John Kestell

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since Dec 27, 2018
Seriously under-employed PhD chemist.  Currently living in the city, but working very hard to minimize my impact and head to the country.  Gardener, aspiring chicken keeper
Oshkosh WI
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Recent posts by John Kestell

Hi group,
Several years ago, I took up mushroom growing/mycology as a hobby.  I had good success with several edible mushrooms.  It was the straight forward method.  Spores on agar, agar to grain, then grain to grain.  Finally, spawning the colonized grain to bulk and fruiting.

Things were going pretty well.  An occasional infected jar, occasionally an infected tub, but no big deal.

Unfortunately, I've been battling mold for months.  The grain colonization seems to go fine, the agar dishes are good, everything seems fine.  The tubs colonize quickly, but then boom--mold.

I'm afraid this is what happened. Last fall I was cleaning up, and found a badly mold infected jar.  I opened it (in the basement), and could literally see a puff of mold spores go air born.  

I'm afraid I contaminated my house, everything has failed for months.

I had been using coir/vermiculite with some cow manure and a bit of coffee grounds.  Carefully given a good pasturization, careful attention to moisture content.  

When the contamination started, I went back to basics--straight coir/verm (no other additives).  Still, contamination.   I tried everything--growing in tubs, growing in shoe boxes, skipping the bulk substrate, an casing the grains directly....  Everything seems to result in mold. And right at the very last step of fruiting.

How do I trouble shoot this?  I'm a chemist by training.  I understand the importance of following accepted practices.  I'm pasturizing until an internal temp of 160F for an hour.  Good practices are being followed.  I just cannot get this to work anymore.  I had numerous successful grows, but I'm afraid this mold spore thing really messed me up!
5 months ago
I agree--the chickens really KICK.  I thought maybe lining the bottom part with some corrugated metal or something to catch most of it and drop it back into the bed. Or, as you say, rake it up periodically and shovel it back in.  I think it would be a good way to skip the middle man, and put the manure directly in to the soil.  Give it a while to work and cook, and then plant.  Maybe in the spring, turn it under to a depth of a foot or so with a spade to really get it mixed up and aerated...
7 months ago

Jen Fan wrote:If you're not intending to plant much this year that might work fine, though the chickens will kick out A LOT of stuff, so you'll be cleaning up all around your beds.  Things like tomatoes and zucchinis will love fresh manure.  A lot of other plants might not appreciate that.  But again, if you're not planting ASAP, then it might do fine.  The only thing that stands out to me is that wood kind of sucks nitrogen from the soil until it's thoroughly decomposed into humus.  You might do better to work on a "wood rotting heap" somewhere nearby and amend your beds with rotten wood as it becomes available in future years.

We find that taking all of our soiled bedding from all the critters and composting it makes gorgeous, rich soils.  It's just sloppy hay with poop and urine in the mix.  Keep it wet and heap it up to stew.  Bust into the bottom a year later and it's the most beautiful stuff!  We have lots of redworms helping too.

If you want to actually plant this year, maybe bite the bullet and find a source for good compost and top soil for this year's plYanting, and focus on starting a composting system for your wood chips and chicken waste!



yes, I had hoped to nail this down late last summer.  With several warm months, wintering, and everything, it would have been great this year....    I normally do exactly that--take the chicken bedding (mostly straw), layer it up with whatever I get from the kitchen, free grounds from the coffee shop, egg shells, and a lot of leaves and small twigs, and just let it go.  Turn it every few weeks and let the chickens go nuts on the worms and bugs, then cover it back up (loosely).

This isn't ideal--I actually have no idea when I can seal the deal here.  But I'm going to be a few months (min) past my original date.  I'm hoping by next season (2021) I should have something good.  That would give most of it a good 9-10 months or so to cook and break down.  Just add, add, add poop, carbon based stuff, egg shell, and rock dust....  Add a lot of leaves, minerals...

Really, that would just be accelerating how mother nature does it in the woods I think.  The chickens eat a healthy diet, and I provide them with a lot of greens and sprouts.  I can splurge and add other things--blood meal. Trying to locate a source of fresh water aquatic weeds....   I really believe in micro-nutes.

I've never tried it, but I suspect mixing a lot of woody material with manure and other nitrogen would really help it break down.  I use a lot of wood chips as mulch--on top of the soil it shouldn't drain the soil of nitrogen too much.  But mixed in, it could take a while.  But from the piles I saw at the Parks Dept, some of it is already fairly broken down.  They heap it up normally wet--when you dig in there in the summer, steam pumps out. It's exposed, getting hammered by the weather. So it's not exactly fresh or pristene material to begin with.

I'll give it a shot.  The sooner you start, the sooner you succeed!  You can't really overdose on organic materials. It's really just a matter of time scale.  Is it ready in days? Or months?

Maybe that would be a plan--let the chickens work over the sheet compost, then use some kind of cover crop--maybe a deep rooted rye or something, to really dig into the sub soil.  Mow it down in the fall, and plant in spring?   My SO will be at the rental so I still have a fairly good bed for veggies this year. It's not a critical or time sensitive thing.  I'm just wondering if it would work or not.


What do you think of the idea of adding thin layers of clay and sand to the organics?  It should provide a nice mix of particles.  some denisty, some cation exchange.  Maybe build a quick and dirty bio-char reactor and throw that in there too?     I guess my idea here is to (year one) swamp the system with a monster amount of organics. Then, in following years, apply maintanance doses of compost, mulch, and top dressings.    Gently turn the bed in the fall, apply a layer of manure, and winter it over....    Once the worms come in, etc, let them do the heavy lifting.

The soil seems pretty good, actually. It doesn't appear that it was ever abused from agriculture.  With the glacial materials, I'm thinking it might be a good idea to find a way to screen some of the native soil. Remove the rocks and gravel, and add the sand and really fine dust.  

once the chickens are moved on to the property, and proper composting is set up, it would all be easier. I guess what I'm asking about is "jump starting" a bed.  I can sometimes find coarse vermiculite at work.  I'm a chemist--they pack flammable and dangerous chemicals in verm because it's so inert.  I have a few drums of that I could contribute to the mix too.  maybe splurge on a bit of perlite.  Just reallyl mix it up with as much good organic and inorganic stuff as I can get my hands on.  

I'm trying to find ways to turn waste streams into gold.  those paper bags of yard waste?  Yeah--that's how I turned my current garden from hard clay mixed with junk (literally--I found a broken junk of toilet bowl ceramic, rusted water pipe.... whatever "backfill" the builder could find) into good soil.  Just keep heaping it on. Let the bugs, worms, and fungi take care of it!!
7 months ago
Hello Folks,
About 4 months ago, I finally "pulled the trigger" on about 7 acres I have had my eye on.  Unfortunately, this pandemic is delaying the final paper work, but I still was able to head out there today and check things out. drainage seems pretty good. It's hilly.  Where I live in WI, it's sort of where the last glaciers from the Wisconsin Ice Age stopped--it's a mix of glacial rubble (gravel, sand, etc) when you dig down, but covered in some nice dark soil.  Rotted forest products mostly.    While it's perhaps not "ideal" land for an agricultural project, I find it perfect for mine.  It's about 1/2 mile down a dead end road. So the road gets plowed, but thier is little traffic. It's in the country, but just a few miles from the local farm store. Nice little 5000 person town...

Liking it so far.

My question is, to get the quickest jump on gardening, I was going to go with raised beds. I intend to prepare a larger, in ground garden(s) in the future, but for the fastest bang for the buck, I was going to build raised beds.

My question is this--I'm already late--I was hoping to build them right after the snow melted, fill them, and plant first thing.  now with this delay, it isn't going to happen.  No idea how this pandemic will delay things.

I do have a small flock of chickens, and was thinking to integrate the two--can I run this idea by you guys?  

The beds I was thinking would be 24" tall.  A friend of mine with a sawmill cut some long planks of black locust--very rot resistant stuff. VERY hard--like oak.  I was going to build them, probably 4x8, or 4x?   The plan was to box them in with chicken wire, and then put my semi-portable chicken coop on the end, releasing the birds on to the bed.    In order to fill the beds, I have access to as many wood chips as I could possibly use.  The city has a mountain of them that are from the parks department, and chopped x-mas trees, wind damage, etc.  It looks clean, a nice mix of hard and soft wood of a lot of species.

I was thinking, I could build the bed, lay down a couple layers of cardboard to choke out weeds. Then put in like 8" of wood chips and other high-carbon stuff (corn cobs, sunflower stalks, etc).  I would run the chickens on it--letting them relentlessly scratch and peck away, poop all over it....   After it got a bit nasty, I would move them to the other bed.... repeat.    I could use the off periods to add other organics--cow manure, horse bedding, straw.  Maybe a bit of clay and sand (to replicate real soil)...

That should work, don't you think?  Just sort of sheet composting high-carbon stuff mixed in with chicken manure?  It's not really a hugle-bed, but similar in idea. All the bark, wood products, etc....   I realize it wouldn't be much good the first year--not much would grow in wood chips other than mushrooms, but by next year I should be talking pretty good soil?

I thought if I could build 2' of organic material mixed with chicken poop, by next year it would probably reduce at least by half.  It should be fairly good--mixing in all the stuff I would normally compost (egg shells, coffee grounds, kitchen waste, manure...). Hopefully the worms would come in. Adding some sharp sand, probably some rock dust, and just a tiny bit of clay (for cation exchange)....  Also, leaf mold (again from the city's parks department--the leaves they vacuum up in the fall).

I was actually thinking a similar strategy for the in ground beds.  Joel Salatain commented that soil grows UPWARDS.  no sense in trying to mix the material down, into the soil.  Rather, add it on top, at a rate faster than you are removing it.  And give it some time.  Let mother nature take care of it.

Any thoughts on using chickens to prepare new beds?    I did some deep litter composting, and with the wood shavings dry, it really takes a very long time to break down.  I'm guessing out, exposed to the elements and in contact with the ground it would go much faster.  

I have 12 hens, and they can really tear up the ground!  I could throw some scratch out to encourage them to dig around.   Seems like it should be a viable strategy.
7 months ago
I live in Wisconsin, where the glaciers stopped and dropped a bunch of ground rock on the soil.  Here it probably wouldn't be critical in terms of micronutrients.

That said, there is not really a down side to using it--the minerals break down VERY slowly in the soil and are only accessed through chemical action in the soil (organic acids in the soil) or also from worms. Worms have a gizzard a lot like birds do, and they eat bits of rock to help digest food.

Instead of azomite, some years ago I went to the big landscape supplier. They have these enormous piles of various kind of crushed rock--granite, basalt, limestone, marble...  I spoke to the people, and they let me take several buckets of the fines--the dusty stuff that runs off.   For them it's useless anyway--it's just the processing dust that comes from producing gravel from rocks.    Anyway, I grabbed about 5 gallons of each (bring at least 15 buckets--5 gallons of granite dust is EXTREMELY heavy!!).  Then, just dusted the beds with them.  Granite especially is made up a huge number of minerals and should really help to introduce a slow release micronutrient profile.

Their are other ways to provide micronutrients.  If you can't get rock dust, or don't want to pay for it, trees actually mine bedrock too.  Things like leaf mold can give the soil essentially the same thing.  

In any case, a little rock dust (azomite or other material) goes a long way.  You're just putting on a dusting--I actually used one of those Parmesan cheese shakers to sprinkle it lightly on the soil.  I sometimes use larger amounts in the compost pile too.  
7 months ago

Joseph Lofthouse wrote:I used to be a fan of spiral breeding. I'm not any more.

My general feeling these days it to keep large populations (of roosters as well as hens), starting with many breeds, and allow them to mix themselves randomly. And constantly be bringing new blood into the flock. Then allow a combination of natural and human selection to tailor the flock to local conditions.

If three farms are keeping a population of chickens like this, then spiral breeding is a great strategy, (move the new roosters to the next flock in the rotation). But the fussy record keeping required for a spiral breeding project on one farm seems too hard.  



I agree--any kind of really formal breeding project would require a lot of "intensive" methods. A lot of record keeping, etc.   My thought here was to take several breeds with desirable traits.  The REALLY desirable would be introduced both on the male and female sides.   Then, by using spiral breeding, you could ensure that the genetics were mixed up evenly (in a statistical sense at least).  It would also make sure that no mating was happening between closely related individuals. No siblings, no parent/children crossing.  

I thought, at least for the core genetics of the flock, it would be a good idea to do it that way. At least go through one generation that way. Make a 2-way cross, then a 4-way, then an 8-way.  By then you would have a very mixed up, diverse collection of genetics to start drawing from.  Some of the interesting recessive traist would start showing, their would be some co-dominance, some incomplete dominance, and other traits one could start drawing on.


I had another thought about this--there are a lot of crosses already available.  Golden Comets, Rhodebars, Welbars....    You could start Gen 1 with 2-way crosses and get a jump on that.  Also, even Ebay has several sellers offering "barnyard mix" eggs.  One of them had at least 20 cold-hardy breeds in the flock, claiming to have over 100 birds at any given time, and a 1:6 ratio of roos to hens.  Hatching out a couple dozen of those, and selecting interesting birds would also be a way to get a jump on diversity.

It would be an intensive project, no doubt.   The good thing is that whatever birds that are not selected to move on to the next round would still be good layers.  They could still serve a purpose. My friend with the organic farm claimed that the diversity in the eggs is one of the things that really helps them sell. He's got some legbars, americunas, some olive eggers, Marans....   A dozen of his eggs go the range from white, to chocolate brown, green, green with speckles....  and people love it.    

I think it would be an amazing undertaking.  I did a lot of reading abotu the Aloha chicken project, and interestingly a lot of breeders joined, and the project ended up being divided across the country.  People sending fertilized eggs to each other, people living close together letting each other use roosters....

With some promotion, if you could generate some interest, it would be fun. I have a friend, for example, who's a high school teacher in Idaho who thought it would be an interesting project for her agriculture class.  I'd send out eggs, they would hatch them, the kids could raise them...     The other benifit being, if one person had a flock wiped out from predators, they could put out a call that they needed eggs from collaborators.  They could re-start their flock with some seriously diverse and mixed up genetics and not have to start from zero.

I'll try and read up on it some more.    The one issue with any form of breeding to be successful is that you need to produce a LOT of offspring, and then select maybe the best 10%.    In my case, roosters with interesting markings, pea combs..... Hens with interesting colors, on the large side, with foraging instincts. Cold tolerance, decent egg laying...  Anything with any genetic problems would be ruthlessly removed from the flock.

Something to think about.  I'm actually intruiged with the idea of collecting some "barnyard mix" eggs from various sources--the more vaired the better--and starting there.   I would certainly still mix in a lot of Buckeye genetics, because they do very well here, and some larger breeds to get some overall larger birds.  
7 months ago
I've been posting recently regarding some chicken breeding thoughts.  I spent much of the weekend in communication with several local friends who are on board with the project.  Several already raising chickens, and 2 actually operating full time organic farms.    

What I am hoping to do is, by mixing a large set of genetics, produce a flock that can quickly adapt to changes in environment. That is hardy and will hold up to harsh winters, that's good at foraging and ranging.  Also, one that has some markings and coloration that would make them difficult to spot by predators or thieves.  Really, an attempt to mimic a "landrace" breed.

In ecology and genetics, their is something called the "Founder effect".  If you take a small set of individuals, and isolate them, it is very likely that the new population will not represent the larger population.  These "founders" have a tremendous impact on the direction the population will take in the future.  My thought here was to spend the initial part of the breeding project generating a "founder flock".   I am a huge fan of, and am actually already breeding and raising Buckeyes.  They do great on range. They have a very, very small comb, do fine in the cold...  They produce eggs ok.  While marketed as a "dual breed", the carcass is actually kind of disappointing, but I still love them.  I love the other breeds too---New Hampshires (already have several), Barred rock (have access to several), Sp. Sussex (love them--and beautiful markings)....    The idea with the "Founder Flock" would be to cross solid dual breeds with some of the true monster meat breeds. Black and White Jersey Giants and Buff Brahmas.  

Doing this, hopefully, would produce birds that were good on range, but significantly larger in size, while also increasing the growth rate that the large breeds are notorious for.  Also, JGs are known to lay well in the winter, so that would be a plus.

This would encompass the first couple years of breeding.  Making a random mix of dual breeds and meat breeds. Selecting roosters with interesting markings, and especially with pea-combs. Selecting hens with good laying and interesting markings....

Then, from there, cross these again with good egg breeds with interesting colorations.

I don't actually care exactly what they end up looking like.  If they have some kind of mottled, barred, speckeled, or any combination of those things, they should blend well with pasture and be harder to pick off.  I would cull ruthlessly anything that wasn't healthy. Cross beak, foot problems, aggression, etc.  

I know this would be an enormous undertaking, but I have confirmation with 2 farm friends that they would allow me to run flocks on pasture in exchange that they could sell the resulting.  If I could divide the three flocks out over several locations, it would make lighter work.  After this founder flock was established, their would be more breeding of mixed (pure) breeds using a clan (spiral) breeding program to really mix up the genetics.  Male and female individuals of the breeds mixed in, offspring selected for interesting characteristics, for foraging ability, broodiness, and all the other stuff that would make for an excellent sustainable flock.  Mix in some Marans genetics for good dark eggs. Maybe some barnvelder and welsummer genetics... (that would be years down the road).   Or mix the F2 generation with flock 3--this one a 100% large meat breed cross.  (I included that, as one of my friends commented on the need not for a free range egg breed, but a free range meat breed)

Any thoughts on the subject?  Informed, uninformed, or just just gut feelings?  It's a cool intellectual exercise.  I hope to sit down during my pandemic down time and do some hard math. How much, exactly, would it cost? Facility upgrades, feed, etc.  Time, I have, especially divided with rural friends. But I would need range pens, etc for a large number of birds....
7 months ago

Todd Parr wrote:I've been working towards a "landrace" chicken that thrives here in WI.  It needs to be cold-hardy, have a small comb to prevent frostbite, be able to handle our hot, humid summers, and preferably have a darker, mottled pattern to help protect against predators.  I'm 4 generations in to my project, and this year I have a chicken that fills all those needs really well.  It has the dark pattern that I want, no comb to speak of, and comes from very winter-happy parents.  I've found it hard to get a good picture of a chicken, so I apologize for the quality.  I'll try to take some pictures that better show her off if people are interested.



Hi Todd--Very interesting project!  I just posted some questions regarding developing a "landrace" breed.  Then your post popped up, and I realized that you are also in WI.  I was hoping I could pick your brain regarding your project?  The more I know before I start, the smoother this will go.

I'd love to hear any updates, any thoughts on what I should avoid, what you would have done differently..... (wisdom is learning from someone else's mistakes!)  

Cool project. I'd be fascinated to hear more about it.
7 months ago
A couple years ago I learned of a project called the Aloha Chicken project. A breeder was attempting to develop a bird that looked like a Swedish Flower Hen, but that didn't contain SFH genetics (as they were not available in the US at the time the project started).  http://alohachickens.blogspot.com/   Very cool stuff!

I got to thinking back to being a kid, and the weird "barnyard mix" I kept with my grandfather.  Some more or less pure breeds (standards--RIR, NHR, BR), some crosses.  We weren't breeding to any kind of standard.  Just using whatever rooster was available with whatever hens we could catch...

In any case, I'm in the closing stages of a property purchase. My permaculture project--after 20 years of intense work--might launch soon!  Very excited.  Chickens will be a major player in the operation. For food production, for integrating into the composting/gardening programs, pest control, pasture improvement, etc.

I have zero interest in breeding anything to any kind of "standard".  In fact, I am hoping to undertake a kind of breeding project of my own, and develop a flock that works well in my particular situation. I live in Wisconsin--it gets very cold here.  Cold hardiness, and some degree of camo to help evade predators would be essential.  Good laying characteristics would be a must.

I've been raising a "mixed flock" for several years on a very small scale.  5-6 hens, in the city.  Now, with access to land in the country, I can keep roosters, and would have the room to expand. And a place to process the manure and bedding.  I'm excited about the prospect of all of this.


I'm wondering--since I seem to be incapable of deciding--what everyone thought about purposely creating multi-way crosses?   Their are 8-10 breeds I very much want in my flock.  Cold hardy, sometimes broody.  Some that are exceptionally well suited to avoiding predators.  Some that are exceptionally good brown egg layers, etc.

If you were to undertake a breeding project, say to create an 8-way cross of some kind, would you rigorously and in a step-wise way produce 2-way crosses, then 4-way crosses, then 8-way crosses?  

I was working out some genetics on this, and it gets very complicated very quickly.    And considering that their can be incomplete dominance, or traits "leaking" through that formally shouldn't be, I'm wondering if I can actually just leave much of this up to chance.  

What I'm starting to think is (and I'm discussing this with 2 other chicken raisers, so hopefully I could spread the labor and expense out) maybe the best thing to do would be to collect a large number of suitable hens.  A flock of maybe 60 birds of various breeds (not a huge problem--not if it were divided between 3 farms).  Then, another collection of suitable roosters, also of mixed breeds.   I could divide them up, even if just totally randomly into clans, and then employ a "spiral breeding" program.  

The first season, lets say I had 3 breeding flocks with 2 roosters, and 15 hens each.  Let's also say the 2 roos were different breeds, and different from the 6 breeds the hens contained.  That would produce a totally random collection of 12 different crosses.   Not having any knowledge of what any of them would look like, I could  just produce them, run them on range, see what is most suitable, and the best couple of them would go on to the next round of breeding.   This would happen with 2 other breeding flocks.  Then in the second season, the roos would move "one clan over", producing a totally random 4 way cross.  Then again, producing a totally random 8 way cross.

Breeding decisions would be based on measurable traits--egg production, egg color, aesthetics (interesting markings--speckling, barring, lacing...).  

I realize this would be a tremendous amount of work--any breeding project is going to be expensive and labor intensive.  But it would be very cool, I think, to sort of put a lot of genetics "in a blender" and see what floated to the top.   Produce a lot of random crosses, select a small handful of interesting roosters, and a larger handful of interesting hens, cross them....

Maybe one could even get a jump start on the project by purchasing cross breeds in the first place.  Even Ebay has sellers who have "barnyard mix" fertilized eggs available.  One of the sellers must have had 20 cold hardy breeds in the mix.  Also, hatcheries often time have crosses available.  Red Rocks (RIRxBR), golden comets (NHR x White Rock).

In a sense it would replicate natural selection.  Put a population in an environment, and the ones most suited would move on. The ones that were cold hardy, predator resistant, etc.  

Any thoughts on how one would do this?  My gut feeling is to leave much of it up to random chance.  Produce a lot of offspring, raise them, and select interesting traits (interesting mixes of markings, dark brown egg layers, etc).  The 2x crosses might not be interesting, but the 4x crosses could start showing interesint incomplete dominance, co-dominance, and other interesting things.  

Just my ramblings--I've been stuck at home for 2 weeks thanks to the pandemic :-)  


7 months ago

Hans Quistorff wrote:First step is to check the former garden area for invasive roots. some grasses will have long strings of roots that will regrow each piece of root if cut. Take a shovel and cut out a piece of sod from the proposed area and wash all the soil off of it to examine what types of roots are there. If there are no invasive roots and the soil seems rich just spading will work. Spading is simple; Remove one shovel full of sod and set it aside, the next shovel full is then dumped upside down in the hole. You only need to do the row you plan to plant at a time. the exposed soil may sprout seeds that are exposed but most of them are edible and will give you a first crop of greens as you weed. As you mow the rest of the grass use it for mulch.
This is how I restored a garden after my sister died and I inherited the farm. Some arias had invasive quack grass roots so I had to let the soil dry and sift them out.



That's a great method too!  It would be great to put some organics in the hole before placing the upside down sod. talk about working the material in to the soil.  that sounds great!  A couple weeks, the grass and roots rot adding to the nutrients.