Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Winter woodfires: how to light a fire

I learnt to light a fire when I was in Girl Guides.  Actually, to be more precise, my dad taught me to light a fire when I wanted to get my Camp Cook badge!  From then on I used to light the wood stove at my parent's house when I got home from school on cold winter days.  Fire lighting is a surprisingly useful skill and I think there's a few people around who have missed out on learning it, so here's my method.

Lighting a fire in a woodstove is a bit different from a fire outdoors, as it is really important to establish a draught.  That means that as the hot air and smoke rises out of the fire and up the chimney, fresh air is sucked in through a hole in the door.  If you don't have a draught, the fireplace will just fill with smoke and the fire will suffocate due to lack of oxygen.  Before starting the fire, ensure that the baffle that closes off the chimney is open and the vents in the door are fully open as well.

newspaper and kindling
I usually start with a few balls of scrunched up newspaper and lots of small pieces of kindling.  Kindling can either be sticks picked up from the paddock, or small pieces split of larger blocks of wood.  I arrange the kindling in a  "tee-pee" around the balls of newspaper and light the newspaper as low down as possible (because flames tend to climb).  If you light an edge or tear in the paper it will start more easily.  I then close the door of the firebox, but I don't latch it closed, so there's lots of gaps that air can get in through.

This is when you know if you have a draught, when the air starts to suck in through the door and the smoke goes up the chimney, you have a successful draught, the fire should start to "roar".  If the firebox fills with smoke, then you don't have a draught yet.  The best way I have found to fix this temporarily is to scrunch up another ball of newspaper and put it up as close to the chimney outlet as possible, either let it light off your current fire or light it again yourself and then close the door.  Often this is enough to get a draught working, or you may have to repeat it a few times.  For more details on permanent fixes, see my earlier post on our chimney extension!

closing the door and waiting
 When you have the draught established you can start adding gradually larger pieces of wood until the fire is established enough to take a large log.  Eventually you can start to close the vent on the door to restrict the oxygen and slow down the burn to control the heat coming from the fire.  You can also close the baffle that sends the hot air up the flue, in our case this will direct the air around the oven so we can cook with it.  On plain stoves without an oven, this will just allow the hot air to circulate longer instead of sending all that heat up the flue.  When you add another log, always open the flue so the creosote/tars that are produced from the log as it starts to burn go up the flue instead of getting stuck around your stove, as this can be a fire hazard.

building up to larger pieces

Any fire-lighting tips?  Who taught you to light a fire?

More about our woodstove - cooking in the woodstove and installing a woodstove.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Checking the fences: how to strain a barbed-wire fence

Before we let the new steers out of the cattle yards at Cheslyn Rise, we had to check all the fences in the first paddock.  Checking fences and tightening the barbed wire is slow, but quite easy if you have the right tools.

fence strainer
When I first saw fence strainers I had no idea how to use them.  Actually every time I see them I can't remember how to use them!  Luckily Pete had a tutorial from an old farmer at one stage and he can always remember how to use them.  What you do is put a chain or plain wire around the fence post and clip the big part of the tool onto the chain/wire.  Clip the small part onto the fence wire that you want to tighten (and this is the same process if fixing an existing fence, or building a new one).  You use the other end of the big part to creep over the chain on the small part, which pulls the tool together to bring the wire closer to the pole and pull the fence tight.

tightening the fence wire

When you have the wire tight enough you wrap the end of the wire around the pole ONCE and then twist it over itself in front of the pole and then wrap the remaining water back along the wire.  You need to make it tight, but not tangled, as you'll probably have to undo it and tighten it again eventually.

wrapping around the pole

twisting the ends

The finished product

You need to find all the end-assembly and strainer posts and check the wire on each side.  The most important wires are the two in the middle, if these are hanging loose the cattle will find them and push through the fence every time!  All the fence posts on our property are split from iron bark gum trees felled on the property.

I don't know if these fencing strainers are special to Australia, is this how people build fences in other countries?  I would be fascinated to hear about different methods.

strainer post

fence post

end assembly

termite damage (but this post will last for a while yet)

fencing over a creek crossing

a bush gate

taking a relaxing dip in the dam after some hard work fencing!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Sourdough and Fermented Food Workshop

I have been waiting to do this course for SO long!  Elisabeth Fekonia is a practising permaculturist who grows and produces much of her own food on her property at Cooroy, Sunshine Coast, QLD.  Among other things, she runs workshops on cheese (which we went to last year) and sourdough and fermented food.  Since I did the cheese workshop and learnt so much about fermented food from Elisabeth, I really wanted to do this course as well.  I was hoping that she would de-mistify sourdough for me, and she didn't disappoint! Elisabeth has a very practical approach, her methods use common household equipment, are as quick and cheap and "no-fuss" as possible, and are definitely not overcomplicated.  This is what I learnt about sourdough and fermented foods.....

We only had one day for the workshop and sourdough takes longer than a day to make as it needs to ferment for 12-24 hours, so we kind of started in the middle and worked around to the start of the process. I'll document the workshop in the order we did things and try to explain as I go along.

The sourdough "sponge" had been made the night before, by adding flour etc to the starter, so for us to make bread we just had to add more flour to the sponge until it had the consistency of dough.

adding flour to the sponge

We then put the dough in loaf tins and allowed it to rise in a warm place (the boot of someone's car!).

the dough in the loaf tins before rising

after rising

After a couple of hours, when the dough had risen enough, we put the loaves in the oven at 200degC for about an hour.

the finished loaves

While the bread was rising we made sourdough pikelets using another sponge that had been made the night before.  This time we added only 2 eggs and milk until the consistency was right for pikelets.  And then some bicarbonate of soda to help the pikelets to rise.


pikelet mixture (note bubbles from the bicarb!)

cooking the pikelets in ghee
We then learnt how to make the sponge by adding a small amount of either another sponge or leftover dough to water, and then adding other ingredients.  For this bread we added wholemeal flour, a little salt, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, linseeds, caraway seeds, kelp, molasses and carob.  We mixed it and added water until the mixture was fluid enough.

the previous sponge mixed with water

adding flour and salt....

and lots of seeds....

and more seeds!

The finished sponge

Finally we learnt how to make a starter from scratch.  At the end of the workshop we were given a blob of dough to take home as a starter, and it will keep in the fridge for several weeks, but if we ever need to make a new starter, this is the way that Elisabeth suggested: mix flour, raw milk and keffir, leave in a warm place for a few days until it bubbles.  Elisabeth did not recommend "feeding" the starter, as so many others do, she reckons it fine to just make it up and leave it to get started.  If you don't have milk or kefir, you can use water and yoghurt, respectively, as substitutes.  After you make the first loaf, keep some of the dough in the fridge as the starter for the next loaf.
the sourdough starter

We finely chopped a couple of cabbages and then the cabbage was squeezed and squeezed until the juice started to come out.  Elisabeth added a little salt and caraway seeds, and then the cabbage was packed into jars.  The cabbage was held under the liquid by scrunching up some of the outer cabbage leaves under the lid.  I have to say that the squeezing method was more effective and less messy than my attempts with a meat hammer, and I like using the scrunched up cabbage leaf instead of the plastic insert that I made.  I added whey to my sauerkraut, and there is some debate on the net about whether this is necessary.  Clearly sauerkraut can be made without whey, but as it worked for me, I think I'll continue adding whey.  Next time I will be chopping my cabbage finer and squeezing it by hand.

This was similar to the sauerkraut except we used a wombok cabbage, chopped quite large and only bruised with the end of a rolling pin, rather than squeezed.  Elisabeth added chilli powder and paprika, and this time a little whey, and packed the mixture into a small bucket, with a saucer inside and weighted down with one of the jars of sauerkraut!  I tried kimchi for the first time at the workshop lunch and really enjoyed the taste, so I will try making this.  I just need to plant some womboks!

Fruit wine
Elisabeth explained in detail how to make fruit wine.  While I don't tend to have an excess of fruit, when I eventually get some fruit trees planted, I think this is a good way to use up an excess.

Elisabeth recommended using very ripe fruit for maximum sugar content.  Crush the fruit in the bottom of a fermenter and top up with sugar and water.  Sugar content will determine alcohol content, so this needs to be worked out quite carefully.  Elisabeth added wine yeast, but some people at the workshop had made it without wine yeast (just using the natural yeast on the skin of the fruit), so this may not be necessary, however the wine will keep better with a nice high alcohol content, which can be achieved more consistently if yeast is added.  She also discussed various additives which seemed to defeat the purpose of making it yourself, so I'd probably do a little more research before I have a go.  I do still enjoy making fermented drinks using whey (eg citrus and ginger drinks), but for very sugary fruit this isn't possible.  I would also be interested in trying to make vinegar from the wine as I can't find a good source of balsamic vinegar and I go through an awful lot of apple cider vinegar too!

fruit in the fermenter

the fermenter

The workshop was really interesting, I particularly enjoyed learning about sourdough and I feel now that its not as complicated as I initially feared!  Its also given me some tips to improve my sauerkraut and I will try kimchi too.  If you're interested in doing one of Elisabeth's courses, she does travel around SE QLD if you can gather a group of around 16 people who are interested, so get in touch with her if you want to organise a workshop (Elisabeth's website).  If you know of similar workshops in your area, leave a comment so that other people can find out more.

Do you make any fermented foods?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Winter woodfires: preparing firewood

When we first moved into Eight Acres there was a massive pile of wood in one of the paddocks, and even though we knew it was a big job to clean it up, we were pleased to have access to free firewood.  I didn't take "before" photos of this pile, but I did take some part way through the clean up process.  It took us about a year to pick through all the logs and cut them into rounds.  They were branches from iron bark gum trees that were felled for fence posts by a previous tenant on our property.

A kookaburra comes to help pick up bugs from the firewood pile
As the branches had been in the pile for at least a few years we thought that the rounds would be ready to burn right away, but it seems that iron bark takes a little longer to dry out!  When Farmer Pete tried to split the rounds with an axe it just bounced off the log.  That's when we realised that the wood might need more time to dry.  We set up a wood pile using "besser blocks" to support a few sheets of old roofing iron, with the wood piled as neatly as possible on the iron.  Its important for us to keep the wood off the ground to prevent termites and/or snakes making a home in the pile.

moving firewood on the ute
One year later, the rounds are starting to crack, so they are ready to split, but the wood is still very hard and I usually find it difficult to split (a good job for Farmer Pete).

staking firewood as neatly as possible

Unfortunately I wasn't aware of the benefits of hugelkultur at the time, so we had a big bonfire to tidy up when we were finished cutting all the decent firewood.

potential hugelkultur wood going up in smoke, if only I'd known!

More about our woodstove - cooking in the woodstove and installing a woodstove.

Do you cut your own firewood?  How do you prepare and store it?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Cattle psychology: how to accustom steers to a new property

Since we purchased our first mob of steers for Cheslyn Rise, we have had many occasions to consider what our cattle are thinking and to try to picture the world from their perspective.

For the first week that they were on our property, we followed everyone's advice and kept the steers in our wooden stock yard and fed them round bales of sorghum and kept their water troughs topped up.  After a week we decided that they had got to know us, as they had become confident enough to eat round bales when we were in the yard with them, and we had checked all the fences, so we decided it was time to open the gate and let them out into the first 25 acre paddock.

The next day when we went back to the property we found that the cattle had broken some fences and ended up split into two groups, we'll call them the "A" team and the "B" team.  The A team, 9 steers, hadn't managed to get out of the 25 acre paddock, but the B team of 8 steers had got through a fence and found themselves on the far side of the property (as we hadn't thought to close any other gates!).  We fixed the broken fences, closed various gates and tried to herd the B team back into the 25 acre property, but they took off.

On day two, we were rung by a neighbour to say that some of the cattle were out on the road!  Disaster!  We drove to the property in a mild panic (me not Farmer Pete), but the four steers from the A team who had got out were waiting near the fence with the rest of the their mates, like they just wanted to get back into their paddock, fortunately we were able to herd them back through the broken fence and fix it up (with me running hard up the flank to turn them at the right time and Farmer Pete on the rear, took me 10 min to recover!).  When we went looking for the B team we found that they had busted through a bush gate and were back where we found them the day before, standing with the the neighbour's cows (but still in our paddock).

.. going ...
On day three the A team were in the stock yards finishing their round bale!  And the B team were standing around looking for their mates.....

We went to thank the kind neighbour who had alerted us to our escapees and he gave us some tips.  On the drive home, we talked about why the cattle were busting gates and fences and started to think about how the cattle were feeling.

Firstly, they had probably very recently been separated from their mothers, possibly just before getting on the truck to the sale yards, and they had possibly also been castrated at the same time.  They had spent about 24 hours in the sale yards, with 1600 other cattle, and it was SO loud, everyone was mooing.  Then they got dropped off at our place.  They are probably wondering what they are doing at our property, where there mummies are (and where their testicles are!), and so the natural reaction when the gate is opened is to freak out a bit and be very jumpy.  Combine that with wild dogs, which our neighbour told us have been hanging around, and the poor steers probably haven't been without their mummies at night before, let alone without their mummies at night with wild dogs sniffing around, no wonder they are running around and crashing through fences.  Our neighbour also pointed out that they don't know our property yet, they don't know where the fences and gates are, so if they feel threatened by dogs, of course they will take off and run as fast as they can and might go through some fences in the dark.

... gone.
When the steers kept escaping and going crazy our first thought was to round them up again (somehow!) and get them back in the stock yards, at least then we would know they were safe.  But after talking to our neighbour we realised that the poor steers just need to settle down, learn their way around our property and get comfortable there, if we got them back into the yards we would only have to repeat the settling down process again later.  Once they get used to the location of fences and gates, and realise that the wild dogs aren't so tough, then we should all be ok.  We should also tie plastic bags onto gates that haven't been closed before, so that cattle can hear the gates in the dark and not smash into them.

Really, the steers are just like first year uni students who have just left home.  What they need is a good residential advisor to look after them at first, such as an old cow (no offence to RAs!).  The old cow could show them around the property, show them where to get a drink, where to get a feed and where the boundaries are.  We don't have any old cows on the property (apparently a donkey is good too), but we will be looking for a suitable animal for future mobs of steers!

In the meantime our neighbour suggested that we bribe the cattle with hay, so we have been giving them a little hay every afternoon and hoping that they will get used to us providing delicious hay and start following us, so that we can eventually reunite the A and B teams!

Its made me realise that when cattle (or any animals) aren't doing what you want them to do, they might not just be naughty animals.  They might actually be scared or bored or hungry or lonely, and thinking through the reason for their behaviour will help to work out what to do about it.  If we just assumed that the cattle were naughty and locked them up in the yards, they would still have been frightened when they were let out the second time, but because we realised the reasons for them breaking fences, we figured out that it would be best to leave them to get used to the paddocks, and now that they know where everything is, they have been no trouble at all.

Have you ever wondered what your cattle (or other animals) are thinking?

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Friday, May 18, 2012

Starting a container orchard

Before we bought the new property I had an idea of creating my orchard in containers.  I thought this would be the best way to deal with our weird climate.  I could move the trees to the most appropriate location for the season.  In summer they could shelter under the shade of the gum trees and in winter they could enjoy full sun and plenty of chill hours, or hide out in the greenhouse until the frost was gone, depending on their individual needs.  This way I could grow apples, citrus, stone fruit, mangoes, avocado, mulberry.......just dreaming of all the possibilities!

Now that we have the new property I don't need a special orchard because (we hope) it should be frost free.  The reason we have such terrible frost here is that the house and garden are quite low down the hill.  Our neighbours at the top of the hill have no frost and grow bananas up there!  So we hope (and have been told) that with the new property being on top of a hill it will also be frost free, so I should be able to just plant a nice orchard in the house yard and not worry about frost or containers.

Anyway, when I was planning for my container orchard, I found some useful information here and here, so that may help others with weird climates to start an orchard.  In the meantime, I now own two container citrus plants, a lemon and a lime.  And I can keep them in the pots until we move, so its still a useful idea for people who are renting or not sure if they'll be staying long at their current house.  I won't get all the fruit trees that I was originally planning for the container orchard, but citrus is so useful, I thought it would be worth a try.

I got these trees from the Nanango market from a stall called Mountain Veiws Nursery from Pomona on the Sunshine Coast.  They told me that they breed their own special dwarf root stock and specialise in citrus, so I am hoping that these trees are prepared for local conditions.

I'm looking forward to having access to my own lemons and limes for making ginger ale, and all those times you just need a squeeze of lemon!

Do you use a container orchard?  Any tips?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

I'm a worm farmer!

Worm farm kits from Biome

When we first talked about getting an aquaponics kit one of my main concerns was how we would feed the fish.  I didn't want to be constantly buying fish food.  One of the options is to feed worms to the fish, so I've been planning to get a worm farm established.  We had planned to make one from an old wheelie bin, but that project has ended up low on the list since we got the new property.  Recently a friend at work told me that worm farms were on sale at Aldi, only $50, and I thought that might be a good way to get started.  Farmer Pete's dad has 3 worm farms, so I'm sure you can never have too many!  We will make the wheelie bin worm farm later, for now we have a small one to get us started.  

I only started with a handfull of worms
Before we decided to try aquaponics, I thought I didn't need a worm farm because with the compost and the chickens I didn't think I'd have anything to feed them, but my compost is full, so there should be plenty for the worms to eat.  Before getting the farm, I did quickly read a post on The Greening of Gavin on how to set up a worm farm and other wormy things, so I was prepared to what I found inside my kit.  Emma from Craving Fresh has also written about worm farms, so I'm not going to go on about how great they are.  I can't wait to have the worm tea for the garden, compost for the garden and eventually worms to feed the fish!  I will report back in a few weeks and let you know how the worms are going.

I've had the kit for a few weeks and I've been waiting for worms, but fortunately the same friend cleaned out his worm farm and was able to give me a handful of worms, so the other day we Farmer Pete and Cheryl built the worm farm, and we put the worms in their new home, with a little lettuce from the garden to get them started, and put the farm next to the compost bin.

the dogs check out the box

inside the box

soaking the coconut fibre worm bedding
The coconut fibre ready for the worms

Cheryl and Farmer Pete building the worm farm

The worms in their new home

And tucked up under their blanket

The worm farm in place - yes the grass needs a mow!

My compost is FULL so there will be plenty for the worms to eat!

Do you keep worms?  Any tips?

Worm farm updates

Worm farm kits are available from Biome, click on the banner below:

Worm farm kits from Biome

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