It all starts with ‘why?’

There are some fantastic workshops, courses and field visits open to landowners in New South Wales for people to develop their skills and knowledge to help make their farming enterprises more healthy, and profitable. To get the most out of these opportunities it is important to understand your vision, or your ‘why’. I am in the middle of a Farm Planning Workshop hosted by the Local Land Services. This was the very first question we were asked to consider – and perhaps the most difficult to answer.

I was thankful for the reason to re-examine our vision for the Rock Farm. We haven’t updated our vision statement since I commenced this blog back in 2016. From casting my eyes back over it as we started our farm planning workshop, it was clear our vision needs updating.

Our vision is for sustainable and ecologically sound stewardship of our property, that creates an income and food source for us in an environment that encourages our beautiful boys to grow into gorgeous men. We hope to share this knowledge with others interested in creating a sustainable and healthy future.

The first thing that struck me in re-visiting our vision is that we have moved from sustainable to regenerative in our approach. We don’t just want to maintain our land in its current state, but we want to improve it during our stewardship and set the property up for continual improvement into the future. We want to improve our soil health and fertility. We also want to increase the biodiversity of the plants and animals that live here through creating areas of habitat. We have also come to understand that community and social responsibility are also a key elements of our vision. Oh and you might have guessed, I love managing livestock and Jo loves growing vegetables.

We haven’t got the words yet for our new vision but we have most of the elements of it identified. Through creating a vision statement, we will have a lens through which we can approach all the wonderful learning opportunities that are available to us. It allows us to identify which elements of the books, courses and workshops are relevant to our enterprise, and which aren’t. Perhaps more importantly, it allows us to acknowledge other people’s visions. We can respect that their visions may be different to ours, and this will therefore shape the approach they take to their land management.

I have just discovered a fantastic podcast by Charlie Arnott which will help us define our vision. Charlie interviews some amazing people interested in regenerative agriculture, healthy soils and healthy food from around the world. We have found inspiration in many of his guest’s books or stories. Sometimes it is hard to find the words that best fit what we are trying to achieve on our small farm. To hear Charlie and his guests explain their stories helps us understand that our journey is far from unique. I cannot recommend this podcast enough – especially when he interviews one of our neighbours in episode 15. Please check out Charlie Arnott’s excellent podcast here: https://charliearnott.com.au/podcast/

Of course Sapphire knows her ‘why’. It is her job to make sure the fire doesn’t go out, keep rabbits out of the garden, occasionally ask the cattle to hurry up through a gate and make sure Dad doesn’t run into a tree whilst checking the fences!

Improving water infrastructure

You may recall that I recently spoke of the difficulties in leaving the Rock Farm for a few days. The preparations to depart on a holiday can be challenging – especially with livestock who have an uncanny ability to know when they’re unsupervised! I won’t continue the similarities with livestock and children, suffice to say they both seem to know when the adults are not around!

In January we managed to get away for a week. Our holiday was wonderful, but it wasn’t all good when we got home. The Cattle had managed to destroy the float valve in the old bathtub water trough in their paddock. Whilst the backup water supply in the dam held water, it was apparent I needed to upgrade the old bath tub to something more substantial.

With another family visit to Queensland on the cards at Easter, I knew it was time to make a significant change to our water situation. It was a two part solution. Reducing demand and improving the infrastructure.

The first stage was to reduce demand through the sale of our weaners. With special weaner sales at our local yards, we sold all our steers and some of our heifers. The young steers weighed a surprising 290kg average – far exceeding my 250kg estimate. We kept four heifers to add to our herd and sold the rest. This takes our breeding cows to 20. This is well within our soil fertility envelope (next blog entry) – but close to my comfortable maximum.

With the proceeds of the sale being, I moved to the second stage, infrastructure upgrade. My plan was to install a new concrete water trough to provide a more reliable water supply. I also wanted to move the trough down hill from the header tank – to provide better water pressure and improve reliability. I figured it would be easy to find the pipe… but how wrong I was.

My water divining rods suggested one place to dig… and then another. By the end of it I had followed pipes all over the place and dug trenches all to no avail. I spent nearly all day digging an ever expanding trench. The dog soon realised that to get my attention, she needed to drop her stick in the hole for me to throw it… There was a very dark cloud hanging over The Rock Farm as the shadows lengthened. In desperation I ran the tractor’s ripper back and forth – but it didn’t seem to find the pipe either. In frustration, I called it a night.

The following morning, I reluctantly returned to the scene of my digging to find water everywhere! The rippers had just run across the top of the pipe! I have never been so happy to find a broken pipe. I quickly turned the pump off, and raced to the rural supply shop to pick up the new trough and fittings.

From there it was relatively easy. My biggest worry was that the tractor would struggle to lift the 730kg water trough out of the trailer, but that was no problem at all. After a bit of work with the levels (and the astute eyes will see I still have a little work to do), it was relatively easy to plumb in the new fittings, repair the leak and fill the trough.

The cattle are happy with the new arrangement. Whilst some studies suggest they perform better on clean trough water instead of water from dams, my main aim was to reduce my maintenance requirements. It was not a cheap investment – but it should last a lifetime.

Weaning Cattle – Autumn 2022

Last year we weaned our calves late, and kept them over winter due to the exceptional season we were having. We made it work, partly because of the abundance of feed, and partly because we were rebuilding our numbers to around 15 breeding cows (https://rockfarming.com/2021/06/06/weaning-on-the-rock-farm/).

This year we have chosen a slightly different tact. We have decided to wean our calves before winter, to reduce the nutrition requirements for the cows, and to reduce the pressure on our pastures. The final stimulus however came when I saw there was a special weaner sale upcoming at our local sale yards – which spurned us to action.

Always eager to continue to improve our weaning system, I consulted a couple of wiser and more experienced heads than mine. John explained that he taught the calves to eat hay, buy first putting them in the yards with their mothers. The cows feed from the hay and teach the calves to eat it too. My other mentor Mac explained that the fences have to keep the calves from getting back to their mothers. They don’t have to stop the cows getting back to their calves!

We brought all the cattle into the yards, and spent a couple of days feeding them. The cows who were with us during the drought remembered the sound of the tractor (Pavlov could just as easily have done his conditioning experiments with hungry cattle!). We gave them access to a small paddock adjoining the yards giving them plenty of space to spread out.

A couple of days later we drafted the cows back to another adjoining paddock / lane where they could feed, but come back and visit the calves when they desired. The weaners all then got the latest fashion accessory (a beautiful white NLIS ear-tag). This RFD chipped tag allows the animals and their meat products to be traced back to the Rock Farm. This helps ensure Australian Beef is internationally recognised as being fully traceable throughout the entire supply chain.

The first few hours of separation saw calves and cows happily feeding, however by evening time, the udders filled. The cows returned to the yards and bellowed at the calves, and the calves bellowed at their mothers. This process repeated morning and night for around a week or so, but the intensity reduced quickly – and I felt it didn’t take long for me to feel that the cows were more interested in the hay I was delivering and not the calves!

The hardest part then came in choosing which weaners get on the truck and go to sale. In the end we sold all seven of the steers, and four of the heifers. The steers averaged 290kg, which was a great result considering they were only 7 months old or so. We kept four heifers, bringing our total head on the Rock Farm to 20. Our present holding comprises of 15 cows, 1 maiden heifer due to calve this spring, and our latest 4 weaner heifers.

We will reassess our stock holdings in Spring, but will be likely to sell some cow and calf units before next Summer. It all depends on rainfall, which is our largest determinant of carrying capacity (despite what the fertiliser company tells me). Whilst I love our cattle, I am also very conscious of being a custodian of the soil, and I need to put the need of the soil first. Healthy soil will lead to healthy cattle.

Special thanks to John and Mac for the advice, and a shout out to Jimmy and Kylie who loaded and trucked our weaners to the sale yards in my absence.

Support for total newbies on small farms

Recently many people have chosen to leave the cities and move to the country. The ‘tree change’ phenomenon is nothing new, and many people relish the new lifestyle and opportunities that come from moving to acreage. For some, it is returning to their roots, however for many it is a new experience living on acres. They quickly find that there is so much more to it than ‘buying a few sheep to keep the grass down’. It can feel confusing and overwhelming, but it is great to know that there is support available for newbies.

The most important thing to understand is your ‘why?’. If you are able to understand why you want to live on acres and what you want to achieve on your block, then you are half way there.

If you haven’t yet made the decision to move out to acres, you may like my previous posts about some of the benefits and drawbacks of living on a hobby farm. Whilst my kids have grown since these posts, the issues haven’t changed – except perhaps fuel now takes up an even larger part of our budget. If you have already moved to acres, you may find some of the following information useful.

Firstly there is nothing wrong with being a total newbie. Nearly all of us have been there, and can remember how it felt the first time we realised that small farms doesn’t necessarily mean small problems…

What support is available?

Neighbours are a great source of information. They may have years of experience living in the area, or may be newbies like you. If you’re able to establish and maintain good relationships with your neighbours, it will help you feel comfortable in your new home – especially in times of crisis. It is worth investing in building this relationship – and you might find you share ideas, knowledge, labour, equipment and friendship.

Local Land Services is a NSW government agency, funded through landholder’s rates. Their aim is to help people make better decisions about the land they manage, to ensure profitable and sustainable rural and regional communities. I have found them to be a wealth of knowledge, with some great resources available online and through workshops. The LLS information is easy to digest and applicable for the largest landowners down to small hobby farms. (Edit: A great guide specifically for small land owners that I found particularly useful is the Rural Living Handbook available here: https://www.lls.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/1147804/Rural-Living-Handbook-2020.pdf)

Specifically the LLS provide help and advice dealing with:

  • Livestock health and production
  • Biosecurity
  • Pests, weeds and diseases
  • Emergencies such as natural disasters
  • Native vegetation

Each LLS region publish a quarterly newsletter with relevant local information and workshops. Through a LLS program, I arranged for free soil tests, and am currently half way through a two day workshop on how to interpret my soil test results and what they mean.

Small Farm Networks is a network of small farm landowners and provides advice and support for people who live on or manage rural and -peri-urban land for primary production, biodiversity or lifestyle goals. They host a number of really useful workshops and webinars, from preparing your property for bushfire threat, to grass identification field days. What I really like about their program is that it particularly relevant for people like us who only have small herds of animals. I also find they host some really innovative and interesting guests. A lot of the presentations are now held online via zoom, and this flexibility has allowed me to attend far more meetings that I could previously.

Another great community organisation is Landcare. Landcare aims to demonstrate best practices that improve soil and water health whilst maintaining of increasing biodiversity. There are many local groups around Australia who can provide advise and support. Our local chapter hosts regular meetings dealing with topics ranging from invasive weeds to salinity. I have always found the guest speakers informative and engaging.

Sustainable Farms is an initiative of the Australian National University (ANU). This organisation employs a team of ecologists who conduct long-term biodiversity surveys on farms to understand the role of natural assets. I recently attended a field day about enhancing farm dams for biodiversity and water quality outcomes near Goulburn. Hosted by Landcare in conjunction with Sustainable Farms I found the day inspiring, with practical solutions that improve outcomes for farm production and biodiversity outcomes.

Greening Australia is a non for profit organisation committed to restoring Australia’s diverse landscapes and protecting biodiversity and ways that benefit communities, economies and nature. We have found them to be extremely supportive of our attempts to improve biodiversity outcomes through various programs, most recently with the donation of tube-stock to stabilise our creek banks and improve water quality – see my post here.

Each town or village has a range of other community groups and associations. Our village has a population of just over 1000 people in the 2016 census, however proudly supports over 30 community groups. From the Film Society that screens movies monthly in the village hall, to the Men’s Shed, Historical Society and various sporting teams, each group represents an opportunity to meet other people in the area. We are exceptionally proud of our community, but I know our village is not unique. All across Australia each town and village has networks of people who are proud of their community and the people in it. Being involved in these groups encourages me to associate with people from different walks of life. Their perspectives provide a fresh lens to view my situation and I welcome the new ideas.

One group that has developed is an informal group of around 50 landowners in our area interested in Regenerative Land Management. Social media allows us to share ideas and organise visits at each other’s properties. We were humbled to host the group recently at the Rock Farm. We had some great conversations and this has led to us harnessing some other skill sets within to group to help us develop farm plans.

What I have learnt is that some of the best ideas come from people who are unshackled by convention and follow their passion. By reaching out to as many groups as you can, you will find the support you need to help you achieve your goals. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Take what resonates with your ‘why’. It is a glorious wonderful journey and you won’t regret it for a moment.

A disadvantage of living on a hobby (any?) farm

Regular readers know how much I love living on the Rock Farm. I find great joy in the raising of livestock, planting of trees and improving the amenity and functionality of our farm. Through the pandemic, we have considered ourselves extremely fortunate to be custodians of this 100 acres of farmland. We have used the isolation periods to get some projects done, spent hours walking around the paddocks and even gone on camping ‘holidays’ in the back paddock. These adventures have been wonderful, and no doubt my friends in the city have looked enviously at our relative freedoms. However before you all rush out and join the hill-change, it is fair to warn you living on a hobby far does have one significant drawback.

The recent school holidays brought this disadvantage into sharp focus. It can be hard to leave – for even a few days.

With travel restrictions easing across most of the country, we were determined to head north and catch up with some of our family during the school break. We had a limited window of opportunity in the second half of January to get away for a week…. but the planning for our break away started much earlier than that.

Livestock have an uncanny ability to know when you are not around. Being a shift-worker we recently changed from a two day / two night pattern to an alternating arrangement with blocks of three day shifts and two nights. And the cattle sensed the change too. For some reason, on my third day shift, the wheels come off on the Rock Farm.

It is always on the third day that the water trough leaks, or a calf gets through a fence, or the bull gets in with the neighbour’s cattle…. or any other myriad of crisis that require intervention. And it is not just cattle. It can be that the pump stops working meaning the toilets in the house won’t flush – and by default the cattle run out of water. Or the car starts making a new noise, or a chook gets sick, or a branch falls on a fence – or a road. I think you get the picture.

This gives you some idea about the things going through my head contemplating heading away for a good week and a half. It required military level planning – and generous neighbours.

Thankfully we are blessed with wonderful neighbours, who offered to take Sapphire – our almost useful dog – in and treat her as one of their own. Our neighbours also kindly agreed to feed and water our hens during our absence.

But it was the cattle that needed the most thought. They needed to be in a paddock with good water, good fences and good feed. And this was the problem. I had such a paddock, in reserve since September for just this purpose. The only problem was that we had also planted around 130 trees in the paddock, and they required a tree guard to protect them.

You may recall in my last post that we had started building a fence to protect our one hectare native habitat reserve…. Well that was in the same paddock I was reserving for our trip – and it needed to be finished.

One solid days work with all four of us working had the star pickets hammered home, with wire strung and mesh clipped on. The new fence looked great. The next day I spent restoring the defunct electric fence system to operational – and the paddock was ready. Just in time.

With good water in the paddock we weren’t relying on our temperamental electric pump to supply a water trough. The Not-So-Smart helper proved the electric fence was operating with his hand. I also hoped there was enough feed to keep the cattle safe and happy until our return.

And they were – but they mobbed me on our return, bellowing and asking to be moved to a new paddock, which I obliged. 30 seconds later the pandemonium was over…

Our holiday was well worth the efforts to get away. We caught up with family and friends, swam in the surf and even braved the crowds at Wet’n’Wild. It was important to remind us how much we love a good road trip.

It also provided a new issue to contemplate. How to set the property up for super low maintenance such that a keen teenage neighbour could keep an eye on it for some pocket money.

If we solve that problem, we will have the best of both worlds. We will be able to live in a truely beautiful place, without it becoming a burden. We will let you know how it turns out.

A new opportunity and a “Green Christmas”

In my last post I informed you that I had some exciting news. I was invited to join a group of local land owners (custodians) who, like me, are interested in regenerative agriculture. The aim of the group is to share knowledge and experience whilst also joining a community of people who have a desire to improve their land. None of us are full time farmers, which frees us from the constraint of having to make a living from our land, however does limit the time we can put into repairing the soils of our properties. The group was established by Cate, and our first gathering was generously hosted by Marty on his nearby property.

Marty brought his knowledge of natural sequence farming and showed us how he had been changing the hydrology of his property. At the highest points of his block, Marty had built shallow ponds, which he filled using water from a large dam lower in the property. The ponds allowed water to enter the soil and hydrate the land, with a solar pump and float switches keeping the ponds filled. As we walked downhill, we crossed swales that Marty had built along contours, slowing surface water and allowing it to enter the soil. Beside these Marty had planted banks of trees. At the bottom of the hill in old gullies, Marty had built leaky weirs, which slowed the water and again hydrated the landscape. Gorgeous Belted Galloway cattle grazed the paddocks in a rotational program. It was a wonderful afternoon and I look forward to sharing more ideas with the group into the future.

In such a wet year, the impact of our changes to the landscape are hard to tell. It is easy to convince ourselves that the fantastic condition of the landscape is the result of good management, allowing us to make the most of every drop of rain. It is really hard to know, with over 900mm falling on our farm this year (our average rainfall is closer to 650mm), the property looks fantastic. As we approached New Years Eve, the dryer weather has seen the grass turn to its typical golden summer hues, but it remains plentiful.

Over the past few years when the property was in drought, I spent several hours on the tractor putting rip lines in our paddocks along contours to assist in allowing rainfall to penetrate the subsoil. Once the soil settled, the rip lines could be easily seen as lines of green across the hills (see link: https://rockfarming.com/2019/11/02/update-on-trees-and-rip-lines/). This year, the whole hillsides are a mass of grass, and the rip lines have all but disappeared from view.

The quantity of grass is amazing, and the cattle have been unable to keep up with the growth. After the cattle have rotated out of the paddocks on our flats, I have slashed them to knock down any thistles. This also assists in breaking down the phalaris stalks (like a mulch). The paddocks have quickly recovered with the grass regrowing quickly.

The school holidays have also allowed me to make the most of some cheap available labour! Regular readers might recall in August we planted around eighty trees in an erosion gully (https://rockfarming.com/2021/08/31/more-trees-for-the-rock-farm/). A few weeks later, we planted another fifty or so in the same area. These school holidays we plan to fence around 1 hectare in this 5.5 hectare paddock to create a native vegetation habitat zone. This paddock has been off-limits to the cattle since we planted the trees, but I am fast approaching the time I need to rotate the cattle through here. With a bit of help from our neighbour’s augur, we soon had the seven strainer posts set in the ground. We will bang in the star pickets and run the wire in the next few weeks, allowing us to re-use the “tank paddock” again.

The cattle are in good condition – and revelling in the fact we are enjoying a “Green Christmas”. Our leased bull has returned to his home – after a brief excursion through two fences to our neighbour’s. That is a whole other story, along the lines of “little farms doesn’t always mean little problems”.

It has been a remarkable and challenging year for many of our friends. We consider ourselves so fortunate to live on our little hobby farm / sanctuary. Whilst it hasn’t all been easy on the Rock Farm, and at times it the list of projects feels a bit overwhelming, we do love it out here.

Sapphire and I would love to wish all of our readers best wishes for the New Year. We hope that 2022 is the year we can open up the Rock Farm to share it with you all.

Making the most of the season.

This cool wet summer is glorious. The grass continues to grow, the cattle are fat and rainy days mean inside jobs are slowly being worked through. The rain also means we are able to continue to grow and develop the Rock Farm with a couple of little projects.

I was really excited to get going on our first project – having placed an order almost 18 months ago. With such a magnificent body of water in our dam, it seemed like a good idea to stock our dam with some fish. Last week we took delivery of 500 Silver Perch (bidyanus bidyanus) fingerlings from Alan at Jamberoo Aquaculture (http://www.silverperch.com.au).

The silver perch is a medium sized native fish found in the Murray Darling Basin. This means that should our dam overflow and fish escape, they will enter their natural habitat. Sadly today the silver perch are functionally extinct in the Murrumbidgee river system, which our local creek eventually joins. Indeed in the last 40 years wild silver perch populations have collapsed, with only a small pocket surviving in the mid reaches of the Murray River. The fish do not breed in dams or other impounded water supplies.

The fish arrived in great shape, and quite a lot larger than we expected. In a couple of years they should be plate size – if the cormorant who has taken to camping on the dam wall doesn’t get them first. To give the fish half a chance, I put some old pipes in the dam to give the fish some shelter should they want it.

In another part of the farm, we have been watching oaks come out of the ground. We planted a range of acorns last May and around 70% have sprouted and are doing well (https://rockfarming.com/2021/05/16/more-trees-planted-on-the-rock-farm/). I was sharing my progress with a colleague at work, when he invited me to collect a number of oak seedlings that had come up under some oaks growing at his place to fill in my gaps. There were hundreds of little oaks all competing for lights, and I quickly filled all the punnets I had brought. What I didn’t expect was some much taller saplings also looking for a new home. I harvested three buckets of tall saplings and hurried home.

I soon had the new seedlings and taller saplings in the ground. Hopefully they make the most of the rain forecast this week.

I spent an hour or so weeding around the seedlings, and mulched around these young trees. This really is the most ideal season to get them established. Knowing how many oak seedlings I left behind, I will be going back to get some more soon.

A shout out to CK for the beautiful trees and Alan and Jamberoo Aquaculture for the beautiful fish! It sure makes the sunset photos even more special overlooking the dam with it’s new inhabitants and sharp eyes may spot the oak saplings in the tree guards on the right behind the dam.

My next post has some exciting news – and I can’t wait to share it with you. There are some wonderful people in our local region doing some exceptional things on their farms, and I had the privilege to join some of them to hear their stories and how they are also pursuing the goals of healing their land.

A wet spring – getting some science on

James Rebanks in English Pastoral described the role of the farmer as one of close observation. Through examination of the interconnectedness of the landscape, Rebanks explains how farmers are able to build an intimate knowledge of every aspect of their farm. It requires farmers to walk their paddocks, getting their hands in the dirt, and examining the second and third order effects from their management decisions. It takes a lifetime to learn.

I don’t have a lifetime of experience behind me, nor do I have the time I would like to devote to unravelling this mystery. So I have to take a slightly different approach, and one method I can use to increase my understanding of my soil health is have soil samples analysed in a scientific laboratory.

I hope the analysis of our soil will answer one of the questions I have from an observation of the cattle’s behaviour. When I move them from a lush grassy paddock to another lush grassy paddock, the cattle seem to have a preference to chew the leaves from young elm suckers if they are present. This could be the cattle seeking roughage, or it could be seeking a mineral that the deep rooted elms have in their leaves that is lacking in the grass. Pat Coleby is a firm believer that the animals know which minerals they need, and their behaviour could be a clue to a mineral deficiency.

We had soil tests conducted not long after we moved to the not-so-rocky Rock Farm (https://rockfarming.com/2018/05/07/soil-analysis-results-are-in/) , so you can imagine when I saw the Local Land Services was offering a soil test program, I leapt at the chance to get onboard. It was three and a half years since our last test was conducted, and I am keen to see if there is a discernible difference in our results since we became custodians of our the 40 hectare Rock Farm.

The soil samples require multiple (around 30) 100mm cores to be taken along a transect. I chose two different areas, the first on our river flats, and the second on our shale slopes. Along the flats, the rod was easy to push in the required 100mm. On the slopes, the soil was barely more than 50mm thick, and I had to try really hard to find enough samples that met the 100mm requirement. After I had filled the buckets, I mixed the soil thoroughly, before bagging around 1.5kg of soil for testing. The colour difference in the soil samples was remarkable, but not unsurprising.

Since we bought this Rock Farm, we have not applied fertiliser to these paddocks. Our first two years experienced very low rain fall, and the last 18 months have seen much higher than average rainfall. We initially grazed sheep on the property, before buying our first cattle in May 2018. We sold our last sheep in January 2020 – just before the drought broke.

Instead of purchasing fertiliser, I have been happy to supplement the stock’s feed as required, bringing in hay and other feed as required, using the philosophy “If you want to run ten cows, feed ten cows until you can run ten cows.

We have also practiced cell grazing or rotational grazing. This means we graze a paddock heavily for around a week or so, before resting the paddock for as long as I can. I have around 13 rotations that I cycle the cattle through, meaning each area is only visited every three months or so. It doesn’t always work that way – some sections are significantly larger and have better water supplies, keeping the cattle happy for more than a week, and others they chew out after a couple of days. I also want to keep the grass around the house short in preparation for fire season, meaning this area is eaten out more than the others.

One variable I am not sure how will be reflected in the results is soil carbon. We scored between 3 and 3.6% on our last results, and whilst advocates of rotational grazing claim it increases the amount of organic carbon in the soil, field experience is lacking (https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/land/topic/soil-carbon-dynamics). Soil carbon does increase the capacity of the soil to store moisture – but the amount of carbon may also be linked to soil moisture meaning rainfall may be the biggest factor in affecting our soil carbon levels. I will be particularly interested in this element of the analysis.

Either way, I am looking forward to the test results. Of course the ones who gain most benefit from healthy nutritious soils are completely oblivious of the science behind their condition.

The good news is they are fat as fools, healthy and happy. They show passing interest in a mineral lick I have available for them, which I take as a good sign. And it is such a pleasure moving them through the farm, especially when the grass reaches their bellies.

A busy spring – marking calves on the Rock Farm and a new boy arrives.

After helping Daisy give birth to Buttercup, the rest of the cows all delivered healthy calves – with the exception of Miss Steak. Miss Steak was on notice, having missed delivering what would have been her second calf last year. Whilst normal commercial operators might have culled her immediately, we were happy to give her a second chance. It seemed our faith was misplaced. Whilst Miss Steak was in rather rotund condition, she didn’t appear to be in calf.

By the 5th of September we had 14 beautiful calves on the ground from the 14 other cows. The maths wasn’t quite that simple, with Uno loosing her calf, and Margurite having twins, but overall it was a pretty good result. After giving Miss Steak another week or so, we decided to mark the calves.

Marking the calves young serves two purposes. The calves are much easier to handle, and the boys are able to be castrated using rubber marking rings. I recruited Master 14 to help with the process. After I vaccinated the calves with a 5 in 1 vaccine, Master 14 was given the job of sliding the rubber rings over the bull calf’s testicles. He really didn’t like it, squirming and wincing and generally doing the whole thing with his eyes closed, which I found hilarious. After we had marked our calves we tallied 7 heifers and 7 steers, with Master 14 looking more cross-eyed than all the boys put together.

With steady and regular rain falling, we moved into September with the promise of solid growth in our pasture. The rain also was causing the weeds and thistles to grow. I took advantage of Master 16’s eagerness to earn money to upgrade his mountain bike by using his willing lockdown labour to chip out thistles each morning in lieu of the long bus ride into town. The Rock Farm pastures have really started to kick along and look fantastic. The good pastures have the cows cycling again.

I contacted our mentor and guide John, and arranged to lease another bull this season. I then asked our friend Jimmy if he could pick the bull up and bring him down to the Rock Farm. The truck arranged, it also made sense to send Miss Steak to the sale yards, a small diversion on the same trip. One of the more colourful characters on the Rock Farm, Miss Steak gained her notoriety with a terrible error of judgement she made as a young heifer (https://rockfarming.com/2018/11/16/a-terrible-miss-steak/). Sadly however, after not calving two years in a row, her time was up.

Then, a week before the truck was due to pick her up, her udder started filling. And filling. And filling. And one horrible cold and rainy night she delivered a gorgeous little heifer. Being the last calf calf, and born in the nick of time to Miss Steak, we named her “Minute”!

Jimmy happily accepted the change in cartage plans and we picked up our borrowed bull a couple of days later. This magnificent fellow shows is French Normande herritage with his markings and his length. He is also really quiet, and happily settled in with the girls. This year we are joining our 15 cows and 1 heifer with this fellow. They will be due to start calving late July, which is a little early for us, but with the season starting so well, we can only hope it holds.

In the mean time, we have been enjoying our daily strolls amongst the cattle. There are far worse ways to be spending lockdown! Special thanks to John for leasing the bull to us, and Jimmy for getting him here 🙂

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.