When it feels like Summer

The chance of decent rainfall before the grass becomes dormant over summer has all but passed on the Rock Farm.  Dry westerly winds have persistently blowed over the past fortnight, removing any residual moisture from the ground.  These same winds have fanned bush-fires that are causing so much devastation in the north of NSW. As I write, over one million hectares of NSW has been burnt – and we aren’t even half way through November yet.  These fires are unprecedented in their intensity this early in the bush fire season.  But they were not un-predicted.  The biggest question is can we shape our environment to protect us from future fire events like this.

We are starting to understand that the Australian landscape has been carefully managed for tens of thousands of years by the Aboriginal people.  Small low intensity ‘cool’ fires created a woodland landscape that was recorded in journals and art of the early European explorers. These woodlands prevented the large scale devastation wreaked by huge fire storms.  There is plenty of evidence to suggest that our bushland National Parks have more trees now than at any time since human habitation of Australia, some 30000 years or more ago.

Our aim is to create a woodland like setting on the Rock Farm, working with trees that are already established here, and planting new trees.  We want to create a sustainable agricultural enterprise that creates an income and a food source whilst improving the health of the soil.   This doesn’t mean returning the landscape to native bush-land, or what it looked like before European settlement, but something we can use towards the future.

Our plan on the Rock Farm, as most of you know, begins with trees.

With 1.3% of the state not in drought or drought affected (https://edis.dpi.nsw.gov.au/), it is a hard time to get trees established.  Our ground has very little subsoil moisture and our stock are getting hungry.  We had a few oak seedlings (quercus lobata and dentata) still in pots, we knew we had to get them in the ground if we are to have any success at all with them.

The tractor is an extremely useful tool to prepare the soil for tree planing.  I ripped a line beside the driveway to create an avenue of oaks.  Unfortunately I worked out too late that the tractor requires a little less air and a little more diesel in the fuel tank.  After refilling the tank, I couldn’t get the tractor to start.  After much troubleshooting following the fuel lines, I determined that I had a blockage in the line from the tank itself.  45 years of crud and muck had blocked the tank outlet.  A few good pumps from a bike pump back up the line seemed to clear the blockage, and after bleeding the lines again, we were back in business. Monty the horse found the whole exercise most entertaining!

On the other side of the drive we planted a stack of native shrubs.  Native Callistemon, leptospermum and melaleuca were planted to provide flowing shrub food source for bees.  This soil looked particularly bare and windswept.  We hope the shrubs are able to get established.

We planted a couple of the remaining oaks in the paddocks.  It was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon with the family.  Although you don’t want to be the one who forgets his hat… If you do, you get to wear the bright green Mario Cart Hat!  We will water the plants every fortnight over summer with the IBC tank towed behind the go-anywhere-a-4wd-can falcon.

With the water tank on and helpers available, we also gave a drink to the other trees we have planted around the place.  Last time (Update on trees and rip lines.) you may recall I was cursing hares, who had snapped off our yellow box (eucalyptus melliodora) seedlings.  I had placed some tree guards around the snapped off bases and gave them a water.  I was extremely pleased to see that new shoots were coming from the base,

And why bother planting trees, especially during one of the most widespread droughts ever recorded?  Well, a walk through our small paddocks shows the results of the vision of the former owners.  In the shade from large deciduous trees is grass.  Green growing grass…. can’t get any more reason than that.

 

Update on trees and rip lines.

Walking around the Rock Farm this week, I have been struck by how similar to January the weather is.  Dry grass crackles underfoot, and in many areas the earth is dry and hard.  Hot dry days have us monitoring the Fires Near Me app, with a guard zone set 50km around the property.  We have been watering newly planted fruit trees in the garden in a desperate struggle to keep them alive, but I also knew I needed to check on some of the trees we had planted in the paddock.

We planted some Hakea and Yellow Box trees along some rip lines in early August.  The rip lines hold some extra moisture and we thought would be a good place to pant the trees.

After planting the seedlings, we watered them a few times to get them going.  It was good pre-season maintenance for our portable water tank, even if it looked a bit like a moonscape at the time.  A small shower of rain a couple of weeks ago had turned the grass in the rip lines green, and encouraged the weeds to grow.  Sadly it wasn’t all good news.

With occasional watering, the Hakea or Needle bush have responded well.  They are optimised for Australian conditions, and are naturally unappealing to grazing stock such as cattle or kangaroos.  When they grow, they provide habitat for many of the native birds that have shifted into living in the weed Sweet Briar.  Once we get these Hakea established, we will re-double our efforts to remove the Sweet Briar.

Unfortunately the Yellow Box has not fared so well.  It would seem a hare has taken to all the plants not in guards, and chopped them off a few inches above the ground.  A couple of the plants had clean cuts, with some buds below the cut, so we installed a guard and gave them a good water.  Time will tell if we have saved these trees.  The trees in guards were alive – but only just, and we hope a couple of good soaks will pull them through.

The rip lines have broadly been a success.  I had spent a fair amount of time in autumn and winter dragging an old ripper along contours:  (See https://rockfarming.com/2019/03/20/ripping-lines-for-soil-health/ ).  It was an experiment to see if the lines would allow water to penetrate the subsoil, and to aerate the soil.

The change on the rocky slopes is in a word remarkable.

The rip lines are clearly visible by their lines of green growing grass.  Between the rip lines, the grass is struggling to stay alive and the clover has all but turned up its toes.  With rain forecast for tomorrow, I hope that every drop that falls makes its way into the ground.  This is especially the case for short sharp summer thunderstorm cloud bursts that see a large amount of water fall quickly and run off before it soaks into the ground.  This might not be ideal for our dam that is getting lower and lower, but the grass is what the cattle and sheep need to eat.

It is great to see the boys and girls are in good health and condition.  Our calves and lambs continue to grow and are all nice and quiet.  The lambs are responding well to living near the house and are starting to come up to me when I appear with a bucket.

It might already feel like summer, but we are really pleased with some of the progress we have made in keeping the grass growing for a little longer on the Rock Farm.

Ripping Lines for Soil Health

With the tractor repaired, I was keen to press on and continue our journey along the path of improved soil health.  My next project was to test the effectiveness or ripping lines in one of our flat paddocks.  I have previously experimented with ripping lines on some of the slopes late last year, and the initial results are promising.  Moisture is remaining in these contours for longer than other areas, and we are starting to see green bands along those rip-lines.  See story here: https://rockfarming.com/2019/01/13/school-holidays-on-the-rock-farm/

The paddock for this experiment is a 1.8 hectare flat alluvial plain, with deep soil.  This flat area is the best soil on the Rock Farm – but in a short cloud burst we had before Christmas (35mm rain in 30 minutes), water sheeted across this paddocks. Barely any of the water soaked in before it made its way  into the creek.  (https://rockfarming.com/2018/12/17/of-droughts-and-flooding-rains/)

The paddock was heavily grazed for a week.  Then I spent an hour or so chipping out thistles and the odd serrated tussock to get the paddock ready for ripping.

A couple of hours with the tractor pulling hard in 2nd gear low range, and the rippers had opened up the soil in the 1.8 hectare flat.  I ran the lines about 5 metres apart, in a concentric spiral.   In areas where the soil was compacted, the rippers barely scratched the surface, however in other areas they penetrated a good 30cm or more into the soil.

The purpose of this is two-fold.  It aims to aerate the soil, increasing the microbial activity within the soil, thereby improving the availability of nutrients for grass.  It also allows moisture to penetrate deep into the soil, reducing run off and storing moisture in the soil for longer.  Pat Coleby is one of the many authors who recommend ripping lines along contours and I thought it was worth the experiment.  The main difference is she recommends ripping after rain… but with barely any rain falling this month, I figured I was best to see if we could open some of the soil up and ensure if any rain does fall, we could capture it.

Interestingly another technique to aerate the soil relies on grazing management.  As cattle eat the longer grass, the plant’s roots die off, and as they rot, the soil is opened up allowing earthworms to do the hard work.

It was interesting to rip a section of a much smaller paddock that the cattle had been in a couple of weeks earlier.  Whilst they had compacted the soil around the water trough, in the areas where the grass had been tallest (and since eaten), the rippers penetrated deepest, and didn’t turn the soil over.  This is a sign of deep friable soil – the best kind.  This encourages me that we are doing good things for our soil health, and that our soil rotation is working.

Now I just have to keep my fingers crossed for rain!

School Holidays on the Rock Farm

School holidays are in full swing on the Rock Farm.  The boys have been turning petrol into noise on their motorbikes, building tree houses in the gum trees, and playing in the dirt.  They have also been learning a few other skills such as fencing, planting trees, repairing said motorbikes and fixing broken water pipes.

The holidays have also been a wonderful opportunity to catch up with friends and family.  This, in conjunction with a series of extremely hot days, has slowed the normal rate of progress on the Rock Farm, and that isn’t a bad thing.  We have enjoyed the opportunity to slow down and enjoy good company, and the odd quiet afternoon, with the air conditioner on, in front of a movie with the family.

The ongoing requirement to repair our fences continues.  On one of the cooler mornings, The youngest helper and I replaced a small section of fence.  A few days later the whole family helped run hinge joint around a small 2 acre triangle paddock near the house.  This will allow us to bring the sheep into this paddock and hopefully contain them!  It was pretty hot work, and it times tempers flared due to Hangry boys.  The result will be a handy little paddock allowing us to keep a closer eye on the sheep.

We have been lucky to experience a couple of summer storms this season.  With a bit of moisture in the soil, I thought we would get away with planting out some acorns that had germinated.  These oaks are Daimyo Oaks (Quercus dentata), also known as Japanese Emperor Oak or Korean Oak.  These trees have large leaves, and are part of our plan that should see the Rock Farm renamed “Oak Park” one day.  The oaks draw nutrient from deep in the ground, provide shade thus retaining moisture, and the leaves return the nutrient and organic matter to the soil when they fall and mulch.

Then it was back onto the serious business of making tree houses in some existing trees!

The summer storms often provide short bursts of heavy rain that mostly runs off.  Any technique that increases the amount of rainfall captured into the soil is to be tried.  One technique, pioneered by P.A. Yeomans and recommended by Pat Coleby is to rip lines along contours, opening up the soil allowing moisture to penetrate deep into the ground.

Our last property (the original Rock Farm) had deep rip lines put in by the previous owner.  These lines trapped moisture and were clearly the greenest part of the property on satellite images.  Trees benefited from being planted in the rip lines, as their roots could seek out the moisture stored in the cracks of the rocks.

Unfortunately the old single tyne ripper wasn’t up to the tough Ordovician Shale that underlies our fragile slopes.  Only a few lines into it, a large rock twisted the tyne worse than before.  Despite several attempts to gain leverage, I was unable to straighten the tyne.

The good news was that leaning against a tree, forgotten by owners previous, a double tyne ripper was leaning against a tree.  It had been there so long, a tree root had grown over a tyne, vastly complicating my efforts to put the ripper on the tractor.  It took my wife and I a good hour to eventually get the ripper fitted… but it was worth the effort!

And the result was success!  Using a piece of clear pipe filled with water and threaded on the ROPS, I was able to get a reasonably accurate contour ripped across the slope of the paddock.  It took a little while for me to get the draft and raise response where I was happy with it, but the old tractor performed flawlessly.  The rip line was only 150mm deep – but that was deeper than the soil and into the rock layer.   Now I just need it to rain to test the theory.

The school holidays have also had the boys learning some other important lessons.  They are still young enough to play in the dirt – and were enthusiastically making tracks for matchbox cars when they received last call to come in and have a shower before bed.

The final throw of the digger resulted in an unmistakable gurgle and their construction rapidly filled with water.  After years of observing me, they correctly recognised that they hadn’t found a fresh water aquifer just below the surface, but rather a poly pipe.  I took some solace from the fact that the rapidly appearing water was our non-potable water supply to our garden and toilets… not our precious house supply that runs under the ground only a couple of metres away.

The good news was that it wasn’t my fault.  So I had if not enthusiastic, then certainly guilty helpers to:

  • run to the dam and isolate the pump (long way down hill)
  • run to the tank and isolate the tank (long way up hill)
  • dig a much larger hole to expose the pipe
  • measure the diameter to check if we had the right fittings (which we did – good planning Dad)
  • carefully cut the damaged section of pipe out with a hacksaw
  • replace damaged section with a joiner fitting
  • run back to pump and turn it on
  • run back to tank and turn it on
  • watch and check for leaks

It was the quickest I had ever replaced a pipe – and I barely raised a sweat… In fact I did a lot of not much except pointing, and asking for tools, most of which live in my pipe repair tub.

As the sun set and the light faded, we turned the water on and held our breath.  It worked!  All in all it was a pretty good outcome – the kids learned some important skills, and I realised how grown up they are becoming.

Farm Chemical Disposal with ChemClear

One of the risks when buying a farm is what you find when you start going through the shed.  Farmers have an ability to see value in hoarding any thing that might possibly be useful. When they move, often much of the stuff is left in the shed as it “may be useful” to the new owner, and the shed on the Rock Farm was no exception.

Whilst we may have unearthed some fantastic treasures, we also found some skeletons.  One that has caused me the most worry was an old chest freezer packed with old drenches, herbicides and pesticides.  What was worse is that may of the chemicals were stored in old food and drink bottles and were unlabelled.  It was something that made me extremely nervous, especially with young kids visiting the Rock Farm.

Disposal of old chemicals is a real problem.  Whilst DrumMUSTER provides an avenue to recycle clean agricultural chemical containers, it is much harder to find an avenue to dispose the chemicals themselves.

And so it was a bit of a relief when I found ChemClear.  ChemClear provides a collection and disposal pathway for unwanted agricultural chemicals.  Whilst my collection was too small to make it worth registering for collection, I was extremely pleased to learn that they come to our regional council transfer station once a year.

I had been counting down the days until this morning, when ChemClear came to our regional transfer station.  I gratefully loaded up the ute with the toxic collection of goodness knows what.  The most concerning were the old food and drink containers with different coloured liquids in them.  I also had a large tub worth of expired animal drenches and a couple of 20 litre chemical drums with no labels, other than an ominous POISON stamped in the plastic.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived, but the ChemClear team were ready for me.  As soon as I had pulled up, a team of appropriately dressed staff were unloading the chemicals and sorting them.  They told me that some of the chemicals would be recycled, but others would be destroyed, mostly through incineration.  They took them all, with the only question asking where I had heard about the program.

And the cost? Absolutely free.

Well not quite.  I did have to travel to our regional transfer station, some 60km instead of the 5km to our local transfer station, but it was a small price to pay.

I did then race home and take the old freezer / chemical store to our local transfer station.  It cost me $25 to dump the unit, where they assured me the fee was used to recover the refrigerant….that is if it had any left after 40 years or so of rusting away in the old shed on the Rock Farm.

I am extremely happy that our farm is a lot safer, and I am happy that the chemicals won’t cause a problem either for my family, visitors to our farm, or the greater environment.  If you have any old chemicals lying about, do yourselves a favour and check out when the ChemClear trucks are coming to your local transfer station.

A dry spring on the Rock Farm

My last post was about managing weeds during the spring growth.  Unfortunately the hoped for spring rain didn’t eventuate.  Even as parts of the State are getting some of their best rain in months, we have managed a paltry 3mm.  It is better than nothing, and might give the clover the break it needs to set seed!

Our property has an interesting arrangement where the road access comes in and past the house to the paddocks. Like all roadsides / laneways, this is rarely grazed, because of the inconvenience to traffic.  But it was the only part of the property the cattle hadn’t grazed and every bit of grass is precious at the moment.

Several fences needed to be fixed up, and water provided before I could contemplate putting the cattle in the laneway.  Even so, I still used temporary electric fence to allow the cattle right up to the garden – a treat they all enjoyed!

In fact the cattle were so happy to have access to the special grass near the garden, they hardly noticed me sneaking in close for a Selfie!

School holidays is an exciting time for the kids.  As they get bigger, their commitments grow too, with sporting camps keeping them busy for the first week.  These are fantastic opportunities for them, but I also love seeing them get creative in the shed.  Of course the dog is in the thick of it too, causing equal measures of delight and frustration at her efforts to help.

Speaking of the shed, our region is often windy in Spring.  Very windy.  And the old shed was looking a little worse for wear, with several sheets of corrugated iron roofing sheets looking like they wanted to lift off.   The shed is of unknown vintage, and in the fine tradition of most Australian farms, it has been made of second hand recycled iron and fencing wire.   It gives it a certain charm, but would be a huge inconvenience if it was actually destroyed.  A little bit of preventative maintenance was in order.

The advantage of so much sunny weather meant that I was able to replace some of the very loose nails with new roofing screws, without the risk of rain making the roof treacherous. I fabricated some brackets and purchased a harness to provide some comfort whilst working aloft.

And then there was the garden.  Neglected and in need of a bit (lot) of work, it was time to get the chain saw out for some ‘pruning’.  With a garden that is around 2.5 acres, there are always trees to prune.  The black wheelbarrow made the carting of the firewood size pieces a lot more manageable.

All the other branches and lighter sticks and twigs were thrown on the back of Myrtle – the big red truck, and taken down to the paddocks.  We found a remarkable sight.  Under similar tree prunings, deposited in the paddock six months earlier, we found growing lush, green grass and clover.

I think there are three possible reasons for this (or a combination of all three).

  1. As the branches break down, they release nutrient into the soil,
  2. The branches provide a physical barrier stopping kangaroos from eating the grass (this paddock has no other stock in it), or
  3. The branches provide shade to the grass, making what little moisture there is more effective.

Thus encouraged, we will keep putting our prunings into the gullies and over bare soil.  It is great to see positive results for our efforts.

On the Rock Farm, the only place where the grass has been most prolific in its growth is the garden.  With the current season being so dry, it feels such a crime to simply cut the grass with a mower.  But, the grass was getting long, and the snakes are coming out.  So I got right onto my next job, and brought in the one horse power self propelled mower model.  Best part is, you don’t have to sit on it as it gets to work – but that can be the best bit!

Spring – The grass is growing and so are the weeds!

Spring is a wonderful time on the Rock Farm. The warmer weather, coupled with the little bit of rain has caused a dramatic turn around on the Rock Farm.  Grass that was basically dormant over winter has started to grow.  Whilst the soil remains terribly dry, the grass is optimistically hoping to shoot up and set seed before the summer dries it out completely.  The garden is even starting to look a little unkempt, and I have put the battery charger on the mower, in the hope that it will get a run in the next few weeks.

But it isn’t just grass that is growing.  So are the weeds, and one of the most persistent and troublesome in our area is serrated tussock (nassella trichotoma).

Over winter the stock have grazed the paddocks thoroughly.  This makes the unpalatable tussock easy to locate and target.  It is hard work to manually chip out – and whilst it is our intention to use this method in the future, we need to reduce the amount on our property to manageable levels.

The most effective control of the tussock is a good permanent pasture.  Competition from healthy plants keeps the tussock in check. However once tussock is established, it is very difficult to get rid of.  It sets a large seed bank, and the seeds are dispersed by the wind, allowing the seed to travel a long way before settling.

Whilst I am generally loathe to use chemicals on our property, in the race against serrated tussock, it is the most cost effective method.  It is far quicker and easier than chipping out individual plants, and we hope to get on top of our tussock in the next few years.  Once we have it under control, we hope that aggressive chipping of identified plants will maintain our paddocks tussock free.

Our spray ‘rig’ is an interesting mixture of apparatus cobbled together.  A 12 volt pump provides the chemical / water mix through a jet spray nozzle.  A trigger on the nozzle allows control of the spray to spot on individual plants.

The chemical we use is a mixture of Flupropanate and Glyphosate.  This is mixed with water, dye and a surfactant. In the photo, you can see the red dye.  The surfactant breaks the surface tension of the water like a detergent, allowing the chemical to cover the leaves of the targeted plant for maximum effectiveness.  These chemicals are not great at all for the soil, or the microbes and earthworms that live in it.  This is why I really try to just spot spray the tussock, and minimise overspray as much as possible.

The boy’s buggy provides the 12 volt power, and the means to pull the little trailer around.  With 120 litres of spray onboard when full, it helps to make sure you start pointing down hill, as it is hard work on the clutch starting out!

After 12 months of sitting, my nozzle had seized up.  After pulling it apart, and cleaning and lubricating it, it worked a lot better, however had a small leak when the pump was running.  I decided that the easiest fix would be to install a switch near the steering wheel allowing me to turn the pump off from the drivers seat.  I found an old driving lights wiring harness, complete with relay, in the shed and soon had my ‘in seat switch’ in operation.

I also needed to lower the hitch height of the trailer in order to bring it to a more level ride.  I had a few ideas in my head, but eventually found an old steel post of around the right size.  Thankfully I also found a couple of long bolts in the shed, and soon had re-fitted the hitch.  The trailer isn’t level, but it is a lot closer than it was.

It takes me between two and three hours to spray out all the chemical in a tank.  I find it easiest to park the buggy and walk around when the tussock is thick.  For dispersed plants, I am able to wiz around and squirt from the comfort of the driver’s seat.  Who said weed control couldn’t be fun!

Whilst the weeds are slowly being brought under control, the rest of the Rock Farm residents are enjoying the warmer weather.  The cattle are getting quieter, however the sheep haven’t forgiven me yet for being vaccinated and the lambs marked last week.  But it sure is fun watching them all 🙂

More information on serrated tussock can be found here:  http://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/Weeds/Details/123

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.

New (kind of) Stock Yards

Owners of livestock must be able to handle their animals safely, and one of the most effective ways to do this is with a set of stock yards.

Yards typically used to be made with whatever material was at hand.  We visited these old yards in northern South Australia a couple of years ago.  The yards were made with Cypress Pine hauled from the Flinders Ranges, and the wires were old telegraph line.  The cattle were mustered into a square yard. If stock were to be handled, horsemen would rope the cattle and they would be brought to the Bronco Rail for marking.

The steel yards on the Rock Farm might be much more modern, however due to a number of reasons, they were in need of a major overhaul.  Before the cattle arrived, it had taken me several hours, lots of grease and much motivation with a hammer to get the crush to operate.  The yards had been placed on the ground with little consideration to levels, and whilst the basic layout was sound, I wanted to update the yards to ensure many more years of safe and low stress cattle handling.

With a short notice visit from my parents announced, the time to re-design the cattle yards arrived.  My father has years of experience in the beef industry, including designing cattle yards.  It was the perfect opportunity to harness his experience and my brawn… well the tractor’s brawn.

We had a good look at the existing layout.  My proposed design sketches were quickly discarded as I hadn’t taken into account the simple fact the crush is worked from the left hand side.  I had designed yards with a clockwise movement that made it difficult to operate the crush.  We agreed that an anti-clockwise movement of the cattle was far more suitable.  I also studied the NSW DPI page on Cattle Yard Design, but ultimately it came down to a simple examination of the materials at hand, and the site available.

The first stage was dismantling the existing yards.  This involved removing a few pins and many cobb and co wire hitches.  With a collection of mis-matched panels and various old gates, it was an interesting exercise.

Once we had removed the old yards, we spend a long time digging out and leveling the ground, appreciative of the tractor doing most of the heavy work.  Cattle will naturally run uphill, so the slope on this site isn’t a problem.  What we needed to do was make the slope consistent through the length of the crush and race.  With the slope consistent, we started re-assembly, again using the heavy lifting ability of the tractor.

Reassembly took a lot longer than I thought.  We have managed to get most of the panels to line up, but the hard work is getting the sleeves for the pins to align.  We had to grind off a couple of the sleeves to make the panels fit, all made slower due to a few hours lost fixing the pull-starter on the generator.

We concentrated on getting the drafting gates, crush, race and forcing yard all aligned and in-situ.  We found an old balustrade in the ‘resource centre’ which we cut up to manufacture new pins and anchor pegs in lieu of too many cobb and co hitches.  The main section of the yards are pretty much fixed now, and are much more solid that the previous version.

We still have work to do on the holding yard, and I hope to get onto this in the near future.  The final component will be to put a sight barrier on the yards.  This will remove distractions and help move the cattle around the yards.  I also hope it will make the yards sheep proof, so I don’t need to build a second set of yards for the sheep.

And what do the stock think of all this effort?  At present I am still a few weeks away from getting the yards ready for stock work.  The cattle are busy mowing and mulching our small horse paddocks.  The sheep seem to hang around in this area too, happily making their way around the farm as they seek the sweetest grass.  Some of the ewes are getting quite heavy with lamb, and I will need to have the yards ready to vaccinate the ewes soon.  Nothing like a bit of time pressure to finish a project!

Acorn Planting – The first experiment commences

Several people have asked me why we are planting non native deciduous trees on our property.  I have a complicated answer, and it largely comes from a recognition that our landscape has changed.    The Rock Farm is not native bush.  Even the native forests north of our property are different from when Europeans first saw them.  The land the Rock Farm is in was managed with fire by the Ngunnawal people over thousands of years.  It is our responsibility as custodians of this beautiful property to manage it and set it up for our future.  Our aims by planting non native deciduous trees are to:

  • Protect our property from bushfire,
  • Improve our soil health, and
  • Provide sustainable agriculture in a woodland like setting.

A friend of my father, John, has spent all his life planting trees on his property in the southern highlands.  He estimates that he has planted around 35 000 trees of all types on his farm that produces top quality beef cattle.  John has planted stands of native eucalyptus, pines and oaks, and has been able to watch the trees grow and observe the effects on the soil.

Now in his eighties, John is convinced that deciduous trees are best suited for improving the soil and reducing fire risk.  One of John’s favourite oaks is the Daimyo Oak (quercus dentata).  This is also known as the Korean Oak or Japanese Emperor Oak, and is known as a fast growing specimen tree.  John has observed this to be the case, with lines of Daimyo Oaks out pacing several supposedly fast growing native species planted nearby at the same time.  We filled many paper bags with acorns from some of John’s trees.

John also directed us to collect acorns of the Californian Swamp Oak (quercus lobata) from Mouat Street in Lyneham.  This is the largest of the north american oak trees, and does well with hot dry summers and cool wet winters.  This magnificent tree can live for 600 years.  This is just around the corner from where our boys play hockey, so with a few of their team mates pressed into service, we soon had filled several more bags with acorns.

Armed with plenty of acorns, we started to put some in the ground.

We are trying a mix of strategies.  The first one is direct seeding.  I am trialing planting a bunch of acorns in the ground where I want the trees to grow.  The acorns were planted in late autumn, just below the surface, the majority in small gullies like below.   I am planting the trees well away from established natives such as the eucalyptus growing in the far right of this photo.  The observant will notice many young trees growing around this tree, and these will also be preserved to protect the headwaters of this gully and provide native habitat.

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As you can see above, we have been putting a lot of garden prunings into our gullies. These prunings from pin oaks and peppermint gums will provide mulch and protection for the young oak trees to grow.  I selected a small flatter area where soil had been deposited and placed the seeds in the ground.  I repeated this in several sites over several small gullies.

The plant below is a sweet briar (rosa rubiginosa).  It is a weed, but like weeds it is fulfilling a niche that was once carried out by native plants.  It is spread by birds that eat its berries as their native food supplies are no longer abundant.  I am slashing and chipping out these weeds, but am also conscious I need to ensure habitat for these birds.  I thought I would also use some of them as part of my experiment.

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This paddock has only been grazed by Kangaroos for the past 18 months.  The grass under the sweet briar is thicker, and more lush that the surrounding areas. So what I have done is plant some acorns at the base of these plants.   I hope that as the young oaks establish, the sweet briar will afford them some protection from grazing.

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What I didn’t expect to find as I planted some of my acorns was this beautiful frog also using the sweet briar to shelter in.  I am not sure, but I think it is a Green and Golden Bell Frog (litoria aurea).  I was extremely pleased to find this little fellow, and relieved that I hadn’t sprayed the sweet briar to kill it.

Some of the other acorns we have placed in moist potting mix and put in the fridge.  We are waiting for some rain to increase our soil moisture before we plant these acorns out.

People have asked me why I haven’t grown the seed in a garden bed and then planted out the seedlings?  There is a couple of reasons.

  1. Research suggests that trees planted in their final site respond better than those that are transplanted.  There is no stress on the fragile root system of the plant that sometimes happens when plants are moved.  We have observed this ourselves at our last property where trees planted from seed did far better than young seedlings that we nurtured and watered over a long hot summer.
  2. Plants that are transplanted require watering to establish.  This is difficult and time consuming, especially on a rural property where we have to hook up a water trailer in order to bring water to the plants.
  3. Hares.  The European Hare is extremely territorial and will cut off any plant that appears in its patch with a trunk as thick as a finger or less.  For some reason if the plant grows from seed, it is far less likely to see the young tree as a threat or incursion on its territory and is far more likely to leave it alone.
  4. We are lazy and haven’t set up a suitable garden bed yet.  This is a work in progress (we currently have our chooks working on our first garden bed – see below)

That said, we will try transplanting seedlings.  There is nothing like experimenting with a range of strategies to determine which is the most effective way to establish trees to improve soil.  It is all part of the adventure, and I love it 🙂