What a difference a day can make

Last Sunday night we were woken from our sleep by a strange noise reverberating around the house, and a sweet smell coming through the open windows.  It was the sound and smell of rain.  Lots of it.  It was such a glorious sound to hear, knowing that our tanks and dam would be filling with water, and we drifted back to sleep with smiles on our faces.

The next morning two things were apparent.  Firstly, we had received a wonderful 80mm or so of rain overnight, and secondly, the tickle in my throat and developed into a full blown cold.

So after feeding the cattle, I went back to lie on the couch and feel sorry for myself whilst Jo and the boy’s went for an explore around the property.

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The first thing the boys excitedly reported was that the driveway was cut.

There was water running everywhere, and it was great to see where I had taken time to rip lines in the paddock, the water seemed to be soaking into the ground.  The rip lines looked to be more effective on the slopes than the flats, and I will be putting more effort into ripping these areas than ever before.

By lunchtime the water had receded and the crossing reopened – much to the boy’s disappointment.

The most striking difference was in our large dam, which you may have remembered in my last post was less than 30cm deep across its entire area.  It had received a huge body of water overnight – with at least a third of it coming through our garden.

The change has been remarkable – with a green tinge almost overnight.  The grass needs follow up rain for all the seed that has germinated to mature and set its own seed.  The storm may have filled the dams and the tanks – but it hasn’t broken the drought.  If anything, we are feeding the cattle more now the rain has fallen, as what little quality  remained in the dry stubble has now gone.

Since time began, our area has experienced dry conditions, and the old timers know that a storm or two isn’t enough to ‘break the drought’.  Our region still very much is sitting in the balance – but we were thrilled with our first real rain in over 12 months.

Nearly 50 years ago, a local historian Errol Lea-Scarlett wrote a wonderful history of our local area.  I was recently reading his work and was struck at how some things really haven’t changed.  Errol was describing the disastrous floods that struck our valley in 1870, 1894 and 1899.  These floods happened during periods of drought.

These occurrences served only to prove the fact that in coastal Australia a drought is not so much a time of no rainfall as a time when unusual climatic and environmental factors combine to make rainfall useless or even positively destructive…..  In March 1897 farmers began to cut down willows for stock feed.  The summer of 1897-1898 brought the first big plague of grasshoppers.  They could do little to worsen the condition of the empty pastures, yet where the insects came to rest and died in the little greenery remaining near Lake George the stinking piles of their carcasses, sometime two feet high, were so offensive that cattle were driven from the water.

This rainfall has been extremely useful.  It filled our dams, at a time when we were seriously considering getting rid of all stock.  It has given hope that perhaps we will get some autumn growth and whilst we will reduce numbers over winter, I think we are in a better position than we were a week ago.

The only problem was that I was crook.  Proper crook.  Whilst part of me wanted to skip for joy, I really needed to get better.  I spent a couple of days in bed, and then when I thought I was past the worst of it,  I sat down for a few minutes on the couch and lost four hours.  When I finally returned to the land of the living I found someone had taken a cheeky photo of the hound and I.

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Thankfully I have emerged out the other side of my cold and it is great to feel human again, although I think Sapphire secretly enjoyed our little quiet time on the couch!  As I get about more, I’ll share more photos of the farm returning to life… and keep my fingers crossed we don’t get a plague of grasshoppers.

Weaning and a plan for the cattle

The dry-as-chips Rock Farm has been sweltering through the summer school holidays and whilst the boy’s have been busy restoring the old horse-float, we have all been busy feeding and managing our stock and watching our water supplies dwindle.  I have spent some more time on big red trucks, most recently south of Canberra near Colinton. Thankfully on the day we were there, the fire was relatively benign and we spent the day watching for embers and spot fires ahead of the front.

 

Just after Christmas, the girls were visited by a bull, called Number 6.  An impressive Charolais cross, we hope he was able to service our cows during his several weeks on the Rock Farm.  We tried hard to get the cows in good condition to make the most of his visit.

We have been feeding the cattle without much of a break for months and months.  Initially we started with some old pasture hay, and then more recently with some higher quality lucerne.  The cattle have also really appreciated some willow branches that provide a bit of green pick.  That said, it has been really hard to keep the weight on the cows, with them putting so much of their energy into milk production for their calves

After talking with some experts in the beef cattle sphere, one of the recommended strategies in drought years is to wean the calves early.  This can be done anytime from six weeks of age, so our calves at nearly four months old are well ahead of the curve.  It took me a couple of days to get the water supply upgraded in the yards and arrange feed pellets before we were ready to start the big experiment.

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Bringing the cattle into the yards was the easy bit.  Separating the cows and calves was also remarkably easy to achieve.  The cows then followed the truck with hay back to the paddock and the calves got stuck into some fresh hay in the small yard paddock.  It had all gone remarkably well…  for the first few hours.

With fiercely hot days forecast, I wanted to allow the calves access to the small holding paddock behind the yards.  Surrounded by trees, it has good shelter.  Unfortunately the fences aren’t great, and by the first evening two calves had got out, and two cows had got in after crossing through two other fences…  I was still mending and strengthening the fences as the sun set.

By the next morning, four cows were out and back with the calves.  We returned them to their paddock and the calves to theirs.  In the evening we repeated the exercise.  By third day of this routine, a couple of cows had become regular offenders, and we decided that we would have to confine the calves to the yards, necessitating the rigging of an additional shade sail.

 

An old shade sail from a friend’s awning, given to us years ago was pulled out of the shed and rigged across the main pen.  Whilst trees provide good afternoon shade over the yards, the morning can get hot with little shelter.  As we had several days forecast with temperatures in the mid 40’s, the cattle quickly appreciated the shade provided by the sail.

Now the calves are contained in the yards, the most of the cows have settled into their new routine.  A couple remain defiant, and still make their way through my other fences to the yards… except the sight of the hay on the truck makes them change their resolve and they happily trot back to their paddock to get breakfast with their sisters.

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The calves seem to be settling into their new routine nicely, and now bellow more once they see me walk to the hay shed to start the big red truck than they once did for their mothers.

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The biggest risk to the calves is pulpy kidney (enterotoxaemia), which occurs when a bacterium that normally lives in their intestines multiplies to toxic levels.  This is caused by a change in feed, usually from a poor dry feed to lush pasture or a diet high in grain.  To reduce the risk to the calves, we are supplementing their feed with mineral supplements, mainly seaweed meal and mineral salts.   We are also gradually increasing the grain component in their diet, and giving plenty of roughage in good quality lucerne hay.  The calves were also vaccinated at weaning, which provides some protection, however they are due for a booster which we will give them soon.

I am watching the little heifer in the middle of the above photo.  She seems to have taken to the nuts far more quickly than the others – and she is watching me closely after I pushed her gently away from the pellets and back to the hay!

The aim of early weaning is to reduce the overall feed requirement, and increase the performance of both calves and cows.  It should make it easier to get the cattle in better condition, and the calves should continue to grow quickly.  The additional handling will make them extremely quiet which is an added bonus.

The strategy with the cattle as it stands is all dependent on rain.

Option A – Dam runs dry – If we run out of water – we sell all our stock and start again when we have a secure water supply.  We cannot cart enough water to sustain our cattle if there is no water.

Option B – Water but no feed – If we run out of feed, we will have to determine whether to keep calves, or cows, or a combination.  My thinking at the moment is to sell any dry cows, and all the steer calves in March or April.  I may have to bring this forward if we have no autumn break.

Option C – Bring in hay – With the price of feed due to the drought and bush-fires – this is dependent on winning big at lotto!

With hay of any quality fetching very high prices, I can only be thankful that I am not trying to make a living from the Rock Farm.  We are extremely fortunate that we are able to support our lifestyle with off-farm incomes, but even so, we can’t afford to make huge losses turning hay into manure.  At the moment, we consider it a type of fertiliser, that is processed by the cattle and dung beetles.

I am not sure what the future holds for our cattle enterprise on the Rock Farm, but it really all depends on what happens in the next couple of months.  Having a bit of a plan helps, even if it is a basis for change.  Hopefully it involves a lot more sitting and watching rain fall than ash and embers!  We could all do with a break.

 

Little Helper’s Holiday Project (Part 3)

I think the not-so-little helper has done a fantastic job telling the latest stage of the horse float restoration…  

The horse float restoration on the rock farm is rolling again, with some nice and cool, but still smoky days. The mornings start clear, so for a brief part of the day, we can continue working.

But almost straight away we hit a problem. It’s something Dad was thinking for a while and he came to us with his problem. The horse floats frame is made of 1-inch steel. This may seem pretty solid, but with half of it rusted, and hopefully future horses riding in it, it wouldn’t be safe. Not at all.

So, we went back to stage 1, designing.

We have found around the rock farm that Dad doesn’t have any good, solid box trailers. Or at least any 9 feet long with tandem axles. So, somehow Dad persuaded us to turn a totally terrible horse float into an okay box trailer, and his idea is kind of working.

A few days ago, the trailer was just the chassis. We stripped the trailer a day before a total fire ban, smoky and hot day, so we had to go on another small break.

Then we made a frame from 2×1 inch steel. It’s around 450 mm high and it’s really tough. Dad decided to leave us to paint it with the paint primer. Bad idea Dad, really bad idea.

It ended up even worse than I could imagine because the paint primer was bright red, and two brothers, each with paint brushes and bright red paint, does not end well.

I am still part painted red, so, yeah, fun.

Today we attempted to rivet some of the sheets onto the frame of the trailer. We haven’t even finished one sheet. ( out of the 8 we need to do. ). Out of all the things we needed to do on the trailer, putting in rivets was the one I expected least to be taxing. But I was wrong. Very wrong.

After the first 10 holes were drilled, and the rivets were shoved in, I was sweating a river and my arms had died. After that, I don’t need to explain, I think you can just imagine.

But the holidays are soon closing, and the ex-horse float will have a break. It’s going to be fun to go back to school, chill with friends, forget about study, but I will miss the days of using the grinder, or scrubbing away with a wire brush. Or at least until the next holidays.