Sunday, February 21, 2010

Food fling and big bags

Aimee stayed home, over-indulged after a long series of job candidate-hosting dinners, but I took my "Ram-a-Ham-a-Ding-Dong" chili to the second annual Unity "Bean Blast" Chili Cook-Off run by our not-so-tame paleo-climatologist Kevin S. and his wife Lindsay.

I indulged in a small amount of Kevin's home-brew stout, chatted with friends and co-workers, met some new folks and had a good time in general. While herself stayed home and had a quiet evening in for once.

What's in a "Ram-a-Ham-a-Ding-Dong" Chili? All I can say is that it is superbly multi-cultural.

1) Take one old Maine ram, well past his prime, and grind him up coarsely in a meat grinder. Freeze until needed. Feel sorry for a good old bugger who fathered all your best ewes until he got in a very bad fight with another ram and had to be shot in the head with the Marlin 30-30. All your fault, too. Your fences aren't good enough for two rams on one farm.

2) Forgive yourself, but pledge never to have more than one ram ever again.

3) Take one home grown ham roast from a previously unlucky runt-pig called Vann who grew out to 160 pounds dressed once she found you, your wife, and your farm and a whole world of nice pig-food, cook the same ham for Sunday dinner one weekend, eat it while watching England actually beat Wales, 30-17 (unbelievable) at Twickenham.

4) Cool the ham, bone it, and simmer the generously meaty bone in Maine-grown Jacobs Cattle beans and a gallon of water and home grown sage, salt and lots of black pepper for sixteen hours, very, very slowly on the same cool wood stove. Eat this as bean soup for supper two-three dinners one work week, and then grow tired of it and make a beef curry instead with a can of Yoder's. Set the beans aside.

5) The morning of the day you actually need the chili: Chop two small onions into long thin chops. Fry in dark bottle-green extra, extra-virgin Italian olive oil very slowly on a cool wood stove, until perfectly translucent and glistening. Add two pounds of the still-frozen ramburger, and let it melt in situ in the skillet very slowly and then cook very slowly. This takes about 2 hours. Grade ten students economics papers while waiting. Take the dogs for a long walk on the snowmobile trail.

6) Towards the end of the process add a half cup of chili powder, a tablespoon of Mexican chipotle powder, two of black pepper and two of salt, and once this has all begun to cook in, add a very generous slosh of very cheap burgundy that wifie bought for the last lamb roast cook-out you had last spring, and a generous crumpled-up handful of the dried sage that hangs above the same woodstove. Cook for another ten minutes after adding the wine, over very low heat, barely simmering. Grade another two student papers. Unload some of the wife's shipping, take a unexpected call from your long-lost buddy/college room-mate in Montana, have her get just slightly ticked off while unloading the rest on her own.

7) Put the beans and the meat/onion mix together in a crock-pot and stir gently so as not to break up the meat clumps too finely. Add a small can of tomato paste and stir again.

8) Cook for another four hours very gently indeed so as not to boil off all the red wine flavor. Finish most of the rest of the students papers.

The results: a very smokey, spicy, red-wine flavored bean chili.

9) Give your chili a silly name and take it to the cook-off.

Cultures involved at last count: Mexican spices, Tex-Mex style, Maine bean farming and hog raising, English and Welsh rugby, French wine sauce, Italian oils, English sage, and an English born-shepherd and a superb American rifle. You don't win the prize, but get a lot of comments on your chili's strong yet balanced flavor, and drink some great beer and have a good time.

Drive home after the party, take your dogs out to piddle, while you're out, check the sheep with the flashlight and notice that a second ewe, another of your best ewes, the daughter of the same old ram, now has a well-defined udder.

Udderly beautiful.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Night checks and bedding systems

I couldn't sleep again -- getting old -- and needing the practice, got up to do another night check.

In the light of the flashlight, sheep always have a wicked case of red-eye --always good for a chuckle. You see their retinas off in the distance, hovering around like ghost-eyes.

The camera flash, however, has a red-eye reduction system, and it seems to work for sheep. I wonder if the manufacturers know this? It could be a good marketing ploy, avoiding red-eye on your late-night sheep pictures.

These ewes have quickly taken to bedding down for the night on the thick pad of hay that built up quickly on the snowy ground, since I started putting bales out for them a few days ago. We've put out six or seven bales, and they've eaten much of it, but since it's in abundance, they pick over it and move it around, leaving the stemmy stuff, eating the nice leafy stuff, and the rest becomes bedding.

This feeding habit of sheep is the key to our indoor deep bedding too. Although otherwise unruly and lazy teenagers, sheep will happily make their own beds. You don't have to spread bedding if you bed the sheep down in the place where they eat. The sheep themselves will do that, covering their own waste. The sheep pen in the barn is now a foot deep in sheep bedding, but the top layers are clean of muck.

Old timers around here and elsewhere used to chop hay up finely before feeding it with hay chopping machines and hay knives, to make it last longer and go further. They'd probably see this kind of deep bedding as wasteful of good fodder, and with chopping and mucking out instead of deep bedding I could feed twice as many sheep easily on the same fodder.

But deep bedding is more comfortable for the animals, and it helps to capture the additional nutrients in manure and urine. The dry brown hay stems will cook off quickly in the compost piles, since they're now covered in sheep urine that filters down from above. The second picture, from two summer's ago, gives an idea of the heat that is generated by this process.

Of course, we turn piglets into the sheep's quarters before we push the bedding out. The piglets will root through the bedding and chop it and aerate it and dung in it. The chickens will help too. Once the pigs and chickens have given it a good going over, then we push it outside with the Kubota compact tractor, pile it up, water it if necessary, and let it cook off.

I noticed that last year, when we had four pigs in the barn instead of two the year before, that this chopping process was much more complete than in previous years. The average stem fiber in our early compost was probably 2-3 inches instead of much larger. And there was much more dung from the pigs in there. I'm hoping that this has killed a lot of the hay seeds. Hay and other weed seeds that survive our compost system have been the Achille's heel of our gardens so far on this farm, and we want to reduce the weeds badly.

Four pigs instead of two, however, became a bit crowded when the pigs were close to full grown, since the total indoor area is about 12 feet by 20, and the outdoor area the same. This is of course a lot more than they would get in commercial feeder pig systems, and they get to root and wallow and eat garden and other food waste, but it still seemed a bit tight.

I'll decide how many pigs to get this year when I see how many weed seeds last year's compost grows in May compared to the year before. If, as I suspect, we get a big reduction, we'll grow three or four pigs again.

Most likely three will be the magic number.

This is just one of our ecological problems right now. The other problem we need to solve is in the fall when the sheep are turned back in to what was the pig's summer quarters. This year we lost a lamb that was meant to be a breed ewe, Polly, to septic arthritis. She got it before she was turned into pig-land, but pigs carry the bacteria that cause it.

Go figure. Is it our system that caused this? Did she get close enough to the pigs, or did we carry the germs around on our shoes from pig-pen to sheep fields, or are they just in the soil to begin?

Any and all are possible answers. Her two sisters who we did keep, Poppy and Penelope, are thriving, so some part of this was unique to Polly. And along those lines, Polly got a mild case of White Muscle Disease -- selenium and vitamin E deficiency -- quite late, in August, before she showed arthritis in November. She was a very quiet and well-mannered ewe-lamb and didn't push very hard for grain. There were nine lambs and the creep feeder was crowded at times. Was the WMD caused because she missed out on some of her share of the bagged lamb starter with the proper mineral additive? Later in the spring when the sheep are on 100% grass, did she perhaps not like the mineral and protein lick that provides selinium and vitamin E?

She was treated for WMD with a BOSE shot followed up with mineral paste and apparently recovered fully, but went on to get the arthritis and didn't recover from that despite a full course of penicillin.

As a scientist I'm supposed to change only one variable at once. As a farmer, I have to consider the whole system and make changes to lots of parts as I go.

Science is easier.

I'm thinking that Polly got arthritis because of general weakness, helped by the WMD, and that if I pay more attention to feeding all the early lambs their share of bagged grain, possibly by adding another creep, and also give them more mineral paste, I won't see much arthritis again.

But the possible three-way trade-off system here might be between more crowded pigs versus better compost/less weeds, versus more arthritis bacteria in the soils.

Off course, last year was also very wet, which contributed to all of this, and the late blight on our tomatoes. And a lot of worry about hay.

Let's hope for a dryer year.

But we'll also keep an sharp eye on the weed seeds, try to decide the right number of pigs, and study and manage carefully the lambs and their bagged feed and other WMD prophylaxis.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Out in the snowy woods

Haggis and Mary and I, having done all our chores, left Aimee to the laundry and went for a walk.

(This might mean I've got over myself after yesterday's outburst. There's nothing like a good sarky winge to make you feel better.)

I took pictures. The weather was nice enough to walk without gloves and hat, so taking pictures was more pleasurable than it has been lately. We walked on the snowmobile traile, where the snow is packed hard. Anywhere else, you'd need snowshoes.

Here's one of our forest beeches. Not the most numerous in the woods, this tree is more noticeable in the winter because the young saplings keep their leaves until quite late. Traditionally this has been thought to protect against competition by shading out other species in the early spring. The leaves also mulch out the competition after they fall. A paper I read lately says that this has another adaptive "purpose": protection against browsing. Apparently the leaves are unpalatable, while the twigs and buds are. But deer can't eat beech twigs and buds without getting nasty-tasting leaves, so they go eat something else.

Then we saw one of our local brooks, frozen solid, barely a trickle of running water. This is typical. The only running or open water around here is in the bigger streams and rivers, or ponds and and lakes, where motion and depth help prevent freezing. Anything shallow and still, or any relatively weak trickle, is frozen down to its base.

Also common, though, are areas where the canopy or brush has prevented much snow from gathering, and/or where a southern slope aids melting. This are little cavities of green and brown in a world of white, and very important for rabbits and mice and other small herbivores.

We saw coyote scat, with an interesting gray powdery texture. What was the coyote eating? Cement, it looks like. My best guess is that these are bones from small animals, or from picked-over carcasses of larger animals.

Haggis and Mary had fun sniffing at, and then eating, the coyote scat. Dogs eat some pretty gross stuff.

Sheep, of course, prefer hay. I started throwing hay for the sheep outside by the front door to the barn instead of inside. This is because this spot is easier to see on night checks. Eventually the uneaten hay will pile up as bedding and the sheep will bed down there for the night too becuase it will be softer and warmer than the bare ground where they bed down right now, all the way at the back of the barn where I have to jump the fence to see them.

The damaged fence in the foreground is also typical. Snowplows take out fences, even if they don't touch them. The snow they move pushes the fence over.

Once the snow is gone, I will pick the fence up as best I can, but it won't be until the ground thaws in late April that I can replace the bent fence posts.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Signs of spring.... elsewhere than here

My daily blog rounds are become depressing.

I generally check in on the news from four other small farms every day. There's no specific reason for the particular picks, except that one is on an island that I used to visit regularly. I could have picked any of hundreds of interesting farm blogs. But somehow I settled on these four, about the same time I started this blog, during the winter of 2007-2008, and I've kept up with them ever since, on a daily basis. I know that I'm a creature of habit, and that this is boring, to check the same four sites (in the same order too!) every morning. But I do.

Actually, if you think about, having very settled habits is a good trait in a farmer. Livestock need to be fed and watered and checked every day without fail. You can't wake up and say, "I don't think I'll feed the sheep today. I think I'll do something different instead."

But back to these four little plots, all around the northern hemisphere.

Unfortunately, all four get an earlier spring than we do. This despite the fact that all but one are further north.

Life at the End of the Road
can see green grass beginning to show on his highland hillsides. And, judging from the pictures, the snow is all gone.

Musings from a Stonehead
may or may not still have snow, he doesn't say. He's the only one that hasn't reported some obvious sign of spring yet. But I used to live in Findhorn village, about forty miles to the northeast, where February was pleasant enough, compared to Maine. At the very least, you could take a walk outside without encountering any white stuff.

It's definitely spring in Oregon where Throwback at Trapper Creek lives. They have stuff growing again, nettles and rhubarb. Durn.

Finally, Colour it Green Diary in Devon has been sowing seed. Bugger.

And the Guardian is reporting snowdrops, and showing pictures of the same. Double bugger.

I find all this miserably depressing. Call it jealousy, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, or just call it a normal Maine winter.

What an Eeyore. I'd better snap out.

This mood persists despite the fact that our weather has improved here. Instead of dropping down to 0 F or -10 F every night, it's only dropping down to 10 or 20 F. While the daytime has been up in the high twenties or low thirties. This is enough to make the frozen mud on our driveway a little damp in the afternoons, enough to very slowly melt the snow, enough, even, when combined with my household insulation and airflow work (below) to reduce the woodpile consumption to a third of what it was two weeks ago. I now expect our woodpile to last the winter, which is very good.

But it's still bl***dy winter and will be so for another four weeks. At the very least. We could even, as the weather forecaster said last night, adding to my mood only somewhat gratuitously, "...get a three foot snowstorm in April"

AAAAAARGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH! Stupid bl***dy weatherman!

Why'd he have to say that?

Something has got to give around here.

I think this is why our ancient British isles ancestors drank a lot of beer and sang songs and played loud music on things like bagpipes and so on, in the winters.

That would help. A good old RAF Mountain Rescue sing-song.

I've played the wild rover for many a year...

etc, &c

Or even louder, with actions. Fiddles. Bodhrans. Squeezeboxes. Strip the willow or an eightsome reel. That would be fun.

A pity that by the time the English actually came to New England they'd become Puritan and renounced such frivolity. Idiots. And however did they put up with themselves?

What I really need is a good walk in the fresh air, followed by a good dinner, and then a good raucous night in the pub.

We can probably manage everything but the raucous bit. Americans don't sing old folk songs in pubs or have village hall ceilidhs.

Maybe the wifie will oblige me, too. She was talking about going out. And it is Valentines weekend. A quiet dinner and drink with the wifie in a dockside brew pub in Belfast, Maine is not quite playing the Wild Rover the way I used to, but it sure sounds nicer than sitting here in my den reading about spring...

...every ruddy where else but here.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Night checks

See anyone big enough to pop out a lamb yet? These three pictures were taken last weekend. Click on the photos to enlarge them and have a good "butchers."

What you look for to begin, to note when pregnancy has begun to "show," is the filling in of the hollow behind the diaphragm. That's the first sign. Then the ewe develops obvious bulges on the flanks, central to the torso. Tillie, the ewe in the photo by herself, is not pregnant, and so her flanks hollow out behind her rib cage.

Maggie, however, the first of the sheep in Indian file, has filled out behind her rib cage, and is pretty obviously pregnant, as is Molly, right behind her. Which is good. they were both among the three ewes we wanted to breed. Molly is a particularly good ewe, sturdy and a fine mother. I can't quite tell for sure if Maggie, the last of this triad, is pregnant yet, but she probably is.

Tootsie, however, the lightest of the naturally colored ewes in the two group pictures, has also filled out. And we didn't want to breed her. She's too old to breed, was kept separate from the ram almost all fall, except for one accidental occasion, and in fact should probably be culled for mutton. But she sure looks pregnant to me. So she may have been bred the day the ram got out.

Poop. But the others seem not to be pregnant. So far.

I'm going over this because our lambing "window" has either been open for several weeks, or is opening in about two week's time, according to Aimee's records, and it's time to start thinking about night checks.

I couldn't sleep anyway, and so went out to give myself some practice. Our sheep are also hanging out in a different place, further behind the barn to the back of this picture, so I wanted to work out how best to get to them. I found I can swing my legs over the fence easily enough and get right in among them, which is best. The poor sheep were of course disturbed by this apparition coming at them with a flashlight at 02.55 am, but they need to get used to me.

And then I got Aimee's livestock record book out and checked the dates against the traditional lambing calendar.

The first possibility for this year's lambing has in fact passed, I just worked out. This is a point in early August last year when our old ram, now slaughtered, called Abraram or Abe, had accidental access to at least one ewe that we saw before we caught him and put him back in his private pen.

That ewe was Larkie, our "too-stupid-to-breed" sheep. Lark, a WMD survivor (white muscle disease, not the other kind of WMD), isn't playing with a full deck, so we don't want to breed her. But we can't cull her because like Tootsie and Tillie and Jewel, she was one of the original herd, for which we made a promise to the previous owners not to cull or slaughter them for meat, but to let them live out a "natural" life. But that means she can be bred accidentally. And so can Tootsie, Tillie and Jewel, all now retired.

Rams can always get out. We have fences, not solid British style stone walls, on our farm. I never saw a common-or-garden stock fence strong enough that a 200 pound Romney ram couldn't batter down if it really tried.

Another reason to cull responsibly, if you're going to keep livestock. These days I tend to think that it isn't natural for a farmer not to cull, and that the romantic "animals are my friends" types actually hurt animals with such mistaken notions.

But Lark isn't "showing," so we may have squeaked by there. Molly, however, who may or may not have had access to Abe at the same time we caught Lark having fun with Abe, is showing, however, and is quite huge. So is she early? And bred to her own dad, the dirty bugger.

The problem is, Molly is always huge. And on consulting the book, that breeding date was August 8th, so the due date would have been weeks ago.

Squeaked by again.

Still, it is possible that something else might have happened that we didn't see or record, however unlikely. At one point Abe, for instance, was trying to mount the ewes through the fence. Although he wasn't succeeding, we noticed these rather desperate measures on his part and intervened. But he may have succeeded when we weren't looking. We need to make sure we don't lose lambs, especially from such a good mother as Molly, so we have to begin night checks now or soon.

We don't know for sure when the actual two to three weeks of our planned lambing season will be, but we can estimate the most likely start point, which is March 20th.

Snorri arrived November 1st, which makes the first due date for his lambs March 20th. He's a fairly mild kind of ram, so I would guess later rather than sooner. He was given free access to Mollie, Maggie and Nellie for about four weeks. he also got out one night and had access to all the other ewes, not all of which, however, would have been in heat.

It would be possible, but not that likely, for lambs from Snorri to be born before then. They would be premature.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

More experiments with air flow

Aimee has been a little perturbed the last few days as I experiment even more with my air circulation problems, causing the temperature to fluctuate wildly in the house.

First I dug out some old rugs and tried covering up more of those forced air vents temporarily. In this stage, I left the oil heater on, mostly because I was worried about the pipes in the basement. This is of course dangerous since the big blower can run and not be able to move air, making the plenum run hot. But the thermostat was set fairly low, at 60 F, and I told myself I would know soon enough if the temperature dropped so much in the house that the heat would kick in. I kicked the rugs aside every night before bed and before going to work. Then we ran the house on the kitchen wood stove and a single electric heater only.

So far so good. At about 15-20 F outside, with the kitchen stove going at about a quarter of its output, and one 1500 W heater on full, we can keep all 1,250 square feet at 65 degrees. But only just. The thermometer was rock-steady at 65 F.

I wasn't happy with this. You need a less marginal solution, and in this case, if the air outside was colder or windier, you'd need more heat. The wood stove stack was running at about 200 F, and you can get it up to 400 F and keep it there easily enough, so we can get more heat. But you need to stoke that stove every hour to keep it at 400 F of stack temp.

I felt that this wasn't good enough yet.

It was as I was kicking the first rug aside the other morning, that I felt the increased strength of the airflow through the vent. This is with all but one other vent covered up. I measured it with a hand held anemometer at 0.5 m/s, or roughly 1.5 feet/second. The vent is a bit less than a square foot, So we're getting around 60 cfm through just one vent!

That did it! That old forced air furnace is making us cold, not warm! I covered all the vents except the one next to the kitchen wood stove, where the air leakage is a source of useful combustion air. I turned the oil heat off completely, and I started up the outside wood furnace again.

Now the house is holding heat nicely. The temperature didn't drop below 60 F last night.

And we can also get the temperature in the house to climb nicely, by running the outside wood furnace in the evenings. I had been hoping to do without this beast because it eats wood, and I probably can when the outside weather warms up another 10F. But I need it for now.

But having it run just in the evening is much better than what we were doing previously before I covered all these vents, which was running it all day and also keeping the oil furnace at 60F in the background.

It's funny how long it's taken me to figure out this airflow thing. I have been concentrating on the building envelope and the insulation, not the interior airflow. But the truth seems to be that the basement acts as a giant air-conditioner, taking warm air from the inside, cooling it down, and then releasing it back to the inside in a continuous flow. There's probably also some fresh air leaking in through the plenum or ducts.

And this is cold, cold air, blasting through our house at at least 60 cfm, and probably twice or thrice that much. Some of it is still coming in, of course, but only right next to the kitchen stove where it gets sucked in for combustion air, and goes right up the chimney.

Much better. And the oil furnace can stay off, except when we want it on, when we're in a hurry to keep the house warm, or when we're not hear and it's cold enough to worry about the pipes.

This weekend I will nail this down fully, with the anemometer and possibly some joss stick smoke tests. I will also send Aimee out to buy some more rugs.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Stack effect

I had been frustrated recently by the fact that even after our rather assiduous insulation efforts, this old house was still not keeping heat as well as I would like it to this winter.

The evidence for this is in the firewood pile, which has been going away just as fast as it usually does. I want to slow this combustion down.

So I went on a mission, before the Superbowl, to seal up air gaps. One of the items I teach is how to calculate building heat load, and so am very familiar with the general injunction to fix the building envelope first, then do the insulation. But when we went through this house, before we moved in, we did new drywall all around, placed new foam board insulation under the new drywall, and put in new windows all around, so I had always thought that the place was about as tight as I should get it. There were a couple air leaks I knew about, but you shouldn't make a house heated by wood too tight.

Well, I was wrong. The remaining air leaks were large, and now I fixed them it's a lot more comfortable in this place.

I started with a window that had a saggy vinyl frame on one side. I put in shims and closed the gap. Then I caulked up a couple of cracks in our two old kitchen doors.

Next I switched to insulation. The cellar-head space, which is also the space behind the stairs, had never been insulated, although the cellar ceiling had R 19 fiberglass I put in three years ago to keep the downstairs floor warm. I put R 19 below the staircase and on one wall and watched the inside temperature of that wall, measured with the laser thermometer, climb from 59 F to 65 F. I need a bit more R 19 to finish the job. I think I may detail it with foam board over the glass, too, so the R 19 can't sag.

Then I put clear caulk on the gaps between the stair treads and the wall, preventing cold air coming up from the cellar this way. Standing on the second or third step of the cellar stairs, I saw light through a big gap under the cellar door threshold. Some spray foam took care of that.

Finally, standing over the floor vents for the old forced air oil furnace, I could feel cold air gently rising. I measured the temperature of this air at 47 F. Each vent is about a square foot of air gap! I knew that this mostly disused furnace was a source of cold air, but I never realized quite how much.

Aimee had some magnetic plastic stick-on sheets for keeping dog hair out of the vents in the summer. I went to get these and covered up all but one cold air return and two of the smaller vents.

The combination of these treatments, but especially the vent closing, was impressive. Almost immediately the downstairs began to climb from a stable 65 F to 70 F.

This is the 'stack effect" where hot air escaping though the chimneys and any cracks and gaps at the top of the house draws cold air in from below, in this case through the furnace. It also helps to explain why turning the furnace on for just ten minutes makes such a big difference to the comfort level in the house.

I would like to shut off all the durn furnace vents, but I'm worried that the basement will get too isolated from the rest of the house if I do that. We have a propane hot water tank and a lot of water pipes down there, and the more sealing and insulation I put between the main house and the basement, the less protected they are. I also have air ducts serving the basement itself, and I don't think I can stop using them.

The basement is cold. It's the dead of winter and old man frost has reached into the ground about as far as he will go. The basement walls, which are crude masonry and concrete, read from 23 F in the coldest spot, up high, where there's no soil protection, to 39 F in the warmest, down below. The air temperature is steady at about 35 F. Any air in those basement duct work is going to be chilled down. And if the stack effect means air is drawn through the duct work even when the furnace is not operating, that will just make things worse. The propane burner heats up the place where all the pipes are, which helps a good deal, and the pipes themselves are copper and conduct heat away from the propane tank nicely, but 35 F is still marginal.

When I reorganized the forced air vents to the kitchen, where we knocked two small rooms into one big room, I had a forced air duct left over, and I made a "Y" out of this, playing one jet on the basement water pipes, and the other into the crawl space under the kitchen floor where there are more pipes.

The result is that the forced air furnace is now a kind of fail-safe back-up to keep the pipes from freezing. So I can't close off those remaining three floor vents.

Not without putting some other source of heat in both places. Or insulating the whole thing with Core-Bond or similar. I'm not sure I want to do either because we use the basement as a root cellar.

I'll figure something out. The furnace will die of old age, probably, and I'll tear the stupid ducts out and put in some other kind of furnace system. The insurance company will require us to have a furnace, so I can't just not have one. Probably I'll run Pex hot water tubing under the floorboards and above the R 19, from a second, smaller propane tank, and so have underfloor heat. That will make Aimee, who likes to go barefoot, very happy.

In the meantime, I'm pleased with the results of my labors. I was able to shut down the big wood furnace three hours earlier than normal, while we watched the game in perfect comfort with the whole house heated to 72 F by the 20,000 BTU kitchen wood stove and a small electrical heater. And the oil furnace didn't kick in at 4 am like it normally does when it's cold out. The outside temp was 10 F, which is a bit warmer than it has been, but still pretty cold.

It just goes to show, you can never get too detailed about building envelope and penetration. Every gap counts.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Wey hey.

One thing readers will have learned about a Maine winter: There is time to relax.

Superbowl Sunday, and wifie is making guacamole and salsa. I'm making baked ham and mashed potatoes and a pumpkin pie. England vs. Wales will have to wait until tomorrow, meaning I have to be careful not to read any British paper tomorrow morning or spoil my game.

But if the Saints begin to lose badly, Aimee will likely give up on the bowl and we'll watch the more serious game.

Everyone else seems to be getting what they need too.

Chooks get wey from Aimee's cheese-making class. Unfortunately, I didn't get any cheese, even though I did all the stuff on the honey-do list. What does a guy have to do to get a little mozarrella around here?

Nellie-sheep is getting petted. She loves this. Other sheep run away if you try to touch them, but not Nellie-kins. She's soon going to be a mom soon for the first time. Hope everything comes out all right, Nell.

Haggis is getting some attention. Aimee and I think that this is one dog that wishes he could talk back. We got him at about a year old. His former owners used to leave him tied up outside in the dead of winter. What a stupid thing to do to such and intelligent and communicative dog. He must have been thinking all the time, "If only I could tell them how cold and lonely it is out here!" Poor dog.

The hose is frozen again. I threw it on the porch to thaw out. There's sunshine streaming in the windows and the porch heater is on, it'll be up to 70 F in no time, and the sheep will get their water.

Here's the little statue my father-in-law Dick Phillippi carved to commemorate this little porcine incident here.

Dick is a very talented wood carver. We have a growing collection of his carvings. This is my favorite.

I promise, no baseball bat was actually involved.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Canada retreats

Well, we seem to be over the hump. The daytime is getting noticeably longer each day, which I always find heartening. And even though we're in the grip of another Canadian high, the large amount of sun that the clear northern air brings, now the days are longer, is enough for us to get some real warmth in the afternoons.

(Readers should understand that in this context "real warmth" might be 25 F.)

I notice that all nearly my posts for a month have been cold- and weather-related. The reason for the obsession should be obvious -- the weather is the most important thing. And it prevents pretty much anything else new or interesting around the farm from happening.

Until things get sufficiently better I can't do very much outside or workshop work. My workshop is only partly heated by virtue of being the home for our massive wood-fired furnace. The furnace has a forced air jacket, so it really doesn't put out a lot of waste heat, and the garage door and board-and-batten siding leak massive amounts of air, so if you're working on the bench and it's 10 F outside, it might be 25 F inside. That's too cold to work comfortably. Your hands get stiff in a few minutes.

But if it's 25 F outside, it can get up to 35 or more in the shop and we can start to get some stuff done. I'm thinking that this afternoon I'll be able to tidy the place up up in some comfort, and possibly do some prep for classes at school that involve shop work. I'm looking forward to it.

Some things you can't avoid, of course. The car work needed to be done. I used the shop lights for that, to keep my hands from getting too stiff. And I come in to warm up and thaw out every so often. And emergencies always happen around any farm, I guess, so you have to work outside if there's a problem.

The other night after a late meeting at college I came home in about 8 F weather, expecting a nice hot shepherd's pie for dinner, only to realize the well pipes had begun to freeze.

Like many old Maine houses we have a relatively shallow well and an above-ground jet pump. This sits in a well house inconveniently located in the center of my shop. The well predates the shop. When they first built the shop, they built it around the well. Probably the well head space, a rectangular cavity about 3' deep by 4' by 5', used to be below ground. When they decided to add the shop, they excavated a little and then poured a very crude concrete wall around the well head space, creating an above-ground concrete well house. This was insulated and provided with a 60 W light bulb for heat, as being newly above ground it would now freeze. I've added a proper hinged lid and better insulation, as well as replaced the pump and refitted all the fittings and wiring. I also keep all my paints and fuels and shop fluids in secondary containment, extra plastic tubs for everything, as even half a gallon of spilled diesel would ruin the well for months.

The well itself is a 56 foot deep, 8 inch borehole, and very reliable. One of the reasons we bought this house was that I could see it had a good water source.

But if the light bulb goes in the dead of a Canadian freeze, watch out! Mainers who let their pipes freeze may never get them thawed until spring. I check this bulb every night. There's a slight light leak from the lid, and I look for this slice of light every night before bed. I had done so the night before it went out, but it was a cold day, and the bulb happened to fail, and so when I came home the frost had begun to creep in. I found this out when I couldn't draw water for the sheep.

First thing I did was curse the late meeting. It had already gotten dark, there was no light to work with, the meeting was somewhat unnecessary and ill-conceived, and I had been up since 3 am, and working since 5am. I do my day-job work early in order to have time later to farm. These are my normal work habits, but they work well for the students too. I had an 8am class to prep for, and at 5am I have peace and quiet to do this kind of thing. Other faculty of course tend to keep "banker's hours," and so a late meeting seems perfectly pleasant to them.

To me, having to stay late is often a harbinger of some farm problem.

On a normal day I'd have been home by 4pm, and not quite so tired. There would have been daylight to work with.

Thirsty sheep and frosty wells wait for no man, though. I played around with changing the light bulb first, but realized I needed to take more active counter measures, so I dropped a 1,500W electric heater in and waited for everything to thaw. Luckily the frost had not crept in as far as the well pump itself. That would have been expensive.

Pipes thawed, I had a little difficulty then getting hoses to run. The technique for preventing a water hose from freezing in the winter is simply to drain it after use so there is no water to freeze. I lay it out on the driveway which has a steady slope and so the water runs out. But the last day I had used this it had been very cold indeed and so the water in the hose had frozen before it could drain. The technique for thawing a frozen hose is to put it someplace warm. In this case it went to the kitchen where the 75 F air warmed by the wood stove did the trick in twenty minutes. While waiting, I popped my dinner in the oven and stoked the furnace to full blast.

The electrical water heater that goes in the tub had clicked off automatically because the water level was low, so it too had to be changed. We keep two of these items for this purpose, although they click back on automatically if you give them time.

But the sheep got their water in their tub changed by 6.30 pm and were happy. And disaster was averted. I got my shepherds pie only a little late. After a nice warm shower. Very tingly. All in all a nice demonstration of the difficulties of Maine winters, and the need for preparation and techniques to deal with them. Imagine what it's like to be an older person in this environment. Not easy at all. I admire our elderly neighbor Jean who still chops her own wood.

I left the heater in the well head, ready to be turned on if needed again. This unit had been in the greenhouse last spring to keep the late frost off the starts and had gotten a little moldy, preventing it from being used in the house. It can stay in the well head until we begin to use the greenhouse again.

So the weather is looking better, for us at least. Maple sap will start running very soon. We have at least three fat pregnant sheep and possibly a fourth from the day when Snorri got out. I'm watching the fattest, Molly, just in case she comes early. She's huge and may be carrying triplets.

The weather is not better for Americans further south, including Aimee's folks, who are in the path of a major snowstorm. This will cause problems down there, because of the lack of snow infrastructure.

But don't worry. We'll get our share. The final stage of a Maine winter is yet to come, when the Canadian air, and the jet stream that brought it, both retreat north. Then the storm track will come our way again, and we can get another few feet before it's all said and done, especially in March and even early April.