Some lessons you can’t learn at school

The last week or so of the school holidays finished with a flurry of activity – but not all of it was on the Rock Farm.  A few nights in Sydney provided a change of scenery – of sorts.  I was struck looking out of our hotel window in Pyrmont that the environment around us was almost completely manufactured.  The only greenery visible was a small hedge by a pool down below, and the top of a couple of trees just visible above the street.  The hum of traffic and ventilation fans provided a constant white noise reminder that the city environment is far removed from the peace and quiet of the Rock Farm.

I couldn’t wait to get home and breathe the fresh country air, where the hum of the city is replaced by the chatter of birds in the garden.    And I think we all felt the same – because it didn’t take much to encourage the kids to join us for a walk down by the creek to recharge our souls when we got home.

There were a few little jobs I wanted to get on with, none particularly onerous.  The first was tidying up some of the trimmings along the fence I had repaired a couple of weeks earlier.  Myrtle was pressed into service and the old truck allowed me to move the large volume of branches from where they lay to some bare soil with a minimum of fuss.

Lucie the tractor was due a oil and filter change.  The Little Helpers gave the old girl a good wash – not because I like it shiny, but I find it a good opportunity to check over the tractor and identify any loose or missing bits.  Somewhere under the dust and grime we identified the key components of the engine – especially the fuel filters, which I was going to change in a couple of days.

The Little Helpers did a great job – even cleaning the mirrors!

Andrew, a local expert came out and helped me change the fuel filters on both the truck and the tractor.  I’m very glad he did, as the fuel filters on the tractor proved particularly troublesome to reseal.  We also replaced the broken hand throttle cable on the truck.  This cable not only adjusts the idle speed of the truck, but also allows you to shut down the engine.  Until now I had been stalling the engine to force it to stop.

The Little Fisherman learnt a lot of new skills – all simple stuff, but important.  His funniest observation came when he found an unused plug on the wiring loom.  He asked me if that was where you plugged in the computer to tune the engine!   I can understand why he thought that – every car we have had since he was born has had a diagnostic port… so it is only logical that you’d assume you tune trucks the same way.  I told him that this old girl was tuned the old fashioned way, mechanically, and come the zombie apocalypse, this truck would spirit us to safety!

One of the things I really appreciate on the new Rock Farm is a large shed that I can use to work on the vehicles.  It might not be heated, but it is really nice to be out of the weather, and the concrete slab helps.  It might not be pretty, and sure isn’t tidy, but we can work on that.

 

Of course the best part of any service is the test drive!  It was pleasing to note that both Myrtle the Mercedes and Lucie the Tractor both performed flawlessly.  There is nothing like turning diesel into noise…

But then again, there is somethings special about horses that horsepower can’t match! This beautiful fellow is like that breath of fresh air – good for recharging the soul.  The Little Helper and I also enjoyed chillaxing with our four legged friends.

Thinking back to our time in Sydney just a few days earlier, I was reminded of the immortal words of Clancy of the Overflow, written by Banjo Patterson back in 1889.  In that poem, a city-dweller longs to swap with Clancy, a shearer and drover.  Banjo romantically describes the differences between the city and the rural landscapes and often as I leave the city for home, his words come to me.

And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.

 

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Fencing and moving sheep

The new Rock Farm was set up originally to spell race horses.  As such its paddocks were all made with plain wire.  Later cattle were run on the property, and an electric wire or hot wire was installed.  Sadly running sheep wasn’t a concern, and we found very quickly that we would need to work on improving the fences quickly in order to rotate the sheep through the paddocks on the farm.

I have decided that the best thing I can do it work on a paddock at a time, and concentrate on making it stock proof.  I chose a 5.6 hectare paddock, that despite its small size has over 1 kilometre of fencing around its perimeter.   The first thing to do was remove the branches that had fallen on or were about to fall on the wires.

Ideally I will install a stock mesh on the fences, but for now the cheapest and easiest solution was to fix up the existing plain wire fences.

On some sections of fence I had to install a bottom wire through the bottom hole of the star picket.  This wire in most fences would  be at ground level, however these pickets are barely in the ground.  Every fourth post is a concrete post that has been dug into the ground, providing most of the stability required.  The wire spinner is invaluable when it comes to running out wire on your own.  We found this old one behind the shed and after replacing the timbers and a few days soaking in WD40 it was restored to normal operation.

In other sections of the fence, the bottom wire was broken.  This required me to join wires and strain the sections.  One of the best knots for joining wire is called the ‘Figure of 8’, for obvious reasons.  For some reason, I found it difficult to make, having to really think through it every time I made it.  It is a great knot as it doesn’t reduce the wire’s strength.  Thankfully I got better as the day went on.

Image result for figure of 8 fencing knot

Edit – The image above shows the correct figure 8 knot… it seems I didn’t get it right after all….

Source:   https://www.kencove.com/fence/100_Fence+Construction_resource.php

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To strain the wire tight I used an old set of Hayes wire strainers.  The design of these strainers hasn’t changed in over 100 years.  They are simple, reliable and need very little maintenance.  The amount of purchase you can achieve with these strainers is immense, and once you have the technique, they are incredibly versatile.  I went around the paddock, straining the bottom two wires, which are the ones the sheep will put the most pressure on.

And then it was a simple case of bringing the sheep in.  A nice bucket of fresh oats, and a few loud “C’m’on” they came running… well almost.

Seventeen of Nineteen sheep followed me excitedly to the new paddock.

One ewe and her lamb eyed the open gate with suspicion and disappeared back into the paddock.  I have had a run in with this ewe before – she was particularly difficult to muster when we moved here.  In case of such an eventuality I had the boys ready on their four stroke steeds, and I thought they would have her rounded up in no time.

I was wrong.  For the next hour and a half all the whole family was pressed into service to try and push her out of her paddock.  And she refused.  Just as I was on the point of finding a very permanent solution for her lack of motivation, she must have read my thoughts.  She trotted through the gate calmly as you like, and continued up the lane and into the new paddock.

By then it was already well past 30 degrees, and the forecast for the following day was going to be just shy of 40 degrees.  We decided that the Rock Farm could do without us for a day, and decided to take the next day off and make a dash to the coast.

As much fun as swimming in the dam on the Rock Farm is, it doesn’t beat the salt water waves of the coast.  Sometimes you just gotta take a road trip!

Some more on weeds

It has been a hot few days on the new Rock Farm.   I will talk about our fire-plan in the near future, but in the mean time I have been researching some of the weeds that I have identified on the property, and developing strategies on how we will deal with them.

The best place to learn about weeds in our area is the NSW DPI (Department of Primary Industries) WeedWise website http://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/.  The NSW WeedWise page is a wealth of information about what plants are listed as declared weeds in NSW, including priority weeds for different regions.

They also have a handy WeedWise App, which I have downloaded onto my pocket brain.  This means I have access to the full weed database and recommended treatment options all the time.

http://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/

Managing weeds is the responsibility of the land owner.  Sadly infestations of certain weeds can render arable farmland next to useless.  It is also the source of much frustrations between neighbours particularly given the way most weeds spread with no regard to fences or boundaries.

Whilst I would love to ensure our weed management practice is chemical free, I don’t believe this will be achieved in a timely or cost effective manner.  The WeedWise site and app provide information on chemical free, mechanical and selective grazing weed removal techniques, as well as methods using chemicals.

But no matter what technique you use, the best time to start is the present!

Tree of heaven

Tree of Heaven – source http://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/Weeds/Details/142

Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus Altissima) is a plant of Chinese origin that is highly invasive and quickly chokes an area.  I have found one large plant and dozens of suckers in one of the old horse holding paddocks.  Mechanical removal requires the removal of all root matter as it will readily shoot from the smallest remaining root.  This will take concerted effort to get rid of, and will be best approached with a combination of mechanical and chemical methods.

Sweet Briar – (Rosa Rubiginosa) Is common in a lot of our paddocks.  Sheep eat young plants whilst goats will defoliate and ringbark the plants, killing it.  I have slashed a number of these plants in the paddock the sheep are in, hoping that the sheep will eat the young shoots as it re-sprouts.  Apparently cattle don’t eat Sweet Briar – meaning sheep stay part of the wholistic management process for this weed.

Hawthorn (Crataegus Monogyna) is also present but thankfully in only small numbers.  I will try to keep on top of the Hawthorn thickets and ensure they are mechanically slashed and see if the sheep will keep on top of the suckers.  The only catch to all this is I need to ensure my paddocks are sheep proof – and this will take additional work!

Serrated Tussock (Nassella Trichotoma) is common on our property.  It made its way to Australia during the Gold Rush of the 1850s where it was used as stuffing in saddles.  Not palatable for stock, it is most cost effectively controlled by spot spraying individual plants.  The main chemical, flupropanate can also be applied in a granular form using a device similar to a salt shaker.  The granules will activate in rain and provide a long term herbicide against re-germination of the plant, with minimal effect on other pasture, or it can be sprayed in a solution form.

Weed control is one of many competing demands on my time at the new Rock Farm – but I hope to have these plants under control and better managed within a year or so.  If anyone is keen to come and help me chip out some weeds, I’ll gladly shout you lunch!

Myrtle – The Mercedes-Benz LA911

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

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

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

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

“Nah.  Too slow for that.”

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

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

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

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

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

OM352

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

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

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

The new ‘not-so-rocky farm’

After the whirlwind of the last three months, we are excited to be finally settling into our new home.  We have started unpacking boxes, the shed is slowly coming to order and we are starting to realise that Christmas is only a couple of days away.  It has taken a lot of ducks to line up in order to pull off the move, and more people than I could ever imagine to thank, but here we are.

The house was built in the mid 1980s – and is in original condition.  Whilst we have ideas about how to renovate it, we are making sure we live in it for 12 months first to get a full appreciation of how the house functions during the seasons.  I have joked that I am looking forward to 12 months off… but in reality it means I have a year to get the farm in order before my time will be taken up renovating!

In a former life, the property was used as a horse stud.  It has a collection of old stables, shelters, hay sheds and small paddocks.  In fact we have gone from three large paddocks at the Rock Farm to over 20 smaller paddocks.  This will work well for our plans of soil improvement through cell grazing, and I am really excited with this prospect, however there is lots of work to be done to tidy up the day paddocks and sheds.

The infrastructure is best described as ‘tired’.  Some of the solid fences will not take much work to bring into order, however there are kilometres of plain wire fences that need a lot of work.  The sheep are not contained by these fences, and I will have my work cut out ensuring our fences are stock proof.

But the property has grass.  Lots of grass.  And we will be looking for some cattle to help us manage the pasture.  I am really looking forward to experimenting with holistic pasture management through the use of livestock, and this property has real potential.  In the past, 20 acres or so has been sown to lucerne.  We may use this paddock to cut meadow hay, which we will use for our own stock / soil improvement projects.

The boy’s love the new fantasy land they have discovered.  The new place has a creek running along one boundary.  This will create lots of challenges with flood gates to repair and causeways to cross – but it also provides a beautiful cool haven to escape the hot days. The deciduous elm trees also do their part in creating a nutrient rich, moist soil, but I will have to manage their tendency to spread by suckers..

We had many ducks to line up with the purchase of this property.  Friends of ours bought the adjoining 200 acre block, and are looking forward to building a house on their block.  In the meantime their beautiful horses will spend time between both our properties… and I have no problem with that.

I think we will like living here 🙂

Rock Farm Sold

To say it has been a turbulent few months would be an understatement, but it is with mixed feelings that I can finally confirm that the Rock Farm is sold.

We have been honoured to be custodians of the Rock Farm for the past five years.  This beautiful property has taken us on a wonderful journey.  Whilst this blog has largely been about our trials and tribulations as we learn how to raise stock and rehabilitate our soil, there has been so much more to our time on the Rock Farm.

Less than three months ago, selling the Rock Farm was the last thing on our minds.  Our new lambs were growing into sheep, our soil was healing, our trees were growing and our boys were turning into young men.  We had built on the amazing legacy the previous owners had created and felt we were on the cusp of realising our own dreams for the property.

But you have to keep your mind open to new opportunities.  And when one knocked oh so softly, we knew it was worth investigating.  Once we decided it was worth going for, we gave it everything we had.

Getting the Rock Farm on the market was a huge challenge.  We decluttered the house and tidied up the sheds.  Then I disappeared to sea for a couple of weeks for work before coming home just in time for the first open home.  Jo had worked tirelessly in my absence and transformed our home into a magazine shoot.  Our agent, Chris Dixon did an excellent job and found a buyer for our home almost straight away.

I think we were all a little surprised how quickly we had found a new owner for the Rock Farm, but the realisation that we had a huge amount of work ahead of us soon set in.  Moving is an arduous task at the best of times, but in the lead up to Christmas, it has been particularly trying.

Looking back, we have been extremely fortunate to be custodians of our little patch of paradise for a brief moment in time.  Our gorgeous boys have thrived in the environment, learning all sorts of invaluable skills from raising livestock to repairing motorbikes and cars.

Not all the lessons have been easy.  Some have been physically demanding – learning to shear a sheep or mark lambs has challenged the lads.  Some have been emotionally draining, such as when a poddy lamb dies.  But these lessons have given the boys a good grounding in the cycle of life, and our part in it.

But they have loved it.  As have we.

So, where are we off to?

All will be revealed soon, but I can confirm that we have moved down the road, to another 40 hectare (100 acre) property…   The good news is that there will be so many more lessons to be shared on this blog as we start our new adventure on the new not-so-rocky Rock Farm!

But we will miss the original Rock Farm 🙂

Cockatoos – Yellow Tailed and Glossy Black

A couple of days ago I head the unmistakable call of the Yellow-tailed black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus funereus).  These magnificent birds are one of the largest of the cockatoo family, and are relatively widespread in eastern Australia.  They are also occasional visitors to the Rock Farm.

Their diet is varied, and available from a range of habitats.  Whilst they mostly eat native seeds, especially She-Oaks (Casuarina), the also are partial to pine cones, hence why they made a temporary stay in our pine trees.

Flying Bolt Cutters

They also enjoy larvae of wood-boring beetles, using their strong beak to peel bark and gouge into the tree to extract the tunneling grubs.  This strong beak, and tendency to rip and shred trees is the despair of many homeowners, as they frequently attack pool solar heating piping, electrical conduit and a whole manner of household fittings.

Whilst these birds are relatively common and not under threat, we have taken steps to assist in the survival of one of their cousins, the Glossy Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus lathami).

Glossy Black Cockatoo

The Glossy Black Cockatoo is the smallest member of the black cockatoo family.  Unlike it’s larger cousin, the Glossy Black prefers to feed on the seeds of mature She-Oak trees, and very little else.  Most people associate She-Oaks with rivers, where these majestic trees line creeks and rivers in eastern Australia, but there are many species that favour more hardy areas such as the Desert She-Oak (allocasuarina decaisneana) from central Australia.

There is even one species which grows on the Rock Farm – The Drooping She-Oak (allocasuarina verticillata).  This nitrogen fixing tree likes growing on the rocky slopes of our home.  We have about half a dozen young trees that we are coaxing and encouraging as best we can.

We have also planted several of these trees in our bottom paddock through the Greening Australia Whole of Paddock Rehabilitation program.  Whilst we haven’t seen any Glossy Black Cockatoos on the Rock Farm yet, I hope that in the future our stand of Drooping She-Oaks help to extend their habitat.

And if I do see one, it will be a little bit exciting! 🙂

Marking Spring Lambs

Spring is a glorious time on the Rock Farm.  Blossoms are on the trees, the slow combustion stove is finally allowed to go out and is laid up for summer, and lambs are frolicking in the paddocks.

These gorgeous animals require little in the way of health and welfare checks – but even such low maintenance sheep as Wiltipolls require some intervention.  And when the city cousins come to stay, it provides the perfect opportunity to bring in the lambs.

It is always a good idea to stay abreast of best practice – particularly for something we only do once a year.  After a quick brush up on the animal welfare standards, we were ready to go.  The standards are available online at:   http://www.animalwelfarestandards.net.au/sheep/

Marking lambs is a necessary part of raising sheep.  The lambs receive important vaccinations and are drenched.  The males are castrated, and all lambs have their tails docked.  All the other sheep receive vaccination boosters and are drenched too.

We use rubber bands to castrate the males and dock the tails.  This is the most humane and cost effective option available to hobby farmers.

The vaccine we chose prevents clostridial diseases in cattle and sheep such as Tetanus.  These diseases are frequently fatal.  They are caused by anaerobic bacteria and are widespread in the environment – especially in the soil.  Protection is provided when all the herd is vaccinated.

We also drenched the sheep with a triple combination drench.  The product we chose provides protection against gastro-intestinal roundworms, lungworm, Nasal Bot and Itch Mite.  It also provides important trace minerals such as selenium and cobalt, often deficient in Australian spoil.

Cell grazing is another technique to reduce the worm burden in sheep or other livestock.  Whilst I would love to develop a cell grazing system on the Rock Farm, this requires a significant investment in fencing and is still a few years away at this stage.

The final job was to put an ear tag in our lambs.  These tags are marked with our unique Property Identification Code (PIC), and will stay on these lambs for life.  This, in combination with movement declarations, ensures a full audit trail for livestock movements in Australia.  The ear tags are also colour coded, and 2017 lambs will wear a white ear tag, allowing easy identification and sorting of stock based on age.

A couple of likely lads also decided to take a couple of tags.  They politely declined my offer to put a tag in their ears, but did agree to marking their hats!

And so our marking was quickly over.  We let the sheep settle in the yards for a couple of hours with some delicious oats before we released them back into their paddock.  All done – until next year 🙂

Biosecurity Plan

I recently received in the mail a letter informing me that I was required to develop a biosecurity plan for the Rock Farm.  This is part of the Livestock Production Assurance (LPA) program, which Australian meat producers are encouraged to participate in.

Whilst at first glance, it looks like a huge administrative burden (and cost) to be an accredited supplier, it really is little more than common sense and good practice wrapped up in a simple form.

Under the Livestock Assurance Program, each property has a unique Property Identification Code (PIC).  The Rock Farm is no exception.  All animals born on The Rock Farm are tagged with a special tag that contains our PIC.  When they are sold, or transferred to another property, we must fill out a National Vendor Declaration.  This allows a full audit trail of livestock movements across the country.

LPA service centre snapshot

Producers who choose to become LPA accredited agree to carry out on farm practices that feed into and support the integrity of the entire system. There are seven requirements:

  • Property risk assessments
  • Safe and responsible animal treatments
  • Stock foods, fodder crops, grain and pasture treatments
  • Preparation for dispatch of livestock
  • Livestock transactions and movements
  • Biosecurity
  • Animal Welfare

It can all seem a little overwhelming to a small scale producer like me, but there is an excellent online training package put together by the PLA.  It is also supported by templates and other reference material to help ensure that all requirements are met.

I am pleased to be a part of this process that helps me improve our farm practices, enhances animal welfare and supports and strengthens the industry as a whole.

More new arrivals on the Rock Farm

The last few months have been a little busy on the Rock Farm – mostly the hectic wholesome crazy of raising kids who stick their hands up for every opportunity that passes their way.  This is no bad thing at all, and the Little Helpers continue to amaze and inspire me.  I am extremely proud of them.

With so many things going on, the last thing on my mind was a new pet, but somehow we were introduced to a gorgeous blue border collie cross pup that stole our hearts.

And so Sapphire joined our family.

This little bundle of happiness has come into our lives – and reminded us of all the things you forget about puppies.  The house training, constant chewing, and ceaseless curiosity has at times tested all our patience.  But not unexpected, and we have all fallen for this sweet little girl.

The whole family has been involved in Sapphire’s training program, trying to ensure our approach is both consistent and positive.  And she is a quick learner.  We have one smart dog on our hands.

But a new puppy also needs a new house!

I had started collecting the odd pallet or two on the way home from work.  A local courier company offered free pallets to anyone willing to pick them up from the footpath.  The stack(s) at home were starting to grow, and we needed a new project.  Sapphire was the perfect excuse to get the Little Helpers involved in a new project.

Over the course of a day we carefully removed boards from some old pallets and re-purposed a small pallet to be the base of the new kennel.  After sealing the cracks, we had a sturdy floor.

A frame was made using some of the pallet bearers.  Dimensions were largely based on the existing timber lengths.  We had minimal cutting to build this frame.

Pallet boards were carefully de-nailed, cut to length and then nailed to the frame.  The Little Helper cut an entrance carefully into the front with the jigsaw.

A sheet of old iron was carefully trimmed and formed the roof.  I used the angle-grinder to cut this – not quite ready to let the Little Helper’s play with this tool.

And before long, our 99 percent recycled dog house was complete.  Poor Sapphire didn’t really seem too keen on the kennel at the start.

But it didn’t take too long for her to fully appreciate the comforts of her new home.

And there are times it is darn hard to get her out of it!

The best part about this project is that every scrap of timber and the roofing iron in this project was recycled.  The sarking was left over from our barn renovation.  The only thing that was new was the nails!

The boys are really excited about finding a project they can make – with minimal supervision.  After a quick check of Gumtree, they figure there is a market for recycled pallet dog kennels.  They hope to make another kennel or two in the school holidays – but if you’re really nice to them, they might even make one to order!

That is unless they turn all the pallets into cubby houses or forts…