Status Update: Off-Grid Living

We have been at our new location for three weeks already! Time is flying. There are endless jobs to do so every day we are setting and hitting small goals. This week we have continued the spring development project to get running water to a retention pond, painted the chicken coop, purchased 400 gallon and a 65 gallon water tanks, set up the rainwater collection system (just in time- we collected at least 20 gallons of water Saturday night from the first legitimate rainfall since we arrived!), researched sheep breeds, collected rocks for a sheep shed, built a compost bin, collected our first load of winter firewood, purchased a four wheeler and a mountain bike, and took Sahara on countless hikes through our land. Life has been SPECTACULAR! The calmest, healthiest, and happiest I have ever been! I say that, noting also this has been the most CHALLENGING time in my life as well. I’m pushed to my limits every day and still end up with a smile on my face.

 

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The cooler was a first attempt as a rock hauling basket, but it isn’t working out so well.

 

Water:

When we first got here we were having to buy 2.5 gallon jugs of drinking water and collect shower/ dishes/ pet water from the nearby creek that runs through our property. It is nearby, but not by any means an easy stroll. It is about 200 feet down in a wooded ravine. I love it for recreating, but that means we can only haul a few gallons each at a time. The most I carried was 4 gallons and it was killer. We learned really quick how much water we needed for two days and we made it work until our next trip. We had to supplement our weekly home shower with river bathes for a couple of weeks, but that wasn’t so bad! The worst part is that the ground has been so dry it is just brown dust. Even after a shower you’re immediately dirty when you step outside. Now, we have a huge 405 gallon water collection tank. This collects water off of our shed roof and can be filled also by transporting our smaller 65 gallon tank to a hose hookup we were welcomed to use in town. We just filled up for the first time in town on Thursday and having 65 gallons of water was like being the richest person in the world. We were so grateful. However, we do not want to use this option for long. It is not sustainable. I imagined as we sat and waited for it to fill, that we were hiking back and forth from the creek over and over again with 4 gallons. We would have had to make at least 8 trips in a row (an hour each trip) to gather than much water! We have come to use about 5 gallons of water per day. On a heavy water day it would be more like 8 gallons, when we both shower. That water is then collected in a grey water holding tank and deposited on our apple trees. It is the only way they are surviving the recent drought. We use all organic, biodegradable products. No chemicals, no unnatural materials, just soap. Nothing we put down our drain is harmful to the Earth.

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Challenge: Figure out how much water you use each day. Then, find areas where you know you use more than you need and focus on cutting it back.

Water is life. It is precious and needs to be cherished.  You may think it will just always be there, but stories of drought are all around us. Also are stories of toxic runoff and whole communities water supply becoming undrinkable. This can not go on.

Solar:

Our solar system is a 2 KW system. We have nothing running on straight DC. Everything is on AC and being converted (inefficiently). We have plans to supplement our solar system with a wind turbine. We haven’t looked yet for a DC fridge, but have it on the list for the near future. We are also going to add an additional battery. We currently have four 250 kwh batteries, but the panels are producing more than the batteries can store right now. The inverter we have is a modified-sine wave and we lose upwards of 30% of the solar collection in converting the power from DC to AC in order to run our normal outlets. We run an inefficient hot plate a few nights a week and grill out or eat raw meals the other nights which has worked out nicely. It is important for us to remain diligent about our electrical usage though. We have none to spare. There are a lot of times I realized I turned on a light when it was completely unnecessary only to quickly shut it back off. Now, we seldom turn on a light because we live by the sun’s cycle. I also realized you don’t need to turn on a light just because you are entering the room! If you have windows there is really no need for a light in most daytime circumstances.

Going to bed by 9 pm and waking up around 5 am is wonderful. Being in rhythm with the Earth is a truly relaxing feeling. We have not felt deprived of anything we previously had as far as energy or water. We are very happy to be using only what we need and not an unlimited amount. Remember where your water and power come from. It is at a cost much larger than the dollars and cents you pay for it. Please note there are solar systems much larger than ours. We chose small because we are working towards as little electricity as possible, with a few exceptions. This is all we needed. Research to determine the size of solar system you would need. I believe the average house would run on an 8 KW system. Right now, that would probably run you $15,000 – $20,000, but that is a ballpark estimate.

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Composting:

So we have been using our composting toilet for about a year now, but not full-time. We now have no other alternative. We were using cedar wood chips and diverting urine from the feces in order to attempt to decrease the smell. We had researched composting toilets and some say it should be separated. However, we didn’t think that worked well. We also stopped using cedar and started using mulch/ saw dust from our firewood collecting adventures (mostly pine). The smell has diminished tremendously. Yay! We switched back to a single bucket for all of it. Since it can be composted together anyway, there is no point in making two containers to empty instead of just one. Especially since the smell is no worse in our opinion. We just built the compost bin a few days ago out of dead fallen tree limbs from the woods on our property. Old free pallets are another good option. Then, we lined the bin with about 3 inches of grass/ straw from our yard on all sides of the bin and the bottom. We dumped in our humanure as well as our food compost and covered it up with another layer of grass/straw. We will continue to add to this same bin until it is full and then make a new bin and let this one cure for as long as it needs to heat up, some sources tell me a year. We need to get a compost thermometer so we can ensure the pile is curing correctly to eliminate all risk from the humanure. More to come on this as we perfect the process!

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All in all, we are loving life here on the homestead. Can’t wait to bring some dairy sheep home! We had found a starter flock on Craigslist in Idaho I was ready to drop everything and go get, but unfortunately that didn’t work out. We will keep on the look out as we build our fence and shelter. Oh yeah, we also got our first rabbits this weekend!

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Well, that is where we are and where we are going… Until next time, enjoy the journey.

 

Chick Chat: Bringing Home the Babies

When we got our first flock of day old chicks it was Spring in Wisconsin. That is the perfect time to get chicks if you have a heat lamp. They would be moved to the coop during summer and be old enough to handle a harsh winter. If you do not have electricity it would be wise to get your chicks when the outdoor temperatures are in the high 80’s-100 degrees Fahrenheit. I researched chicken hatcheries in my area and found one less than 30 miles away. I placed my order by phone for 6 pullets (hens) of a variety of breeds. We wanted to get to know the breeds and what they uniquely had to offer. I had read that this could be troublesome, having different breeds in the same flock. However, they grew up from day one together and there were never any disputes between breeds. We decided to do a mix of breeds again this time. They do not require food or water for I believe it is up to 24 hours from when they hatch, which is why they can be transported a reasonable distance via postal mail. I chose to order chicks by mail this time around and would not recommend it. I should have realized sooner how horribly stressful it is on them. Two chicks were dead upon arrival and a few more passed away within a couple of days. It was tough, but a part of life and all the remaining chicks are healthy and happy! Like I said, I’d be sure to buy close to home next time no matter what.

Before the chicks arrived I made sure to collect the following items:

  1. A box/container to keep them (some use a big 10 gal plastic tote, cardboard box, crate of some kind). You don’t want it to be too big, drafty or have large holes because some of them will try to escape!
  2. Pine shavings or some other bedding material. I am using straw/ grass this time around. It was free and abundant outside! I have used pine shavings and newspaper in the past with success. The newspaper could work if you get free papers regularly and then compost all the nice fertile chicken poop and bedding in with your veggie scraps! Some say the newspaper is too slippery, but I did not have this issue with my chicks.
  3. A heat lamp – Or… if you don’t have power to run a 250 watt heat lamp, what do you use? First it is always best to let the mama hen do her job, if possible. If you don’t have an adult hen and you are getting day old chicks you can use hand warmers or place them near a heat source (stove) where the temperature can be monitored! The first week of a chicks life they should be in 90-95 degree temperatures. Every week after that decrease 5 degrees until they are adjusted to the weather outside. If you are thinking about going power-free your alternatives to a heat lamp are slim, but it is possible. We are doing this now which was VERY unexpected. We completely forgot that the heat lamp would be too much for our solar system and paid the price a couple of nights in a row. Everything is running smoothly now that we figured out the alternative process.
  4. Chick starter feed (medicated if you’d like) – Pretty self-explanatory. There aren’t a whole lot of options out there, but you can find organic feed if you look hard enough.
  5. Food and watering dishes – These can be made yourself or purchased from any farm and garden store. Ours are made from mason jars and metal lids. One of my jars broke so I’m improvising right now. There are certain ones for chicks that will keep them from drowning, pooping, walking through their food and water constantly. They will find a way to poop in it, trust me!
  6. Probiotics/ Supplements (optional) – Or, try the natural option, apple cider vinegar as a secondary drink to their water. It will help their immune systems during their most critical time.
  7. A coop – The won’t need this immediately, but I have already had them in the run area of the chicken tractor I’m working on since it is a perfect 95 degrees here for them every day! It still needs to be painted and the wheels added, but it will do! The below coop is 3 x 8 and can hold about 12 adult hens. That seems tight to me, but we will see! I found the plans online. You can also buy finished coops, but they are usually overpriced and not nearly as fun as creating your own! This will just be our traveling coop or a back up to separate flocks if that becomes necessary. All chickens will be free range during the day once they are transferred to outdoor coop living.


Raising chicks is so much fun and very rewarding! Our first chicks were more entertaining than a television! We would just sit and study their behavior for a couple of hours a night. The hardest part of raising chickens is the devotion to their health the first week they get home. Along with changing their water, food, and bedding regularly since they are fairly messy critters. After that, they require very little work besides opening/ closing the coop, refilling food bins as they get low, and cleaning the coop. It is very worth it for the delicious eggs you receive and the bond that is created. Get yourself some chicks and find out for yourself!