More trees for the Rock Farm

My first lockdown project was addressing an immediate need for nesting sites for birds that naturally nest in hollows. The second lockdown project has a much longer timeframe before we will see the rewards. Instead of building nesting boxes for trees, we were planting tube-stock trees to restore native habitat and control erosion on the Rock Farm. With a nearby nursery specialising in local species, and a forecast wet spring, the conditions seemed ideal for us to continue our efforts in planting trees.

We were fortunate to secure 110 native tube stock plants from Damien at ACT and Southern Tablelands Nursery (https://windbreaktrees.com.au/). Our plants ranged from Red Box (E. polyanthemos) and Yellow Box (E. melliodora), to others such as Grey Box (E. microcarpa), Apple Box (E. bridgesiana) and other native trees that are being trialed in our area. Given our short notice, we sadly didn’t get any Drooping Sheoak (Allocasuarina verticillata), one of the key food sources for the Glossy Black Cockatoo.

Over the next couple of days Jo and I put our tubestock in the ground. We again found the Hamilton Tree Planter invaluable, however many holes also needed a good working over with the crow-bar to open up the ground for the tap roots to penetrate. Each tree was then provided a scoop or two of mulch, and then protected, either with a tree guard or with cut branches. It was exhausting work, and whilst there are easier ways to plant trees en-masse, we were able to get them placed where we wanted for best effect.

The last couple of trees we planted we learnt about on a lap around the country a few years ago. We planted three Bunya Pines (Araucaria bidwillii) as the rain came down. Whilst they occur naturally in the Bunya Mountains in SE Queensland, there are some magnificent specimens of this tree in our region that pre-date European settlement. The Bunya Mountains was a site of many great meetings of the indigenous people for thousands of years. At these corroborees, held when the trees bore nuts every three years or so, law was made, disputes settled, marriages arranged and the seeds from the tree dispersed. It seemed that the weather wanted these trees to have the best possible start with a good shower of rain falling as we put the last ones in the ground. We might have been cold and wet, but my heart was singing.

It was extremely rewarding work, and whilst my back and shoulders were sore, I know my aches will be temporary. I hope that these trees will grow and provide shade, shelter and habitat for our native friends on the Rock Farm, whilst protecting our soil. As I sat back watching the sun set after the last tree was planted, nature put on a spectacular light show. I am sure it is a good omen.

A huge thank you to Damien at ACT and Southern Tablelands Nursery (https://windbreaktrees.com.au/) for his excellent quality tube-stock and advice. If you want one tree, or a hundred, Damien will be able to help you pick the one you need.

If you build it, they will come… I hope

A few weeks ago I caught a fleeting glimpse of a Barn Owl (Tyto Alba) hard at work reducing the local mouse population. These beautiful creatures are one of the most widespread birds of prey in the world, and I held my breath as I watched her at going about her business.

Seeing this magnificent bird got me thinking about the balance of nature, and especially what do about our population of mice. Sure I could lay poison for the rodents, but then I risked killing the owls through secondary poisoning. The problem is not too many mice, but too few birds of prey like the Barn Owl.

The biggest limitation on our population of birds here on the Rock Farm is the number of suitable nesting sites. A lot of birds nest in hollows, and unfortunately these take a long time to form naturally. Whilst the Rock Farm has been blessed with innovative and forward thinking tree planting in the past, sadly there are very few really old trees on the property. This means that nesting hollows are few and far between. This is a problem we shared with our last property, and the boys enjoyed a project there making nest boxes for cockatoos (https://rockfarming.com/2016/10/23/helping-birds-with-nesting-boxes/)

So my lockdown project was to build a nesting box for a Barn Owl.

It was a relatively simple build from some dimensions I found online. I used some old exterior paint I found in the shed to protect it for a few years. The hardest part was mounting it high enough up a tree for the birds to feel safe. I picked an Apple Box near the shed as the site of our first nest box, so I can keep an eye on who might move in.

I knew it would be a bit of a challenge lifting the large box into the tree – and given the soft nature of the ground I decided to put a harness on. Oh and I got my lovely wife to come and keep and eye on me just in case gravity got the better of me.

I must admit I was a little relieved to get back onto the ground safe and sound, with the nest box mounted securely in the tree. I hope the birds think it looks as good as I reckon it does. I hope the old adage, “if you build it, they will come” holds true.

If anyone else is looking a for lockdown project and would like to build some nesting boxes for us to mount in our trees, please let me know. We have lots of young trees that would be the perfect place to mount various sized boxes to support our avian friends.

The battle for Daisy (again) – Update

Having started work before the sun, I have been eagerly awaiting a phone call from Jo or the kids to give me an update on the condition of Daisy or her calf. I was still processing the events from the previous day, and had woken this morning with sore muscles in all sorts of unexpected places.

Overnight we had conducted a stock-take of our powdered milk supplies, and hunted around for our poddy calf bottle and teat. We were worried that either Daisy or her calf, or both would die overnight. It was a cold and bitter night, with some more rain in the mix. Jo came to the conclusion that it was foolish to name our cattle, and vowed never to name them again. We feared the worst.

It seems no one was keen to make their way to the yards to check on Daisy and her calf the following morning. Jo eventually made her way down, apparently checking everything else on her way to the yards. The rest of the cows had water, check. Their calves were all accounted for, check. The tractor and next bale of hay were ready to go in the shed, check. Finally it was time to check the yards… and initially Jo feared the worst because she couldn’t see Daisy or her calf.

Then she got closer, and found Daisy up and on her feet, with her beautiful heifer suckling at her udder. She called me in delight to give me the good news.

The Vet, Dr Jack from Bungendore arrived a short time later, and gave Daisy and her calf a thorough going over. He gave Daisy a slow acting antibiotic to treat a small tear. He checked out her calf, and gave her a clean bill of health, and a name… Buttercup.

I guess it is all in a name after-all. Welcome to the Rock Farm Buttercup. 🙂

The Battle for Daisy (again)….

A rainy day is welcome any time on the Rock Farm – especially now the days are noticeably longer and the ground is starting to warm up. We now have 8 beautiful calves on the ground. However the old adage, ‘you don’t have livestock without dead stock’ held true. We lost one calf during a particularly long and difficult labour for my favourite maiden heifer, Uno. The loss of the calf was heart-breaking, and we felt the mournful ‘moo’ from Uno deeply.

A rainy day is good for taking stock of things around the farm, and catching up on my blog. However no sooner had I written the paragraph above and my day turned around. By the end of it we were in a desperate struggle to save one of our beautiful girls.

The first event that dragged me outside into the wet was to lend a hand to our neighbour, who needed help with a new water tank delivery. It turned into quite the adventure, with the driveway turned to mush, and the creek (moat?) running deep and fast. The initial plan was to drag the tank delivery truck to the site with the tractor, but when we saw how low his trailer was, we realised it would float downstream on the crossing. Plan B was put into place, which involved rolling the ten thousand gallon, 800kg tank onto the back of Myrtle. This went remarkably well, and we soon had the new tank deposited in our neighbours paddock. Remarkable because no trucks or tractors got bogged during this evolution.

In my dash down to the shed to get the tractor, and then swap it for the truck, I had noticed that Daisy was in labour. When we had done with our unloading, I checked on Daisy again and my heart sank. Daisy somehow managed to beat all the odds when she was born. And despite all my reasoning to sell her, she somehow seemed to have very vocal allies on her side. The whole challenge to save her when she was born can be found here: https://rockfarming.com/2019/09/04/the-battle-for-daisy-rescuing-a-calf-on-the-rock-farm/

Protruding from Daisy’s rear was one hoof and a calf head, with its tongue hanging out. The calf’s tongue was a blueish colour, and there were no signs of life. I knew we had to get her in the yards, try to pull the calf and see if we could save Daisy. Despite our efforts, Daisy had no desire to leave her friends. It took all of us a lot of initially gentle and then more forceful encouragement to get her in the yards. By the time we got her safely secured in the crush, we were all exhausted.

Once in the yards, the real battle for survival began. We used this rope squeeze technique to lay her down. The reason for laying her down was that she can push a lot harder lying down. The next thing to do was to find out what was wrong. By now the cold was seeping through my wet clothes, and I was acutely aware of how cold it was now the sun was setting. Jo kindly brought down a bucket of warm water from the house, some old towels and some ropes. I tried to recall any snippets of advice from a childhood reading James Herriot, but sadly not much was coming. I figured it must be like helping lambs, but only bigger…

A gentle examination revealed only one leg was showing. The other leg was folded back – meaning the calf would never come. It was time to call an expert. Our first phone call was to our vet. The next was to another expert – my father. His advice was really simple – before you can pull the calf out, you’ve got to push it back in to re-align the leg. So – against nature, and the vice like grip of the contractions, I pushed the calf back into Daisy, and desperately felt around for a leg. I was on the point of giving up when I found it. That was the easy bit. Getting it to point the right direction was not so. Eventually we got there, and with both legs aligned, it took a few more tugs and our calf was born.

I was relieved that we had saved Daisy (again), but feeling sad about the calf when the calf opened its eyes and gave a breath. It was alive! My heart skipped a beat, and we quickly rubbed it down with the towels and put her next to a thoroughly exhausted but interested mum. Daisy had given birth to a beautiful little heifer.

As I write, they are safely tucked out of the wind in the yards. I still don’t know if either Daisy or her calf will survive the night, but we figured it was time to let them work it out by themselves. We called the vet and cancelled the late night call, but arranged for them to come out first thing to check on their progress. Time will tell if we have beaten the odds, or delayed the inevitable. But that is how things go on a farm. Things can turn around so quickly. And as hard as it can be, it helps me feel alive.

Comings and Goings on The Rock Farm

As we join the rest of our state in returning to lockdown, It would be nice to say our family has had a great opportunity to sit down and reflect on the journey that led us to choosing to make our life out here on our 100 acre hobby farm. However due to colleagues having to isolate, my regular work has fallen on fewer shoulders, meaning I haven’t had the opportunity to spend anywhere near enough time on the Rock Farm as I would like. I am very aware that we are extremely fortunate to be able to call this small patch of land home, and I hope by sharing our story during this testing time, I might bring some joy to our followers around the world.

Life on the Rock Farm continues to beat to its own schedule. Cattle continue to find their way into the wrong paddocks, machinery breaks, and trees fall on fences. But the Rock Farm continues to recharge my soul. Today my story is about the cattle and some of the comings and goings over the past few weeks.

Regular readers will know I deliberated holding last year’s calves over winter. With a wetter than average forecast, it made sense to hold them, even if we were feeding out a bit of hay. But a few weeks ago, we decided that the new calves were due, and it was time to move our weaners on. We had five steers and five heifers from last year, however I was given very stern orders that one of the heifers – named Zoe – was not to be sold.

With all the family in town at work and school (just before the lockdown), I asked our neighbour to give me a hand to bring the weaners into the yards. I was able to draft them out of the paddock with the cows easily enough, but really appreciated Stuart’s assistance to bring the young cattle into the yards. The added bonus of this arrangement was that Stuart had agreed to buy the four remaining heifers. It was also the perfect time for three two-year-old maiden heifers that had been running with our herd to make their way to their new home. I was absolutely thrilled to know that all of the girls would be going to such caring owners – and that I would still be able to feed them the odd apple over the fence! We soon drafted the small herd, and walked the girls down the lane.

Being such a small producer with full time careers, we are unable to establish a pasture to plate relationship with butchers or other local markets. We also don’t generally have the feed to finish our cattle on grass. This means that we usually sell our cattle to the local livestock exchange at Yass. This year we sent five steers in to a regular sale, and their average weight was 331kg. It was a bitter sweet moment to see the steers leave the property – but it was definitely time to move them on – because the other news of the week was that the next generation of calves had begun to arrive!

Whilst I might be back to our ideal stock rate of 15 cows (plus Zoe of course), the next generation have started to drop. Precisely 285 days after the bull joined the herd, we had our first calf. There is something magical about seeing the new calves on the ground. Their gentle mothers give me a shake of their head if I look like approaching too close, especially for the first day or two. After they find their feet, the calves are often found in a creche with one cow on supervision duties. They especially love napping in a sunny spot out of the wind. Zoe has settled back in with the the herd also – if you want to know which one Zoe is, she is the one who gave me a kiss in the last blog: https://rockfarming.com/2021/08/01/winter-planning-on-the-rock-farm/

This year, for the first time, one of my favourite cows, Margurite, gave us the most unexpected gift. Twins! Twin calves are not only unusual in cattle, but the mother often rejects one of them. We watched pretty closely for the first couple of days, but Margurite seemed more than happy to accept the duties of looking after both of them.

So be warned – lots of calf photos to follow!

Please stay safe and look after yourselves. We are surrounded by wonderful neighbours who are keeping an eye out for us. We are also fortunate to have regular jobs and meals on the table. For friends who read this – if you’re are finding the going a little tough, please reach out. I hope you enjoyed this little update.

Winter Planning on the Rock Farm

Winter on the Rock Farm this year has been remarkable, with steady rain creating a beautiful slushy feel when walking around the paddocks. With the rain has come plenty of cool overcast days, and some thoroughly miserable windy days. But the rain has also kept the frosts mostly at bay, and this means the grass is still growing, albeit slowly. The cattle all seem to have recovered from the curse of Mavis (https://rockfarming.com/2021/07/10/curse-of-mavis-mange-mite/), and the cows are definitely starting to look uncomfortable with their growing bellies.

Regular readers will be aware I decided to hold last spring’s calves over winter. I have been using a couple of tools to help me determine my strategy. The first is Farming Forecaster (https://farmingforecaster.com.au/). This tool, supported by Local Land Services and CSIRO examines soil moisture profiles at numerous sites. All the sites near the Rock Farm show we are in an exceptional season, with unusually high pasture growth forecast for spring. Whilst most of the sites nearby run merino sheep, there are useful graphs on forecast livestock weight. The model predicts steady increases in stock weight until around the first week in August before a steady decline, associated with lambing.

Farming Forecaster estimates our pasture is growing at around 4-5 kg/ha/day – which is not enough to feed all my hungry mouths entirely. To help me determine the balance required, I use the Local Land Services “Drought and Supplementary Feed Calculator“(DAFSC) app (https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/animals-and-livestock/nutrition/feeding-practices/drought-and-supplementary-feed-calculator). This app takes into account the amount of pasture I estimate I have, and allows me to develop a ration to meet the nutritional requirements of the cattle. Practically this means it allows me to calculate how much hay I need to feed the cattle for them to maintain condition. My theory is, if I leave it long enough for me to recognise the cows have lost weight, I have left it too late.

These calculations have allowed me to more accurately determine my supplementary feed requirements. I am feeding out a small round bale of pasture hay to the cattle every couple of days. The cattle love the sound of the tractor starting up. Their antics as I try to work past them into the paddock to unroll the bales make me laugh. I had put a couple of bales on the back of the truck – to allow the family to roll out the hay if I wasn’t there to drive the tractor, but it was more effort than it was worth. Only the hound seemed to think it was a good idea!

The winter hasn’t been entirely incident free. On one of my daily checks the cattle came running up to me – to let me know the frost (or one of their friends) had knocked the float valve off the trough. Thankfully nothing was broken, and after going and getting a couple of tools and some fresh silicone tape, I was able to get their water flowing.

One of my favourite winter past times is the early morning walks on the Rock Farm. In the still morning fog, the dam takes on an other worldly feel. The crisp crunch of the frosty grass underfoot and the silent flight of a barn owl make such moments exhilarating. After checking on the cattle, it is lovely to retreat back to the warmth of the house for a morning cuppa and cuddle on the couch.