A terrible Miss-Steak

Last week was a mixed bag on the Rock Farm.  We enjoyed a glorious 12mm of soaking rain. A fox killed all our chickens.  Our sheep disappeared and we found all them roaming the neighbour’s place. The steering arm fell off the tractor. Our ram got in a fight with an other neighbour’s ram, and in a sickening head butt, our ram killed their ram.  And one of our heifers made a terrible mistake.

 

The rain well worth celebrating.  Whilst it wasn’t enough to fill our parched dams – it was very much needed – even if the dog wasn’t so sure!  The little burst will hopefully allow our ryegrass and cocksfoot grass to set seed, even if it came too late for our clover.  And there is nothing like mustering recalcitrant sheep in the rain the remind you why you love this farming game!

With feed stocks dwindling, we took up the kind offer made by John, the heifer’s breeder, to return them to his farm in the Southern Highlands to make acquaintance with one of his young bulls.  The heifers are well used to the routine now of moving around the Rock Farm.  They quietly made their way into the yards for a short overnight stay before being trucked.

After all the dramas earlier in the week, this part was all going to plan.  It was almost too easy I thought.  I shouldn’t have even thought those words.

My troubles began when I moved some of the heifers into the race to drench them prior to the truck arriving.  No sooner had I turned my back, than one of the heifers tried to escape through a narrow personnel escape opening.  I still don’t know how she squeezed her shoulders through the gap, but it was immediately apparent that her hips weren’t going to follow the rest of her body.

She was stuck.  Properly stuck.  And then the audience arrived in the form of my wife Jo, and Jimmy who was carting the cattle.

After a couple of attempts to lift her back legs and pull her through, we realised we were down to only a couple of options.

  • Use the loader on the tractor to attempt to lift her and manoeuvre her hind legs through the gap.
  • Use an angle grinder to cut out the panel, however my generator is currently broken, meaning we would have to borrow a generator from someone or make an expensive trip into town.
  • Euthanize the heifer – a very much last resort – unless she became too distressed.

I raced up to the shed and grabbed a cattle sling, designed to lift cattle that are unable to stand.  It was when I tried to start the tractor, I realised I’d left the ignition on, thereby flattening the battery.  I am sure there was a very localised blue cloud forming over the Rock Farm at this time.

After eventually jump starting the tractor, we rigged the sling and started lifting.  We tried initially to lift her by the back legs, but that didn’t help.  We then put the sling under her chest and tried again.  With a lot of pushing, pulling, and twisting, combined with a good dose of luck, we eventually twisted her on her side.   Jimmy was able to wiggle her hips through the gap and she was free.

It wasn’t all good news though, the young heifer was very sore, especially in the right hip.  We made the decision that she was not fit to travel, and put her back in the yards.

I was too spent to take photos of the other girls on the truck, but the rest of the journey for them went without incident.  They were met by their new boyfriend, who was eager to make their acquaintance, a good looking young bull with plenty of Charolais breeding in him.

We kept the remaining heifer under close watch.  Thankfully she improved dramatically over the next few days.  After a week, she is walking without a limp. I hope to transport her to meet up with her herd, but it is hard to justify carting her on another truck.  I figure it is time to see if we can train her to use the old horse float.

To that end,  I brought her back in the yards, and moved her water trough and hay into the back of the float.  Her initial response was understandably wary.

But within 24 hours, when checking on her water, I spied her comfortably eating inside the float.  I will let her spend a few more days getting used to the float, before attempting to move her.  I will also fabricate a couple of bars to prevent her from jumping out over the tailgate before we move her.  That would be disastrous.

Of course you don’t get to do something this crazy without earning yourself a special place in the family’s heart.  Nor do you remain anonymous.  So the family decided to name our escaping heifer Miss, short for Terrible Miss-Steak.  I hope it is the one and only occasion she lives up to her name!

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Barley Grass and other Pasture management

It has been a long Spring full of unfulfilled promises on the Rock Farm.  Weather forecasts predicting a 90 percent chance of 10 – 15mm of rain in three days time have withered to a 10 percent chance of 0 – 1mm.  Barely any rain has fallen, and the grass has been in a desperate race to set seed before it dries out completely.

The photo above captures the half dozen drops that fell a couple of weeks ago.  Whilst the sky looked promising, it failed to deliver.

Readers may remember that I had a paddock full of thistles when we moved to the Not-So-Rocky Rock Farm.  I slashed the thistles a couple of times over the summer, with the aim of preventing the thistles going to seed.  (https://rockfarming.com/2018/01/04/managing-thistles-on-the-new-farm/)  After slashing the paddock, the sheep moved in, and kept the grass down over winter – until about three weeks ago when the took it upon themselves to move out (The fences have never held the sheep anywhere – even this paddock which is mostly fenced with hingejoint).

The culprit was Barley Grass.  Barley Grass (Hordeum Leporinum) is a soft annual grass with bristly fox-tail like seed heads.  Once the seed heads form, it is unpalatable to sheep or cattle.  The seed heads get embedded in the sheep wool, reducing their capacity to put on weight.  Given the option to move out, our sheep had done exactly that.

On the flip side, the thistles were not so prevalent, which was pleasing to see.

With a desire to use a chemical free process to control the grass, I consulted the internet and found this guide published by HerbiGuide:   http://www.herbiguide.com.au/Descriptions/hg_Barley_Grass.htm

HerbiGuide recommended heavily grazing the paddock until the seed heads turned yellow.  I brought in the cattle,  and gave them a week to reduce the seed burden in the paddock.

It was also a good chance to check out some of the serrated tussock I sprayed a month earlier.  It seemed that the fluproponate was effective, which was a relief.

After a week of grazing, the cattle had reduced the barley grass a little, however the hot dry weather had started to turn the seed heads yellow.  In a last minute effort to reduce the grass seed being viable, I removed the cattle and took the mower down to the paddock and slashed the remaining stalks.  I am not sure if I have managed to cut the heads before the seed is viable, but it may allow the sheep to move back in and graze the stubble in the lead up to the end of the year.

I hope that grazing and slashing the paddock will significantly reduce the prevalence of barley grass over the next couple of years.  I will need to heavily graze the paddock in late winter and spring before the seed heads form. The cattle and sheep will form am integral part of this process, and it is exciting to be using the livestock as a tool to improve the pastures on the Rock Farm.

We are now at the end of the grass growing season.  Whilst is rain forecast this week, it will do little to increase our feed for the stock.  What it may do is replenish some water in our dam, which is looking very low.  We are investigating options for stock feed and agistment, and will update you soon on where we are at with this.

In the meantime, we will keep our fingers crossed.  At this time, we will take any rain we can get!

A dry spring on the Rock Farm

My last post was about managing weeds during the spring growth.  Unfortunately the hoped for spring rain didn’t eventuate.  Even as parts of the State are getting some of their best rain in months, we have managed a paltry 3mm.  It is better than nothing, and might give the clover the break it needs to set seed!

Our property has an interesting arrangement where the road access comes in and past the house to the paddocks. Like all roadsides / laneways, this is rarely grazed, because of the inconvenience to traffic.  But it was the only part of the property the cattle hadn’t grazed and every bit of grass is precious at the moment.

Several fences needed to be fixed up, and water provided before I could contemplate putting the cattle in the laneway.  Even so, I still used temporary electric fence to allow the cattle right up to the garden – a treat they all enjoyed!

In fact the cattle were so happy to have access to the special grass near the garden, they hardly noticed me sneaking in close for a Selfie!

School holidays is an exciting time for the kids.  As they get bigger, their commitments grow too, with sporting camps keeping them busy for the first week.  These are fantastic opportunities for them, but I also love seeing them get creative in the shed.  Of course the dog is in the thick of it too, causing equal measures of delight and frustration at her efforts to help.

Speaking of the shed, our region is often windy in Spring.  Very windy.  And the old shed was looking a little worse for wear, with several sheets of corrugated iron roofing sheets looking like they wanted to lift off.   The shed is of unknown vintage, and in the fine tradition of most Australian farms, it has been made of second hand recycled iron and fencing wire.   It gives it a certain charm, but would be a huge inconvenience if it was actually destroyed.  A little bit of preventative maintenance was in order.

The advantage of so much sunny weather meant that I was able to replace some of the very loose nails with new roofing screws, without the risk of rain making the roof treacherous. I fabricated some brackets and purchased a harness to provide some comfort whilst working aloft.

And then there was the garden.  Neglected and in need of a bit (lot) of work, it was time to get the chain saw out for some ‘pruning’.  With a garden that is around 2.5 acres, there are always trees to prune.  The black wheelbarrow made the carting of the firewood size pieces a lot more manageable.

All the other branches and lighter sticks and twigs were thrown on the back of Myrtle – the big red truck, and taken down to the paddocks.  We found a remarkable sight.  Under similar tree prunings, deposited in the paddock six months earlier, we found growing lush, green grass and clover.

I think there are three possible reasons for this (or a combination of all three).

  1. As the branches break down, they release nutrient into the soil,
  2. The branches provide a physical barrier stopping kangaroos from eating the grass (this paddock has no other stock in it), or
  3. The branches provide shade to the grass, making what little moisture there is more effective.

Thus encouraged, we will keep putting our prunings into the gullies and over bare soil.  It is great to see positive results for our efforts.

On the Rock Farm, the only place where the grass has been most prolific in its growth is the garden.  With the current season being so dry, it feels such a crime to simply cut the grass with a mower.  But, the grass was getting long, and the snakes are coming out.  So I got right onto my next job, and brought in the one horse power self propelled mower model.  Best part is, you don’t have to sit on it as it gets to work – but that can be the best bit!

Rainy day

The past few weeks I have been concentrating on fixing up my fences.  As the Rock Farm was originally set up for horses, there are lots of little paddocks, all fenced with plain wire.  These fences have been mostly cattle proof, but the sheep can (and do) wander where they like.

The small paddocks means I have been able to rotate the cattle with short bursts of intense grazing with long spells, inspired by Allan Savory.  The initial results are promising, with the pasture responding really well to being rested between short bursts of grazing.

The problem has been that many of the fences have been in such poor state of repair that the cattle have been able to push through to other paddocks, undoing any gains made.

Many of the wires were broken where kangaroos have pushed their way through over the years.  In repairing and straining these wires, I found I needed to improve my fencing skills.  I learnt an excellent knot which I have put to good use.  As I am no expert, you’re best watching the video by Time Thompson yourself:

My fencing has been going well, getting a little bit done here and there when I had the time, until last Friday when we had the unexpected pleasure of 10mm of glorious rain.  Light showers fell on-and-off during the day, making the wire extremely slippery.  After slipping and having a piece of wire flick up and cut my cheek, I looked at the dog, and decided to follow her lead.  It was time to do something else.

Inside jobs are many and varied.  I contemplated sorting out the shed… for just a bit.

 

And then decided that I really needed to sit down with a hot cup of coffee by the fire inside and take a Naval “Make and Mend” day…  It was quite pleasant to sit and repair my favourite oilskin vest.

The fences are still there, and I am still working away at getting them back in order.  The cattle are mostly contained now, with a few paddocks still to go.  Of course it is a never ending task, and I am sure I will still be working on fences as long as we have livestock, kangaroos and wombats…  but there are fewer more satisfying things than spending a day outside working on the Rock Farm 🙂

A cold winter

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

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

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

DPI Drought Areas 31 Jul 18

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

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

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

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

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

Stockyards Rebuild – Part II

Work has continued on our improved stock yards, albeit a little slower after my father returned home.  I was really happy with the new layout, but had a bit of work to finish the yards, and make them suitable for handling sheep as well as cattle.

The design of cattle yards world wide was revolutionised by Temple Grandin.  She recognised that cattle move much more effectively along a curved chute.  She also realised that if the yards are visually solid, the cattle are far more likely to move towards open areas.  It is hard to incorporate all her ideas in such a small set of yards, but we tried as much as possible to follow her philosophy in our design.

The yards are a mixture of panels, with various shapes and sizes bought at different times.  We were able to re-use all the panels – although at times we had to get a bit creative to get the joining pins in place.  My main focus was to ensure the exterior sections of the yards were stock proof, and in the areas that would receive the most pressure, I fixed the conveyor belt to the panels.

Fortunately I had an old length of conveyor belt in the ‘resource centre’ that could serve two purposes.  It will provide a visual barrier for the cattle and a physical barrier to keep the sheep, especially lambs, in the yards.  Unfortunately the belt is extremely heavy to work, but once it is unwound, it becomes a little more manageable.

The supervisor wasn’t much help!  Although to be fair, the afternoon sunshine was rather soporific.

The holding yard was another story.  We created a large yard using panels and weld-mesh.  Weld-mesh is not ideal for yards.  Horned stock can get their horns caught in it, and younger cattle and sheep can get their feet and legs tangled also.   But in this yard, the stock will not be subject to the same pressure they are in the holding yard, and again we used curved lines as much as possible to encourage the stock into the forcing yard with minimal fuss.  The mesh was fixed to the panels using tie-wire.

It is a lot better than the gates held together with bailing twine that were used to form this yard originally.

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And so, what do the stock think of it?  The Little Helper and I only rammed in the last anchor a couple of days ago, so we haven’t got around to testing the improved yards yet.  I have continued to move the cattle every week or so to a new area, and they are really responding well to a gentle nudge – but it will be a few more weeks until I have them back in that part of the farm.

It is a relief to know that if we do need to bring the sheep or cattle into the yards for any reason, we now have a safe and secure place to work them.

New (kind of) Stock Yards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happenings on and above the Rock Farm

The dry autumn has allowed us to get on with a few necessary jobs on the Rock Farm.  One of the most pressing was to get on top of our Tree of Heaven (ailanthus altissima).  This tree forms dense thickets that out compete desirable trees.  I initially thought we had just a few trees, until I started cutting them down. I soon realised that I needed a comprehensive strategy to remove them.

I cut the majority of the taller trees down a couple of months ago, see here.  The follow up treatment was to spray the suckers.  This is not a treatment I enjoy or take lightly.  The NSW Weedwise app provided good advice  and I followed their recommended dose.

A few weeks later, the plants had the decency to look very sick.  I hope this wasn’t due to the cracking frost we had a few days earlier!  The chemical was applied using a backpack spray unit to the leaves of the suckers.  As I was only spraying the odd suckers, the chemical burden was far less than it would have been if I was spraying the entire trees.  I hope this is effective.

Another of those little challenges that comes from living on tank water popped up a couple of weeks ago.  Our potable water situation is a little complicated.  The house supply is gravity fed from a couple of 22 000 litre tanks that harvest water from our shed.  Water harvested from our house roof is stored in another 22 000 litre tank in our garden. There is a fall of some 15 metres between the garden and shed tanks, and I had no pump to transfer water from the garden tank up to the shed (house supply) tanks.

With little significant rain since Christmas, the inevitable happened, and one of our supply tanks ran dry.  Whilst swinging to the other tank was as simple as opening a valve, it was time to transfer some water from the full house tank in the garden to the supply tanks from the shed.

Whilst this is a pump I won’t use often, it was worth getting one that will start reliably.  Our last place had an ancient Honda pump that lived out in the weather and copped years of abuse without affecting its ability to start first pull.  I figured it was worth getting a genuine Honda engine driving a Davey pump to perform our duties of water transfer.  A little pump house made out of scrap timber and iron soon completed the task.

The other problem with the garden tank was the surrounding vegetation.  The tank was essentially smothered in a range of plants that made access difficult and contaminated the water supply with dead leaves.  It took three loads on the back of the old Merc, Myrtle to clear the space.  The prunings, along with some rotten hay bales, were put to good use in stabilising some gullies.

The cattle have settled in well.  We have continued to move them from paddock to paddock, and they seem to understand the game now, and appreciate moving to greener pastures.  I think the trick is to wait until they are hungry before moving them.  This means that they are far more likely to stick their heads down and start grazing as soon as they move out of their paddock, rather than disappearing over the furthest hill!

The paddocks where they have been ‘working’ are much cleaner, and the weeds are easy to find and pull out.  Now the growing season is well and truly over, the grass will remain dormant over winter.  I hope we have enough feed to get them through the cold weather,  and we will keep our fingers crossed for strong spring rainfall.

And for something completely different, the Little Helper has just completed a school project on the future of transport, in particular flying cars.  This was the perfect opportunity to make the most of the glorious weather and call up an old friend and take to the skies.

The young fellow was so excited to sit in the right hand seat and experience the thrill of flying.  Greg, our pilot made sure the Little Helper had an amazing experience, patiently explaining what he was doing and how the aircraft worked.

I really enjoyed doing a couple of circuits around the Rock Farm.  It was such a brilliant way to get a perspective of our property.  We could easily see the greener areas where moisture settles, and the effect of the shelter belts.

Even the Little Fisherman admitted he was excited for his younger brother, stating that The Little Helper’s flight was “legit cool”.

It was a whole heap of fun.  And sometimes that is the point. 🙂

 

Acorn Planting – The first experiment commences

Several people have asked me why we are planting non native deciduous trees on our property.  I have a complicated answer, and it largely comes from a recognition that our landscape has changed.    The Rock Farm is not native bush.  Even the native forests north of our property are different from when Europeans first saw them.  The land the Rock Farm is in was managed with fire by the Ngunnawal people over thousands of years.  It is our responsibility as custodians of this beautiful property to manage it and set it up for our future.  Our aims by planting non native deciduous trees are to:

  • Protect our property from bushfire,
  • Improve our soil health, and
  • Provide sustainable agriculture in a woodland like setting.

A friend of my father, John, has spent all his life planting trees on his property in the southern highlands.  He estimates that he has planted around 35 000 trees of all types on his farm that produces top quality beef cattle.  John has planted stands of native eucalyptus, pines and oaks, and has been able to watch the trees grow and observe the effects on the soil.

Now in his eighties, John is convinced that deciduous trees are best suited for improving the soil and reducing fire risk.  One of John’s favourite oaks is the Daimyo Oak (quercus dentata).  This is also known as the Korean Oak or Japanese Emperor Oak, and is known as a fast growing specimen tree.  John has observed this to be the case, with lines of Daimyo Oaks out pacing several supposedly fast growing native species planted nearby at the same time.  We filled many paper bags with acorns from some of John’s trees.

John also directed us to collect acorns of the Californian Swamp Oak (quercus lobata) from Mouat Street in Lyneham.  This is the largest of the north american oak trees, and does well with hot dry summers and cool wet winters.  This magnificent tree can live for 600 years.  This is just around the corner from where our boys play hockey, so with a few of their team mates pressed into service, we soon had filled several more bags with acorns.

Armed with plenty of acorns, we started to put some in the ground.

We are trying a mix of strategies.  The first one is direct seeding.  I am trialing planting a bunch of acorns in the ground where I want the trees to grow.  The acorns were planted in late autumn, just below the surface, the majority in small gullies like below.   I am planting the trees well away from established natives such as the eucalyptus growing in the far right of this photo.  The observant will notice many young trees growing around this tree, and these will also be preserved to protect the headwaters of this gully and provide native habitat.

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As you can see above, we have been putting a lot of garden prunings into our gullies. These prunings from pin oaks and peppermint gums will provide mulch and protection for the young oak trees to grow.  I selected a small flatter area where soil had been deposited and placed the seeds in the ground.  I repeated this in several sites over several small gullies.

The plant below is a sweet briar (rosa rubiginosa).  It is a weed, but like weeds it is fulfilling a niche that was once carried out by native plants.  It is spread by birds that eat its berries as their native food supplies are no longer abundant.  I am slashing and chipping out these weeds, but am also conscious I need to ensure habitat for these birds.  I thought I would also use some of them as part of my experiment.

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This paddock has only been grazed by Kangaroos for the past 18 months.  The grass under the sweet briar is thicker, and more lush that the surrounding areas. So what I have done is plant some acorns at the base of these plants.   I hope that as the young oaks establish, the sweet briar will afford them some protection from grazing.

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What I didn’t expect to find as I planted some of my acorns was this beautiful frog also using the sweet briar to shelter in.  I am not sure, but I think it is a Green and Golden Bell Frog (litoria aurea).  I was extremely pleased to find this little fellow, and relieved that I hadn’t sprayed the sweet briar to kill it.

Some of the other acorns we have placed in moist potting mix and put in the fridge.  We are waiting for some rain to increase our soil moisture before we plant these acorns out.

People have asked me why I haven’t grown the seed in a garden bed and then planted out the seedlings?  There is a couple of reasons.

  1. Research suggests that trees planted in their final site respond better than those that are transplanted.  There is no stress on the fragile root system of the plant that sometimes happens when plants are moved.  We have observed this ourselves at our last property where trees planted from seed did far better than young seedlings that we nurtured and watered over a long hot summer.
  2. Plants that are transplanted require watering to establish.  This is difficult and time consuming, especially on a rural property where we have to hook up a water trailer in order to bring water to the plants.
  3. Hares.  The European Hare is extremely territorial and will cut off any plant that appears in its patch with a trunk as thick as a finger or less.  For some reason if the plant grows from seed, it is far less likely to see the young tree as a threat or incursion on its territory and is far more likely to leave it alone.
  4. We are lazy and haven’t set up a suitable garden bed yet.  This is a work in progress (we currently have our chooks working on our first garden bed – see below)

That said, we will try transplanting seedlings.  There is nothing like experimenting with a range of strategies to determine which is the most effective way to establish trees to improve soil.  It is all part of the adventure, and I love it 🙂

Hey Cow!!

One of the most important goals we have for the Rock Farm is to ensure that we leave it in a better state that we received it.  I am really excited with the soil analysis results we received last week, as it will provide a scientific bench mark that we can use to measure our progress.

Whilst the soil analysis reveals the mineral composition of the soil, it doesn’t reveal much about the biological health of the soil.  This microbial activity is far more important, and if we can get this balance right, we will be doing really well.  It is inspiring to read of people who have used various techniques to actively build top soil and repair the health of their land.  Somehow I believe the key to our survival is in the health of our soil, because from it we derive all our food.

One technique to improve soil health I mentioned in my last post was grazing management.   André Voisin  and later Allan Savory developed what we now call holistic management or cell grazing where soil health can be improved by how you graze the land.

Cell grazing involves heavily grazing small areas over a short period, followed by a long rest.  It is expensive to set up, requiring lots of small paddocks (fencing is ridiculously expensive and water must be provided to all paddocks), and time consuming to manage, as stock need to be rotated frequently.  We are lucky in that the new not-so-rocky Rock Farm was initially established to spell race-horses, so has several small paddocks that we can use for this purpose.

And whilst we have beautiful Wiltipoll sheep to graze our paddocks, sheep prefer eating short grass.  They won’t eat the longer grass, leaving it to go rank.  And I refuse to waste precious diesel slashing long grass for it to mulch back into the soil.

So enter the cows!

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We recently purchased 15 Normande cross weaner hefiers.  Their breeding and the reasons why we chose them is another story entirely. The short story is we wanted quiet cattle, and they had to be any colour other than black!  The Normande is a French beef breed, but you might see that these cattle have an amazing heritage with the best of many breeds in their blood lines.

But for now, they got right on the job.

Allan Savory recommends a stocking rate of around 60 head per hectare, which is extremely high.  The cattle will heavily graze the paddock, eating everything including weeds.  Then when the paddock is rested, everything has a chance to recover.  Normal set grazing sees the cattle eating their preferred grasses, and avoiding the weeds.  This eventually leads to a paddock full of weeds that needs expensive sowing to return to pasture.

Just off our yards, we had a small 1/2 hectare paddock, that was perfect for serving two purposes.  It allowed us to spend a week socialising the cattle and it allowed our soil improvement program to get right underway.  Whilst our stocking rate is about half recommended by Savory, we were soon quick to see the results.  Serrated tussock that had been hidden in the long grass was quickly revealed, making it far easier to hack out.

The small paddock was the perfect place for the cattle to be introduced to the Rock Farm.  I set up a water trough in the yards, and kept them in overnight after they arrived.  The cattle were also drenched on arrival, as our paddocks have been free of cattle for a few years and we want to ensure that our worm burden remains low.

For the first week, I fed the young cattle in the yards and let them have full access to the small paddock adjoining the yards.  It was remarkable how quickly they stopped running away from me and started walking towards the yards with only a gentle word or two of encouragement.  In the space of a couple of days, I was able to comfortably push them into the yards by myself, with the minimum of fuss.

I did all my mustering on foot, at a slow measured walk.  I found that walking slowly calmed the cattle down, and they rarely would run away from me.  The cattle are remarkably sensitive to your body language and where you are looking.  A long stick really helps as an extension of your arm, allowing you to direct their movements.  The cattle are also curious and soon were happy to watch me as I watched them eat.

These beautiful cattle have settled it quickly.  We have started moving them around the Rock Farm, and they are learning that a gentle walk is all I want from them.  I am madly trying to fix up fences in the small paddocks in order for me to establish a good rotation for them – it is all good fun.

In the mean time, they are doing a fantastic job keeping the grass down whilst the tractor rests in the shed. And that isn’t a bad thing!