New (kind of) Stock Yards

Owners of livestock must be able to handle their animals safely, and one of the most effective ways to do this is with a set of stock yards.

Yards typically used to be made with whatever material was at hand.  We visited these old yards in northern South Australia a couple of years ago.  The yards were made with Cypress Pine hauled from the Flinders Ranges, and the wires were old telegraph line.  The cattle were mustered into a square yard. If stock were to be handled, horsemen would rope the cattle and they would be brought to the Bronco Rail for marking.

The steel yards on the Rock Farm might be much more modern, however due to a number of reasons, they were in need of a major overhaul.  Before the cattle arrived, it had taken me several hours, lots of grease and much motivation with a hammer to get the crush to operate.  The yards had been placed on the ground with little consideration to levels, and whilst the basic layout was sound, I wanted to update the yards to ensure many more years of safe and low stress cattle handling.

With a short notice visit from my parents announced, the time to re-design the cattle yards arrived.  My father has years of experience in the beef industry, including designing cattle yards.  It was the perfect opportunity to harness his experience and my brawn… well the tractor’s brawn.

We had a good look at the existing layout.  My proposed design sketches were quickly discarded as I hadn’t taken into account the simple fact the crush is worked from the left hand side.  I had designed yards with a clockwise movement that made it difficult to operate the crush.  We agreed that an anti-clockwise movement of the cattle was far more suitable.  I also studied the NSW DPI page on Cattle Yard Design, but ultimately it came down to a simple examination of the materials at hand, and the site available.

The first stage was dismantling the existing yards.  This involved removing a few pins and many cobb and co wire hitches.  With a collection of mis-matched panels and various old gates, it was an interesting exercise.

Once we had removed the old yards, we spend a long time digging out and leveling the ground, appreciative of the tractor doing most of the heavy work.  Cattle will naturally run uphill, so the slope on this site isn’t a problem.  What we needed to do was make the slope consistent through the length of the crush and race.  With the slope consistent, we started re-assembly, again using the heavy lifting ability of the tractor.

Reassembly took a lot longer than I thought.  We have managed to get most of the panels to line up, but the hard work is getting the sleeves for the pins to align.  We had to grind off a couple of the sleeves to make the panels fit, all made slower due to a few hours lost fixing the pull-starter on the generator.

We concentrated on getting the drafting gates, crush, race and forcing yard all aligned and in-situ.  We found an old balustrade in the ‘resource centre’ which we cut up to manufacture new pins and anchor pegs in lieu of too many cobb and co hitches.  The main section of the yards are pretty much fixed now, and are much more solid that the previous version.

We still have work to do on the holding yard, and I hope to get onto this in the near future.  The final component will be to put a sight barrier on the yards.  This will remove distractions and help move the cattle around the yards.  I also hope it will make the yards sheep proof, so I don’t need to build a second set of yards for the sheep.

And what do the stock think of all this effort?  At present I am still a few weeks away from getting the yards ready for stock work.  The cattle are busy mowing and mulching our small horse paddocks.  The sheep seem to hang around in this area too, happily making their way around the farm as they seek the sweetest grass.  Some of the ewes are getting quite heavy with lamb, and I will need to have the yards ready to vaccinate the ewes soon.  Nothing like a bit of time pressure to finish a project!

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Tree of Heaven removal on the Rock Farm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Managing thistles on the new farm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myrtle – The Mercedes-Benz LA911

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

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

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

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

“Nah.  Too slow for that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pasture improvement and weed control. 

One of the driving forces behind getting a tractor was to allow us to start rehabilitating the precious soil on the Rock Farm.  Our aim is to create a balanced and healthy soil that supports low impact grazing.

One paddock on the Rock Farm is predominantly native pasture with remanent red box, red stringy bark and brittle gum trees.  I have been encouraging the regrowth of thousands of young trees around the older trees, and have been pleased to find the odd drooping she-oak – a vital food source for the Glossy Black Cockatoo.

One problem in this paddock is patches of Sifton Bush (Cassini Arcuata).  This native plant is an invasive weed, producing vast quantities of seed and rapidly colonising bare soil.

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A section of sifton weed with some Broom Bitter Pea in the foreground

The mature sifton bush plant can produce up to 4 billion seeds a year.  It is unpalatable to most grazing animals and has been suspected of causing poisoning in lambs.  It is a declared weed in our area and we have a responsibility to control it.

The NSW dpi has an excellent page describing the Sifton Bush and its control.  http://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/Weeds/Details/253

Whilst we have worked hard to clear some areas through pulling plants, it is hard work and time consuming.  I had used my mower for a few trials – but it was really hard work for the mower and was causing too much damage (to the mower). Burning is not effective due to the large amount of seedling reinfestation following a fire event.

And so our preferred method for larger areas of infestation is mulching.

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Lucie hard at work turning sifton bush into mulch

Lucie the tractor has a 2.4 metre wide drum muncher that is effective at shattering the larger stems and mulching the leaves.  As this breaks down, it returns organic matter to the soil, hopefully improving the soil structure and microbial activity.

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The tractor pushes over the mature plants easily – but beware of old stumps

The disadvantage of this method is that some of the sharp stumps remain, making it treacherous to drive a car over the mulched section.  Also some of the younger plants aren’t effectively broken down and may shoot again from damaged stems.

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A much cleaner paddock

The end result is a paddock that not only looks a lot better, but has improved organic matter in the soil.  We have observed grasses recolonising the areas I have mulched as they receive better light and less competition from the sifton bush.

I expect to re-mulch these areas in another couple of years and perhaps take the opportunity then to re-mineralise the soil.  It wont be a quick process as soil takes tens of thousands of years to form, and a heartbeat to destroy.  It is all good fun and I am really enjoying the challenge of improving the Rock Farm.

 

Lucie the International 674 Tractor joins the Rock Farm

For a long time we have been discussing whether a tractor would be a useful addition to the Rock Farm.  To be truthful, I had been convinced for a while that I would find plenty of uses for one…  I just had to gain approval in principle to purchase one, and then find one that fitted the budget.  So for the past couple of years on-and-off I had been keeping my eye on Gumtree and other classifieds sites.

The main problem was deciding whether to buy a new Chinese tractor with all the features, or an older ‘name brand’ tractor.  Whilst the Chinese tractors represented excellent value for money, there were just as many horror stories out there which made me lean towards an older tractor from a known brand.

The other problem is that I had never driven a tractor.  So when the Local Land Services (LLS) advised me I had won a book voucher for answering a few questions on an online survey, it was an easy choice on choosing my book.

The book is, in a word, excellent.  Armed with a little bit of knowledge (dangerous situation), the perfect tractor came on the market just down the road.  A quick inspection confirmed it was going to be ideal for what we wanted to do on the Rock Farm – and the price was within our budget.

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The vital statistics:

  • Name: Lucie
  • Type: International 674 4wd Tractor
  • Year Built: 1974
  • Fitted with: Front bucket / loader, Mulcher (flail mower).
  • Other accessories: Hay forks, stick rake

And it has been put to work.  I have been able to clean up piles of old wire, slash weeds, move piles of dirt, repair the driveway and pull out stumps.  It has transformed the way we move firewood from the paddocks to the house – saving double handling and time.  In short, it is a great addition to the Rock Farm.

We had deferred tidying up piles of old wire due to the labour it would have required…  now we have relished cleaning up the paddocks – even if lashing the wire to the trailer is a little challenging.

If you ask the Little Fisherman though, the tractor’s main purpose is to make jumps for his motorbike…

And it was a nice place to learn how to drive the tractor and play with the settings.  I might just have to admit that this is my new favourite toy!

I am sure that Lucie will soon feature in many articles on the Rock Farm, as we work to improve the pastures and soil health.  In the mean time, we can all enjoy some of its benefits.

Have I ever said how much I love living on the Rock Farm??