Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Paralysis ticks and the orphan calves – part 2 of a long story

In part one of this long story, I explained how we brought home the first weak braford calf and struggled with whether or not to give him milk, we thought he was just weak, and if we could get him to eat more he would get better.  At the same time we were keeping an eye on another calf that we had noticed was skinny and often separated from the herd.  We were worried that she also didn't have a mother, but she seemed to still be doing ok.  Then one day we couldn't find her anywhere, and the next day she was lying in the grass with the rest of the herd but couldn't get up, so we brought her home to Nanango too (this time in the dog box on the ute, not the back of the 4WD).

She was worse than the first calf and couldn't stand at all, so we called the vet the next day (having brought her home on a Sunday, and not wanting to pay weekend call-out fees, and not realising that it was urgent).  The vet rolled her over and found a large tick on her belly.  The vet said her symptoms suggested that she had been bitten by multiple paralysis ticks, which is why she couldn't stand.  The vet said that she probably wouldn't make it, but we wanted to try and help the calf, so we asked the vet to treat both of them.  Unfortunately the vet turned out to be right.

I had never heard of paralysis ticks until I came to Australia, turns out it’s a native, like kangaroos, or maybe more like deadly red belly black snakes and red back spiders, the kind of natives that I don't like.  It lives along the east coast of Australia and other native animals seem to be relatively immune to its potent neurotoxin that gradually paralyses the host.  We regularly see warnings on junky TV programs about checking your pets for paralysis ticks, and occasionally we get paranoid and buy a stinky tick collar for the dogs, but I had no idea they could affect cattle as well.  We had definitely heard of cattle ticks, which cause tick fever, and our property is rated “tick free”, which only applies to the imported cattle ticks, not the native paralysis ticks. 

The surviving calf, standing up and enjoying milk from a bucket

Finally we knew what was wrong with the calves, they had paralysis tick poisoning.  The first calf seemed to be improving, so he had obviously lost the ticks just in time, the second calf got worse, losing control of her neck, and finally dying a few days after we bought her home.  I know, another dead calf!  We haven’t had an easy time lately!

Things we learnt:
  • We have paralysis ticks at Kumbia and need to be careful that the dogs (and even humans, especially small ones) don’t get bitten, we need to be appropriately dressed when we’re in the long grass/bush land where the ticks might be waiting to jump onto a new host.
  • The only way to be sure that all the ticks are off the calves is to use one of a couple of nasty organophosphate pesticides.  We bought one and poured it over both calves so we at least knew that the ticks were dead (it can be hard to find all of them in their fur).  We will use this pesticide on any future weak calves as soon as we find them, just in case, the sooner the ticks come off, the less poison they can pump into the calves and the better chance they have of recovery.
  • The pesticide only lasts for a week, so its not a sustainable method of prevention, you can’t get the cattle into the yards to be covered in OPs once a week when you’re trying to be organic!  Fortunately the herd should build up immunity to the toxin after the big cows have been bitten a few times, and they should pass this on to their calves. 
  • We don’t know if there were paralysis ticks at the property that we bought the cattle from.  Our two weak calves either didn't have mothers to pass on the immunity or were just particularly weak and susceptible to the toxin.  We are waiting to see if any of the other calves are affected, so far they all look very fat and happy, except for one skinny one that we cornered and rolled over.  He also had a tick, so we doused him with the chemical, and he's still alive, so must have got to him in time.  We are still wondering why the calves were so weak and skinny in the first place, its not clear if the ticks  cause the calves to lose weight, but it seems that there is more research into tick poisoning of domestic pets rather than cattle, so possibly it is a symptom, I just haven't read about it.
  • Nursing an affected calf – the most important thing is to keep the calf upright using hay bales or blocks of wood, so that it doesn't roll onto its side, which is bad for its rumen.  If they can’t get to water, make sure that they are hydrated.  The vet stuck a tube into each of their stomachs and gave them electrolyte solution.  This is not recommended without training, as you can end up with fluid in their lungs if you don’t know what you’re doing, but you can also bottle feed electrolytes.  The powder isn’t cheap, I made up my own using dextrose, salt and baking soda (recipe here).  If the calf can stand, help him to get up and walk around, so that he’s not lying down all the time.  Eventually the calf should recover to the point that they can almost get up by themselves, and then one day they will be wondering around the yard as if nothing ever happened.
  • As I said in the last post, make sure they have shelter and it doesn't hurt to give some Vit C and Vit B12 injections as well!
The calf that survived is still very skinny.  He drinks 2 L of milk morning and afternoon, and munches on lucerne all day, but we can still see all his bones.  I bought him calf raiser pellets and he has finally got used to eating a scoop of them each day as well.  Any other ideas for beefing up a calf?

see how skinny he is!
I'll write more on paralysis tick management for our entire herd in a coming post.... we have some other ideas for long term management that doesn't involve nasty chemicals.

Did I miss anything?  How are your calves doing?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Caring for an orphan calf – part 1 of a long story

This is a LONG story, so I’ll break it into two parts.  In the first part, we found the first calf and I wasn’t sure whether to give him milk or not, so I’ll explain what I found out in that regard.  In the second part, I’ll explain how the second calf turned out to have paralysis ticks, which explained why the first calf couldn’t stand up and what we learned since then about paralysis ticks.

Since we got the 25 (or so) Braford cows with calves for Cheslyn Rise, we’ve been trying to spend time with them to get them tamer, and at least once a week we take them hay and get them to walk up to the yards with us.  About three weeks after they arrived we noticed over a couple of days that one calf seemed to be very slow walking down to the yards.  On the second day we got him into the yards and through the race and shut him in the crush so we could have a look at him.  He had a lot of burrs in his coat and was very skinny.  We thought he probably didn’t have a mother looking after him (possibly a first calf heifer, or possibly the mother didn’t come to the property at all, another long story which I won't get in to!). 

We left the calf in the yard with food and water for most of the day, and when we came back there was no mother cow hanging around, so we decided to bring him home and try to get him stronger, as the rest of the herd clearly wasn’t looking after him.  I had observed the cows and calves in the yard when they first arrived, and the cows are very rough with other calves, they will head-butt them or kick them away from food, and only look after their own calf, so this little guy was probably missing out on food and not getting any loving attention.  We had our little 4WD vehicle at the property that day, so we lifted him into the back of that, I put one of the dogs’ collars on him so I could hold onto him from the back seat.  This would not be a safe way to transport a healthy calf, but because he was so weak, we weren’t worried about him kicking me or a window.  Cheryl (the dog) sat in the front passenger seat, and was completely absorbed in the glee of being allowed on the front seat, until about halfway home she turned around and with a look of utter amazement, realised that there was a calf in the back of the car.  (We bought the second calf home in the dog box on the ute, which was much more sensible).

Anyway, I tell you all of this because most of the information on raising calves assumes that you know the age of the calf and when it last had milk.  With this little one, we had to assume he was about 6-8 weeks old, as he had been tagged and branded.  And we assumed that he hadn’t had milk for about 3 weeks, since he’d been at our place.  Normally, if you are taking a calf straight from its mother you would assume that it needed milk or milk replacer (or colostrum in the first few days), but as this calf was eating hay, we weren’t sure whether to give him milk or not, as there was a chance that he would not longer be able to digest the milk properly.

I didn’t know if his stomach would still produce the enzymes he needed to coagulate the milk.  The other issue was that he may no longer have the esophageal groove reflex to channel milk to the abomasum and it will either take too long to get digested if it goes to the wrong stomach or end up fermenting in the lower intestine, and he may end up with scours (runny poo), which would do him no good in his current weak state.  As far as I can find out, cattle continue to produce the enzymes rennin and pepsin in their abomasum (forth stomach) even after weaning, and the esophageal groove reflex should continue until at least a couple of years of age, so we were safe to try him on some milk (this I found out later, no time for research when you have a half-dead calf in your yard!).

In the end we decided to try to give him a little diluted milk replacer, with extra minerals, kelp, copper sulphate and livamol (a horse vitamin supplement).  He wouldn’t suck on the bottle properly (this may have been the affect of the paralysis tick that we didn’t know about at that stage), so I had to just let it dribble into his mouth and wait for him to swallow.  If I knew that he was young and needed the milk, I would have tried to make him learn to suck on the bottle, but I took this as an indication that he didn’t really need the milk.  He was also eating a lot of hay, so that is another sign that he is ready to stop drinking milk (or has recently had to stop drinking milk).  As soon as Bella had her calf, I tried this one on a bottle of Bella’s milk and he finally figured out how to suck from the bottle, I’m not sure if he just liked the real milk better or if he was getting better from the paralysis at that stage.

The first day that we had the calf at home I stayed home to keep an eye on him.  I checked him each hour and he seemed to get worse and worse.  I don’t know if he lacked the will or the energy to live, or was just really scared to be away from his herd, at one stage he flopped over and stretched out his neck, I thought he was dead at first, but then I saw he was still breathing, so I decided I needed to do everything I could to try to keep him alive (apparently this is also a symptom of the paralysis tick). 

I was getting desperate at this stage and consulted my two favourite cattle references again – Pat Coleby’s “Natural Cattle Care”, and Marja Fitzgerald’s “The Healthy House Cow”.  I still wasn’t sure what was wrong (not much about paralysis ticks in any cattle reference book I have read).  Pat recommends injections of Vit C and B12 for just about everything anyway , and I had these ready for dog emergencies, so I decided it was worth a try.  I gave the calf 10 mL of each, and I’m not sure if I actually managed to get them into his muscle, as he was so skinny, but I thought it was worth a try, even if it was just an opportunity to practice injections. 

Marja writes about brushing and talking to your cow, and I’m never sure with the wilder cattle if they actually appreciate my attention.  Obviously if Bella or Molly was sick, I would spend time talking to and brushing them, but with the untamed animals, I don’t know if it just scares them more.  As this little guy couldn’t move away from me and looking like he was going to need a fair bit of intensive care and would need to get used to me anyway, I spent some time stroking his fur and talking to him, I’m not sure if that helped or not!

The next day we set up a larger shade tarpaulin in the calf pen (it’s a round yard with animal mesh around it) and left him for the day (what a long day!).  When we got home from work he was sitting in the grass eating his lucerne, alert and looking around at us, but he couldn’t get up by himself (due to the paralysis tick).  Since then we have been lifting him up each morning when we get up, so he can walk around, and then pushing him over and leaving him in the shade, and getting him up again in the afternoon.  He is slowly getting stronger and closer to getting up by himself.

In part 2 of the story I will explain how we brought home the second calf, found out that the problem was paralysis ticks, and what we did about it.

Things we have learnt:
  • Spend time with your cattle, try to watch out for injured or weak animals and separate them from the herd for further observation.  Hay is a great way to get them tame and coming right up to you, even our wild steers have got tamer.
  • Don’t be scared to give vitamin injections to a weak or sick animal, as long as you put them in the animal’s neck, you can’t damage the meat and you can’t really overdose on vitamins, so its best to give them as early as possible, when you first notice that an animal is unwell.  A 200 mL bottle costs less than $15, and you only need to give 10 mL at a time, so it’s a cheap boost that may save your animal. 
  • Even if you’re not sure if an orphan calf can still digest milk, you can at least use dilute calf milk replacer in a calf bottle (we use a speedy feeder) with added minerals, to make sure a weak calf is getting some minerals and fluids.  Even if the calf won’t suck on the bottle, if you can get his head up on an angle, the milk will dribble into his mouth and he will swallow eventually (unless he is suffering from paralysis and can’t swallow, in which case you may end up with fluid in his lungs, but he’ll die of dehydration if you do nothing, so it’s a touch choice, unless you want to call the vet in for intraveinal fluids, that's when you have to remember that these are supposed to be livestock and not pets, even though you'd love for all of them to live (and by "you" I mean "me")), this is slow, but at least you know the calf is getting some nutrients.  If you know that the calf has just come from its mother, unless it is old enough to be weaned (and from what I have read, this depends more on the calf’s intake of dry feed than its actual age, but around 6-8 weeks is the earliest for weaning), you will need to get it to drink milk or milk replacer from a bottle or bucket, it usually gets hungry and figures it out after a couple of days if you persist.
  • Observe the calf regularly, make sure that he is eating some hay, that he is producing manure and that its not too runny, and that he is getting up and changing position occasionally (so that he’s not losing feeling in his legs – although this doesn’t seem to be such an issue for a calf compared to full-sized cattle).  Watch for alert eyes and the head following you as you move around.  I find that calves all have the same stubborn look on their faces, you don’t get much emotion out of them when they are lying down, but you can see that they are curious and alert, which means that they are doing ok.
  • Provide adequate shelter from hot sun and cold weather (in our spring, we get both in 24 hours) as the calf may not be able to get up and move into the shade or out of the wind by itself if its very weak.
  • Calves normally spend a lot of time lying down in the grass while their mothers are grazing nearby, and if they are getting their mother’s milk, that’s ok, because they’re getting plenty of energy.  This little calf wasn’t getting any milk, so he really needed to spend more time up and eating, and I suspect this is why he had lost so much condition, he just wasn’t getting enough from the dry grass in our paddocks.  This means that newly weaned young calves need better quality forage than adult cows.
At this stage we didn’t know that he had paralysis tick poisoning, that didn’t become clear until we brought home another calf and called the vet.  I will explain all about the paralysis ticks in my text post - they are a unique part of cattle farming on the east coast of Australia, so don't worry, you probably don't have them where you live.....but if you do, check your calves and your dogs.....

Any questions?  Anything you want to add?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Still baking bread - using the BBQ over summer

As you know, I decided I wanted to stop buying bread, and back in April I started baking my own.  I dabbled in sourdough in May and then found a great "soaked" flour recipe that worked and I've stuck with it ever since.  We haven't brought any bread since April!  I use a bread maker to mix and rise the bread, and over winter I was using the woodstove to bake the bread.  I had got that method perfected, but now its warmed up too much to light the fire inside, so I had to find another way to cook my bread.

eight acres: baking bread
BBQ bread
I tried the breadmaker again and I just wasn't happy with it.  The bread doesn't seem to cook properly and the tin is such a stupid size, you end up with weird tall slices of bread that don't fit in the toaster!  Next we tried the BBQ (a Weber BBQ that we use all summer to cook everything from sausages to roast, pizza and chocolate pudding).  I say "we" because the BBQ is husband-territory.  Not that I don't know how to use it, but I'm not really allowed to use it, if Peter is home, he likes to be in charge of the BBQ, which is fine, because he does a very good job and we don't make many dishes in summer with everything cooked in the BBQ instead.  I burnt the first loaf of BBQ bread, so Peter took over and got the settings just right for the second loaf.

eight acres: baking bread
A loaf fresh from the BBQ
The main thing that I like about the recipe that I use is that it only uses simple ingredients:
  • flour
  • seeds
  • water
  • honey
  • kefir
  • yeast
  • salt
Most recipes or pre-mixes for the bread machine use "bread improver".  This may sound innocuous, but it is actually a mix of emulsifiers, enzymes and food acids, that speed-up the process of bread-making, so that its more convenient for a factory.  Traditionally, before bread improver, bread making took 12-24 hours, which is the time I use in my recipe for the flour and wet ingredients to "soak" before adding the yeast, but with bread improver you can make bread in just 2-3 hours.  Bread improvers are all different, so you need to check the ingredients list, some are worse for you than others.  Some contain things like sodium metabisulphate (which I use to clean the beer fermenters) and soy flour.  Ascorbic acid (synthetic vitamin C) and citric acid are also common ingredients, see wikipedia.

Its not so much the actual ingredients that I want to avoid, but the fact that they are used to speed up the bread making process worries me.  I wonder if the 2-3 hours + extra ingredients is really enough to process the proteins in the flour to a form that we can digest, or does it just diguise a shortcut by making the bread light without really processing the proteins?  I would rather let my dough have the extra time to soak (plus use kefir to add enzymes).  As long as my dough has at least 12 hours to soak, it always comes out of the tin light and fluffy, as if a bread improver had been used.  I do remember the heavy quick loaves that I used to make without bread improver, the soaking time seems to make all the difference to the bread texture.  

It does require some extra organising to soak the flour, but really no extra time, just more time between steps.  I prepare the flour/water/kefir mix in the bread maker tin in about 10 minutes, either the evening or morning before baking the bread.  Straight after work I add the salt and yeast and start the bread maker program, which takes only a few minutes (I have saved a program that kneeds and rises the bread, but stops before the final rise).  When the bread maker beeps I turn the dough into another tin to rise further for 1 hour, and then into the oven or BBQ, and back out after 1 hour, that's really only another few minutes of work and bread is out of the oven before bedtime.  Overall, its no quicker to add the bread improver and have the bread done in 2-3 hours, as long as you realise 12-24 hours before you need the next loaf!

As far as the yeast goes, I can't find any solid evidence that yeast in cooked bread is bad for you.  The yeast is killed in the baking process, so there's no way it can contribute to intestinal yeast problems.  I think the main problem that people have with yeast bread is the short-cut quick processing time, rather than the yeast, but that is just my theory.  I would love to perfect sourdough, it is far more self-sufficient than buying yeast!  But at the moment I don't have time to experiment and my initial efforts did not taste good, so I will stick with this recipe that works until I have a chance to play around with sourdough.

What do you think?  Is short-cut bread the problem?  Do you make your own?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bella's cloths

One of the key parts of our milking routine (here and here) is washing Bella's teats.  We do this after she is settled in her milking bales eating hay, and before the milking cups go on.  Washing her teats is both for cleanliness and to help her to "let down" her milk, by relaxing her and signalling that we are going to take some milk.  At a commercial dairy, the cows' teats are washed with a blast of cold water, I'm not sure how that helps them to relax!  For Bella, we use a cloth to gently wipe each teat with warm water, then squeeze out a few squirts of milk and put the milking cups on.  At first we used a couple of old face cloths, but it was difficult to keep them clean and ready to go when we were milking twice a day, so I decided to make some more.
The very well used cloths on the right and some
new ones about to be sewn up on the left.
Occasionally there is a stall at the Nanango markets that sells old towels and sheets from hotels.  We were lucky enough to get a bag of 5 old towels for $2.  Two of the towels were perfectly good for dog towels.  At first I just cut one ripped towel into suitable sized squares and then overcast stichted around the edges (would be even better if I had an overlocker, but I just used the sewing machine, even a zigzag stitch would be ok).

While Bella was dry, these cloths have found there way into the house and campervan as very useful cleaning cloths, so recently I cut up another towel and made another batch.  We just throw them in the washing machine when there get too dirty.  It only took me about an hour to cut the towel and sew the edges.  Its nothing fancy, I just leave all the finished towel edges and sew any raw edges.  I did think of maybe colour-coding with different coloured stitching for different applications, but didn't get around to it.  This time I also made some larger hand towel sizes to put in the car with some soap for hand washing etc.

Anyway, I just wanted to share with you a cheap way to make some reusable cloths.  If you have a source of cheap towels, this is a quick and easy.

For more on the importance of towels when travelling - refer to the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy :)  Any frugal tips related to towels?  dairy cows?  or farmers markets?

You might also be interested in my series on getting started with homestead dairy

Monday, October 22, 2012

Wedding anniversary

Tomorrow is our second wedding anniversary.  I had to think for a minute then, it feels like more than two years since we stood on the beach, surrounded by close friends and family, and promised to look after each other no matter what happened.  So much has happened in those two years, good and bad, I could swear it was 10 years ago!

Last year I did a series of posts about our wedding, and I'm glad I did, because the memory is fading.  I consider that we had a simple wedding, it was certainly cheap and not very flash.  We enjoyed the day and spending time with family and friends.  I wrote these posts to help people realise that they don't have to follow the normal commercial wedding, and its easy to do something different and simple if you want to.

A simple wedding in several parts - location, guest list and invitations, accommodation

A simple wedding part 2 - the dress and flowers

A simple wedding part 3 - the ceremony

A simple wedding part 4 - the reception

Share your own simple wedding - ok I started a linky and only ONE person linked (thanks Emma!), and I have no idea how to re-open it and the list isn't even working now, but if you want to write a post about your own simple wedding, or someone else's, please just use the comments on this post to post the link so that we keep them all in one place (Emma, if you want to re-link, I really enjoyed your post :) ).

We are continuing the tradition of not going on a honeymoon or doing much for our anniversary because we have too many animals :)  This year we are just having a simple dinner at home together on the veranda, looking out over all those animals (and eating the good things that they give us that totally makes it worth keeping them :) )

Tell me about your simple wedding ideas.....

Friday, October 19, 2012

A foster calf for Bella

When we found Bella’s dead calf we didn’t have much time to figure out what to do next.  We managed to milk Bella by carrying her calf to the milking bales, and then we started calling friends to find out if someone had a spare calf that we could try to foster.  That afternoon we picked up little Romeo, and he spent the night in a separate yard, and Bella stayed close to her dead calf.

We have never fostered a calf before, so we weren’t sure how it was going to work.  We were very lucky that we could find a very tame little bull calf, who was only a week old and had been bottled raised since birth, as his mother had died.  He was the ideal foster calf, very tame, so he wasn’t scared of us, and very strong and used to sucking from a bottle, so not scared to find his milk in strange places! 
Romeo the changling

Various people and forums suggested different ways to get a cow to take a foster calf.  Everything from dosing the calf in the afterbirth, the cow’s urine, bananas, to skinning the calf and putting the skin onto the new calf.  We only tried the urine suggestion, as Bella had already eaten the afterbirth and I wasn’t keen on skinning the dead calf.  I was considering pouring molasses on him, but didn’t get around to it.

The first morning after the calf died, we got Bella into her miking bales, and sneaked the new calf up behind her to suck on her teats.  He was very enthusiastic, but Bella was not impressed.  That afternoon she had to be coaxed into the bales and I had to take Romeo away so she couldn't see him, as she didn't trust us.  We decided that milking routine was the priority and the fostering could wait.  Last year we had trouble with Bella getting mastitis when she refused to be milked, and we really didn’t want that to happen again, so we bottle fed the calf instead.

We took the dead calf away from Bella on the first morning, so she was just in the paddock with the new calf.  At first she was a bit mean to him, head butting him out of the way.  I understood her frustration, she wanted HER calf, not this imposter!  But he knew where the milk came from, and probably wanted the company, so he kept following her.  Over the coming days we saw the two of them spending more time together, and Bella slept near Romeo at night.

Exactly one week after Bella's calf died, we milked Bella and only got 4L instead of 8L.  Romeo didn’t come to the gate to get his milk, he was happy lying down.  I gave him 2L anyway, greedy little thing, he drank that too.  After breakfast we saw Bella licking the calf, which was very exciting, because it showed that she was starting to accept him......and then we saw him having a drink from Bella.  

It is very funny to see a little fresian-cross calf drinking from a jersey cow, and for the cow to be so protective of him.  She really has decided to adopt him, we are not allowed too close to him and she is constantly licking him clean.

As this is our one and only experience of fostering, I won't claim to be an expert, but I can give some advice on what I think worked for us:
  • Don't force the cow to take the calf, they both need to get used to each other, and it may take some time
  • Tricking the cow won't work if she's as smart and determined as Bella, so don't be disappointed if she knows what you're up to
  • Leaving the cow and calf alone in a small yard or paddock together forces them to make friends
  • Milking routine is the highest priority for cow health, fostering comes second
  • If you can get a tame calf, it will be easier to work with both the calf and the cow
  • If you can get a calf that's the right breed, or at least the same colour as your cow she might not think you're so strange
Have you ever got a cow to take a foster calf?  Any tips?

You might also be interested in my series on getting started with homestead dairy

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Time to swap seeds

It seems like lots of people have spare seeds in their gardens at the moment.  I like to try to give away my favourite seeds in the hope that other people will propagate and save them too, so if I ever lose them, I might be able to borrow some back again!

There are currently seed offers on the following sites (feel free to link others in the comments):

I also have some excess seeds that I'd like to give away.  Like the others, I don't expect anything in return, but if you do have something to swap, that just adds to the fun and helps us all to build up a generous seed bank.  Obviously I can only send within Australia (excluding WA and Tas).

I have the following seeds to give away:
  • dill,
  • parsley, 
  • bok choy, 
  • tat soi, 
  • mizuna, 
  • some kind of lettuce that does well over summer, 
  • mini capsicum that survive fruit fly,
  • marigold,
  • calendula
  • poor mans beans
  • other beans - some kind of climbing bean and a bush butter bean
I will very soon also have mustard greens and lacy lady peas.

AND I have excess kefir grains, which I believe I can post to you (they live on the kitchen bench at room temp, so its worth a try!).

Please send an email to eight [dot] acres [dot] liz [at] gmail [dot] com with your postal address and which seeds you would like me to send.  Happy seed saving and swapping!

If you don't know what you're doing, see my posts on seed saving here and here.

Of course, if you do request seeds from my site or the other sites up top, it would only be polite to follow their/my blog or like their/my facebook page.  Also feel free to link to this post and tell others about it :)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Australian kelpie

When I first came to Australia seven years ago I had never heard of a kelpie, and since then I'm pretty much continuously lived with one or both of the only kelpies I know.  Chime was the first kelpie I met, she belongs to a friend that I lived with them I first came to Australia, and she now lives with us while my friend is overseas.  Cheryl is Pete's dog, she puts up with me, but given the choice she always goes with Pete.  We try to take the dogs with us where-ever we go, they are part of our family and they are allowed inside and sleep next to our bed (this may change when we have a nice house! I am forever sweeping up dog hair!).

Kelpies are a uniquely Australian breed.  The details of the origins of this breed are very vague, apparently the original "kelpie" was a black working bitch, named after the celtic kelpie, and bred from a collie and maybe a dingo, her pups started to be known as good workers, and people were asking for kelpie's pups (more on wikipedia) and then somehow they became a breed.  Kelpies are used as both sheep and cattle working dogs.  They can be black or red, with or without eyebrows (I prefer the eyebrows, they have so much expression on their faces).

beach and ball are Cheryl's favourite things
Neither of our kelpies are pure, Chime is crossed with a cattle dog and Cheryl is unknown, maybe with a Rottweiler, as she is larger, with rougher fur.  They are both very energetic, even at the age of 9 and 11 (you can imagine what they were like as pups!).  Their favourite time of day is early morning (sometimes we are woken by Cheryl wagging her tail, just happy to be awake) and when we get home from work.  Cheryl's favourite thing to do is to play ball, and she occasionally resorts to throwing the ball in the air for herself to catch, she has a collection ranging from a soccer ball to golf balls.  Chime doesn't really get ball, but she loves to chew on things, we give them bones so she has something to chew on that's not Cheryl's ball!  They are supposed to be good at jumping, Cheryl can still get on the back of the ute with the tailgate down, but Chime can't work it out, she is better at climbing into cars than jumping.  Cheryl loves a swim at the beach or in the dam, but Chime is very timid around water and will only wet her paws.  They are both very sweet companions with their own distinct personalities, and since they have been together they have got up to all sorts of mischief, lets just say no egg on the veranda is safe, even if it appears to be out of kelpie reach!

got to love those eyebrows!

Unfortunately neither of them show any natural ability with working cattle.  Cheryl tends to try to lick their noses (which was ok when we had tame cattle only) and even though Chime was trained to work cattle when she was younger, and she knows to be scared of them, and gives them a good snarl if they come to close, she doesn't know how to move them where we want them!  We would like to one day get a working dog to help us with the cattle.  At the moment I tend to walk behind the mob with the dogs, while Pete takes the lead with a bale of hay, and by instinct the cattle stay mobbed up without the dogs having to do much, but it would be nice to have a dog with some ability to round up a mob itself!  We know that three dogs is too much (and probably having a pup at the moment is too much anyway), so we are waiting for our opportunity (either when Chime goes home or one of them dies) to get another dog, and it will probably be another kelpie cross.

an old dog needs a good bed
Have you heard of kelpies?  Do you know any personally?

Monday, October 15, 2012

How plants grow


My first two posts were about minerals in the soil and how plants use them, and about microbes (and larger creatures) in the soil and how they help to make minerals available to plants.  This post is about understanding how plants grow so that we can help them by applying minerals and encouraging microbes at times and in ways that will be most effective and efficient for us and for the plants.

Stages of plant growth
This is a huge topic and far too much for me to get into in one blog post, and I’m no expert anyway.  The main concepts that you need to understand are:
  • ·         Seeds – what triggers them to start growing? What conditions will be the best start for a healthy plant?
  • ·         Roots – how do they transport nutrients to the plant?  What are exudates?
  • ·         Leaves – what is photosynthesis and what does the plant need to maximise production?
  • ·         Flowering and fruiting – what triggers flowering and fruiting?  How can it be optimised?

I have found the book “How does your garden grow?”, by Chris Beardshaw, very helpful as it covers everything you need to know about plants and soil with some great diagrams.  It does get into biological details in some sections, but mostly keeps things simple and easy to understand.  I’m sure there are other references out there, so please let me know if you have a favourite.  I have had a look for an online reference and I can’t find anything useful at the moment, again, if you know of anything, please let me know.

Monitoring plant growth
Plant sap refractometry is a measure of the sugar content of sap.  This is a very cheap way to measure the health of a plant.  If the brix content is greater than 12, then the plant is healthy.

Plant sap pH is also an indication of plant health, with 6.4 being the ideal pH.  Higher or lower than 6.4 indicates a mineral deficiency, and will cause the plant to be vulnerable to pest and disease pressure.  This can be measured using a sap pH meter.

Maximising plant yield
I have summarised the main methods for applying minerals and microbes in a table, download from google docs here.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Cheese making basics

Now that we have lots of milk again, its time to make cheese!  At first Bella gave us about 12 L a day, but now Romeo is taking as much as he wants, we get about 2 L for Benny and a little extra for ourselves.  If we want more, we have to lock up Romeo overnight, more about share milking another day, I want to explain a bit about cheese, so just pretend I'm still getting lots of milk!  I use about 1 L a day to make either yoghurt or cream cheese, and we have a kefir smoothie every morning, but when we have more than 6 L in the fridge ..... its time to make cheese! (It you're losing track of our latest cow and calf situation, see my most recent update).

Before we got Bella we didn’t know anything about making cheese, so we bought a few cheese making books and went to a cheese making course.  We were pretty confident about making the cheese, but maturing and storing the cheese was more of a challenge, with some early attempts ending up covered in fluorescent moulds.  Finally we used our vacuum sealer to pack some of later cheeses, which seemed to work.  We also converted a bar fridge into a cheese-maturing fridge, which I will explain in more detail in a later post.

The difficult thing about cheese making is that it takes so long to mature, you don’t know if you've made a good cheese until 6-12 months after you made it.  We got a little disheartened and stopped making the cheeses after we had some much trouble with the crazy coloured moulds, but then after a few months when we tried the first one, we realised that it wasn't too bad.  We used raw milk for all our cheese, so it contained all the natural bacteria in the milk, which gives it a very strong flavour.  Its too strong to eat on crackers, so what I do is grate each block of cheese and put it in a bag in the freezer.  It is then perfect for sprinkling onto omelettes, pasta, pizza, salads etc. 

The funny thing was that, at first, we tried to make lots of different kinds of cheese, gouda, colby, cheddar, parmesan etc, and then when we ate them we found that they all tasted the same!  This is mainly because of our lack of process control, we don’t measure the pH and we are not at all accurate with temperature, stirring speed/time or curd size, so in the end everything comes out very similar.  Now that we know that it doesn't really matter what recipe we use, we are aiming to just find a really simple recipe so that we can make after work.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of cheese, those that use rennet and those that do not.  Rennet is a mixture of enzymes used to coagulate the milk, which causes it to split into curds and whey.  Rennet is used to make most hard cheeses, whereas soft cheeses can be coagulated by either adding an acid (lemon juice or citric acid) or letting the lactic acid forming bacteria grow and acidify the milk naturally.  I use the latter method to make cream cheese, I just add cheese culture and let it ferment for 24 hours at around 30°C.  Hard cheese is better for using up large volumes of milk and keeps for longer.

When making hard cheese, the first step is to heat the milk to the required temperature.  Most cheese making books recommend pasteurisation (heating to 70 °C to kill all the natural bacteria in the milk) and then cooling to the cheese making temperature, but we use our milk raw to preserve all the natural bacteria and enzymes, so we just heat it to cheese making temperature – 32 – 37 °C depending on the recipe. 

The next step is to add the cheese culture or starter.  Again this will depend on the recipe.  Commercial cheese makers would have a huge variety of cultures available, some make specially for the cheeses that they produce.  Home cheese-makers usually use mesophilic (medium temperature) or thermophilic (high temperature) cultures.  Recipes that call for the milk to be heated above 40 °C usually use the thermophilic culture.  After a tiny amount of culture is added to the warm milk, it can be left to ferment for a few minutes up to an hour.

The milk is then ready for the rennet to be added.  The usual rate is 2 mL of rennet for 10 L of milk, and the rennet is always diluted in 10 times the amount of cold water so that it will be evenly distributed in the milk.  The best technique is to start stirring the milk quite vigorously and then add the rennet, and keep stirring for between 1 and 3 minutes.  As discussed above, the rennet will then cause the milk to form a solid curd after standing for 30 min to 1 hours.

Once the curd has formed, its time to cut the curd.  Depending on the cheese, this may be into very small pieces to force out all the whey, or quite large pieces to keep the cheese soft.  For parmesan the curd is cut into rice-sized pieces, for brie, its more like 2 cm cubes.  Then commences the stirring and the heating.  This is to force even more whey from the curd, so very dry hard cheeses are heated and stirred more than soft cheeses.  For example, parmesan is heated to around 47 degC and stirred constantly for several hours, whereas one of my feta recipes says not to stir or heat the curd at all, just let it sit in the whey for an hour.  

When the curd is ready, it needs to be scooped out into a mould.  We have a few different sized moulds, they are just plastic tubes, with holes, and "followers", which a plastics discs cut to fit inside the tubes.  Usually the mould is lined with cheese cloth.  Some cheeses have some other steps at this stage - gouda requires the curd to be pressed in the mould in the pot of whey, and cheddar is cut and salt added before putting the curd in the mould.  At this stage the cheese may be pressed using a cheese press, or left to drain naturally.  A hard cheese requires more pressing to force out all the whey.  Pete made me a lovely cheese press from booker rod, wing nuts and springs, and it doubles as a frame to hang the cream cheese as well!

The cheese is usually turned a few times in the mould and then pressed overnight or for several hours anyway.  Then its ready to be salted or floated in brine for several hours and finally finally its time to age the cheese, either by waxing, wrapping or vacuum sealing the cheese.  And now you wait several months to find out how you cheese tastes :)

 Did that help?  Or just confuse you further?  Any questions?  Any favourite cheeses to make or eat?

You might also be interested in my series on getting started with homestead dairy

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Vaccine guilt - should we vaccinate our cattle?

If you've had kids, you've probably already gone through plenty of vaccine guilt, is the vaccine doing more harm than good?  Should you vaccinate or shouldn't you? etc.

Well we don't have kids, but believe me, the livestock vaccine guilt is just as bad (for me anyway).  For cattle there are two main vaccinations, 5-in-1 and 7-in-1 (more here).  The first vaccinates against 5 different Clostridium bacteria that cause a range of diseases in cattle.  The second is the same, but also includes vaccinations for 2 Leptosporidium bacteria, which are harmful to both cattle and humans.  The second one is more than twice the price of the first one.  In organic farming you are allowed to vaccinate against diseases which are common in your area.  Everyone we know uses 7-in-one on all their calves, but is it really necessary?  Its impossible to find out, most of the information comes from the vaccination manufacturers, and you can bet how much I trust what they have to say!  Lately they have even been running a TV ad warning of the dangers of "Lepto" infections in humans, with the guilt-trip about "who would look after your animals if you got sick from Lepto?", obviously too many people are skimping and only getting the cheaper 5-in-1, so they trying to boost sales.  The manufactures recommend 6 monthly booster doses for both vaccines.  This is not only expensive, but I worry whether it will be doing more harm than good for our cattle.

So now we have vaccine guilt.  What if we choose not to vaccinate and the calves get sick?  Not to mention the economic loss, we do actually care about the wellbeing of our animals and would feel terrible if they died as a result of our bad management decisions.  But what if we are compromising their immune system by giving them the vaccine?

From everything I've read about human and animal health over the past couple of years, I believe that we are intrinsically healthy and able to resist disease unless we are stressed.  In the case of cattle, the bacteria that we are supposed to vaccinate against is naturally present in soil and in healthy animals, and will only cause infection in an animal with a compromised immune system (which is a bit different to human vaccines for infectious viruses, which tend to be spread by sick people, rather than present all the time in the environment).  In the case of cattle, this could be due to lack of minerals, extremes of climate, hunger or lack of access to fresh water.  Castration, tagging, weaning and branding are also stressful times for calves.  We have decided to give the male calves 5-in-1 to help them to get through castration, but we don't see the need to vaccinate all the animals every year.  I have contacted some organic farmers in the area and they told me that they don't vaccinate at all.  I would feel better about that if we were able to keep a closer (daily) watch on the cattle, so that will be the aim in the future.

And then to complicate things even further, I find out that it is recommended for farmers to have a vaccine against "Q Fever", so now we need to decide if we will get that for ourselves.....

It makes me wonder how many people are blindly following the recommendations of vaccine manufacturers, and how much money the beef industry is wasting each year!  Do you vaccinate your cattle?  When and why?

This post is linked to farm girl blog fest 4 on Fresh Eggs Daily.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Moon planting guide

One of the suggestions in Linda Woodrow's book is to use the phases of the moon to organise and optimise planting.  Up until now my planting has been completely random, usually just when I have time or remember to plant things.  I never took much notice of moon planting in the past, but now that a few people have said that it does work, I think its worth a try.  I don't think I'll be able to follow the moon planting calendar absolutely, but its probably worth being aware of it and trying to match my planting to optimal times where possible.

I had a look on the internet for more advice and found some good sites that explain how to use moon planting (especially this one) and plenty of calendars that I could buy.  I don't want to have to buy a new calendar every year, so I decided to make my own based on moon phase data for Australia and the explanation of when to plant what on that website.  I've come up with a simple spreadsheet to help me work out when to plant, you can download it from my google documents here.  If you are gardening in another country, you will have to look up the moon phases and equinox/solstice for your part of the world.

Now my friend at work says I should really be using the astrological calendar and take into account the movements of all the planets (for example).  That is a very restrictive calendar with lots of days when you can't plant.  I need to start with something simple, and for that the moon phases will do for now.  My friend also admits that she doesn't actually follow it herself, although she has bought the calendar and is going to show it to me so that I can overwhelmed with its complicated-ness!

I'm going to give it a go this year (my planting year starts in spring, my financial year starts in July and my calendar year starts in January, if you can follow that!), what about you?  Do you use moon planting already?  Will you try it too?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Thoughts on broad beans

This is the first year I've ever grown broad beans.  My mum used to grow broad beans and I remember the work of shelling them all, blanching them and spreading them out on baking trays in the freezer.  And then when they were cooked they went all grey and yuck (sorry mum!).  I also remember the furry insides of the pods, I love that feeling :)

This time last year we were visiting an old farmer and I noticed that he had a magnificent crop of broad beans, at least 2 m high, in his garden, at a time when I had barely anything growing, so I decided to give them a try.  They are planted in Autumn, grow very slowly through Winter, and then produce beans in early Spring, when other Winter crops are starting to go to seed (the brasicas) and before I can start the tomatoes and warm season crops.  This way they fill a gap in the garden production, but they get planted at the same time as all the Winter veges.

broad beans! and calendula :)
As I hadn't grown broad beans before, I wasn't sure what to expect.  Here are some of the things I learnt:

  • For a plant that likes to grow so tall, you'd think it would have its own support system, but no, it needs to be tied to a trellis, with regularly checking, particularly on windy days. I used a length of animal mesh, staked loosely with tomato stakes, and tied the bean plants with ties cut from old tyre inner-tubes.
they grow stupidly tall for something that can't support itself
  • I wasn't sure how the beans would form, turns out they grow out and up from the flowers!  I pick them when I can feel some decent sized beans inside.
the baby beans grow out and upwards
  • The flowers smell lovely, I only noticed when they reached nose height, I'm surprised you can't buy broad bean essential oil :)
  • They taste nice raw.  We have been enjoying coleslaw with all the cabbage and kale that I grew, and broad beans are perfect in a salad.  I'm not sure if I'll have any left over to freeze and boil, I quite like them raw instead.  (I have also been trying a honey/olive oil/lemon/mustard dressing 

they taste nice raw
Do you eat broad beans?  Any growing tips?  Or eating tips?

This post is linked to SundayFunday Blog Hop #1 on LittleOwlCrunchyMomma.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Spring planting and a GIANT potato bag

Last year I planted potatoes in a 200 L drum and I had some promising green growth up top, but not many potatoes when I tipped over the drum, maybe a couple of kilos at the most, but nothing spectacular anyway. We eat heaps of potatoes, maybe 5 kg a month, and I'd like to be able to grow enough to sustain us, but its hard to find the space in the garden.  Really you need lateral space rather than depth, as I discovered the potatoes don't really grow down very far, so the drum idea was a bit pointless (but produced really nice compost).  The drum is now a second compost bin, and I decided to plant the potatoes in a giant potato bag instead.  You know the small potato bags that you can buy?  I didn't think that would produce enough potatoes, so I used a 1 tonne bulky bag that someone had given us.

I filled the bulky bag with layers of mulch straw, cow manure, compost and green weeds.  I planted the potatoes in a nice layer of compost at the top.  I am hoping the the whole thing gradually slumps downwards as it decomposes and then I can keep adding mulch on top to keep growing more potatoes upwards.  I started with seed potatoes - desiree and sebago, and a couple from the cupboard that had sprouted.  I know - potato virus contamination etc, but I hate to waste them!  The sebago had lots of sprouts when they arrived, and were ready to plant, but the desiree had none, so I left them out in the light for a few weeks to develop more sprouts.  (I think this is called "chitting").

seed potatoes chitting

the giant potato bag ready for planting

the compost that I planted the potatoes in to....
Here's the bag after the sebagos started producing leaves

I also started planting some summer crops.  I tried to follow moon planting - the guide said to plant leafy plants before the 23rd Sept and fruiting plants after.  So on the 22nd I planted both leafy and fruiting.  Near enough!  I planted: pumpkins, squash, cucumber, watermelon, tomatoes, corn, beans, soy, coriander, basil, borage, chamomile.... I tried to write down which is which so I know what sprouts, then I turned the tray around, so its a bit of guess work until some recognisable plants come up!  I've put the seed trays in the mini greenhouse, to keep constant temperature and keep the moisture in the soil, seems to be going ok.  By the way, the greenhouse was really good over winter, it kept alive two chilli plants, the avocado I sprouted from a seed, three little jacaranda plants, and the ginger.  Pretty good for $40!

Have you started planting for spring yet? 

This post is linked to farm girl blog fest 4 on Fresh Eggs Daily.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Farm update - October 2012

Wow, what a month!  As predicted, the bounty of spring has arrived!  We are getting 8-10 eggs a day and now with Bella milking again, at least 4L of milk a day, but there's not much getting to the kitchen, with too many calves to look after at the moment.

Benny the Braford was a very unhealthy looking calf that we brought home from Cheslyn Rise. We bought home another one (a heifer) a couple of weeks later, and as she looked even worse, we called the vet.  It turned out that they were both suffering from paralysis tick poisoning, which gradually paralyses the animal, from the legs upwards until they can't swallow and then can't breath.  It looks like we got to Benny in time, he is still very weak and seems to be unable to get to his feet without a boost from one of us, but once he's up, he's ok and very keen on lucerne.  After two weeks we finally got him to take some milk, I wonder now if the problem was the milk powder just tasted wrong, and then when he got some of Bella's milk, now he loves it and finishes his two litres twice a day.  The heifer calf only survived a few days after the vet came, she was drinking ok one day and dead the next, it seems to be very unpredictable.  I'll write a post in more detail when I know more about how Benny goes, and I hope I can offer some advice on managing sick calves.
Benny the Braford
Romeo the freisian-cross calf is a younger tame calf that we managed to foster onto Bella after she lost her own calf shortly after or during birth (see more here).  They took a week to get used to each other, and we had to be patient and let Bella decide to foster him.  He is very tame and enthusiastic drinker, we were so very pleased when Bella let him drink from her, so that we don't have to milk twice a day!  She is now very protective and won't let us near him, I guess she doesn't want to lose another calf.

All the other cattle are good!  We had our neighbour's massive red bull in our yard a few weeks ago after tine Donald the Dexter challenged him to a fight and he broke through the fence, and it was an interesting afternoon trying to encourage him to go back home!

the first cheese of the season - a Romano
We don't have as many chickens, even after I did that stocktake last week, we decided to process some of the roosters as they were big enough and starting to fight each other and generally cause trouble.  We did 6 in one day and enjoyed a very tasty roast chicken for dinner as a reward!  The other day we got 12 eggs from the 19 hens, 4 from the 6 pullets, so they are doing very well this year.

In the garden, I've been trying to follow moon planting, so I only just got some seeds into seed raising pots, but the winter garden is still proving plenty of kale, broad beans, peas and carrots, so I don't want my spring seedlings to be ready too early, or I'll have some tough decisions about what to pull out (I need a bigger garden!!).  I've also harvested a couple of super-sweet tiny strawberries, a nice treat from the garden :)

peas are doing well, I have plenty this year, might help that
I moved them away from the onions....

lavender is looking good and covered in bees

the remains of lettuce, beets, swedes and turnips,
 soon to be the tomato garden

waiting for bok choi and broccoli seeds to set and eat all the cabbages,
and then will move in the summer root veges

Mizuna and tat soi seeds, will soon be lettuce

the herbs growing back after winter - mints, thyme, oregano and taragon

broad beans and shallots to be replaced by corn and squash

the crazy bean plant lives on.... potato bag in the background

the pullets and young rooster helping me with the scraps :)
Has anyone else noticed a theme in our animal colour scheme?  You can tell we're Queenslanders with all these maroon and white animals!  And we don't even have time to follow sport!

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