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.

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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.

 

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!

Marking Spring Lambs

Spring is a glorious time on the Rock Farm.  Blossoms are on the trees, the slow combustion stove is finally allowed to go out and is laid up for summer, and lambs are frolicking in the paddocks.

These gorgeous animals require little in the way of health and welfare checks – but even such low maintenance sheep as Wiltipolls require some intervention.  And when the city cousins come to stay, it provides the perfect opportunity to bring in the lambs.

It is always a good idea to stay abreast of best practice – particularly for something we only do once a year.  After a quick brush up on the animal welfare standards, we were ready to go.  The standards are available online at:   http://www.animalwelfarestandards.net.au/sheep/

Marking lambs is a necessary part of raising sheep.  The lambs receive important vaccinations and are drenched.  The males are castrated, and all lambs have their tails docked.  All the other sheep receive vaccination boosters and are drenched too.

We use rubber bands to castrate the males and dock the tails.  This is the most humane and cost effective option available to hobby farmers.

The vaccine we chose prevents clostridial diseases in cattle and sheep such as Tetanus.  These diseases are frequently fatal.  They are caused by anaerobic bacteria and are widespread in the environment – especially in the soil.  Protection is provided when all the herd is vaccinated.

We also drenched the sheep with a triple combination drench.  The product we chose provides protection against gastro-intestinal roundworms, lungworm, Nasal Bot and Itch Mite.  It also provides important trace minerals such as selenium and cobalt, often deficient in Australian spoil.

Cell grazing is another technique to reduce the worm burden in sheep or other livestock.  Whilst I would love to develop a cell grazing system on the Rock Farm, this requires a significant investment in fencing and is still a few years away at this stage.

The final job was to put an ear tag in our lambs.  These tags are marked with our unique Property Identification Code (PIC), and will stay on these lambs for life.  This, in combination with movement declarations, ensures a full audit trail for livestock movements in Australia.  The ear tags are also colour coded, and 2017 lambs will wear a white ear tag, allowing easy identification and sorting of stock based on age.

A couple of likely lads also decided to take a couple of tags.  They politely declined my offer to put a tag in their ears, but did agree to marking their hats!

And so our marking was quickly over.  We let the sheep settle in the yards for a couple of hours with some delicious oats before we released them back into their paddock.  All done – until next year 🙂

Biosecurity Plan

I recently received in the mail a letter informing me that I was required to develop a biosecurity plan for the Rock Farm.  This is part of the Livestock Production Assurance (LPA) program, which Australian meat producers are encouraged to participate in.

Whilst at first glance, it looks like a huge administrative burden (and cost) to be an accredited supplier, it really is little more than common sense and good practice wrapped up in a simple form.

Under the Livestock Assurance Program, each property has a unique Property Identification Code (PIC).  The Rock Farm is no exception.  All animals born on The Rock Farm are tagged with a special tag that contains our PIC.  When they are sold, or transferred to another property, we must fill out a National Vendor Declaration.  This allows a full audit trail of livestock movements across the country.

LPA service centre snapshot

Producers who choose to become LPA accredited agree to carry out on farm practices that feed into and support the integrity of the entire system. There are seven requirements:

  • Property risk assessments
  • Safe and responsible animal treatments
  • Stock foods, fodder crops, grain and pasture treatments
  • Preparation for dispatch of livestock
  • Livestock transactions and movements
  • Biosecurity
  • Animal Welfare

It can all seem a little overwhelming to a small scale producer like me, but there is an excellent online training package put together by the PLA.  It is also supported by templates and other reference material to help ensure that all requirements are met.

I am pleased to be a part of this process that helps me improve our farm practices, enhances animal welfare and supports and strengthens the industry as a whole.

Mineral supplement update 

A few weeks in and the Pat Coleby inspired mineral supplement station is working well at the Rock Farm.  The sheep have been nibbling away at the mineral salt and copper supplements, but have completely devoured the sea-weed meal.

Through this process, I am slowly identifying which minerals the Rock Farm is deficient in.  By providing minerals for the sheep, I am relying on them to select what they need and distribute the mineral wealth of the supplements throughout the paddock, thereby slowly improving the soil on the Rock Farm.

Seaweed is naturally rich in Iodine, but it also contains so many other minerals.  It is also not available at my local rural supplier.  So in desperation, I selected a different product, to get the sheep through until I can find some more sea-weed meal.

Whilst it wasn’t as popular as the seaweed meal, the sheep did seem to nibble it and continue to seek the mineralised salt.

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So things continue on the Rock Farm.  The sheep are looking forward to some fresh spring grass, new lambs continue to drop and life is good.

Desperate race for survival – Lambing

A couple of weeks ago I was jumping for joy with our first precious lamb of the season.  There is something uplifting about seeing a new lamb frolic, with a proud mother standing by.  It is also a sign that perhaps the worst of winter is over and we are approaching spring.

But lambing is also often associated with a bitter break in the weather, and this week has been no exception.  With barely 10mm recorded in the gauge since Christmas, we are just coming out of two days of solid cold wet miserable rain.  And right in the thick of it was born our fourth lamb.

The ewes have plenty of shelter in their middle paddock, but as I am also supplementing their feeding with oaten hay, they tend to hang around the top paddock a bit.  Whilst we have planted trees in this paddock, they barely provide a twig to shelter behind.  There are solid windbreaks on two sides, but it is still exposed.  On chilly mornings, it is the first paddock to catch the sun, and being the highest part of the property, it is popular with the ewes escaping the chilly air that sinks to the lower parts.

But when the sun doesn’t come out – and the rain is steady, it can be a miserable place to be.

And sadly this is where I thought I found our fourth lamb…  but as I approached her, she kicked, and I thought we might have a chance.

Her only chance of survival was to bring her inside and warm her up.  Unfortunately I had to go to work, so my highly talented multi-tasking wife Jo was called upon to work her magic.


In no time at all the lamb was dry and warming inside the house, where chaos was reigning supreme.  Extra kids, extra puppies and now and extra lamb were staying in our little house.  Jo dug out the poddy lamb bottles and prepared to face a two hour feeding regime overnight.  But at the first feeding it was apparent we had a battle on our hands.

Sadly the lamb passed away not long after we brought her inside.

It was a sad moment for all of us.  The poor little lamb barely had a chance, but this is the struggle many of them face when born during atrocious weather.

Thankfully the other lambs are all looking healthy and we will keep our fingers crossed they all grow to be tough and hardy sheep – who can perhaps delay their lambing by a month or so.

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.

Breakfast at The Rock Farm

There is something delightful about frosty mornings, with clear skies and the promise of a glorious winters day.  Winter is one of my favourite times of the year on The Rock Farm.  Today, the first day of winter, was a perfect example of my ideal day.

Unfortunately winter also means our grasses stop growing and our stock start feeling hungry. With such a dry autumn, our feed levels were really low before winter began. It means our sheep are hungry.

So much so that the sight of me with a bucket has them coming running for breakfast.

The link below takes you to a hilarious YouTube video of them running to me. I will try to embed it to the site also – but at the moment posting videos from my phone is beyond my skills. 🙂

Video:  Breakfast on The Rock Farm

It also makes for an interesting stand off between the ram, and the dog, who might look like a sheep dog but is really a Labrador in disguise.

Breakfast is best served in the yards. It makes for easy mustering as the sheep happily file in for a meal.  Should I need to conduct a welfare check on any of the stock, I know that they are easy to catch, and their stress is minimised.

It is a glorious wonderful celebration of all that is good with the world. Have I ever said how much I love living on The Rock Farm?

You’ll Never Lamb Alone 2017

Meat and Livestock Australia have just released their annual Australia Day ad.  And love it or hate it, it is definitely worth a watch.

The MLA has been trying for many years now to create a tradition of eating lamb on Australia day.  As a lamb producer (albeit on an extremely small scale), there are many virtues to eating grass-fed lamb, not the least being it tastes delicious.

But the MLA’s attempt at being inclusive of all Australians has been (and continues to be) full of cultural stereotypes.  This ad is their most political yet – it doesn’t even mention Australia Day.  But it isn’t supposed to be serious.  It is supposed to sell lamb.

One thing Australians are renowned for is our ability to laugh, and that includes laughing at ourselves.  So have a look, and enjoy.