Category Archives: Hillbilly Engineering

New goat house almost ready!

We’re moving our goats to a new area about 300′ from the old one, and the new goat house is almost ready. No, I’m not using a cheap camera; 90° angles are rare here, due to the use of salvaged lumber and also my inexperience with building anything on this scale; it’s sometimes difficult to push a thousand pounds of lumber into the perfect position and secure it with just two hands. But it’s darn solid and should be much nicer for the goats.

Here’s the front, with a nice wide door, to reduce the bottleneck when 9 goats try to rush through at once:

The basic structure is 4x4s with plywood sheathing, which would not stand up to the antics of a goat herd for very long, so the lower part inside is reinforced with, what else, shipping pallets:

…and their new pasture area is really, really ready for some munchin’:





Half-homemade cheese press

“Hard” cheeses such as chedder require a press to expel the moisture – just the right amount of moisture. Too much pressure, and you end up with a concrete block (yes, we have.) Too little pressure, and retained moisture nourishes unwanted bacteria and molds (yes, it smelled like the devil’s armpit.)

The cheese press we’ve been using is based on a spring. You turn a handle to put pressure on the apparatus, and when the spring is fully compressed, that’s 50 pounds. For 10, 20, etc pound presses, you guesstimate how far the spring is between fully expanded and fully compressed. It wasn’t working for us.

We happened upon this small basket with a disk that fits inside it at our favorite homebrew supply in Eugene:

That is MUCH better than the solid, slightly off-round PVC pipe that the spring press works with! Displayed with it was $200-something worth of fine craftsmanship and clever engineering in the form of a rather complicated lever device. It looks great, but we’ll stick with the $6.95 basket and see what we’ve got.

In preparation for such a find, I had already thrift-stored a set of barbell weights in 5 and 10 pound increments…but they are too big to just set on top of the follower disk on top of the cheese.

The solution? An empty tobacco can, a stick that was lying around in the yard, and some concrete:

The tobacco can fits neatly on top of the pressing disk, and the weights fit over the post on top. It weighs 4 pounds and will probably get a pound added somehow as cheese instructions tend to be in 5 pound increments.

We’ll let you know how it works!

Crazy goat house tricks

I lucked into a bunch of used building materials recently, thanks to a friend who is letting me salvage from a condemned house.  Perfect timing, because our goat herd needs to move to the other side of the property soon.  This requires the construction of a new goat house, since it will take days and days to sawzall and haul the old one.

There was a half-built shed in the yard of the doomed house that fit the bill:

It was about 8 x 10 feet, a little small for a goat house, so I dragged it home and reconfigured it to be 9 x 18 (still missing a piece here):

Then we reconsidered the location and decided the thing needs to move about 50′ to the East to line up with the new pasture areas.  How does one skinny middle-aged man move this unwieldy load?  Take it apart and carry the pieces over like a normal person?  Nah, that would be boring; time for a little good ol’ fashioned hillbilly ingenuity!  Ain’t nothin’ you can’t do with a rusty ol’ pickup!

I parked inside the structure, jacked up the legs, and placed cross pieces across the tailgate, bed, and roof of the truck, bolting them to the uprights.  Here are two clips of the actual journey.  (I run to and from the camera because it has very limited memory, but unfortunately it still ran out and missed recording the too-exciting bit where I “gently” lowered it to the ground.)


..and here it is at end of day, roof all framed and one panel fitted into place:

The five-cent herb dryer

Hops cones drying

Hops cones drying

Our own first-year hops plants have given us enough flowers for a small batch of beer! It was easy to handle using the food dehydrator, and I’m looking forward to brewing with it.

The friend who gave me the rhizomes (root chunks) to start the patch doesn’t use his hops, and offered to let us pick some. We were asked to leave half of it intact, because he has another friend who uses hops, but by the time we’d taken maybe a third of it we had one and a half industrial-size Hefty bags full of heavily flower-laden vines. We were up into the wee hours that night trimming off the flower cones, with the poor dog tied up outside because hops can be deadly poisonous to dogs.

Yesterday morning there was still a good amount of untrimmed hops left, and after a few hours of cutting I had several paper grocery bags full. This was not going to fit into the dehydrator.

I found three identically sized framed window screens (scavenged after renovation of a nursing home) and joined them on the long sides with our good friend Mr. Duct Tape, making a triangular tunnel. The “back” end was covered with one of the hefty bags, and I shaped a bit of hardware cloth to serve as a removable door for the front.

After hanging this device from the ceiling in the shed, I put our box fan under it to circulate air up through the hops. The flowers are piled a couple of inches deep in the dryer, so I’m stirring the pile up regularly, and it seems to be working well.

Here’s the latest bit of hillbilly engineering, a large herb dryer that I estimate cost about 5 cents (for the duct tape):
Five-cent herb drying rack

The $5 chicken tractor

Chicken tractor. Even if you know what one is, the term conjures amusing images of a rooster on a John Deere, working the throttle with a wing and shooting tobacco juice out the side of his beak. OK, so what IS a chicken tractor? It's a movable cage with no bottom, allowing the birds to enjoy the bugs and grass in a chosen area while simultaneously tilling and fertilizing…without flying over to visit the neighbor's dogs or ripping up your new blueberry bushes (we had 4 in the spring, now it's more like 1 1/2; chickens can't resist a good, deep mulch!) In addition to giving chickens a chance to enjoy natural foods and activities without getting into trouble, a chicken tractor can be used to prepare garden beds. Make it the width of your intended planting area, and the chickens will gobble up the weeds and seeds while tilling in some excellent fertilizer. (Be sure to give chicken poo plenty of time to decompose before planting, though – it's strong stuff and can kill plants when fresh.) Tractors can be made in any size or shape. The considerations: you should be able to move it yourself, it should be high enough for them to hop over each other if they get bunched up in a corner, and of course if you want to do it for $5 the materials you have on hand will dictate the size. The assembly should be pretty self-explanatory. For this one, the $5 represents an investment in screws and chicken wire; the rest of the tractor is made of a used shipping pallet, some wheels off a dead lawnmower, an extra tie-down cleat from a pickup truck, and a square of scrap plywood for the door. Here's the side view. How long is it? However long the slats on the pallet were – about 6 feet:



Front view. Door slides between scrap-wood tracks; handle is the aforementioned tie-down cleat.



This is the cool feature…lawnmower wheels often incorporate a doodad that allows you to change the height. I placed them in such a way that when they're fully up, they don't touch the ground (see the wheel spinning freely?)



Here's the wheel hardware in the raised position:



Here I am moving the little tab to lower the wheel:


With the wheel on the lowest setting, there's about 2" of clearance, making it easy to lift the other end and move it around like a wheelbarrow: chicken_tractor-wheel_lowered

Screws were used rather than nails, because they hold a little better (especially when the frame might flex a little) and they allow you to disassemble and reuse the materials later. The chicken wire was attached using a staple gun, which is an indispensable tool for making poultry housing. There should always be water and shade available, and ideally grit and a bit of regular chicken food in case the bugs aren't cooperating. In a larger tractor, you can cover the corner that's pointed toward the sun, or you can just put a pet crate in as we've done here. Happy tractoring!

The developing nation of Goatlandia

Three months of milking under a tarp suspended by old haybale cords was quite enough; I broke our usual rules and made a milking shed out of mostly new materials. Still needs a door, but when the rains come back in a month or two this will make early mornings much more enjoyable.

…not that there’s any milk to be had; while the goat house is under construction, all the goats are together in one room at night and the babies are leaving the mamas dry in the morning.

Soon we’ll be back to cheese and yogurt making when we open the South wing of Caprine Towers, thanks to a neighbor who had excess shipping pallets and another one who donated an old metal roof:

Where’ve you guys been hiding out?

The best times of the year for blogging are also the ones when it’s hardest to find the time…but here’s a quick update on happenings around our homestead.

In the garden

Fairytale Eggplant – delicious, 3″ beauties:

Blue Lake bush beans are starting to flower:

The tobacco experiments are going better this year. The tallest of these is about 5′ now, because it’s in the raised hay-bale bed filled with pure composted goat bedding/poo:

Watermelons are enjoying the poo-bed, too:

Here it is from the end…zucchini closest to the camera, with 2′ long leaves:

…but even in rather poor soil, zucchini plants just keep cranking the food out like nothing else we grow:

Lemon cucumbers are struggling a bit, but producing well despite whatever I’m doing wrong:

Our little fig tree is going strong:

Delicata squash – one of my favorites. We saved seed from our Wintergreen Farm CSA boxes last year, I’m really glad they grew:

The peas have been wonderful this year, making new pods as fast as we can pick them for months, and are just slowing down now:

Summer is nothing without tomatoes…we have probably about 50 or 60 plants, mostly Brandywine red, seen here:

Sweet 100 cherry tomatoes break our no-hybrids rule, but they’re 6′ tall and LOADED with fruit:

Although 1 good zucchini plant is enough for a small family, we have the two giant ones int he pure poop, plus a few more seen here keeping the cantelope vines company:

Beets are about ready to harvest, and we’re planting more. We both love beets, they store well, you can make dye from them, and if all else fails, they’re good goat food:

Black oil sunflower seeds are great livestock feed…they’re scattered here and there, but next year we’ll probably plant a large field of them:

Finally for this segment – apples! Many of the trees lost their buds in a late freeze, but for some reason this tree is as apple-y as ever:

Infrastructure report

The construction never, ever stops. The goats are now enjoying another 1/4 acre of pasture that I’ve fenced off, and we’ve enclosed about 1500 sq ft around the chicken house so they can still enjoy some freedom on days they don’t have the run of the whole property.

They’re perfectly capable of flying over the fence, as one does every morning to lay her egg in our woodpile, but so far they haven’t figured out that the flying over the fence trick works in both directions. Chasing and flapping ensue.

Since we started milking our goats this spring, we’ve been doing it under a rickety “just for today” tarp arrangement that’s not much fun when it rains:

…but soon, we’ll have a nice, snug 8’x8′ milking shed:

The big old red truck has some problems that I don’t have the time to deal with, and 8mpg isn’t very good even for something that only goes on the road a few times a month. A friend gave me a nice deal on his old truck, a much more reasonably sized Mazda b-2000. Only the perspective makes them look similar in size.


No blog post would be complete without a goat picture…here’s Drama about to eat my camera:

Hillybilly tractor repair

With acres of meadow that must be cut down before the fire season kicks into high gear, a push mower just doesn’t cut it.

Fortunately, a friend gave me indefinite loan of a John Deere lawn tractor. Flat tires, didn’t run, etc. I got it going, and it served us well for a couple of years, but eventually the area where one of the pulleys mounts to the deck rusted through. I really need to find a good used welder and learn to do that, but it’s not happening before August, so it’s Creativity Time.

Here’s the problem – I’ve circled the areas where the deck rusted through around the three mounting bolts. We need to create a backing plate and hunt up some donor parts and washers:

Today’s donor is an old circular saw blade, chosen for its shape and springy tenacity. Here it is having its center cut out for the pulley shaft to pass through:

Here it is right before my hands got too dirty to touch the camera, the spindle hole cut and marks for the bolt holes Sharpied on:

Getting the drill started on this slick, springy stuff was a challenge, but once it was all bolted back together, it roared to life.

Well OK, I left out about fifteen minutes of puzzling over the proper path for the belt, and jump-starting the mower from the van after a few shots of starting fluid…but it cuts, which has saved me countless hours of push-pulling a regular mower. More time to learn guitar, read books, sleep, party shovel goat poop!