Cockatoos – Yellow Tailed and Glossy Black

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

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

Flying Bolt Cutters

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

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

Glossy Black Cockatoo

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

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

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

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

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Serrated Tussock 

One of the responsibilities that comes with ownership of ‘lifestyle blocks’ is weed control.  The Rock Farm is no exception – and whilst growing lush pasture is difficult here, it seems that weeds take particular pleasure in growing on our farm.

One of the weeds we have to control is serrated tussock (nassella trichotoma).  This is a weed of national significance.  It is not palatable to stock and large amounts can significantly reduce carrying capacity.

Serrated tussock came to Australia from South America in the 1850’s.  With no other commercial use, it was used as a stuffing in horse saddles.  During the gold rush, Australia received a huge influx of new immigrants, and one of the unintended by products of this mass immigration was the introduction of many pests.

A couple of years ago, we learnt how quickly it spreads.  What I thought was a small patch rapidly grew, and it took a local contractor, with a specialised spot spay set up four days to spray.  It is now a much simpler job, and a quick run through the paddock gets most of the tussock.  My spraying rig is a combination of several contraptions, but it is effective for these smaller jobs.

Whilst I would love to control the tussock without the use of chemicals, it simply isn’t cost effective.  The cost of spraying per hour is roughly equivalent to the return made from selling one lamb.  Chipping out the weeds is cheaper per hour, but takes around 4 times as long.  With consumers willing to pay generally only a small price premium for organic lamb over the regular product, it is not effective for our business.

For someone with limited time, spraying is definitely the way to go.  Even with my cobbled together arrangement, I can cover a far greater area than if I was chipping out the tussock.  The chemical burden is also very small considering the land area it is dispersed over.

The supervisor also enjoyed the ride, however was far more interested in the passing kangaroos than pointing out the tussocks I’d missed!

One of the greatest defences against serrated tussock is good ground cover.  The seed is dispersed mostly by wind, the seed itself is not very competitive.  Part of the large reduction in tussock numbers in this paddock has been, I think, our efforts in establishing a good pasture in the paddock and removing the stock.  The planting of trees will further reduce the wind borne seed entering from the neighbour’s place (I hope).

In the mean time, we continue to celebrate the arrival of spring on the Rock Farm.

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

Pasture improvement and weed control. 

One of the driving forces behind getting a tractor was to allow us to start rehabilitating the precious soil on the Rock Farm.  Our aim is to create a balanced and healthy soil that supports low impact grazing.

One paddock on the Rock Farm is predominantly native pasture with remanent red box, red stringy bark and brittle gum trees.  I have been encouraging the regrowth of thousands of young trees around the older trees, and have been pleased to find the odd drooping she-oak – a vital food source for the Glossy Black Cockatoo.

One problem in this paddock is patches of Sifton Bush (Cassini Arcuata).  This native plant is an invasive weed, producing vast quantities of seed and rapidly colonising bare soil.

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A section of sifton weed with some Broom Bitter Pea in the foreground

The mature sifton bush plant can produce up to 4 billion seeds a year.  It is unpalatable to most grazing animals and has been suspected of causing poisoning in lambs.  It is a declared weed in our area and we have a responsibility to control it.

The NSW dpi has an excellent page describing the Sifton Bush and its control.  http://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/Weeds/Details/253

Whilst we have worked hard to clear some areas through pulling plants, it is hard work and time consuming.  I had used my mower for a few trials – but it was really hard work for the mower and was causing too much damage (to the mower). Burning is not effective due to the large amount of seedling reinfestation following a fire event.

And so our preferred method for larger areas of infestation is mulching.

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Lucie hard at work turning sifton bush into mulch

Lucie the tractor has a 2.4 metre wide drum muncher that is effective at shattering the larger stems and mulching the leaves.  As this breaks down, it returns organic matter to the soil, hopefully improving the soil structure and microbial activity.

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The tractor pushes over the mature plants easily – but beware of old stumps

The disadvantage of this method is that some of the sharp stumps remain, making it treacherous to drive a car over the mulched section.  Also some of the younger plants aren’t effectively broken down and may shoot again from damaged stems.

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A much cleaner paddock

The end result is a paddock that not only looks a lot better, but has improved organic matter in the soil.  We have observed grasses recolonising the areas I have mulched as they receive better light and less competition from the sifton bush.

I expect to re-mulch these areas in another couple of years and perhaps take the opportunity then to re-mineralise the soil.  It wont be a quick process as soil takes tens of thousands of years to form, and a heartbeat to destroy.  It is all good fun and I am really enjoying the challenge of improving the Rock Farm.

 

Providing mineral supplements and improving soil health

One of the most enlightening books I have read about soil health and animal nutrition was Natural Farming by Pat Coleby.  Whilst we all know Australia has some of the most ancient soils on the planet, what wasn’t clearly understood was the relationship between soil minerals and animal (and also human) health.

Pat was one of the first people to recognise that many health ailments in animals are caused by mineral deficiences.  Natural Farming carries a simple message: healthy soil makes healthy plants which in turn make health animals and healthy people.

Our vision is for healthy and ecologically sustainable grazing on our land.  Basic soil tests have confirmed our soil is slightly acidic, but we haven’t conducted in depth mineral analysis of our property yet.

Many animals have an ability to seek out minerals they are deficient in.  One way to see what minerals your soil is deficient in is to offer minerals to your stock and see which minerals they seek.  And so we  purchased a sample kit, known as a Pat Coleby Starter Pack from VITEC in Victoria (http://www.vitec.com.au/shop-online/pat-coleby-minerals/stock-lick-20kg).

The next part of the process was to construct a shelter for the minerals so that I could leave them in the paddock.  This took a bit more planning, but I soon found a few bits of steel and an old piece of corrugated iron around the place and with a bit of dodgy welding had knocked up a frame.

I decided to use a blue ‘nelly bin’ to store the minerals, and made a rectangular frame to hold the bin.  I then made another frame to attach the roof to.

Now that I had done the hard part, it was time to open the bag and check out the contents.  The starter pack contained a mix of minerals.  Dolomite, Sulphur, Copper and Lime, with mineralised salt and seaweed meal making up the rest of the pack.

I split the various minerals into various ice cream containers – and they fitted perfectly into my nelly bin.  It was now time to see what the sheep thought of them.

Well I cheated the first time – I put some sheep pellets into the nelly bin – to help them become comfortable with the new paddock sculpture.

But once they had eaten all the food and I had replaced the pellets with the minerals, it was pleasing to see them have a nibble on the seaweed meal and try the other minerals.

And so time will tell.  It will be interesting to see what minerals they naturally seek – and this will give us a good indication where to focus our efforts on re-mineralising the Rock Farm.

And this is part of the fun, ensuring our lovely sheep produce healthy lambs, and our soil improves over our tenure.

Update on tree planting – Three months in

Three months have passed since we were fortunate to have Greening Australia plant our bottom paddock with seed for thousands of trees.  I thought we would take a wander around our paddock and check out the progress.

The planting was a relatively simple process (see here: https://rockfarming.com/2016/11/03/how-to-plant-trees-lots-and-lots-of-trees/).  After preparing the site, seed was directly planted into small furrows, planted along contours.  We then herded the sheep out of the paddock and closed the gate.

This summer has been hot – at times extremely so, but we have managed to get the odd storm or two.  A couple of weeks ago we also enjoyed one day of steady rain that filled our rain gauge a wonderful 24mm.

Whilst initial glances over the paddock don’t show much progress, a close up inspection reveals plenty of young wattles and eucalyptus starting to strike.

The kids enjoyed checking out the plants – and so did Kruz – the most wonderful new addition to our family – but I’ll write more about him later.

I’m no expert on identifying the seedlings, but the seed planted had a good mix of Blakey’s Red Gum (eucalyptus blakelyi), Red Box (eucalyptus polyanthemos) and Yellow Box (eucalyptus melliodora).

It also had plenty of wattle seed too, such as Silver Wattle (acacia dealbata).

The tree I have been really looking forward to finding is the Drooping Sheaoak (Allocasuarina Verticillata).  This tree is habitat and food for the Glossy Black Cockatoo.  I found another young tree in our top paddock, bringing the total number on our place to 6, but sadly haven’t found any seedlings in our furrows yet.

That said, the trees seem to be going well.  The weeds are also starting to compete, and I know that I will eventually have to slash between the rows of trees to give them a fighting chance…  best I get me a tractor!

How to plant trees… lots and lots of trees…

One paddock on the Rock Farm is typical of many others in this area.  Cleared and heavily grazed in its past, it is showing evidence of years of abuse.  Areas of sheet erosion and poor soil cover meant this was a paddock in desperate need of restoration.

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One of the first things we wanted to do to that paddock when we bought the property was to plant trees in it.  With no knowledge of how to do this, we thought it best to seek out the experts.

When it comes to planting trees, few do it better than Greening Australia.  We soon found ourselves speaking with Ben Hanrahan, and he explained that our site would be perfect for their Whole of Paddock Rehabilitation (WOPR) program.  https://www.greeningaustralia.org.au/project/whole-of-paddock-rehabilitation

The program aims to plant belts of native trees along contours with 40-50 metres between each belt.  In addition to providing habitat for many species of birds, the program also improves soil structure, reduces salinity and provides shelter and additional food sources for stock during times of drought.  It is designed to increase biodiversity and habitat for native animals and also improve outcomes for graziers.

It fits well with our aim for “sustainable and ecologically sound stewardship of our property, that creates an income and food source…”  So we signed up.

The first step was to mark the contours.  Ben came out with a specially calibrated tool and marked the contours on the property.  We then sprayed the belt in Autumn and again in Spring with glyphosate to kill the grass.   Whilst I am not a fan of broad scale use of herbicides, in this case it will ensure a far greater strike rate with our trees.  The glyphosate did make large brown stripes in the paddock over winter, which contrasted with the bright green grass (and our super cute lambs).

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Spring it is time to plant.  Normally this is done in September, but with the unusually wet season, the paddock has been too boggy to work.  We finally got the spring spraying done on Melbourne Cup day, and the seeding was done two days later.

Greening Australia Whole of Paddock Rehabilitation

The seed used is a mixture of seeds from trees native to this area.  We also have a some trees from other areas that are being included as part of a trial to do with climate change resilience.   The seed hopper is designed to accept two types of seed, with one distributing the very fine eucalyptus seeds, and the other distributing the coarser wattles and she-oaks.

Greening Australia Whole of Paddock Rehabilitation

A disc turns over the soil, and the seed is pressed into the soil by the trailing wheel.  This places the seed in the ideal place for germination.

Working in tandem, Ben and Hayden were able to get to work quickly.  Four rows of trees were planted in each belt, totaling around 10 kilometres of tree lines.   It took them most of the afternoon, and whilst it doesn’t look like much now, I can’t wait to see what happens over the next few years or so.

Now we wait.  Part of the deal is we keep stock off the paddock for five years, to allow the trees to get established.  We will need to control kangaroo numbers, and keep the sheep from pushing their way through the fence.  It won’t happen overnight, but it will go a long way towards making our grazing enterprise more sustainable into the future.

A huge thank you to Ben and the team at Greening Australia for helping us achieve a better outcome for our native birds and animals, and our stock.

The (amazing) secret life of Mistletoe

One of the legacies of buying a block that has previously been cleared for grazing is that many of the remnant trees are heavily laden with mistletoe.  Mistletoe is a parasitic plant that has a bad reputation however is a fascinating part of the Australian ecosystem.

Mistletoe’s bad name originated because too many mistletoe on a tree will eventually kill it.  The problem is not having too many mistletoe but of not having enough trees!  When you delve a little deeper, Mistletoe play an extremely important role in not just providing food and refuge for birds, but also for improving soil health too.

This Red Box Tree (Eucalyptus Polyanthemos) is heavily laden with mistletoe

There are around 90 species of Australian Mistletoe.  Australian Mistletoe has evolved with the Mistletoebird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum), which feeds almost exclusively on its fruit.  The fruit is decidedly sticky, and passes through the bird quickly.  The bird has to rub its backside against a branch in order to remove the seed from its cloaca.  This usually happens to be in an ideal spot for the Mistletoe to grow – typically a nice sunny place with a good outlook.  And it guarantees a good supply of food for the bird.

The Mistletoebird loves branches with a good vantage point, hence remnant trees become heavily infested

The fruit of the mistletoe is an important Aboriginal food.  Commonly called Snotty Gobble, the fruit is a sweet, sticky treat that looks exactly as it sounds.  You split the seed out of its pod, and eat the inside.  It is extremely sticky – which explains how the seed can be deposited by the bird in the most ideal place for germination.

Whilst this tree is suffering from the mistletoe, the soil under the tree is in excellent shape. There are also many young saplings growing around the tree to support future mistletoe growth

The Mistletoe sheds its leaves prolifically.  Unlike the host trees, which hang on to their leaves and thus nutrients as much as they can, the Mistletoe is far more likely to drop its leaves.  This creates areas of much richer nutrient under the tree.  In this photo, you can see the greener grass under the tree – largely as a result of the extra nutrient from the Mistletoe.  The Mistletoe is an important contributor to soil health.

Can you save individual trees? Yes you may, but it can be dangerous and may not worth the risk

But eventually too much Mistletoe will choke the tree.  This Red Box tree has only one branch that is still alive.  I have considered lopping the dead part from the tree, but it would require me to climb the tree and lop the majority of the crown from the tree – far beyond my capabilities with a saw.

Instead my strategy is to encourage the younger trees to grow.  This will ensure that there are plenty of host trees for the Mistletoe to grow in.  By encouraging many trees to grow, the Mistletoe will be spread among the trees, and won’t overwhelm any single tree.  As I mentioned earlier, the problem isn’t too much Mistletoe, it is too few trees!

Encouraging stands of timber to grow, between grassland areas is our best defence against trees being killed by mistltoe

The other neat thing I found today was our fourth Drooping Sheoak on the Rock Farm (allocasuarina verticillata).  This amazing tree has its own story that I will  share soon.

I must thank our friend Amber for her insights into the secret life of Mistletoe. Her knowledge of all native plants is truly encyclopaedic.  There are also a couple of really neat books that have helped me discover the amazing diversity in the plants on the Rock Farm.

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

Grassland Flora – A field Guide for the Southern Tablelands, by David Eddy, Dave Mallinson, Rainer Rehwinkel and Sarah Sharp. (1998)  It is available here: http://www.fog.org.au/grassland_flora.htm

The best portable chook tractor

I’m the first to admit that chickens are not my thing, but the quality of eggs you get from happy chooks has to be tasted to be believed.  With a well fenced orchard doubling as a chicken run, keeping chooks at The Rock Farm was a simple decision.

Aiding our decision to keep chickens was a couple of young entrepreneurs who offered to look after the chooks.  In exchange they would sell us the eggs.  It seemed a good deal – although I haven’t had the heart to break their business model by charging them for the chook food!

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

Over the past couple of years, our herd of chickens had grown to over 12 chooks and 4 ducks.  But all was not well in the chook world.  Slowly our egg production had dwindled to nothing.  We had also lost a couple of chooks and a duck in interesting circumstances (they were drowned in their pond).  With a randy drake the most likely suspect,  we needed to do a bit of housekeeping.

A new lightweight chook tractor was decided as the best means to separate our chooks, and provide all the benefits of portable weed control and fertiliser application.   Importantly Jo found a wonderful design that looked like it might work for us.  And it did!

The basic design uses electrical conduit cut into lengths and looped to form a lightweight self-supporting structure.  The joints are cable-tied – although the base requires holes to be drilled into the conduit to hold the joints together.

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

After laying out all the pieces, measuring the required lengths, and even going so far as to mark the ends in colour coded markers, my virgo wife had the main structure completed in little more than half an hour.

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

It was then time to fit some chicken wire to the structure.  Jo used wire around the base and bird netting over the top.  An old bread crate makes a roost, and a plastic tub a nesting box.  The only real complication was in getting the door to work, but Jo accomplished this with no fuss.

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

The tarpaulin isn’t fixed to the tractor – otherwise it would become a kite.  It provides the bulk of the shelter for the chooks.

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

The final part of the exercise was to separate the ducks from the chooks.  During this amusing exercise, we realised that we had not one, but three roosters masquerading as chooks.  Now, even I know enough to realise that roosters don’t provide much in the way of eggs.  We eventually separated the chooks, the ducks and the roosters into their respective homes.

How to make a lightweight chook tractor

With so many roosters, no one was going to be happy, so one was euthanized.   His carcase was buried under the roots of a newly planted fruit tree, where we hope that he will provide a great start to the young tree.

On the plus side, the girls are much happier in their new accommodation.  I just hope that as we emerge from the depths of winter that the hens resume laying.  I am looking forward to enjoying farm fresh eggs once again.

Improving soil health – Repairing bare soil on the Rock Farm

As short time custodians of the Rock Farm, we have a responsibility to leave our land in better shape than we found it.  It can be a bit daunting, but we have found many people  and read several books that have helped us start this journey.

The Rock Farm is in a region of Ordovician shale – and the soil best described as thin, gravel based lithosols (soil consisting of unweathered or partly weathered shale fragments).  The land has been previously cleared, and heavily grazed.  When the grass or ground cover is broken, the fragile soil is lost forever leaving bare patches of earth where nothing grows.

Cleared land with evidence of sheet erosion

In the few years before we bought the block, the stocking rates had been significantly reduced.   This allowed an explosion of young sapling trees in one paddock.  The old remnant trees were surrounded by many saplings – which was very pleasing to see.

This Red Stringy Bark has many young saplings among native Poa Tussock

The bare soil however was a problem.  The first priority was to stabilize the soil – and protect it from further erosion.   The easiest way for us to do this was to simply spread lawn cuttings around over the bare soil.  The cuttings protect the soil from wind and animals walking over it. The cuttings also over time will break down, releasing nutrients into the soil.

Leaving garden clippings or trimmed branches to break down and provide organic material to the soil

This is not a quick process.  In the hot and dry or cool and dry climate of the Southern Tablelands, this organic material will take years to break down.  But in the mean time, we hope it will provide shelter to allow grass, shrubs, even weeds – anything to grow.  In the mean time, the plant material provides homes and food for many native beetles and bugs.  These in turn increase the number of insect eating birds that visit our place – a real win-win scenario.

Three years on and the light shrub clippings have broken down and grass and weeds are re-colonising the soil

This is a patch that in 3 years, has broken down and is showing signs of colonisation by grass and weeds. The weeds are a sign that the system is out of balance – but repairing.  As the soil improves, the grasses will out compete the weeds (we hope).

Even bigger trees can benefit from protection too

It is a technique I use all the time.  I now cut green timber for firewood (see previous post), and I spread the small green branches over bare soil.  Within a year, the area is a hot bed of insect activity, with many small grubs and beetles munching their way through the bark and leaves, creating a rich organic soil.  The trees soon recover from the branch or two that I lop off, and the added bonus is the richer soils.

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The leaves quickly break down – these branches have been cut less than six months and are starting to decompose

Of course this process only works on small patches and it takes a long time to come to fruition.  Its best feature is it costs next to nothing – and uses natural processes.  To dramatically increase soil fertility quickly, you need to conduct soil tests, and import fertiliser – preferably an organic or natural compound.

There are many different fertilisers that can be used – but I will discuss these in a later post.

If you are interested in further reading, check out:

Pat Coleby – Natural Farming (http://farmingsecrets.com/experts/pat-coleby/)

Peter Andrews – Natural Sequence Farming (http://www.nsfarming.com/)