A terrible Miss-Steak

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Barley Grass and other Pasture management

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rainy day

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Rock Farm Herds

With the days starting to feel a little longer and slightly warmer, we have continued to watch the Bureau of Meteorology website closely for any hint of rain.  Last weekend some areas of New South Wales received their first decent rainfalls in months, however we only felt a couple of drops.

I moved the cattle to our river flat paddock.  I have saved this paddock all winter, in the hope we could possibly cut some hay this spring.  Without enough subsoil moisture, this is extremely unlikely this year.  That said, it has the best grass on the Rock Farm, and the cattle gratefully put their heads down as soon as they walked through the gate.

This spring we sadly put down a couple of ewes with Pregnancy Toxaemia (lambing sickness).  When a third ewe started showing symptoms, we took immediate action.  After making the most ungainly tackle in sheep catching history, we moved the ewe to the house paddock.  The ewe seemed to know we were trying to help her, as she sat quietly in the ute with the Little Fisherman keeping her company for the short run back to the house paddock.

Thankfully the ewe responded to injections of glucose, and a few days later gave birth to twin male lambs.  It always seems that these moments of crisis coincide with periods when I am at work, and this was no different.  Jo calmly caught the ewe and administered the injections daily.

The poor little fellows arrived late in the afternoon with a bitter cold wind blowing.  They are only a matter of minutes old in the photo above.  We have kept a close eye on the three of them.  The ewe continues to improve and the lambs are now a bundle of fun.  We hope to put her back with the rest of the sheep in the next few days.

Pregnancy Toxaemia is often associated with fat ewes and twin lambs.  Wiltipolls are bred to respond well to feed, and our ewes could well have been described as fat.  Wiltipolls also are known to produce lots of twins, and the birth of these twin lambs brings our total lambs to 20, from 11 ewes.   We won’t make an official count until we mark the lambs.

This season we have learnt a lot of lessons, that we will put in place moving forward.  We will manage the ewes a little more closely, especially mid way through their pregnancy, to prevent them getting lambing sickness next year.

The weather breaks

The Rock Farm has been fortunate to receive a little bit of rain over the past couple of days.  A cold front that blasted the South West has made its way across the country, bringing cold moisture bearing westerly winds.  A steady 20mm of rain over two days followed up on 7mm received a week ago.  It is amazing to see how quickly things change.  Hills that were a lifeless brown a week ago now have a green tint.

I now have the delightful problem of having to put the car into 4WD to get up the driveway!

If there is one thing that cold wet weather brings on, it is lambing.  And no one summed it up better than Dog, in Murray Ball’s timeless Footrot Flats.

I knew our girls were close to lambing, but it must be a cruel twist of nature to lamb in the worst possible weather.  I took the opportunity of a short burst of sunshine and went for a little walk around the paddock.  I was delighted to find five new lambs to three very proud ewes.  I hope these little lambs, and their yet-to-be-born brothers and sisters find enough shelter in the paddocks to pull through the last few weeks of winter.

The cattle are curious animals, and we love having them on the property.  This photo was taken a day or two before the rain, and you can see how happy they are to see me with a couple of bales of old pasture hay.  This morning I moved them to a laneway.  They must have been hungry, as they stuck their heads down and started eating as soon as they walked out of the gate.  They’re still in pretty good condition all things considered and are pretty happy to see me – especially if I come bearing gifts!

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Whilst the grass now has a green tint, it is still too cold for it to grow.  Like everyone in the district, I hope we get follow up rainfall to build moisture in the soil.  It is the deep soil moisture that will be the difference between a good spring, and some difficult decisions.

The little bit of moisture has been a good thing.  It has allowed us to plant a stack of acorns.  We planted acorns from locally sourced Daimyo Oaks (Quercus dentata) and Californian Valley Oaks (Quercus lobata).  The Hamilton Tree Planter was the perfect tool for the job – however it was abundantly clear that only the top 5 centimetres of the soil was damp.  Underneath it was bone dry.  This is part of our plan to use deciduous trees to enhance the soil health on The Rock Farm.

We have also planted some native seedlings.  Our local real estate agent donated some seedlings to members of the community for National Tree Day.  We gratefully received a Yellow Box (eucalyptus melliodora) and my favourite tree, a Drooping Sheoak (allocasuarina verticillata).

The Yellow Box is a magnificent slow growing tree, considered the best native tree for honey production.  It prefers areas of better soil hence, in this area, large areas of yellow box woodland were cleared to make way for pastures.   The timber is dense and resistant to decay, and was used for railway sleepers, posts, poles and for timber bridges.  It is great to be re-introducing this tree to our property.

The Drooping Sheoak prefers dry shale slopes.  It is just about the sole food source for the glossy black cockatoo, which is rare in our area.  We had seven of these trees on our last property, but I haven’t found any on the new Rock Farm.  Kangaroos find this little tree irresistible, hence we made tree guards to give it a fighting chance.

Special thanks to Chris and Gin from McGrath Real Estate for their generous donation to the community for National Tree Day.

A cold winter

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

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

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

DPI Drought Areas 31 Jul 18

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

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

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

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

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

Stockyards Rebuild – Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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