Getting Winter Ready

As the cooler weather comes to the Rock Farm, I have been busy trying to get everything set up for winter. Whilst our country isn’t cold enough to bring the cattle into sheds or barns over winter, my main focus has been increasing our soil moisture and pasture health to ensure our cattle have plenty of feed.

After trialing rip lines on different parts of the Rock Farm, I found we had most success ripping along the contours of our slopes. With a little rain forecast recently, I took the opportunity to put some more rip lines in a small paddock near the house. The forecast 10mm fell , and it was great to see the effectiveness of the rip lines in slowing the water down and allowing it to penetrate the soil. This was particularly evident in areas where the soil is hard, compact and especially hydrophobic. I hope this will encourage pasture to grow in these areas.

Another area we have been working on our pasture and soil health is on our alluvial flats. Regular readers may recall that we recently split our 5.6Ha flat paddock into three smaller paddocks (https://rockfarming.com/2020/04/21/autumn-school-holiday-project-new-paddocks-on-the-rock-farm/). The reason for this is that the cattle were selectively grazing their favourite grasses, and leaving the less palatable weeds. By making three smaller paddocks, we encourage them to heavily graze the paddock, weeds and all. A long period of rest allows the pasture to regenerate and this technique has been shown to improve the pasture quality.

Our experiment is still in its early stages, however the initial results are promising. After putting the cattle in the first of our paddocks for a couple of weeks, they had grazed the grass and most of the weeds. After moving the cattle out of the paddock, I ran the mulcher over the paddock to knock down remaining weed heads (hopefully before they had run to seed).

Three weeks later and the grass is growing. The photo above left shows an area that a few months ago was all tall thistles. The pasture in this area is now strong and competing with young thistle plants. I spent about half an hour with the chipper just working on the odd patches of young thistles, and hopefully will prevent them from growing to seed. The cattle have been moved to the next paddock and we hope to repeat the cycle in that paddock too.

Meanwhile the rest of the farm is being rested. One of my greatest pleasures is taking walks around the farm and observing the recovery of the other pastures. The change in moisture has encouraged some species of grass, like the Cocksfoot above left, to seed. If you look closely, you will see a Ladybird making the most of the shelter. These pleasures make all the effort of living out here all worthwhile.

But it doesn’t take long for reality to bite.

I arranged for a load of pasture hay to be delivered. This hay is insurance for a dry winter or a poor spring. I also look at the hay as fertilizer. It brings nutrients onto the farm, that the cattle will process into the perfect soil food. The hay took a little longer to unload as the tractor seemed to struggle to lift and move the bales – whereas it has previously lifted bales that weigh twice as much…

There is a constant requirement for maintenance and repair on any farm, and ours is no exception. Since mulching the first paddock’s weed, the tractor’s hydraulics had become problematic. The hydraulic pump was making horrible noises, and I feared that the diagnosis of a burnt out pump or bearing would be terminal for our old tractor.

A bit of research online started to lead me towards thinking I might have a problem with the bypass valve. On our tractor this is located low on the chassis, with the hydraulic oil filter. Thankfully the former owner gave me the Owner’s Manual and a new filter when I purchased the tractor. The manual described how to replace the filter and more importantly how to clean the fine mesh of the bypass valve. The clean and new filter was an undoubted success with the tractor hydraulics performing like new again! Phew.

I should have done the maintenance before the load of hay arrived, but I was terrified I’d break something and have no means of unloading the hay. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

So now I have a shed full of winter hay, a tractor that is fully operational and paddocks that seem to be becoming more productive. I love nothing more than my ambles around the paddocks. Life is good on the Rock Farm.

Best I turn my attention to that other winter activity – harvesting some firewood.

Planting Trees and Un-bogging Tractors

One of our aims on the Rock Farm is to re-rehabilitate the soil and create a parkland type landscape, similar to what was first described in the journals of the first European explorers.  We are doing this with a mixture of native and introduced deciduous species – and last week it was time to plant some natives.

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Our back paddock has a fantastic hill, with wide views along the Yass Valley.  We have often camped up here, and enjoyed many sunsets soaking up the atmosphere of this special place.  The only problem with the hill is it has four lonely trees, three Brittle Gum (eucalyptus mannifera) and one Red Box (eucalyptus polyanthemos).  The ground however is littered with huge logs – nearly all Red Box timber, cut for firewood and fence posts many years ago. It does make for a wonderful camp fire, however it is a limited supply, and serves to remind us of what trees once stood in this special spot.

Reading Bruce Pascoe’s book  (see my review here: Book Review: Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe), I started thinking about how I could improve this part of the farm.  After our last camp, I took the tractor up to the hill, and started spreading the logs around the paddock.  I focused on placing the logs in such a way that they straddled rip lines I made back in March, and placed them to provide protection from the prevailing westerly winds.

Then it was time to plant seed.  The first batch of seeds I planted came from an ironbark (I think it is an eucalyptus sideroxylon) near our front gate.  The others were white cypress pine (callitris glaucophylla) that we collected from our visit to the Pilliga a few years ago.  The ironbark seeds were especially small.

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The seeds had been stored in paper bags for a few years and the gum-nuts had released their seed.  I cleared grass away from each site, and planted the seeds in the soil, along with some ash from our slow combustion fireplace.  I selected places nestled near the logs I had recently moved, with good sunshine and shelter from the western winds.  The last task was to mark each site with a bit of ribbon tied to a rock.

It helped that it was a glorious morning – even if the four legged helper was more interested in sniffing out rabbits than me digging holes!  As I wandered back to the house, I was able to collect some more gum-nuts from the ironbark, which I put straight into a paper bag.  I will also collect red box, black wattle and other seed in the coming weeks and attempt to re-introduce some of these trees back on this hill too.

A few days later we had an amusing series of incidents at the Rock Farm.  A poor supermarket delivery driver managed to not only get the wrong house, but he took our bottom driveway and managed to get his truck stuck.  A couple of sunny days had failed to dry out the steepest bit of this track that is in full shade all day.  After pulling him out with the tractor, I thought I would fill in the worst of the sections with some gravel that had previously washed down a culvert.  The gravel was nice and handy – but also a little close to a small dam.

The first few buckets went well.  I was me able to skim gravel from the top of the pile, with and only the front wheels dropping into the wet ground.  And then I got greedy and went back for one more bucket.  First one back wheel slipped into the goop, followed by the other and I was stuck.  Proper stuck.

Thankfully the family were all working or schooling from home, meaning help was nearby.  I knew their lunch break would be in about half an hour, so I worked like fury with a shovel trying to move as much gravel as I could under the front wheels (now lifted by the bucket).

I also moved our mighty Mitsubishi down and put it in position.  Being automatic, I figured it would be a little easier for a not-so-little helper to use to drag me out.  With the chain hooked up, the car in low range and the rear differential locked, it was time to call down the helpers (and advisers) to get me out.

Thankfully the recovery all went off without a hitch!  Best I get a load of gravel brought in to give us all weather access to our carport!  Just another job to add to the list 🙂

Book Review: Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

With the recent cold snap bringing 30mm of rain to the Rock Farm, it has been the perfect opportunity to catch up on some reading.  This review is on Dark Emu, by Bruce Pascoe.  First published in 2014, this edition was updated in 2018 and incorporates many changes that were unearthed after the book was first published.

Bruce challenges the historical narrative that the Aboriginal people of Australia were hunter gathers.  Through in depth analysis of first contact documents and evidence, Bruce asserts that the Aboriginal people were in fact farming the landscape on a broad scale.  And the scale of agriculture was vast.

Whilst the journals of the first European explorers described the fertile parkland country they passed through, they failed to appreciate the subtlety of the managed landscape.  They thought the open fertile plains were ‘a happy accident of nature’, yet in the next page described how they supplemented their supplies by raiding caches of grain stored by the Aboriginal people.

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Evidence of the management of the landscape covers the entire continent.  From the diversion of waterways to irrigate crops, to the symbiotic relationship developed between the yam daisy and people, the message is clear.  The Aboriginal people had a sophisticated agricultural economy that supported permanent or semi-permanent villages with ingenious and often labour saving technologies.

Pascoe often quotes the journals of the explorers, as it is the most authoritative evidence remaining of the landscape and its inhabitants during these turbulent years. The Explorers were often amazed at how little effort the Aboriginal people needed to exert in order to meet their daily requirements.

Within a year or two of first contact, the landscape had irrevocably changed.  Whether by the introduced cattle and sheep eating the yam daisy and other crops to local extinction, the deconstruction of fish traps to allow passage of steamers on the waterways, or through the change in fire regime, the first contact aboriginal people found themselves unable to continue their sustainable harvest from the land.  This led to conflict with European settlers,  forever and tragically shaping the future relationship.

Once facet of this book that I found interesting is that this is a book of hope.  It attempts to re-write the common narrative that the Aboriginals were unsophisticated hunter gatherers, without apportioning blame for past wrongs.  There is definitely a feeling of loss at what has passed, and occasional frustrations at ignorance from individuals who should know better, but I felt this a book of hope and reconciliation.

What does this mean for us on the Rock Farm?

This book encourages me to look at our landscape differently.  Our property has been almost completely altered being one of the earliest areas opened up.  A local history written in the 1970’s describes the last of the Aboriginal elders dying in the 1890’s.  The evidence of the first people on the Rock Farm is hard to find.

On nearby properties, ochre pits have been recognised and a relationship re-established with the Ngunnawal people.  I look more closely at the landscape now, and at the creek, and see if there is evidence of fish traps.  It will never be what it was, but our journey to restore the soil health of the Rock Farm involves the creation of a managed park land.  This will hopefully embrace some of the principles the first people used in managing their landscape…  And if like the original inhabitants, I can get the work down to a few hours a day to support my family, I’ll be really happy!

 

 

Movie Review – The Biggest Little Farm

Whilst we have been using a lot of our time in isolation to get some work done around the Rock Farm, it has also been a wonderful opportunity to take a few moments to feed our souls.  I was super excited when Jo suggested a movie@home for a date night a couple of weeks ago.  And it wasn’t just any movie – it was all about a little farm a bit like ours…

The movie is The Biggest Little Farm.  It is the inspirational story of John and Molly Chester, and their quest to create a holistic  farm from a run down orchid in California.  John, a film maker by trade, documented their journey, their struggles and their triumphs in a heart warming honest and open story.

In 2011, John and Molly bought Apricot Lane Farm, near Los Angeles with a vision of creating an well-balanced ecosystem that creates sustainable, organic farm produce.  The farm they purchased was none of these things.  The soil was dead, the trees were sick and the farm was not profitable.

The movie tracks their progress and set-backs as they attempt to restore health to the soil, establish orchids and farm animals.  It isn’t always an easy journey – but I found the movie inspirational in showing what can be achieved with a strong vision, a comprehensive plan and a willingness to go out on a limb.

The movie has caused me to pause and look at what is going on here on the Rock Farm.  I am taking more efforts to try to understand the role each plant is playing in my paddocks – even the weeds (especially the weeds).  We have a very different farm model, and different goals for our property – but there are elements I have taken that will help shape the way we manage the Rock Farm.

I encourage anyone who cares about the future of agriculture to check out the trailer – or even better, download the movie.  It is the start of a wonderful night in.  More information on John and Molly’s farm, and a link to the movie, can be found here: https://www.apricotlanefarms.com/