Life and death on the Rock Farm

Last weekend the family gave me an extremely valuable gift for Father’s Day… a certificate entitling me to a precious two hours of their time.  Two hours to get something done on the Rock Farm.  It was a wonderful gift, in the hectic mayhem of juggling school, sport, work and family time.

I figured two hours would be perfect to complete the most pressing requirement on the Rock Farm.  Marking our lambs.

Marking involves many steps.  We vaccinate the lambs, put in ear tags with our unique property code (colour coded for 2018), and put rubber rings around their tails and testicles.  Our yards are not ideal for this – being mainly set up to handle cattle – and we soon found some of the younger lambs were able to slip out the yards back into the paddock.

Our two hours passed quickly and we soon had marked most of the lambs.  I will need to catch up with the stragglers and sort them out soon.

This year we counted 20 lambs out of 11 ewes.  As one ewe was dry, this means that all of the lambs born were twins.  When we brought in the sheep, one poor little lamb was very weak, having either got separated or rejected by his mother.  I was hoping we wouldn’t have any poddy lambs this year, but we brought the little fellow up to the house and found the re-purposed baby bottle kept especially for occasions such as this.

The little fellow enthusiastically enjoyed his first warm drink in a long time, and we thought that we had saved him from the worst.

As cute as lambs are, the last thing you want is to keep them inside any longer than you need to get them dry and warm.  The Little Fisherman and I collected some old iron from the ‘resource centre’ and soon put together  a shelter in a little holding paddock adjoining the shed.  It was far more substantial than the old tarpaulin I had used to shelter our sick ewes a couple of weeks earlier – and I figured it would hopefully last a little longer too!

Back at the box in front of the fire, the Dachshund was only interested in licking any spilt milk off the lamb.  On the other hand, the Border Collie, Sapphire, wouldn’t let the lamb out of her sight.  She was adorable nursing the little fellow as we kept our fingers crossed.

Sadly the lamb never recovered his strength and passed away the following morning.  I don’t know why he was separated from his mother, but sometimes nature does these things for a reason.  Other times there are no reasons, and we just have to learn to accept them and move on.

They might not be easy lessons, but they are extremely valuable ones to share with our growing family.

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Rainy day

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Rock Farm Herds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The weather breaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A cold winter

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

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

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

DPI Drought Areas 31 Jul 18

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

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

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

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

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

Stockyards Rebuild – Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Happenings at the Rock Farm

I must admit I consider myself extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to share our beautiful property with my family.  One of my favourite times is when we get together as a family and do a bit of work on the Rock Farm.  It helps my kids understand a bit more about the joys and responsibilities of property ownership. As a bonus we get to spend some wonderful times together, and the recent school holidays allowed us to do exactly that.

Our first order of business was to replace a very tired (rotten) post, rail and wire fence.  The old timbers didn’t take much effort to push over, having all rotted off at the bases.  A new ring lock wire fence was soon strung between the existing strainer posts and our fence was again in sound order.  The added bonus was the old posts were nicely seasoned, so were promptly carted off to the firewood pile.  The only catch was they were full of nails and staples, requiring careful extraction before being cut into fire-sized pieces.

This load was also a good test for the new ‘wheelbarrow’ having recently replaced our almost indestructible (but obviously not) Mitsubishi Mirage.  The ‘new wheels’ are already earning their keep as a load hauler / work platform and ferry.

Jo managed to complete the first new portable chook-tractor.  This will form the basis for our new circular vegetable beds.  A relatively simple design, it is lightweight and easy to move.  The plan is for the chooks to do the hard work weeding and turning over the soil, before we then move them onto the next patch and plant vegetables.  We might have missed most of this growing season, but we are looking forward to establishing some vegetables soon.

We moved the sheep to greener pastures (paddock rotation).  During this process we found that sadly one of ewes had been killed by foxes, and another of our lambs was badly injured during the same attack.  We had to put the lamb down.  Thankfully the rest of the sheep were in good health, and after a few days ‘mowing’ our shed paddock, they were released back to the larger paddocks.

I also finally got around to installing a new weather station.  With Jo’s trade being a Meteorologist, having a good weather station has been high on her list of priorities for a while.  The challenge has been finding a place sufficiently close to the house that the signal will reach, whilst being far enough away to not be influenced by the house structure, trees or shed.  We settled on a compromise, but I had to fabricate a new post out of some old steel off-cuts to ensure the weather station is out of horse or cattle reach!  Time will tell if it is high enough!

It was also school holidays.  This meant that a good part of our time was spent doing the real important things you should do, as a family.  We decided that we would enjoy our very own ‘stay-cation’, and set up our swags on our neighbour’s big hill.  In fact it worked far better than I dared hope. We managed to get a good day’s work done on the farm, and after a quick shower in the house, we headed to the top of the world to enjoy dinner and a couple of drinks as the sun set.

Camping in our own back yard allowed us all to achieve something on the place, whether it be on the farm, in the garden, around the house or just chillax.  Importantly we also got to enjoy a couple of nights under the stars – as a family.  I can tell you it was priceless.

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.

 

Fencing and moving sheep

The new Rock Farm was set up originally to spell race horses.  As such its paddocks were all made with plain wire.  Later cattle were run on the property, and an electric wire or hot wire was installed.  Sadly running sheep wasn’t a concern, and we found very quickly that we would need to work on improving the fences quickly in order to rotate the sheep through the paddocks on the farm.

I have decided that the best thing I can do it work on a paddock at a time, and concentrate on making it stock proof.  I chose a 5.6 hectare paddock, that despite its small size has over 1 kilometre of fencing around its perimeter.   The first thing to do was remove the branches that had fallen on or were about to fall on the wires.

Ideally I will install a stock mesh on the fences, but for now the cheapest and easiest solution was to fix up the existing plain wire fences.

On some sections of fence I had to install a bottom wire through the bottom hole of the star picket.  This wire in most fences would  be at ground level, however these pickets are barely in the ground.  Every fourth post is a concrete post that has been dug into the ground, providing most of the stability required.  The wire spinner is invaluable when it comes to running out wire on your own.  We found this old one behind the shed and after replacing the timbers and a few days soaking in WD40 it was restored to normal operation.

In other sections of the fence, the bottom wire was broken.  This required me to join wires and strain the sections.  One of the best knots for joining wire is called the ‘Figure of 8’, for obvious reasons.  For some reason, I found it difficult to make, having to really think through it every time I made it.  It is a great knot as it doesn’t reduce the wire’s strength.  Thankfully I got better as the day went on.

Image result for figure of 8 fencing knot

Edit – The image above shows the correct figure 8 knot… it seems I didn’t get it right after all….

Source:   https://www.kencove.com/fence/100_Fence+Construction_resource.php

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To strain the wire tight I used an old set of Hayes wire strainers.  The design of these strainers hasn’t changed in over 100 years.  They are simple, reliable and need very little maintenance.  The amount of purchase you can achieve with these strainers is immense, and once you have the technique, they are incredibly versatile.  I went around the paddock, straining the bottom two wires, which are the ones the sheep will put the most pressure on.

And then it was a simple case of bringing the sheep in.  A nice bucket of fresh oats, and a few loud “C’m’on” they came running… well almost.

Seventeen of Nineteen sheep followed me excitedly to the new paddock.

One ewe and her lamb eyed the open gate with suspicion and disappeared back into the paddock.  I have had a run in with this ewe before – she was particularly difficult to muster when we moved here.  In case of such an eventuality I had the boys ready on their four stroke steeds, and I thought they would have her rounded up in no time.

I was wrong.  For the next hour and a half all the whole family was pressed into service to try and push her out of her paddock.  And she refused.  Just as I was on the point of finding a very permanent solution for her lack of motivation, she must have read my thoughts.  She trotted through the gate calmly as you like, and continued up the lane and into the new paddock.

By then it was already well past 30 degrees, and the forecast for the following day was going to be just shy of 40 degrees.  We decided that the Rock Farm could do without us for a day, and decided to take the next day off and make a dash to the coast.

As much fun as swimming in the dam on the Rock Farm is, it doesn’t beat the salt water waves of the coast.  Sometimes you just gotta take a road trip!