but I will raise them later so the bottom roost is higher this weekend. They have already surprised me with how high they can jump.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Coop almost done!

Finally I decided that this thing will never be done if I only use scrap materials. Recycling is a noble goal, but not if you never get to the finish line.

A quick trip to Lowe's and now I finished the roof (used leftover shingles from when the house was re-roofed after a hailstorm) and the floor. The floor is made from 1" thick white oak floating over a dirt bed. I was originally going to have a dirt floor with chicken wire to keep predators from digging in, but the wood was already there (my wife gave up on the bridge she was building for the little stream at the bottom of the pasture)

Tomorrow the birds should be moving in. The chicks are getting to be pullets now (hopefully no cockerels) and are almost too big for the cabinet-turned-brooder. The ducklings have been living in a big doghouse for a week now since they are definitely too big for the brooder.

Should post some pix if I can find my camera!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Can I get anything done?

Today I was supposed to fence in the half-built coop so I could get the ducklings out of the garage and give the chicks some more room in their brooder box. .

However, our 3-year old filly had other ideas. After lugging tools & materials to the spot, I look up to see her happily chewing on long grass outside the pasture fence!!! Damn horse!!! So now it's off to find a lead rope and some treats so I can get her back inside and temporarily fix the spot where she broke out. Did I mention I could see storms approaching from the west?

So once I get her back in with the others, it starts to rain. Scratch getting anything done tonight.

Anyway, in my never-ending quest to get some kind of tech in my chicken-farming efforts, I decided I'm going to build a solar-powered night-light for the winter months. Supposedly keeping the days longer helps the hens continue laying into winter, and this way I don't need to worry about running power out to the coop. The solar cells are "free" from some broken (as in car ran over them) driveway lights.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Less is more?

My birds are 4.5 weeks old today. Ok, let me backup.

About 4 1/2 weeks ago I picked up my seven Rhode Island Red day-old chicks and two Mallard ducklings. The ducks were an afterthought -- I like ducks and they are hardier than chickens, but I knew absolutely nothing about them. Why seven chicks? Well, I've never raised chickens before and I thought I'd lose at least one. Happily, they're all doing great! The duck(ling)s are HUGE. I had no idea they would grow so fast.

Since they all needed to be kept at 95F for the first week and decreasing at 5 degrees/week after that and I have a background in designing control systems, I figured that rather than adjusting the heat lamp every week like everyone does, I'd design a temperature controller.
So I spend a few nights with temperature sensors and microcontrollers and software and finally get this thing working the day before I pick up the birds. Then I realize that it would be cycling on and off constantly so I might as well just do it the old fashioned way.

Strike one for the technological option!

However, I do want to track how they grow on feed & pasture, the number of eggs I get over time and so on. This means I'll probably be writing a software program to help do all this stuff (notebooks are so 20th Century).


Ok, first of all this has nothing to do with being afraid of technology. I'm an engineer; I live on a farm; I like good quality, fresh eggs, so I put the two together.

Somewhere along the line I figured that raising hens would be easier if I let technology do the heavy lifting. Hey, if the big guys can use GPS controlled combines, at least I can use electronic controllers to keep the brooder temperature constant.

So let's see where this leads...