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™‚

2020 on the Rock Farm – a short video

I am exceptionally proud of both my boys and the paths they are starting to make for themselves. The recent school holidays were no exception. Both boys have made their mark in different ways. Whilst the older one was keen to turn his hand at metal sculpture, the younger one used his creative streak to make some videos.

I asked our younger fellow to harness his skills and put together a video that shows how the Rock Farm came through 2020. I love it and I hope you do to – even if I have been caught with a West Coast Eagles cap on….

Don’t worry – my next post will be some of the awesome sculptures that our older son has put together.

The Summer Work Gang

This summer we have tried a new schedule of work on the Rock Farm. On weekdays the boys (and Mum) have fronted up for work at 8am sharp for a morning of ‘farm work’. At an appropriate time, we break for half an hour for morning tea – remember we are feeding people with the appetites of Hobbits. I have to ensure all farm work is completed by midday. This leaves the afternoon free for bike riding, reading and even the Xbox…. And boy have the lads been working hard.

You may recall last summer we tried to restore an old horse float, but due to the total fire bans and constant smoke, we achieved very little until later in the year. Outside work was limited to essential tasks to keep the cattle fed and watered. This year, the summer days have been far more pleasant, and we have managed to achieve far more than I hoped, crossing lots of little jobs off my never ending list.

Some of the jobs have bugged me since we moved in. Others have been more pressing, just as repairing fences. I have been trying (not always succeeding) to make the work fun, and if not fun, at least educational. What I have really enjoyed most though is just being together with my boys, watching them problem solve and see their sense of achievement when they realise they can actually do things now without me giving them the full instructions. I am starting to give them more responsibility for the outcomes – it is coming slowly, for them as well as me as we transition to our ‘management by intent’ principle. That said, I am immensely proud of what they have achieved, and really pleased with how we are slowly getting on top of the organisation of the Rock Farm..

We spent our first morning on the job pruning the garden, and the laneways ensuring fire truck access to our property. Both the boys have started driving Myrtle (Our old Benz LA911) this year… they never thought they could have so much fun chugging along at five kilometres per hour! The truck is pretty daunting for a 13 or 15 year old, but it is relatively easy to drive, with power steering and synchromesh on all gears. The hardest part is its sheer bulk of the truck, and the narrow width of our gates!

Under the principle that a little maintenance now stops a much bigger problem later, the boys also learnt a bit about building, as we repaired our old stable block. We needed to prop part of the roof, and re-secure trusses, replacing loose nails with screws. I gave the lads very little direction in much of this task, but was impressed as they rose to the occasion and soon the stables were in much better order than when we started.

Some parts of our ‘farm work’ were just good old fashioned hard work, with nothing to do but get stuck in. Cleaning up the hayshed was the worst. This area of the farm was a real mess, and I have been slowly bringing it in to order. In the past couple of years I had used our old roofing iron to weatherproof the walls, and installed a new pair of gates. With the outside looking smarter, it was time to turn our attention to the inside. With piles of fertiliser slowly rotting amongst old furniture and junk, I really appreciated the strong and willing labour. It took us three mornings of concerted effort to clean up the mess and spread the fertiliser on our back paddock (by hand!). In the process, we found some hidden gems, including an old shearing blade grinder. Once I checked the wiring was in order, the old grinder spun up straight away when I plugged it in!

But it hasn’t all been hard work. With the recent spike in COVID cases cancelling sporting carnivals, we had planned on taking a few days off just to relax. Like so many others though, we kept a close eye on travel restrictions that were becoming more difficult to achieve. We had to cancel our original holiday booking, but were still determined to get a break from the farm and have a bit of a holiday.

We packed the car with our camping gear, and drove for a couple hours through the southern tablelands, eventually ending up back where we began… in our front yard! We turned off the phones and other electronics, set up camp and spent a couple of blissful nights reconnecting with each other. It was truly wonderful, and allowed us to see our place with a fresh pair of eyes. We even used the back of the ute for a special screening of Disney Cars. The view was spectacular, and with the dam just a stones throw away for kayaking, the bike track through the garden for tricks and the hillbilly pool available for splashing, we might have just found our new favourite camp site!

I do love the many challenges of the Rock Farm. There are times the list of jobs I want to do here can feel a little overwhelming. Whilst I am loving my mornings of work with the boys, it was wonderful to take the opportunity to step away and appreciate the farm for what it is. It is our home and refuge in this crazy world. It is nice to slow down and enjoy the quiet every now and then.

Especially given the residents are always happy to see you ๐Ÿ™‚

Harvesting Phalaris

The contrast between this summer and last cannot be more stark. Our beautiful cows are in excellent condition, which is unusual when calves are at foot. I have modified my rotation through the paddocks in an attempt to keep the grass near the house as short as possible. This is to reduce the intensity of any grass fire that may approach our house when the grass goes off.

The good news is that I am able to use the opportunity to rest some paddocks completely. It has led to the phalaris grass setting seed for the first time in years. Phalaris is a drought tolerant perennial grass that is competitive against weeds and aids in control of erosion. Too much phalaris can cause staggers, however it works well in conjunction with companion planting of clover, ryegrass and fescue.

The good news is that harvesting the seed is relatively easy to do. Based on the advice of a local with years of experience, I rigged a couple of pieces of timber beside the tractor, with a tarpaulin loosely draped between them. By putting the front timber on the front end loader, I was able to adjust the height to below the seed heads. It was then a case of driving through the paddock and watching the seed accumulate in the tarpaulin.

It didn’t take long to fill four small buckets. It took almost as long to sift out the spiders, caterpillars and larger wild oat seeds, but I had a willing assistant – until he caught sight of a large spider disappearing up his sleeve! It was tedious work, but the chickens enjoyed the free feed!

In autumn, I hope to spread the seed amongst areas of unproductive wire grass. I will also spread some seed in areas of erosion or scalding that we have been managing thus far by spreading green waste. I have to be careful to manage the pasture to make sure the phalaris doesn’t dominate, however at this stage, any ground-cover is better than none.

It was also a good exercise to see how easy phalaris seed is to harvest and for that it was a complete success. I always enjoy trying new techniques on the Rock Farm, with a special thanks to Jimmy of Bushfield Farm for his advice. More information on phalaris as a pasture species can be found at the excellent NSW DPI website here: https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/agriculture/pastures-and-rangelands/species-varieties/phalaris

Slashing Weeds (or is that tyres?) – Changing a Tractor Tyre

With the prodigious and welcome explosion of grass this season, We have been running machines that have done very little work in the past few years. And for old machines, especially old tractors, the maintenance requirements are a little higher. I have had to replace pins, stabilising chains on the three point linkage, and a tube in one of the front tyres. But I had been watching the right rear tyre of our old tractor with increasing dread.

In my a recent post, I explained how we had been using an old mulching or flail mower behind the tractor to knock down Paterson Curse and other weeds. We had put new tyres on the mower this year, which has allowed me to manage the height the mower works at more precisely and reduce the load on the top pin.

I have also been using the mulcher to create firebreaks around the house. The grass is still green at the base, but with the heat of the last few weeks, it has browned off and stopped growing. By slashing it now, I hope to maintain a zone of safety around our house and shed for this year’s fire season.

I had been watching the right rear tyre closely for a while. It was probably original fit to the tractor, making it over 45 years old, and was in much poorer condition than the left rear, an obviously much newer tyre. The tyre in question had several tears along the lugs, including one that had opened up and had the tube protruding.

I decided to err on the side of caution, and relocate the tractor to the shed to remove the wheel before it punctured. The main reason for this is I find it much easier to work in the shade and on a concrete floor at my convenience rather than in the paddock on a terrible slope at the worst possible time.

I was concerned the tyre would be too heavy for me to move. As feared, it was filled with ballast water. Before I undid the wheel nuts, I removed the valve stem, and admired the jet stream of water pouring out of the tyre onto the shelves in my shed. Once the water was mostly drained out of it, I found I was able to roll the tyre about easily enough. The boy’s trailer came into its own, with a handy tail ramp that I could roll the tyre up and into the trailer.

Even better, the local tyre shop was able to source a new tyre – the same brand and size as the one on the left hand side. They refilled the tube with air, and explained to me how to ballast it with water. On their advice, I parked the tractor with the valve at 10 o’clock, supported the axle with the jack and removed the valve stem. I then clamped a hose to the valve and started filling with water. Every minute or so I removed the hose, to allow the pressure to release. Once the tyre was full to the mark with water, I replaced the valve stem, rotated the tyre so the valve was at 12 o’clock and topped it up with air.

A huge thank you to the team at Douglas Tyre Service who had the tractor back in service, slashing weeds and clearing fire breaks two days later.

It’s not just weeds that are growing on the Rock Farm

There is no doubt that this is one of the best spring season’s this district has seen in recent memory. Our cattle are in remarkable condition, with the calves growing quickly.

With so much condition on the cows, they have already started cycling. We decided to go with nature and bring forward our leased bull. Ferdinand, as he has been named by the family took a little encouragement to get off the truck, but once he made it down the ramp, he was welcomed quickly into the herd. A magnificent Charolais Cross, his sire was a top performing bull in the United States, especially bred using artificial insemination by our mentor, John. We are extremely fortunate to be able to use some of the world’s best bloodlines in our humble herd.

With the cattle doing extremely well, and requiring little more than a daily water check, I have had time to turn my attention back to more domestic matters. The garden has exploded, and I have been spending quite a bit of time either pruning excess growth or removing branches and trees that died in the drought and haven’t recovered. Unfortunately Jo and I have slightly different objectives with our pruning. I want the area under the trees clear of obstructions so I can mow easily up to the trunk with our mower. Jo would rather I leave the branches down to the ground to make a wind break.

The best thing about a little battery powered chain saw is that you can do a whole heap of pruning before you get caught… It is also the worst thing. I think the shock of seeing the truck laden with clippings caused a moment, but once Jo realised how neater the trees looked I was almost forgiven… almost. The clippings, along with some weeds from garden beds, have been used to make swales in the bottom of the garden to better capture water in the previously dry area.

All Jo’s work in the vegetable garden is starting to really pay off. We have harvested our crop of garlic, and the snow peas and green salad leaves are in fantastic condition. We even enjoyed some broccoli before it shot to seed.

I admit I was skeptical about using the old roofing iron to make vegetable beds, but Jo did a great job. The garden looks really impressive, and is a pleasure to work in. There is also something completely wonderful about the taste you get with fresh vegetables and salad leaves picked straight from the garden. I once heard it described that you can taste the sunshine – and I think it is true!

But it is not just the vegetable garden that is putting food on our plate. We are finding magnificent field mushrooms in the paddock. Each mushroom could be a meal in itself, and we have dried some of our excess mushrooms to use in the future.

Other things are growing too. I have planted fifty willow cuttings along the leading (and eroding) edge of our dam. It seems most of them have taken and are sprouting green leaves. This is a great result. Some people have queried why I have planted willows along the dam, fearing they use a lot of water. My counter is that they only use water for half the year when they have leaves on them. They will \stabilise the bank, which is their primary purpose. They will give shade when they are bigger, and also provide an emergency stock feed in drought. Being on a dam, they will not enter the catchment either. I hope they continue to grow through the summer and add to the trees on the Rock Farm.

But really the most magnificent change has been the grass. From a paddock that was bare six months ago, there is now chest high grass. You could have seen an ant walk across this paddock at Christmas time (if you could have seen through the smoke haze)….

Last week the kids played hide and seek in this paddock.. All you had to do was run like crazy when the other one was counting and then flatten yourself. With the grass swaying in the breeze, it was really hard to even know where to start looking It was hilarious fun.

It is incredible to see photos of what we went through in the last few years. This is what the same area looked like in January. It is truly amazing what happens when you just add water, lots of water ๐Ÿ™‚

The miracle of birth and a purple curse.

The past month has seen some changes on the Rock Farm. Most are due to the addition of a remarkable ingredient – water. Good steady rains have seen the grass continue to leap out of the ground, but it has come at a cost, as we shall see later.

Out of our 11 beautiful cows, we welcomed 10 calves into the world. Miss-Steak was our one cow who didn’t calve, but after the shocking season we had last year, I couldn’t hold it against her. We have a soft sport for Miss Steak after an unfortunate incident a couple of years ago (https://rockfarming.com/2018/11/16/a-terrible-miss-steak/). Miss Steak is, as you’d expect this season, in rotund condition ๐Ÿ™‚

Thankfully all the other cows calved without incident. The Not-So-Little-Helpers got a whole heap more than they bargained for on one of our daily check ups during the school holidays. Ice-Cream was down and in labour. We sat down and watched proceedings from the dam wall. The 13 year old had the binoculars at the critical moment when Ice-Cream gave a tremendous heave, and the calf appeared with a woosh… he was more than a little horrified to witness the miracle of life in such close up detail.

We marked and vaccinated the calves, and were thrilled with five heifers and five bull calves. We used rubber rings to mark the boys, who left the yards a little cross eyed. They were soon reconnected with their mothers and on their way to a fresh paddock.

The regular rain has been most welcome. We have been spared destructive storms, with steady small amounts of rain falling regularly. This has led to a prodigious amount of grass. But with the grass has come weeds.

We are attempting to use the cattle to eat firebreaks around the house. When the grass dries out, we will be at risk of grass fires. The cattle do a fantastic job, but they’re not such great fans of Paterson Curse.

This purple (and occasional white) flower (echium plantagineum) has come up in abundance this year on our place. Whilst a weevil has been introduced as a biological control, it takes a while to build up numbers sufficient to tackle it in a meaningful way. A short term solution to reduce the seed bank is to slash the flowers. Our old mulching mower is extremely effective at knocking down the weed. A good grease, new tyres and some fresh oil in the gear box and it was pressed back into service.

The mulcher is also extremely effective at finding any wire in a paddock. I thought our paddocks were pretty clean, but I still managed to find a section that wrapped itself around the drum. Thankfully it was all pretty easy to sort out and get back on the job.

The good news is that other grasses are in full flower, with Brome, Rye and Cocksfoot grass and legumes such as clover all developing seed. I feel at times completely ignorant with such a vast variety of forbs, grasses and legumes growing on our property, but there is some pleasure in taking the time to get up close and observe the beauty of nature.

My assumption is that all plants (weeds included) are filling a niche. The trick I have to understand is what niche that is, and how to manage the grazing, slashing and resting regime to best encourage the useful plants and reduce the competition from weeds. Allan Savory is convinced that good management is the key to a successful regenerative farming operation. I just have to learn to observe closely and learn from experience. I won’t get it right all the time, but I hope we can slowly turn the tide and increase the productivity and beauty of our property.

At the very least, I can take pleasure in the small beautiful details. I hope you agree. ๐Ÿ™‚