Spring and Calving

Spring is a wonderful time on the Rock Farm. The return of warmer weather is appreciated by all of us, plants, animals and humans. This year has been such a change on previous years, with good steady rain falling regularly since March. This means as the ground warms up, we have great soil moisture leading into the growing season.

But it isn’t just the grass that is growing. Our beautiful cow’s bellies have been steadily growing bigger all winter. It was a wonderful morning indeed when we welcomed our first calf for 2020.

Within a few days we had three more calves on the ground. They are a real delight at this age. They love sleeping in the sun, nestled behind a shrub or even a deep patch of clover.

These cattle have become really quiet over the past couple of years. The mother’s are understandably cautious of us, especially when we go wandering among them and their new babies with Sapphire. One incident a couple of days ago I found particularly touching.

After putting out some bloat lick, all the herd came over for a taste. One poor cow, Latte, left her calf behind. The best thing I could do was make myself scarce, so I departed as quickly as I could. Latte then commenced a desperate search for her calf, trotting around the paddock, calling for her calf. After five long minutes of desperate searching, she hadn’t found the calf and was becoming more distressed.

I returned to the paddock and found the calf, fast asleep in a bunch of saplings. Carefully I positioned myself behind the calf, and gently started talking to it. As expected, it woke with a jolt, leapt to its feet, let out a blood curdling bellow and ran directly away from me and straight into Mum who was very pleased to be reunited.

The bellow created a very different reaction with the herd. The rest of the cattle all came running at their best speed (it would be unfair to call it a gallop, especially for the heavy cows yet to calve). Their protective instincts were strong. As they cleared the dam wall and found that all was well, they gratefully settled down to a walk. The mother Latte and her calf were reunited, everyone was happy and a few minutes later were all grazing peacefully as if non of the adventure had ever happened.

So why was I putting out bloat lick? Clover is a wonderful nitrogen fixing, drought hardy grass. This year it has grown rapidly in some of our paddocks. Cattle love it, however if they eat too much it forms a foamy gas in their rumen, which they are unable to belch. In extreme cases it is fatal, and several cattle in the district have died due to bloat this year.

The bloat lick we use has a molasses base, but the active ingredient is Alcohol Ethoxylate Teric 12A 23. I don’t know how it works to reduce the foaming in the rumen, but so far, we haven’t lost any cattle on our clover rich pastures. They do seem to know what it does though, and actively seek it out. As they eat through the clover in the paddock, the demand for it reduces – until I put them in the next paddock. More information on the bloat lick we are using can be found here: https://www.olssons.com.au/uploads/7/9/6/4/79645424/bloat-liq_brochure.pdf

With things all settled back down Jo and I were able to take a few moments to relax with the cattle. I was a little surprised when ‘Uno’, our first born heifer from last year came right up to me…. if only I hadn’t laughed just as she was getting bold!

Can’t see the wood for the trees

The past week has been a little hectic on the Rock Farm – for all the right reasons. We have had a most fortunate set of circumstances, that created a flurry of activity, and led to aching muscles and blisters.

After our recent massive downpour, it was evident that some areas of our creek bank had collapsed. This loss of productive soil into our waterways is less than ideal, for both the water ways and our farm. What was evident through walking along the length of the creek that runs through our place is that trees, whether exotic or native, all helped stop the erosion. We needed trees.

Long term readers may recall that Greening Australia planted thousands of trees at the original Rock Farm, see post here. That paddock was directly seeded along contours, and as far as I can tell from recent google earth images, the trees are doing remarkably well. I put in a call to Greening Australia and spoke to Ben Hanrahan about what were the best trees to plant along our creek and options were available to us.

It seemed my timing was perfect. Due to COVID restrictions, a property that had planned to plant 5000 trees was unable to arrange volunteer labour to plant them. After discussing the options with Ben, we applied for a grant of 300 trees, which were sitting ready to go at the nursery.

Greening Australia provided us with an incredibly diverse list of species. I looked up each to determine the best habitat. A list of the species is below for those interested.

The only problem was, we needed to get them in the ground quickly, and then build a fence to keep the cattle off them. But the first priority was to get them planted before a forecast 5mm of rain was due to fall.

I managed to get 115 trees planted on the first day. Jo and I managed to knock over the rest the following day. We averaged 3.6 minutes a tree – which was by all accounts a cracking pace to clear a patch, plant the tree, install the guard and give them a quick drink. The Hamilton Tree Planter was worth its weight in gold. Some areas such as where we had vehicle access were much easier than areas on the far side of the creek, which required lugging everything over the stream – crossed by delicate leaps in strategic places, or finding holes that were just over gum boot depth!

We managed to get all the trees in the ground before a wonderful 3mm of rain fell overnight to help settle them into their new homes.

But that was only part of the battle won. The next part was the construction of a new fence. A new fence was required to isolate around four hectares (10 acres) along the creek. This will hopefully allow the new shrubs and trees to get established without the pressure of cattle. Wombats and kangaroos are another story.

It took me another day and a half to get the fence built – around 180 metres with a gate and two flood gates. I included a hot wire on the fence to discourage the cattle from pushing on it – as a lot of the posts are in pretty soft soil.

And then, after four pretty solid days (110 000 steps according to my fitbit) it was time to sit back and invite the cattle into their ‘new’ paddock, secure in the knowledge the new trees were safe.

A huge thank you to Ben and the team at Greening Australia for supporting our request for assistance. We hope that these trees will be part of the legacy we leave here at the Rock Farm. The species provided by Greening Australia were:

  • Acacia mearnsii – Black Wattle
  • Dodonaea viscosa subsp. Spatulata – Narrow Leafed Hop Bush
  • Eucalyptus blakelyi – Blakelyi Red Gum
  • Eucalyptus bridgesiana – Apple Box
  • Eucalyptus camaldulensis – River Red Gum
  • Eucalyptus viminalis – Mana or Ribbon Gum
  • Leptospermum lanigerum – Woolly Tea Tree
  • Leptospermum obovatum – River Tea Tree

And the excellent book that helped me work out the best places to plant the trees was Woodland Flora – A field guide for the Southern Tablelands, by Sarah Sharp, Rainer Rehwinkel, Dave Mallinson and David Eddy. (2015)  It is available here: http://www.publish.csiro.au/pid/7609.htm

Drainage, Trees, Cattle and Some Sad News

The magical rain of a couple of weeks ago has continued the transformation of the Rock Farm. The rain has continued, mostly on weekends, with occasional bursts of hail and sleet, usually when the kids are in the middle of their weekend sport!

The ground is literally oozing water. Where I have put rip lines on the hillsides, the ground is soft. The cattle are sinking to their knees where the ground has been opened up, showing how effective the ripping has been in getting the moisture into the soil.

All the ground moisture is great in the paddocks, but not so great when the water is oozing over the driveway. A little section of our drive had become very boggy, and with no natural drainage, I needed to take some action. The tractor allowed me to easily dig a trench, and put some large poly-pipe under the road. Some hours with a mattock to dig a spoon drain has diverted much of the surface water off the drive, and through the pipes. The drive still hasn’t dried out enough for me to drive a car along this part of the drive. I’m not complaining though, I’m far happier stuck in mud than eating dust!

The ideal conditions have increased our determination to plant more trees this season. The yellow box (eucalyptus melliodora) trees we planted last year are doing well as are the Daimyo Oaks (quercus dentata) we planted along our driveway.

We took the chance to plant some Algerian Oak (quercus canariensis) and Californian White Oak (quercus lobata) to form a wind break west of the house. These magnificent trees grow well in local conditions once established. We bought half a dozen seedlings from the Digger’s Club to get going as our normal source trees didn’t have any acorns this year because of the drought.

In the meantime, the cattle’s bellies continue to grow. They will start calving in the next few weeks, so we are keeping a close eye on them. With the paddocks being so lush, I have some dolomite (magnesium) available for them, in an attempt to reduce the likelihood of bloat and grass tetany. We have been allowing them to graze the rich clover paddocks only for a few hours at a time, but they don’t appreciate being moved at the end of their session. Sapphire the Border Collie is mostly helpful, but remains a work in progress!

In some sad news, we bade farewell to Mater, the little quarter-horse with a heart of gold who lived next door. This fellow not only taught The-Now-Not-So-Little Helper the basics of riding, but reminded us all about what it means to love a horse. This little horse had defied all predictions and trekked the Bicentennial National Trail from Cooktown to Healsville a few years ago with his owners, Kathryn and Preston. This is where he (and Kathryn and Preston) came into our lives on their way south. With Kathryn and Preston away, I had been checking on their horses with even more enthusiasm than normal. Finding him dead in the paddock with his old friend Laurie watching over him was devastating.

Whilst he might have lived next door, we felt he was part of our family too. Over the years, this little fellow and his mates have received countless carrots and cuddles from all of us. He will be sorely missed. Rest in peace old friend.

Winter paddock rotations

On the Rock Farm we are continuing our rotation of cattle to fresh pastures, using the regenerative principles of Allan Savory. The cattle manage a pretty good job of eating the grass and a lot of the leafy weeds however they aren’t so keen on the woody weeds or thistles. After I rotate them out of their paddock, it is often worth slashing the remaining weeds, and then following up with the hand chipper a few days later.

The old tractor and mulcher make short work of the weeds and it doesn’t take long for the paddock to look like a lawn. The mulcher also breaks up dry cowpats and leaves the clippings to mulch back into the soil. Using this process I hope to slowly increase soil microbial activity, and encourage productive grasses to out-compete weeds. This technique has been effective against thistles so far, and whilst there are still plenty of weeds in the paddock, I am loathe to use chemicals to control them.

The shot above compares the freshly mulched paddock with the paddock the cattle were in previously, only a couple of weeks ago. The previously grazed paddock is recovering quickly, with healthy patches of barely grass, cocksfoot and clover growing despite the cool weather.

One of the great pleasures this rotation brings is the antics of the cows when you invite them to a new paddock. They carry on like newborn calves – despite their own ever increasing bellies! I love it.

The girls settled quickly into their new paddock – however I needed to duck down and make a small repair to their water trough. The cows not only came over to check out my work, they also gave poor Sapphire the border collie cross a fright. She didn’t know what to do when some gentle (but very big) brown faces came snorting through the window. She placed herself very much in the middle of the seat, as far away from the open windows as she could and kept a very close eye on the inquisitive bovines.

Winter is firewood harvest time. Our neighbours have a great stand of red-box regrowth that we had selectively thinned for firewood about 18 months ago. With that block being recently sold, we took the opportunity to collect the timber we had previously cut. The reason we selected young green branches and trees to harvest is that it encourages the remaining trees to grow large and straight. It ensures we aren’t removing habitat from the area, as most of the hollows required for nesting birds and reptiles are in the large old trees – like the brittle gum below. It also means the timber doesn’t need splitting either – a bonus. We have planted red-box trees on our property, and will be sure to harvest more seed from other red-box trees this year in order to re-establish a stand of these magnificent trees on one of our ridges.

In the meantime we have been slowly working through some of the piles of wire and steel that have been scattered around the Rock Farm. Over the past couple of years we have slowly rounded up dozens of 44 gallon drums, old gates, star pickets, and tyres. They have all been taken to our ‘resource centre’, and some of the steel being recycled at our local tip.

At times it seems like a never ending task, but every now and then we look back and see progress. Whilst it might not add to our little farm’s overall productivity, it does make the farm safer, and improves its appearance. It fits with our philosophy of trying to leave the land in better condition than how we found it.

The only problem is that my wife sees in every pile of scrap an opportunity.. Getting her to help me clean up the farm usually creates more projects than I finish, as her imagination transforms the items into wind-breaks, chook sheds, garden trellises and so on. And I must admit, that isn’t a bad thing 🙂

Getting Winter Ready

As the cooler weather comes to the Rock Farm, I have been busy trying to get everything set up for winter. Whilst our country isn’t cold enough to bring the cattle into sheds or barns over winter, my main focus has been increasing our soil moisture and pasture health to ensure our cattle have plenty of feed.

After trialing rip lines on different parts of the Rock Farm, I found we had most success ripping along the contours of our slopes. With a little rain forecast recently, I took the opportunity to put some more rip lines in a small paddock near the house. The forecast 10mm fell , and it was great to see the effectiveness of the rip lines in slowing the water down and allowing it to penetrate the soil. This was particularly evident in areas where the soil is hard, compact and especially hydrophobic. I hope this will encourage pasture to grow in these areas.

Another area we have been working on our pasture and soil health is on our alluvial flats. Regular readers may recall that we recently split our 5.6Ha flat paddock into three smaller paddocks (https://rockfarming.com/2020/04/21/autumn-school-holiday-project-new-paddocks-on-the-rock-farm/). The reason for this is that the cattle were selectively grazing their favourite grasses, and leaving the less palatable weeds. By making three smaller paddocks, we encourage them to heavily graze the paddock, weeds and all. A long period of rest allows the pasture to regenerate and this technique has been shown to improve the pasture quality.

Our experiment is still in its early stages, however the initial results are promising. After putting the cattle in the first of our paddocks for a couple of weeks, they had grazed the grass and most of the weeds. After moving the cattle out of the paddock, I ran the mulcher over the paddock to knock down remaining weed heads (hopefully before they had run to seed).

Three weeks later and the grass is growing. The photo above left shows an area that a few months ago was all tall thistles. The pasture in this area is now strong and competing with young thistle plants. I spent about half an hour with the chipper just working on the odd patches of young thistles, and hopefully will prevent them from growing to seed. The cattle have been moved to the next paddock and we hope to repeat the cycle in that paddock too.

Meanwhile the rest of the farm is being rested. One of my greatest pleasures is taking walks around the farm and observing the recovery of the other pastures. The change in moisture has encouraged some species of grass, like the Cocksfoot above left, to seed. If you look closely, you will see a Ladybird making the most of the shelter. These pleasures make all the effort of living out here all worthwhile.

But it doesn’t take long for reality to bite.

I arranged for a load of pasture hay to be delivered. This hay is insurance for a dry winter or a poor spring. I also look at the hay as fertilizer. It brings nutrients onto the farm, that the cattle will process into the perfect soil food. The hay took a little longer to unload as the tractor seemed to struggle to lift and move the bales – whereas it has previously lifted bales that weigh twice as much…

There is a constant requirement for maintenance and repair on any farm, and ours is no exception. Since mulching the first paddock’s weed, the tractor’s hydraulics had become problematic. The hydraulic pump was making horrible noises, and I feared that the diagnosis of a burnt out pump or bearing would be terminal for our old tractor.

A bit of research online started to lead me towards thinking I might have a problem with the bypass valve. On our tractor this is located low on the chassis, with the hydraulic oil filter. Thankfully the former owner gave me the Owner’s Manual and a new filter when I purchased the tractor. The manual described how to replace the filter and more importantly how to clean the fine mesh of the bypass valve. The clean and new filter was an undoubted success with the tractor hydraulics performing like new again! Phew.

I should have done the maintenance before the load of hay arrived, but I was terrified I’d break something and have no means of unloading the hay. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

So now I have a shed full of winter hay, a tractor that is fully operational and paddocks that seem to be becoming more productive. I love nothing more than my ambles around the paddocks. Life is good on the Rock Farm.

Best I turn my attention to that other winter activity – harvesting some firewood.

Autumn Update

It is getting cooler on the Rock Farm.  The shorter days remind us of the approaching winter.  Regular readers might recall that a little over a month ago, we had almost no water or feed on the property and were looking at a the least worst option for our cattle (https://rockfarming.com/2020/02/03/weaning-and-a-rough-plan-for-the-cattle/).  Despite the initial promising falls of rain, and quick growth of some grass (and weeds), I wasn’t convinced that we would grow enough feed to get us through the winter.  We decided to go ahead with one of our options, to sell our steer calves, our heifer calves with horns and one cow, who was a little too aggressive for my liking.

 

The early weaning paid off, with the calves all averaging over 200kg.  We also sold our 400kg yearling steer Moo, that the Little Helper trained to halter back in July (https://rockfarming.com/2019/07/05/a-lesson-on-leadership-taught-by-a-calf/).  After the initial handling last July, he had been left to run with the cows, and had put on good weight.

We kept four of the naturally polled heifers – bringing our numbers back to 15 head.  As we returned the keepers to the paddock, we drenched them and put them into our large flat paddock with good feed.   I have a feeling we have one or two dry cows, but with the Corona Virus shutting down travel, my expert adviser (Dad) was unable to travel down to teach me how to pregnancy test them.  We will give them another chance.

In the mean time, we have all been working on little jobs around the house.  Jo has got back into the vegetable garden.  Keen to reduce waste, and make rabbit proof vegetable beds, she is re-purposing our old roofing iron to make raised beds.  Despite my initial doubts, it looks fantastic.

 

The beds are not chicken proof, and poor Sapphire doesn’t know what to do when the chooks ignore her steely gaze and leap up into the beds to scratch for earthworms.  It is hilarious watching her get more and more frustrated with the chooks who are more than happy to forage where they please.

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I tackled another job that only became important after using our neighbour’s horses as lawn mowers.  Our garden gate was in a sorry state and had fallen off its hinges.  More correctly, the hinges had fallen out of the rotten post.  The original post had sometime in the past assumed a lean, and a stop gap solution installed by owner previous was to simply put another post in the ground beside it.  The ‘new post’ had rotted completely out, so I dug out both posts and re-installed the original post back where it was originally.  The tractor saved my back lifting the heavy post.

 

 

After tidying up the fence – really hard to see in the photo below – it was nice to have a pair of gates that swing again.

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The boys have remained committed to their school work – but on the weekends we get a couple of hours of ‘farm work’ out of them.  Last weekend they were keen to get on the tools just after breakfast.  I am not sure if they love doing it,  or the reward of quid pro quo X-box time is worth it, but I’ll take any help I get.  It is good outside work that surprisingly I don’t find a chore, and it seems with tunes blasting from a portable speaker, neither do they.

Whilst the battle against the weeds is one I fear we may never get completely on top of, it is great to see some of the grasses in good condition and setting seed.  I am also really happy with the large number of earthworms we are finding in the bottom paddock.  I believe this paddock has been heavily sprayed for weed control in the past, and the earthworms are a sign that the soil is healing.

 

 

The good news is that the cattle are now relishing the experience of eating long grass – and are putting on condition before winter.  The lawnmowers managed to get ontop of the garden grass, so I even put them down there with the cows for a special treat.  Whilst Mater has spent a good deal of his life working cattle, our cows have never shared a paddock with a horse before and were most curious at their new paddock mate.

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I hope the warm weather stays around for a little longer.  The first frost will slow the grass grown rates significantly, but for now, we are getting a nice reserve to get us through the next month or two.  It is now time to service the chainsaw, replace the wood splitter handle and get ready for the winter jobs.

An inspirational story – Trees & Regenerative Agriculture

With the glorious sound of rain falling on our roof, it is extremely pleasant to take refuge inside with a steaming mug of happiness.  Well, after feeding the calves and repairing the tractor…. and buying some more bags of feed for the calves…. and making sure the tank inlets are clear of debris to ensure every drop is making its way into our tanks.

As I write, we have 13mm of steady beautiful rain in the gauge – just perfect timing after our big fall a fortnight ago.  All the established grass responded to the last fall and has been growing well, but the clover and other grass that germinated was just about to curl up and die.  This might be enough to get some good feed on the ground before it gets too cold to grow.

A day inside is never wasted, it is a wonderful opportunity to delve back into the books and online to find stories that inspire and motivate.  It is even better when one of those stories is about an old school mate, Michael.

I hope you have 12 minutes or so to enjoy the story of Taylor’s Run and how trees have not only made their property more beautiful and diverse, but profitable, especially in this drought.  I am exceptionally lucky to count this fella as a mate, and look forward to dropping in to check out what his family is achieving on our next drive through the New England.

 

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!