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Hoop Houses

Some of the farm crew decided recently that, when it’s time to really settle down and build a house, we’re not gonna go with wood, or brick, or stone, or even the slightly more hip clay and straw mixture for our material. We’re going with plastic!

We’ve been in the hoop house building game for the past few months and, not only are these structures large, clean, open, and bright, they are also cheap and amazingly resilient. I mean, the roof blew off our barn just a few weeks ago but the hoop house that is up behind the barn stayed remarkably intact.

Hoop houses, for those who don’t know, are basically greenhouses without any kind of temperature or humidity controls. They’re meant for animals. We recently built two that are 30ft wide x 108ft long x 16ft high. We’re housing 1000 laying hens inside each one for the winter. They are simple structures of metal hoops, spaced four feet apart down their length with a kind of end wall at the final hoop. A sheet of thick plastic stretches over top and on the ends to create a completely enclosed building that heats up quite nicely with a little sun and the body heat from all the animals.

We had quite a time getting the plastic over the first house. Walker, Zach and I chose a relatively calm day after we’d finished building the basic structure of the house. We unrolled the giant sheet of plastic and tied several ropes to one side so that we could toss them over the hoops and pull the plastic over from the far side. As we were pulling up the sheet, as slight wind began to blow and our hoop house cover became a massive, impermeable sail. Walker and Zach held on for dear life but, since I didn’t have a rope in my hand at that moment, I dove onto the plastic and tried to act as an anchor. For a few minutes I thought we were going to get lifted off the ground but eventually the wind died back down and we were able to pull the plastic over our hoop frame and get it secured before any more big gusts could tear it out of our control.

When chickens and pigs are inside a barn for the winter it’s dark and stale, much less appealing than the bright, warm interior of the hoop houses. They are also large enough that, when spring comes around and it’s time for the animals to move outside, we can use the tractor to clean everything out. My recent blog post about deep bedding the pigs in the barn through the winter also applies to the hoop houses. Chicken and pig manure is too concentrated in nitrogen to make good compost by itself but the added biomass of carbon from the hay we spread in the buildings provides for a great composting milieu.

So far, our experience with these houses has been very positive. They are relatively easy to build (if you have the right tools) and sturdy (though I suppose a few years wear and tear will be the true judge of that). I do hope they work out for the chickens though, because there are a lot of birds strutting about in there and they seem pretty content right now!

Best,

Sweetbread

Deep Bedding the Pigs

Pigs are gross. Plain and simple. Ok, maybe these pigs are cute, but on the whole– not cute, gross.

A Pig may make a nice pet if it is well trained, consistently cleaned, and not allowed to grow to enormous proportions.  On the whole though, pigs are pretty nasty.

Even when they have a huge paddock full of grass and shrubs, it only takes them about two weeks to turn it into a muddy, stinking wasteland. I’m always amazed, when we move our hogs to a new pen, how quickly they destroy every living thing within the fenceline. Granted there are anywhere from 130-200 of them, but it’s still an impressive feat of rooting, mucking, and eating.

It seems strange then to suppose that we can keep our herd inside the barn for a full four months without the space becoming so fetid that it becomes impossible to enter. Surprisingly, the barn remains fairly pleasant through the winter mainly due to our practice of deep bedding.

Every couple of days we roll out one or two round straw-bales, spreading it evenly through the barn (we have to buy our straw because, as you may have picked up from the last post, we no longer have our own hay equipment). This bedding not only cuts down on the smell, it also provides warmth and comfort for the pigs on especially cold or windy nights.

Over the course of the winter we spread upwards of 70 bales which, weighing roughly 500lbs each, comes out to around 35,000lbs of straw! In the spring, when we move the pigs out to pasture, we can take the tractor and scrape that rug of hay and manure out into a pile and let it sit for a few months. It will reach temps of over 100 degrees and quickly break down to a beneficial compost for some of our fruits and vegetables.

They may be nasty, but pigs are an important part of the farm. They may destroy plants, but they help us grow plants too. That is part of the beauty of farming!

Best,

Sweetbread