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.

 

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Tree of Heaven removal on the Rock Farm

The other day I wrote about some of the weeds of significance we have on our property.  Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) was one weed that we had identified using the excellent Weedwise app and I decided it was to be the first on my hit list.

I thought we had one tree and a handful of suckers.  My initial assessment was wrong.  Very wrong.  I found we had a thicket of around 40 trees, between 4 and 6 metres tall, in a nook between an old timber and wire fenced horse paddock and the boundary.

Tree-of-Heaven is a deciduous tree.  It forms dense clumps or thickets from suckers which spread from its roots.  These clumps out compete other more desirable plants.  It is a major weed in North America where it is choking natural woodlands.  Once established, it is very hard to get rid of.

I decided the best approach was to first mechanically remove the trees and slash or dig out the suckers.  Then any future growth would be small suckers that I will be able to spot spray to kill the plant.  The first step was to drop the trees.

Thankfully the timber is very soft and light, and the chainsaw made short work of dropping the trees.  The old timber fence was abutting up next to the thicket, but as it was already in need of replacing,  I ended up felling a few trees onto the fence.  This made it easier and safer to fell the trees, and allowed me to protect some of the other trees growing in the vicinity.

The result was small mountains of branches and logs.  Without an army of helpers to move the logs, I put the stick rake / blade onto Lucie the old International 674 tractor, and set to work.  Lucie unleashed all 61 horses (perhaps a few have escaped the stable in the intervening years) and pushed the logs into a couple of large piles.  It sure beat man-handling the logs.

The next step was to remove the stumps.  I had deliberately left them quite tall, to allow me extra purchase when pulling them out.  If I had the room, I would have pushed them all over, but as this encroached on the neighbour’s place, I had to pull most of them out.  A recovery chain proved most effective.  Before I bought the tractor, I used to use the 4WD to pull out stumps, but the tractor with its low gearing, agricultural tyres and 4WD allowed me to pull them out in a far more civilised manner.

The war against weeds is far from over, but we have taken a few steps in the right direction.

Lucie is proving her worth as a reliable and hardworking spare hand.  After we had pulled out the weeds, I treated her to a change of oil and some fresh grease on the moving parts.  Over the next few days I hope to change the fuel and air filters too.  Then she will be good to go for another hundred hours or so.

In the meantime, it is nice to sit back and relax.  Moving out to a hobby farm isn’t for everyone, but you might have figured I love it out here.  Especially when you get to take a few moments to enjoy a sunset that makes all the hard work worth it.

Some more on weeds

It has been a hot few days on the new Rock Farm.   I will talk about our fire-plan in the near future, but in the mean time I have been researching some of the weeds that I have identified on the property, and developing strategies on how we will deal with them.

The best place to learn about weeds in our area is the NSW DPI (Department of Primary Industries) WeedWise website http://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/.  The NSW WeedWise page is a wealth of information about what plants are listed as declared weeds in NSW, including priority weeds for different regions.

They also have a handy WeedWise App, which I have downloaded onto my pocket brain.  This means I have access to the full weed database and recommended treatment options all the time.

http://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/

Managing weeds is the responsibility of the land owner.  Sadly infestations of certain weeds can render arable farmland next to useless.  It is also the source of much frustrations between neighbours particularly given the way most weeds spread with no regard to fences or boundaries.

Whilst I would love to ensure our weed management practice is chemical free, I don’t believe this will be achieved in a timely or cost effective manner.  The WeedWise site and app provide information on chemical free, mechanical and selective grazing weed removal techniques, as well as methods using chemicals.

But no matter what technique you use, the best time to start is the present!

Tree of heaven

Tree of Heaven – source http://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/Weeds/Details/142

Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus Altissima) is a plant of Chinese origin that is highly invasive and quickly chokes an area.  I have found one large plant and dozens of suckers in one of the old horse holding paddocks.  Mechanical removal requires the removal of all root matter as it will readily shoot from the smallest remaining root.  This will take concerted effort to get rid of, and will be best approached with a combination of mechanical and chemical methods.

Sweet Briar – (Rosa Rubiginosa) Is common in a lot of our paddocks.  Sheep eat young plants whilst goats will defoliate and ringbark the plants, killing it.  I have slashed a number of these plants in the paddock the sheep are in, hoping that the sheep will eat the young shoots as it re-sprouts.  Apparently cattle don’t eat Sweet Briar – meaning sheep stay part of the wholistic management process for this weed.

Hawthorn (Crataegus Monogyna) is also present but thankfully in only small numbers.  I will try to keep on top of the Hawthorn thickets and ensure they are mechanically slashed and see if the sheep will keep on top of the suckers.  The only catch to all this is I need to ensure my paddocks are sheep proof – and this will take additional work!

Serrated Tussock (Nassella Trichotoma) is common on our property.  It made its way to Australia during the Gold Rush of the 1850s where it was used as stuffing in saddles.  Not palatable for stock, it is most cost effectively controlled by spot spraying individual plants.  The main chemical, flupropanate can also be applied in a granular form using a device similar to a salt shaker.  The granules will activate in rain and provide a long term herbicide against re-germination of the plant, with minimal effect on other pasture, or it can be sprayed in a solution form.

Weed control is one of many competing demands on my time at the new Rock Farm – but I hope to have these plants under control and better managed within a year or so.  If anyone is keen to come and help me chip out some weeds, I’ll gladly shout you lunch!

Managing thistles on the new farm

We are quickly settling into our new property.  The house is starting to feel like a home, and the shed is slowly coming into order.  We might still be deciding where things will live, and I am sure we will rearrange everything a few more times before we are sorted.  We are so excited with the potential of this property – but there are a couple of jobs that can’t wait.

One of our paddocks (1.8 hectares or 4.5 acres) had a healthy crop of thistles green and actively growing.  The only animal I know of that eats thistles like this was Eeyore, of Winnie the Pooh fame.  These thistles were just starting to look ready to flower.  And Eeyore doesn’t live nearby.

One approach is to poison the thistles with a herbicide, but not wanting to broadcast chemicals over such a wide area, I decided to mechanically mulch the thistles.  This returns the nutrients to the ground, without killing off the microbes and earthworms in the soil.

All I needed was a little patch of rain to dampen the soil and reduce the risk of starting a bushfire.  And on 26th of December, a lovely 16mm of rain fell, giving me an opportunity to mulch the thistles with a much reduced fire risk.

Lucie the tractor and the mulcher made short work of most of the thistles.  In a few of the thicker stands, some stalks remained and a few days later appeared to be still growing, but over 95% of the thistles appear dead.

It is a bit of an experiment.  I don’t know what residual seed bank is in the soil, and how many thistles I will need to manage in this way in the future – but it is nice to try to do it without spraying harsh chemicals on the ground.

I also found the mulcher an extremely effective tool for removing any loose wire on the ground. 😦  Thankfully I only had to stop a couple of times to remove wire from around the drum – and I know have at least one paddock free of loose wire!

That job complete, it was time to get back to the important things of enjoying the summer holidays 🙂

Myrtle – The Mercedes-Benz LA911

Every man is allowed a mid-life crisis car, aren’t they?  Usually these are red, have two doors and are made by one of the great marques.

Of course, the picture in your mind might not exactly match what we ended up getting, but when I took the family to Ournie to meet the red, two door, all wheel drive Mercedez-Benz, it was simply love at first sight.

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When we turned up to look at the big red truck, we met a real character in its owner, Michael.  Michael’s first question was almost impossible to answer.  “Whaddaya want to use it for?” he asked…

I didn’t really know what to say.  I mumbled something about using it for a horse truck.

“Nah.  Too slow for that.”

“Um…  I don’t really know.” I confessed.  Michael look at me curiously.  I think he thought I was just a little mad.  But nonetheless he let me take the take the family for a spin.  And we were hooked.  Slow it might be, but it was so much fun.

With the move coming up, I could see a real benefit in being able to load up all our farm equipment onto the truck – and so it didn’t take much for me to say yes.

And Myrtle?  The name came from a story dating back to its RFS days.  The truck was going flat out to a fire near Ournie, with a full load of water and a crew onboard.  One of the crew looked out the window and said over the roar of the engine “Oh look, we’ve been overtaken by a turtle”.

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This is one of the last LA911 trucks made in Stuttgart Germany.  It rolled off the production line in 1983, and was initially delivered to Telecom, before being transferred to the Ournie Rural Fire Service sometime there after.  It has traveled a mere 38,000km making it barely run in.  That said, the hills around Ournie are pretty steep, and given this truck gets along at around 70km on the flat, it would have plenty of hours on the clock.  These trucks have been known to put up with years of abuse and hard work, opening up large parts of Africa and South America where the term ‘roads’ is an euphemism.

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The engine is the venerable OM352, a 5.7 litre direct injection 6 cylinder diesel renowned for its longevity and simplicity.  The OM352 commenced production in 1964, and is found in trucks, tractors and boats the world over.  Later models were turbo-charged, however this one is naturally aspirated.

OM352

I feared parts were going to be an issue, however Donaldson Motors in Melbourne has a full parts catalogue online – and most parts in stock.  The truck does need a new hand throttle fitted (as this also shuts the engine down), and a new one was delivered from Singapore within a week.  Impressive service indeed.

Nearly everyone who has seen the truck reckons it is fantastic, and loves it.  Except for one, who reckons I’m crazy.  But he’s a diesel mechanic.  What would he know?

So what are we going to use it for?  Well I do have a couple of ideas, but I reckon it would make a great camper.  With a coffee machine so I can sell coffee in remote areas and fund our travels.  In the mean time, it might haul firewood on the new not-so-rocky farm.  And i reckon it makes me look pretty cool too.  After all, isn’t that what a mid-life crisis car is supposed to do?

The new ‘not-so-rocky farm’

After the whirlwind of the last three months, we are excited to be finally settling into our new home.  We have started unpacking boxes, the shed is slowly coming to order and we are starting to realise that Christmas is only a couple of days away.  It has taken a lot of ducks to line up in order to pull off the move, and more people than I could ever imagine to thank, but here we are.

The house was built in the mid 1980s – and is in original condition.  Whilst we have ideas about how to renovate it, we are making sure we live in it for 12 months first to get a full appreciation of how the house functions during the seasons.  I have joked that I am looking forward to 12 months off… but in reality it means I have a year to get the farm in order before my time will be taken up renovating!

In a former life, the property was used as a horse stud.  It has a collection of old stables, shelters, hay sheds and small paddocks.  In fact we have gone from three large paddocks at the Rock Farm to over 20 smaller paddocks.  This will work well for our plans of soil improvement through cell grazing, and I am really excited with this prospect, however there is lots of work to be done to tidy up the day paddocks and sheds.

The infrastructure is best described as ‘tired’.  Some of the solid fences will not take much work to bring into order, however there are kilometres of plain wire fences that need a lot of work.  The sheep are not contained by these fences, and I will have my work cut out ensuring our fences are stock proof.

But the property has grass.  Lots of grass.  And we will be looking for some cattle to help us manage the pasture.  I am really looking forward to experimenting with holistic pasture management through the use of livestock, and this property has real potential.  In the past, 20 acres or so has been sown to lucerne.  We may use this paddock to cut meadow hay, which we will use for our own stock / soil improvement projects.

The boy’s love the new fantasy land they have discovered.  The new place has a creek running along one boundary.  This will create lots of challenges with flood gates to repair and causeways to cross – but it also provides a beautiful cool haven to escape the hot days. The deciduous elm trees also do their part in creating a nutrient rich, moist soil, but I will have to manage their tendency to spread by suckers..

We had many ducks to line up with the purchase of this property.  Friends of ours bought the adjoining 200 acre block, and are looking forward to building a house on their block.  In the meantime their beautiful horses will spend time between both our properties… and I have no problem with that.

I think we will like living here 🙂

Rock Farm Sold

To say it has been a turbulent few months would be an understatement, but it is with mixed feelings that I can finally confirm that the Rock Farm is sold.

We have been honoured to be custodians of the Rock Farm for the past five years.  This beautiful property has taken us on a wonderful journey.  Whilst this blog has largely been about our trials and tribulations as we learn how to raise stock and rehabilitate our soil, there has been so much more to our time on the Rock Farm.

Less than three months ago, selling the Rock Farm was the last thing on our minds.  Our new lambs were growing into sheep, our soil was healing, our trees were growing and our boys were turning into young men.  We had built on the amazing legacy the previous owners had created and felt we were on the cusp of realising our own dreams for the property.

But you have to keep your mind open to new opportunities.  And when one knocked oh so softly, we knew it was worth investigating.  Once we decided it was worth going for, we gave it everything we had.

Getting the Rock Farm on the market was a huge challenge.  We decluttered the house and tidied up the sheds.  Then I disappeared to sea for a couple of weeks for work before coming home just in time for the first open home.  Jo had worked tirelessly in my absence and transformed our home into a magazine shoot.  Our agent, Chris Dixon did an excellent job and found a buyer for our home almost straight away.

I think we were all a little surprised how quickly we had found a new owner for the Rock Farm, but the realisation that we had a huge amount of work ahead of us soon set in.  Moving is an arduous task at the best of times, but in the lead up to Christmas, it has been particularly trying.

Looking back, we have been extremely fortunate to be custodians of our little patch of paradise for a brief moment in time.  Our gorgeous boys have thrived in the environment, learning all sorts of invaluable skills from raising livestock to repairing motorbikes and cars.

Not all the lessons have been easy.  Some have been physically demanding – learning to shear a sheep or mark lambs has challenged the lads.  Some have been emotionally draining, such as when a poddy lamb dies.  But these lessons have given the boys a good grounding in the cycle of life, and our part in it.

But they have loved it.  As have we.

So, where are we off to?

All will be revealed soon, but I can confirm that we have moved down the road, to another 40 hectare (100 acre) property…   The good news is that there will be so many more lessons to be shared on this blog as we start our new adventure on the new not-so-rocky Rock Farm!

But we will miss the original Rock Farm 🙂

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! 🙂

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