The cycle of trees

 

We have enjoyed a busy few weeks on the Rock Farm, and we are now also starting to make some changes for the future.  Up until now, we have been largely focused on repairing existing infrastructure.  There is still plenty of work to do in this space, but we are also fast approaching autumn and the best time to plant trees.  But just as we were getting ready to plant some trees, the weather turned for the worse.

The Rock Farm was subject to a couple of days of bracing winds.  Whilst there was quite a bit of damage sustained in the region, we thankfully escaped with only a couple of branches and trees down.

One particularly fortunate group was the local scout troop that had camped on the Rock Farm.  They managed to strike all their tents before the forecast wind came, however one gazebo was destroyed before they could get all their equipment stowed.

A few sheets of iron on the shed roof needed to be screwed back on tightly, but the main job after the wind had stopped was to clear downed branches off fences.

It didn’t take too long to clear the timber off the fence.  The leafy branches were left in paddock to mulch under the tree, and the larger pieces cut for future firewood.  The bent star-picket was re-straightened and the broken wires repaired.  The plain wire was relatively easy to tension and soon the fence was looking no worse for its encounter with the Brittle Gum (eucalyptus mannifera) branch

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After the wind, and with the promise of rain, we decided to make the most of the opportunity to plant some trees.  One of our favourite trees is the Bunya Pine Araucaria Bidwillii.  This native pine is found naturally in south-east Queensland, however there are some fine specimens in our local area, some reportedly pre-dating European settlement suggesting they were planted by Indigenous people.  The trees are a popular choice for bush food gardens, provided you have the space to grow them.

It is easy to understand why.  The Indigenous people would celebrate the ripening of the fruit with ceremonies, celebrations and feasts.  Groups of people would travel for hundreds of kilometres to attend,  making the most of these opportunities to trade, negotiate with other groups and marry.

Our aim is far more simple.  We would like to see some of these trees grow on our property.  Our first job was to collect some old 44 gallon drums that would form tree guards and protect the young trees from rabbits.  Every farm has a ‘resource centre’ and we just had a wonderful collection of old half 44 gallon drums that had the base cut out.

We have decided to see if the trees grow naturally.  We prepared the sites by scraping off the grass and weeds, and loosening up the soil with the Hamilton Tree-Planter.  We put three seeds in each drum tree guard, and then placed a layer of natural mulch on top of the seeds.

Some of the drums were placed in open areas in paddocks, others were placed in sheltered areas with plenty of trees providing shade.  Once we see how the trees go, we will be able to plant more of these trees.   We aren’t in a rush.  Trials suggest that about half of the viable seed will germinate in around six to nine months… but for a tree that lives around 500 years, I figure we can give it a while to get going!

It will be great to see how they go!

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The rain comes!

Things had been getting a little grim on the not-so-rocky Rock Farm.  The end of summer was approaching, but the rain gauge had been dry for weeks.  Even the most hardy plants were starting to look stressed, and neighbours were starting to plan to feed their stock.  On the domestic front, things were as busy as ever, with the Little Fisherman starting high school, and the Little Helper settling into year 6.  In the midst of all the chaos, I went to sea for a couple of weeks.

It was no better when I got home.  In my absence, both cars had broken down, the boys had been home from school sick and the sheep had disappeared (only to return the next day from their holiday).

But then we got a beautiful 50mm of rain and everything changed.

My list of jobs I want to do on the Rock Farm is rather long.  Everything requires an investment of time or dollars or both and many require the right weather.  One of the many on the list was to smooth the corrugations out of the driveway – but had been too dry to even contemplate, until it rained.

When the rain fell, one of the first things I wanted to do was to run a blade over the driveway.  All went well, until I made my way back towards the house…  The creek crossing that had been dry little more than an hour earlier was now impassable.

Thankfully it was dropping just as quickly as it came up.  Soon our depth gauge (a well calibrated star picket) was visible, meaning it was safe to take a 4wd across.

Creek Crossing

That little saga over, I would have liked to continue working through some more of the jobs on my list, but it wasn’t to be.  I had another week away starting early the following morning, but this time I had some down time.  It was the perfect opportunity to re-read one of the most influential books on farming I have read, and do a bit of planning.

Pat Coleby is one of Australia’s foremost experts on farming without chemicals.  Her work is visionary on one level, however when you think about what she has to say, it really is common sense.  She shows how the key to healthy plants and animals is healthy soil.  Her book is full of practical advice on how to improve the soil, and she guides our approach to our farm.  If you’re going to buy one book for your farm, this is a great one!

Part of what we need to do is to return organic matter to the soil.  Slashing the long grass helps to achieve this.  It also causes the grass roots to reduce in size, creating tiny holes which aerate the soil and provide opportunities for earthworms to work through the soil.  I hope to get some cattle to help with this process – as they return the organic matter to the soil in the form of manure.  In the meantime, the old tractor was able to slash this 5 hectare paddock in around 2.5hrs.

One thing I will arrange in the next week or so will be soil tests.  These will help us to identify shortcomings in our soil health.  With the application of the correct amounts of calcium, magnesium and sulphur, we should get our soil back in balance.  Once the soil is in balance, we should see an improvement availability of trace minerals and an increase in activity in soil by the micro-oraganisms and earthworms that drive soil fertility.  This should lead to a reduction in weeds, and an increase in a variety of species that provide minerals and trace elements to our stock.

It is a journey, and I am looking forward to learning about soil chemistry and biology in our quest to improve the health of our land.

 

Tree of Heaven removal on the Rock Farm

The other day I wrote about some of the weeds of significance we have on our property.  Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) was one weed that we had identified using the excellent Weedwise app and I decided it was to be the first on my hit list.

I thought we had one tree and a handful of suckers.  My initial assessment was wrong.  Very wrong.  I found we had a thicket of around 40 trees, between 4 and 6 metres tall, in a nook between an old timber and wire fenced horse paddock and the boundary.

Tree-of-Heaven is a deciduous tree.  It forms dense clumps or thickets from suckers which spread from its roots.  These clumps out compete other more desirable plants.  It is a major weed in North America where it is choking natural woodlands.  Once established, it is very hard to get rid of.

I decided the best approach was to first mechanically remove the trees and slash or dig out the suckers.  Then any future growth would be small suckers that I will be able to spot spray to kill the plant.  The first step was to drop the trees.

Thankfully the timber is very soft and light, and the chainsaw made short work of dropping the trees.  The old timber fence was abutting up next to the thicket, but as it was already in need of replacing,  I ended up felling a few trees onto the fence.  This made it easier and safer to fell the trees, and allowed me to protect some of the other trees growing in the vicinity.

The result was small mountains of branches and logs.  Without an army of helpers to move the logs, I put the stick rake / blade onto Lucie the old International 674 tractor, and set to work.  Lucie unleashed all 61 horses (perhaps a few have escaped the stable in the intervening years) and pushed the logs into a couple of large piles.  It sure beat man-handling the logs.

The next step was to remove the stumps.  I had deliberately left them quite tall, to allow me extra purchase when pulling them out.  If I had the room, I would have pushed them all over, but as this encroached on the neighbour’s place, I had to pull most of them out.  A recovery chain proved most effective.  Before I bought the tractor, I used to use the 4WD to pull out stumps, but the tractor with its low gearing, agricultural tyres and 4WD allowed me to pull them out in a far more civilised manner.

The war against weeds is far from over, but we have taken a few steps in the right direction.

Lucie is proving her worth as a reliable and hardworking spare hand.  After we had pulled out the weeds, I treated her to a change of oil and some fresh grease on the moving parts.  Over the next few days I hope to change the fuel and air filters too.  Then she will be good to go for another hundred hours or so.

In the meantime, it is nice to sit back and relax.  Moving out to a hobby farm isn’t for everyone, but you might have figured I love it out here.  Especially when you get to take a few moments to enjoy a sunset that makes all the hard work worth it.

Some more on weeds

It has been a hot few days on the new Rock Farm.   I will talk about our fire-plan in the near future, but in the mean time I have been researching some of the weeds that I have identified on the property, and developing strategies on how we will deal with them.

The best place to learn about weeds in our area is the NSW DPI (Department of Primary Industries) WeedWise website http://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/.  The NSW WeedWise page is a wealth of information about what plants are listed as declared weeds in NSW, including priority weeds for different regions.

They also have a handy WeedWise App, which I have downloaded onto my pocket brain.  This means I have access to the full weed database and recommended treatment options all the time.

http://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/

Managing weeds is the responsibility of the land owner.  Sadly infestations of certain weeds can render arable farmland next to useless.  It is also the source of much frustrations between neighbours particularly given the way most weeds spread with no regard to fences or boundaries.

Whilst I would love to ensure our weed management practice is chemical free, I don’t believe this will be achieved in a timely or cost effective manner.  The WeedWise site and app provide information on chemical free, mechanical and selective grazing weed removal techniques, as well as methods using chemicals.

But no matter what technique you use, the best time to start is the present!

Tree of heaven

Tree of Heaven – source http://weeds.dpi.nsw.gov.au/Weeds/Details/142

Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus Altissima) is a plant of Chinese origin that is highly invasive and quickly chokes an area.  I have found one large plant and dozens of suckers in one of the old horse holding paddocks.  Mechanical removal requires the removal of all root matter as it will readily shoot from the smallest remaining root.  This will take concerted effort to get rid of, and will be best approached with a combination of mechanical and chemical methods.

Sweet Briar – (Rosa Rubiginosa) Is common in a lot of our paddocks.  Sheep eat young plants whilst goats will defoliate and ringbark the plants, killing it.  I have slashed a number of these plants in the paddock the sheep are in, hoping that the sheep will eat the young shoots as it re-sprouts.  Apparently cattle don’t eat Sweet Briar – meaning sheep stay part of the wholistic management process for this weed.

Hawthorn (Crataegus Monogyna) is also present but thankfully in only small numbers.  I will try to keep on top of the Hawthorn thickets and ensure they are mechanically slashed and see if the sheep will keep on top of the suckers.  The only catch to all this is I need to ensure my paddocks are sheep proof – and this will take additional work!

Serrated Tussock (Nassella Trichotoma) is common on our property.  It made its way to Australia during the Gold Rush of the 1850s where it was used as stuffing in saddles.  Not palatable for stock, it is most cost effectively controlled by spot spraying individual plants.  The main chemical, flupropanate can also be applied in a granular form using a device similar to a salt shaker.  The granules will activate in rain and provide a long term herbicide against re-germination of the plant, with minimal effect on other pasture, or it can be sprayed in a solution form.

Weed control is one of many competing demands on my time at the new Rock Farm – but I hope to have these plants under control and better managed within a year or so.  If anyone is keen to come and help me chip out some weeds, I’ll gladly shout you lunch!

Managing thistles on the new farm

We are quickly settling into our new property.  The house is starting to feel like a home, and the shed is slowly coming into order.  We might still be deciding where things will live, and I am sure we will rearrange everything a few more times before we are sorted.  We are so excited with the potential of this property – but there are a couple of jobs that can’t wait.

One of our paddocks (1.8 hectares or 4.5 acres) had a healthy crop of thistles green and actively growing.  The only animal I know of that eats thistles like this was Eeyore, of Winnie the Pooh fame.  These thistles were just starting to look ready to flower.  And Eeyore doesn’t live nearby.

One approach is to poison the thistles with a herbicide, but not wanting to broadcast chemicals over such a wide area, I decided to mechanically mulch the thistles.  This returns the nutrients to the ground, without killing off the microbes and earthworms in the soil.

All I needed was a little patch of rain to dampen the soil and reduce the risk of starting a bushfire.  And on 26th of December, a lovely 16mm of rain fell, giving me an opportunity to mulch the thistles with a much reduced fire risk.

Lucie the tractor and the mulcher made short work of most of the thistles.  In a few of the thicker stands, some stalks remained and a few days later appeared to be still growing, but over 95% of the thistles appear dead.

It is a bit of an experiment.  I don’t know what residual seed bank is in the soil, and how many thistles I will need to manage in this way in the future – but it is nice to try to do it without spraying harsh chemicals on the ground.

I also found the mulcher an extremely effective tool for removing any loose wire on the ground. 😦  Thankfully I only had to stop a couple of times to remove wire from around the drum – and I know have at least one paddock free of loose wire!

That job complete, it was time to get back to the important things of enjoying the summer holidays 🙂

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! 🙂

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!