Friday, November 30, 2012

Alfalfa (lucerne) tea

I had this plant in my garden where I'd tossed out some "friendly bug mix" seeds.  I thought it was clover, but it didn't look quite right.  I'd been wondering what it was for over a year when my mum finally pointed out that it looked like lucerne (or alfalfa).  Its so silly that I didn't recognise it, but I'm used to seeing lucerne dried as hay and I'd never really seen the living plant.  Now that really got me thinking because I remembered reading somewhere that lucerne tea is really good because the plant has such deep roots and accumulates lots of minerals, but I didn't want to use any of the hay we buy because you don't really know "where its been" so to speak.  I forget now where I read that, and when you goggle lucerne or alfalfa tea, most of the links are about making tea for your garden rather than for yourself!  (here's one semi-helpful link)  Anyway, I didn't think it would hurt to cut some of the lucerne leaves and dry them to add to my herbal tea mix.  I've let the plant flower (lovely purplely-blue flowers) and hoping it will produce some seeds, as I'm not getting many leaves off the one plant.  I'm so glad that I finally identified it and didn't pull it out as a weed.

I dried some in my dehydrator and it doesn't really change the taste of the tea, but I'm hoping it adds some good things to my normal mix of herbs.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Using water wisely

I've written before about water at our place, but I thought now was a good time to get into more detail after I read a post about the same topic by Frugal Queen.  She was talking about saving town water, but we have a slightly different focus.

As you know, we are not on town water or sewage, so we have to manage our water use very carefully.  We have 3 22000 L water tanks that collect water from the roof of our house and our shed, and our waste water drains into a large underground septic tank, which has to be emptied every few years.  We use all our bath and washing machine water on the garden.  We built a system to drain the grey water into a drum under the house and then pump that up to the garden, this would be even better if the garden was downhill from the house and the water could just gravity feed straight to the garden.  Using the grey water on the garden means that we don't fill up the septic tank so quickly, and we always have plenty of water for the garden.

Three water tanks (about 22000 L)
for our drinking water and the chickens

When I moved from the city, I thought I was pretty careful with water, but its amazing how wasteful I still was, because I never had to worry about running out of water.  Having our water set up like this leads to some strange behaviour.  For example, if it rains and tanks are full and overflowing, we put on a load of washing :)  When the garden is getting dry, I also try to find a load of washing.  We also become ultra conservative when the tanks are getting low, and this becomes kind of normal until we have people come to visit and we realise that we are a bit strange:
  • We only flush the toilet when really necessary (not good when you have surprise visitors! and not good when I nearly forget to flush public toilets!)
  • We only do the washing up once a day at the most.  We did have a problem with ants getting into the dirty dishes, but we solved that my leaving the water in the second sink and stacking all the dirty plates under the water so the ants can't get them (In Australia it is common to use two sinks, the first one with the detergent and the second to rinse).
  • We have very short showers (I don't even know how people use 4 minutes!) or very shallow baths
  • We only wash clothes when they are really dirty.  I wear the same "farm clothes" - jeans and shirt - for afternoon chores all week, I wear the same work uniform - jeans and shirt again - all week and then I have clean inside clothes that I wear all week too.  If I do go out into town in nice clothes, they usually get put away again unless they are dirty.  Farmer Pete wears overalls to work because work washes them, so that saves heaps of dirty work clothes.
  • We only wash towels and sheets when they are really dirty.  I used to wash all towels and sheets once a week, but when we got really low on water and were trying to get away with only one wash a week, that was something that we decided we could stretch out longer, clean sheets are a real treat now!
  • We don't wash things with water unless they really need it - like the house, the car, the veranda, they only get washed if they are really dirty, and then only with a pressure cleaner, which uses less water overall.
The most wasteful use of water in our house is running the hot tap in the kitchen, it takes forever to get hot because the hot water cylinder is on the other side of the house, this is TERRIBLE design, the hot water cylinder should always be closer to the kitchen, as it has more on/off tap use than the bathroom.  Anyway, when the tanks get really low we keep a jug in the kitchen and fill that when we are waiting for hot water, then it gets used for cooking or watering the garden.

Another thing that we do, that people find a bit weird, is we leave the bath water in the bath all day.  This means that if we need to wash our hands or need water to clean something, we can just use the old bathwater, we then drain it into the drum under the house for the garden water when its time for the next bath.

Of course that is only the water for the house, we also have dam water that we use for the cattle.  And we are hoping to get some bores at Cheslyn Rise for added water security.

What are your weird water habits?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Neem oil for insect control

A few weeks ago now I was watering the garden just after dark, torch in one hand, hose in the other, when I was attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes (mozzies).  I could feel them biting me, but there wasn’t much I could do with both hands in use and I really needed to finish watering.  When I came inside I found that I had several bites on each leg between the top of my gumboots and the bottom of my shorts.  These proceeded to itch, swell and annoy me for several days.

At this time of year, when the mozzies start biting, as I do have such a terrible reaction to the bites, I usually reach for my bottle of conventional insect repellent, typically containing DEET (N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide, mmm mmm), and smelling terrible.  A quick search of google shows that the safety of DEET is questionable.  Yes the US EPA and the insect repellent companies say is ok, but plenty of other sources say that its not.  I suspect that it is a chemical with long-term effects that would be very difficult to measure or prove one way or the other, so I’d like to avoid it if I can find an alternative.

I asked on my facebook page if anyone knew a better way to prevent mozzie bites and I had a few suggestions including neem oil, tea tree oil and taking vitamin B.  Again I couldn’t really find a definitive answer on the Vitamin B idea, but it can’t hurt to increase Vitamin B levels, so I bought a multi B tablet to take.

Neem oil, however, is very highly recommended (for example), so I thought it was worth a try.  I ordered a small bottle of Pesky Protect from Neemoil Australia Imports.  This product contains organic pure neem seed oil, rose geranium oil, tea tree oil, eucalyptus oil, citronella ceylon oil, lemon myrtle oil, lavender oil, based on pure grape seed oil.  It smells quite nice actually.  I have been using it ever since it arrived, and haven’t had another bite, so it works as well as the DEET-based insect repellent.  I will be testing it in a sandfly area when we go up the coast over Christmas and will let you know what I think.

Since I tried neem oil as an insect repellent, and it worked, I started to wonder what else it would be good for.  It turns out that neem oil has both repellent and insecticidal properties.  The exact nature of all the components of neem oil is not well understood (conspiracy theory: probably because some large chemical companies would suffer if neem oil was more widely used, most of the research seems to focus on synthesising the main component, Azadirachtin, but chances are this is one of those natural products where all the components are important, and isolating the main component will just cause more trouble, eg aspirin). 

Unlike most chemical insecticides that kill by contact with the insect, neem oil works by disrupting the insects’ hormones, so they must ingest the neem oil to be affected.  This means that it only affects insects that bite or chew, and is safe for bees and spiders (and, unfortunately, fruit flies), unless they become coated in the oil.  As the neem oil affects the hormones, only small amounts are required for insecticide use (0.5–1% neem oil in a carrier).  Read more here and here about how it works.

The repellent action of neem oil is less well understood, but appears to work (I am living proof), although its effectiveness seems to depend on the type of mosquito (see here).  As far as I kind find out, slightly higher concentrations (up to 10%) of neem oil are effective as an insect repellent.  I think this explains why beneficial insects are not affected or repelled by the low concentrations used to kill biting insects, however, higher concentrations work to repel all insects (because I don’t want to wait for them to bite me, get sick and then die!). 

Now that I kind of understood how neem oil works, I had a think about how I could use it around our home and farm(s):
  • Obviously as an insect repellent on my own skin, but we also use it on the cattle as part of an organic product called “Cattle Coat”, which they self-apply using a backrub at Cheslyn Rise, and we spray onto the tame cattle at Eight Acres. 
  • I picked up a hen the other day who was crawling with lice, so I gave her a good spray with a mixture of neem oil in water.  A few days later I checked her again and the lice were gone.  Now I have the spray made up, I check the chickens weekly when I’m feeding them, and give any with lice a quick spray.  I also sprayed inside their cages.
  • We usually burn a mosquito coil when we are sitting outside in summer, they contain the other type of nasty repellent chemicals called permethrin, so I’m going to replace that with a diffuser and use the Pesky Protect in that.
  • In the garden, I am disappointed that it won’t work on the fruit flies, but I think it will do a good job on the potato leaf beetle; I just have to make up a separate spray bottle at lower concentration.  I got a little over-excited and sprayed the potato plants with the same oil I had been using on the chickens and it was too strong and damaged the leaves.
  • When I put away my winter clothes in the wardrobe, I also put a dab of neem oil on a cloth inside the plastic boxes to repel moths.
  • Next time I clean out the pantry, I will wipe the surfaces with neem oil to deter cockroaches and weevils (I read that neem leaves can also be used inside containers).
There’s lots of good resources out there, so do some research and let me know what you would like to try (or anything that you have already tried).  Unfortunately this giveaway is for Australia only, but feel free to comment anyway if you’re in another country, just let me know not to put you in the draw.  I will announce the winner next week.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Frugavore book review

I was in my local library looking for a permaculture book.  I never expect to find much in my local library, it is a tiny single room and most of it is taken up with fiction.  I usually head straight for the corner with all the chicken and cow books.  They didn't have the permaculture book (requested on inter-library loan instead), but I was very surprised to find Frugavore: How to Grow Organic, Buy Local, Waste Nothing, and Eat Well, by Arabella Forge instead.  I had seen reviews of Frugavore when it was published in 2010, and I kept thinking about buying it, but I have so many books already, I'd never got around to it.  I suppose that's the point of libraries, you can borrow before you buy!  And its great when even a small library occasionally has something interesting to read.

I took Frugavore home and read the whole thing in three hours.  Which is not to say that its short, but most of it is recipes, so I was able to skim through and just read the interesting bits at the start of each chapter.  It is, however, a reflection of how much I enjoyed the book.  I did have other things that I should have been doing, but I just wanted to keep reading.  I could see that Arabella and I had much in common in our approach to food and cooking.  Arabella suggests that "...if you want to eat and live frugally, buy the best quality produce possible and make the most of it".  I totally agree.

For some reason I kept comparing Frugavore to Nourishing Traditions.  They are quite similar in the way they both recommend a "peasant diet", and offer recipes as well as plenty of commentary.  I found that Frugavore was far more practical than NT.  I know a lot of people give up on NT because the recipes seem so complicated and the ingredients somewhat obscure.  While NT starts with raw milk, which many people cannot access, Frugavore starts with a chapter on sourcing your food, which has some excellent suggestions for those in the city that find it difficult to get fresh produce.  Followed by a chapter on natural (and frugal) cleaning products, after all, it makes sense that if you are avoiding chemicals in your food, you should avoid them in your kitchen too. 

I love that the chapter on vegetables starts with a brief explanation of how to start a garden cheaply, rather than just assuming that you must buy all your veges.  And then into the meat chapters, which explain how to use ALL the animal, from how to joint the chicken, how to use organ meat and how to use the bones to make stock.  I want to try the liver pate recipe and the steak and kidney pie.  Where NT is all about WHAT to eat it, Frugavore has more detail about HOW to prepare it and how to make the most of what you have.

The book even includes a recipe for real fermented saurkraut and kefir, but towards the end so you don't freak out too much!  The only thing that I thought was missing was sprouts, which are a great way of growing something green even  if your garden is a disaster (or non-existent) and can be added to every meal.  It was gratifying to see that Arabella was able to shake off her nutritionist training and explain the importance of butter, olive oil and coconut oil in her chapter on fats.

If you want some practical advice on how to source good quality food and make the most of it, this book is wonderful guide and I totally recommend it.  What's you're favourite frugal living cook book?  Here's some of mine.....


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hybrids, cross breeds and pure breeds

This is something that has been confusing me lately, so now that I’ve figured it out, I thought I’d tell you about.  For a while now I’ve been wondering how “hybrid” layer hens are made.  And I’d been hearing about using heritage seed rather than hybrid seed.  Then we bought the Braford cattle, a cross between Brahman and Hereford breeds.  So I looked it all up and now I’ll try to explain without getting too far into genetics!

Are Brafords pure bred or hybrids or??

First of all, what is a pure breed?
A pure breed is a stock of animals or plants within a species having a distinctive appearance and typically having been developed by deliberate selection.  For example, Hereford cattle are a pure breed of cattle.  Rhode Island Red chickens are a pure breed of chickens.

What is a hybrid?
A hybrid is an animal or plant whose parents are each of a different pure breed.  Cross-breed and hybrid have the same meaning, just the former is applied more commonly to animals and the latter to plants (and chickens, because it sounds fancier?).  In the case of the chickens, commercial hybrids are typically bred from Rhode Island Red and another pure breed, for example, White Leghorn.  We made our own hybrid layer hen from just this cross.  Obviously the big egg companies work a bit harder than we do to maintain a flock of each of their pure breeds in order to produce a consistent laying hen. 

The thing to note about hybrids is that they don’t breed true.  That means that if you mate two hybrid individuals together, you don’t necessarily get another animal or plant that looks anything like its parents.  This doesn’t mean that the hybrid animals or plants can’t breed, just that they don’t have the same traits as their parents.  This is different from a pure breed, which should produce consistent off-spring.

What is a mixed breed?
A mixed breed animal has parents that were not pure bred, so it has unknown parentage and the characteristics of its offspring cannot be predicted.

What is hybrid vigour? Or heterosis?
Something that has been really bugging me is this term “hybrid vigour” that kept appearing when I was reading about pure breed and cross breeds.  The technical term is heterosis, this is where you could get into the genetics of the process, but the main point is that when plants or animals breed, the resulting offspring has a mix of genetic material from each parent.  In a group of pure bred individuals, as there is likely to be some inbreeding (or very close breeding), that genetic material all starts to be very similar and that includes both the desirable traits, like the colour or weight gain ability and the negative traits like susceptibility to disease.  When individuals from two different breeds produce offspring, they are coming from two very different pools of genetic material, and so the offspring get lots of different genes. 

In reality, this can produce both positive the negative traits.  The result of a cross between two pure breeds is not necessarily “hybrid vigour”, in which the offspring is consistently better than both parents.  The offspring can also result in a concentration of negative traits, or outbreeding depression.  For example, our little hybrid hen seems to lay well, but she went broody recently, which is a trait from the Rhode Island hens, so cross breeding does not guarantee a superior animal or plant unless the parents have also been carefully selected.

What about the Brafords?
You will notice that I didn’t include the Brafords in the examples above.  The Braford is a registered breed of cattle, so they are a pure breed, that was originally developed from a cross between Brahman and Hereford pure breeds.  If I bred a Brahman bull with a Hereford cow today, the offspring would be a cross-breed or hybrid animal.  I can’t find any exact figures, but to start a new breed you basically have to show that the animals will continue to produce consistent offspring for several generations.  For example, in the case of the Braford breed, the first pairing of Brahman bull and Hereford cows occurred in Australia in 1946, and the breed was first registered in Australia in 1957.  The period required to develop a breed could obviously be shorter for animals or plants with shorter gestation period than cattle, as long as the breed produced consistent offspring.

The Brafords do not have “hybrid vigour”, as they are not the result of the first breeding between two pure breeds, however, through selectively breeding for desirable traits, they have better feed conversion and tick resistance than either of the original pure breeds form which they were originally bred.  This highlights the importance of maintaining sufficient individuals in a breed so that the genetics are varied enough not to concentrate negative traits.  We will consider this in our chicken and cattle breeding programs.

Does that make sense?  Or, if you are into this kind of thing, did I get it right?

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, November 19, 2012

Managing Australian Paralysis Ticks in a Herd of Cattle in South East Queensland

Paralysis ticks (xodes holocyclus) are native to Australia and are found on the east coast from southern Victoria all the way up to northern QLD, and in the north of Tasmania.  The ticks’ natural hosts are native animals, such as bandicoots, wallabies and koalas, which have developed immunity to the neurotoxin produced by the tick.  Domestic animals, including dogs, cats, sheep, calves and foals, which have not developed immunity to the toxin, are affected by symptoms starting the paralysis of the back legs and progressing to paralysis of the respiratory muscles and finally the heart, resulting in death.

poor wee Benny is still recovering from tick paralysis
The Australian Paralysis Tick has a 3 host life cycle.  The eggs hatch into larvae, which attach to a host for a few days.  The larvae feed from the host, and then drop off to transform into nymphs, which then attach to another host.  After a few days the nymphs drop off and transform into adult ticks, and attach to another host.  Finally the adult female will drop off her final host and lay eggs.

While the Australian Paralysis Tick is found in our area of the South Burnett, we had not experienced any problems with it until we bought the property at Kumbia and introduced the herd of barford cows and calves.  After only 3 weeks we noticed the first sick calf, and the second one a few weeks later.  The first one recovered and the second one died.  It was only after we had the vet assess the two calves that we found out that paralysis ticks were causing the illness.  Having finally identified the problem, we were able to develop a plan to manage paralysis ticks on our property.  We would like to use organic farming methods where possible, however, we do use chemicals when animals are in immediate danger.

I should note also that the Australian paralysis tick is different to the Cattle Tick (Rhipicephalus microplus).  Our properties are in Cattle Tick free areas, but this does not mean that we are free of Australian paralysis tick.  Cattle tick arrived in Australia from Indonesia in the 1870s and spread to southern QLD by the 1890s.  Cattle tick spreads “tick fever” and cattle ticks are a notifiable disease in Australia.  Some of the methods used to control Cattle Tick do not apply to the Australian paralysis tick, but the following discussion will mention both ticks in order to explain the various control options.

Short term solutions


Apparently, in the past it was very common for cattle to be regularly forced through chemical dips.  Up until the 1940s, arsenic was used to prevent cattle ticks, but the ticks developed resistance.  Eventually chlorohydrocarbons, organophosphates and pyrethrenoids were found to be effective and various forms have been used in dips since the 1950s. 

More recently, pour-on products have been developed, these have longer persistence, so the cattle do not need to be handled as frequently.  In cattle tick areas, most cattle are exposed to these chemicals on a regular basis (just saying, if you don’t buy organic meat, you don’t know if its getting dipped in toxic chemicals every couple of weeks).

For paralysis tick, there is no longer a pour-on product on the market (too toxic?), the only available products are listed in this link.  Any of the suitable chemicals need to be diluted in water and sprayed or sloshed over the animal (unless a suitable dip is available, but we don't have a dip).  The chemical must contact the ticks, so any ticks hiding in between toes or behind ears may be missed.  We used Amitik, and poured it over both of the two sick calves that we initially identified and another skinny calf that we later found with a tick on his belly.  For us, the main application of these chemicals is to get all the ticks off an animal that is already identified as being affected by ticks.  This will ensure that any small ticks that are missed in an inspection will drop off the animal and prevent further toxin being injected.

Ear tags

While a pour-on product is not available, the next best thing is an ear-tag.  We used the Y-TEXPython insecticidal ear tags in all the small calves to give them some added protection from ticks until they are large enough to survive the toxin.  The tags worked out at about $3/calf, and need to be cut out before the cattle are sent to sale yards, so it is not a cheap or convenient solution, but it bought us some time so that we could pursue our longer term solutions.

Long term solutions

Improve Cattle Immunity

Experiments have shown that cattle gain immunity toparalysis tick toxin and can tolerate a certain number of ticks before becoming sick.  Given some more time on our property, our cows and calves will start to establish immunity to the toxin too.

Pat Coleby also recommends sulphur for all biting insects.  We have increased the sulphur in the minerals that we put out for the cattle.  We are also going to use a product called “cattle coat” with back rubs, which the cattle self-apply.  This works for buffalo fly and may help to reply ticks as well.  I'm not exactly sure of the ingredients, as they are trade secret, but I believe that it contains neem and other essential oils that repel insects.  It worked on Bella last year anyway.

Reduce tick numbers

 According to Wikipeadia:
The need for humid conditions largely determines the botanical niche of Australian paralysis ticks. Low, leafy vegetation provides higher humidity levels by reducing the desiccating effects of wind and direct sunlight. This environment also suits the tick's major host, the bandicoot, as it seeks out grubs and worms in the leaf litter. Certain vegetation may be conducive to paralysis ticks.

We are working to clear some of the areas of long grass, as described in a previous post, and we hope that will assist with reducing tick numbers.

It is a very happy coincidence that guinea fowl like to eat ticks (see here, here and here).  I say this because I have been wanting to get some guinea fowl for quite some time, and this is exactly the excuse I need.  We didn’t really want them at eight acres as the property is too small to support all our chickens as well as some guinea fowl, and apparently they are quite noisy.  I’ll be very happy to establish them out in the paddocks at Cheslyn Rise and just visit them occasionally.  They are supposed to be good fliers and will roost in trees.  The less I feed them, the more ticks they will eat.  Its worth a try anyway, I have a friend that has some living wild in the bush, so they seem to acclimatise here.

These are our plans anyway..... use chemicals for short term tick control while we're working on longer term solutions.  Any other ideas?

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

Friday, November 16, 2012

Ginger and lemon tea

I tried some lovely tea at a cafe recently, it was ginger and rosella.  I bought some of the tea to take home, it was expensive, and when I finished the packet I wondered if I could make my own....

I didn't have any rosella, but I thought I could start with trying to dry the ginger.  I bought some organic ginger from the the Nanango markets and sliced it up really thin.  I spread it out in my dehydrator to dry.  I ran the dehydrator on and off for a couple of days (its very loud, so I don't like to have it on when I'm in the kitchen), until the ginger was crispy dry.

At the same time I had a massive bag of lemons from a friend's tree.  I knew that they were organic, so I decided to peel the skins and dry them as well, to add some lemon flavour to me tea.  The ginger/lemon smell in the house was wonderful!

A jar of dried ginger and lemon peel

I have some rosella seeds now after swapping seeds earlier in the month, so I've planted them and maybe I'll soon have enough rosella fruit to make ginger and rosella tea.  I'm also trying to grow enough ginger to keep up with all the ginger ale I make and now ginger tea....  In the meantime I have plenty of other herbs in my tea cupboard.... lemon grass, lemon myrtle, pepper mint, mint, calendula petals, and a little tarragon, oregano and thyme.  I like to mix these up in a little jar to take to work where I enjoy my morning herbal tea.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The best chicken book I’ve ever read

About a year ago now I bought a copy of the best chicken book I have ever read.  Its taken me that long to read it properly, I’ve read it three times now, in between reading other books, just to be sure that I got everything, because there’s just so much information, its easy to miss something on the first or second reads!

The best chicken book that I’ve ever read is The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, by HarveyUssery (Affiliate link).  Harvey has years of experience with a whole range of poultry, but the thing that makes this book the best I’ve read is the way that he explains how to integrate a flock into a garden or farm system.  So many chicken books start off by going through all the breeds, tell how to house and feed them in a little cage and collect the eggs etc, its all just the same simple information regurgitated.  This book tells you how to get the most out of your chickens, whether you’re keeping them for meat or eggs, how to also put them to work in the garden and how to grow food to feed them, how to raise chicks and how to encourage broody behaviour, how to manage roosters and finally how to butcher a chicken.  It covers all the practical aspects of chicken-keeping to help make it a more economical and enjoyable activity.  They are not just pets in the corner of the back yard, they are workers on the farm or in the garden, if you let them, and they can provide much of their food for themselves.

Here’s some of the things that really got me thinking:
  • If chickens are allowed to free range, they should be able to find much of their food by foraging – we now try to let the chickens out to free-range as often as possible to cut down on food costs.  Previously they only got let out each afternoon for a couple of hours, now as long as they are good and lay their eggs in their nest box (and not in a location of their own choosing), they are allowed out all day (the killer kelpie dogs have been warned, so far so good).
  • We don’t have to rely on meat meal or soy to boost protein in feed over winter, we can produce our own protein in the form of worms or fly larvae.  I have started a worm farm (also to eventually feed aquaponics fish), but I think its going to need to get bigger.
  • Chicken scratching can be used for good instead of evil destructiveness!  Chicken power can be harnessed in the garden by moving chicken “tractors” over garden beds to dig in cover crops, simultaneously feeding the chickens and the soil.  This similar to the ideas in Linda Woodrow’s permaculture book.  I haven’t tried this yet as our tractors are too large, but we can certainly see the results of them feeding the pasture as we move them along.
  • How to use “feather nets” – while there is much in this book about chicken housing that does not apply to my climate (not having a snowy winter), the information about feather nets is invaluable.  Feather nets are a special type of electric fencing that is used to keep birds in and predators out.  Its also used by Joel Salatin in his free range egg production system.  We don’t have any feather net yet, but are planning to get some when we get a larger flock.
  • Roosters can be kept together as long as one is dominant and the others are submissive.  We have had problems with dominant roosters fighting each other in the past, they are so stupid, they will fight to the death if allowed to continue.  This year I kept one White Leghorn rooster from the hatch of chicks and our older Rhode Island Red rooster has not tried to fight him, even though he has tried to fight every other rooster that we’ve owned!  I hope that they will continue to live in harmony, it will be an interesting experiment.
  • I really enjoyed the chapter on chicken health, it aligned with my current thinking on animal and human health.  Chickens are inherently healthy and shouldn’t need constant doses of chemicals or drugs.  Unfortunately sometimes even Harvey has chickens that JDD (Just Drop Dead), which also happens to our chickens occasionally, despite best efforts to keep them healthy!
  • Roosters do have nuts!  This book includes a really detailed section on chicken butchering, and on careful reading I discovered that roosters do have testicles. 
The only thing that I found missing from the book was detail about incubating eggs.  There is only two or three pages on incubators, with far more space devoted to both ordering chicks and hatching with broody hens.  This did get me thinking more about the advantages of using broodies.  However, we’ve already invested in incubators, so I also wanted to know how to get the best results from an incubator.

Although some of the details were not relevant for my climate or country, the majority of the book was very useful.  Not just the information itself, but the philosophy of using chickens as part of the farm.  Its also nice to see a book that’s not about showing chickens.  The show chicken movement has much to answer for, being responsible for the loss of laying and meat attributes in heritage breeds, so much that we virtually have to start again to develop birds suitable for small farms.  This book is for the anyone who wants to get more out of their chickens and reduce their chicken costs.

Do you have a favourite chicken book?  Or a favourite chicken? :)

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, November 12, 2012

Manure spreaders

Some people spend thousands of dollars on a manure spreading system that attaches to the back of a tractor so they can spread manure over their pastures.....

We just keep chickens  -  and we get eggs as a by-product.....

(Although it can be difficult to find any manure to put on my garden because the chickens spread it all out in the paddock before I get a chance to collect any!)

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

Friday, November 9, 2012

Green onions, spring onions or shallots or…?

I have many confusing conversations with people about green onions, spring onions and shallots. Well, not that many, but when it does come up between myself and another gardener or cook, it is important to first clarify what we are actually talking about, because everyone seems to have a different idea of what these alliums actually are.

This year I planted leeks, and what I call spring onions and what I thought were shallots.  They both did quite well, especially considering that each bunch of shallots came from single cloves given to me by a friend and all the spring onion seeds were saved from the previous year.  I’ve grown more than we can eat right away and I need to make room in the garden, so I am going to try to keep some of the shallots for storage and dehydrate the rest to make more onion flakes.

"shallots", "spring onions" and leeks.  They are definitely leeks.

The confusion is caused by the fact that I never bought any of these vegetables as seeds with names on the packet, they are from bulbs and seeds that were given to me, so I don’t really know what I’ve planted!  

definitely leeks
Its taken a while to figure out what’s going on as different countries seem to have different names for the same plant.  Here’s what I think is going on in my garden:

Further investigation reveals that “shallots” (or scallions, green onions, spring onions, salad onions, green shallots, onion sticks, long onions, baby onions, precious onions, yard onions, gibbons, or syboes) can be any small onion bulbs, whether they are immature or a small variety.  However, as mine grow from one clove to form a cluster, they are most likely Allium ascalonicum, rather than Allium cepa.


The vegetable that I call spring onion seems to a cultivar of Allium fistulosum, and as they form no bulb, they are technically scallions going by that link.  However, it appears that scallion can also mean any small onion, as in the definition of shallots above.

"spring onions"

I think I’ll just keep calling them what I call them, I just wanted you to know what I was talking about.  To me, the green stems with no bulb are spring onions and the multiple cloves are shallots.  I haven’t tried growing any underground onions so far, but I think that will be an experiment for this winter.

Do you suffer from the same confusion?  what do you call them?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The truth about legumes and nitrogen fixation?

We are commonly told to plant legumes in pasture or in the garden to increase the nitrogen in the soil.  It is true that given the right minerals and microbes in the soil, legumes will develop a symbiotic relationship with rhizobial bacteria, which can “fix” gaseous nitrogen from the air and make it available to the plant (more here).  The important point is that this nitrogen is used by the growing legume plant and only minimal amounts are transferred to the soil orother plants.

“The amount of nitrogen returned to the soil during or after a legume crop can be misleading.  Almost all of the nitrogen fixed goes directly into the plant. Little leaks into the soil for a neighboring nonlegume plant.  However,  nitrogen eventually returns to the soil for a neighboring plant when vegetation (roots, leaves, fruits) of the legume dies and decomposes.”
 Therefore, the only way to harness the nitrogen produced by the legume/rhizobial relationship is to use the legume as a cover crop and mulch it onto the soil (or where you need the nitrogen) at the end of the season.  It will not provide nitrogen to other plants as it is growing.  With the exception of perennial leguminous trees and shrubs (e.g. Tagasaste, wattles (Acacia) and Pigeon Peas), which can contribute nitrogen to the soil by periodically losing their leaves and branches.

Don’t despair though, there is still free nitrogen to be had!  Fortunately, as well as the rhizobial bacteria, there also exist bacteria known as free-living nitrogen fixing bacteria (is anyone else picturing hippy bacteria?  Free living, man!).  They are also called “non-symbiotic” nitrogen fixing bacteria, but that doesn’t sound as funny. 
Free-living bacteria?
Anyway, these bacteria live in the soil and convert gaseous nitrogen in the air into ammonia in the soil, which can be accessed by plant roots.  There are a number of farming practices that can encourage the presence of these bacteria and effectively give us access to free nitrogen, for example:
  • Stubble retention and mulching cover crops – these bacteria need to feed on carbon, so the more carbon available in stubble and mulch the better.  Bare soil will cause them to starve.
  • Don’t use nitrogen fertiliser – nitrogen fixation is only triggered if there is not already sufficient nitrogen in the soil, adding fertiliser will prevent these bacteria from fixing their own nitrogen
  • High moisture levels and warm temperatures– nitrogen fixation occurs to a greater extent under these conditions, not that you can control them, except in an irrigated greenhouse maybe!
  • Don’t use pesticides – synthetic pesticide chemicals kill bacteria, including free-living nitrogen fixing bacteria
  • By all means, also plant legumes to be used as mulch, to maximise your access to free nitrogen!
More information here and here, now go get yourself some free nitrogen!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Managing pasture - is burning necessary?

This time of year (spring) we don’t get much rain.  The tropical grass species in our pasture have dried out over winter due to the low temperatures and low rainfall.  They are in a fully mature state, with relatively low protein and mineral content.  The stock feeding on this pasture tend to lose or maintain weight, but rarely gain significant weight.  Now that the temperatures are starting to increase, we are waiting for rain so that the pasture will re-enter its leafy growth stage and provide good quality fodder for the cattle to start getting fat for market. In Queensland, late winter and spring tend to be our dry period, with rain coming in summer.

Growth stages of perinneal grasses and legumes (image source),
note that protein and mineral content decrease with maturity
There are several ways to accelerate this process.  Certainly if you leave the dry dead bushes of grass in the pasture, the amount of leafy growth, even when it rains, will be reduced.  The new leaves tend to grow from the outside of the bush, so the bigger the bush, the less useful leaves are growing on the inside.  If you can remove most of the dry grass, the leafy growth will start early, from all around the plant, particularly if there is still good soil moisture from winter rains.  The dry grass can be removed by:
  • Controlled burning
  • Slashing
  • Managed grazing
 Controlled burning is very popular in our area at this time of year, and we can often see plumes of smoke on the horizon.  When we haven’t had any rain for months, I get very nervous about the capability to control these fires.  This anecdote gives a good explanation of the why farmers burn their pastures in Australia:
 “The a'bos. did it. Grandad did it. Everyone does it. You must burn the grass to make it grow. (A pretty silly reason.) It gets rid of regrowth and fallen timber. The ash fertilizes the soil. You must get rid of the old grass to allow fresh grass to grow. Cattle "do" better on fresh feed. I have this primitive urge to light a fire, it makes me feel good. Plus a few others that I have forgotten.”
That article also explains that the writer stopped burning on their property and the cattle and pasture “did better” than the neighbours who continued burning.  And then this morescientific study from a QLD government department explains that even though burning the grass does release nitrogen, so that the grass initially has high protein content, the cattle actually have better weight gain overall if the pasture is not burnt, as the dry material helps with muscle formation.

Many farmers claim that they need to burn to control woody weeds and saplings, however this research (and my observations of properties belonging to neighbours who burn paddocks) shows that those are the plants more likely to survive fire, while the perennial and annual grasses that you want to promote are most likely to be damaged!  Not just the plants, but also the seeds in the soil.

In terms of soil mineral management, carbon in the form of organic matter can help to balance deficiencies and excesses.  It feeds the microbes and improves water holding capacity.  Soil carbon is the very thing that you want to increase in order to improve pasture.  Burning the pasture destroys all that carbon in the dead grass, turning it into climate-change inducing CO2.  Over the longer term, this has the effect of preventing soil-building and degrading the pasture.  More here.

For this reason, this article recommends:
Slash/mulch a pasture, rather than burn it.
Slashing/mulching promotes green pick. Slashing is preferable to burning, as the cut pasture material will break down and add valuable organic matter tothe soil. Much of the organic matter is lost when a pasture is burnt.”
 More on slashing vs burning here.  

Obviously slashing pasture is not always practical over large areas.  We have certainly seen the improvements on our eight acres since we started slashing (as per PeterAndrews’ recommendations in his books Back from the Brink and Beyond the Brink).  We have seen improved pasture coverage (ie fewer bare patches) and better growth in general.  Even though it is claimed that the heaps of dry grass can kill the grass, we have never seen that happen, in fact I will often kick the dry grass away to find lush green grass below, and the cattle will do the same. 

At our 258 acre Cheslyn Rise property, we (I mean farmer pete with me supervising) have slashed certain areas of the pasture that we know are free of stumps and logs etc.  At eight acres, our strategy was to fence off a paddock of about an acre, let the cattle eat as much as possible, then we could see what to avoid on the slasher.  On the larger property this is not possible as we currently have no way to provide water to small paddocks, and there are a lot of stumps cut off just below grass height by the previous owner, so we have to be very careful with slashing in new areas! 

for example, some very dry grass before slashing
The ideal solution would be an even more intensive grazing pattern (if/when we have the water set up) as practiced by Joel Salatin(Polyface farm) and my other favourite farmer – Matron of Husbandry (of the blog Throwback from Trapper Creek).  They move their cattle every day, with the theory being that the cattle trample any grass or weeds that they don’t eat.  This prevents woody weed growth, and builds soil carbon. 

At Cheslyn Rise we have another good reason to keep the grass short – we have found out that we have a good population of paralysis ticks, which can kill small calves.  These ticks live in the long grass and one way to manage the tick population is to keep the grass short.  This is a little complicated as we have about 100 acres of forested area, some of which has grass growing under the trees.  More here and here.

One way that we could manage the grass that we can’t slash and that the cattle won’t eat, is to burn it.  It would have to be a very controlled burn, as you wouldn’t want the 100 acres of forest area to catch alight, and we have some very good fencing that we wouldn’t want to have to rebuild either!  We are currently considering our options.

General information about pasture management:

Any advice from your experience with managing pasture?

Friday, November 2, 2012

Farm update - November 2012

The weather in October has been less dry, with a few nice storms to cool down the evenings, but no significant rainfall either.  Our water tanks are down to two half full and one full, and our dam is looking very empty.

Gardening in October as been all about the seeds - both planting and saving.  I have saved a crazy amount of tat soi and mizuna, as well as others, so don't be shy, I have plenty more too share or swap if you're interested plz email me (I also still have way too much kefir, so let me know if you want some).  Also see this great link on seed saving.  I'm still harvesting lettuce, broad beans and peas, although the last two are nearly finished and ready to make room for others.  I've planted out the corn, cucumbers, trombocino, soy, pumpking and beans that I started from seed and started some more.  I also planted out the water melons, and the chickens got in and destroyed them AGAIN, lucky I had started some more seeds already, ha chickens, you will not win this year!  My mum helped me plant carrots and radish in the same row a couple of weeks ago and they have popped up already.  The plan is to harvest the radishes and make more room for the carrots, saves thinning as many carrots.  I've also potted up all the tomatoes I started from seed.  I was being very good about keeping records of which was which until I potted them up, then I found out and determinate vs indeterminate and how you need to pinch the laterals of only the second one, and I have a mix of both and no idea which is which now, so that will be interesting!

the first round of corn and beans planted out

radishes and carrots experiment

tomato and basil nearly ready to plant out
The chickens are laying really well, I'm so happy with them this year!  Last year we had problems with egg eating, but this year I've kept up with their minerals and they are all out free-ranging each afternoon, so they seem to be getting everything they need in their diets instead of egg eating.  We get 9-12 eggs/day from 20 hens, some of them were only hatched this time last year, so still quite young to all be laying.  People occasionally ask why we keep so many chickens, so here's a little chicken economics for you: the hens lay on average 10 eggs a day, which is 70 eggs a week.  Pete and I eat 4 eggs a day, so that leaves 42 eggs to sell, which is 3 and half dozen, so depending on how we go, I sell 3 to 4 cartons of eggs a week at $3.50/doz.  This comes to $10.50-$14/week is egg revenue.  The chickens, all 20 hens and 4 roosters, go through a bag of feed a week (plus some shell grit and next box material), a bag of feed is $12-14 depending on price of grain and whether we get the fancy one or just corn.  That means that the hens almost pay for themselves and we almost get free eggs!  This doesn't include the time over winter when we feed them all and only get just enough eggs to feed us, and none extra to sell, at that time, the eggs cost us the full $12/week, but on average, I think we are getting good quality eggs cheaper than we could buy them AND we are able to supply friends and family with the same over spring and summer ($3.50 is very cheap for free-range eggs compared to the supermarket eggs, and they still taste a bit strange).

Token chicken photo...
All the cattle are doing well too.  We arranged with our neighbour to use their paddock, which has really helped us both, as they were going to have to get it slashed and we were running out of grass.  Eight acres is really just a bit small for two jersey cows, a steer, a mini bull, and two calves, unless we get an awful lot of rain.  So Molly, Frank and Donald are next door eating, and Bella and the calves are still at our place (and Molly is now losing some of her baby colours and looking more like an adult cow, oh, our little girl is growing up).  We stopped milking Bella every day as we were only getting 1-2 L, and then giving that to Benny anyway.  Benny now gets formula once a day instead, but he's eating lots of calf pellets, so he should start to get fatter and be ready for weaning.  We still want milk to drink though, so we separated Romeo from Bella over night and milked Bella in the morning the other day, and we got 10  L from her!  No wonder Romeo is getting to be HUGE!  He is taking all that milk and growing up strong.  That is plenty to make a cheese and have some milk to drink during the week, so we don't need to milk every day, this is how the share milking system works :)

Romeo and Donald having a chat through the fence,
notice that Romeo is nearly as tall as Big D
Benny enjoying his formula
Molly getting her adult colours

We had a very successful farming morning with brafords at Cheslyn Rise, we managed to get them all into the stock yards and through the race using only hay to round them up.  We put insecticidal ear tags in all the calves to help protect them against paralysis ticks (more on this later this month).  It only took two hours to run them all through, so we are very pleased with our amateur cattle skills so far.  The other weekend when we went out there we had an extra calf (a new baby), so we need to get a tag in its ear too at some stage.  And the steers that we bought back in April are now very tame and putting on lots of weight.  We still have lots of grass, so we are just holding onto all the cattle as long as possible.  With our recent dry weather, the market is oversupplied with steers, so we are trying to wait it out.

In the kitchen, I've been making cheese when I have the milk (have to separate Romeo for the night and then we get 10L in the morning, greedy little thing isn't he!).  Lots of beet kvass from my own beets.  Time for sprouts again now that its hot and we eat salads with dinner most evenings.  Lots of eggs, lots of meat.  My slow cooker broke though, and its been really hard to live without it.  The inner pot cracked somehow (possibly when I filled it with frozen bones for stock and turned it on before they had defrosted) and a new pot is $58 and several weeks of waiting for it to arrive.  I thought about buying a new cheap one, but I don't really want two sitting around, so will just buy the new pot when its in stock again.  Meanwhile, I had to make a casserole on the stove top (because I wanted to use up some leeks) and I included liver for the first time.  It was actually quite nice.  We were surprised!

I also made ice cream when we had lots of cream a while ago
- flavoured with honey and chai, with cocoa nibs as a sprinkle

you wouldn't believe how difficult it was to get these two to sit still for this photo!
Notice that the both have new rego tags for this year :)

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