New (kind of) Stock Yards

Owners of livestock must be able to handle their animals safely, and one of the most effective ways to do this is with a set of stock yards.

Yards typically used to be made with whatever material was at hand.  We visited these old yards in northern South Australia a couple of years ago.  The yards were made with Cypress Pine hauled from the Flinders Ranges, and the wires were old telegraph line.  The cattle were mustered into a square yard. If stock were to be handled, horsemen would rope the cattle and they would be brought to the Bronco Rail for marking.

The steel yards on the Rock Farm might be much more modern, however due to a number of reasons, they were in need of a major overhaul.  Before the cattle arrived, it had taken me several hours, lots of grease and much motivation with a hammer to get the crush to operate.  The yards had been placed on the ground with little consideration to levels, and whilst the basic layout was sound, I wanted to update the yards to ensure many more years of safe and low stress cattle handling.

With a short notice visit from my parents announced, the time to re-design the cattle yards arrived.  My father has years of experience in the beef industry, including designing cattle yards.  It was the perfect opportunity to harness his experience and my brawn… well the tractor’s brawn.

We had a good look at the existing layout.  My proposed design sketches were quickly discarded as I hadn’t taken into account the simple fact the crush is worked from the left hand side.  I had designed yards with a clockwise movement that made it difficult to operate the crush.  We agreed that an anti-clockwise movement of the cattle was far more suitable.  I also studied the NSW DPI page on Cattle Yard Design, but ultimately it came down to a simple examination of the materials at hand, and the site available.

The first stage was dismantling the existing yards.  This involved removing a few pins and many cobb and co wire hitches.  With a collection of mis-matched panels and various old gates, it was an interesting exercise.

Once we had removed the old yards, we spend a long time digging out and leveling the ground, appreciative of the tractor doing most of the heavy work.  Cattle will naturally run uphill, so the slope on this site isn’t a problem.  What we needed to do was make the slope consistent through the length of the crush and race.  With the slope consistent, we started re-assembly, again using the heavy lifting ability of the tractor.

Reassembly took a lot longer than I thought.  We have managed to get most of the panels to line up, but the hard work is getting the sleeves for the pins to align.  We had to grind off a couple of the sleeves to make the panels fit, all made slower due to a few hours lost fixing the pull-starter on the generator.

We concentrated on getting the drafting gates, crush, race and forcing yard all aligned and in-situ.  We found an old balustrade in the ‘resource centre’ which we cut up to manufacture new pins and anchor pegs in lieu of too many cobb and co hitches.  The main section of the yards are pretty much fixed now, and are much more solid that the previous version.

We still have work to do on the holding yard, and I hope to get onto this in the near future.  The final component will be to put a sight barrier on the yards.  This will remove distractions and help move the cattle around the yards.  I also hope it will make the yards sheep proof, so I don’t need to build a second set of yards for the sheep.

And what do the stock think of all this effort?  At present I am still a few weeks away from getting the yards ready for stock work.  The cattle are busy mowing and mulching our small horse paddocks.  The sheep seem to hang around in this area too, happily making their way around the farm as they seek the sweetest grass.  Some of the ewes are getting quite heavy with lamb, and I will need to have the yards ready to vaccinate the ewes soon.  Nothing like a bit of time pressure to finish a project!

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Happenings on and above the Rock Farm

The dry autumn has allowed us to get on with a few necessary jobs on the Rock Farm.  One of the most pressing was to get on top of our Tree of Heaven (ailanthus altissima).  This tree forms dense thickets that out compete desirable trees.  I initially thought we had just a few trees, until I started cutting them down. I soon realised that I needed a comprehensive strategy to remove them.

I cut the majority of the taller trees down a couple of months ago, see here.  The follow up treatment was to spray the suckers.  This is not a treatment I enjoy or take lightly.  The NSW Weedwise app provided good advice  and I followed their recommended dose.

A few weeks later, the plants had the decency to look very sick.  I hope this wasn’t due to the cracking frost we had a few days earlier!  The chemical was applied using a backpack spray unit to the leaves of the suckers.  As I was only spraying the odd suckers, the chemical burden was far less than it would have been if I was spraying the entire trees.  I hope this is effective.

Another of those little challenges that comes from living on tank water popped up a couple of weeks ago.  Our potable water situation is a little complicated.  The house supply is gravity fed from a couple of 22 000 litre tanks that harvest water from our shed.  Water harvested from our house roof is stored in another 22 000 litre tank in our garden. There is a fall of some 15 metres between the garden and shed tanks, and I had no pump to transfer water from the garden tank up to the shed (house supply) tanks.

With little significant rain since Christmas, the inevitable happened, and one of our supply tanks ran dry.  Whilst swinging to the other tank was as simple as opening a valve, it was time to transfer some water from the full house tank in the garden to the supply tanks from the shed.

Whilst this is a pump I won’t use often, it was worth getting one that will start reliably.  Our last place had an ancient Honda pump that lived out in the weather and copped years of abuse without affecting its ability to start first pull.  I figured it was worth getting a genuine Honda engine driving a Davey pump to perform our duties of water transfer.  A little pump house made out of scrap timber and iron soon completed the task.

The other problem with the garden tank was the surrounding vegetation.  The tank was essentially smothered in a range of plants that made access difficult and contaminated the water supply with dead leaves.  It took three loads on the back of the old Merc, Myrtle to clear the space.  The prunings, along with some rotten hay bales, were put to good use in stabilising some gullies.

The cattle have settled in well.  We have continued to move them from paddock to paddock, and they seem to understand the game now, and appreciate moving to greener pastures.  I think the trick is to wait until they are hungry before moving them.  This means that they are far more likely to stick their heads down and start grazing as soon as they move out of their paddock, rather than disappearing over the furthest hill!

The paddocks where they have been ‘working’ are much cleaner, and the weeds are easy to find and pull out.  Now the growing season is well and truly over, the grass will remain dormant over winter.  I hope we have enough feed to get them through the cold weather,  and we will keep our fingers crossed for strong spring rainfall.

And for something completely different, the Little Helper has just completed a school project on the future of transport, in particular flying cars.  This was the perfect opportunity to make the most of the glorious weather and call up an old friend and take to the skies.

The young fellow was so excited to sit in the right hand seat and experience the thrill of flying.  Greg, our pilot made sure the Little Helper had an amazing experience, patiently explaining what he was doing and how the aircraft worked.

I really enjoyed doing a couple of circuits around the Rock Farm.  It was such a brilliant way to get a perspective of our property.  We could easily see the greener areas where moisture settles, and the effect of the shelter belts.

Even the Little Fisherman admitted he was excited for his younger brother, stating that The Little Helper’s flight was “legit cool”.

It was a whole heap of fun.  And sometimes that is the point. 🙂

 

Acorn Planting – The first experiment commences

Several people have asked me why we are planting non native deciduous trees on our property.  I have a complicated answer, and it largely comes from a recognition that our landscape has changed.    The Rock Farm is not native bush.  Even the native forests north of our property are different from when Europeans first saw them.  The land the Rock Farm is in was managed with fire by the Ngunnawal people over thousands of years.  It is our responsibility as custodians of this beautiful property to manage it and set it up for our future.  Our aims by planting non native deciduous trees are to:

  • Protect our property from bushfire,
  • Improve our soil health, and
  • Provide sustainable agriculture in a woodland like setting.

A friend of my father, John, has spent all his life planting trees on his property in the southern highlands.  He estimates that he has planted around 35 000 trees of all types on his farm that produces top quality beef cattle.  John has planted stands of native eucalyptus, pines and oaks, and has been able to watch the trees grow and observe the effects on the soil.

Now in his eighties, John is convinced that deciduous trees are best suited for improving the soil and reducing fire risk.  One of John’s favourite oaks is the Daimyo Oak (quercus dentata).  This is also known as the Korean Oak or Japanese Emperor Oak, and is known as a fast growing specimen tree.  John has observed this to be the case, with lines of Daimyo Oaks out pacing several supposedly fast growing native species planted nearby at the same time.  We filled many paper bags with acorns from some of John’s trees.

John also directed us to collect acorns of the Californian Swamp Oak (quercus lobata) from Mouat Street in Lyneham.  This is the largest of the north american oak trees, and does well with hot dry summers and cool wet winters.  This magnificent tree can live for 600 years.  This is just around the corner from where our boys play hockey, so with a few of their team mates pressed into service, we soon had filled several more bags with acorns.

Armed with plenty of acorns, we started to put some in the ground.

We are trying a mix of strategies.  The first one is direct seeding.  I am trialing planting a bunch of acorns in the ground where I want the trees to grow.  The acorns were planted in late autumn, just below the surface, the majority in small gullies like below.   I am planting the trees well away from established natives such as the eucalyptus growing in the far right of this photo.  The observant will notice many young trees growing around this tree, and these will also be preserved to protect the headwaters of this gully and provide native habitat.

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As you can see above, we have been putting a lot of garden prunings into our gullies. These prunings from pin oaks and peppermint gums will provide mulch and protection for the young oak trees to grow.  I selected a small flatter area where soil had been deposited and placed the seeds in the ground.  I repeated this in several sites over several small gullies.

The plant below is a sweet briar (rosa rubiginosa).  It is a weed, but like weeds it is fulfilling a niche that was once carried out by native plants.  It is spread by birds that eat its berries as their native food supplies are no longer abundant.  I am slashing and chipping out these weeds, but am also conscious I need to ensure habitat for these birds.  I thought I would also use some of them as part of my experiment.

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This paddock has only been grazed by Kangaroos for the past 18 months.  The grass under the sweet briar is thicker, and more lush that the surrounding areas. So what I have done is plant some acorns at the base of these plants.   I hope that as the young oaks establish, the sweet briar will afford them some protection from grazing.

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What I didn’t expect to find as I planted some of my acorns was this beautiful frog also using the sweet briar to shelter in.  I am not sure, but I think it is a Green and Golden Bell Frog (litoria aurea).  I was extremely pleased to find this little fellow, and relieved that I hadn’t sprayed the sweet briar to kill it.

Some of the other acorns we have placed in moist potting mix and put in the fridge.  We are waiting for some rain to increase our soil moisture before we plant these acorns out.

People have asked me why I haven’t grown the seed in a garden bed and then planted out the seedlings?  There is a couple of reasons.

  1. Research suggests that trees planted in their final site respond better than those that are transplanted.  There is no stress on the fragile root system of the plant that sometimes happens when plants are moved.  We have observed this ourselves at our last property where trees planted from seed did far better than young seedlings that we nurtured and watered over a long hot summer.
  2. Plants that are transplanted require watering to establish.  This is difficult and time consuming, especially on a rural property where we have to hook up a water trailer in order to bring water to the plants.
  3. Hares.  The European Hare is extremely territorial and will cut off any plant that appears in its patch with a trunk as thick as a finger or less.  For some reason if the plant grows from seed, it is far less likely to see the young tree as a threat or incursion on its territory and is far more likely to leave it alone.
  4. We are lazy and haven’t set up a suitable garden bed yet.  This is a work in progress (we currently have our chooks working on our first garden bed – see below)

That said, we will try transplanting seedlings.  There is nothing like experimenting with a range of strategies to determine which is the most effective way to establish trees to improve soil.  It is all part of the adventure, and I love it 🙂

Tree Strategy at The Rock Farm

Trees are an essential part of any healthy ecosystem, but in Australia a robust debate rages about whether to plant native or introduced species.  With the assistance of Greening Australia, we planted thousands of trees at the original Rock Farm (see here).  Our new property has a good mix of native and introduced deciduous trees, which provide an interesting comparison.

Whilst there is no question that some introduced species have become real problems, this doesn’t mean all introduced species are pests.  Far from it.

The indigenous people of our area used fire to create grasslands and woodlands that attracted game.  The landscape was managed, but the use of fire had created changes in the nature and types of trees that were abundant.   The native deciduous trees died out, replaced by fire tolerant eucalyptus.  Today it is only in Tasmania that the only native winter Deciduous Beech (Nothofagus gunnii) remains.

These woodlands provided tall straight trees such as the Red Box (eucalyptus polyanthemos) and Yellow Box (eucalyptus melliodora).  These trees were highly valued by the early European settlers for their timber and the land was soon cleared, leaving small stands of less desirable timber such as Brittle Gum (eucalyptus mannifera) or Red Stringy Bark (eucalyptus macrorhuncha).

Our property was probably cleared not long after the first European settlers came through in the 1830’s.  We have an old stone ruin that is well over 100 years old, and around it are some equally old English Elms (ulmus procera) and some fruit trees.

What is remarkable is looking at the ground around these Elms and comparing it to the open paddocks.

Within the leaf litter of the Elms trees, we see lush, green growing grass.  As we move away from the trees, the soil dries out and the grass is dry and stunted.  Lush grass like this is extremely unusual in our area this autumn which has been extremely dry.

This experience isn’t just our own.  It is explained in an excellent book Broadscale Permaculture: The Mill Post Experience by David Watson.  David explains that there is merit in planting both native species and introduced species.  David’s property isn’t too far from the Rock Farm, and we found his book an inspirational study into how to employ permaculture principles on a larger scale.

Deciduous trees provide the following advantages over native eucalyptus:

  • They help reduce the fire risk to a property
  • They bring nutrients to the surface and make them accessible to the soil microbes
  • They provide shade reducing evaporation
  • They are delightfully cool to sit and work under on a hot day

The photos above show the green grass under the leaf fall of the Elm trees.  They also show the double fenced tree lines between paddocks.  We are extremely fortunate that the previous owners invested a lot of time and effort in establishing healthy wind-breaks of native and introduced deciduous trees along many of the fence-lines.  This is an excellent foundation on which to build on.

The trees have now grown to form wonderful shelter breaks – as seen in this google-earth view below.

Elms Trees

The only problem with the English Elm is that it produces suckers that can form impossibly dense thickets (mid right of google earth image above).  Stock will keep the suckers in check, whilst they are little, but  they can get out of hand.  A better tree would be the Scotch Elm (ulmus glabra) which doesn’t grow from suckers.

We are fortunate that many trees on the Rock Farm are natives.  These can be seen by the darker green colours in the lines of trees above.  The native trees provide food and shelter for many native animals, and fill important roles in our environment.  With many dozens of eastern rosellas living on the Rock Farm, I am confident we are providing a good balance of native trees for habitat for these beautiful birds.  I also find natives such as wattles are particularly good at stabilising degraded or damaged soil, and I am actively encouraging their growth in gullies and other areas with bare soil.

The hard part is getting young trees established, and in my next post I will share some of the tree planting techniques we are trialing.

More information on David Watson’s experience can be found here: http://www.millpostmerino.com.au/product-page/millpost-a-broadscale-permaculture-farm-since-1979

Hey Cow!!

One of the most important goals we have for the Rock Farm is to ensure that we leave it in a better state that we received it.  I am really excited with the soil analysis results we received last week, as it will provide a scientific bench mark that we can use to measure our progress.

Whilst the soil analysis reveals the mineral composition of the soil, it doesn’t reveal much about the biological health of the soil.  This microbial activity is far more important, and if we can get this balance right, we will be doing really well.  It is inspiring to read of people who have used various techniques to actively build top soil and repair the health of their land.  Somehow I believe the key to our survival is in the health of our soil, because from it we derive all our food.

One technique to improve soil health I mentioned in my last post was grazing management.   André Voisin  and later Allan Savory developed what we now call holistic management or cell grazing where soil health can be improved by how you graze the land.

Cell grazing involves heavily grazing small areas over a short period, followed by a long rest.  It is expensive to set up, requiring lots of small paddocks (fencing is ridiculously expensive and water must be provided to all paddocks), and time consuming to manage, as stock need to be rotated frequently.  We are lucky in that the new not-so-rocky Rock Farm was initially established to spell race-horses, so has several small paddocks that we can use for this purpose.

And whilst we have beautiful Wiltipoll sheep to graze our paddocks, sheep prefer eating short grass.  They won’t eat the longer grass, leaving it to go rank.  And I refuse to waste precious diesel slashing long grass for it to mulch back into the soil.

So enter the cows!

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We recently purchased 15 Normande cross weaner hefiers.  Their breeding and the reasons why we chose them is another story entirely. The short story is we wanted quiet cattle, and they had to be any colour other than black!  The Normande is a French beef breed, but you might see that these cattle have an amazing heritage with the best of many breeds in their blood lines.

But for now, they got right on the job.

Allan Savory recommends a stocking rate of around 60 head per hectare, which is extremely high.  The cattle will heavily graze the paddock, eating everything including weeds.  Then when the paddock is rested, everything has a chance to recover.  Normal set grazing sees the cattle eating their preferred grasses, and avoiding the weeds.  This eventually leads to a paddock full of weeds that needs expensive sowing to return to pasture.

Just off our yards, we had a small 1/2 hectare paddock, that was perfect for serving two purposes.  It allowed us to spend a week socialising the cattle and it allowed our soil improvement program to get right underway.  Whilst our stocking rate is about half recommended by Savory, we were soon quick to see the results.  Serrated tussock that had been hidden in the long grass was quickly revealed, making it far easier to hack out.

The small paddock was the perfect place for the cattle to be introduced to the Rock Farm.  I set up a water trough in the yards, and kept them in overnight after they arrived.  The cattle were also drenched on arrival, as our paddocks have been free of cattle for a few years and we want to ensure that our worm burden remains low.

For the first week, I fed the young cattle in the yards and let them have full access to the small paddock adjoining the yards.  It was remarkable how quickly they stopped running away from me and started walking towards the yards with only a gentle word or two of encouragement.  In the space of a couple of days, I was able to comfortably push them into the yards by myself, with the minimum of fuss.

I did all my mustering on foot, at a slow measured walk.  I found that walking slowly calmed the cattle down, and they rarely would run away from me.  The cattle are remarkably sensitive to your body language and where you are looking.  A long stick really helps as an extension of your arm, allowing you to direct their movements.  The cattle are also curious and soon were happy to watch me as I watched them eat.

These beautiful cattle have settled it quickly.  We have started moving them around the Rock Farm, and they are learning that a gentle walk is all I want from them.  I am madly trying to fix up fences in the small paddocks in order for me to establish a good rotation for them – it is all good fun.

In the mean time, they are doing a fantastic job keeping the grass down whilst the tractor rests in the shed. And that isn’t a bad thing!

Soil Analysis – Results are in

Our long awaited soil analysis results came back this week.

Our samples were taken in two different areas on the farm.  The first sample was collected from our alluvial flat.  This paddock has been previously used to crop lucerne, however has been left fallow for several years.

The other sample was taken from our slopes.  This paddock has a very thin topsoil, on a base of Ordovician Shale.  This has quite a different mineral analysis, indicating that it requires different treatment.

Why is it important to have a look at the minerals present in our soil?

“You can trace every sickness, every disease, and every ailment to a mineral deficiency.”

– Dr. Linus Pauling, two-time Nobel Prize winner

This message has been reinforced by Pat Coleby, who believes that modern farming with its huge chemical inputs is not only unsustainable, but it intrinsically damages soils heath. If your soil is unhealthy, animals will be unable to access the minerals in it, and they will get sick.

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The Results:

Now the trick is for us to work out what we need to do.

And this is where it gets really difficult.  I am open to all ideas.  Please have a look at the results in the attached pdf document and let me know what you think.  Page 1 is the alluvial flat, and Page 2 is the shale slope.

Soil Test Results Apr 18.pdf

The good news is there are plenty of options available to us.

1. Lime / Dolomite

In Europe, animals were traditionally yarded over winter, and their manure spread as fertilizer in spring.  In autumn, lime was spread to maintain the soil balance, and to release the phosphorous.

In Australia, with milder winters, stock are grazed year round.  Artificial phosphorus as in superphosphate is commonly used as a fertilizer, in lieu of animal manure.  A long history of using superphosphate, without addressing the calcium or magnesium balance through lime or dolomite,  locks up a large range of minerals, rending them unavailable to livestock.

I think the quickest course of action on our slopes will be to spread lime (Calcium Carbonate) or dolomite (Calcium and Magnesium Carbonate).  This will help address the release the phosphorus. It will also increase the pH of the soil, and this will allow other trace elements to be available to the livestock.

2. Aerate the soil

Pat Coleby  has said that “an aerator is one of the most valuable aids to soil regeneration that we have” (Natural Farming, Pat Coleby).  One way to do this is by using a Yeoman’s plow or Wallace aerator to aerate the soil.  This will allow rainfall to penetrate into the sub-soil.  P.A. Yeomans developed what we now call the Keyline System which places great emphasis “on the creation of a soil environment that rapidly accelerates soil biological activity”

http://yeomansplow.com.au/8-yeomans-keyline-systems-explained/ 

Properties that have followed the Yeoman’s principles have been more drought resilient, and have eliminated soil erosion.  The name Keyline was given to a particular contour that is found in all headwater valleys. This provides the basis for farm layout or design, in our case we will have to work within existing infrastructure to make it work for us.

Interestingly as an aside, healthy soil should absorb the first 80% of rainfall.  One wonders if part of the reason we get such devastating floods is because our soil is compacted and hydrophobic.

3. Grazing Management

Another technique we can use to improve our soil is through our grazing management.  If paddocks are intensively grazed for a short period of time, and then rested for a much longer period, many benefits can be observed.  We hope to implement a form of cell grazing on the Rock Farm, pioneered by André Voisin  in France, and further developed by Allan Savory after observing the effect of migrating animals on the grasslands of Africa.

When a paddock is heavily grazed, several things happen.  The top soil is disturbed by the action of the stock’s hooves or feet.  The tall grasses are eaten, and long roots of the plants retreat.  The animal’s manure releases much of the nutrients held in the grasses back to the soil.

When the paddock is rested, the seed bank that is in the soil is activated, encouraging new growth in the disturbed soil.  As the long grass roots retreat, they provide access for water and air to penetrate the soil and avenues for earthworms to pass through the soil.  Dung beetles and earth worms process the manure, turning it into a valuable fertilizer for the soil.

Whilst optimum rates for stocking are around 60 head of cattle per hectare or 450 sheep per hectare during the intensive grazing period, a long rest period of 6-12 months mean the overall stocking rate is much lower.  This will also require a much greater investment in fencing, however with the benefit of several small paddocks on the Rock Farm, we should be able to utilise parts of this technique.

4.  Planting Trees

Trees – importantly the right trees – can help remineralise soil.  The most effective trees are deciduous, as they draw minerals from deep in the ground and return them to the soil as their leaves mulch after falling to the ground.  Deciduous trees can also help reduce the fire risk to a property.  Our property has some magnificent old Elm trees, with glorious lush green grass growing underneath them.  Unfortunately our trees are English Elms, which tend to sucker, and in a couple of places have formed dense thickets.  Scottish Elms are just as beautiful and don’t sucker.

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Eucalyptus trees are important habitat for native birds and have their place too, however they tend to draw moisture and minerals from the surrounding soil.  They also have a nasty habit of dropping branches, especially on fences!

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We will continue to plant trees on the Rock Farm.  It is an extremely satisfying activity and we hope that one of our legacies will be the trees that will continue to grow for future generations.

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Research, Research, Research

In the meantime I will continue to research what is the best possible outcome for our property with respect to its mineral requirements.  I acknowledge that I am extremely fortunate in that my main objective is in learning as much as I can, without the burden of trying to support my family with my farming enterprise.

If anyone has any more ideas on how to increase the soil fertility on the Rock Farm, or has any insights into our soil analysis, I would gratefully accept your views in the comment section below.

 

Happenings at the Rock Farm

I must admit I consider myself extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to share our beautiful property with my family.  One of my favourite times is when we get together as a family and do a bit of work on the Rock Farm.  It helps my kids understand a bit more about the joys and responsibilities of property ownership. As a bonus we get to spend some wonderful times together, and the recent school holidays allowed us to do exactly that.

Our first order of business was to replace a very tired (rotten) post, rail and wire fence.  The old timbers didn’t take much effort to push over, having all rotted off at the bases.  A new ring lock wire fence was soon strung between the existing strainer posts and our fence was again in sound order.  The added bonus was the old posts were nicely seasoned, so were promptly carted off to the firewood pile.  The only catch was they were full of nails and staples, requiring careful extraction before being cut into fire-sized pieces.

This load was also a good test for the new ‘wheelbarrow’ having recently replaced our almost indestructible (but obviously not) Mitsubishi Mirage.  The ‘new wheels’ are already earning their keep as a load hauler / work platform and ferry.

Jo managed to complete the first new portable chook-tractor.  This will form the basis for our new circular vegetable beds.  A relatively simple design, it is lightweight and easy to move.  The plan is for the chooks to do the hard work weeding and turning over the soil, before we then move them onto the next patch and plant vegetables.  We might have missed most of this growing season, but we are looking forward to establishing some vegetables soon.

We moved the sheep to greener pastures (paddock rotation).  During this process we found that sadly one of ewes had been killed by foxes, and another of our lambs was badly injured during the same attack.  We had to put the lamb down.  Thankfully the rest of the sheep were in good health, and after a few days ‘mowing’ our shed paddock, they were released back to the larger paddocks.

I also finally got around to installing a new weather station.  With Jo’s trade being a Meteorologist, having a good weather station has been high on her list of priorities for a while.  The challenge has been finding a place sufficiently close to the house that the signal will reach, whilst being far enough away to not be influenced by the house structure, trees or shed.  We settled on a compromise, but I had to fabricate a new post out of some old steel off-cuts to ensure the weather station is out of horse or cattle reach!  Time will tell if it is high enough!

It was also school holidays.  This meant that a good part of our time was spent doing the real important things you should do, as a family.  We decided that we would enjoy our very own ‘stay-cation’, and set up our swags on our neighbour’s big hill.  In fact it worked far better than I dared hope. We managed to get a good day’s work done on the farm, and after a quick shower in the house, we headed to the top of the world to enjoy dinner and a couple of drinks as the sun set.

Camping in our own back yard allowed us all to achieve something on the place, whether it be on the farm, in the garden, around the house or just chillax.  Importantly we also got to enjoy a couple of nights under the stars – as a family.  I can tell you it was priceless.

The cycle of trees

 

We have enjoyed a busy few weeks on the Rock Farm, and we are now also starting to make some changes for the future.  Up until now, we have been largely focused on repairing existing infrastructure.  There is still plenty of work to do in this space, but we are also fast approaching autumn and the best time to plant trees.  But just as we were getting ready to plant some trees, the weather turned for the worse.

The Rock Farm was subject to a couple of days of bracing winds.  Whilst there was quite a bit of damage sustained in the region, we thankfully escaped with only a couple of branches and trees down.

One particularly fortunate group was the local scout troop that had camped on the Rock Farm.  They managed to strike all their tents before the forecast wind came, however one gazebo was destroyed before they could get all their equipment stowed.

A few sheets of iron on the shed roof needed to be screwed back on tightly, but the main job after the wind had stopped was to clear downed branches off fences.

It didn’t take too long to clear the timber off the fence.  The leafy branches were left in paddock to mulch under the tree, and the larger pieces cut for future firewood.  The bent star-picket was re-straightened and the broken wires repaired.  The plain wire was relatively easy to tension and soon the fence was looking no worse for its encounter with the Brittle Gum (eucalyptus mannifera) branch

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After the wind, and with the promise of rain, we decided to make the most of the opportunity to plant some trees.  One of our favourite trees is the Bunya Pine Araucaria Bidwillii.  This native pine is found naturally in south-east Queensland, however there are some fine specimens in our local area, some reportedly pre-dating European settlement suggesting they were planted by Indigenous people.  The trees are a popular choice for bush food gardens, provided you have the space to grow them.

It is easy to understand why.  The Indigenous people would celebrate the ripening of the fruit with ceremonies, celebrations and feasts.  Groups of people would travel for hundreds of kilometres to attend,  making the most of these opportunities to trade, negotiate with other groups and marry.

Our aim is far more simple.  We would like to see some of these trees grow on our property.  Our first job was to collect some old 44 gallon drums that would form tree guards and protect the young trees from rabbits.  Every farm has a ‘resource centre’ and we just had a wonderful collection of old half 44 gallon drums that had the base cut out.

We have decided to see if the trees grow naturally.  We prepared the sites by scraping off the grass and weeds, and loosening up the soil with the Hamilton Tree-Planter.  We put three seeds in each drum tree guard, and then placed a layer of natural mulch on top of the seeds.

Some of the drums were placed in open areas in paddocks, others were placed in sheltered areas with plenty of trees providing shade.  Once we see how the trees go, we will be able to plant more of these trees.   We aren’t in a rush.  Trials suggest that about half of the viable seed will germinate in around six to nine months… but for a tree that lives around 500 years, I figure we can give it a while to get going!

It will be great to see how they go!

The rain comes!

Things had been getting a little grim on the not-so-rocky Rock Farm.  The end of summer was approaching, but the rain gauge had been dry for weeks.  Even the most hardy plants were starting to look stressed, and neighbours were starting to plan to feed their stock.  On the domestic front, things were as busy as ever, with the Little Fisherman starting high school, and the Little Helper settling into year 6.  In the midst of all the chaos, I went to sea for a couple of weeks.

It was no better when I got home.  In my absence, both cars had broken down, the boys had been home from school sick and the sheep had disappeared (only to return the next day from their holiday).

But then we got a beautiful 50mm of rain and everything changed.

My list of jobs I want to do on the Rock Farm is rather long.  Everything requires an investment of time or dollars or both and many require the right weather.  One of the many on the list was to smooth the corrugations out of the driveway – but had been too dry to even contemplate, until it rained.

When the rain fell, one of the first things I wanted to do was to run a blade over the driveway.  All went well, until I made my way back towards the house…  The creek crossing that had been dry little more than an hour earlier was now impassable.

Thankfully it was dropping just as quickly as it came up.  Soon our depth gauge (a well calibrated star picket) was visible, meaning it was safe to take a 4wd across.

Creek Crossing

That little saga over, I would have liked to continue working through some more of the jobs on my list, but it wasn’t to be.  I had another week away starting early the following morning, but this time I had some down time.  It was the perfect opportunity to re-read one of the most influential books on farming I have read, and do a bit of planning.

Pat Coleby is one of Australia’s foremost experts on farming without chemicals.  Her work is visionary on one level, however when you think about what she has to say, it really is common sense.  She shows how the key to healthy plants and animals is healthy soil.  Her book is full of practical advice on how to improve the soil, and she guides our approach to our farm.  If you’re going to buy one book for your farm, this is a great one!

Part of what we need to do is to return organic matter to the soil.  Slashing the long grass helps to achieve this.  It also causes the grass roots to reduce in size, creating tiny holes which aerate the soil and provide opportunities for earthworms to work through the soil.  I hope to get some cattle to help with this process – as they return the organic matter to the soil in the form of manure.  In the meantime, the old tractor was able to slash this 5 hectare paddock in around 2.5hrs.

One thing I will arrange in the next week or so will be soil tests.  These will help us to identify shortcomings in our soil health.  With the application of the correct amounts of calcium, magnesium and sulphur, we should get our soil back in balance.  Once the soil is in balance, we should see an improvement availability of trace minerals and an increase in activity in soil by the micro-oraganisms and earthworms that drive soil fertility.  This should lead to a reduction in weeds, and an increase in a variety of species that provide minerals and trace elements to our stock.

It is a journey, and I am looking forward to learning about soil chemistry and biology in our quest to improve the health of our land.

 

Some lessons you can’t learn at school

The last week or so of the school holidays finished with a flurry of activity – but not all of it was on the Rock Farm.  A few nights in Sydney provided a change of scenery – of sorts.  I was struck looking out of our hotel window in Pyrmont that the environment around us was almost completely manufactured.  The only greenery visible was a small hedge by a pool down below, and the top of a couple of trees just visible above the street.  The hum of traffic and ventilation fans provided a constant white noise reminder that the city environment is far removed from the peace and quiet of the Rock Farm.

I couldn’t wait to get home and breathe the fresh country air, where the hum of the city is replaced by the chatter of birds in the garden.    And I think we all felt the same – because it didn’t take much to encourage the kids to join us for a walk down by the creek to recharge our souls when we got home.

There were a few little jobs I wanted to get on with, none particularly onerous.  The first was tidying up some of the trimmings along the fence I had repaired a couple of weeks earlier.  Myrtle was pressed into service and the old truck allowed me to move the large volume of branches from where they lay to some bare soil with a minimum of fuss.

Lucie the tractor was due a oil and filter change.  The Little Helpers gave the old girl a good wash – not because I like it shiny, but I find it a good opportunity to check over the tractor and identify any loose or missing bits.  Somewhere under the dust and grime we identified the key components of the engine – especially the fuel filters, which I was going to change in a couple of days.

The Little Helpers did a great job – even cleaning the mirrors!

Andrew, a local expert came out and helped me change the fuel filters on both the truck and the tractor.  I’m very glad he did, as the fuel filters on the tractor proved particularly troublesome to reseal.  We also replaced the broken hand throttle cable on the truck.  This cable not only adjusts the idle speed of the truck, but also allows you to shut down the engine.  Until now I had been stalling the engine to force it to stop.

The Little Fisherman learnt a lot of new skills – all simple stuff, but important.  His funniest observation came when he found an unused plug on the wiring loom.  He asked me if that was where you plugged in the computer to tune the engine!   I can understand why he thought that – every car we have had since he was born has had a diagnostic port… so it is only logical that you’d assume you tune trucks the same way.  I told him that this old girl was tuned the old fashioned way, mechanically, and come the zombie apocalypse, this truck would spirit us to safety!

One of the things I really appreciate on the new Rock Farm is a large shed that I can use to work on the vehicles.  It might not be heated, but it is really nice to be out of the weather, and the concrete slab helps.  It might not be pretty, and sure isn’t tidy, but we can work on that.

 

Of course the best part of any service is the test drive!  It was pleasing to note that both Myrtle the Mercedes and Lucie the Tractor both performed flawlessly.  There is nothing like turning diesel into noise…

But then again, there is somethings special about horses that horsepower can’t match! This beautiful fellow is like that breath of fresh air – good for recharging the soul.  The Little Helper and I also enjoyed chillaxing with our four legged friends.

Thinking back to our time in Sydney just a few days earlier, I was reminded of the immortal words of Clancy of the Overflow, written by Banjo Patterson back in 1889.  In that poem, a city-dweller longs to swap with Clancy, a shearer and drover.  Banjo romantically describes the differences between the city and the rural landscapes and often as I leave the city for home, his words come to me.

And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.