Keeping a driveway

When we built our carport at the Rock Farm, we knew eventually we would have to do some work on the driveway. The carport has been one of the most useful additions to the liveability of our house – with the shade welcome in summer and the lack of frost a bonus in winter for early morning starts. Building the carport was a challenge (https://rockfarming.com/2019/11/22/making-shade/) however it also created other problems that we knew we would need to address one day.

The access to the carport used a track through the garden that had been formed but not used much for the next 40 years. A large concrete pipe carries the drive over a small gully. The problem is to do with the volume of water that comes down the gully. Normally the gully is dry or barely a trickle, however on occasion it comes in torrents, through the pipe and overflowing across the road. Jo always wanted a babbling brook outside the back door…. perhaps not with all-or-nothing features of this one!

When the water subsides, the damage becomes apparent. Over the past 18 months of regular driveway use and occasional floods, the remaining base has become narrower. An attempt to address some of the drainage was of limited success (https://rockfarming.com/2020/08/31/drainage-trees-cattle-and-some-sad-news/). With the driveway now unsuitable for anything but cars, it was time to call in our neighbour, who happens to have his own bob-cat and excavator business.

Lou is an absolute master of his machines, and made short work placing large concrete blocks to form a wingwall on both sides of the driveway. The laser dumpy level helped ensure the blocks were all on the same plane – making the job far neater and more precise than I could have achieved for a fraction of the time.

The last job for us to do was to install the headwall. For this I enlisted some school holiday labour. The boys were in a word fantastic, and were soon mixing the concrete to a perfect consistency. They learnt some important skills, and I really enjoyed the time working with them on this little mud pie project.

Lou also dropped a load of large recycled concrete over the boggy section – making our driveway a far safer all weather proposition…. well except for the last run up the hill to the house. But that will be a job for another day ๐Ÿ™‚

We are thrilled with the change to the driveway. Whilst it still isn’t finished properly, it provides far better access to the house for all vehicles, including RFS tankers. A special thanks to Lou for his mastery of his machinery and the school holiday helpers.

Curse of Mavis – Mange Mite

In April this year we rescued Mavis, the Muddle Headed Wombat, who was badly affected by mange. Mange is caused by the mange mite, sarcoptes scabiei, which lives on and under the skin of mammals. It causes a particularly painful itch, and eventually leads to the animal’s death, and is sadly common amongst our native wombats. Mavis was successfully rescued and is making a full recovery at a nearby wombat sanctuary.

Unfortunately the mite that caused Mavis’ discomfort is still about and causing havoc. A couple of days ago I found evidence that it is affecting the cattle, and determined I needed to take action.

The bare skin patches, especially in the calves suggest that the mite has started to affect their behaviour. Cattle with the mite put on less weight and are obviously uncomfortable. My research suggested treating the cattle with moxidectin was the most effective and least harmful approach to treating the mite. The cattle seemed to want to follow me when I brought them into the yards early one frosty morning.

The reason I chose moxidectin to treat the cattle is:

  • It is effective on the mange mite sarcoptes scabiei
  • It is safe for dung beetles
  • It has no with-holding period for beef cattle and no export slaughter interval.

I am now in a waiting game to see whether the treatment is effective, and will keep you posted.

As a side note, I had some old moxidectin in the shed. It was tempting to ‘use it all up’, however I am glad I went to out local ag store. Roger explained to me how old drench goes off and can cause the chemical to be less effective, whist leaving residue in the cattle. Whilst the drench is eye-wateringly expensive, it works out to be much more palatable when calculated on a cost per head basis to treat the cattle – even for small producers such as the Rock Farm. Roger even gave me a new applicator, which allowed me to accurately deliver the required 10mL/100kg of live-weight, ensuring we give the optimal dose per animal.

The out of date drench remains difficult to dispose of safely, but the regular chemical muster remains a must do activity on my calendar. We did it a couple of years ago when we bought the property ( https://rockfarming.com/2018/11/25/farm-chemical-disposal-with-chemclear/ ), and I keep an eye on when I am able to do the same again.

Weaning on the Rock Farm

A few weeks ago we made the decision that we would keep the calves over winter, but I knew that this would be a significant increase on our stocking last year. I have been keeping a close eye on the cows, and noticed a couple of the cows start to show their hip bones. The best way to keep the cows in good condition for the rest of winter is to wean their calves. This should see the cows maintain condition for calving in late August. With a wetter than average winter forecast hopefully yielding reasonable pasture growth, we should be able to keep the calves until spring. To be sure, we organised a load of hay, bringing our stored total to around 15 tonnes of fodder. I just hope the cattle get to eat it before the mice!

We brought the cattle into the yards, and quietly drafted them into two mobs. We released the mothers into the adjoining paddock, where they seemed to blissfully shrug off the burden of their calves and start feeding. So I moved them an hour later to a nice fresh paddock over the hill, and thought the worst of the weaning process was behind me. Oh how wrong I was.

Weaning can be a stressful time for young calves and their mothers. So I left with the calves our four maiden heifers and Miss-Steak, one of our original herd who didn’t calve this spring. The initial separation seemed to go well. The calves, secured in the yards followed the lead of the older cattle and started enthusiastically feeding from our round bale feeder.

Later that evening as udders filled, the cows remembered their obligation to the calves and came back to the yards…. through the fences that separated them. Jo took the initiative and opened the gates to let the rest of the mob through. We left them overnight, bellowing to each other through the panels of the yards.

Over the next week, both mums and bubs started getting the hang of the new routine. I kept the cows in paddocks where they had access to the yards when they wanted to drop in and check on the calves. Most of the time they were happy to graze, but would visit their little ones late in the day. The calves seemed more than happy with the company of their peers

After a couple of weeks, I was able to move the cows away into a new paddock, and this time they didn’t push through fences to get back to their calves. I will keep the calves separated for a few more weeks before running them together again for simplicity. It didn’t take the calves long to associate the sound of the tractor starting up with the delivery of fresh hay.

The not-so-little-photographer captured this gorgeous image of one of the calves lifting her head from the water trough. Most mornings I have been breaking the ice on the old bathtub trough so the claves can have an early morning drink… it has been bitterly cold.

It has been a busy few weeks, and juggling work, kids and the cattle. I have had a few late nights down at the yards until well into the night – especially when the float valve controlling the water supply failed due to a rusted split pin. My evening excursions reminded me that I need to recruit some extra help to give me a bit of redundancy if I can’t get around as easily, or if I am out of town. The not-so-little Helper jumped at the chance to drive the tractor, and he is learning the basics of moving it around (with the intention of building jumps for his mountain bike). Jo came down to the shed armed with a laminated instruction sheet on starting the tractor I made up last year. Following the instructions, she too was able to get the tractor in the right place with a bale of hay for the appreciative mouths.

In all, it has been a productive and busy time on the Rock Farm, and despite all the extra work juggling, I wouldn’t change a thing ๐Ÿ™‚

Further information on weaning can be found here: https://www.mla.com.au/research-and-development/Animal-health-welfare-and-biosecurity/Husbandry/Weaning

I also found this research particularly interesting and will investigate doing something similar next time: http://www.beefresearch.ca/blog/low-stress-weaning-benefits-on-several-levels/

More Trees Planted on the Rock Farm

After an usually dry April with no rain recorded at all on the Rock Farm, May started with a much needed soaking . I took the opportunity of a rainy day to relax and catch up on a long overdue book review (Call of the Reed Warbler). Rain like that is an gift not to be missed however and it was just the motivation I needed to get two new tree guards completed and some acorns in the ground before winter.

Our lock-down project last year (New Paddocks on the Rock Farm) was to divide a 6 hectare paddock into three smaller paddocks by building two new fences. It was always planned to plant trees along the new fences, which will one day provide shelter and mulching deciduous leaves to the paddocks either side.

After running the mulcher over the long grass, I put two new strainer posts in the ground 3 metres off the existing fence. At the end of a pretty solid day, I had the first tree guard finished, with acorns planted between each star picket.

I repeated the process the following day with the other guard.

We planted a mixture of Californian White Oak (Quercus Lobata) and Japanese (or Korean) Emperor Oak (Quercus Dentata). In between the oaks, I have also planted some Tagasaste seeds (Chamaecytisus palmensis). Tagasaste is also called tree lucerne, and is a good shelter and fodder tree which fixes nitrogen in the soil.

We chose deciduous trees for these tree guards because they provide good shade during summer, allow light to penetrate during winter and their leaves form a deep mulch for fertilising the soil. Adjoining this paddock is a series of four small horse paddocks. One of these paddocks has a line of white poplar (populus alba) along its northern fence. The paddock is the lushest, and greenest of the four little paddocks – a difference I can only attribute to the tall deciduous trees that provide shade and leaf litter.

If this is your first time reading our blog, you might be asking why I haven’t planted native trees along these fence lines. The answer is complex and it relates to our desire to create a productive farmland that is in balance with nature. We are not trying to re-create the landscape as it was prior to European settlement. Rather as our climate gets hotter and dryer, we believe that large deciduous trees will help shelter our property from the extremes of the weather. We have some beautiful Elm Trees (Ulmus Procera) that are at least 150 years old near an old stone cottage ruin. Their shade and mulching leaves make this area the coolest part of the property on hot days

In other parts of the Rock Farm we have planted native trees. Along the creek bank, we recently planted 300 native trees for habitat and to help stablise the bank. That marathon effort (Can’t see the wood for the trees) has been a great success, with the vast majority of the seedlings becoming established. Wombats have knocked a few over, but overall I am very pleased with the first six months of growth.

Planting trees is rewarding. Just as I packed everything up to head back to the shed, a rainbow appeared. I hope it is a good omen for the beautiful trees I would love to see grow here. As I told my boys, it is my dream that not their kids, but their grand-kids will one day be able to sit in the shade of these trees.

Out and about on and off the Rock Farm

After our last good rainfall in late March, we have barely had a drop of rain, and the farm has quickly taken on a bleak winter look. Talking to a couple of local old timers recently, they felt we are in for a long cold winter, and at this point in time, I am inclined to believe them. That said, our cattle and pastures are in good shape, and the hay shed has a good amount of hay in it.

The Rock Farm has been a hive of activity since our last update in early March. A combination of getting the farm winter ready, school holidays, unscheduled repairs combined with a busy run at work has seen the blog take a bit of a back seat.

Some of the activities we have been up to included repairs to our dam water header tank. The old galvanised pipe rusted through at the base, meaning that we had no water to our troughs, the garden or the house toilets. Thankfully we were able to replace the rusted section with some new poly pipe – but when the system was pressurised, a new ‘water feature’ appeared in the paddocks!

By the time I finished repairing our fountain it was dark, I was cold, however I had an appreciative and curious audience.

In other parts of the farm, our old Peppermint Gums (eucalyptus nicholli) are in the habit of dropping branches – newly always on fences. It doesn’t take too long to cut up the branch and repair the fence, but it does stop other jobs from being done. I’m beginning to understand why it seems every fence on the place is made up of hundreds of little lengths of wire!

The good news is the cattle are all in excellent condition. The problem I have is that every time I threaten selling the calves to ease the feed burden over winter, I find that more have names. And of course, once it has a name, it stays…. This means that I am relying on our pasture and hay stocks to get us through winter. We are planning on holding on our 10 calves over winter and sell them in Spring when they are 12 months old. I do have an escape plan, and the boy’s did help me put NLIS ear tags in them to ensure that we can sell them at any time should we need.

I am very conscious that the Rock Farm can be all consuming, and it is very much my passion. The kids enjoy the space and help out with many of the job, but they are busy forging their own paths. It is a balancing act to keep the boys engaged, but not feel exploited in their contribution to the farm.

With that in mind, it is important to make time to get away from the Rock Farm. We did enjoy a few nights camping in Koscuizsko National Park and couple of weeks later we stayed at Thredbo. It was great to get the family together and enjoy a break together free from the distractions of work, school or the farm. We loved exploring Blue Waterholes, and the adrenaline junkie loved hitting the slopes at Thredbo on his mountain bike.

As much as I enjoyed getting away, it was lovely to get back home and enjoy a slow cooked dinner prepared in the fire pit. Something seems to slow down when you’re sitting around a fire.

While the blog might have been a bit quieter than normal, life has been anything but. And thatโ€™s a good thing.

Hangry Man Welding

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.

One of our neighbours has a wonderful skill in making sculpture out of steel. We caught up before Christmas, and he heard that the not-so-little helper had enjoyed welding for the horse-float rebuild project (https://rockfarming.com/2020/07/14/little-helpers-holiday-project-part-five-and-final/). Dave very kindly invited the not-so-little helper to come and join him for a morning welding during the holidays, which he did.

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 friendโ€™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.

In case you missed the video that our other son made, here is the link for it again: https://rockfarming.com/2021/02/08/2020-on-the-rock-farm-a-short-video/

Pasture and Trees Update – Rock Farm enters Autumn

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 ๐Ÿ™‚

2020 on the Rock Farm – a short video

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.

A wet summer creates a problem…

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.

The Summer Work Gang

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 ๐Ÿ™‚