Most Things Can be Done with a Ratchet Strap and Other Homesteading Lessons

First up, some meta business.

I’ll be re-posting some stuff over at Medium, including some TLC classic content I rediscovered when my domain renewed and I was reminded that this blog exists.

You can also probably expect, in general, a greater percentage of posts from life at the Little Cabin on The Prairie — my chronicle of homesteading on a small, temporary, and mostly inappropriate plot of land. Think of it like: Annie Dillard, if she watched a lot of TV.

TLDR: There’s a long tale of woe as to why I was living on a 4 acre property a month ago, and now have schlepped everybody – me, Mr. Max, chickens, dog, cats(s) – to the small lakefront property my family and I own. However, it’s a story I’ve tired of telling so the takeaway is this: I had to move twice in the past year, I’m living in the woods temporarily, and looking for land to build.

Since this place is short term there’s all kinds of janky setups – even jankier than what we had at The Big Property. There, we had a real chicken coop – wooden, Amish made. Very nice. But one of the things you learn pretty early on is function is the most important thing in rural life. What works is what matters, and there are lots of decent ways of doing things even if they’re not that pretty.

This is especially true with chicken stuff, because chickens destroy everything. For example: When the birds insisted on repeatedly ripping the attractive natural burlap twine holding up their feeder, I realized the ideal solution was nestled in the back of the truck…

A well worn ratchet strap, one of several that survived the move from Western Mass at the height of the pandemic. Things designed for highway use are (generally) durable enough for tiny avian dinosaurs, and sure enough it got the job done.

I thought the ratchet strap was my piece de resistance of hillbilly ingenuity (after the XL paint scraper I used to remove frozen and/or fossilized shit from their run door), but I think I’ve outdone myself with the chicken ‘enclosure’ I’ve developed here at the cabin.

While I have plenty of real fencing in rolls back at The Big Property, it seemed unwise to zig-zag this land with tons of sturdy metal that would have to dug up and dismantled in a few months. So for this not-forever situation, the spec became, “do this as cheaply and shittily as possible.”

AND I DID.

That’s poultry netting and step-in posts – the kind usually used for electric fencing. I ran out of poultry netting – 100 feet seemed like plenty but I didn’t bother to measure – so I stitched two scrap pieces together for the last 5 feet. And by stitched I mean used some old twist ties to join the netting together tightly enough so no chicken could wedge herself through. When Mr. Max said, “What’s the plan for the door?” I said confidently, “Pick up a post and walk in.” He said, “Cool, I like the budget.” The security light is held on with bungie cord, as is the interior ‘run’ (actually a dog kennel). Believe it or not, it’s quite a big step up from what they had here originally. When we first came to the cabin it was early February, and we were frantically schlepping both stuff and beings from The Big Property to here. We had no viable plan for the chickens until I remembered the outhouse my dad built here in the eighties.

For the first few days we put the birds in one of those large dog play tents in the basement. Everyone who owns chickens knows how terrible it is to have indoor chickens. They make an almost unbelievable quantity of dust, scream about being kept inside, and shit constantly. As fun as it was to hear their ‘egg song’ emanating from the basement throughout the day, we knew we had to get them out of there ASAP.

So we fixed up the outhouse, boarded up the holes, and moved them there. I bought the aforementioned dog kennel run from Chewy and used it as a temporary outdoor enclosure. It seemed to work okay but after a couple of weeks the lack of nesting boxes led to some merciless beat-downs, particularly of the smallest, sickliest bird. I busted out the Blue Kote (antiseptic with a blue dye in it, so chickens won’t peck bloody areas) and brought her back in to recuperate in the basement again. So once again we had the joy of indoor chickens.

(They look innocent, but this was right after they kicked the bloody one out into the run.)

At that point we realized we’d be staying here for some time and needed a more permanent solution, so we dropped some dough on a temporary coop.

I was initially skeptical of it, but it’s one of the better emergency purchases we’ve made. It’s the right size for our birds to sleep in, and being a bit small makes it easy for them to stay warm. Having enough nesting boxes and roosts has ended the bullying, and they’ve been happily living in harmony since.

The fencing will hopefully eventually keep them contained to the side yard when we want to keep them from roaming too far. I kept the dog kennel run in place since they keep finding ways out of the netting (it needs some yard staples to hold it down in a few places, which I have on order).

My Great Pyr, Gracie, is one of those rare dogs that respects even the dinkiest of fencing. I’d never leave her out here by herself, but she has been in there with us to play and run around and very much respects the perimeter. There is something amusing about the fact that these tiny wimps:

have no problem undermining my carefully placed fencing

while this 115 lb beast:

Is bested by some plastic netting.

I should note here that a lot of chicken people will say this is woefully inadequate fencing for predators, and that’s true. I do religiously close my birds in at night in their coop, and I there’s of course Gracie, who delights in barking at everything and nothing throughout the day and night. But a big reason I give these guys a bit more freedom is that they are, through some really annoyingly lousy luck, a Marek’s positive flock. Marek’s is a gnarly chicken virus that in lots of cases kills a large percent of yours birds, usually in awful ways because they either develop tons of tumors or terrible neurological problems. Fortunately it doesn’t affect other animals or impact eggs, but it is highly contagious to other chickens. We got two batches of birds as chicks from a well-regarded commercial hatchery, and even had them vaccinated for Marek’s. But at some point they contracted (or possibly arrived with) a wild strain not covered by the vaccine. One of the really sucky aspects of Marek’s is that the birds carry the virus for life, even if they don’t get sick. That’s a part of why the vaccine is controversial – because it can only prevent the illness, not contracting or spreading the virus. So you can’t add birds to your flock without them also getting Marek’s. The vaccine is an advance, for sure, but in general it’s just a shitty disease you really hope your birds don’t get.

I actually thought about this a lot with the coronavirus vaccines. One of my idle worries was that the vaccine developed would function like the Marek’s vaccine. It felt exactly like 2020’s luck that a 90% effective vaccine would come with the baggage that vaccinated people could be silent carriers. So when research started coming back that the vaccine assuredly prevented transmission, it was a huge relief. It’s funny that it kind of became a punchline on the Internet – like, oh duh, vaccine prevents transmission, sky blue, grass green. But being more familiar with livestock vaccines you see stuff like this in practice and you understand the distinction.

(I’ll try to minimize pulling the ‘things I know from homesteading that others don’t’ card but before I go I’d like you all to know that roosters don’t have penises.)

Anyway, we found out about the Marek’s when one of the original birds died, and we sent her out for testing. We talked to the lab and their reaction was basically: Oh, you should cull, clean all your stuff, and start over. But – I raised these birds from babies. I sit outside with them every morning, and I’ve grown accustomed to their silly looks and goofy gaits. And while they are not quite like cats or dogs, there is a little bit of a unique spirit to each of them. So we decided to let this batch live out their days, and afford them greater freedom since we don’t really know how much time they have left. One bird – Deceptigod (i.e., what happens when you let your nephew name your chicken) – had a wonderful week here basking in the sunshine before unceremoniously dropping dead one afternoon. We gave her a proper burial in the woods, and I’m glad she had some good days at least.

The yard staples should arrive in a couple of days and hopefully I can get the rest of this secure enough. Until then I’ll keep collecting my free rangers from their exciting adventures, like eating gravel in the driveway and crapping on top of the truck.

(They’re not total plebs, they like this pretty spot a lot too)

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