If you build it, they will come… I hope

A few weeks ago I caught a fleeting glimpse of a Barn Owl (Tyto Alba) hard at work reducing the local mouse population. These beautiful creatures are one of the most widespread birds of prey in the world, and I held my breath as I watched her at going about her business.

Seeing this magnificent bird got me thinking about the balance of nature, and especially what do about our population of mice. Sure I could lay poison for the rodents, but then I risked killing the owls through secondary poisoning. The problem is not too many mice, but too few birds of prey like the Barn Owl.

The biggest limitation on our population of birds here on the Rock Farm is the number of suitable nesting sites. A lot of birds nest in hollows, and unfortunately these take a long time to form naturally. Whilst the Rock Farm has been blessed with innovative and forward thinking tree planting in the past, sadly there are very few really old trees on the property. This means that nesting hollows are few and far between. This is a problem we shared with our last property, and the boys enjoyed a project there making nest boxes for cockatoos (https://rockfarming.com/2016/10/23/helping-birds-with-nesting-boxes/)

So my lockdown project was to build a nesting box for a Barn Owl.

It was a relatively simple build from some dimensions I found online. I used some old exterior paint I found in the shed to protect it for a few years. The hardest part was mounting it high enough up a tree for the birds to feel safe. I picked an Apple Box near the shed as the site of our first nest box, so I can keep an eye on who might move in.

I knew it would be a bit of a challenge lifting the large box into the tree – and given the soft nature of the ground I decided to put a harness on. Oh and I got my lovely wife to come and keep and eye on me just in case gravity got the better of me.

I must admit I was a little relieved to get back onto the ground safe and sound, with the nest box mounted securely in the tree. I hope the birds think it looks as good as I reckon it does. I hope the old adage, “if you build it, they will come” holds true.

If anyone else is looking a for lockdown project and would like to build some nesting boxes for us to mount in our trees, please let me know. We have lots of young trees that would be the perfect place to mount various sized boxes to support our avian friends.

The battle for Daisy (again) – Update

Having started work before the sun, I have been eagerly awaiting a phone call from Jo or the kids to give me an update on the condition of Daisy or her calf. I was still processing the events from the previous day, and had woken this morning with sore muscles in all sorts of unexpected places.

Overnight we had conducted a stock-take of our powdered milk supplies, and hunted around for our poddy calf bottle and teat. We were worried that either Daisy or her calf, or both would die overnight. It was a cold and bitter night, with some more rain in the mix. Jo came to the conclusion that it was foolish to name our cattle, and vowed never to name them again. We feared the worst.

It seems no one was keen to make their way to the yards to check on Daisy and her calf the following morning. Jo eventually made her way down, apparently checking everything else on her way to the yards. The rest of the cows had water, check. Their calves were all accounted for, check. The tractor and next bale of hay were ready to go in the shed, check. Finally it was time to check the yards… and initially Jo feared the worst because she couldn’t see Daisy or her calf.

Then she got closer, and found Daisy up and on her feet, with her beautiful heifer suckling at her udder. She called me in delight to give me the good news.

The Vet, Dr Jack from Bungendore arrived a short time later, and gave Daisy and her calf a thorough going over. He gave Daisy a slow acting antibiotic to treat a small tear. He checked out her calf, and gave her a clean bill of health, and a name… Buttercup.

I guess it is all in a name after-all. Welcome to the Rock Farm Buttercup. ๐Ÿ™‚

The Battle for Daisy (again)….

A rainy day is welcome any time on the Rock Farm – especially now the days are noticeably longer and the ground is starting to warm up. We now have 8 beautiful calves on the ground. However the old adage, ‘you don’t have livestock without dead stock’ held true. We lost one calf during a particularly long and difficult labour for my favourite maiden heifer, Uno. The loss of the calf was heart-breaking, and we felt the mournful ‘moo’ from Uno deeply.

A rainy day is good for taking stock of things around the farm, and catching up on my blog. However no sooner had I written the paragraph above and my day turned around. By the end of it we were in a desperate struggle to save one of our beautiful girls.

The first event that dragged me outside into the wet was to lend a hand to our neighbour, who needed help with a new water tank delivery. It turned into quite the adventure, with the driveway turned to mush, and the creek (moat?) running deep and fast. The initial plan was to drag the tank delivery truck to the site with the tractor, but when we saw how low his trailer was, we realised it would float downstream on the crossing. Plan B was put into place, which involved rolling the ten thousand gallon, 800kg tank onto the back of Myrtle. This went remarkably well, and we soon had the new tank deposited in our neighbours paddock. Remarkable because no trucks or tractors got bogged during this evolution.

In my dash down to the shed to get the tractor, and then swap it for the truck, I had noticed that Daisy was in labour. When we had done with our unloading, I checked on Daisy again and my heart sank. Daisy somehow managed to beat all the odds when she was born. And despite all my reasoning to sell her, she somehow seemed to have very vocal allies on her side. The whole challenge to save her when she was born can be found here: https://rockfarming.com/2019/09/04/the-battle-for-daisy-rescuing-a-calf-on-the-rock-farm/

Protruding from Daisy’s rear was one hoof and a calf head, with its tongue hanging out. The calf’s tongue was a blueish colour, and there were no signs of life. I knew we had to get her in the yards, try to pull the calf and see if we could save Daisy. Despite our efforts, Daisy had no desire to leave her friends. It took all of us a lot of initially gentle and then more forceful encouragement to get her in the yards. By the time we got her safely secured in the crush, we were all exhausted.

Once in the yards, the real battle for survival began. We used this rope squeeze technique to lay her down. The reason for laying her down was that she can push a lot harder lying down. The next thing to do was to find out what was wrong. By now the cold was seeping through my wet clothes, and I was acutely aware of how cold it was now the sun was setting. Jo kindly brought down a bucket of warm water from the house, some old towels and some ropes. I tried to recall any snippets of advice from a childhood reading James Herriot, but sadly not much was coming. I figured it must be like helping lambs, but only bigger…

A gentle examination revealed only one leg was showing. The other leg was folded back – meaning the calf would never come. It was time to call an expert. Our first phone call was to our vet. The next was to another expert – my father. His advice was really simple – before you can pull the calf out, you’ve got to push it back in to re-align the leg. So – against nature, and the vice like grip of the contractions, I pushed the calf back into Daisy, and desperately felt around for a leg. I was on the point of giving up when I found it. That was the easy bit. Getting it to point the right direction was not so. Eventually we got there, and with both legs aligned, it took a few more tugs and our calf was born.

I was relieved that we had saved Daisy (again), but feeling sad about the calf when the calf opened its eyes and gave a breath. It was alive! My heart skipped a beat, and we quickly rubbed it down with the towels and put her next to a thoroughly exhausted but interested mum. Daisy had given birth to a beautiful little heifer.

As I write, they are safely tucked out of the wind in the yards. I still don’t know if either Daisy or her calf will survive the night, but we figured it was time to let them work it out by themselves. We called the vet and cancelled the late night call, but arranged for them to come out first thing to check on their progress. Time will tell if we have beaten the odds, or delayed the inevitable. But that is how things go on a farm. Things can turn around so quickly. And as hard as it can be, it helps me feel alive.

Winter Planning on the Rock Farm

Winter on the Rock Farm this year has been remarkable, with steady rain creating a beautiful slushy feel when walking around the paddocks. With the rain has come plenty of cool overcast days, and some thoroughly miserable windy days. But the rain has also kept the frosts mostly at bay, and this means the grass is still growing, albeit slowly. The cattle all seem to have recovered from the curse of Mavis (https://rockfarming.com/2021/07/10/curse-of-mavis-mange-mite/), and the cows are definitely starting to look uncomfortable with their growing bellies.

Regular readers will be aware I decided to hold last spring’s calves over winter. I have been using a couple of tools to help me determine my strategy. The first is Farming Forecaster (https://farmingforecaster.com.au/). This tool, supported by Local Land Services and CSIRO examines soil moisture profiles at numerous sites. All the sites near the Rock Farm show we are in an exceptional season, with unusually high pasture growth forecast for spring. Whilst most of the sites nearby run merino sheep, there are useful graphs on forecast livestock weight. The model predicts steady increases in stock weight until around the first week in August before a steady decline, associated with lambing.

Farming Forecaster estimates our pasture is growing at around 4-5 kg/ha/day – which is not enough to feed all my hungry mouths entirely. To help me determine the balance required, I use the Local Land Services “Drought and Supplementary Feed Calculator“(DAFSC) app (https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/animals-and-livestock/nutrition/feeding-practices/drought-and-supplementary-feed-calculator). This app takes into account the amount of pasture I estimate I have, and allows me to develop a ration to meet the nutritional requirements of the cattle. Practically this means it allows me to calculate how much hay I need to feed the cattle for them to maintain condition. My theory is, if I leave it long enough for me to recognise the cows have lost weight, I have left it too late.

These calculations have allowed me to more accurately determine my supplementary feed requirements. I am feeding out a small round bale of pasture hay to the cattle every couple of days. The cattle love the sound of the tractor starting up. Their antics as I try to work past them into the paddock to unroll the bales make me laugh. I had put a couple of bales on the back of the truck – to allow the family to roll out the hay if I wasn’t there to drive the tractor, but it was more effort than it was worth. Only the hound seemed to think it was a good idea!

The winter hasn’t been entirely incident free. On one of my daily checks the cattle came running up to me – to let me know the frost (or one of their friends) had knocked the float valve off the trough. Thankfully nothing was broken, and after going and getting a couple of tools and some fresh silicone tape, I was able to get their water flowing.

One of my favourite winter past times is the early morning walks on the Rock Farm. In the still morning fog, the dam takes on an other worldly feel. The crisp crunch of the frosty grass underfoot and the silent flight of a barn owl make such moments exhilarating. After checking on the cattle, it is lovely to retreat back to the warmth of the house for a morning cuppa and cuddle on the couch.

Keeping a driveway

When we built our carport at the Rock Farm, we knew eventually we would have to do some work on the driveway. The carport has been one of the most useful additions to the liveability of our house – with the shade welcome in summer and the lack of frost a bonus in winter for early morning starts. Building the carport was a challenge (https://rockfarming.com/2019/11/22/making-shade/) however it also created other problems that we knew we would need to address one day.

The access to the carport used a track through the garden that had been formed but not used much for the next 40 years. A large concrete pipe carries the drive over a small gully. The problem is to do with the volume of water that comes down the gully. Normally the gully is dry or barely a trickle, however on occasion it comes in torrents, through the pipe and overflowing across the road. Jo always wanted a babbling brook outside the back door…. perhaps not with all-or-nothing features of this one!

When the water subsides, the damage becomes apparent. Over the past 18 months of regular driveway use and occasional floods, the remaining base has become narrower. An attempt to address some of the drainage was of limited success (https://rockfarming.com/2020/08/31/drainage-trees-cattle-and-some-sad-news/). With the driveway now unsuitable for anything but cars, it was time to call in our neighbour, who happens to have his own bob-cat and excavator business.

Lou is an absolute master of his machines, and made short work placing large concrete blocks to form a wingwall on both sides of the driveway. The laser dumpy level helped ensure the blocks were all on the same plane – making the job far neater and more precise than I could have achieved for a fraction of the time.

The last job for us to do was to install the headwall. For this I enlisted some school holiday labour. The boys were in a word fantastic, and were soon mixing the concrete to a perfect consistency. They learnt some important skills, and I really enjoyed the time working with them on this little mud pie project.

Lou also dropped a load of large recycled concrete over the boggy section – making our driveway a far safer all weather proposition…. well except for the last run up the hill to the house. But that will be a job for another day ๐Ÿ™‚

We are thrilled with the change to the driveway. Whilst it still isn’t finished properly, it provides far better access to the house for all vehicles, including RFS tankers. A special thanks to Lou for his mastery of his machinery and the school holiday helpers.

Weaning on the Rock Farm

A few weeks ago we made the decision that we would keep the calves over winter, but I knew that this would be a significant increase on our stocking last year. I have been keeping a close eye on the cows, and noticed a couple of the cows start to show their hip bones. The best way to keep the cows in good condition for the rest of winter is to wean their calves. This should see the cows maintain condition for calving in late August. With a wetter than average winter forecast hopefully yielding reasonable pasture growth, we should be able to keep the calves until spring. To be sure, we organised a load of hay, bringing our stored total to around 15 tonnes of fodder. I just hope the cattle get to eat it before the mice!

We brought the cattle into the yards, and quietly drafted them into two mobs. We released the mothers into the adjoining paddock, where they seemed to blissfully shrug off the burden of their calves and start feeding. So I moved them an hour later to a nice fresh paddock over the hill, and thought the worst of the weaning process was behind me. Oh how wrong I was.

Weaning can be a stressful time for young calves and their mothers. So I left with the calves our four maiden heifers and Miss-Steak, one of our original herd who didn’t calve this spring. The initial separation seemed to go well. The calves, secured in the yards followed the lead of the older cattle and started enthusiastically feeding from our round bale feeder.

Later that evening as udders filled, the cows remembered their obligation to the calves and came back to the yards…. through the fences that separated them. Jo took the initiative and opened the gates to let the rest of the mob through. We left them overnight, bellowing to each other through the panels of the yards.

Over the next week, both mums and bubs started getting the hang of the new routine. I kept the cows in paddocks where they had access to the yards when they wanted to drop in and check on the calves. Most of the time they were happy to graze, but would visit their little ones late in the day. The calves seemed more than happy with the company of their peers

After a couple of weeks, I was able to move the cows away into a new paddock, and this time they didn’t push through fences to get back to their calves. I will keep the calves separated for a few more weeks before running them together again for simplicity. It didn’t take the calves long to associate the sound of the tractor starting up with the delivery of fresh hay.

The not-so-little-photographer captured this gorgeous image of one of the calves lifting her head from the water trough. Most mornings I have been breaking the ice on the old bathtub trough so the claves can have an early morning drink… it has been bitterly cold.

It has been a busy few weeks, and juggling work, kids and the cattle. I have had a few late nights down at the yards until well into the night – especially when the float valve controlling the water supply failed due to a rusted split pin. My evening excursions reminded me that I need to recruit some extra help to give me a bit of redundancy if I can’t get around as easily, or if I am out of town. The not-so-little Helper jumped at the chance to drive the tractor, and he is learning the basics of moving it around (with the intention of building jumps for his mountain bike). Jo came down to the shed armed with a laminated instruction sheet on starting the tractor I made up last year. Following the instructions, she too was able to get the tractor in the right place with a bale of hay for the appreciative mouths.

In all, it has been a productive and busy time on the Rock Farm, and despite all the extra work juggling, I wouldn’t change a thing ๐Ÿ™‚

Further information on weaning can be found here: https://www.mla.com.au/research-and-development/Animal-health-welfare-and-biosecurity/Husbandry/Weaning

I also found this research particularly interesting and will investigate doing something similar next time: http://www.beefresearch.ca/blog/low-stress-weaning-benefits-on-several-levels/

More Trees Planted on the Rock Farm

After an usually dry April with no rain recorded at all on the Rock Farm, May started with a much needed soaking . I took the opportunity of a rainy day to relax and catch up on a long overdue book review (Call of the Reed Warbler). Rain like that is an gift not to be missed however and it was just the motivation I needed to get two new tree guards completed and some acorns in the ground before winter.

Our lock-down project last year (New Paddocks on the Rock Farm) was to divide a 6 hectare paddock into three smaller paddocks by building two new fences. It was always planned to plant trees along the new fences, which will one day provide shelter and mulching deciduous leaves to the paddocks either side.

After running the mulcher over the long grass, I put two new strainer posts in the ground 3 metres off the existing fence. At the end of a pretty solid day, I had the first tree guard finished, with acorns planted between each star picket.

I repeated the process the following day with the other guard.

We planted a mixture of Californian White Oak (Quercus Lobata) and Japanese (or Korean) Emperor Oak (Quercus Dentata). In between the oaks, I have also planted some Tagasaste seeds (Chamaecytisus palmensis). Tagasaste is also called tree lucerne, and is a good shelter and fodder tree which fixes nitrogen in the soil.

We chose deciduous trees for these tree guards because they provide good shade during summer, allow light to penetrate during winter and their leaves form a deep mulch for fertilising the soil. Adjoining this paddock is a series of four small horse paddocks. One of these paddocks has a line of white poplar (populus alba) along its northern fence. The paddock is the lushest, and greenest of the four little paddocks – a difference I can only attribute to the tall deciduous trees that provide shade and leaf litter.

If this is your first time reading our blog, you might be asking why I haven’t planted native trees along these fence lines. The answer is complex and it relates to our desire to create a productive farmland that is in balance with nature. We are not trying to re-create the landscape as it was prior to European settlement. Rather as our climate gets hotter and dryer, we believe that large deciduous trees will help shelter our property from the extremes of the weather. We have some beautiful Elm Trees (Ulmus Procera) that are at least 150 years old near an old stone cottage ruin. Their shade and mulching leaves make this area the coolest part of the property on hot days

In other parts of the Rock Farm we have planted native trees. Along the creek bank, we recently planted 300 native trees for habitat and to help stablise the bank. That marathon effort (Can’t see the wood for the trees) has been a great success, with the vast majority of the seedlings becoming established. Wombats have knocked a few over, but overall I am very pleased with the first six months of growth.

Planting trees is rewarding. Just as I packed everything up to head back to the shed, a rainbow appeared. I hope it is a good omen for the beautiful trees I would love to see grow here. As I told my boys, it is my dream that not their kids, but their grand-kids will one day be able to sit in the shade of these trees.

Out and about on and off the Rock Farm

After our last good rainfall in late March, we have barely had a drop of rain, and the farm has quickly taken on a bleak winter look. Talking to a couple of local old timers recently, they felt we are in for a long cold winter, and at this point in time, I am inclined to believe them. That said, our cattle and pastures are in good shape, and the hay shed has a good amount of hay in it.

The Rock Farm has been a hive of activity since our last update in early March. A combination of getting the farm winter ready, school holidays, unscheduled repairs combined with a busy run at work has seen the blog take a bit of a back seat.

Some of the activities we have been up to included repairs to our dam water header tank. The old galvanised pipe rusted through at the base, meaning that we had no water to our troughs, the garden or the house toilets. Thankfully we were able to replace the rusted section with some new poly pipe – but when the system was pressurised, a new ‘water feature’ appeared in the paddocks!

By the time I finished repairing our fountain it was dark, I was cold, however I had an appreciative and curious audience.

In other parts of the farm, our old Peppermint Gums (eucalyptus nicholli) are in the habit of dropping branches – newly always on fences. It doesn’t take too long to cut up the branch and repair the fence, but it does stop other jobs from being done. I’m beginning to understand why it seems every fence on the place is made up of hundreds of little lengths of wire!

The good news is the cattle are all in excellent condition. The problem I have is that every time I threaten selling the calves to ease the feed burden over winter, I find that more have names. And of course, once it has a name, it stays…. This means that I am relying on our pasture and hay stocks to get us through winter. We are planning on holding on our 10 calves over winter and sell them in Spring when they are 12 months old. I do have an escape plan, and the boy’s did help me put NLIS ear tags in them to ensure that we can sell them at any time should we need.

I am very conscious that the Rock Farm can be all consuming, and it is very much my passion. The kids enjoy the space and help out with many of the job, but they are busy forging their own paths. It is a balancing act to keep the boys engaged, but not feel exploited in their contribution to the farm.

With that in mind, it is important to make time to get away from the Rock Farm. We did enjoy a few nights camping in Koscuizsko National Park and couple of weeks later we stayed at Thredbo. It was great to get the family together and enjoy a break together free from the distractions of work, school or the farm. We loved exploring Blue Waterholes, and the adrenaline junkie loved hitting the slopes at Thredbo on his mountain bike.

As much as I enjoyed getting away, it was lovely to get back home and enjoy a slow cooked dinner prepared in the fire pit. Something seems to slow down when you’re sitting around a fire.

While the blog might have been a bit quieter than normal, life has been anything but. And thatโ€™s a good thing.

Hangry Man Welding

A couple of posts ago I promised that I would share the artistic talents of our eldest son. Those who know him would appreciate that this fellow views the world in very black and white terms. He is also the first to describe himself as not artistic at all, which makes the discovery of his hidden talent all the more remarkable.

One of our neighbours has a wonderful skill in making sculpture out of steel. We caught up before Christmas, and he heard that the not-so-little helper had enjoyed welding for the horse-float rebuild project (https://rockfarming.com/2020/07/14/little-helpers-holiday-project-part-five-and-final/). Dave very kindly invited the not-so-little helper to come and join him for a morning welding during the holidays, which he did.

And so has begun a marvellous journey of discovery.

After coming home with his first sculpture a stunning turtle, he quickly disappeared up into the shed and started looking for material and inspiration.

He called his next sculpture “Dragging Dad Along” with the hope that it would encourage me to buy him a new welder. It worked. He managed to convince me that the old stick welder he was using was limiting his style… so we bought him a nice little mig multi function welder and the production rate lifted significantly.

All of a sudden strange creatures started popping up in the garden, but it was his phone holder made out of an old stirrup that he named “Hangry Man” that caught his mother’s eye. In no time at all she had commissioned several more phone holders for the family.

Not only that – word spread and the not-so-little helper was commissioned to help repair a cracked weld in a friendโ€™s horse float. Unbeknown to me, he had to cut the trailer wiring in order to make a clean weld. When I came to check out his work, he had also soldered the wires back together and taped it all up neat as a pin.

It is great to see his confidence and skill improving all the time – and I have to admit he can do a much neater weld than I can. He will quite often disappear up into the shed to work away at his next project. In a world with so many digital distractions, it is great to see him getting his hands dirty.

I love seeing both my young men starting to hone their crafts. I hope to continue encouraging them by providing the means for them to follow their dreams.

In case you missed the video that our other son made, here is the link for it again: https://rockfarming.com/2021/02/08/2020-on-the-rock-farm-a-short-video/

Pasture and Trees Update – Rock Farm enters Autumn

After a most unusually cool and wet summer for this part of the world, I took a stroll around the paddocks this morning to take stock on where we are at in the lead up to winter. As usual, I took my faithful weeding tool, and chipped out a few of the thistles that were on my path.

What was most remarkable was the condition of the paddocks – especially the 2 hectare flat paddock I rested this year. After mulching the paddock in the first week of January, I put the cattle on the paddock for four days a month later. After another four weeks of rest, it is in glorious condition, with the old phalaris storks providing excellent mulch on the ground, retaining moisture and allowing the grass to really get going.

Not all the Rock Farm looks like this. The paddock next door was grazed a lot harder in summer, and is bouncing back also. Without the benefit of the mulch, it is taking longer to come back. The advantage this gives me is that I can more easily see the thistles, my least favourite being Bathurst Burr (the middle photo).

There is a perception that nature will heal itself and find its own balance. Whilst this is partly true in the long term over thousands of years, it doesn’t apply on the scale of our farm, especially if we want to graze animals on it. Organic farming (the type conducted since the beginning of modern times) was a constant challenge, requiring vigilance and management to ensure a yield. Our farm is no exception. Managing the weeds such as thistles, serrated tussock and paterson’s curse require constant effort.

My aim is to assist nature to create healthy, carbon rich soil, through the use of cattle. There is so much I have to learn about the forbs and grasses that are here. By attempting to create a good environment for the grass to grow, I might also be creating the perfect conditions for another weed to grow. I am learning to closely observe the relationships between the different grasses and weeds in my attempt to understand this place better. The cattle won’t do all the heavy lifting, and I also need to put some energy in to help regenerate the landscape.

I found myself continuing down to the creek, where many of you will recall we planted 300 trees in September (https://rockfarming.com/2020/09/11/cant-see-the-wood-for-the-trees/). This area has changed dramatically in the past five months. What was an easy area to walk through has become an overgrown tangle of grass, weeds and shrubs. The good news is that most of the trees are still going strong despite being lost amongst the undergrowth.

Some trees have been gnawed by hares and wombats, but I think the long grass has saved many from being discovered and destroyed. On the banks out of the wombat’s reach, the gums and wattles are doing particularly well. The hopbush is doing really well in the creek bed despite being almost lost in the dense growth.

It is such a privilege to be part of this project bringing trees back to the creek bank. I can only hope that the trees are well established before the next drought. Whilst the main purpose of the trees is to stabilise the creek bank and slow the water down, I would also love to be able to sit in the shade of these trees as an old man.

Our tree planting isn’t over for the year. We have plans to plant oak acorns this winter along a couple of fence lines and in some of our other paddocks, and this is where you can get involved and be a part of our journey.

We will be inviting readers to join us in our tree planting mission (and Rock Farm open day??) sometime later in the year once we have harvested our acorns. If you’d like to be a part of the day, please get in touch ๐Ÿ™‚