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.
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 friend’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.
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 🙂
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.
After a hot few days at the end of January, we have been treated with a wet start to February. We had over 70mm of rain fall over the past week, which has been absolutely glorious. None of the rain has run off into the dam, meaning it has soaked into the soil, which isn’t a bad thing. It has however created a rare and unusual problem for us.
But before we get onto that, a couple of weeks ago Ferdinand retuned back home. He arrived on our place in November rather restless, but soon settled in with his new herd. I was a little anxious how we would go getting him back on the truck, but we kept a quiet cow (Miss Steak) in the yards with him. Once the truck arrived, she led him up into the truck. We quickly drafted them into different pens in the truck. A few moments later, Miss Steak was back in the yards, and Ferdinand was on is way home. A special thanks to John for leasing him to us this year. With such small numbers, we really appreciate bringing new genetics into our herd each year.
So what is the problem with the rain? Is it the way it degrades our access road? No, a quick run with the tractor and blade can improve the drive. Is it the way it makes our roof leak? The leaking roof has been an ongoing saga for nearly two years now, but it isn’t that. Is it the way the creek rises and cuts our access? Not this time. With all the ground cover in the catchment, the creek level has barely risen despite all the rain.
The problem I have with the rain is that creates a period of poor feed for the cattle. The rain leeches out any goodness in the standing dry grasses, whilst germinating the seed in the ground. The new grass, whilst beautiful to see, rapidly turns everything green, however the cattle can’t eat it. I am continuing to rotate the cattle through the paddocks – but paddocks that would normally hold them for a week or so are only lasting a couple of days until they start pushing through fences. I am on the point of putting out some feed for the cattle over the next few days to help them through until the fresh grass is long enough for them to wrap their tongues around.
You’d be forgiven for thinking I sound a lot like Hanrahan with his refrain ‘we’ll all be rooned’. The grass pictured above is coming through the tall grass I mulched several weeks ago. I am resting these little paddocks, and hope the mulch helps keep the moisture in the ground for the young grass to get established. We are still at risk of some hot dry spells in February, but I’ll take the moisture whilst we have it. It is so glorious to see the rebirth of the land.
The good news is that the cows haven’t lost much condition, and the calves are growing well. Like everyone in the district, whilst I am able to support these numbers, it makes sense to keep them on the property as long as I can. If the calves are gaining around 1kg a day, they are making close to $4.00 a day. We are likely to hold them until the weather starts getting cooler in April, when we will probably sell the calves.
The most important driving factor behind our decision making is our soil health. The soil is key to everything, and the best way we can protect it is to ensure there is always ground cover. Our strategy about holding or selling changes all the time, and is dependent on the amount of ground cover and available grass. Very soon I will be moving the cattle from our fertile flat paddocks onto our slopes, which have been rested for nine months now. This will allow the flats to rest and have a good cover of grass before winter.
In the meantime, school has resumed for the two Not-So-Little Helpers. For the cricketer, this wet season has resulted in several disappointing weekends with turf wickets off limits due to the rain. For the rower, it seems Dad’s farm-fit program over the holidays paid off. His crew was selected to represent the school at the NSW State Rowing championships despite being a year younger than his competitors. It is a busy, hectic, crazy and wonderful time of life – and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
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 🙂
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.
Spring is a wonderful time on the Rock Farm. The return of warmer weather is appreciated by all of us, plants, animals and humans. This year has been such a change on previous years, with good steady rain falling regularly since March. This means as the ground warms up, we have great soil moisture leading into the growing season.
But it isn’t just the grass that is growing. Our beautiful cow’s bellies have been steadily growing bigger all winter. It was a wonderful morning indeed when we welcomed our first calf for 2020.
Within a few days we had three more calves on the ground. They are a real delight at this age. They love sleeping in the sun, nestled behind a shrub or even a deep patch of clover.
These cattle have become really quiet over the past couple of years. The mother’s are understandably cautious of us, especially when we go wandering among them and their new babies with Sapphire. One incident a couple of days ago I found particularly touching.
After putting out some bloat lick, all the herd came over for a taste. One poor cow, Latte, left her calf behind. The best thing I could do was make myself scarce, so I departed as quickly as I could. Latte then commenced a desperate search for her calf, trotting around the paddock, calling for her calf. After five long minutes of desperate searching, she hadn’t found the calf and was becoming more distressed.
I returned to the paddock and found the calf, fast asleep in a bunch of saplings. Carefully I positioned myself behind the calf, and gently started talking to it. As expected, it woke with a jolt, leapt to its feet, let out a blood curdling bellow and ran directly away from me and straight into Mum who was very pleased to be reunited.
The bellow created a very different reaction with the herd. The rest of the cattle all came running at their best speed (it would be unfair to call it a gallop, especially for the heavy cows yet to calve). Their protective instincts were strong. As they cleared the dam wall and found that all was well, they gratefully settled down to a walk. The mother Latte and her calf were reunited, everyone was happy and a few minutes later were all grazing peacefully as if non of the adventure had ever happened.
So why was I putting out bloat lick? Clover is a wonderful nitrogen fixing, drought hardy grass. This year it has grown rapidly in some of our paddocks. Cattle love it, however if they eat too much it forms a foamy gas in their rumen, which they are unable to belch. In extreme cases it is fatal, and several cattle in the district have died due to bloat this year.
The bloat lick we use has a molasses base, but the active ingredient is Alcohol Ethoxylate Teric 12A 23. I don’t know how it works to reduce the foaming in the rumen, but so far, we haven’t lost any cattle on our clover rich pastures. They do seem to know what it does though, and actively seek it out. As they eat through the clover in the paddock, the demand for it reduces – until I put them in the next paddock. More information on the bloat lick we are using can be found here: https://www.olssons.com.au/uploads/7/9/6/4/79645424/bloat-liq_brochure.pdf
With things all settled back down Jo and I were able to take a few moments to relax with the cattle. I was a little surprised when ‘Uno’, our first born heifer from last year came right up to me…. if only I hadn’t laughed just as she was getting bold!
The past week has been a little hectic on the Rock Farm – for all the right reasons. We have had a most fortunate set of circumstances, that created a flurry of activity, and led to aching muscles and blisters.
After our recent massive downpour, it was evident that some areas of our creek bank had collapsed. This loss of productive soil into our waterways is less than ideal, for both the water ways and our farm. What was evident through walking along the length of the creek that runs through our place is that trees, whether exotic or native, all helped stop the erosion. We needed trees.
Long term readers may recall that Greening Australia planted thousands of trees at the original Rock Farm, see post here. That paddock was directly seeded along contours, and as far as I can tell from recent google earth images, the trees are doing remarkably well. I put in a call to Greening Australia and spoke to Ben Hanrahan about what were the best trees to plant along our creek and options were available to us.
It seemed my timing was perfect. Due to COVID restrictions, a property that had planned to plant 5000 trees was unable to arrange volunteer labour to plant them. After discussing the options with Ben, we applied for a grant of 300 trees, which were sitting ready to go at the nursery.
Greening Australia provided us with an incredibly diverse list of species. I looked up each to determine the best habitat. A list of the species is below for those interested.
The only problem was, we needed to get them in the ground quickly, and then build a fence to keep the cattle off them. But the first priority was to get them planted before a forecast 5mm of rain was due to fall.
I managed to get 115 trees planted on the first day. Jo and I managed to knock over the rest the following day. We averaged 3.6 minutes a tree – which was by all accounts a cracking pace to clear a patch, plant the tree, install the guard and give them a quick drink. The Hamilton Tree Planter was worth its weight in gold. Some areas such as where we had vehicle access were much easier than areas on the far side of the creek, which required lugging everything over the stream – crossed by delicate leaps in strategic places, or finding holes that were just over gum boot depth!
We managed to get all the trees in the ground before a wonderful 3mm of rain fell overnight to help settle them into their new homes.
But that was only part of the battle won. The next part was the construction of a new fence. A new fence was required to isolate around four hectares (10 acres) along the creek. This will hopefully allow the new shrubs and trees to get established without the pressure of cattle. Wombats and kangaroos are another story.
It took me another day and a half to get the fence built – around 180 metres with a gate and two flood gates. I included a hot wire on the fence to discourage the cattle from pushing on it – as a lot of the posts are in pretty soft soil.
And then, after four pretty solid days (110 000 steps according to my fitbit) it was time to sit back and invite the cattle into their ‘new’ paddock, secure in the knowledge the new trees were safe.
A huge thank you to Ben and the team at Greening Australia for supporting our request for assistance. We hope that these trees will be part of the legacy we leave here at the Rock Farm. The species provided by Greening Australia were:
Acacia mearnsii – Black Wattle
Dodonaea viscosa subsp. Spatulata – Narrow Leafed Hop Bush
Eucalyptus blakelyi – Blakelyi Red Gum
Eucalyptus bridgesiana – Apple Box
Eucalyptus camaldulensis – River Red Gum
Eucalyptus viminalis – Mana or Ribbon Gum
Leptospermum lanigerum – Woolly Tea Tree
Leptospermum obovatum – River Tea Tree
And the excellent book that helped me work out the best places to plant the trees was Woodland Flora – A field guide for the Southern Tablelands, by Sarah Sharp, Rainer Rehwinkel, Dave Mallinson and David Eddy. (2015) It is available here: http://www.publish.csiro.au/pid/7609.htm
The magical rain of a couple of weeks ago has continued the transformation of the Rock Farm. The rain has continued, mostly on weekends, with occasional bursts of hail and sleet, usually when the kids are in the middle of their weekend sport!
The ground is literally oozing water. Where I have put rip lines on the hillsides, the ground is soft. The cattle are sinking to their knees where the ground has been opened up, showing how effective the ripping has been in getting the moisture into the soil.
All the ground moisture is great in the paddocks, but not so great when the water is oozing over the driveway. A little section of our drive had become very boggy, and with no natural drainage, I needed to take some action. The tractor allowed me to easily dig a trench, and put some large poly-pipe under the road. Some hours with a mattock to dig a spoon drain has diverted much of the surface water off the drive, and through the pipes. The drive still hasn’t dried out enough for me to drive a car along this part of the drive. I’m not complaining though, I’m far happier stuck in mud than eating dust!
The ideal conditions have increased our determination to plant more trees this season. The yellow box (eucalyptus melliodora) trees we planted last year are doing well as are the Daimyo Oaks (quercus dentata) we planted along our driveway.
We took the chance to plant some Algerian Oak (quercus canariensis) and Californian White Oak (quercus lobata) to form a wind break west of the house. These magnificent trees grow well in local conditions once established. We bought half a dozen seedlings from the Digger’s Club to get going as our normal source trees didn’t have any acorns this year because of the drought.
In the meantime, the cattle’s bellies continue to grow. They will start calving in the next few weeks, so we are keeping a close eye on them. With the paddocks being so lush, I have some dolomite (magnesium) available for them, in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of bloat and grass tetany. We have been allowing them to graze the rich clover paddocks only for a few hours at a time, but they don’t appreciate being moved at the end of their session. Sapphire the Border Collie is mostly helpful, but remains a work in progress!
In some sad news, we bade farewell to Mater, the little quarter-horse with a heart of gold who lived next door. This fellow not only taught The-Now-Not-So-Little Helper the basics of riding, but reminded us all about what it means to love a horse. This little horse had defied all predictions and trekked the Bicentennial National Trail from Cooktown to Healsville a few years ago with his owners, Kathryn and Preston. This is where he (and Kathryn and Preston) came into our lives on their way south. With Kathryn and Preston away, I had been checking on their horses with even more enthusiasm than normal. Finding him dead in the paddock with his old friend Laurie watching over him was devastating.
Whilst he might have lived next door, we felt he was part of our family too. Over the years, this little fellow and his mates have received countless carrots and cuddles from all of us. He will be sorely missed. Rest in peace old friend.
With soaking rain falling over much of the eastern sea-board, I have enjoyed the opportunity to sit back and reflect on some of the little projects that have been happening on the Rock Farm over the past few weeks. Each little project in isolation doesn’t make a big difference, but when we do step back from our immediate tasks, we can see progress, which is incredibly rewarding.
One thing any gardener or farmer knows is that like rust, weeds never sleep. I try to get out every few days with the chipper and spend an hour or so enjoying the great outdoors. I tend to work on the isolated thistles or tussocks, as I figure the big patches are easier to come back to.
Occasionally I think that it would be far easier to spot spray the weeds, however when I find healthy earth worms under the sods, I quickly regain my motivation to use the manual chipper. Lately nearly every sod I turn over has an earthworm scurrying for cover. Earthworms are especially susceptible to chemicals, like the canary in the coal mine, and to find so many in the paddocks is heartening.
In other areas around the place we have been busy too. We finally got around to putting some blue metal under our carport. Later Jo put in a nice brick edge, which makes the whole area far more attractive, and I will take a photo of it soon. The worksite supervisor approved of the tractor relocating the gravel, making the whole job a lot easier than I planned.
Not all the gravel went to the carport. We decided it was better to get another rain water tank to better mitigate our water risk next drought by increasing our storage capacity to around 90 000 litres. The tank needs to sit on a bed of gravel. Thankfully the family were able to help me move the 22 500 litre tank into the perfect position and we soon connected the tank, increasing our capacity by 25%. My favourite addition was a little tap, allowing me to get some potable water up at the shed when I need!
Another job on the list since we moved in was to replace the gates at the hay-shed. Or at the very least make the gates swing open and closed. Our local rural supplier had a pair of 16ft (4.8 metre) gates in stock – and they looked a whole heap smarter than the existing bent and wired together gates. I put in a new post, and swung the new gates in position. We used a bit of left over roofing iron to clad the remaining gap to fit the rest of the shed, and we now have a much smarter and more functional hay shed.
Our quest to harvest food from our land also continues in our garden. For the past few months, Jo has been steadily plugging away at her vegetable garden. Keen to recycle as much material as possible, we have been using old heavy gauge steel from our roof. Our first garden beds have healthy rows of garlic and peas growing, with cauliflowers and broccoli coming along nicely. The latest beds will be ready in time for spring planting, and we hope to increase our production once the threat of frosts reduce. I must admit I was sceptical about how the garden would look when Jo first proposed using the old roofing iron, but I am converted. I can’t wait to get the new beds full of vegetables and see what we can do with it now.
None of these projects have been particularly large, but they have all taken a bit of time to come together. And when they do come together, they combine to make our little patch more useful and enjoyable for us.
In amongst it all, we have still found time to go and check on the girls. They are all in excellent condition, and I cannot believe I haven’t had to start hand feeding them yet. The paddock rotation system I have in place is working really well, and they follow me from one paddock to the next now. Whilst not quiet enough to pat, they are inquisitive and will come right up to you if you’re quiet and move slowly.
Whilst we might have got some of these little jobs finished, there are still plenty more ideas we have for the Rock Farm. The best part of a rainy weekend is being able to sit and dream and keep putting new ones on the list….