Monday, April 29, 2013

Beef tallow soap recipes

A friend taught me to make soap at the start of January.  She just taught me to follow a simple recipe using tallow, olive oil and coconut oil, with the cold process method.  We have been using that soap in the bath and in a soap shaker for doing the dishes, and its surprising how fast we use it, so it was time to make some more.  I rendered the rest of the tallow in the slow cooker again and read a book about soap making, so that I could figure out my own recipe this time.

It helps to have a basic understanding of the soap making process before you start.  To make a soap, fat or oil is reacted with caustic, this forms the solid soap, glycerine, and if any of the starting ingredients are in excess, they will also remain in the final product (so if you have too much caustic, there will be some caustic in the final soap, and if you have too much fat, there will be some fat in the final soap - this is called superfat).  In this post I am only talking about cold process soap making, which involves mixing the oil/fat and caustic when they are a similar temperature and does not require any cooking.

My soap fresh from the moulds (and the soap shaker again)
Which fats and oils to use and in what ratio?
I read about the properties of all the different fats and oil that I could use for different purposes.   If you are interested in soap making, I recommend that you research all the fats and oils that are available to you and figure out which to use for different applications.  I prefer to use a mixture of fats and oils that are relatively cheap and easy for me to buy, as well as being suitable for the type of soap I want to make.  This is what I found out about the fats and oils that I wanted to use:

Tallow - hard and longlasting soaps, good cleaning qualities, creamy lather, might retain animal smell (I haven't noticed this in my tallow soap so far)

Olive oil - hard and longlasting soaps, need long curing time and may take longer to reach "trace", minimal lather, good cleaning qualities

Coconut oil - hard soap, good lather, soap may dissolve easily if high in coconut oil (never use more than 30%)

How much caustic to use?
To calculate the amount of caustic you need, you first work out the amount of each fat or oil you will use in grams.  Each fat or oil has a "saponification value", which tells you how much caustic (in grams) you need for each gram of fat or oil.  For example, beef tallow has a saponification value of 0.140, which means you need 0.140 grams of caustic for every gram of beef tallow in the recipe.

Here's how to work it out for an example recipe of 250g olive oil, 250g coconut oil and 500g tallow

Fat/oil             Amount            Sap value            Caustic amount          Total caustic (0% superfat)
Olive oil             250g                0.134                    33.5                  
Coconut oil        250g                0.192                     48
Beef tallow         500g                0.140                     70

What about superfat?
This refers to adding EXTRA oil or fat, to ensure that the final soap product has some oil or fat content, rather than caustic.  Soaps used for the skin typically have a higher superfat rating (6%) than soaps used for cleaning (2%).  However, as you start with the amount of oil or fat and then work out the caustic, when you use the superfat rating, you effectively reduce the amount of caustic rather than increasing the amount of oil or fat.  In the example above, a 6% superfat rating results in the caustic being adjusted by 151.5x(100-6)/100=142g.

How much water to use?
Water is used to dissolve the caustic so that it can mix with the oil and fat.  If too little water is used, the fat and oil may not mix sufficiently to form the soap.  Too much water may prevent the soap from setting properly.  Water for cold process soap is usually 30-33% of the total oil and fat amount.  For the recipe above, the water should be 300-333g.

My two recipes
Based on the above information, I formulated two recipes, one for a bath soap and one for a cleaning soap.  If you want to use these recipes, you need to follow them exactly.  If you make any changes to the fat or oil used, then you need to recalculate the caustic and water, as described above.  Please make sure you understand the process before you attempt to formulate a soap recipe.

Bath soap
250g olive oil
250g coconut oil
500g tallow
6% superfat
142g caustic
300-330g water
lavender essential oil

Cleaning soap
250g olive oil
750g tallow
2% superfat
136g caustic
300-330g water
eucalyptus essential oil

I know there are some very experienced soap-makers reading this, so please do tell me if I've made any mistakes!  I hope you won't find anything that will affect the soap, as I've already made it! Now I'm curious, what type of fat and oil do you like to use and why?

My other soap posts:

Natural soap using beef tallow

Friday, April 26, 2013

Fermented pickled cucumbers

I first wrote about pickling cucumbers last year, and since then I have made many batches of delicious pickles and I think I have perfected my method, so its time to tell you more.

You can pickle any type of cucumbers, but I like to grow the proper pickling cucumber or gherkins.  They grow really well in my garden, even when its hot and dry, they do better than other curcubits.  I usually get plenty from 2-3 plants.  I like to pick them small, around the size of my thumb. Only because when they get too big its hard to fit many of them in the jar!  It can be like a bit of a puzzle fitting them all in.

I also grow my own dill to flavour the pickles.  It tends to bolt to seed, so I have to keep picking it regularly and I put it in salad if I have more dill than pickles.

I use the recipe from Nourishing Traditions to make the brine for the pickles - 1 cup of water, 4 tablespoons of whey (from raw milk cream cheese), and 1 tablespoon of sea salt.  I usually make up one batch of brine for each jar of pickles, its good to have extra, you don't want to be stingy as the the pickles need to be fully submerged.  

I put a layer of dill, mustard seeds and peppercorns in the jar, fill the jar with pickles, and then fill the jar with the brine.  Then I add more dill, mustard and peppercorns.  

In the last post I was confused about how to keep the pickles under the brine.  I've solved that one using grape leaves.  I was VERY excited when I noticed that our neighbour had a small grape vine.  The grapes are terrible, but the leaves are very handy.  This year every jar of pickles has had two grape leaves scrunched in the top to keep the pickles under the brine.  This is much easier than trying to cut a spacer to fit and apparently this also helps to keep the pickles crunchy.

I leave the jars on the kitchen bench for about 3 days and then I put them in the fridge.  They seem to last ok for several months (ours get eaten before much longer than that!). 

We like to have the pickles on an antipasto platter, and especially in burgers, or stirred into a casserole (sounds weird, but its really nice).  Pete reckons they taste like McDs pickles.  I'm not sure if that's a compliment, but it was funny when he said it.

Have you tried fermenting anything yet?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What type of cattle operation will suit you?

We are only new to the cattle industry, and I may get some of the terminology wrong in this post, but I was hoping to explain a few things that I've learnt about the cattle industry in Australia.  Broadly speaking, there are three different types of cattle operations.  The first is “cow and calf”, where you own a number of cows and a bull, aim to produce one calf from each cow per year, and either fatten the calves or sell at weaning age.  This leads to the second type, which is to buy those weaners and fatten them to feed-lot size.  Finally, some very dedicated and skilled individuals will chose to run a stud, producing consistent pure-bred cattle, particularly bulls, which may be purchased by cow and calf operations as breeding stock.  Each type of operation has its pros and cons and the one that’s best for you will depend on your land, your available time, and knowledge of cattle, and of course you can have a bit of a mixture if you want to.

our pen of steers at the sale yards
When we first bought our property Cheslyn Rise, it was already fenced and had a nice wooden stock yard, so it was very easy for us to buy a load of 17 steers from the sale yards with the aim of fattening them.  Fattening weaners is the quickest and easiest way to get started with cattle.  All you need is fences, a yard and ramp, and your property registration (NLIS in Australia).  The hardest part is when you first get the weaners, because they are young and don’t know your property, they tend to run around and break fences at first, but when they get used to the place, they should almost look after themselves, particularly if you have plenty of grass for them to eat (read about our stressful experience with steers here).  

The best thing is, if you start to run out of grass, you just sell the cattle.  However, this can be a problem if everyone else needs to sell at the same time, as the market value for your cattle can decrease by several cents per kg.  In our experience, its very difficult to make a profit from fattening weaners.  I guess its one of those things where its just too easy, no pain, no gain right.  The problem is that the per kg price of steers decreases as they get heavier.  We bought our steers at $2.10/kg when they weighed around 300 kg each.  When we sold them they were around 400 kg each and the price was only $1.70/kg.  This was an extreme example, as we had to also sell in a depressed market during the dry period, however it does show that it can be very difficult to make any profit unless you are very clever and buy and sell at just the right times.  By the time we paid for transport, stock agent fees and various other related fees, not to mention the hay we fed them over winter, we only just broke even, there was certainly no profit to be made.
the brafords
After we bought the steers, we could see that it wasn’t going to be easy to make a profit, so we started to investigate buying cows thinking that it would be better to breed calves instead of buying weaners.  Eventually we found a herd of cows through a private sale.  We wanted to buy a group that had been together for a while.  The alternative is to buy one or two cows (usually with calves) from the sale yards each week, but then risk that they don’t all get on with each other, and they will all look different.  That may sound ridiculous, but you actually get better prices if your weaners all look the same!  Anyway, if you’re buying cows and calves you are going to be keeping those cows for a while, they are an investment that produces you a calf each year, so you do need to chose your breed carefully.  We tried to find a breed that would do well on our property (in the heat and with poor grass at times) and had a reputation for easy calving and good mothering (more about the Brafords here).

Keeping cows is more of a commitment.  You can't just change your mind and sell them all (or not very easily).  You need to find a bull, and keep him on your property (and not fighting all your neighbours' bulls).  You need to brand and tag the calves before you sell them, to castrate the males and consider vaccinations.  Cows are more likely to have problems that require the vet, trouble with calving and just with their feet and all sorts of silly things.  The cows are more work, but the return is far better, the weaners cost you very little to produce (only some winter feed, ear tags etc) and sell for around $2/kg.  The longer you can keep them the better, but they do need to be weaned to let the cows recover before the next calf.  If you want to fatten them for longer, it all gets more complicated with managing pasture and keeping cows away from calves, but it is even more profitable.

So now we have tried raising weaners and keeping cows and calves, but we won't be attempting stud breeding any time in the near future.  At the recent Nanango show we spent most of our morning watching the beef cattle judging in the yards, it was very practical, breed was unimportant, the animals were judged on the amount of meat on their bones and value to an abattoir.  We made a brief visit to the stud cattle shed, where the animals were being shampooed and prepared for their walk around the show ring.  The animals were huge, obviously bulked up on grain, not like the grass-fed beasts in the beef yard, and lounging on clean hay to keep them out of the dirt.  I think this comparison will explain why we're not interested in stud cattle, we would much rather put effort into being recognised for producing good beef on grass than for shampooed grain-fattened bulls!

We are very happy to have found the Brafords, and even though having cows is more work overall, it is less stressful because they haven't broken through any fences so far!  We still have the option to buy weaners if we have too much grass at some stage, but we won't be relying on them to make us money.  Now I know I've over-simplified the industry, so please correct me if I've got something wrong and add anything I missed.  What do you prefer?  Weaners or cows and calves? 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Worm farm compost

Worm farm kits from Biome

I've been "worm farming" since a friend gave me a small handful of worms from his farm and I set up a worm farm purchased from Aldi.  The worm farm has two trays and a vessel underneath with a tap to catch all the worm juice.  I started with the bottom tray empty and the worms were in the top tray with vege scraps, covered with their blanket and the lid.  At first I didn't need to feed them much, just the occasional lettuce leaf, but they multiplied very quickly, and were soon ready to eat all our vege scraps.  Finally I filled the top tray and swapped the trays, so I had the empty tray at the top again.  When the top tray was full again, I needed to empty the compost from the bottom tray.  

The compost was beautiful, but full of worms.  There are lots of methods for separating the worms from the compost, most seem to involve shade cloth or a trampoline.  I just scooped out the compost and picked out the worms from each scoop, and put the worms into one container and the compost in another.  Towards the end there were just too many worms, so I left some compost for later.  I also picked out all the mango stones, corn cobs and chunks that hadn't composted yet.  And I crunched up all the eggshells.

the top tray (vege scraps and worms)

Compost in the bottom tray

The compost can be spread on your garden, but I wanted to use it for seed-raising instead.  It was a bit wet, so I let it dry out a little first.

The compost ready to use after I picked out the worms

When I first got the worm farm, I wasn't sure how it would fit into my compost system, but now I have plenty of worms, its working really well.  Here's how I use all our vege scraps and green waste:
  • vege scraps from the kitchen go to the worm farm
  • excess green leafy veges from the garden go to the chickens
  • weeds from the garden go into the compost
This way there is plenty to go around for everyone and I get lots of compost from the normal compost and from the worms.  Its better putting the vege scraps in the worm farm than the compost as I used to find they went a bit smelly and it was hard to get the carbon/nitrogen ratio right.  Fortunately the worms don't worry about these technical details!

There are lots of ways to make worm farms, both small and large, I hope we will make a large one eventually and I can feed the worms to the chickens and the aquaponic fish.

Do you have a worm farm?  How do you get the worms out of the compost?  

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

Worm farm kits from Biome

Friday, April 19, 2013


Tromboncino!  I love saying the word.  I only just goggled it and found out that I've been spelling it wrong, not enough 'n's.  Well its difficult when you come across a vege that you've never met before, you don't know how to pronounce or spell its name and you don't really know how it will grow, when to harvest or how to eat it!  I suppose that adds to the excitement.  And there's always the possibility that a new vege may grow really well in your conditions AND taste nice too.

a tangle of tromboncinos
I was given tromboncino seeds by a lovely lady at our permaculture group (thanks Judi!) and I wasn't really sure what to expect.  I had read about them on Linda Woodrow's Witches Kitchen, so I know that they like to climb and that I may get more than I could eat.  Just in case, I only planted three seeds, and two of them made it out to the garden, planted next to the fence, so they could climb up if they wanted to.

They didn't do much through our dry spell, even though they were high priority for water.  I got two tromboncinos off them before it started raining.  Then they quadrupled in size and became COVERED in fruit.  They are doing way better than the zucchini and squash I planted, so they are a winner so far.  They have only just got a little powdery mildew (understandable in this weather) and hardly any trouble with blossom end-rot - both of which are my main problems with zucchini and squash.

Here's the two tronboncinos amongst beans and pickling cucumber
They are pale green and hook over things to form the weirdest shapes.  It can be quite difficult to find them in the foliage and then you realise just how many you have.....  The fact that they climb means that you can make use of vertical space as well as providing shade for more tender plants in the garden, which is much more convenient than scratchy zucchini leaves sprawled everywhere.

tromboncino with flowers

here's some mini ones starting to form
I think the reason that you don't see tromboncino as a commercial crop is that its quite easily bruised or snapped.  They don't have the thick skin of a zucchini and are not as fibrous.  The texture is really quite smooth, more like pumpkin, but not as tough.  I haven't grown one big enough to save seeds yet, so I have left a bigger one on the vine for later, but I think I might have to let it get rather huge!

here's what they look like on the inside
I have been using it like zucchini, either raw in salads, or cooked with other veges or in stew.  I'm going to dry the excess like I did with zucchini earlier in the year.

I will definitely be growing tromboncinos again next year and I hope I can save my own seeds as well.  It will be interesting to see how they survive into winter.  

Have you tried growing or eating tromboncino?  Would you like to?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Winter garden planning

Its that tricky time of year again, in between seasons, where I try to guess the optimal time to give up on summer crops, and make room for winter veges that will survive the frosty mornings.  At the moment, I still have a few green tomatoes which might ripen in time, a few eggplants, chillis, capsicums and lots of basil.

At the same time, there are brassica seedlings and parsley popping up all over the garden!  I am moving them all to my nominated brassica garden bed.  Its great to have volunteers, but I'm not sure which are which yet and I worry that I won't have one of everything.  I think I will still have to plant a few of each variety, just to be sure I don't miss out, but I definitely have a headstart on a few of them, there is broccoli and tat soi doing well already.

We had a difficult summer, with several months of very hot and dry weather.  The garden didn't really start producing well until we got the 300 mm of rain in late January, even though I was watering with grey water daily, it just wasn't quite enough.  The dry weather at least meant that I wasn't bothered by fruit flies or slugs, so the tomato crop was good, particularly the yellow "taxi" and red "tropic", but strangely this was the first year ever with no cherry tomatoes, they just never seemed to take off.

After the rain, the tronboncino and climbing beans went crazy.  I didn't have much luck with bush beans though and I think it was too dry for the corn.  The pickling cucumbers were the only plant that didn't better in the dry than the wet.  I still didn't manage to grow any melons.

It going to be time soon to harvest the sweet potato, artichoke and some arrowroot and comfrey before they all die back in the frost.  This will give my berry garden space to expand!  Also time to harvest the tumeric and ginger growing in pots and the galangal in the garden (love making galangal ale, say it out loud and you'll see why).

The kale and silverbeet from last winter is still growing, I tried to pull it out at one stage, but it wouldn't budge, so I was too lazy and it just regrew after seeding!  So I've been picking kale all year, fantastic!  The garlic that I didn't harvest last spring (it was too small) died off and has now resprouted, so we will see if it is bigger next spring.

This winter I am going to plant more root crops than last year, I really want to grow plenty of carrots, turnips and swedes.  I am going to grow more broad beans, I really enjoyed having them produce in late winter, when everything else is finishing off.  I'm going to try a few different peas before it starts to frost, and again after the frost.  I'm going to make more of an effort with onions (in the carrot garden, not with the broad beans or peas this time, supposed to be bad-companions).

I'll be setting up my mini-greenhouse to try to keep a few favourites out of the frost, but it might be a challenge to fit them all in this year, as they've all grown, especially the avocado sapling.

What are you planning this winter?  Anything new in your garden?  How do you deal with the frost?

You might also be interested in how my garden grew in 2012.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Electric fencing for beginners

We've been very slow to start using electric fencing.  It all seemed very complicated to me, which is stupid really, I did study physics at high school and university, I should be able to understand how an electric fence works!  Maybe I was over-thinking it, because now they seem very simple and very very useful.

Strip grazing a paddock of forage sorghum
If you have a small area that you need to fence permanently or temporarily, electric fencing is the cheapest, most flexible and quickest method.  I seriously don't think we'll be doing much more barb-wired fencing, apart from our perimeter fences and maybe to split up our largest paddock.

For a simple temporary fence, all you need is electric fence wire or tape, fence posts or clips to attach to an existing fence, an energiser and a battery (unless you get a mains powered energiser).  We usually run the wire/tape out around the area, and then position the posts at sensible intervals.  We set up the earth, connect the energiser to power and turn on the fence.

energiser on the post, attached to polywire, battery and earth stake

I took me a while to work out what the "earth" was for, but once you understand that, the rest of the fence makes more sense.  There are two ways of setting up the fence, either using an earth return wire or all live wires.  With the earth return wire you alternate live and earth wires.  When the animal touches the fence and contacts both and earth and a live wire, they complete the electric circuit and receive a shock.  If you don't have an earth wire, you are relying on the ground to complete the circuit, which works ok if your soil is currently moist.  The energiser itself is connected to the live wires, and to the earth wire, or to an earth stake.  Some people use really long stakes, like 6 m long stakes, but we just use an old tent peg.  So far we have been able to use just one or two live wires, with an earth stake.

Energisers come in different sizes designed to cover different nominal distances.  When you first introduce cattle to an electric fence its a good idea to use an oversized energiser for the distance you're fencing.  If the first shock they ever get is a strong one, they are unlikely to touch the fence again.  Cattle are very set in their ways, Bella will not touch a fence, or even walk over a fence, so we don't even have to use an energiser to keep her on the right side.  Our neighbour's goats, however, can hear when the fence is on or off and are very opportunistic if they do notice that its off.  If you have a lot of vegetation touching the fence, it will drain some of the charge, so its best to oversize the energiser in this case as well.

brafords in the sorghum, its taller than them,
so they could waste it if they had the entire area at once
Another thing that we figured out by trial and error was that you can leave some of the fencing tape on the plastic reel, you can even buy reels with handles and gears that make it easier to wind up the fence and move it.  Now when we are making temporary fences, we just wind out what we need and attached the energiser to the reel.  

Temporary electric fencing opens up a world of opportunities.  Here is a few examples of how we use it:
  • We have fenced off an eroded area of our property that needed a rest from hooves, it is making an impressive recovery
  • We fence inside the house yard so that Bella and Molly can come in and trim the grass (lawn moo-ers), this saves us mowing and lets them eat some nice green grass
  • We have been strip grazing our 17 acres of forage sorghum as we haven't had very good weather for making hay.  This way the cattle get a few acres at a time and don't waste as much, they are also spreading their manure over the cultivation area
Molly trimming in the house yard, and my garden is safe behind the fence
The best way to learn more about electric fencing is to go to your local produce store and pick up a brochure in the electric fence section, most of the companies publish little handbooks that you can take away for free.  I think they realise that everyone needs a bit more information about electric fencing!  This is where I learnt what I know, also from a bit of trial and error.

How do you use electric fences?  Do you have any questions?  I'm going to write more about splitting up paddocks soon....

Friday, April 12, 2013

Rosella tea

A while ago I had a lovely tea with ginger and rosella.  It got me thinking maybe I should try to grow some rosellas myself, so this season when I was offered some seed (thanks African Aussie!) I planted some and ended up with four in big pots.  I kept them in pots because I was a little unsure what to expect.  I didn't know how big they would get and where they would prefer to grow.  I find keeping unknown plants in pots the first year helps me if I need to move them around to find the best spot for them.  Next year I'll probably plant them out in the garden instead.

Rosella dried for tea

I am still waiting for mine to flower, even though I planted them in September, but a friend of mine had excess fruit from her plants and gave me a bag of them.  I decided to dry most of them for tea, and kept a few to add to a fermented drink.

the rosella flowers?  I don't even know what to call them!

the calices peeled from the rosella seeds
Rosella is a bit of a strange fruit, as you don't really use a fruit as such, you actually remove the calyx, which is the bit outside the petals which grows up around the seed pod.  I had never seen them before, so this was quite a novelty.  They very are easy to peel, then I just washed them and spread them out in the dehydrator on some cheese cloth (so they didn't fall through the mesh).

The green bit is the seed pod
The calices themselves taste very sour, but that is a lovely tang to add to jam, cordial, tea etc.  Apparently you can also use them for pickles.  I decided to try making a fermented beverage and substituted them for ginger in my ginger ale recipe, the result was delicious.

The calices spread out in the dehydrator

and after drying for about 12 hours

rosella, mixed with ginger, lemon peel and lemon grass

my tea cupboard, in case you were wondering where I keep all this tea!
the rosella ferment, I thought it would be more pink,
it tastes nice though

Do you make rosella tea?  OR anything else from rosella?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Training a house cow

We have had Molly since she was about 4-5 weeks old, she came here with Bella nearly two years ago now, they are both pure Jersey cows. At first Molly was a crazy, flighty calf, that ran from us every afternoon when we wanted to lock her away from Bella, so that we could milk Bella in the morning. Eventually she got to know and enjoy the afternoon bucket of grain and would follow me into her calf yard. We used that opportunity to get her used to being handled by us. Its certainly been worth all those afternoons stroking her as she ate her grain, she is quite tame, but not as tame as Bella, who was bottle raised. Some cow books advise you to bottle raise your house cow, to make sure she's tame, but that is a lot of work, and I think Molly has grown up big and strong because she was nursed by Bella for over a year. We wouldn't have kept it up for that long if we were bottle feeding her!

Baby Molly with Bella
When Molly started to come on heat at around 9 months old, she used to ignore Bella for a couple days and we had to milk instead. After a few times we decided to just let Molly wean herself, she was about 14 months old when we let her go with Donald the Dexter bull. The plan was that because Donald is very small, we are guaranteed very small calves, which is good for our small Jersey cows. Since then, Molly has been just one of the herd and hasn't had so much attention from us, so she was getting a bit wild again.
Bella with one-year-old Molly (still with shaggy calf coat)
About 2 months before we expected Molly to calve, we started to train her to eat her grain in the milking bales. We got her to come up to the yard with Bella. Bella would go in first and have her grain, and then it was Molly's turn. Molly was quite comfortable in the bales and I was able to stroke her all over, including her udder. She wasn't so impressed when we put the chain across the back of the bales so she couldn't just back out at any time she pleased, but she got used to it eventually. Even with all this training, we were worried that Molly would be difficult to milk.
Molly a coupe of days before she gave birth
A few days before Molly’s due date, we put her in a small paddock close to the house, so we could keep an eye on her. I wonder if she knew what all the fuss was about, we were checking her several times a day! Finally on the 282nd day of her pregnancy, Pete went to check on Molly early in the morning and came back to say she might be in labour. We had breakfast, and by the time we went back out, there was a little calf on the ground. Molly was very pleased with herself and mooing gently to the calf and licking him all over. She let me get close enough to confirm that he was a “him”. As she licked him he made several attempts to stand, getting stronger each time. It is amazing to see how strong and capable they are only 15 minutes after birth.

Everything was going well, except that Molly refused to give him a drink. He was looking everywhere for her teat, but every time he got close to her udder, she would move away or give him a gentle kick. We tried putting her in the milking bales and moving him in behind, but still no success. Finally we decided to give him some of the colostrum that we froze from Bella and just leave the two of them to figure it out. I felt better knowing that he had a little bit in his belly to keep him going until Molly figured out that her role as Mumma Cow is to provide the milk!
Molly with newborn Monty
The next morning I went out with the bottle again, and the little calf was not interested, he also had a suspiciously round belly. That’s when we knew that Molly had let him have a drink.

The next job was to persuade Molly to let us milk her. The worst part was getting her into the milking bales as she didn’t want to leave her calf. Lucky he was tiny at first and we could carry him up to the front of the bales to be near her. She also did not particularly appreciate the milking machine, but didn't try very hard to kick it off and actually was more cooperative than Bella was at first. She kept trying to climb out the front of the bales, so we had to put up a barrier (she is a bit taller than Bella and can stick her head over the grain trough). We managed to milk her on the afternoon after she gave birth. We got about 5 L of colostrum from her, which we froze for future calves. She is still getting used to the idea of leaving her calf and coming into the milking bales, we will get there eventually, we just have to be more stubborn than the cow!

Bella has never been terribly cooperative about the milking machine, even though she came from a commercial dairy and was milked twice a day for several years, so she should be used to it, its a bit easier when the cows are all wedged in next to each other!  The best method we found is to have two people put the cups on so you can hold them up until the vacuum establishes. Then you have one person at the back of the bales with the machine, ready to rescue the teat cups if she starts kicking them off, and one person on the side, where the cow can see them (this is usually me), trying to calm the cow by talking gently and stroking her back. If she does try to kick at the machine, the person at the side can put pressure on her back and hips, so that it is physically difficult for her to kick. Bella only gives us trouble when she first has her calf, after a while we just get a little kick at the end to help us off with the cups.

Monty at two-days-old
Lots of people suggested to us to tie the cow’s leg. Trying to put a strap around Bella’s leg only resulted in more ferocious kicking and she nearly fell over in the bales. We find its best to leave the cow’s leg alone, but it obviously works for some people!

If you want to know more, this is an excellent article on milking a house cow.  Also read more about our house cow experiences here.

Do you have a house cow? Any tips for training? And what to do in the early days after the calf is born?
You might also be interested in my series on getting started with homestead dairy

Monday, April 8, 2013

Permaculture Principles - Self-regulation

I'm now up to the forth permaculture principle, so I think I should start by going back over the first three principles in case you've forgotten what I'm talking about, before I launch into "apply self-regulation and accept feedback".

I first wrote about discovering permaculture in this post, and even though I tried to define permaculture, its pretty difficult to explain, and probably makes more sense after you've thought about all the principles.  This is my favourite definition:

Permaculture is a design system based on ethics and design principles which can be used to guide efforts made by individuals, households and communities towards a sustainable future. (
Permaculture is based on three ethics: earth care (sustaining natural systems), people care (making the products of natural systems available to people) and fair share (governing our needs so that resources are available to all).

12 permaculture principles (and 3 ethics)
In his book  Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond SustainabilityDavid Holmgren, one of the founders of permaculture, has written about 12 design principles, which I am reviewing in detail month by month.  Reviewing the principles is helping with both my understanding of permaculture and showing me how to use permaculture to plan our new property.

In January I wrote about "Observe and Interact", which is applied both at the start and throughout a design process, observing and interacting with both the natural systems and landscapes where you intend to work/build and other systems that may give clues to a better design (including reading other blogs, I like getting ideas from what other people are doing).  One of the most important aspects is record keeping, and I did start a farm diary, which went great for about 2 months, I really need to keep that going.....

In February the principle was "Catch and Store Energy".  This principle is about building storages for longer term energy use, in particular, trees for food and timber, and water catchments such as dams and tanks.  It also includes passive solar design of buildings for heating and cooling.

March was dedicated to "Obtain a Yield", which is about immediate yield, whereas catch and store energy was more about planning for longer term returns.  Obtain a yield aims to maximise yield for optimum input of effort and money.  For example, this can be achieved by planting edible plants that require minimal maintenance, do well in your climate and produce a high yield, also by allowing plants to self-seed.  

The forth principle is "apply self-regulation and accept feedback".  The reason for this principle is that a system without regulation will be out of control.  An example is yeast used to brew beer.  The yeast produces alcohol as a waste product when it consumes the sugar in the brew, the yeast population increases and it produces more and more waste alcohol, but the yeast die when the brew reaches an alcohol content around 5-6% or when it runs out of sugar to eat.  If the yeast were able to self-regulate their population or the waste produced, they would survive and form a stable population.  Holmgren suggests that we must self-regulate because he believes that, for various reasons, its not possible for those at the top of our society to impose regulation.  We must initiate this change from the bottom up.  First by changing our own behaviour and then encouraging those around us.  Instead of saying "they" should change something (usually meaning the government) we need to recognise that its "we" who must begin to regulate our society staring by taking responsibility for our own actions.

self-regulation is about taking responsibility
The system that is getting out of control is the consumer society which thrives on the consumption of resources and the production of waste.  This system is unsustainable, but we each must recognise this as individuals and change our own lives first.  We must regulate our own actions to reduce consumption and waste, rather than waiting to be regulated by someone or something else.

Holmgren suggests a self-audit in which you consider each of your needs and wants and how you can change the way you consume.  I find it easier to just question each purchase, do I really need this item?  If yes, is there any way that I can grow, make, borrow, or use something I already own instead?  If no, what is the most ethical purchase decision?  Can I buy a local, organically-produced, chemical-free, or fair trade version or alternative?  By analysing the things as I buy them, I start to figure out things that I'd like to try to make or grow, such as making soap or growing more carrots, so that I don't have to buy as much, and so that I become more responsible for my own consumption and waste.

As we become self-sufficient in various resources, we start to regulate our own use.  For example our only water supply is from our rainwater tanks.  We could buy water if we got really desperate, but we prefer to frugally use what we get free from the sky.  Sometimes this means using very little water if we have dry times, but it is nice to know that we are responsible for regulating our own water consumption, rather than being dictated by a local council (if we were on town water).  Taking responsibility for providing your own resources, or at least understanding where they come from, and disposing of your own waste helps you to regulate your own consumption and waste.  

I think the hardest part of this principle is other people.  Living differently can be isolating and I often get silly questions about why we bother to do things like raising chickens for meat or knitting socks.  There is always that pressure to conform and to have the latest widgit, just because everyone else does.  Having a community of like-minded bloggers out there really helps me not feel like I'm a total weirdo.  And then, when you have established your new frugal way of life, how do you communicate the advantages to other people without offending them?  If this self-regulation is to work, we need lots of selfs to start regulating!  Its a real challenge to respectfully communicate to others that you have reduced your impact on the natural environment and perhaps they should too.  Sometimes I have to just cringe and bite my tongue because I can see that certain people are not ready to hear that their lifestyle is not sustainable.

Now, what do you think?  Do you self-regulate how you live in order to reduce your consumption and waste?  What steps have you taken so far and what are you planning?  How do you spread the message to others?

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

Friday, April 5, 2013

Raw milk yoghurt

When we first got our cow, Bella, I had read “The healthy house cow” and really wanted to make raw milk yoghurt because Marja made it seem so easy and healthy, but every time I tried, I just ended up with a mess.

mmm yoghurt
If you need to catch up on how to make yoghurt, here are the different methods that I use, all methods use the Easiyo thermos to keep the yoghurt at fermentation temperature:

Easiyo packets

Powdered milk with frozen yoghurt culture (starter) or yoghurt from previous batch

Pasteurised Bella milk with frozen yoghurt culture or yoghurt from previous batch

Pasteurising the milk kills all the other bacteria that may compete with the yoghurt culture, but it also kills any beneficial bacteria and denatures enzymes that may help with digestion of the yoghurt. Up until recently, I had accepted that raw milk yoghurt didn’t work for me, and that at least I was getting the benefit of the yoghurt bacteria, even if I was missing out on those other bacteria and enzymes. I had actually started using milk powder again, even though we had plenty of Bella milk, just because I find that the pasteurisation was adding so much extra time to the process. I heat the milk slowly so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot, and it was taking an hour to heat and an hour to cool down enough to add the culture. What a pain!

But you might have heard that process of making powdered milk causes the cholesterol to oxidise, which means its not a great thing to eat. It also contains soy lecithin as a flowing agent. I'd really rather not use powdered milk, but its just so much more convenient, and I have been hoping that the health benefits of the pro-biotic might just outweigh the negative effect of the oxidised cholesterol.

So you can see why I was hoping to find a way to make yoghurt using raw milk, it is way easier to just put the culture in the milk straight from the cow and let it ferment and make yoghurt, with no fiddly pasteurisation involved, and you get to keep all the beneficial bacteria and enzymes in the original milk. 

here's where the milk comes from...
Finally someone ( a friend of Ohio Farmgirl) noticed my plea for help and very kindly emailed me with instructions. He said that I need to maintain a small batch of yoghurt made from pasteurised milk and use that batch to inoculate the raw milk, rather than just using a sprinkle of the frozen yoghurt culture. I already (always!) had a batch of yoghurt made from powdered milk, so I tried adding several tablespoons from that batch to a litre of raw milk fresh from Bella. I let it ferment for 12 hours and the yoghurt was ready.

My previous attempts at making raw milk yoghurt had resulted in curds and whey, because the yoghurt bacteria hadn’t had a chance to multiply before the natural lactic-acid bacteria in the milk had started to grow instead. Apparently this method of inoculating with a yoghurt made from pasteurised (or powdered) milk gives the yoghurt bacteria a better start in the raw milk. The key is to keep the pasteurised yoghurt batch going at the same time, this batch will contain only the yoghurt bacteria, and not all the competing bacteria that may eventually take over if you inoculated with the raw milk yoghurt (although I am of course very tempted to try that too, I’m all for simplicity!).

milk fresh from the cow
I wonder now if another reason why I had so much trouble with raw milk yoghurt was because Bella had been treated with antibiotics and wormer before she arrived at our place. The antibiotics were for mastitis (which has not recurred under our care). I mention this because if you are having trouble with raw milk yoghurt, maybe wait for a while and try again, it could be something else in your cow's system that is causing the problem.

Do you make yoghurt? Why not? Its so easy and there's so many different ways to make it, surely one will work for you! Get yourself a big thermos and give it a go!

PS I get my yoghurt culture from Green Living Australia, and you can also order from Cheeselinks.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Caring for young chicks - update

Last week I wrote about incubating chicken eggs. If you are incubating eggs and you are as successful as we were, you will end up with chicks to look after. We currently have 33 chicks in a box in our lounge room! I was recently contacted by a lady who was about to buy some chicks and didn't know what to feed them. When I went back to my last post about caring for chicks I realised that I’d missed some important details and changed my mind about a few things. So here is an updated version.

the chicks in their box

Chicks need three things: a safe, warm place to live; water and food.

When chicks first hatch, they don’t have many feathers, so they need to be kept warm, around the same temperature as the incubator (38degC) at first and then gradually cooling as they get bigger. We keep our chicks in a large wooden box. You don’t have to use a wooden box, any kind of strong, draught-proof box will do. I have seen plastic, cardboard and metal boxes used as well.

We heat the box using a heat lamp and thermostat designed for reptiles. We have both a 60W and a 25W bulb, which we vary depending on the outside temperature (we bought the thermostat and bulbs from Reptile Direct Australia). The top of the box has a metal mesh frame, so stop the chicks flying out and to stop the dogs helping themselves. You can also use incandescent lightbulbs (which we can’t buy anymore) and a thermometer to monitor the temperature in the box. The chicks will tell you if they are too cold, they all huddle under the lamp, and if they are too hot they will be in the opposite corner of the box panting!

We also cover the box with a towel at night to keep out draughts. The box usually starts inside, because the temperature is more stable, and moves outside as the chicks start to smell and make too much noise. After they are a week old or so, they are much stronger and able to handle temperature fluctuations.  It is surprising how strong they get so quickly when you see how weak they are after they first hatch.

We line the bottom of the box with newspaper and then a layer of wood shavings.  This is supposed to be easier on their little feet.  We had a batch of chickens with crocked feet before and I think it was from only having newspaper on the floor of their box.  They do tend to eat some wood shavings at first, but it must not matter, as long as they find their chick food as well.

Inside the box we provide the chicks with a small “waterer”, which you can buy from a produce/stock feed store. This is better than a dish of water because the chicks can’t fall in and get wet (and cold) or drown. They seem to find the water by instinct and there’s no need to add anything to the water, although I've read that people add apple cider vinegar or honey to give the chicks an energy boost, especially if they've arrived via post.

I've left the food discussion to last because it’s the most complicated. You can just buy a commercial chick starter crumble, which is formulated for chicks, and usually contains a coccidiostat (a drug to prevent the chicks getting sick from coccidiosis). This is more relevant for large-scale production of chicks and probably unnecessary for more small farm raisers of chicks. A good alternative, if you can find it, is an organic chick crumble. There is one made in Queensland by Country Heritage Feeds. It contains all the same protein and minerals as the commercial crumble, without the drugs.

Now you may want to take things even further and make the chick feed yourself. This is unknown territory for me, we always use some kind bought feed, its just easier, and the chickens have never suffered any problems as a result of our feed choices, but in the interests of self-sufficiency and knowing where your food comes from, you might want to try homemade chick feed. There’s lots of great advice on this site.

Have I forgotten anything this time?  Do you have any other tips?

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

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