Monday, January 31, 2011

The mulcher (I love mulch!)

We bought the mulcher when we moved to our new property and had hundreds of small wattle trees (weeds) to cut down to allow better pasture to grow for our cattle.  With all the trees felled we didn’t want to light a huge fire and decided that mulching would be a better option.  We bought a large, petrol-motor powered mulcher off ebay and waited impatiently for it to arrive (we always worry with ebay that it won't turn up at all!).

We bought the mulcher on ebay
It is great fun making mulch and so good for the garden!  Mulch helps the soil to retain water and keeps the plant’s roots cool.  As it breaks down, it adds organic matter to the soil.  It also keeps weeds down.  I couldn't garden without mulch, as the clay soil here would just dry up and go as hard as concrete, so the more mulch we can pile on, the better!

Before we had the mulcher, we used to buy mulch hay from a local farmer for $10/round bale.  This also did a good job, but we can't get it anymore.  We have also used sugar-cane mulch and wood shavings, but these become very expensive options and we needed something we could make ourselves to keep the cost down.  As we have such a good supply of saplings still, the mulcher should keep us going for a while yet!

Last weekend we decided to do a final tidy up of the front paddock and cut down all the remaining saplings and loaded them onto the car trailer.  We then spent about 4 hours mulching.  My husband cuts the branches into suitable sizes and I push them through the mulcher.  We had a very nice pile of mulch by the end of it, which I spread around the outside of the vege garden and on the internal paths.

For tidying up AND keeping a nice supply of  mulch, the mulcher has been the perfect solution, so if you have plenty of unwanted saplings, I absolutely recommend buying or hiring mulcher. 

BEFORE MULCHING: There's a car trailer under that pile!

AFTER MULCHING: The pile of mulch ready for the garden
Spreading the mulch on the garden - you can never have too much mulch!

More on mulch here and here.

Do you use mulch?  What kind do you use?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Chicks are hatching.....

In the end, our new incubator has not lived up to expectations, with only 3 chicks hatched out of 48 eggs.  We suspect a combination of old roosters/hens, wet and not so fresh eggs and getting used to the new incubator (the instructions are in badly translated Chinese-English, so some parts we had to guess!).  Anyway, we will be putting in another batch of eggs in the next couple of weeks to try again, so rather than dwell on our lack of success, I’d like to share some observations of the chicks so far.   

First chick out!
The chicks were each moved from the incubator and into the brooder box about a day after they hatched, so that they could start eating and drinking.  The brooder box is a wooden box with a light bulb in it to keep the temperature around 38°C (unfortunately we can’t buy the old-style light bulbs any more and will have to buy a proper heat bulb soon when our supply of the old ones runs out).  In the box we put a small feeder full of “chicken raiser” crumbles and a small water dispenser.  We don’t know yet if they are hens of roosters, that should be apparent in a couple of weeks when they have more feathers (we’ve never mastered the method of looking at their behinds, but here's how you can work it out when they're older).
First chick into the brooder box and eating already.
It always amazes me how feisty and bold the chicks are when they first hatch, considering how tiny they are, they are certainly not helpless babies.  They are very attentive and quick to learn when we show them how to eat by tapping on crumbles on the floor of their box.  You can see them looking at your finger and copying the action.  One chick hatched a few days before the others and I was worried about putting the smaller chicks in the box in case they were picked on.  In fact the opposite was the case, with the larger chick scared in the corner of the box and the smaller two pecking him at first until they settled down and are now getting on ok.   The most alarming aspect of the chicks is their habit of falling asleep anywhere in their box and looking as if they have dropped dead!    

Sleeping chicks often look like they've just dropped dead!
We had a power cut for 10 minutes while the chicks were hatching and my husband and I ran around putting blankets on the incubator to try to keep them warm.  This has made us realise how important electricity is to keeping all our systems running and we will be looking at securing our electricity independence as we frequently have cuts for several hours during the summer storm season.  This will start with a generator and one day extend to something more sophisticated. 

I’ll keep updating the progress of the chicks.  We hope to have some roosters so that we can have roast chicken again (we hate buying the supermarket ones, just don’t trust the conditions they’ve been raised/processed in) and I’ll do a blog on how to dress a rooster.  And maybe also some decent pullets to replace some of our older hens.   Any advice/thoughts about chicks, hatching and incubating?   

Read more about what we've learnt about incubating chicken eggs here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

My top five veges for beginner gardeners

I have only been gardening for about 3 years, but I have tried growing quite a few different veges and found some easier and more rewarding that others.  This is a list of my top 5 favourites for beginners in a sub-tropical climate:

Silver beet - surprisingly tasty

1. Silver Beet
This is a surprising one, as I never ate it before I had a garden, but it was the thing I missed the most when we first moved house and I had no garden.  Once established, silver beet keeps going for months (in this climate anyway).  We usually have about 6 mature plants in the garden at a time, which provides a couple of leaves for our dinner each night and extra as a treat for the chickens.  Even when veges in the supermarket are between seasons and expensive, we can always top up a meal with a few leaves of silver beet.

This cherry tomato is growing
out of my compost bin

2. Cherry Tomatoes
While the large tomatoes have proven to be delicate, disease-prone and attacked by fruit fly, the little cherry tomatoes have had no such trouble.  They just keep going no matter what!  In the last garden we had one large rambling plant that I tried to contain in a circle of mesh, but it was always escaping.  Now I have a small, well-controlled plant in a pot and get heaps of tiny tomatoes from it all year.  The extras go into the freezer whole and get thrown into stews and pasta sauces.  In the last garden I had cherry tomatoes coming up all around the garden from the rotten fruit that I didn't get a chance to pick, so they are very easy to cultivate.

Poor Man's Beans can grow up to 10cm long if you don't find them in time!
Poor Man's Beans are easy to grow and produce lots of beans.
3. Poor Man's Beans (Dolichos Lablab)
I don't think you can even buy this one in the shops.  Its a large climbing bean that seems to keep growing for years, dying back in winter and returning in spring.  Mine is currently covered in beans.  The string beans growing next to the Poor Man's are in poor condition this year, destroyed by slugs, but the Poor Man's seems more hardy.  The current plant was grown from seeds saved from the last garden, so its easy to cultivate too.  Between the beans and the sliver beet, we always have something green for dinner!

Spring onions are planted between other veges,
the lettuce is the in background (starting to seed)
4. Spring Onions
I have tried and failed to grow underground onions, however I have never had any trouble with spring onions.  We have them in the garden all year and pick as needed.  When they get big they grow seed heads, which I just cut off when they are ready and the onion is still ok to eat later.  The next crop is then easily grown from this seed, so you have onions forever!

5 Cos-type Lettuce
My mother-in-law gave me some lettuce seeds for our first garden, so I don't even know exactly what type they are, but they are perfectly suited to hot and humid conditions.  They are a non-hearting Cos-type lettuce. The best part is that the seedlings some up within a couple of days of planting and you literally get hundreds in a pot, so they are very easy to cultivate and there's plenty for the chickens too, this is very encouraging for the beginner!  They go to seed after a while, but that's just more seed for the next crop.

Any suggestions for other fail-save crops for beginners?  The ones I have chosen are disease resistant, easy to cultivate and cheap as you can save seeds from each crop (except my silver beet has never gone to seed!).

More on seed-saving here.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Update on the floods in our area

You may have heard about the flooding in Queensland this summer.  We are very lucky that creeks here go down quickly, with minimal damage, however many roads are currently closed and we are isolated in all directions at the moment.  This means that supplies are not getting through, and Nanango and Kingaroy have all but run out for fuel, milk, bread and fresh veges.

The river at the back of our property (its normally a dry creek bed!)

This is a timely reminder of the foolishness of moving all distribution centres to Brisbane.  We currently rely on Brisbane for supplies of all food and fuel.  While its difficult to be self-sufficient in fuel, it is ridiculous that dairy farmers around Queensland are disposing of milk as they can't get it to Brisbane for processing.  The regional milk processing plants should never have been closed.  This would have kept jobs in regional areas and made us less dependent on Brisbane for supplies.  Its equally ridiculous that fruit and veges are rotting in cool-stores in north Queensland as they can't be transported to Brisbane for distribution.  Even in vegetable growing regions it is often difficult to get fresh vegetables as they all go to Brisbane first and then come back to the regions!  I am so glad right now that we have our own garden and won't have to survive on frozen and canned veges alone until the roads are re-opened.  We also have plenty of eggs and meat.

Even though we are not directly affected by flooding, the effects of isolation are just as difficult here as other parts of Queensland, highlighting the need for regions to be more self-sufficient and not rely on Brisbane for food.

Were you flooded in summer 2010/11?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Choosing an incubator

We have had an incubator for a while now, with mixed success.  At first we did well, but more recently we only managed to hatch one little chick from 24 eggs, and he didn't survive (they find it hard if there's only one), so we decided it was time to upgrade.

The two problems with the old incubator was that it was manual turn, so we had to remember to turn the eggs and even though you're supposed to turn them several times a day, when we're at work it would only get done twice a day (if we remembered).  The other problem was the humidity.  Correct humidity levels are critical for successful hatching, but we didn't have any method of measuring humidity, so we were only guessing at how much water was required to maintain the humidity.

As we want to raise some more chickens, we decided to buy a new incubator.  This one has automatic turn AND has a humidity sensor, so we hope this will help us hatch more successfully.  We've loaded it up with all the eggs from the chickens while we were away for Christmas and will share with you the progress of the hatching and rearing process.

New incubator with humidity sensor and auto-turn
For those not familiar with the incubation process, all we do is collect fertile eggs and keep them in an egg carton until we have enough to fill the incubator (in this case its 48 eggs) as its best if they all hatch together.  As we collect the eggs we mark them with the date and the rooster so we can start to find out which roosters are fertile.  When we have enough eggs we load up the incubator, put some water in the tray at the bottom (to create humidity) and turn it on.  This incubator does the rest for us.  With our previous incubator we had to make sure that the temperature was set at 38 degC and turn the eggs 2-3 times a day.  After 21 days or so, we should start to see the chicks hatching, then we can move them into a brooder box with a light bulb to keep them warm enough.

Eggs in the incubator (the turner is at the back)
Read more about what we've learnt about incubating chicken eggs here.  Do you have any tips to share?

Monday, January 3, 2011

What to do with a bull calf

When we were planning to have our second steer butchered (this is another story), we started to look around for a young steer to replace him and keep the remaining steer company.  We have learnt the hard way that one steer will not stay home (also another story) and now always have at least two in the “herd” so they don’t get lonely.  Unfortunately it was not a good time of year to find a cheap poddy calf, with most around $300, it wasn’t really worth us buying one to raise if they were that expensive.  Finally someone answered my ad and told me he had a “Hereford cross steer”, just weaned, for $180.  Perfect!

We turned up early one foggy Saturday morning to pick him up.  After driving 30 min with the cattle crate on the back of the ute, and with no real alternative, there was little chance that we weren’t going to buy the little fella.  When we saw him though, it was clear that he wasn’t a Hereford, or a steer!  So we brought home our little Fresian bull and wondered what to do.

Little Rocket, the"Hereford cross" bull
We started doing some reading.  First on the methods of making our little bull into a steer, and then whether we should even bother, as I started to wonder about the processes suggested and their relative levels of cruelty.

After considerable research on the topic, I concluded that we shouldn’t keep him as a bull.  Although I found mixed assessment of the meat quality of bulls, it seems that bulls are more likely to suffer from excess adrenaline while waiting at an abattoir, which will taint the meat (i.e. dark cutting), however if the animal is not stressed prior to slaughter (e.g. a home kill) there is no significant difference in the taste.  The main reason for our decision was that aggression in bulls can be a problem, with some examples on the net of dairy bulls that were hand-raised and became aggressive at 1-2 years old.  As our little fella was most certainly of dairy heritage, and has horns, we decided that it would not be safe to keep him as bull.

With one decision made the next issue was which of the many options to use to make our little bull into a steer.  There are three options that are most popular: surgical removal of the testicles, emasculation and rubber bands.  Emasculation, using an ‘emasculatome’ is the process of crushing of the blood and nerve supply to make the testicle atrophy and become non-functional.  The first two options require a certain about of skill and experience, which we didn’t have.  Surgical removal requires no special equipment if the calf is young and can easily be rolled onto his side, for older calves a crush is required.  A workmate offered to come over after work and "fix up" our little bull with his pocket knife, but it seemed a little cruel to me (besides I was worried about infection, its ok when you've got hundreds of them, but we only had one little calf, it would not have been good if he'd died from nutting).  For both emasculation and elastic bands you need a special tool, ranging from $50-100.  With emasculation, the testicles remain intact, so you never know if it actually worked, which is a little off-putting for the unskilled operator!  After much deliberation (and by this stage he was too big to roll over anyway, which reduced our options) we finally bought ourselves a rubber banding tool.

Tri-Band Bander
example rubber banding tool

Fortunately the little fella was hand raised and VERY tame at this stage.  He really liked his calf pellets, so one afternoon while he was tucking into a large pile of pellets we sneaked around behind him and applied a rubber band.  Thus followed the most pampered and fussed over bull calf castration activity of all time.  We checked him every day while he was eating, for the entire 7 weeks it took for the damn things to fall off!  After 4 weeks we started to worry that he’d got an infection, and bought an antiseptic spray.  The spray had a purple dye so you could see where you’d sprayed it and the poor thing had purple legs for the rest of the time.  When they finally fell off we were overjoyed with relief (I'm sure Rocket was sick of all the attention too!).

That is the story of our successful nutting of a bull calf.  If anyone has any other experiences and comments, please share!

Footnote: several weeks later we found Rocket's balls on our front fence post.  We assumed that a bird had picked them up and left them there.  However, when I mentioned it to my neighbour we found out that her dog had brought the balls home one day and proudly presented them.  My neighbour, not knowing that the object was, had picked them up and examined them, then taken a photo and put it on facebook.  Eventually someone was able to identify them for her, and that's how they ended up on our fence post - plonked there in disgust!!  When I stopped laughing, I was able to tell her that the moral of the story was that she shouldn't have let your dog stray onto our property as you never know what he'll find there!

Getting started with homestead dairy
Interview with myself
Interview with Mark and Kate from Purple Pear Permaculture
Interview with Kim from the Little Black Cow
Interview with Rose Petal
Interview with Marie from Go Milk the Cow
Interview with Ohio Farmgirl

If you want to know more about house cows, my eBook is available for purchase on Scribd.  Its only $4.99, and it includes lots of information about keeping a house cow in Australia.  There's more details about the eBook on my house cow eBook blog.  If you don't want to go through all the Scribd/paypal effort, just send me an email on eight.acres.liz at and I can arrange to email it to you instead.


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