Of droughts and flooding rains….

Dorothea Mackellar had it right when describing her love of Australia in her poem My Country. The Australian landscape has always been one of extremes with periods of drought followed by wet cycles. Whilst the cycle is familiar throughout Australian history, the intensity of droughts and rain events has increased. This, combined with changing land use, further compounds the effects of the climatic changes, meaning we are seeing bigger floods and longer dry periods.

Three years ago, our area was gripped in drought. Doomsayers prophesised that city water supply dams in Australia would never be full again. We anxiously watched our dam drop to a puddle, knowing if we ran out of water, we would have to sell the last of our cattle. Then in early 2020 the drought broke, and we have enjoyed a cycle of wet years, which has replenished water storages, rehydrated the land and grown pasture to feed our cattle.

Earlier this week we experienced the highest flood of our creek for at least 50 years. Three hours after the rain started falling, our creek rose quickly from a small trickle to a raging flood that surpassed our last record height by another half a metre. Previously the damage caused by floods on the Rock Farm has been relatively minor, the clean up being an inconvenience. This one was something different again.

This series of photos show how quickly the creek rose during the first hour. I was anxiously waiting for the family to come home but it became apparent that they were never going to get home in time. Thankfully friends opened their doors and Jo and one of the not-so-little helpers enjoyed a night in the village. (Huge thank you to Mark and Mel).

A couple of hours later the flood was in full force. The not-so-little fisherman and I went for a walk in the paddocks, and we weren’t prepared for the amount of water roaring down our creek.

The driveway disappeared. The previous record was to the base of the gate on the right – this one came another half a metre up the gate. I sent the young fellow in to open the gate and reduce the load on the catch.

The water came up to our dam wall, and we sat and watched the water for a while. Every minute or so we heard giant Elm trees crack and shake, before seeing them appear in the middle of the flow downstream. The destruction was enormous. I have never before seen these trees break off the banks – indeed they have done a fantastic job of stabilising the bank up until now.

The following morning the water had receded and I went for a walk to check the damage. Debris was pushed up onto and over fences that have been standing for 50 years or so. I found the oak tree that used to stand near our crossing several hundred metres down stream. Several of the Elms that collapsed during the flood were lying in my paddocks. Sections of the creek banks had been scoured out, and areas that were previously grassed and covered in trees turned to river rocks and sand beaches. We have lost quite a large area of our paddock – but the young trees planted on the banks seem to have folded over and bounced back. We need them to grow and grow quickly to help hold the bank together in future floods.

The clean up will take a while – but that is all achievable. I have written a priority list for the fence repairs, however all work is on hold whilst we wait for the paddocks to dry out. It is one thing to walk on the paddocks in calf deep water. It is something else altogether to drive on them with machinery or even just tools. After a bit of work with the tractor, the driveway is again passable

The most important thing is that we are all safe and well. The cattle likewise are all safe and now back on the slopes well above the water level. And of course – it has created a wonderful playground!

In the coming weeks I am sure we will repair our fences and get the farm functioning again. In the longer term, I hope we can lift our gaze and start working at catchment levels to slow water down. If we can slow water in the landscape, it will cause floods to rise slower, the peak to last longer but at a lower height. The landscape has changed enormously in the past couple of hundred years, and any changes we make wont happen overnight. The good news is that change is happening. One of the key organisations that has conducted years of research and is at the forefront of making changes both at a landscape and the political level is the Mulloon Institute. If you’re interested in finding out more about how we can start changing the hydrology of the landscape to reduce impacts of flood events like this, check out their webpage here: https://themullooninstitute.org/

Mechanical, aborial, bovine, fencing and climate challenges on the Rock Farm.

The Rock Farm is looking fantastic with the grass starting to leap out of the ground. The lawn mower has been brought out of the shed and pressed into service keeping the garden in check, the teenage helper’s desire for pocket money overcoming their inherent need to sleep. The first snake of the season has come out to soak in the sun. Our cattle are starting to put on weight, and we will join them with a new bull soon. The wet spring season has created some health challenges for the cattle which we are working through, whilst making access to the Rock Farm difficult. We have continued planting native shrubs. built more tree guards and are replacing boundary fences. We have also been working on a couple of mechanical challenges.

During the first week of the school holidays, our old black falcon ute kept disappearing with two boys, only to be heard from the house revving hard. The Not-So-Little Helpers discovered the fun of going in circles…. however they have also found out that when you push an old engine to the limit, things tend to break.

The harmonic balancer collapsed, and the boys sheepishly reported they thought a tensioner pulley had failed, as the fan belt kept coming off. Our family rule is that if you break it, you fix it (the two ‘F’ rule). I explained that I needed the capability of a farm ute – they could work out whether it was in their best interests to repair or replace the car.

They quickly realised that repair was indeed the cheapest option – even if the parts were more than the original cost of the ute. Fitting the new harmonic balancer was especially easy, as there was no grill or bumper restricting access. After an entertaining hour or so watching the boys fit the new balancer, the ute was back in service…. for a short time until they flogged our both rear tyres.

My progress with Myrtle the old Benz has been slower, but I have finally managed to remove the engine. It was straightforward, but not particularly easy. Three out of four engine mounts were easy to extract, one was nigh impossible. Seven out of eight wheel nuts were easy to undo, one was not. It was a common theme as I slowly got the engine ready to remove. I now have to remove the engine from the donor truck – which will probably be in the new year.

Around the farm tree planting continues, with a range of native shrubs planted in our biodiversity reserve. We hope these will grow and provide food and habitat for native bees, insects and birds. I find planting trees is not only great exercise, but it also incredibly fulfilling. I hope these little shrubs get well established this season, without too much pressure from the hares!

In other areas of the farm, we have been working at improving the infrastructure. We built a new tree guard for the Cork Oaks we planted near the dam (see last post) however I haven’t been game to drive down to fence off the other Cork Oaks on our western boundary due to the wet boggy conditions.

The northern boundary fence was in terrible condition, and I spent a morning removing the old fence so a contractor can replace this section. We are fortunate our neighbour supports these improvements which work for both our properties. We hope to get new posts in the ground this week before the next rain event comes.

Speaking of the wet, it is having an impact on the health of our cattle. We have been keeping the cattle on the slopes, attempting to keep their feet as dry as possible. Unfortunately all our paddocks have boggy sections. Warm wet conditions increase the likelihood of the animals suffering a painful condition known as footrot (not to be confused with Foot and Mouth disease) – see here: https://www.mla.com.au/research-and-development/animal-health-welfare-and-biosecurity/diseases/infectious/footrot/. We noticed one steer with a limp, and the vet gave us a long acting treatment to help clear the likely abscess in his hoof. The vet explained the injection ‘triangle’ site for the intra muscular injection. The steer wasn’t particularly happy when the needle entered his neck, but I hope he feels better soon.

The record breaking wet is also having a wider impact on our community. Most common complaints are the condition of the roads as the substrates collapse and giant potholes form. We are fortunate that our flooding events normally affect nothing more than our property access (drowning of big red truck aside!). We have a temporary fence in our flood prone areas, from which we need to retrieve our portable electric energiser. We have spent the odd night in town, and lent on friends and neighbours for beds when access is known to be dangerous. When a neighbour got in a spot of bother, our eldest boy rose to the occasion and calmly took charge until everyone was safe and well. It was a proud Dad moment.

Of course the rain isn’t all bad news. It allows the odd excuse to sit down and relax, whilst listening to the rain on the roof. Of course I should be tidying up the shed, and don’t even mention housework!

Somehow I think Sapphire agrees the housework can wait too 🙂

Spring Update – It doesn’t always go to plan….

With the Bureau officially declaring another La-Nina year, we are looking forward to another wet year here on the Rock Farm. It means our tanks and dam will be full, the grass will grow, and we will be able to carry our cattle through to autumn. It also means another great year to establish trees and keep working on improving our natural capital.

Whilst this blog may be a little slow to get updates, it doesn’t mean we have been sitting idly on the Rock Farm. There have been lots of different activities keeping us busy. Some planned, some not planned, but all keeping us busy, fit and challenged.

Our beautiful cows, including the four maiden heifers all calved without any difficulty this year, giving us 16 gorgeous calves. With 10 heifers, 6 bull calves, we were thrilled with the result. The antics of the calves are constantly entertaining, and I am happy to admit I spend more time than I should with these creatures. They are naturally shy, but with their quiet mums watching by, their curiosity overcomes their fears, and we have been quite close to several of them.

Once all the calves were on the ground, we marked them. They all received a multi-spectrum 5-in1 vaccination, and we castrated the males (with rubber rings). The good news was that all the calves were polled, meaning we don’t have to de-horn any of them (which is a job I hate). The calves will get another booster vaccine in a few weeks to protect them from the common clostridial diseases found in cattle.  We also took the opportunity to audit the NLIS ear tags in each of the cows. This ensures that our records are accurate and up to date, should a biosecurity event such as Foot and Mouth disease enter Australia.

In other news we have continued our work dividing our paddocks into smaller cells. Taking the opportunity presented by creating a nature reserve in one paddock, we completed a small section of fence to divide the paddock into two smaller paddocks. This will help us better manage grazing in this area, continuing our Savory rotational grazing system.

We are continuing to plant trees on the Rock Farm. A friend kindly gave us 120 Cork Oak (Quercus Suber) seedlings. We have planted these in two main areas, to create wind breaks. These medium oaks are ever green, drought hardy and long lived. They are native to the Mediterranean area, and forests are carefully managed as these oaks provide the corks in wine bottles and the centre of cricket balls. We will use temporary electric fence to protect these seedlings in the short term before we build permanent tree guards. Huge thank you to Noel for his donation of these little beauties.

The sharp eyed among you would note in the background our Amarok ute has been replaced with white Hilux. Sadly our Amarok was written off after a particularly nasty pot hole cracked a suspension mount. Whilst our insurance company has been outstanding, they are finding it difficult to replace our ute. It was unexpected (I thought a suspension bush had failed) and whilst I am grateful for the loan of the Hilux with a tub body, it sure is a different set up to our old flat tray. I find it particularly awkward and impractical for our purposes and can’t wait for our replacement vehicle to get here.

It hasn’t been our year for mechanical devices on the Rock Farm. Our dear old Benz 911 truck Myrtle, suffered a catastrophic engine failure after I took it across our creek in deep water to retrieve the family from the other side. Whilst the air intake was above the water level, I hadn’t countered on the funnel effect which forced water up to the top of the radiator and into the top of the engine. The engine came to a complete stop. After dragging it out of the creek and to the shed with the tractor my worst fears were realised when I pulled the injectors and still couldn’t get the engine to turn over. This was of course no easy process, requiring the fabrication of two Benz ‘special tools’.

Whilst the OM352 engine fitted to Myrtle is common around the world, there aren’t many in Australia. There are a couple of turbo charged variants available (OM352A) but are expensive. I happened to mention my dilemma to our neighbour and he offered an engine from a spare truck at his place. It is an OM366 – which has the same block. It won’t be a straight swap – I will have to get creative – but the engine is far more affordable – and promises 60 extra horses! It might not make Myrtle any faster, but it might not slow down as much on hills! It hadn’t run in a few years, but after hooking up some new batteries, it fired up straight away – so is the path we are pursuing for now.

It means that any spare time I thought I had has been well and truly accounted for. I do love the challenges of the Rock Farm. From getting my hands dirty in the ground planting trees and chipping weeds, to working stock, to solving mechanical problems, it does stretch me. I might not love every minute of it all – but I wouldn’t swap it for the world…

Joining the regenerative conversation

Over the past few weeks I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to attend some inspirational field days and forums discussing the future of agriculture with some incredible innovators and communicators. Great thinkers around the world like Malcolm Gladwell and Joel Salatin have both, in their books and interviews, explained that great people don’t just do great things, they share their knowledge through excellent communication skills. I have been fortunate to attend a couple of sessions with such people who have inspired our journey to deeper understanding of our land and the responsibility we have to care for it.

A few weeks ago, I ventured to Bibbaringa near Holbrook to a field day hosted by owner Gillian Sandbrook and Soils for Life.

Soils for life’s mission is “To support Australian farmers in regenerating soil and landscapes, to build natural and social capital, and transform food and fibre systems”. It was founded in 2013 by Major General Michael Jeffery, after being asked by the Government to identify the single largest threat to national security. Major General Jeffery identified soil loss and degradation was the largest threat to Australia, and Soils for Life was founded.

Soils for Life supports the growing number for farmers and rural leaders dedicated to farming in ways that improve soil. It does this through conducting case studies uncovering the stories of farmer innovators and sharing their experiences, allowing everyone else to make their own judgements. .

Gillian is part of the 8 families group and were the subject of one of the case studies. The group met during a holistic management course, and the peer support network they established after the course led to the establishment of the 8 families group. They graciously shared their journey with us at Bibbaringa, before we went on-farm to see some of the techniques used to hydrate the landscape, audit and validate the natural capital of the property and monitor the transition to new management practices. The ‘8 families’ group Soils for Life case study can be found here: https://soilsforlife.org.au/the-8-families-group/.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, Gillian was the co founder of Earth Canvas. We had already booked tickets to the Regenerating Farmscapes Forum hosted by Earth Canvas a few weeks after the field day. The Forum was held at the National Museum of Australia, and we were lucky to get our tickets as it sold out quickly. The forum brought together farmers, artists, scientists and writers for a discussion on the shifting agricultural paradigm. Keynote speakers such as Dr Ken Henry, Dr Charles Massy, Darren Doherty, Stacey Curcio and Professor Sasha Grishin provided a fascinating perspective on the link between soil, animal and human health.

We found ourselves in good company in the audience too. We were sitting among regenerative agriculture pioneers, research scientists from the Sustainable Farms, neighbours, local leaders from our very own land managers network and other curious minds.

An element of the forum was the Earth Canvas exhibition that we also walked explored. The connection tween artists and regenerative farmers was thoughtful and insightful.

Confused about all the groups and names? I am too, but what is heartening is that the intent is broadly similar and the the conversations are being shared across the agricultural community. People generally tend to bond ourselves to a particular ‘tribe’ or group. What I have found is many of the leaders in this sphere cross many of the groups and share their message.

It is inspiring and humbling to be part of that journey. For a long time it felt that we were an isolated island doing our best to improve our little farm. It is apparent we are part of a much wider community, who are welcoming to all people with curious minds, no matter how large or small their property is.

These leaders in regenerative agriculture are bringing people together and communicating their journey. They are grass roots leaders who are influencing the highest levels of Australian Government. The conversation is growing, and it great to be a part of it.

Calving and a big dump of rain!

Calving is without a doubt my favourite time of year. It isn’t without its challenges, and requires twice daily (or more) checks just to make sure all is going to plan. As I write we have 13 beautiful calves on the ground, with a couple more stil to calve. The cows seem to understand what we are up to with our regular checks and seem quite happy with our presence. We only have one maiden heifer, and she gave birth to a bull calf without any issues which was a great relief. Regular readers will recall that Daisy had some difficulty calving last year, and despite my misgivings, remained on the farm. She hasn’t calved yet – indeed she might not even be in calf – but we are watching her closely.

Our gorgeous cows are lovely and quiet, however the new mums can be understandably a little more cautious around us. Over the past few years, any cow that has shown any form of aggression has been sold. That said, there are a couple who quitely let us know with a gentle shake of the head that we have approached close enough. We don’t put any more pressure on them. By sitting down a short distance away, those who want to come up and say hello are able to… and they sure make us smile.

We are calving a little earlier than last year. Whilst the soil moisture is great, the rain has reduced the solar gain on the pastures and hence grass growth is a little less than we expected. We are throwing out a bit of pasture hay, and are providing a magnesium lick to the cattle to support their nutrition requirements.

It is an unusually wet year, with the end of last week culminating in the largest flood waters we have seen on our creek since moving in. Our previous flood record was measured to the base of our front gate post. This most recent flood covered the gate and has fiven us a new height datum. A day of steady rain was followed by a sharp 30mm shower as the sun set. The resultant rise in the creek was mirrored with flooding throughout the district, with several roads cut. The family were safely marooned at home, and I ended up staying in town after work.

The following day the creek dropped, and required a bit of work to clear some of the debris off the crossing. Our neighbour was home and cleared the worst of it (thanks Stuart), allowing me to get home that evening. The following day, we continued to drag silt and logs off the drive way. The size of the timber moved downstream by the flood waters was phenomenal. Sadly several trees were ripped out of the creek banks. I haven’t yet established the extent of the damage, but I do know we have lost some creek bank, new trees and a temporary fence. Over the next week or two we will look rebuilding our flood gates and making the front paddock stock proof again.

It is all part of the cycle of the water way. For all the extra work the creek creates, it adds so much more to our property and we consider it an asset to the Rock Farm.

In the meantime, I will keep hanging out with the cows and enoying their company. It is good for the soul!

Special thanks to Stuart for clearing the debris so I could get home and to the Not-So-Little Helper for his amazing photos.

Winter 2022 Update

Recently I have written of some of the support and decision making tools available for small farmers like us. Over the past few years I have been actively seeking knowledge and making the most of opportunities to attend workshops and farm visits. I have found great inspiration in many of the people I have met and stories I have listened to, however there is still plenty to do on the Rock Farm. Pipes keep leaking, cattle need feeding, firewood needs carting – but there is great delight in sunset strolls around the property.

Over the past month or so we have been rotating our cattle every few days to a new paddock. I have been supplementing their feed with the odd bale of hay, just to help extend the rotations, and return some nutrients to the paddocks. The recent school holidays provided an opportunity to refresh the boy’s tractor skills, by getting them to start moving the big round bales safely to feed the cattle. It also means I don’t have to be here to feed the cattle every time.

We also had a bit of school holiday fun on the Rock Farm. After sitting idle for several months with a fuel issue, we got the buggy working again. After a bit of Google and YouTube, the boys gave the carburettor jets a clean, and the buggy roared to life. With two teenage boys (and a slightly older but no less enthusiastic Dad), we decided to test our driving skills with a time trial over a set course. It was great fun – but sadly the buggy wasn’t up to the work and only lasted a couple of circuits for each of us before retiring again to the shed!

It wasn’t all about hanging about on the farm though. The boys and I did escape to Sydney for a night in the big smoke. We had a great time kicking about the city, checking out Paddy’s markets, the food of China Town, the rides of Luna Park, and a Ghost tour of the Rocks.

One other project we worked on was replacing a 200 metre section of fence. We have planted dozens of trees in our ‘back’ paddock and have decided to keep the stock off that paddock for a number of years until the trees get established. This has also meant we haven’t been able to use a smaller paddock on the lower slopes as the original fence was in terrible condition. In order to utilise this ten acre paddock, we decided to replace the fence with a new one. The old timber posts literally fell over when we pulled the wire down. We replaced the fence with a new section of stock mesh. This means that effectively we will have a ‘new’ paddock of around ten acres in our rotation, which is fantastic.

I have a little more work to do before this paddock can be used again, and we will put in a new gate to make moving the cattle through this paddock easier. It will make a significant addition to our rotation, as it has good pasture, good shelter and good water.

But the most exciting news of all came on our evening stroll today. It was a wonderful surprise to find this beautiful healthy calf born bang on time. We hope the remaining 15 cows have healthy calves over the next few weeks. It is a wonderful time on the Rock Farm 🙂

Decision Making Tools – Farming Forecaster

James Rebanks described the importance of observation in farming. Observation informs our decisions about how we manage our farms. For thousands of years farmers have been relying on empirical knowledge passed down through generations, helping them to recognise patterns in the weather, cycles on the land and rhythms within nature. But what can you do when you don’t have that mulit-generational connection with your land?

Today we are armed with a vast array of tools to allow us to make evidence based decision making for our farming enterprises. These tools are usually expensive, difficult to use, or unable to be tailored for specific applications. In my quest to learn more about caring for the soil on the Rock Farm, I recently attended a winter update session hosted by the NSW Local Land Services. One of the sessions was on a web based tool that has enormous potential to help me make better decisions about our farm management.

The tool is Farming Forecaster. This tool has been available in our area for a couple of years, but is rapidly expanding throughout New South Wales and Tasmania. Matt and Phil from the video below attended our session and took us through the tool, how it works, and how we can use it to make better decisions. One of the best aspects of the Local Land Service’s workshops is the calibre of people they have at the sessions, and to hear Matt and Phil explain the tool was a real privelige.

The tool uses real-time soil moisture probes in our district to predict pasture growth. Water in the soil is the largest determinator of pasture growth in our area, followed by fertility. The Farming Forecaster assumes you have appropriate fertility and uses the soil moiture profile to determine pasture growth based on either:

  • 30 years of historical data
  • Bureau of Meteorology ACCESS S long range forecast data

With accurate pasture growth data, based on 30 years of observed weather, and knowing exactly how much area is available to graze (using free GIS software QGIS) I am able to calculate with reasonable confidence how much feed will be available to my cattle for the next three months.

This information, coupled with data on the amount of feed I can expect my cattle to eat (based on tables from the Local Land Services Soil Fertility and Decision Making Workshop) allows me to make decisions on my stocking rate.

With rainfall and soil types varying across the region, it is important to look at several sites around your farm. You can do this by clicking on the ‘View Network‘ button. There are some great videos that explain the data also available. Additional information on the site can be found here: https://farmingforecaster.com.au/MemberUpdates.

From using Farming Forecaster, I am now able to confidently say that we have an appropriate stocking rate for this season – well at least for now. It is worth regularly reviewing the site as it is updated weekly. For a punter like me, who has so much to learn about animal husbandry, pasture growth and stocking rates, it really helps me to access knowledge that took generations to acquire.

Of course the ones who benefit most from it are oblivious to it – but that is ok. They’re beautiful – and now I know they should be well fed throughout the next couple of months :).

It all starts with ‘why?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Improving water infrastructure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weaning Cattle – Autumn 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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