Our Chickens are Preparing the Garden

This past weekend we put our chickens into their new mobile coop, and found them a nice space in our garden area for them to prepare.  It’s a bit of an experiment, but I think it will work.

Here in Wisconsin the weather is still pretty cold in March and April, and our average last frost date in my area is the 1st week of May.

So what are the chickens doing?  Chicken things!  Scratching, digging, pooping, and spreading anything that’s put in their reach.  Here they are on day 1.

chicken garden week 1

By the time we are ready to plant, this area will have the vegetation removed, be organically fertilized, and will have a nice layer of mulch spread out, all via chicken power.  No tillers, no backbreaking work with a shovel.  Just chickens doing what they like best anyway.

I’ll update with a photo each week as this area is transformed into a nice area for a garden to be planted.



New Mobile Chicken Coop is Ready

We tried our first chicken tractor last year and it worked out well enough but it really was only big enough for 10 birds or so.  It started out as a straight tractor, but as the season moved on and the birds got bigger we ended up just using it as a mobile coop.

You can see it below, surrounded by premier1 poultry netting.



As a mobile coop it worked ok, but had some limitations:

  • Small wheels made it kind of tough to move over rough ground
  • It was easy enough to move 8′ at a time (every day), but when it was time to move it across the farm, it was tough going
  • Our bigger birds (such as pioneers/red ranger meat birds) weren’t able to get up into the roosting area very well
  • Insuffient space for nesting boxes if we wanted to have laying-aged birds in it

So this year I’m trying a new design, based on the one created by Justin Rhodes at Abundent Permaculture.  You can find his build instructions here.

This new design should fix the problems above:

  • Big wheels make it go over rough stuff no problem
  • Plenty of space for our layers and room for more
  • Open floor means manure goes where it belongs – on the pasture
  • Nesting boxes easily accessed from outside the coop
  • Plenty of easy to access roosting space

Here it is, all put together and ready for its maiden voyage!


The birds will move in this weekend, and we’ll put them to work fertilizing and preparing the garden right away.



“Alexa, raise my desk to 15 inches”

Last year, I built a DIY Raspberry Pi controlled electric standing desk.  It was a great project and I’ve gotten a ton of use from it.

To move the desk, I simply had to:

  1. Launch PuTTY on my computer
  2. PuTTY to the raspberry pi
  3. Log in
  4. Navigate to the directory where the program was running
  5. type sudo python3 robotdesk.py
  6. Tell it what height to move to

It works and is definitely better than sitting all day… but we can do better than that, right?

Yes, we can.  My desk is now voice-activated via Amazon Alexa!

Isn’t that better?

How does it work?

There are 3 parts to the integration:

  1. Alexa Skill
  2. Azure-hosted API
  3. Desk Controller


Alexa Skill

Amazon has an SDK for the Amazon Echo family devices called the “Alexa Skills Kit“.  In short, the Alexa skill contains 3 things:

  1. The things your skill can do (called intents)
  2. Sample ‘utterances’ and how they map to the intents
  3. Instructions on how to call your program

Your program can either be an Amazon Lambda program, or it can be a HTTPS API that the Alexa service will post a message to.

It’s easy to set up a simple skill to get started.  Check out the Amazon developers site for how tos, tutorials, etc.  Or if you want to learn in a bit more structured way, check out “Developing Alexa Skills for Amazon Echo” on Pluralsight.

The speech assets for my desk are on github.


The API is simple and does 2 things:

  1. Receives commands from the Alexa service and translates the intent and parameters to a desk command
  2. Responds to the desk controller’s requests for command.  The desk is using a long-polling mechanism to get commands.

The code is here (disclaimer: this is hack-it-together code, not production quality!)

Desk Controller

The desk controller uses the python program I had previously created to control the desk, but adds long-polling to get commands, rather than waiting for someone to type into the console.

What’s Next?

The program has lots of room for improvement, the Amazon process for certifying skills is rigorous, and the interactions with the desk will get better as I find the terms that I want to use to control it.

Have feedback?  I’d love to hear it.  Leave a comment or reach me @_brentonc on twitter.

Building a… hmm, what’s it called?

I’ve been quiet lately.  We’ve been busy with work, kids, new puppy, and building a….  not sure what to call it.

People around us, at work for example, say it’s a farm.  But don’t you have to plan to sell food if you’re a farm?

For a while, I toyed with the word ‘homestead’, but that’s not it either.  Homesteads are pretty serious.

Ultimately, I think we’re just having fun growing our some of our own food and doing something that feels incredibly wholesome.

It started last summer when we got a few chicks.  Caring for them was so easy and so satisfying, especially when that first egg arrived in January.  By February/March we were getting more eggs than we could handle, so we started giving them to neighbors and coworkers.  It’s fun to share, and worth much more as goodwill gestures than $3-$4 a dozen =  $12-$16 a week.


Then we got the itch to start a garden, and it’s amazing.



We’ve made lots of mistakes, but you have to start and every mistake is an opportunity to learn.  Every meal now has something we’ve grown ourselves, especially kale and lettuce but also some peas and carrots.  And the tomatoes are coming, and the jalapenos, habaneros, onions, garlic, brussel sprouts.  And maybe even a few raspberries and blueberries.

In April we received our first batch of meat chickens – we ordered 15 birds from Murray McMurray hatchery.  We received 16 Red Rangers and one other rare chick that the hatchery throws in.  One needed to be culled after she got hurt and couldn’t walk, but the others are doing great.


We’ll be processing them in late July at 12-13 weeks of age.  I’m not looking forward to it, but we feel that we should process them ourselves.

And finally, we are getting four Clun Forest sheep – 3 ewe lambs and an older ewe – at the end of the month.  Here they are with their brothers & sisters at the breeder’s place:


Along the way, I’ve started to become super interested in all the plants growing out in our pasture.  At first I just saw grass and weeds, but I’m started to appreciate better what they are.  Weeds are nature’s way of repairing damaged soil, and we’ll see if we can help out with some carefully managed gazing and manure additions.

So…  what do you call that?  I think I’m just a guy that likes learning and doing things himself.

Winter Workspace in the Basement

My usual workspace is in the garage, because I love having the door open to hear the birds and make as big of a mess as I need.

However, we live in Wisconsin and the winters a bit cold.  And our garage isn’t heated.

So, natural solution – make a space in the basement!


That should do the trick until spring.

Building a Backyard Ice Rink

Some of my fondest memories of childhood in Maine are of playing hockey in the backyard rink with my dad and brother.  Naturally I needed to make one for my own kids.


I thought about going bigger but decided to go with a 24′ x 40′ rink:

  • big enough to do some skating
  • small enough to not take FOREVER to clear after snow 🙂
  • I could make it out of boards of all the same length.  I didn’t want to be messing around with cutting or different lengths.  All I needed to buy for lumber was 16 8′ 2×12 boards  – easy.
  • We can always get bigger next year once we have a little experience 🙂


  • 16x 8′ 2×12 boards
    • I’m really glad I went with 2×12 instead of something smaller.  It turns out that my spot isn’t nearly as flat as it looked to the naked eye and our deep end is almost to the top of those 2x12s!
    • 3 for each end (24′ dimension) and 5 for the long sides (40′ dimension)
  • 8x L  brackets for the corners.  I might have been ok with 1 per corner but am glad i went with 2 per corner.  It really helped with keeping it tight
  • 13x board joiner plate thingies
    • that’s a technical term 🙂
    • 12 is how many you need (the joints on the straight sides) but I got an extra one because who needs an extra trip to Home Depot if they break one?
  • Lots of 24″ stakes for bracing the boards
    • I actually bought 6 wooden 24″ 2×2  stakes and about 14 24″ rebar lengths.
    • I used all the rebar and not all the wooden stakes because my ground was frozen and the rebar was much easier to get into the ground
  • Big pile of screws for attaching the braces to the boards
  • Backyard rink tarp.  There are lots of these you can buy online, we got ours from Amazon.  Make sure you get one that has plenty of extra material, you don’t want to lay everything out and not have enough.  Ours is 50’x 30′.


  • Cordless screwdriver
  • 3lb mallet (the most useful tool I never knew I needed until I had one)
  • Tape measure
  • Shovel for clearing snow if you waited too long
  • hose that reaches from your faucet to most of where you want the rink
  • Random heavy stuff from the garage for holding the tarp in place while you are trying to get things ready for water


Step 1: choose a site

I chose my spot because:

  • it looked flat (it’s not!)
  • it was in the back yard where we have good visibility from the house so we can watch the kids if they are out there
  • reachable by the hoses we already own
  • close-ish to the trees and on the north side of our house, so that it gets less sun than other spots.  I think this will help us keep ice a little longer in the spring

Step 2: buy materials

No backing out now!

Step 3: measure out your rink

Pick a starting corner and measure it out so that you have the corners marked.  Measure the diagonals to make sure it is square (if the length of the diagonals are the same, your rink is square).  Adjust until square.  If you are off a little bit, not a big deal – it’s a backyard rink!

Here is ours with the corners marked out.  I also marked the midpoints on the 40′ lengths.


Step 4: If you have snow, clear out the place where boards will go


Step 5: Lay out your boards

If you used all 8′ lengths like me, this is super easy.


Step 6: Start connecting your boards

I started in one corner and connected the two pieces together.  This made it balance on its own without me having to hold it up.  I then continued around the whole thing.

Also note that somewhere in there I cleared out the rest of the snow from inside the rink.


Step 7: Finish the boards. 🙂

Lots of good shade!


Step 8: place your stakes as supports

Put them in to make it nice and sturdy.  I put most of mine close to the joints to keep those from moving too much.

 Step 9: lay out the tarp and start filling with water

To lay out my tarp I basically placed it in the center and started unfolding.  The thing I wanted to stay away from the most was dragging it around.  There were too many sharp things like boards, rebar, etc that would tear holes in the tarp if I did that, and then it would leak when I started filling it up.  As it turned out I did end up with one small hole but it was slow enough that it wasn’t a big deal.

Once I had the tarp in place I put heavy stuff such as some extra lumber and around the edges and then covered the outside with snow.  This was to keep it in place and prevent the wind from getting underneath and whipping it around.

Then we put the hose in, turned on the water, and put the well to work pumping ~2500 gallons of water. 🙂


Also note that most websites about building backyard rinks say to wait until you are ready to fill it up before laying out the tarp, and also to avoid windy days if possible.

Step 10: all filled with water – exercise patience

It’ll take a few days for you to have enough ice, depending on how cold it is.


All frozen!


In the picture above you can see the ice is a little rough.  After this picture was taken I started bringing out 5 gallon buckets of nice hot water from inside the house and tossing that on and it made the ice really nice and smooth.  About 5-6 trips coats the whole surface so it doesn’t take too long to do.

Step 11: enjoy!

My daughter’s first time out on our rink – incredibly fun, even if it was snowing and I was using the pickup’s headlights so we could see. 🙂