Of droughts and flooding rains….

Dorothea Mackellar had it right when describing her love of Australia in her poem My Country. The Australian landscape has always been one of extremes with periods of drought followed by wet cycles. Whilst the cycle is familiar throughout Australian history, the intensity of droughts and rain events has increased. This, combined with changing land use, further compounds the effects of the climatic changes, meaning we are seeing bigger floods and longer dry periods.

Three years ago, our area was gripped in drought. Doomsayers prophesised that city water supply dams in Australia would never be full again. We anxiously watched our dam drop to a puddle, knowing if we ran out of water, we would have to sell the last of our cattle. Then in early 2020 the drought broke, and we have enjoyed a cycle of wet years, which has replenished water storages, rehydrated the land and grown pasture to feed our cattle.

Earlier this week we experienced the highest flood of our creek for at least 50 years. Three hours after the rain started falling, our creek rose quickly from a small trickle to a raging flood that surpassed our last record height by another half a metre. Previously the damage caused by floods on the Rock Farm has been relatively minor, the clean up being an inconvenience. This one was something different again.

This series of photos show how quickly the creek rose during the first hour. I was anxiously waiting for the family to come home but it became apparent that they were never going to get home in time. Thankfully friends opened their doors and Jo and one of the not-so-little helpers enjoyed a night in the village. (Huge thank you to Mark and Mel).

A couple of hours later the flood was in full force. The not-so-little fisherman and I went for a walk in the paddocks, and we weren’t prepared for the amount of water roaring down our creek.

The driveway disappeared. The previous record was to the base of the gate on the right – this one came another half a metre up the gate. I sent the young fellow in to open the gate and reduce the load on the catch.

The water came up to our dam wall, and we sat and watched the water for a while. Every minute or so we heard giant Elm trees crack and shake, before seeing them appear in the middle of the flow downstream. The destruction was enormous. I have never before seen these trees break off the banks – indeed they have done a fantastic job of stabilising the bank up until now.

The following morning the water had receded and I went for a walk to check the damage. Debris was pushed up onto and over fences that have been standing for 50 years or so. I found the oak tree that used to stand near our crossing several hundred metres down stream. Several of the Elms that collapsed during the flood were lying in my paddocks. Sections of the creek banks had been scoured out, and areas that were previously grassed and covered in trees turned to river rocks and sand beaches. We have lost quite a large area of our paddock – but the young trees planted on the banks seem to have folded over and bounced back. We need them to grow and grow quickly to help hold the bank together in future floods.

The clean up will take a while – but that is all achievable. I have written a priority list for the fence repairs, however all work is on hold whilst we wait for the paddocks to dry out. It is one thing to walk on the paddocks in calf deep water. It is something else altogether to drive on them with machinery or even just tools. After a bit of work with the tractor, the driveway is again passable

The most important thing is that we are all safe and well. The cattle likewise are all safe and now back on the slopes well above the water level. And of course – it has created a wonderful playground!

In the coming weeks I am sure we will repair our fences and get the farm functioning again. In the longer term, I hope we can lift our gaze and start working at catchment levels to slow water down. If we can slow water in the landscape, it will cause floods to rise slower, the peak to last longer but at a lower height. The landscape has changed enormously in the past couple of hundred years, and any changes we make wont happen overnight. The good news is that change is happening. One of the key organisations that has conducted years of research and is at the forefront of making changes both at a landscape and the political level is the Mulloon Institute. If you’re interested in finding out more about how we can start changing the hydrology of the landscape to reduce impacts of flood events like this, check out their webpage here: https://themullooninstitute.org/

Mechanical, aborial, bovine, fencing and climate challenges on the Rock Farm.

The Rock Farm is looking fantastic with the grass starting to leap out of the ground. The lawn mower has been brought out of the shed and pressed into service keeping the garden in check, the teenage helper’s desire for pocket money overcoming their inherent need to sleep. The first snake of the season has come out to soak in the sun. Our cattle are starting to put on weight, and we will join them with a new bull soon. The wet spring season has created some health challenges for the cattle which we are working through, whilst making access to the Rock Farm difficult. We have continued planting native shrubs. built more tree guards and are replacing boundary fences. We have also been working on a couple of mechanical challenges.

During the first week of the school holidays, our old black falcon ute kept disappearing with two boys, only to be heard from the house revving hard. The Not-So-Little Helpers discovered the fun of going in circles…. however they have also found out that when you push an old engine to the limit, things tend to break.

The harmonic balancer collapsed, and the boys sheepishly reported they thought a tensioner pulley had failed, as the fan belt kept coming off. Our family rule is that if you break it, you fix it (the two ‘F’ rule). I explained that I needed the capability of a farm ute – they could work out whether it was in their best interests to repair or replace the car.

They quickly realised that repair was indeed the cheapest option – even if the parts were more than the original cost of the ute. Fitting the new harmonic balancer was especially easy, as there was no grill or bumper restricting access. After an entertaining hour or so watching the boys fit the new balancer, the ute was back in service…. for a short time until they flogged our both rear tyres.

My progress with Myrtle the old Benz has been slower, but I have finally managed to remove the engine. It was straightforward, but not particularly easy. Three out of four engine mounts were easy to extract, one was nigh impossible. Seven out of eight wheel nuts were easy to undo, one was not. It was a common theme as I slowly got the engine ready to remove. I now have to remove the engine from the donor truck – which will probably be in the new year.

Around the farm tree planting continues, with a range of native shrubs planted in our biodiversity reserve. We hope these will grow and provide food and habitat for native bees, insects and birds. I find planting trees is not only great exercise, but it also incredibly fulfilling. I hope these little shrubs get well established this season, without too much pressure from the hares!

In other areas of the farm, we have been working at improving the infrastructure. We built a new tree guard for the Cork Oaks we planted near the dam (see last post) however I haven’t been game to drive down to fence off the other Cork Oaks on our western boundary due to the wet boggy conditions.

The northern boundary fence was in terrible condition, and I spent a morning removing the old fence so a contractor can replace this section. We are fortunate our neighbour supports these improvements which work for both our properties. We hope to get new posts in the ground this week before the next rain event comes.

Speaking of the wet, it is having an impact on the health of our cattle. We have been keeping the cattle on the slopes, attempting to keep their feet as dry as possible. Unfortunately all our paddocks have boggy sections. Warm wet conditions increase the likelihood of the animals suffering a painful condition known as footrot (not to be confused with Foot and Mouth disease) – see here: https://www.mla.com.au/research-and-development/animal-health-welfare-and-biosecurity/diseases/infectious/footrot/. We noticed one steer with a limp, and the vet gave us a long acting treatment to help clear the likely abscess in his hoof. The vet explained the injection ‘triangle’ site for the intra muscular injection. The steer wasn’t particularly happy when the needle entered his neck, but I hope he feels better soon.

The record breaking wet is also having a wider impact on our community. Most common complaints are the condition of the roads as the substrates collapse and giant potholes form. We are fortunate that our flooding events normally affect nothing more than our property access (drowning of big red truck aside!). We have a temporary fence in our flood prone areas, from which we need to retrieve our portable electric energiser. We have spent the odd night in town, and lent on friends and neighbours for beds when access is known to be dangerous. When a neighbour got in a spot of bother, our eldest boy rose to the occasion and calmly took charge until everyone was safe and well. It was a proud Dad moment.

Of course the rain isn’t all bad news. It allows the odd excuse to sit down and relax, whilst listening to the rain on the roof. Of course I should be tidying up the shed, and don’t even mention housework!

Somehow I think Sapphire agrees the housework can wait too 🙂

Spring Update – It doesn’t always go to plan….

With the Bureau officially declaring another La-Nina year, we are looking forward to another wet year here on the Rock Farm. It means our tanks and dam will be full, the grass will grow, and we will be able to carry our cattle through to autumn. It also means another great year to establish trees and keep working on improving our natural capital.

Whilst this blog may be a little slow to get updates, it doesn’t mean we have been sitting idly on the Rock Farm. There have been lots of different activities keeping us busy. Some planned, some not planned, but all keeping us busy, fit and challenged.

Our beautiful cows, including the four maiden heifers all calved without any difficulty this year, giving us 16 gorgeous calves. With 10 heifers, 6 bull calves, we were thrilled with the result. The antics of the calves are constantly entertaining, and I am happy to admit I spend more time than I should with these creatures. They are naturally shy, but with their quiet mums watching by, their curiosity overcomes their fears, and we have been quite close to several of them.

Once all the calves were on the ground, we marked them. They all received a multi-spectrum 5-in1 vaccination, and we castrated the males (with rubber rings). The good news was that all the calves were polled, meaning we don’t have to de-horn any of them (which is a job I hate). The calves will get another booster vaccine in a few weeks to protect them from the common clostridial diseases found in cattle.  We also took the opportunity to audit the NLIS ear tags in each of the cows. This ensures that our records are accurate and up to date, should a biosecurity event such as Foot and Mouth disease enter Australia.

In other news we have continued our work dividing our paddocks into smaller cells. Taking the opportunity presented by creating a nature reserve in one paddock, we completed a small section of fence to divide the paddock into two smaller paddocks. This will help us better manage grazing in this area, continuing our Savory rotational grazing system.

We are continuing to plant trees on the Rock Farm. A friend kindly gave us 120 Cork Oak (Quercus Suber) seedlings. We have planted these in two main areas, to create wind breaks. These medium oaks are ever green, drought hardy and long lived. They are native to the Mediterranean area, and forests are carefully managed as these oaks provide the corks in wine bottles and the centre of cricket balls. We will use temporary electric fence to protect these seedlings in the short term before we build permanent tree guards. Huge thank you to Noel for his donation of these little beauties.

The sharp eyed among you would note in the background our Amarok ute has been replaced with white Hilux. Sadly our Amarok was written off after a particularly nasty pot hole cracked a suspension mount. Whilst our insurance company has been outstanding, they are finding it difficult to replace our ute. It was unexpected (I thought a suspension bush had failed) and whilst I am grateful for the loan of the Hilux with a tub body, it sure is a different set up to our old flat tray. I find it particularly awkward and impractical for our purposes and can’t wait for our replacement vehicle to get here.

It hasn’t been our year for mechanical devices on the Rock Farm. Our dear old Benz 911 truck Myrtle, suffered a catastrophic engine failure after I took it across our creek in deep water to retrieve the family from the other side. Whilst the air intake was above the water level, I hadn’t countered on the funnel effect which forced water up to the top of the radiator and into the top of the engine. The engine came to a complete stop. After dragging it out of the creek and to the shed with the tractor my worst fears were realised when I pulled the injectors and still couldn’t get the engine to turn over. This was of course no easy process, requiring the fabrication of two Benz ‘special tools’.

Whilst the OM352 engine fitted to Myrtle is common around the world, there aren’t many in Australia. There are a couple of turbo charged variants available (OM352A) but are expensive. I happened to mention my dilemma to our neighbour and he offered an engine from a spare truck at his place. It is an OM366 – which has the same block. It won’t be a straight swap – I will have to get creative – but the engine is far more affordable – and promises 60 extra horses! It might not make Myrtle any faster, but it might not slow down as much on hills! It hadn’t run in a few years, but after hooking up some new batteries, it fired up straight away – so is the path we are pursuing for now.

It means that any spare time I thought I had has been well and truly accounted for. I do love the challenges of the Rock Farm. From getting my hands dirty in the ground planting trees and chipping weeds, to working stock, to solving mechanical problems, it does stretch me. I might not love every minute of it all – but I wouldn’t swap it for the world…

Decision Making Tools – Farming Forecaster

James Rebanks described the importance of observation in farming. Observation informs our decisions about how we manage our farms. For thousands of years farmers have been relying on empirical knowledge passed down through generations, helping them to recognise patterns in the weather, cycles on the land and rhythms within nature. But what can you do when you don’t have that mulit-generational connection with your land?

Today we are armed with a vast array of tools to allow us to make evidence based decision making for our farming enterprises. These tools are usually expensive, difficult to use, or unable to be tailored for specific applications. In my quest to learn more about caring for the soil on the Rock Farm, I recently attended a winter update session hosted by the NSW Local Land Services. One of the sessions was on a web based tool that has enormous potential to help me make better decisions about our farm management.

The tool is Farming Forecaster. This tool has been available in our area for a couple of years, but is rapidly expanding throughout New South Wales and Tasmania. Matt and Phil from the video below attended our session and took us through the tool, how it works, and how we can use it to make better decisions. One of the best aspects of the Local Land Service’s workshops is the calibre of people they have at the sessions, and to hear Matt and Phil explain the tool was a real privelige.

The tool uses real-time soil moisture probes in our district to predict pasture growth. Water in the soil is the largest determinator of pasture growth in our area, followed by fertility. The Farming Forecaster assumes you have appropriate fertility and uses the soil moiture profile to determine pasture growth based on either:

  • 30 years of historical data
  • Bureau of Meteorology ACCESS S long range forecast data

With accurate pasture growth data, based on 30 years of observed weather, and knowing exactly how much area is available to graze (using free GIS software QGIS) I am able to calculate with reasonable confidence how much feed will be available to my cattle for the next three months.

This information, coupled with data on the amount of feed I can expect my cattle to eat (based on tables from the Local Land Services Soil Fertility and Decision Making Workshop) allows me to make decisions on my stocking rate.

With rainfall and soil types varying across the region, it is important to look at several sites around your farm. You can do this by clicking on the ‘View Network‘ button. There are some great videos that explain the data also available. Additional information on the site can be found here: https://farmingforecaster.com.au/MemberUpdates.

From using Farming Forecaster, I am now able to confidently say that we have an appropriate stocking rate for this season – well at least for now. It is worth regularly reviewing the site as it is updated weekly. For a punter like me, who has so much to learn about animal husbandry, pasture growth and stocking rates, it really helps me to access knowledge that took generations to acquire.

Of course the ones who benefit most from it are oblivious to it – but that is ok. They’re beautiful – and now I know they should be well fed throughout the next couple of months :).

It all starts with ‘why?’

There are some fantastic workshops, courses and field visits open to landowners in New South Wales for people to develop their skills and knowledge to help make their farming enterprises more healthy, and profitable. To get the most out of these opportunities it is important to understand your vision, or your ‘why’. I am in the middle of a Farm Planning Workshop hosted by the Local Land Services. This was the very first question we were asked to consider – and perhaps the most difficult to answer.

I was thankful for the reason to re-examine our vision for the Rock Farm. We haven’t updated our vision statement since I commenced this blog back in 2016. From casting my eyes back over it as we started our farm planning workshop, it was clear our vision needs updating.

Our vision is for sustainable and ecologically sound stewardship of our property, that creates an income and food source for us in an environment that encourages our beautiful boys to grow into gorgeous men. We hope to share this knowledge with others interested in creating a sustainable and healthy future.

The first thing that struck me in re-visiting our vision is that we have moved from sustainable to regenerative in our approach. We don’t just want to maintain our land in its current state, but we want to improve it during our stewardship and set the property up for continual improvement into the future. We want to improve our soil health and fertility. We also want to increase the biodiversity of the plants and animals that live here through creating areas of habitat. We have also come to understand that community and social responsibility are also a key elements of our vision. Oh and you might have guessed, I love managing livestock and Jo loves growing vegetables.

We haven’t got the words yet for our new vision but we have most of the elements of it identified. Through creating a vision statement, we will have a lens through which we can approach all the wonderful learning opportunities that are available to us. It allows us to identify which elements of the books, courses and workshops are relevant to our enterprise, and which aren’t. Perhaps more importantly, it allows us to acknowledge other people’s visions. We can respect that their visions may be different to ours, and this will therefore shape the approach they take to their land management.

I have just discovered a fantastic podcast by Charlie Arnott which will help us define our vision. Charlie interviews some amazing people interested in regenerative agriculture, healthy soils and healthy food from around the world. We have found inspiration in many of his guest’s books or stories. Sometimes it is hard to find the words that best fit what we are trying to achieve on our small farm. To hear Charlie and his guests explain their stories helps us understand that our journey is far from unique. I cannot recommend this podcast enough – especially when he interviews one of our neighbours in episode 15. Please check out Charlie Arnott’s excellent podcast here: https://charliearnott.com.au/podcast/

Of course Sapphire knows her ‘why’. It is her job to make sure the fire doesn’t go out, keep rabbits out of the garden, occasionally ask the cattle to hurry up through a gate and make sure Dad doesn’t run into a tree whilst checking the fences!

Support for total newbies on small farms

Recently many people have chosen to leave the cities and move to the country. The ‘tree change’ phenomenon is nothing new, and many people relish the new lifestyle and opportunities that come from moving to acreage. For some, it is returning to their roots, however for many it is a new experience living on acres. They quickly find that there is so much more to it than ‘buying a few sheep to keep the grass down’. It can feel confusing and overwhelming, but it is great to know that there is support available for newbies.

The most important thing to understand is your ‘why?’. If you are able to understand why you want to live on acres and what you want to achieve on your block, then you are half way there.

If you haven’t yet made the decision to move out to acres, you may like my previous posts about some of the benefits and drawbacks of living on a hobby farm. Whilst my kids have grown since these posts, the issues haven’t changed – except perhaps fuel now takes up an even larger part of our budget. If you have already moved to acres, you may find some of the following information useful.

Firstly there is nothing wrong with being a total newbie. Nearly all of us have been there, and can remember how it felt the first time we realised that small farms doesn’t necessarily mean small problems…

What support is available?

Neighbours are a great source of information. They may have years of experience living in the area, or may be newbies like you. If you’re able to establish and maintain good relationships with your neighbours, it will help you feel comfortable in your new home – especially in times of crisis. It is worth investing in building this relationship – and you might find you share ideas, knowledge, labour, equipment and friendship.

Local Land Services is a NSW government agency, funded through landholder’s rates. Their aim is to help people make better decisions about the land they manage, to ensure profitable and sustainable rural and regional communities. I have found them to be a wealth of knowledge, with some great resources available online and through workshops. The LLS information is easy to digest and applicable for the largest landowners down to small hobby farms. (Edit: A great guide specifically for small land owners that I found particularly useful is the Rural Living Handbook available here: https://www.lls.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/1147804/Rural-Living-Handbook-2020.pdf)

Specifically the LLS provide help and advice dealing with:

  • Livestock health and production
  • Biosecurity
  • Pests, weeds and diseases
  • Emergencies such as natural disasters
  • Native vegetation

Each LLS region publish a quarterly newsletter with relevant local information and workshops. Through a LLS program, I arranged for free soil tests, and am currently half way through a two day workshop on how to interpret my soil test results and what they mean.

Small Farm Networks is a network of small farm landowners and provides advice and support for people who live on or manage rural and -peri-urban land for primary production, biodiversity or lifestyle goals. They host a number of really useful workshops and webinars, from preparing your property for bushfire threat, to grass identification field days. What I really like about their program is that it particularly relevant for people like us who only have small herds of animals. I also find they host some really innovative and interesting guests. A lot of the presentations are now held online via zoom, and this flexibility has allowed me to attend far more meetings that I could previously.

Another great community organisation is Landcare. Landcare aims to demonstrate best practices that improve soil and water health whilst maintaining of increasing biodiversity. There are many local groups around Australia who can provide advise and support. Our local chapter hosts regular meetings dealing with topics ranging from invasive weeds to salinity. I have always found the guest speakers informative and engaging.

Sustainable Farms is an initiative of the Australian National University (ANU). This organisation employs a team of ecologists who conduct long-term biodiversity surveys on farms to understand the role of natural assets. I recently attended a field day about enhancing farm dams for biodiversity and water quality outcomes near Goulburn. Hosted by Landcare in conjunction with Sustainable Farms I found the day inspiring, with practical solutions that improve outcomes for farm production and biodiversity outcomes.

Greening Australia is a non for profit organisation committed to restoring Australia’s diverse landscapes and protecting biodiversity and ways that benefit communities, economies and nature. We have found them to be extremely supportive of our attempts to improve biodiversity outcomes through various programs, most recently with the donation of tube-stock to stabilise our creek banks and improve water quality – see my post here.

Each town or village has a range of other community groups and associations. Our village has a population of just over 1000 people in the 2016 census, however proudly supports over 30 community groups. From the Film Society that screens movies monthly in the village hall, to the Men’s Shed, Historical Society and various sporting teams, each group represents an opportunity to meet other people in the area. We are exceptionally proud of our community, but I know our village is not unique. All across Australia each town and village has networks of people who are proud of their community and the people in it. Being involved in these groups encourages me to associate with people from different walks of life. Their perspectives provide a fresh lens to view my situation and I welcome the new ideas.

One group that has developed is an informal group of around 50 landowners in our area interested in Regenerative Land Management. Social media allows us to share ideas and organise visits at each other’s properties. We were humbled to host the group recently at the Rock Farm. We had some great conversations and this has led to us harnessing some other skill sets within to group to help us develop farm plans.

What I have learnt is that some of the best ideas come from people who are unshackled by convention and follow their passion. By reaching out to as many groups as you can, you will find the support you need to help you achieve your goals. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. Take what resonates with your ‘why’. It is a glorious wonderful journey and you won’t regret it for a moment.

A disadvantage of living on a hobby (any?) farm

Regular readers know how much I love living on the Rock Farm. I find great joy in the raising of livestock, planting of trees and improving the amenity and functionality of our farm. Through the pandemic, we have considered ourselves extremely fortunate to be custodians of this 100 acres of farmland. We have used the isolation periods to get some projects done, spent hours walking around the paddocks and even gone on camping ‘holidays’ in the back paddock. These adventures have been wonderful, and no doubt my friends in the city have looked enviously at our relative freedoms. However before you all rush out and join the hill-change, it is fair to warn you living on a hobby far does have one significant drawback.

The recent school holidays brought this disadvantage into sharp focus. It can be hard to leave – for even a few days.

With travel restrictions easing across most of the country, we were determined to head north and catch up with some of our family during the school break. We had a limited window of opportunity in the second half of January to get away for a week…. but the planning for our break away started much earlier than that.

Livestock have an uncanny ability to know when you are not around. Being a shift-worker we recently changed from a two day / two night pattern to an alternating arrangement with blocks of three day shifts and two nights. And the cattle sensed the change too. For some reason, on my third day shift, the wheels come off on the Rock Farm.

It is always on the third day that the water trough leaks, or a calf gets through a fence, or the bull gets in with the neighbour’s cattle…. or any other myriad of crisis that require intervention. And it is not just cattle. It can be that the pump stops working meaning the toilets in the house won’t flush – and by default the cattle run out of water. Or the car starts making a new noise, or a chook gets sick, or a branch falls on a fence – or a road. I think you get the picture.

This gives you some idea about the things going through my head contemplating heading away for a good week and a half. It required military level planning – and generous neighbours.

Thankfully we are blessed with wonderful neighbours, who offered to take Sapphire – our almost useful dog – in and treat her as one of their own. Our neighbours also kindly agreed to feed and water our hens during our absence.

But it was the cattle that needed the most thought. They needed to be in a paddock with good water, good fences and good feed. And this was the problem. I had such a paddock, in reserve since September for just this purpose. The only problem was that we had also planted around 130 trees in the paddock, and they required a tree guard to protect them.

You may recall in my last post that we had started building a fence to protect our one hectare native habitat reserve…. Well that was in the same paddock I was reserving for our trip – and it needed to be finished.

One solid days work with all four of us working had the star pickets hammered home, with wire strung and mesh clipped on. The new fence looked great. The next day I spent restoring the defunct electric fence system to operational – and the paddock was ready. Just in time.

With good water in the paddock we weren’t relying on our temperamental electric pump to supply a water trough. The Not-So-Smart helper proved the electric fence was operating with his hand. I also hoped there was enough feed to keep the cattle safe and happy until our return.

And they were – but they mobbed me on our return, bellowing and asking to be moved to a new paddock, which I obliged. 30 seconds later the pandemonium was over…

Our holiday was well worth the efforts to get away. We caught up with family and friends, swam in the surf and even braved the crowds at Wet’n’Wild. It was important to remind us how much we love a good road trip.

It also provided a new issue to contemplate. How to set the property up for super low maintenance such that a keen teenage neighbour could keep an eye on it for some pocket money.

If we solve that problem, we will have the best of both worlds. We will be able to live in a truely beautiful place, without it becoming a burden. We will let you know how it turns out.

A new opportunity and a “Green Christmas”

In my last post I informed you that I had some exciting news. I was invited to join a group of local land owners (custodians) who, like me, are interested in regenerative agriculture. The aim of the group is to share knowledge and experience whilst also joining a community of people who have a desire to improve their land. None of us are full time farmers, which frees us from the constraint of having to make a living from our land, however does limit the time we can put into repairing the soils of our properties. The group was established by Cate, and our first gathering was generously hosted by Marty on his nearby property.

Marty brought his knowledge of natural sequence farming and showed us how he had been changing the hydrology of his property. At the highest points of his block, Marty had built shallow ponds, which he filled using water from a large dam lower in the property. The ponds allowed water to enter the soil and hydrate the land, with a solar pump and float switches keeping the ponds filled. As we walked downhill, we crossed swales that Marty had built along contours, slowing surface water and allowing it to enter the soil. Beside these Marty had planted banks of trees. At the bottom of the hill in old gullies, Marty had built leaky weirs, which slowed the water and again hydrated the landscape. Gorgeous Belted Galloway cattle grazed the paddocks in a rotational program. It was a wonderful afternoon and I look forward to sharing more ideas with the group into the future.

In such a wet year, the impact of our changes to the landscape are hard to tell. It is easy to convince ourselves that the fantastic condition of the landscape is the result of good management, allowing us to make the most of every drop of rain. It is really hard to know, with over 900mm falling on our farm this year (our average rainfall is closer to 650mm), the property looks fantastic. As we approached New Years Eve, the dryer weather has seen the grass turn to its typical golden summer hues, but it remains plentiful.

Over the past few years when the property was in drought, I spent several hours on the tractor putting rip lines in our paddocks along contours to assist in allowing rainfall to penetrate the subsoil. Once the soil settled, the rip lines could be easily seen as lines of green across the hills (see link: https://rockfarming.com/2019/11/02/update-on-trees-and-rip-lines/). This year, the whole hillsides are a mass of grass, and the rip lines have all but disappeared from view.

The quantity of grass is amazing, and the cattle have been unable to keep up with the growth. After the cattle have rotated out of the paddocks on our flats, I have slashed them to knock down any thistles. This also assists in breaking down the phalaris stalks (like a mulch). The paddocks have quickly recovered with the grass regrowing quickly.

The school holidays have also allowed me to make the most of some cheap available labour! Regular readers might recall in August we planted around eighty trees in an erosion gully (https://rockfarming.com/2021/08/31/more-trees-for-the-rock-farm/). A few weeks later, we planted another fifty or so in the same area. These school holidays we plan to fence around 1 hectare in this 5.5 hectare paddock to create a native vegetation habitat zone. This paddock has been off-limits to the cattle since we planted the trees, but I am fast approaching the time I need to rotate the cattle through here. With a bit of help from our neighbour’s augur, we soon had the seven strainer posts set in the ground. We will bang in the star pickets and run the wire in the next few weeks, allowing us to re-use the “tank paddock” again.

The cattle are in good condition – and revelling in the fact we are enjoying a “Green Christmas”. Our leased bull has returned to his home – after a brief excursion through two fences to our neighbour’s. That is a whole other story, along the lines of “little farms doesn’t always mean little problems”.

It has been a remarkable and challenging year for many of our friends. We consider ourselves so fortunate to live on our little hobby farm / sanctuary. Whilst it hasn’t all been easy on the Rock Farm, and at times it the list of projects feels a bit overwhelming, we do love it out here.

Sapphire and I would love to wish all of our readers best wishes for the New Year. We hope that 2022 is the year we can open up the Rock Farm to share it with you all.

Making the most of the season.

This cool wet summer is glorious. The grass continues to grow, the cattle are fat and rainy days mean inside jobs are slowly being worked through. The rain also means we are able to continue to grow and develop the Rock Farm with a couple of little projects.

I was really excited to get going on our first project – having placed an order almost 18 months ago. With such a magnificent body of water in our dam, it seemed like a good idea to stock our dam with some fish. Last week we took delivery of 500 Silver Perch (bidyanus bidyanus) fingerlings from Alan at Jamberoo Aquaculture (http://www.silverperch.com.au).

The silver perch is a medium sized native fish found in the Murray Darling Basin. This means that should our dam overflow and fish escape, they will enter their natural habitat. Sadly today the silver perch are functionally extinct in the Murrumbidgee river system, which our local creek eventually joins. Indeed in the last 40 years wild silver perch populations have collapsed, with only a small pocket surviving in the mid reaches of the Murray River. The fish do not breed in dams or other impounded water supplies.

The fish arrived in great shape, and quite a lot larger than we expected. In a couple of years they should be plate size – if the cormorant who has taken to camping on the dam wall doesn’t get them first. To give the fish half a chance, I put some old pipes in the dam to give the fish some shelter should they want it.

In another part of the farm, we have been watching oaks come out of the ground. We planted a range of acorns last May and around 70% have sprouted and are doing well (https://rockfarming.com/2021/05/16/more-trees-planted-on-the-rock-farm/). I was sharing my progress with a colleague at work, when he invited me to collect a number of oak seedlings that had come up under some oaks growing at his place to fill in my gaps. There were hundreds of little oaks all competing for lights, and I quickly filled all the punnets I had brought. What I didn’t expect was some much taller saplings also looking for a new home. I harvested three buckets of tall saplings and hurried home.

I soon had the new seedlings and taller saplings in the ground. Hopefully they make the most of the rain forecast this week.

I spent an hour or so weeding around the seedlings, and mulched around these young trees. This really is the most ideal season to get them established. Knowing how many oak seedlings I left behind, I will be going back to get some more soon.

A shout out to CK for the beautiful trees and Alan and Jamberoo Aquaculture for the beautiful fish! It sure makes the sunset photos even more special overlooking the dam with it’s new inhabitants and sharp eyes may spot the oak saplings in the tree guards on the right behind the dam.

My next post has some exciting news – and I can’t wait to share it with you. There are some wonderful people in our local region doing some exceptional things on their farms, and I had the privilege to join some of them to hear their stories and how they are also pursuing the goals of healing their land.

A busy spring – marking calves on the Rock Farm and a new boy arrives.

After helping Daisy give birth to Buttercup, the rest of the cows all delivered healthy calves – with the exception of Miss Steak. Miss Steak was on notice, having missed delivering what would have been her second calf last year. Whilst normal commercial operators might have culled her immediately, we were happy to give her a second chance. It seemed our faith was misplaced. Whilst Miss Steak was in rather rotund condition, she didn’t appear to be in calf.

By the 5th of September we had 14 beautiful calves on the ground from the 14 other cows. The maths wasn’t quite that simple, with Uno loosing her calf, and Margurite having twins, but overall it was a pretty good result. After giving Miss Steak another week or so, we decided to mark the calves.

Marking the calves young serves two purposes. The calves are much easier to handle, and the boys are able to be castrated using rubber marking rings. I recruited Master 14 to help with the process. After I vaccinated the calves with a 5 in 1 vaccine, Master 14 was given the job of sliding the rubber rings over the bull calf’s testicles. He really didn’t like it, squirming and wincing and generally doing the whole thing with his eyes closed, which I found hilarious. After we had marked our calves we tallied 7 heifers and 7 steers, with Master 14 looking more cross-eyed than all the boys put together.

With steady and regular rain falling, we moved into September with the promise of solid growth in our pasture. The rain also was causing the weeds and thistles to grow. I took advantage of Master 16’s eagerness to earn money to upgrade his mountain bike by using his willing lockdown labour to chip out thistles each morning in lieu of the long bus ride into town. The Rock Farm pastures have really started to kick along and look fantastic. The good pastures have the cows cycling again.

I contacted our mentor and guide John, and arranged to lease another bull this season. I then asked our friend Jimmy if he could pick the bull up and bring him down to the Rock Farm. The truck arranged, it also made sense to send Miss Steak to the sale yards, a small diversion on the same trip. One of the more colourful characters on the Rock Farm, Miss Steak gained her notoriety with a terrible error of judgement she made as a young heifer (https://rockfarming.com/2018/11/16/a-terrible-miss-steak/). Sadly however, after not calving two years in a row, her time was up.

Then, a week before the truck was due to pick her up, her udder started filling. And filling. And filling. And one horrible cold and rainy night she delivered a gorgeous little heifer. Being the last calf calf, and born in the nick of time to Miss Steak, we named her “Minute”!

Jimmy happily accepted the change in cartage plans and we picked up our borrowed bull a couple of days later. This magnificent fellow shows is French Normande herritage with his markings and his length. He is also really quiet, and happily settled in with the girls. This year we are joining our 15 cows and 1 heifer with this fellow. They will be due to start calving late July, which is a little early for us, but with the season starting so well, we can only hope it holds.

In the mean time, we have been enjoying our daily strolls amongst the cattle. There are far worse ways to be spending lockdown! Special thanks to John for leasing the bull to us, and Jimmy for getting him here 🙂