Spring Update – It doesn’t always go to plan….

With the Bureau officially declaring another La-Nina year, we are looking forward to another wet year here on the Rock Farm. It means our tanks and dam will be full, the grass will grow, and we will be able to carry our cattle through to autumn. It also means another great year to establish trees and keep working on improving our natural capital.

Whilst this blog may be a little slow to get updates, it doesn’t mean we have been sitting idly on the Rock Farm. There have been lots of different activities keeping us busy. Some planned, some not planned, but all keeping us busy, fit and challenged.

Our beautiful cows, including the four maiden heifers all calved without any difficulty this year, giving us 16 gorgeous calves. With 10 heifers, 6 bull calves, we were thrilled with the result. The antics of the calves are constantly entertaining, and I am happy to admit I spend more time than I should with these creatures. They are naturally shy, but with their quiet mums watching by, their curiosity overcomes their fears, and we have been quite close to several of them.

Once all the calves were on the ground, we marked them. They all received a multi-spectrum 5-in1 vaccination, and we castrated the males (with rubber rings). The good news was that all the calves were polled, meaning we don’t have to de-horn any of them (which is a job I hate). The calves will get another booster vaccine in a few weeks to protect them from the common clostridial diseases found in cattle.  We also took the opportunity to audit the NLIS ear tags in each of the cows. This ensures that our records are accurate and up to date, should a biosecurity event such as Foot and Mouth disease enter Australia.

In other news we have continued our work dividing our paddocks into smaller cells. Taking the opportunity presented by creating a nature reserve in one paddock, we completed a small section of fence to divide the paddock into two smaller paddocks. This will help us better manage grazing in this area, continuing our Savory rotational grazing system.

We are continuing to plant trees on the Rock Farm. A friend kindly gave us 120 Cork Oak (Quercus Suber) seedlings. We have planted these in two main areas, to create wind breaks. These medium oaks are ever green, drought hardy and long lived. They are native to the Mediterranean area, and forests are carefully managed as these oaks provide the corks in wine bottles and the centre of cricket balls. We will use temporary electric fence to protect these seedlings in the short term before we build permanent tree guards. Huge thank you to Noel for his donation of these little beauties.

The sharp eyed among you would note in the background our Amarok ute has been replaced with white Hilux. Sadly our Amarok was written off after a particularly nasty pot hole cracked a suspension mount. Whilst our insurance company has been outstanding, they are finding it difficult to replace our ute. It was unexpected (I thought a suspension bush had failed) and whilst I am grateful for the loan of the Hilux with a tub body, it sure is a different set up to our old flat tray. I find it particularly awkward and impractical for our purposes and can’t wait for our replacement vehicle to get here.

It hasn’t been our year for mechanical devices on the Rock Farm. Our dear old Benz 911 truck Myrtle, suffered a catastrophic engine failure after I took it across our creek in deep water to retrieve the family from the other side. Whilst the air intake was above the water level, I hadn’t countered on the funnel effect which forced water up to the top of the radiator and into the top of the engine. The engine came to a complete stop. After dragging it out of the creek and to the shed with the tractor my worst fears were realised when I pulled the injectors and still couldn’t get the engine to turn over. This was of course no easy process, requiring the fabrication of two Benz ‘special tools’.

Whilst the OM352 engine fitted to Myrtle is common around the world, there aren’t many in Australia. There are a couple of turbo charged variants available (OM352A) but are expensive. I happened to mention my dilemma to our neighbour and he offered an engine from a spare truck at his place. It is an OM366 – which has the same block. It won’t be a straight swap – I will have to get creative – but the engine is far more affordable – and promises 60 extra horses! It might not make Myrtle any faster, but it might not slow down as much on hills! It hadn’t run in a few years, but after hooking up some new batteries, it fired up straight away – so is the path we are pursuing for now.

It means that any spare time I thought I had has been well and truly accounted for. I do love the challenges of the Rock Farm. From getting my hands dirty in the ground planting trees and chipping weeds, to working stock, to solving mechanical problems, it does stretch me. I might not love every minute of it all – but I wouldn’t swap it for the world…

Calving and a big dump of rain!

Calving is without a doubt my favourite time of year. It isn’t without its challenges, and requires twice daily (or more) checks just to make sure all is going to plan. As I write we have 13 beautiful calves on the ground, with a couple more stil to calve. The cows seem to understand what we are up to with our regular checks and seem quite happy with our presence. We only have one maiden heifer, and she gave birth to a bull calf without any issues which was a great relief. Regular readers will recall that Daisy had some difficulty calving last year, and despite my misgivings, remained on the farm. She hasn’t calved yet – indeed she might not even be in calf – but we are watching her closely.

Our gorgeous cows are lovely and quiet, however the new mums can be understandably a little more cautious around us. Over the past few years, any cow that has shown any form of aggression has been sold. That said, there are a couple who quitely let us know with a gentle shake of the head that we have approached close enough. We don’t put any more pressure on them. By sitting down a short distance away, those who want to come up and say hello are able to… and they sure make us smile.

We are calving a little earlier than last year. Whilst the soil moisture is great, the rain has reduced the solar gain on the pastures and hence grass growth is a little less than we expected. We are throwing out a bit of pasture hay, and are providing a magnesium lick to the cattle to support their nutrition requirements.

It is an unusually wet year, with the end of last week culminating in the largest flood waters we have seen on our creek since moving in. Our previous flood record was measured to the base of our front gate post. This most recent flood covered the gate and has fiven us a new height datum. A day of steady rain was followed by a sharp 30mm shower as the sun set. The resultant rise in the creek was mirrored with flooding throughout the district, with several roads cut. The family were safely marooned at home, and I ended up staying in town after work.

The following day the creek dropped, and required a bit of work to clear some of the debris off the crossing. Our neighbour was home and cleared the worst of it (thanks Stuart), allowing me to get home that evening. The following day, we continued to drag silt and logs off the drive way. The size of the timber moved downstream by the flood waters was phenomenal. Sadly several trees were ripped out of the creek banks. I haven’t yet established the extent of the damage, but I do know we have lost some creek bank, new trees and a temporary fence. Over the next week or two we will look rebuilding our flood gates and making the front paddock stock proof again.

It is all part of the cycle of the water way. For all the extra work the creek creates, it adds so much more to our property and we consider it an asset to the Rock Farm.

In the meantime, I will keep hanging out with the cows and enoying their company. It is good for the soul!

Special thanks to Stuart for clearing the debris so I could get home and to the Not-So-Little Helper for his amazing photos.

Improving water infrastructure

You may recall that I recently spoke of the difficulties in leaving the Rock Farm for a few days. The preparations to depart on a holiday can be challenging – especially with livestock who have an uncanny ability to know when they’re unsupervised! I won’t continue the similarities with livestock and children, suffice to say they both seem to know when the adults are not around!

In January we managed to get away for a week. Our holiday was wonderful, but it wasn’t all good when we got home. The Cattle had managed to destroy the float valve in the old bathtub water trough in their paddock. Whilst the backup water supply in the dam held water, it was apparent I needed to upgrade the old bath tub to something more substantial.

With another family visit to Queensland on the cards at Easter, I knew it was time to make a significant change to our water situation. It was a two part solution. Reducing demand and improving the infrastructure.

The first stage was to reduce demand through the sale of our weaners. With special weaner sales at our local yards, we sold all our steers and some of our heifers. The young steers weighed a surprising 290kg average – far exceeding my 250kg estimate. We kept four heifers to add to our herd and sold the rest. This takes our breeding cows to 20. This is well within our soil fertility envelope (next blog entry) – but close to my comfortable maximum.

With the proceeds of the sale being, I moved to the second stage, infrastructure upgrade. My plan was to install a new concrete water trough to provide a more reliable water supply. I also wanted to move the trough down hill from the header tank – to provide better water pressure and improve reliability. I figured it would be easy to find the pipe… but how wrong I was.

My water divining rods suggested one place to dig… and then another. By the end of it I had followed pipes all over the place and dug trenches all to no avail. I spent nearly all day digging an ever expanding trench. The dog soon realised that to get my attention, she needed to drop her stick in the hole for me to throw it… There was a very dark cloud hanging over The Rock Farm as the shadows lengthened. In desperation I ran the tractor’s ripper back and forth – but it didn’t seem to find the pipe either. In frustration, I called it a night.

The following morning, I reluctantly returned to the scene of my digging to find water everywhere! The rippers had just run across the top of the pipe! I have never been so happy to find a broken pipe. I quickly turned the pump off, and raced to the rural supply shop to pick up the new trough and fittings.

From there it was relatively easy. My biggest worry was that the tractor would struggle to lift the 730kg water trough out of the trailer, but that was no problem at all. After a bit of work with the levels (and the astute eyes will see I still have a little work to do), it was relatively easy to plumb in the new fittings, repair the leak and fill the trough.

The cattle are happy with the new arrangement. Whilst some studies suggest they perform better on clean trough water instead of water from dams, my main aim was to reduce my maintenance requirements. It was not a cheap investment – but it should last a lifetime.

More trees for the Rock Farm

My first lockdown project was addressing an immediate need for nesting sites for birds that naturally nest in hollows. The second lockdown project has a much longer timeframe before we will see the rewards. Instead of building nesting boxes for trees, we were planting tube-stock trees to restore native habitat and control erosion on the Rock Farm. With a nearby nursery specialising in local species, and a forecast wet spring, the conditions seemed ideal for us to continue our efforts in planting trees.

We were fortunate to secure 110 native tube stock plants from Damien at ACT and Southern Tablelands Nursery (https://windbreaktrees.com.au/). Our plants ranged from Red Box (E. polyanthemos) and Yellow Box (E. melliodora), to others such as Grey Box (E. microcarpa), Apple Box (E. bridgesiana) and other native trees that are being trialed in our area. Given our short notice, we sadly didn’t get any Drooping Sheoak (Allocasuarina verticillata), one of the key food sources for the Glossy Black Cockatoo.

Over the next couple of days Jo and I put our tubestock in the ground. We again found the Hamilton Tree Planter invaluable, however many holes also needed a good working over with the crow-bar to open up the ground for the tap roots to penetrate. Each tree was then provided a scoop or two of mulch, and then protected, either with a tree guard or with cut branches. It was exhausting work, and whilst there are easier ways to plant trees en-masse, we were able to get them placed where we wanted for best effect.

The last couple of trees we planted we learnt about on a lap around the country a few years ago. We planted three Bunya Pines (Araucaria bidwillii) as the rain came down. Whilst they occur naturally in the Bunya Mountains in SE Queensland, there are some magnificent specimens of this tree in our region that pre-date European settlement. The Bunya Mountains was a site of many great meetings of the indigenous people for thousands of years. At these corroborees, held when the trees bore nuts every three years or so, law was made, disputes settled, marriages arranged and the seeds from the tree dispersed. It seemed that the weather wanted these trees to have the best possible start with a good shower of rain falling as we put the last ones in the ground. We might have been cold and wet, but my heart was singing.

It was extremely rewarding work, and whilst my back and shoulders were sore, I know my aches will be temporary. I hope that these trees will grow and provide shade, shelter and habitat for our native friends on the Rock Farm, whilst protecting our soil. As I sat back watching the sun set after the last tree was planted, nature put on a spectacular light show. I am sure it is a good omen.

A huge thank you to Damien at ACT and Southern Tablelands Nursery (https://windbreaktrees.com.au/) for his excellent quality tube-stock and advice. If you want one tree, or a hundred, Damien will be able to help you pick the one you need.

Helping birds with nesting boxes

Whilst the Rock Farm is blessed with many hundreds of trees, only a handful of our trees are large old trees, with all important nesting hollows for our native birds.  Hollow logs and branches take literally hundreds of years to form – and are prized by native birds for nesting.  With our young areas of re-growth promising excellent habitat in the future,  we thought we would lend our birds a helping hand.

One way to assist native birds, even in an area with as many trees as ours, is to build nesting boxes.  They replicate the hollows that take so long to form.  There is a wealth of information online, with plans freely available.  There is also a significant amount of science involved too, with the size of the box, the entry diameter and other features critical for many species.

We armed with this excellent publication from the Local Land Services (available online here: http://greatersydney.lls.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/656610/GS-LLS-Wildlife-Nest-Box-2016_Final-Accessible.pdf).  With our heads full of plans and ideas it was time to get building.

The boys had a look around the Rock Farm Resource Centre  – also known as Dad’s Shed, and we found some old flooring that was looking for a new purpose.

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This was to be the boy’s own project.  In the interests of expediency (I was looking forward to an afternoon nap) I might have cheated and run the timber through the bench saw to cut it, but I was working to their design.  The old adage of measure twice and cut once was in force… but soon there was so much pencil lines on the boards it was hard to tell which ones to cut!

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The boy’s initial thoughts were that this would be easy… but like all good plans, they soon realised that assembling the boxes would take a little effort.  I told them they couldn’t use glue – so it was hammer and nails only.  The Little Helper found his soft oregon boards were easy to work, but the Little Fisherman regretted his selection of thick hardwood boards.  He ended up pre-drilling his holes, and only broke one drill bit in the process.

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To their credit, I only was used to hold things together a couple of times.  The bench saw made small adjustments easy and before long we had a couple of neat little boxes ready to hang in the trees.

The best way to secure the boxes to the trees is via two bugle headed screws.  This causes far less damage to the tree than tying wire around the branch.  We mounted the boxes in a Scribbly Gum (Eucalyptus Haemastoma).  We are just now waiting for our first guests to move in!

It was a wonderful way to spend a morning with my gorgeous boys.  They learnt a few new skills, and as a bonus, we get to help a few little birds get a head start.

I’m not the only one with projects

With always something to do on the Rock Farm, it is inevitable that the Little Helpers want to get involved.  Sometimes they take it even further, and decide that they would rather work on their own projects.  They frequently have projects on the go, and I must admit that I had forgotten how fortunate they are.

In New York, they are creating an Adventure Playground for kids – and I think it looks a lot like the Rock Farm.  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/29/nyregion/on-governors-island-mountains-of-junk-where-children-find-adventure.html

Whilst some of their ideas are inspired by such wonderful books as “The Dangerous Book for Boys, by Conn Igguiden, many are their own creation.

I am a big fan of the boys getting their hands dirty.  I have a good collection of hand tools, old timber and various ‘resources’ others might term ‘junk’.  The boys know which tools they’re allowed to use, and which ones they need to ask permission for.

I must admit I occasionally get nervous when they ask to borrow my tools.  I am working on solving that one, by buying them some tools of their own.  They like nothing more than using their tools to help me with my projects.

Last year they decided that they would make some bows.  It was a good fun activity, but the Rock Farm is distinctly lacking in Yew, meaning that we used wattle and then pine branches to make our bows.

It didn’t work out too well.

Other jobs the boys have taken on is the construction of a ladder into their cubby house.  I might have provided a little bit of guidance, as the Little Helpers don’t tend to use tools such as tape measures or pencils too much.

Most hand tools are pretty safe to use.  The worst the kids will do is cut themselves.  It is modern power tools that scare me.  A circular saw will take off a thumb in the blink of an eye.  I love seeing them get out there and use the traditional tools.

But of course, with all things, the kids need adequate supervision.

You might be able to do it all in New York… but I’m happy enough knowing that we have all we need right here 🙂

Pump woes on the Rock Farm

One of the joys of living on a rural property is beautiful fresh rainwater stored in your own tank.  The water tastes fresh, is free from chemical impurities and is deliciously soft.  It is your water, and you can use as much or as little of it as you like.  The consequences of your usage are yours alone to deal with.  It is a wonderful part of living on your small farm.

Until your pump dies.   And then you need to get it fixed. Quickly.

We were in a fortunate position that our pump gave us warning it was on the way out.  It would fail to operate, and a simple reset by turning it off and on again would fix it.  For a while at least.  When the interval between resets became daily, it was time to take action.

Davey Pumps were called, and their technical department were most helpful.  They told me that the most likely culprit was the pressure switch in the controller.  The type of controller we had fitted hadn’t been made in around 20 years, giving us some indication of the age of the pump.

I was advised to take the pump to a repair agent, where the pump could be bench tested.  One phone call later, and the pump was booked in the following morning for a thorough inspection.

The pump was easy enough to remove.  The worst bit was the cold fingers on the chilly morning easing the pipe fittings from the pump.

And in no time at all, the pump was in a tub on its way to town for inspection.

After a few hours, I was told that the pump itself was in good condition, however the controller was indeed stuffed.  Thankfully the new controllers are compatible with the older pumps, meaning we were able to fit the new controller.  A few minutes work and some new plumbing tape and the pump was reinstalled and working a charm.

This little process taught me the value of buying a quality Australian made pump, particularly for critical components such as house water.  The service and support offered was excellent, and instead of buying a complete replacement unit, I was able to save a small fortune by buying just the component I needed.

I am looking forward to another twenty years of trouble free water supply 🙂

Water Water – Improving a watering system

When we moved to the Rock Farm, our garden was irrigated by dam water, pumped by a petrol pump.  To water the garden, we would have to walk down to the dam with a can of petrol, and try to start the pump.  More often than not, the pump would be hard to start and our garden would be left parched and dry for another day.

The first step was to give the petrol pump a service, and to build a small shelter or pump house for the pump.  This helped considerably, and the pump is now far easier to start.  But it was still a long way from the house, and turning a tap on to water the garden required a considerable effort.

Water water - Improving an irrigation system

Petrol pumps are useful for moving large volumes quickly, but are tiresome when used to water gardens

Something had to be done, and we decided on a two-phase approach.  The first phase was to install a header tank up near the house, with an electric pump on it that could water the garden on demand.  The second phase was to replace the petrol pump with a solar pump and ball valve that would keep the header tank full at all times.

The most cost-effective tank for its size is the 5 000 gallon / 22 500 litre poly tank, and we ordered one from our local rural supplier.  It arrived a week or so later and was carefully placed (dropped) from the truck on my leveled site.  Thankfully I was able to move the tank into the right position with a couple of ropes and the four-wheel drive.

Water water - Improving an irrigation system

Positioning the water tank – using four-wheel assistance

The plan was for the existing piping system to remain largely unchanged.  A short extension was added from the 2 inch feeder pipe to allow the tank to be filled by the existing petrol pump.  I needed a mechanism to bypass the new electric pump, so I added a  few valves to allow me to fill the tank, and then run the electric pump from the tank back into the piping system.

Water water - Improving an irrigation or garden watering system

Plumbing inspector checks the scope of work

It took a while and a few attempts to get the piping installed and checked for leaks.  In the configuration below, the petrol pump on the dam can be run to fill the tank.  Once the tank is filled, I can then switch two valves and use the electric pump to irrigate the garden.

Water water - Improving an irrigation or garden watering system

Testing for leaks – always a nervous moment… can you spot the little drip?

The fittings I used are good quality, but decidedly expensive.  The pump is a cheap one, but easily replaced should I need to.  I have found cheap fittings don’t last, but have had good luck with the cheaper pumps.  To give the pump a bit of protection from the weather, I also built a small shelter for it.

Water water - Improving an irrigation or garden watering system

Building the pump shelter

We leave the power switched off and the tank isolated when not in use, as we have a few leaks in the irrigation system that I am still working through.  That said, it is much easier for us to open a valve and turn on the power to have water on demand in our garden.

Water water - Improving an irrigation or garden watering system

All done

During the peak of summer, we were able to water our garden every couple of days, without the difficulties of starting the old petrol pump.  We found that because we could use the water easily, we did use the water, and we were able to nurse new fruit trees through the worst of the summer without loss.

Water water - Improving an irrigation or garden watering system

And now water restrictions are lifted, we can use the water for all sorts of important things, like seasoning new swags!

The second phase of our plan – the solar pump on the dam – has been relegated to the bottom of the priority list for the next few years.  The little Honda pump keeps working away without fault, and now I am only running it once or twice a month, my tolerance and patience with it is much less likely to wear out.  It also provides a good redundancy in case of bush fire.

Water water - Improving an irrigation or garden watering system

Old faithful gains a reprieve!