Friday, August 31, 2012

Homemade bread - so far so good after 4 months

Back in April I wrote that I wanted to stop buying bread, and so far we haven't bought any more bread.  We have suffered through my sourdough attempts, and Farmer Pete has made some white bread from a packet, but we haven't bought any bread!  And recently I have got into a routine and settled on a bread recipe that I'm very happy with.

eight acres: homemade bread

It is based on the recipe in the e-book "Is your flour wet", which is available free from Kitchen Stewardship.

12 to 24 hours before I'm going to cook the bread I set up my bread maker bowl with 330mL of water, 1 Tbs of olive oil, 2 Tbsp of kefir and one tsp of honey.  I mix into that 1 and a quarter cups of wholemeal wheat flour, 1 cup of white bakers flour and 1 cup of wholemeal spelt flour, and a bit scoop of chia seeds (I know that its usually really important to weight the flour accurately, but it doesn't seem to matter fro this recipe).  My ratios (other than flour and water) are a little different to those in the book, we prefer less honey and more salt.  These can be adjusted to taste.

I leave this to ferment/soak for 12-24 hours in the breadmaker.  Just before I'm ready to start mixing I add 1 Tbsp of sea salt and 1 and three quarters tsp of bakers yeast.  I start the breadmaker, but I've modified the cycle so that it stops before the final rise.  I have baked the loaf in the bread maker a couple of times and it comes out ok, but lately as we have the wood stove going anyway, I like to turn the dough out into a loaf tin and let it rise in front of the oven for 30-60 minutes and then put it in the oven for 60 minutes.  In summer I will either use the breadmaker to bake the loaf or give the webber BBQ a try (we use it for everything else in summer!).

eight acres: homemade bread
I usually start this on Friday or Saturday evening and then bake the loaf on Saturday or Sunday evening, depending on plans for the weekend.  We usually eat about one loaf a week, but I put any leftovers in the freezer, and some weeks if we eat more, we can use up the freezer bread.  I am finding that this does tie up a fair bit of our weekend, but I think its going to work from one weeknight to the next too.  The main limiting factor is having enough time to get the wood stove hot enough.

eight acres: homemade bread
ready for eating :)

So far so good!  Do you make homemade bread?  What's your routine like?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The permaculture home garden - book review

A while ago I posted my first post about permaculture, explaining how I had just really worked out what it was and how excited I was to find out more.  A couple of people recommended Linda Woodrow's book "The permaculture home garden".  I have been following Linda's excellent blog (The Witches Kitchen), but I had no idea that she had also written a book, so I decided to find out more.  When I emailed Linda to ask the best place to buy it, she offered to send me a copy, I was SO excited, this was the first ever free thing I have received as a result of this blog.

The book arrived a few days later and I couldn't wait to start reading it.  Before I opened it though, I had a moment of trepidation.  What if I didn't like the book?  Would I be able to write an honest review?  Or would I have to resort to faint praise?  I read the first sentence and realised that I need not worry, I loved the book, every wise word!  Thanks Linda!

Linda's book

Linda begins the introduction with "This is a book about saving the planet and living to be a hundred, while throwing very impressive dinner parties and organising other creatures to do most of the work", what's not to love?  I'm not sure how I would have taken this book if I was reading it as a beginner gardener.  With a few years experience in gardening, I'm able to relate to most of the advice in the book as I realise that what I'm doing, or have done, is not the most efficient or productive way of doing things, and I can see exactly how to use the simple solutions in Linda's book.  Maybe if I hadn't made some errors already I wouldn't see how useful her advice is, but then I'm someone who tends to need to make my own mistakes!  If you are beginner, believe me, everything she says is true!

Linda starts by explaining the importance of planning the garden to minimise the work required, both by placement of activities and by "employing" the services of microbes, earthworms, chickens and other animals.  This is perfect timing for me, as I'm planning a new garden, for those with existing gardens, I guarantee you will be thinking "oh, if only I read this first".  In our case, our chicken tractors are made to last, so we won't be changing to Linda's chicken dome (which is explained in detail), however I will be thinking about how to design the garden to make best use of the chickens and their tractors.  There's also information about worm farming for those who can't keep chickens.

Linda makes some excellent suggestions about record keeping, which I am guilty of being totally slack about, and then later wondering what I planted and when!  Its also given me some ideas about incorporating the compost in the garden, rather than it being something separate.  Linda starts all her plants in seedraising boxes, which is similar to my method, and she has some great ideas about how to transplant seedlings without damaging them, which I will be trying.  I am also really excited about Linda's method for arranging fruit trees in groups with flowering/fruiting in sequence, absolutely genius!  It not only saves on labour, but helps to maintain a population of predator insects in the garden by providing a year-round supply of nectar, good for bee-keeping too.

Finally Linda includes some notes about a range of common vegetables, with yet more great tips.

The only thing that I thought was missing were photos!  There are some very good diagrams, but I really wanted to see more of what Linda was describing, and then I realised that Linda's blog is full of photos of her garden.  So if you're reading the book, have a look at Linda's blog at the same time.  The best way is to click on the "garden" tag under "have a browse" and you will find some good explanations and photos, for example one about chooks in the garden.

This book is exactly what every vege gardener needs to read BEFORE they start their garden (or maybe after the first year, if you want to make a few mistakes first so that you really pay attention to Linda's advice).  Even if you already have a garden, this book will give you more ideas to reduce time and money spent in the garden and increase productivity.  No matter if you have a small patio garden or 258 acres, this book will help you to plan and work in your garden (and gave me a few farm ideas to think about too).  Thank you Linda for writing such a fantastic book so that I didn't have to think twice about writing exactly what I think of it!

I am also reading some more permaculture books at the moment and will eventually do some posts about how we do/can/should apply permaculture principles on our properties and in our daily lives.  How do you use permaculture in your garden?

Each month in 2013 I reviewed a principle from David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability:

Monday, August 27, 2012

Biological farming - mineral management

As I said last week, I recently spent a week studying biological agriculture.  On the first day we learnt about mineral management.  I have prepared a table with a summary of the signs of mineral deficiencies, which you can download here, as it doesn't fit on a blog page!

First a paradigm shift….
For decades NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) have been regarded as the essential ingredients for plant growth and are the main components of most synthetic fertilisers.  This was due to work conducted in the 1800s by Justus Von Liebig, in a very crude experiment by modern standards, which showed that the main constituents of plants are N, P and K.  While this was technically correct, there are actually at least 9 other minerals also required by plants in varying quantities.  Plants that have access to a soil with balanced minerals will be more resistant to pest and diseases and will be more nutritious for stock and humans to eat.  Balancing the soil minerals is therefore the first step to farming without chemical inputs.

General points about mineral requirements of plants
Plant minerals must be absorbed from relatively dilute solutions or the plants will be stressed by the salty water.  This can be a problem when chemical (NPK) fertilisers are applied in large quantities as the solution is usually too concentrated.  In addition, it must be recognised that minerals are held in the soil in the clay and in the organic matter.  The clay can only hold minerals that form a positive charge (calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium), and negatively charged minerals (for example nitrate, phosphorous, boron and sulphur) are susceptible to leaching unless the soil has sufficient organic matter (hummus), which can retain both positively and negatively charged minerals.

Some elements can slow down the absorption of others into the plant, for example, calcium slows down potassium and vice versa. The phenomenon is known as "antagonism" (see Mulder’s chart).  Healthy plants result when the nutrients are absorbed in certain relative, "balanced", proportions (see William Albrecht’s work on base saturation).  When ratios between nutrients are extreme, deficiency conditions are created.  For example, if a high proportion of nitrogen to potassium is absorbed, the plant will suffer from potassium deficiency.

Minerals in the soil solution may not be absorbed by the plant if the pH of the soil is too far away from 6.4 (the pH at which all minerals are soluble, see diagram).  Nutrients are absorbed by plants more easily in a chelated form, that is, using a large organic molecule to surround the mineral atom to facilitate transportation into the plant.  Chelating agents include organic sources such as compost, humic acid and fluvic acid (the latter two being derived from brown coal) or synthetic chemicals such as EDTA – often included in synthetic fertilisers.

The nutrient medium must contain an adequate supply of oxygen, which is achieved through sufficient aeration of the soil.  This will depend on soil structure and organic matter.  High magnesium soils will tend to be “tighter” than soils with the ideal ratio of magnesium to calcium, as calcium is a larger atom that creates more space between clay particles.

Balancing the soil
Now that you understand the importance of soil minerals for your growing plants, you are probably wondering where to start in correcting the balance.  This will depend on the scale of your operation.  We used a soil test to understand our soil deficiencies and bought some products to help us to add some minerals to the soil, but will never afford to add the amount of lime that would be required to perfectly balance our soil. Where the success of a crop is essential, commercial orchardists and market gardeners may also go to the extent of using plant tissues tests to target foliar sprays at all stages of plant development.  In a home garden, it is probably more cost-effective to look for signs of deficiency in the plants and add minerals as required.  In all cases, adequate soil organic matter will buffer any deficiencies by making minerals more available to the plants and feeding beneficial microbes.  Using cover crops with deep roots can also help to “mine” minerals from the sub-soil.  The most important thing to remember is that not all minerals are required in large quantities and not at all stages of plant growth.  Sometimes a seed coating, foliar spray or liquid injection (or a sprinkle of minerals when planting, in the home garden scale) will be sufficient, rather than trying to correct ALL the soil in an area.

What have you done to manage the mineral balance of your soil?  

Friday, August 24, 2012

Frozen convenience foods

I have to admit that I used to buy a few items in the frozen isle of my supermarket.  I used to buy chips, battered fish, crumbed chicken breasts, frozen veges, pastry, ice cream, pies, frozen meals etc.  It was so handy to be able to just pull them out and reheat them quickly.  Since I discovered real food, and what is in those processed frozen foods, I don't buy any of that any more, but my freezer is still stuffed full of convenience foods.  By that I mean, food that is convenient to me :)  Here is a photo of our freezer.  It is starting to get empty now in preparation for our next steer getting butchered, so I wanted to share what it usually looks like before it was too late (until recently it was full floor to ceiling!).

In my freezer you will typically find:
  • left over meals so we can grab a quick lunch or dinner, often deliberately or not, we cook far too much and eat the same meal for several days, when we get sick of it we put a few servings in the freezer for later.  Chow mein, bolognaise, casseroles and rissoles freeze really well.
  • left over rice and pasta to go with the meals, I keep these separate because sometimes you have some in the fridge already and just want to pull out the meat part of the meal.  I always cook double rice as its so handy to have in the freezer.
  • soup - also very useful for lunches and dinner, and so much easier to make a large batch than try to make a little bit of soup!
  • left over bread - if we don't finish a loaf in a week the rest goes in the freezer for a week when we run short.
  • extra veges from the garden - cherry tomatoes and beans so far.
  • extra fruit - if we can get cheap strawberries, mangoes or bananas, I put some in the freezer for smoothies before it goes off, Farmer Pete find the smoothies are too cold, but I like them.
  • a bag or two of vege and meat scraps for stock (as explained here).
  • litres and litres of stock, although I use a couple of litres a week, so I do get through it!  Pretty much everything I cook has some stock added.  I freeze it in old butter containers.  As soon as a few clean ones accumulate on the bench I know its time to make more stock!
  • yoghurt and cheese-making bacteria
  • bacon - we buy a big pack and split it into 2-4 slices per bag.
  • wurst - if anyone we know has spare wurst we will happily buy/swap for it and put the extra in the freezer.
  • grated cheese - when we open a homemade cheese I usually just grate the whole thing on the fine side of the grater and put it in a bag in the fridge, then it is used to sprinkle on anything that requires cheese (duck egg frittata, pizza, spaghetti, baked beans.....)
  • MEAT - but that's in the big chest freezer, there's usually most of a steer and various amounts of pork and chicken (and until recently there were turkeys, so glad we've eaten all of them finally!).
We have such a good store of food that we can live for a week out of the freezer if we have to (as we have been doing recently to clean it out in preparation for the next steer).  This is great when my husband occasionally has to work long hours and takes extra food to get him through a 12 hour shift, or if I go away for work and leave Farmer Pete home alone (he can cook, but sometimes he will run out of time with all the farm chores when I'm away), and even if we both come home late from the farm and don't feel like cooking, there is always something to heat up so we don't need takeaway.

We always take something from home for lunch at work, which has to be a huge saving as well as being healthier than our work canteen (options include fry and .... fry).

So what's in your fridge/freezer and what are your convenience foods?  Any tips?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Butchering Homegrown Chickens

This post does contain photos of dead chickens and bits of chicken guts in the interests of explaining how we kill, gut and butcher our own homegrown chickens.  I make no apologies for this, just warning you.  If you are considering killing a chicken, you should be able to at least look at the photos, or you're going to get a shock when you get started.  If you have done it before it will be nothing you haven't see before and you might be able to give me some tips.

A few weekends ago we decided it was time to kill the first of the two roosters that we hatched last spring.  They would have been about 6 months old, one Rhode Is Red and one Rhode Is Red / White Leghorn cross.  People who raise meat chickens can have them ready to eat in about 7 weeks and ours take an awful lot longer and probably eat more along the way and don’t get as big, but we have a few good reasons to stick with the pure bred birds:
  • At first the roosters were more the by-product of trying to breed more hens, rather than trying to raise chickens for meat
  • If we want to breed and keep both good layers and good eaters, we need to get a dual purpose breed, that’s why we went for Rhode Is Reds (the White Leghorns are better for eggs, and you can still eat them, just a bit smaller frame)
  • We could buy chicks, but then we are relying on someone else to breed them for us (and if it’s a commercial breed, that someone else is the same corporation that treats its meat chickens really badly and the whole reason for raising our own!)
  • We let the chickens free-range as much as possible and are working on ways to reduce their bought feed (e.g. the worm farm)

I’ve written a post before about butchering our chickens, but I realised that I missed out a few details that might be useful, and I’ve taken some more photos this time.

Before we even catch the chicken, we have a few things to get ready.  I usually take care of the kitchen – clearing the bench, setting out chopping boards, sharpening knives and preparing some newspaper and plastic bag for the guts.  Farmer Pete sharpens the axe, finds the chopping block and the chicken catcher, sets up the gas burner, cleans the crab pot and gets the water heating.

Catching the chickens
As the roosters are usually a few months old by this time, they are already a little aggressive and not very happy about being picked up.  I am fine with climbing inside a cage of hens and catching the one I want, but I am far more wary of roosters, even young ones.  This is where we use the “chicken catcher”, its just a length of strong wire bent into a hook, which we use to hook the rooster by his leg, basically just tripping him up and holding him still until you can grab him around the body.

the chicken catching wire
Killing the chickens
Usually I hold the rooster by both legs with his head on the chopping block.  He will usually extend his neck naturally and then Farmer Pete can chop off his head with the axe.  I have to hold on as the rooster starts to flap (I prefer NOT to let it run around, that’s just gross!).  Then we hang it up by the legs on the fence to bleed out.

hanging up the bleed out, the crab pot and burner in the foreground

Plucking the chickens
After the rooster has bled out for about 10 minutes, we dunk them in a crab pot of hot water (close to boiling, when lots of steam is coming off, we never measure the temperature!) for about 1 minute (just counting out-loud).  We then hang the chicken back on the fence and start plucking feathers.  We have an old feed sack to put the feathers into as we go, otherwise it makes a huge mess (they end up in the compost when we’re finished).  We are getting quicker at plucking – only 10-15 minutes per bird.  If they have been dunked long and hot enough the feathers should come out pretty easily.

Dressing the chickens
When we are satisfied that enough feathers are removed (and the pin feathers are impossible without scorching the bird to remove them, we just leave them, but don’t usually eat the skin anyway), I take the bird inside to the kitchen.  We have worked on them outside in the past, but I just find it easier to have running water right there to wash out the chicken and to clean the knives as a go.  Once inside I just cut around the vent, cut out the crop and then pull out all the guts, as I explained in the previous post.

Which bits are which?
In the past we have just thrown away (in the wheelie bin) all the bits that we didn’t want to eat, including all the intestines, liver, kidney, necks and random flaps of skin.  We don’t feed any of it to the dogs because we don’t want them to get a taste for it and start helping themselves.  This time I decided that I wanted to keep the liver so that I could try to make pate, and as I wasn’t totally sure which was the liver, I pulled out all the other bits and had a good look at them just to be sure.  Its funny how simple a chicken is on the inside really!

From the top, I think its liver, kidney, heart and lung
I kept the two livers and the kidneys in a bag in the freezer (until I have enough livers – and courage – to try the recipe).  This time I also kept the necks for when I make stock.  I did consider keeping the feet, but they were so dirty, dirt under the nails and everything, I didn’t feel like trying to clean them.  I was also going to bury the intestines, feet and heads in a hole in the garden (as its dog proof) instead of throwing them away, but I forgot and they got bundled into the bin again.  At least we kept more than we usually do.

the guts on the left, and the gizzard on the right

Resting the meat
I have read different ideas about whether the meat should be rested, but we usually put the chicken in the fridge for a couple of days before it goes in the freezer.  This is supposed to rest the meat and let it go through rigor mortis and back to soft meat again before it gets frozen.  I know that in the “old days” people used to kill a chicken in the morning to eat for lunch, but was that because they didn’t have refrigeration?  Anyway, it works for us.

The Rhode Island Red chicken weighed 1.7 kg, while his cross-bred brother was only 1.5 kg..  We haven’t eaten them yet, but I do look forward to it.  We pretty much only eat chicken that we have raised, and if I do have a bit of commercial chicken I can taste the difference, or rather NOT taste anything, commercial chicken breast meat is bland, dry, mushy and weird white colour.  Our chickens are tasty, juicy, with a meat texture (not stringy, but you know you’re eating meat, not mush) and the leg meat is a lovely dark brown when cooked.  We cook ours either roasted whole, or in pieces as a casserole.  There is no need to cook young roosters (less than one year old or so) for a long time, they are not tough as long as they have been cared for correctly (i.e. not too old, well fed, not stressed).  Our older chickens can be tough, but 12 hours in a slow cooker will produce a very tasty meal (apparently coq au vin is supposed to be cooked with an aged rooster for added taste!).

Any tips?  Any questions?

More information about cooking homegrown chickens:

Raising chickens for meat 

Cooking old chooks

Cooking the chooks

By the way, my chicken eBook is now available if you want to know more about backyard chickens and using chicken tractors.  More information over at the chicken tractor ebook blog.  Or you can get it directly from my shop on Etsy (.pdf format), or Amazon Kindle or just send me an email eight.acres.liz {at}

What's the eBook about?
Chickens in a confined coop can end up living in an unpleasant dust-bowl, but allowing chickens to free-range can result in chickens getting into gardens and expose them to predators.

 A movable cage or “chicken tractor” is the best of both options – the chickens are safe, have access to clean grass, fresh air and bugs. Feed costs are reduced, chickens are happier, and egg production increases. 

 But how do you build a chicken tractor? What aspects should be considered in designing and using a chicken tractor effectively? In this eBook I aim to explain how to make a chicken tractor work for you in your environment to meet your goals for keeping chickens. 

I also list what I have learnt over 10 years of keeping chickens in tractors of various designs and sizes, from hatching chicks, through to butchering roosters.

Reviews of the Design and Use a Chicken Tractor

Monday, August 20, 2012

Biological agriculture course

If you're following my facebook page, you might have noticed that I recently spent a week in Yandina doing a "Biological Agriculture" course with Nutri-Tech Solutions.  The course was exactly what I needed.  We have been trying to figure out how to grow forage and hay crops organically, trying to understand whether we should be tilling the soil and generally confused about our soil test results.  I won't say that the course answered all my questions, but it did give me some key information that I've been able to research in more detail to help us come up with a plan.

Biological farming is about farming with nature's cycles.  It doesn't necessarily mean using organic methods, but if chemicals are to be used, they are used at the most sensible times and using methods that minimise any adverse effects on the overall system.  The idea is to use natural methods to our advantage to increase production and reduce input costs.  For farmers and/or farms that are addicted to chemicals, this is a good way to transition from chemical methods to organic methods, without too much disruption/stress/loss of production.  We saw this year that going "cold turkey" resulted in a poor crop of forage oats, and its just lucky that its not our entire livelihood that depends on the result of that crop.  For full-time farmers this is a real risk.

On the first day we learnt about soil minerals, the second day was microbes, day three plant nutrition, the forth day was pest management and the final day was putting it all together.  Throughout the course we learnt about human health as well.  Most of it was the kind of thing I am already excited about from reading Nourishing Traditions, but we also had a hair analysis test done, and I was ok in all elements except iodine and selenium, so I need to eat more seaweed!  (and I got some supplements from the chemist to give me a headstart).  They recommended doing hair tests through Interclinical, but there are plenty of other ones around too.

I'm going to write a post to summarise the important points from each day of the course.  If you are thinking about organic farming or just sick of using so much fertiliser and want to reduce input costs, you should learn more about biological farming methods.  This course is an excellent place to start, with people attending from all states of Australia, and on my course there was even a candidate from the USA and one from NZ.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Cooking with fat

Since reading Nourishing Traditions, I've realised that using butter and lard/tallow in cooking is healthy, tasty and frugal.  For more information on good fats for cooking see this post.

I skim the lard/tallow off the top of my stock and keep it in a container in the fridge (my stock method here).  The easiest way to do this is to put the finished stock into a large jug or container in the fridge.  When it has cooled, the fat will have solidified on the top of the stock and is easy to scrape off.  I usually end up with a little stock mixed in, but that just adds flavour.  I don't bother to purify it, so I just try to use it up quickly (as the stock will go off before the fat will).  I find that its useful for frying and roasting just about anything.  When I have some cooking fat in the fridge I use it in place of my normal olive oil or butter.  I don't go out of my way to source animal fat for cooking, but when I do have it, I like to use it up.  I kept lots of fat from the steer we just butchered, so I will be rendering that soon (its waiting for me in the freezer).

I like using the fat because:
  • it tastes good and is nutritious
  • it means that I'm not wasting the fat from my stock
  • I don't have to buy anything in packaging
  • it reduces the amount of olive oil that I need to buy 
Do you cook with lard (from pork) or tallow (from beef)?  Or duck or chicken fat??

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Dexter show!

A few weeks ago we went to the local show grounds to have a look at a Dexter show.  There were probably 100 animals there, with some lovely examples of both black and red Dexters.  

At first we were a little worried that our recently-purchased little Dexter bull, Donald (introduced here), was quite small compared to some of the Dexters on show, but after chatting to some of the owners, we were told that some of the Dexters were probably getting a bit larger than the original intention of the breed, and getting closer and closer to Angus cattle.  We also thought that Donald looks a bit rougher than the ones on show, until we realised that they had all been clipped, washed and brushed before the show!  I don't think Donald would put up with that kind of treatment!  

It is now over 6 weeks since Donald spent a few days with Molly (our Jersey heifer) while she was on heat, and she hasn't come back into heat yet, so fingers crossed that he has done the job he was hired for, which is much more important than worrying about what he looks like.  My conclusion is, don't worry about buying a pure-bred animal, you will be paying for their looks, and not necessarily their function.  We didn't find anyone at the show who was milking their Dexter, so if you want a milker, make sure you buy from someone who does breed for milking ability.  If you are just looking for beef breeding, buy one that has a nice beefy bottom.  Unless you want to breed Dexters for showing or to set up a stud, its cheaper to find a "second-hand" Dexter than buy straight from a breeder, and there seem to always be a few advertised by people who thought they were a nice idea and have changed their mind.  And here's some photos from the show....

the calves are very cute!

a big-ish bull

a cow

Donald for comparison

and Bella posing nicely

me trying to get a nice photo with Donald and him trying to head but me...

Monday, August 13, 2012

Forage crops, pasture, hay - isn't it just grass?

Once again we are learning on the job and its time to make some decisions to manage our stock feed through the winter.

The typical system in our area is to have pasture with mainly tropical grasses that do very well in summer, but die back in winter.  These are rhodes grass, bluegrass and gatton or green panic.  When the grasses die back the protein content decreases and stock don't put on weight.  They have to eat a lot of the dry grass just to maintain weight and we have to feed them hay.  Some farmers we know only keep steers from spring to autumn and don't even try to keep them over winter.  This means they are buying when the price is high and selling when its low.

forage oats

To help the stock gain weight farmers will grow a forage crop in a cultivated area.  Over winter this can be oats or rye grass, and over summer sorghum or millet.  The cattle can be let into the cultivated area to eat the forage or it can be baled into hay.  I think the summer forage is less necessary, as the tropical grasses usually grow well over summer, but it is possibly a way of utilising the cultivated area for a second season of the year, or making extra hay when the weather is better for drying it or just in case dry weather results in poor grass growth.

When I got to this stage of understanding the system, I wondered why we don't plant our pasture with some species that do well in winter, so that we always have some pasture.  After watching Farmer Pete spend 6 weekends ploughing and seeding a small portion of our cultivated area, it seemed like an awful lot of work, I would rather have feed that maintained itself (permaculture technique - plant perennials, its less work!).  We have since found out that we can plant legumes like clover, medic and lucerne into our tropical grasses.  These will do well in winter and produce seed that will sprout the following year.  We are hoping to oversow our good pasture areas with these seeds next autumn.

African Love Grass in our pasture is currently dried off and dormant

Now that we have had a good look at our cultivated areas, we have decided that the lower area is just not suited to hay making, as it would be too far to bring the hay up to the shed (unless we get a hay trailer).  We would like to plant these areas with crops that the cattle can come in and eat, using electric fences to manage their grazing.  The area is divided by contour banks into 5 zones.  In the 2 zones farthest from the gate we would like to establish a self-sustaining pasture mix of rhodes, medic, clover and lucerne.  As this can't be grazed in the first year to allow the grasses to establish, we will also plant a forage crop in the closest 3 zones.  The forage crop can be grazed a few months after planting.  This time we are going to make sure that our forage crop contain legumes for nitrogen fixation.  It seems that cow pea is good for summer and medics and clover are good for winter.  

We would like to eventually phase out the forage crops in the lower cultivation area and return the entire area to a managed pasture that can still be cut for hay if necessary.  This means less work as we don't need to regularly plough the area.  The other alternative is to invest in a no-till seeding implement so that we can plant without ploughing (thinking about the "One Straw Revolution" technique of sowing the next crop under the previous one, but without the clay balls).  If we manage the time spent cattle by the cattle in each zone we should be able to avoid compacting the soil and never have to plough again.  They will also contribute valuable fertiliser to the area :)

The forage oats is green and succulent
Our upper cultivation area is close the hay shed, and so most suited to hay making.  Unfortunately its also closest to our proposed house site and during ploughing this year the soil was billowing out from behind the tractor and would have covered the house area.  We will continue to experiment with different crops in this area too, and decide whether to return it all to pasture or maintain some areas for planting forage.  Again, a no-till implement would solve the dust problem.

Finally, we also have some treed areas which are quite open and have some grass underfoot.  This shady environment is very suited to the gatton/green panic grasses, so we will be broadcasting them in summer.  We have seen how they can establish very strongly under trees at our previous property, so are hoping they will do well here too.  There may also be some winter active plants that would be suitable in these areas.

more pasture - we do have some Rhodes Grass somewhere!
Will  look better in spring...
This leaves us with two unresolved issues - how to oversow, will our existing cultivator drill set above the soil be sufficient or do we need to invest in a no-till conversion?  And, do we sow both the summer and winter seeds together, or run back over with the winter seeds in autumn?  More research required, but I think we're nearly there!  We are also very interested in experimenting with tagasaste, luceana and pigeon pea as alternative protein sources.  I am going to start planting some around the place to see where they grow best.

We have also left some sorghum in the ground to see what it looks like after a second season.  Anything that reduces ploughing time and soil disturbance will be an advantage - so far it is still growing!

How do you manage your pasture and forage crops so that you have feed to fatten animals year round?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Cornflour versus cornstarch

I use cornflour regularly to thicken sauces and gravies.  I only recently realised that the bright white colour is not natural.  I bought some organic corn flour and its creamy yellow, and does the same job.  So why is most corn flour white?  I haven't been able to find the exact answer, but I assume that its bleached, which means that the flour is oxidised.  Oxidation is something that you want to avoid in your food, that's why we are supposed to be eating anti-oxidants!  I have found some references to white corn, but I doubt that the corn is THAT white.  Anyway, I'm happy to have found some yellow cornflour and I won't be going back to the white stuff!

UPDATE December 2014
It turns out that "cornflour" in the UK and Australia is actually "corn starch".  Starch is a component of cornflour that is extracted using a fairly complicated process (although it doesn't seem to involve too many chemicals, just lots of water).  I guess the point of my original post was that I had no idea you could actually buy a corn flour that was just ground up corn, and use that for thickening.  It does have a corn flavour, whereas the white corn starch is pretty much tasteless.  Also some "corn flour" starch in Australia is actually made from wheat, and called "wheaten cornflour", but its just the starch extracted from wheat instead of corn.  I have also since found out that I can use tapioca for thickening.

Overall, I would prefer to use a less processed product, so wholemeal wheat, corn or tapioca flour rather than any form of refined starch.

What do you use to thicken your gravies and sauces?

the last of my white cornflour

enjoying the yellow cornflour

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Growing root vegetables

Several years ago I tried to grow carrots in our heavy clay soil and was completely discouraged when I pulled them up to find arms and legs twisted everywhere and not much carrot worth eating.  This put me off for ages, but then I read about how you can feed root vegetables to dairy cows (here) to reduce their grain ration.  This really appealed to me, so I thought it was time to try to grow some root vegetables again.  Nita at Throwback at Trapper Creek (my favourite family cow blog) recommended to me that I try to grow enough for myself before committing to trying to grow enough for my cow.  Great advice of course!

This time I have better soil and have more experience as a gardener.  I read a few of my gardening books and decided to try carrots, swedes and turnips.  We eat lots of carrots, I would say we eat nearly one carrot a day, but they are so cheap at $1-2/kg, it hasn't been a big priority to grow our own.  I thought it would be a nice challenge to see if I could grow our daily carrot in my garden.

I'm quite pleased with this carrot!
 The turnips and swedes are not vegetables that I would normally buy as they are usually $6/kg (my general rule is to only buy veges priced under $3/kg as that means they are in season/local and not being stored or transported long distances).  I have bought them only when I wanted to make vegetable soup.  To be honest, I had no idea what they really taste like, I usually just chopped them up and put them in the soup.  I didn't actually know which was which (and I think our supermarket doesn't either, they are usually next to each other and labelled "turnips/swedes"!).  It has been really interesting to watch them grow in my garden and learn more about them first hand.  And to taste them fresh and crispy.  They both taste very similar, like a mild radish I think.

Anyway, back in Autumn, in late May, I planted a row of purple carrots, a row of orange carrots, a row of swedes and a row of turnips.  I planted them directly in the soil.  In summer I usually raise seedlings and transplant them later, but I had observed that bok choi seeds that I sprinkled out the Spring before had started sprouting through the mulch in Autumn.  I thought that is the bok choi was doing ok, then I would give the root crops a chance too.  I scraped back the mulch, dug a shallow furrow (exposing lots of worms!), sprinkled out the seeds (trying to space them a bit) and them put everything back.  To my great delight, the seeds started to sprout after about 10 days.

another example of some root veges

After a few weeks, when the seedlings had got larger, I tried to thin them.  That is a big job!  The purple carrots were the worst as the seed had been full of bugs, I didn't think it was going to sprout, so I just chucked it all in the furrow, it seemed to have a very good germination rate!  I found that I had to re-thin every few days.  When the carrots got big enough, I just kept the thinnings to eat as baby carrots.  With the swedes and turnips, I replanted into staggered rows so that I didn't have to waste any seedlings, but I can see now that some are still too close.  I'm not trying to just pull out the biggest ones and give the others more room to grow.

About 2 months after planting, I can now harvest a couple of small carrots for dinner each afternoon.  I haven't worked out how to pick the big ones yet, sometimes I think one will be big, and it will just have a large diameter at the top and turn out to be short and stumpy!  Occasionally I pull a big one though!  I have also been harvesting a swede and/or a turnip.  I just cut them up and cook them with the carrot, either steamed, roasted or stir fried has been a nice change to our normal veges.

cooking the veges
I planted some more seed recently, but I think the soil temperature is too low (or the seed's no good) as not many have sprouted so far.  If I was to succession plant, I probably need to get the second crop growing before the frost starts.

Now I have seen the space required to grow enough to feed us, I realise the space I would need to feed a cow as well.  Nita feeds her cow 5 pounds a day, so about 2.5kg, that amount I have in the ground is probably not much more than 10kg, so we wouldn't last long!  For now I have been feeding Bella the tops, which she seems to enjoy.

the root vegetable patch

turnips (a bit close together)

Next season I would like to try parsnip, salsify (which I only heard about from watching River Cottage, just need to source seeds now!) and mangle wurzle (again, have read about it to find out the best season).  And I will see if we can grow carrots over summer, it might get too hot, but its worth a try :)

And so of course my plans for Cheslyn Rise now include a HUGE root crop area for the cow!  What root vegetables do you grow for you and your animals?  

Monday, August 6, 2012

I haven't washed my hair since January

Natural Deodorant from Biome

Its true, I haven't washed my hair since January.  I have rinsed it in water a few times, but I haven't used any soap or shampoo, or even the "no poo" baking soda and apple cider vinegar mixtures that I've read about.  The idea came following a post I did back in December about eliminating cosmetics from my life.  One reader commented that she didn't wash her hair and it made me wonder if that could work for me (unfortunately I lost that comment when I changed commenting systems, so I don't remember who it was, feel free to comment again!).  Finally I decided to give it a try in early January and I haven't regretted it.

I have had long hair for a few years, but I have also tried very short hair in the past, I found that I had to use too many "products" and wash my hair too frequently when it was short, so now I prefer it long, at least shoulder length.  As I've written before, I now use no products in my hair and never dye my hair, so there's no reason to wash it really.  And if it is actually dirty, then a rinse seems to be sufficient.

Since I stopped washing my hair, I just give it a good brush twice a day and occasionally put some jojoba oil on the tips if I think they are dry.  I usually wear my hair tied back for work or tied right out of the way on the farm, but it still looks nice down if I want to wear it that way.  I have found that I get a little dandruff, but then I just rinse my hair in water and it goes away for a few weeks.  If my hair had gone totally greasy and disgusting, I would have washed it by now, but honestly, I've seen no need to do so.

Obviously this is a huge saving of time and money, but I also feel that its a healthy option for my hair.  Clearly it didn't need to be washed so frequently (or at all) and washing it was probably just stripping out the good oils.  I just wanted to let you all know that I tried it and it worked, so now I wonder if you'll think about trying it too.  Have a think about it like I did and let me know what you end up doing..... unless you now think I've gone completely mad!

Have you tried not washing your hair?

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Natural Deodorant from Biome

Friday, August 3, 2012

Real food Aus-Mexican

Farmer Pete and I love to eat burritos.  Its a good way to use up all the beef mince we have, and to add a few salad vegetables.  I'm sure that our version isn't very Mexican, I haven't been to Mexico, so I have no idea what burritos are supposed to taste like!

these are the spices you need

For a long time we bought the burrito flavour sachet and a packet of tortillas.  Then one day we wanted to make burritos, but we had no flavour sachet in the cupboard!!!  After brief panic, this finally gave me the motivation to look up a recipe and discover that is not actually that hard to make.  The spices you need are paprika, cumin, ground coriander seeds and chillies, I had all but the coriander seeds in the cupboard, so we made it the first time without that spice and it still tasted good.  Now I make it with about a teaspoon of each spice, and a tablespoon of cornflour, with half a cup of water, stirred into the cooked mince (about 1kg at a time, we eat it for several days).  It comes out with just the right spice for us, but I'm sure you can play around with the ratios.

I like to add onions, tomatoes and mushrooms to the mince, also zuchini if I have any

Making the tortillas was more of a challenge, until I saw a recipe on Craving Fresh (for some reason Nourishing Traditions has the mince recipe, but tells you to buy tortillas), it looked surprisingly easy, so I decided to try it (Farmer Pete bought back-up tortillas from the supermarket "just in case").  If you follow Emma's recipe, just just flour soaked in yoghurt or whey for 4-12 hours and then mixed with butter and fried in a frying pan.  The recipe made 8 tortillas.  And Farmer Pete didn't need to open his back-up packet as he thought these ones were quite nice.  Now I am confident that I can make our version of Mexican food with ingredients at home, with no additives, and without relying on packets from the supermarket.

Tortillas were surprisingly easy to make

Do you make your own "mexican" food?  What other packet flavours have you learnt to do without?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Farm update: August 2012

We had even more rain in July, about 50mL, this is very unusual, so now I'm wondering if we will see a wet summer, or a dry summer!  Either way, we have some nice soil moisture and the pasture is starting to green.  This year my bean plant hasn't died back, which is a shame because I planted peas around it, and now they have to grow through the bean instead, things don't always go to plan in the garden....

Meanwhile, the broadbeans are flowering, so I might have some beans soon.  And the strawberries are flowering too.  The pak choi is recovering from the chicken attack.  The bok choi are all going to seed, even the little ones, so I'm guessing that they are done for the year.  Mizuna and kale are still doing well.  The cabbages are forming heads.  I've picked some broccoli, but its small as usual (any tips?).  Have been harvesting carrots, swedes and turnips.  Still no beetroot, but its getting bigger.  Planted more beetroot and radishes.  Self seeded lettuce and parsley are doing well!  Its nearly time to think about spring planting, I have the seed catalogues out already!

broadbeans and broccoli

poor pak choi
We finally butchered the two roosters that we hatched in spring last year, they are in the freezer.  Then we were able to rearrange the rest of the chickens and they are all more comfortable in larger cages.  We have had two eggs a day for the past couple of days, so maybe its the beginning of a promising egg season....  I'll post more about the chicken butchering, and we're having Bratwurst butchered in the first week of August too, which will help reduce the amount of supplement feeding.  The grass is getting greener too.

a frog that jumped out of the clothes pegs

Chime looking thoughtful

Cheryl - Farmer Pete went that way,
and now she's wondering if she should have gone with him

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