Cockatoos – Yellow Tailed and Glossy Black

A couple of days ago I head the unmistakable call of the Yellow-tailed black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus funereus).  These magnificent birds are one of the largest of the cockatoo family, and are relatively widespread in eastern Australia.  They are also occasional visitors to the Rock Farm.

Their diet is varied, and available from a range of habitats.  Whilst they mostly eat native seeds, especially She-Oaks (Casuarina), the also are partial to pine cones, hence why they made a temporary stay in our pine trees.

Flying Bolt Cutters

They also enjoy larvae of wood-boring beetles, using their strong beak to peel bark and gouge into the tree to extract the tunneling grubs.  This strong beak, and tendency to rip and shred trees is the despair of many homeowners, as they frequently attack pool solar heating piping, electrical conduit and a whole manner of household fittings.

Whilst these birds are relatively common and not under threat, we have taken steps to assist in the survival of one of their cousins, the Glossy Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus lathami).

Glossy Black Cockatoo

The Glossy Black Cockatoo is the smallest member of the black cockatoo family.  Unlike it’s larger cousin, the Glossy Black prefers to feed on the seeds of mature She-Oak trees, and very little else.  Most people associate She-Oaks with rivers, where these majestic trees line creeks and rivers in eastern Australia, but there are many species that favour more hardy areas such as the Desert She-Oak (allocasuarina decaisneana) from central Australia.

There is even one species which grows on the Rock Farm – The Drooping She-Oak (allocasuarina verticillata).  This nitrogen fixing tree likes growing on the rocky slopes of our home.  We have about half a dozen young trees that we are coaxing and encouraging as best we can.

We have also planted several of these trees in our bottom paddock through the Greening Australia Whole of Paddock Rehabilitation program.  Whilst we haven’t seen any Glossy Black Cockatoos on the Rock Farm yet, I hope that in the future our stand of Drooping She-Oaks help to extend their habitat.

And if I do see one, it will be a little bit exciting! 🙂

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More new arrivals on the Rock Farm

The last few months have been a little busy on the Rock Farm – mostly the hectic wholesome crazy of raising kids who stick their hands up for every opportunity that passes their way.  This is no bad thing at all, and the Little Helpers continue to amaze and inspire me.  I am extremely proud of them.

With so many things going on, the last thing on my mind was a new pet, but somehow we were introduced to a gorgeous blue border collie cross pup that stole our hearts.

And so Sapphire joined our family.

This little bundle of happiness has come into our lives – and reminded us of all the things you forget about puppies.  The house training, constant chewing, and ceaseless curiosity has at times tested all our patience.  But not unexpected, and we have all fallen for this sweet little girl.

The whole family has been involved in Sapphire’s training program, trying to ensure our approach is both consistent and positive.  And she is a quick learner.  We have one smart dog on our hands.

But a new puppy also needs a new house!

I had started collecting the odd pallet or two on the way home from work.  A local courier company offered free pallets to anyone willing to pick them up from the footpath.  The stack(s) at home were starting to grow, and we needed a new project.  Sapphire was the perfect excuse to get the Little Helpers involved in a new project.

Over the course of a day we carefully removed boards from some old pallets and re-purposed a small pallet to be the base of the new kennel.  After sealing the cracks, we had a sturdy floor.

A frame was made using some of the pallet bearers.  Dimensions were largely based on the existing timber lengths.  We had minimal cutting to build this frame.

Pallet boards were carefully de-nailed, cut to length and then nailed to the frame.  The Little Helper cut an entrance carefully into the front with the jigsaw.

A sheet of old iron was carefully trimmed and formed the roof.  I used the angle-grinder to cut this – not quite ready to let the Little Helper’s play with this tool.

And before long, our 99 percent recycled dog house was complete.  Poor Sapphire didn’t really seem too keen on the kennel at the start.

But it didn’t take too long for her to fully appreciate the comforts of her new home.

And there are times it is darn hard to get her out of it!

The best part about this project is that every scrap of timber and the roofing iron in this project was recycled.  The sarking was left over from our barn renovation.  The only thing that was new was the nails!

The boys are really excited about finding a project they can make – with minimal supervision.  After a quick check of Gumtree, they figure there is a market for recycled pallet dog kennels.  They hope to make another kennel or two in the school holidays – but if you’re really nice to them, they might even make one to order!

That is unless they turn all the pallets into cubby houses or forts…

Serrated Tussock 

One of the responsibilities that comes with ownership of ‘lifestyle blocks’ is weed control.  The Rock Farm is no exception – and whilst growing lush pasture is difficult here, it seems that weeds take particular pleasure in growing on our farm.

One of the weeds we have to control is serrated tussock (nassella trichotoma).  This is a weed of national significance.  It is not palatable to stock and large amounts can significantly reduce carrying capacity.

Serrated tussock came to Australia from South America in the 1850’s.  With no other commercial use, it was used as a stuffing in horse saddles.  During the gold rush, Australia received a huge influx of new immigrants, and one of the unintended by products of this mass immigration was the introduction of many pests.

A couple of years ago, we learnt how quickly it spreads.  What I thought was a small patch rapidly grew, and it took a local contractor, with a specialised spot spay set up four days to spray.  It is now a much simpler job, and a quick run through the paddock gets most of the tussock.  My spraying rig is a combination of several contraptions, but it is effective for these smaller jobs.

Whilst I would love to control the tussock without the use of chemicals, it simply isn’t cost effective.  The cost of spraying per hour is roughly equivalent to the return made from selling one lamb.  Chipping out the weeds is cheaper per hour, but takes around 4 times as long.  With consumers willing to pay generally only a small price premium for organic lamb over the regular product, it is not effective for our business.

For someone with limited time, spraying is definitely the way to go.  Even with my cobbled together arrangement, I can cover a far greater area than if I was chipping out the tussock.  The chemical burden is also very small considering the land area it is dispersed over.

The supervisor also enjoyed the ride, however was far more interested in the passing kangaroos than pointing out the tussocks I’d missed!

One of the greatest defences against serrated tussock is good ground cover.  The seed is dispersed mostly by wind, the seed itself is not very competitive.  Part of the large reduction in tussock numbers in this paddock has been, I think, our efforts in establishing a good pasture in the paddock and removing the stock.  The planting of trees will further reduce the wind borne seed entering from the neighbour’s place (I hope).

In the mean time, we continue to celebrate the arrival of spring on the Rock Farm.

More excellent information on serrated tussock can be found on the NSW Weedwise website here: http://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/Weeds/Details/123

Pasture improvement and weed control. 

One of the driving forces behind getting a tractor was to allow us to start rehabilitating the precious soil on the Rock Farm.  Our aim is to create a balanced and healthy soil that supports low impact grazing.

One paddock on the Rock Farm is predominantly native pasture with remanent red box, red stringy bark and brittle gum trees.  I have been encouraging the regrowth of thousands of young trees around the older trees, and have been pleased to find the odd drooping she-oak – a vital food source for the Glossy Black Cockatoo.

One problem in this paddock is patches of Sifton Bush (Cassini Arcuata).  This native plant is an invasive weed, producing vast quantities of seed and rapidly colonising bare soil.

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A section of sifton weed with some Broom Bitter Pea in the foreground

The mature sifton bush plant can produce up to 4 billion seeds a year.  It is unpalatable to most grazing animals and has been suspected of causing poisoning in lambs.  It is a declared weed in our area and we have a responsibility to control it.

The NSW dpi has an excellent page describing the Sifton Bush and its control.  http://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/Weeds/Details/253

Whilst we have worked hard to clear some areas through pulling plants, it is hard work and time consuming.  I had used my mower for a few trials – but it was really hard work for the mower and was causing too much damage (to the mower). Burning is not effective due to the large amount of seedling reinfestation following a fire event.

And so our preferred method for larger areas of infestation is mulching.

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Lucie hard at work turning sifton bush into mulch

Lucie the tractor has a 2.4 metre wide drum muncher that is effective at shattering the larger stems and mulching the leaves.  As this breaks down, it returns organic matter to the soil, hopefully improving the soil structure and microbial activity.

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The tractor pushes over the mature plants easily – but beware of old stumps

The disadvantage of this method is that some of the sharp stumps remain, making it treacherous to drive a car over the mulched section.  Also some of the younger plants aren’t effectively broken down and may shoot again from damaged stems.

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A much cleaner paddock

The end result is a paddock that not only looks a lot better, but has improved organic matter in the soil.  We have observed grasses recolonising the areas I have mulched as they receive better light and less competition from the sifton bush.

I expect to re-mulch these areas in another couple of years and perhaps take the opportunity then to re-mineralise the soil.  It wont be a quick process as soil takes tens of thousands of years to form, and a heartbeat to destroy.  It is all good fun and I am really enjoying the challenge of improving the Rock Farm.

 

Desperate race for survival – Lambing

A couple of weeks ago I was jumping for joy with our first precious lamb of the season.  There is something uplifting about seeing a new lamb frolic, with a proud mother standing by.  It is also a sign that perhaps the worst of winter is over and we are approaching spring.

But lambing is also often associated with a bitter break in the weather, and this week has been no exception.  With barely 10mm recorded in the gauge since Christmas, we are just coming out of two days of solid cold wet miserable rain.  And right in the thick of it was born our fourth lamb.

The ewes have plenty of shelter in their middle paddock, but as I am also supplementing their feeding with oaten hay, they tend to hang around the top paddock a bit.  Whilst we have planted trees in this paddock, they barely provide a twig to shelter behind.  There are solid windbreaks on two sides, but it is still exposed.  On chilly mornings, it is the first paddock to catch the sun, and being the highest part of the property, it is popular with the ewes escaping the chilly air that sinks to the lower parts.

But when the sun doesn’t come out – and the rain is steady, it can be a miserable place to be.

And sadly this is where I thought I found our fourth lamb…  but as I approached her, she kicked, and I thought we might have a chance.

Her only chance of survival was to bring her inside and warm her up.  Unfortunately I had to go to work, so my highly talented multi-tasking wife Jo was called upon to work her magic.


In no time at all the lamb was dry and warming inside the house, where chaos was reigning supreme.  Extra kids, extra puppies and now and extra lamb were staying in our little house.  Jo dug out the poddy lamb bottles and prepared to face a two hour feeding regime overnight.  But at the first feeding it was apparent we had a battle on our hands.

Sadly the lamb passed away not long after we brought her inside.

It was a sad moment for all of us.  The poor little lamb barely had a chance, but this is the struggle many of them face when born during atrocious weather.

Thankfully the other lambs are all looking healthy and we will keep our fingers crossed they all grow to be tough and hardy sheep – who can perhaps delay their lambing by a month or so.

Providing mineral supplements and improving soil health

One of the most enlightening books I have read about soil health and animal nutrition was Natural Farming by Pat Coleby.  Whilst we all know Australia has some of the most ancient soils on the planet, what wasn’t clearly understood was the relationship between soil minerals and animal (and also human) health.

Pat was one of the first people to recognise that many health ailments in animals are caused by mineral deficiences.  Natural Farming carries a simple message: healthy soil makes healthy plants which in turn make health animals and healthy people.

Our vision is for healthy and ecologically sustainable grazing on our land.  Basic soil tests have confirmed our soil is slightly acidic, but we haven’t conducted in depth mineral analysis of our property yet.

Many animals have an ability to seek out minerals they are deficient in.  One way to see what minerals your soil is deficient in is to offer minerals to your stock and see which minerals they seek.  And so we  purchased a sample kit, known as a Pat Coleby Starter Pack from VITEC in Victoria (http://www.vitec.com.au/shop-online/pat-coleby-minerals/stock-lick-20kg).

The next part of the process was to construct a shelter for the minerals so that I could leave them in the paddock.  This took a bit more planning, but I soon found a few bits of steel and an old piece of corrugated iron around the place and with a bit of dodgy welding had knocked up a frame.

I decided to use a blue ‘nelly bin’ to store the minerals, and made a rectangular frame to hold the bin.  I then made another frame to attach the roof to.

Now that I had done the hard part, it was time to open the bag and check out the contents.  The starter pack contained a mix of minerals.  Dolomite, Sulphur, Copper and Lime, with mineralised salt and seaweed meal making up the rest of the pack.

I split the various minerals into various ice cream containers – and they fitted perfectly into my nelly bin.  It was now time to see what the sheep thought of them.

Well I cheated the first time – I put some sheep pellets into the nelly bin – to help them become comfortable with the new paddock sculpture.

But once they had eaten all the food and I had replaced the pellets with the minerals, it was pleasing to see them have a nibble on the seaweed meal and try the other minerals.

And so time will tell.  It will be interesting to see what minerals they naturally seek – and this will give us a good indication where to focus our efforts on re-mineralising the Rock Farm.

And this is part of the fun, ensuring our lovely sheep produce healthy lambs, and our soil improves over our tenure.

Lucie the International 674 Tractor joins the Rock Farm

For a long time we have been discussing whether a tractor would be a useful addition to the Rock Farm.  To be truthful, I had been convinced for a while that I would find plenty of uses for one…  I just had to gain approval in principle to purchase one, and then find one that fitted the budget.  So for the past couple of years on-and-off I had been keeping my eye on Gumtree and other classifieds sites.

The main problem was deciding whether to buy a new Chinese tractor with all the features, or an older ‘name brand’ tractor.  Whilst the Chinese tractors represented excellent value for money, there were just as many horror stories out there which made me lean towards an older tractor from a known brand.

The other problem is that I had never driven a tractor.  So when the Local Land Services (LLS) advised me I had won a book voucher for answering a few questions on an online survey, it was an easy choice on choosing my book.

The book is, in a word, excellent.  Armed with a little bit of knowledge (dangerous situation), the perfect tractor came on the market just down the road.  A quick inspection confirmed it was going to be ideal for what we wanted to do on the Rock Farm – and the price was within our budget.

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The vital statistics:

  • Name: Lucie
  • Type: International 674 4wd Tractor
  • Year Built: 1974
  • Fitted with: Front bucket / loader, Mulcher (flail mower).
  • Other accessories: Hay forks, stick rake

And it has been put to work.  I have been able to clean up piles of old wire, slash weeds, move piles of dirt, repair the driveway and pull out stumps.  It has transformed the way we move firewood from the paddocks to the house – saving double handling and time.  In short, it is a great addition to the Rock Farm.

We had deferred tidying up piles of old wire due to the labour it would have required…  now we have relished cleaning up the paddocks – even if lashing the wire to the trailer is a little challenging.

If you ask the Little Fisherman though, the tractor’s main purpose is to make jumps for his motorbike…

And it was a nice place to learn how to drive the tractor and play with the settings.  I might just have to admit that this is my new favourite toy!

I am sure that Lucie will soon feature in many articles on the Rock Farm, as we work to improve the pastures and soil health.  In the mean time, we can all enjoy some of its benefits.

Have I ever said how much I love living on the Rock Farm??

Gotta love rainy days

It has been a long time since the Rock Farm has enjoyed a bit of rain. Our paddocks have been getting more bare, and we have started supplementing our sheep’s feed.

A rainy day is always a welcome relief. It provides an opportunity to catch up on the ever increasing pile of paperwork.  I also have a list of rainy day jobs which include fixing sticking doors, sharpening chainsaw chains, and minor furniture repairs.

But I really love catching up on the news – even if it is last week’s! 

But you have to be careful who might pick up your phone when you’re engrossed on the news….  fair dinkum.

Planting Kurrajong By Seed

One of our favourite trees is the Kurrajong (Brachychiton Populneus).  It is a small to medium size tree that is related to the Queensland Bottle Tree (B. Rupestris).  It grows naturally from north eastern Victoria to North Queensland.  It likes well drained soil, particularly around granite outcrops.

It is a fantastic tree for small farms like ours.  It provides dense shade and also drought fodder.  They are deep rooting trees and support honey production.

We recently planted some seedlings, which are growing well.  I also spied some seeds on a neighbour’s tree, so decided to see if I could propagate them ourselves.

The Australian National Botanical Gardens website provided me with enough encouragement to give it a go.  Their website provides a wealth of information and can be found here:  https://www.anbg.gov.au/gnp/interns-2002/brachychiton-populneus.html.

The first step was to soak the seeds overnight in warm water.

I then cut the ends out of some old tins.  These will be placed around the seeds, in an attempt to stop rabbits and kangaroos from chewing the young plants should they emerge.

I then selected the site for the new trees.  I chose to plant the trees along a former rip-line.  When you look at the photo below, it is obvious that the rip lines hold more moisture than the surrounding soil.  This will also help the trees get their roots established through the shale rock.

It took a few minutes to scrape away some grass, and loosen up the soil.  I placed the old tins over the seeds where I hope they will keep the new plants protected initially.

It was a glorious morning, and before too long I had my line of Kurrajong all planted.  The supervisor also enjoyed his morning watching me work.

The only problem with my chosen site is that the trees will eventually grow and block one of our favourite views to the east.  Of course that is, if they grow.  As if that would ever happen on the Rock Farm!  Here’s hoping!

Fencing

Fencing on any rural block is a challenge. The old story of the grass is always greener on the other side holds true for some of my sheep – despite my best efforts. And to make matters worse, kangaroos and wombats hold modern fencing in scant regard. It seems the native animals hold onto ancient paths, and fences are mere obstacles that must be pushed under or through.  

Boundary fencing adds another challenge to the mix… The of inclusion another person into the mix. With around 4km of boundary fencing and 4 neighbours on our hundred acre block, it is no small concern.

The basic principle of boundary fencing is that both parties have an equal responsibility to maintain the fence.  This means you both pay for the fence, you both maintain it, and when the time comes, you have to agree to replace it. 

And fencing is bloody expensive.


We had a stretch of about 150 metres of our boundary fence that had long passed its usefulness. My neighbour had been hinting for years we needed to do something about it, and finally we got our act together.

It also helped that we had some cheap labour come and visit… So with agreement reached, materials sourced and labour on hand, it was time to crack on.

The first job was to replace the rotten strainer post. We gave the new post a few days to settle before we pulled out the old fence.  The old fence was all timber. We split the wire out of the old red box timber posts, but left the lighter stringybark spreaders in place. 

The old wire was rolled into two bundles, and then it was time to bang in the new star pickets.  We got our line by stringing a line of barbed wire first. This wire ended up being moved and tied to the top of the pickets.

It was all hands on deck…for a while at least. Unfortunatly our neighbour was ill, and unable to assist (provide adult supervision).  So we did our best.

Once the posts were all in, we moved the barbed wire to the top of the pickets, and then strung the plain wire.  This was only the second time I had used a wire spinner, and this tool was fantastic at ensuring the wire spun tangle free through the posts. 

Finally the hinge lock mesh was rolled out, strained. The end result was a fantastic new stretch of fence… that makes the other sections look decidedly shabby.

We were able to salvage the old wire. Jo thought it would be perfect to reinforce the base of the orchard/vegetable garden. Our chooks live here, and occasionally rabbits and foxes do visit. So the old netting was cleared of its wire and repurposed.  The old plain and barbed wire was respun using the same wire spinner (doubly brilliant), and will be turned into garden art – or sold.

We used the opportunity to clean up some other netting that had been left lying in another paddock. This hadn’t been neatly rolled, but a handy set of hay forks soon helped move it from its resting place and to the steel recycling area at the local tip.

And so, we ended up with a great new section of fence.  And a skilled up labour force ready to start working on dividing our paddocks up into smaller cells. I just need t o find some time…

Special thanks to the willing labourers, and best wishes to our poorly neighbour.