The weather breaks

The Rock Farm has been fortunate to receive a little bit of rain over the past couple of days.  A cold front that blasted the South West has made its way across the country, bringing cold moisture bearing westerly winds.  A steady 20mm of rain over two days followed up on 7mm received a week ago.  It is amazing to see how quickly things change.  Hills that were a lifeless brown a week ago now have a green tint.

I now have the delightful problem of having to put the car into 4WD to get up the driveway!

If there is one thing that cold wet weather brings on, it is lambing.  And no one summed it up better than Dog, in Murray Ball’s timeless Footrot Flats.

I knew our girls were close to lambing, but it must be a cruel twist of nature to lamb in the worst possible weather.  I took the opportunity of a short burst of sunshine and went for a little walk around the paddock.  I was delighted to find five new lambs to three very proud ewes.  I hope these little lambs, and their yet-to-be-born brothers and sisters find enough shelter in the paddocks to pull through the last few weeks of winter.

The cattle are curious animals, and we love having them on the property.  This photo was taken a day or two before the rain, and you can see how happy they are to see me with a couple of bales of old pasture hay.  This morning I moved them to a laneway.  They must have been hungry, as they stuck their heads down and started eating as soon as they walked out of the gate.  They’re still in pretty good condition all things considered and are pretty happy to see me – especially if I come bearing gifts!

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Whilst the grass now has a green tint, it is still too cold for it to grow.  Like everyone in the district, I hope we get follow up rainfall to build moisture in the soil.  It is the deep soil moisture that will be the difference between a good spring, and some difficult decisions.

The little bit of moisture has been a good thing.  It has allowed us to plant a stack of acorns.  We planted acorns from locally sourced Daimyo Oaks (Quercus dentata) and Californian Valley Oaks (Quercus lobata).  The Hamilton Tree Planter was the perfect tool for the job – however it was abundantly clear that only the top 5 centimetres of the soil was damp.  Underneath it was bone dry.  This is part of our plan to use deciduous trees to enhance the soil health on The Rock Farm.

We have also planted some native seedlings.  Our local real estate agent donated some seedlings to members of the community for National Tree Day.  We gratefully received a Yellow Box (eucalyptus melliodora) and my favourite tree, a Drooping Sheoak (allocasuarina verticillata).

The Yellow Box is a magnificent slow growing tree, considered the best native tree for honey production.  It prefers areas of better soil hence, in this area, large areas of yellow box woodland were cleared to make way for pastures.   The timber is dense and resistant to decay, and was used for railway sleepers, posts, poles and for timber bridges.  It is great to be re-introducing this tree to our property.

The Drooping Sheoak prefers dry shale slopes.  It is just about the sole food source for the glossy black cockatoo, which is rare in our area.  We had seven of these trees on our last property, but I haven’t found any on the new Rock Farm.  Kangaroos find this little tree irresistible, hence we made tree guards to give it a fighting chance.

Special thanks to Chris and Gin from McGrath Real Estate for their generous donation to the community for National Tree Day.

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A cold winter

Winter is a lovely time on the Rock Farm.  The frosty mornings are an absolute delight to behold, and curling up with a good book in front of a slow combustion fire is a wonderful way to end the day.  It is also usually a chance for the soil moisture to rebuild and provide a good basis for spring growth.  Sadly thus far, this winter has been far drier than normal.

The drier weather has seen our night time temperatures plummet, with consecutive nights down below minus 5 degrees.  Very cold, especially when our new home doesn’t have any insulation!  So our best management plan was to take a lead from nature and migrate north… well at least for the school holidays! After a couple of lovely weeks catching up with family, it was great to come home to the Rock Farm.

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We have been doing better than most, but the Rock Farm is now officially in drought (Source: https://edis.dpi.nsw.gov.au/) .  The long range forecast is also looking grim, with the Bureau of Meteorology predicting that we have an 80 percent chance of a drier than average season  (Source: http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/outlooks/#/rainfall/summary).  We will soon need to make some hard decisions as to our stock, especially as we want to maintain a good ground cover of grasses.

DPI Drought Areas 31 Jul 18

That doesn’t mean we have been without water entirely!  We came home from our holidays to several new ‘freshwater springs’ around the Rock Farm.  The cold mornings, coupled with old pipes had caused several fittings to fail.  The water might have made the ground a little softer and easier digging, but it was so cold!  We cleaned and replaced the old fittings with new good quality fittings.  Hopefully they will last longer than the old ones did!

The stock have been slowly making their way through our remaining grass.  We have a little bit of old hay in the shed that they consider a treat.  It is great for keeping them quiet and happy to see me, but has little nutritional value.  Fodder prices are soaring in NSW as the drought hits, and we hope to have enough rain to give strong spring growth.

The ewes have been taking the pick of the grass.  Unfortunately a couple of them have come down with Lambing Sickness or Pregnancy Toxaemia.  I have since learnt (from the excellent NSW DPI web page: https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/animals-and-livestock/sheep/health/other/pregnancy-toxaemia-in-breeding-ewes) that this is likely to have been caused by the ewes carrying twins, and being over-fat.  We are nursing these girls through, and whilst I don’t hold much hope we can save their lambs, hopefully we can get them through.  I will make sure they’re not so heavy next year.

In other happenings, the Little Fisherman has been at me for a while to teach him how to weld.  After a couple of You-Tube videos, he figured he had enough of an idea to hit the tools.  A couple of bits of scrap metal and some clamps and he was away.  I explained to him that welding is one of those skills that anyone can do, but it takes a lifetime to master.  He now understands why – and I freely admit he has already surpassed my skills!

And so life continues on the Rock Farm.  It is great to be back 🙂

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!

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

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.

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.

 

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.