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!

Mineral supplements for sheep

Australian soils are often described as ancient weathered soils,  poor in nutrient and often have very little organic matter.  Here on the Rock Farm, we take it to another level, with our Ordovican shale bedrock often just below the surface of our thin gravel based lithosols.

There is an old adage  that states ‘if you want to run ten sheep, you feed the sheep until you can run ten sheep’.   This means that the food you feed your sheep becomes the manure that increases your soil fertility until you can run ten sheep.  In essence, your sheep become a vital part of the composting cycle where the imported food is converted to fertilizer.

And when you feed your sheep, mustering becomes a whole heap easier, as they come running to you!

In this good wet winter, our problem isn’t enough food.  There is plenty of bulk in the native grasses at the Rock Farm, but like Burke and Wills, I didn’t want our sheep starving on full bellies.  With mineral deficiencies common, we are experimenting with a salt lick or mineral supplement block.

With the sheep and horses running in the same paddock, we had to pick a mineral supplement that doesn’t contain urea.  Most cattle and sheep supplements contain urea.  Urea is toxic to horses, due to the differences in the gut.  The urea provides nitrogen for the the microflora that lives in the ruminant (cattle and sheep).  Horses only have one stomach (like us), and the urea may cause non-protein nitrogen poisoning.

We put the lick out in the paddock, and soon had the sheep wandering up to check it out.  Actually they were checking out the bucket of oats – and looking for a feed.  The benefits of bucket mustering are obvious when they come when you call!

This is obviously a very broad solution to a specific problem.  With a bit more time and effort, we could put out a range of different specific minerals, and see which ones they take.  This will indicate strongly which minerals our land is deficient in.  We hope to get to this point in the future, but in the meantime, the scatter-gun approach will have to suffice.

As an aside, you can see the bands of dead grass in this photo.  The ground has been sprayed in preparation for planting of trees in spring.  Whilst I am generally against chemical use on the paddocks, this is the most effective way to establish trees.

We spread the oats around the lick.  The sheep crowded around it – and devoured the oats. I am not sure how long it will take them to work out the benefits of the mineral supplements now available to them.  We have gone back a couple of times over the past week to encourage the sheep to check out the lick.

I don’t know how successful this will be – but we will see.  Hopefully the sheep will seek out any mineral deficiencies they crave.  Any minerals their bodies don’t require will pass through the sheep and become part of the mineral bank in our soil.  It will take us time to work out what the best way to manage our resources on the Rock Farm… but that is what it is all about.

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/)