Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Moving house!

Back in December we bought a house.  Not a house and land, just a house that someone didn't want on their land any more.  The house is a "Queenslander" style, which means its up on stumps to keep out the snakes, termites and flood waters, and it once had a wrap-around veranda, which is now half built-in, but still very generous.  The original parts of the house are probably nearly 100 years old, with some parts added in the 1980s (and already tested negative for asbestos, phew!).

It has taken SEVEN months to organise all the council paperwork and for the removalists to be ready, but our house finally moved this week!

Half of the house on the truck ready to move

The first half coming down our road around 3am

The first half in the house yard

The second half still on the truck
The removalist just has to put the roof back on and stump the house.  Then all we have to do is connect power, install rainwater tanks and septic system, replace the roof, install insulation and ceiling fans, paint the interior...... its fun to have a project!  I will show you around the inside as soon as the removalists have finished and its all settled on our property.

Have you ever moved a house?  Or renovated an old house?  Tell me it won't be too much work....

From The Farm Blog HopHomegrown on the Hill  Small Footprint Fridays - A sustainable living link-up

Monday, July 29, 2013

Free range guinea fowl!

We bought the guinea fowl as day-old chicks in December last year.  The idea was to raise them to eat the ticks that were affecting our Braford cattle at Cheslyn Rise.  I may have over-estimated how easy it would be to get them established on our property.  Now that they are 7 months old we can see that they are very different to chickens and we are starting to learn how to manage them.

.... and when we first got them as chicks
I know everyone said that guinea fowl are noisy, but I didn't imagine they would be THIS bad!  They are currently living close to the house and they squawk nearly constantly, it really amazes me just how loud they are.  See the video below for an example of some guinea fowl noise.  We are gradually moving them away from the house.


We recently decided to let them free-range.  The first night we were able to herd them back home.  The second night was the same.  The third night they all decided to fly up into the trees when we got too close.  When Pete shook one of the trees they flew up again and one even ended up on the roof of the house!  We had to give up and leave them out there.  They were all still ok in the morning, and after work we came home to find them all back in their cage!  They are very strange birds!  Ever since that night out, they have walked straight into their cage, so I wonder what happened to them up there in the trees.  They certainly learnt their lesson anyway.  

Now we just open the door of their cage each afternoon and they walk around the house yard making that noise.  They seem reluctant to fly, and actually forget that they can fly when they do accidentally get stuck on the other side of the fence (just pace up and down until we herd them through the gate).  They haven't got into my garden yet.  They have walked into the neighbour's property once, but they seem to prefer to hang around near their cage now.  In the evening, one person can herd them into the cage with Cheryl (the dog)'s help.  We make Cheryl sit on one side of the door, and then herd the guineas around the cage, when they get to Cheryl they stop and turn into the door of the cage.  Cheryl then takes all the credit for putting them to bed.

So we are successfully free-ranging the guinea fowl so far.  I'm not sure how they will cope with moving to Cheslyn Rise when we're ready (I'm not sure how I'm going to catch them either!).  I just wish they would go further away from the house sometimes, because that noise is incredible.

Do you keep guinea fowl?  Do you let them free-range?  Any tips or funny guinea stories?
From The Farm Blog Hop    Homegrown on the Hill  Small Footprint Fridays - A sustainable living link-up

Friday, July 26, 2013

Homemade realfood muesli bars (granola bars)

During Plastic Free July we have been saving any single-use plastic that would normally be thrown away, so that we can assess at the end of July just how much plastic we consume and how we could reduce that.  Throughout the month I also tested ways that we may reduce that plastic as we go.  This isn't a competition, its a learning experience, so its not cheating if you start to change some of your routine as you realise where all the plastic is coming from.

One thing that I knew was going to be an issue for us was muesli bars (granola bars for those in the US).  We go through around a box of 8 per week, and at over $4 a box, they're not cheap.  The brand that I buy is in a cardboard only box, but the bars are individually wrapped in plastic.  I don't think that there is any alternative bar that we could buy that is not individually wrapped, so I started to think about making an something similar at home (also because I bought kgs of organic rolled oats in bulk and haven't eaten as much porridge as expected!).  It had to be something quick and simple, part of the appeal of these bars is that they are easy to grab for a snack, we take them to work and for lunch when we're working on the farm.

As usual, when I started looking for a recipe I found a few different options:
Here's my analysis 
The unsoaked oats muesli bar recipe is just like what we buy, its probably the quickest and easiest option, just combine the ingredients and form into bars.  I know I said I wanted the easy option, but I also think if I'm going to make it myself, I should try to make it better than what I can buy.  I find that if I eat the bought bars too often I start to feel bloated.  This is probably due to oats being unsoaked.

As I've written previously, I try to either soak, sprout or ferment any grains that we eat, including flour in cakes and bread, and rice and quinoa before cooking.  I also soak oats when I make porridge.  To soak oats I combine the oats with water and a little kefir about 12 hours before I need to use them.  Soaking the oats is said to reduce the phytic acid content and increase the nutrient availability, and I prefer to soak long enough that the oats are starting to lacto-ferment, just to be sure.  Maybe its true, maybe its not, nobody seems quite sure, but I know I can digest oats more comfortably when I soak them, and that's the main thing!

Given the choice between a cooked and an uncooked recipe, I will always chose uncooked, as that means that more of the enzymes, vitamins and probiotics (from the kefir) are not damaged by the higher temperatures.  Also we own a dehydrator anyway, so its really no extra trouble to use that rather than the oven, its actually easier, because I can fit more into the dehydrator and I can just turn it on and walk away, I don't have to remember to get multiple trays out of the oven.  I do draw the line at soaking and then drying the oats AND then making them into bars.  That just seems like too much work.

The recipe I tried
I decided to try the first soaked, but uncooked, oats recipe, with a few adjustments to fit in with the contents of our pantry.

4 cups of rolled oats (organic), soaked overnight in plenty of water and 2 tbsp of kefired milk
2 cup desiccated coconut (organic)
4 cups of nuts and seeds (I used 2 cups of chopped peanuts, 1 cup of chopped walnuts, 1 cup sunflower seeds (organic) and about half a cup of chia seeds (organic))
1/2 cup coconut oil (organic)
1/2 cup of honey (raw)
pinch of sea salt

I tipped the oats into a large sieve to drain while I chopped the nuts in my food processor, and warmed the coconut oil and honey in a small pot.  I then combined about half the oats with half the nuts/seeds/coconut and half the oil and honey (and the salt).  It was just too much mixture to deal with all at once!

I panicked when I saw all the mixture, and decided to cook half of it in the oven and half in the dehydrator.  In case I ruined the whole lot in the dehydrator.  The mixture was so wet I had no confidence in the dehydrator's abilities!

I rolled the mixture into balls and squashed them down into round biscuits, as I couldn't get a bar shape to work.  I cooked half the mixture in the woodstove, at around 180degC for about half an hour, and the other half in the dehydrator at the hottest setting (75degC) for about 12 hours.  The woodstove 'bars' came out first, and were golden brown, the honey starts to caramelise, and nuts were a little roasted.  They were delicious, so I wasn't so worried if the dehydrator was a disaster.

I was very surprised to open the dehydrator and find that the bars were perfectly dry and also nicely stuck together as a bar.  They are a little brittle for Pete, he would prefer them chewier, so I will try the 55degC heat setting next time, which is probably better for enzymes and probiotics anyway.  The raw bars had a slightly different taste, but I liked them.  Both versions were a little sour from the fermentation, which nicely offset the sweetness of the honey.

The oven bars, once they had cooled, were kind of soggy on the bottom, and I put them back in the woodstove overnight with the door open, and that helped to dry them out (so that they will last longer).  (And I forgot that Chime the dog sleeps next to the woodstove, and she must have helped herself, as there were a few missing in the morning!)

I think that the bars were a success, they certainly taste good.  They were pretty easy to make, and one big batch should fit in the dehydrator, so its really just some time in the morning or evening before to start the oats soaking, then mix up the the rest of the recipe and put the balls into the dehydrator.  Turn on the dehydrator for 12 hours, and then remove the finished product.  They seem to last for a few weeks if they're dried out enough.  

Did you have any food challenges in Plastic Free July?  Have you ever made muesli (granola) bars?

The Self Sufficient HomeAcre
From The Farm Blog Hop    Unprocessed Fridays Link-up GMN  blog gathering

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Getting stared with chickens - summing up

Over the past few weeks I’ve interviewed chicken flocksters on different sized properties, from suburban blocks to small farms, in four different countries, about getting started with chickens. This was a continuation from my first series of interviews about “getting started with growing your own”. One thing was the same in every interview, everyone loves watching their chickens! I really enjoyed reading these interviews, so I hope you did too. It is interesting to read about how people keep their chickens (and other poultry) and why they make those decisions, with lots of great advice for new chicken keepers too.

Here are all the interviews:

Ohiofarm Girl of Adventure in the Goodland (USA)

Gavin from the Greening of Gavin (Aust)

Madeleine from NZ Eco Chick (NZ)

Tanya of Lovely Greens (UK)

Adam and Amy from Sustainaburbia (Aust)

Linda from Greenhaven (Aust)

And my interview with myself (Aust)

I'm looking forward to more chicken discussions...

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, July 22, 2013

Planning our property - Keyline design

A concept that is mentioned frequently in permaculture is “keyline”. I started reading about it when I reviewed “catch and store energy”, but I got stuck, and now that I’m up to “design from patterns to detail”, I thought that I'd better figure it out.

What is keyline?
P. A. Yeoman (1904 – 1984) was an Australian engineer and agronomist who lived and worked in New South Wales. He observed how water flowed over the land and developed a system for harnessing water to build soil fertility without chemicals, which he called the keyline system. A keyline plan is developed for a property using the concepts of the keyline system. His ideas are published in four books, three of which are available free online:
  • Yeomans, P. A., The Keyline Plan (1954) Online version
  • Yeomans, P. A., The Challenge of Landscape : the development and practice of keyline, Keyline Pub. Pty., Sydney, (1958). Online version
  • Yeomans, P. A., The City Forest : The Keyline Plan for the Human Environment Revolution, Keyline Pub. Pty., Sydney, (1971). Online version
  • Yeomans, P. A., Water for Every Farm: A practical irrigation plan for every Australian property, K.G. Murray Publishing Company, Pty, Ltd, Sydney, N.S.W., Australia (1973)
P.A. Yeoman’s son, Ken has republished and augmented these books in his own publication of “Water for Every Farm”. I read the free books, and for reasons discussed below, I decided not to pursue the keyline concept any further and have not read the final book.

The Keyline Scale of Permanence
In the “The Challenge of Landscape”, Yeomans introduces “The Keyline Scale of Permanence”, which describes the hierarchy of the permanence of the factors to be considered in any land planning. He writes “Every decision made on any aspect of land planning must be based on or fit in with all others that are more permanent, or more permanent in their effect than it is.”.

 The Keyline Scale of Permanence is:
1. Climate
2. Land Shape
3. Water
4. Roads
5. Trees
6. Buildings
7. Fences
8. Soils

This means that the first thing to be considered is climate, because it is the most difficult thing to change, apart from establishing limited micro-climates. I discussed our sub-tropical climate in a previous post. Climate includes such things as typical rainfall amounts and timing, typical minimum and maximum temperatures, sunshine hours and wind directions, and the variation in all these things.  Information is usually available from government meteorology departments, as well as making personal observations for a particular property.

Land Shape
Land shape is the inherent contours, valleys and ridges, of the land, that are difficult to change on a large-scale, and must be understood and used carefully in the plan.

I got stuck on this point for several months, because I didn’t have a contour map of our property. You wouldn’t think that would be so difficult to get, but in the end I was just lucky that someone who could help me saw my request on facebook. Unfortunately I can’t share that source with you, but I can suggest that you approach first your state department of natural resources (QLD were no help due to staff-cuts) and then try private mapping/surveying companies. I’m not sure that the cost would have been, but in the end all they had to do was type in my property number and put the contours over an aerial photo, its not a huge job, so its probably worth asking for a quote and seeing what you can find out.

When you have a contour map of your land, it makes everything in the books easier to understand. I’m terrible at visualising these things, especially over 260 acres, so when I saw it on a map it was clearer to me. This is where Yoemans introduces one of the fundamental aspects of the Keyline System, the keyline itself. Yeoman defines the keyline as:
“…valleys of smooth, rounded shape, whether they are small, of a few acres, or large, of a few hundred acres, generally have two distinct slopes along the centre line of the valley; one, the first and steeper slope falling from the hill or ridge, and, second, a flatter slope below, which generally is constant to its junction with the watercourse below. The point of change between these two slopes--the point where the first steeper higher slope meets the flatter lower slope I named the keypoint of the valley in my earlier, book, "The Keyline Plan".” P.A. Yeomans in The Challenge of Landscape (1958)
If you just read that definition and though “WHAT!!”, head over to this site, which has more explanation of these concepts, and even better, a photo of a valley, where you can clearly see the keypoint.

It took me a few attempts to figure out what the keyline was, and as I said above, when I got the contour map that really helped. When I saw the photo in the site above, I realised that part of the trouble is that we don’t have many “grassy valleys” for me to look up and see the keyline! All our valleys are full of trees on the steep slope, with grass as the valleys flatten out. Also on 260 acres we don’t actually have as many examples as you might find on a larger property.

Water supply is third in the hierarchy, it must be planned by taking into account the climate and land shape of the property, and it takes precedence over other farm infrastructure, such as roads and fencing. As Yoemans discusses, water is integral to farming, even if it not used for irrigation, it is needed for stock, and with irregular rainfall, we need to carefully plan how we can catch and store this valuable resource.

Water can be stored both in dams and in the soil. Building soil carbon will improve the water storage capacity of the soil, as well as the general fertility. We currently have five dams on our property. Yoemans discusses setting up dams so that they flow from high in the property to the lower areas. We were very lucky to have the opportunity to see how our dams worked following the very heavy rain that we received from ex-cyclone Oswald earlier this year. We have one dam up in our upper cultivation area that drains down a valley to the large dam near our stockyard. One other dam near our boundary drains into our neighbour’s dam and then back into another of our dams.

Pete and I drew the dams on our contour map (dark blue blobs) and marked the flows from one dam to another and from the valleys (light blue lines).  We also marked divined bore sites (yellow dots) and the highest point, where we want to put a tank (red dot). This exercise was useful in thinking about where else we could put dams. I’m still not sure about the shapes of dams that Yoemans describes and how to use them. The concept of having dams high in the landscape and using them for stock water is also used by Joel Salatin, and we can see the merits in developing such a system. However, Yoemans also suggests using these dams to irrigate the lower country. I think that in our sub-tropical climate, with fairly regular rainfall, it may not be necessary to consider irrigation, although during dry periods it would be useful. I would rather try to build soil carbon and store the water directly where its needed.

I was reminded at a recent erosion management workshop to be careful about following strategies that have been successful in other climates, including the southern states of Australia, as they do not necessarily have the same extremes of climate that we experience in sub-tropical Queensland. As I discussed recently, our climate here in the South Burnett is sub-tropical with no distinct dry season, although we can have prolonged periods without rain at any time of the year. When we do get rain, it is often in storms or the result of cyclones off the coast, so it is usually relatively short bursts of heavy rain. We need to be very careful to plan appropriate overflows for our dams. Our largest dam currently overflows through our stockyard, which is not ideal!

Water planning at our property is broader than just development of dams, as we also have several potential bore sites, which we would like to use as extra water-security. This will have to be a subject for another post or I will never get through the rest of the keyline heirachy.

Roads and Trees
Yoemans lists roads next in his hierarchy, but I think that trees should be next. I can see why he did this when I had a look at an aerial view of the property he was working with at the time. It currently has few trees, and I assume it had even fewer when he started. We are starting from many trees. Anyone who has tried to establish trees will know that its much easier to start with many trees than to try to establish new trees, that’s why we chose our property. I’m not saying that all the trees are in the right places, but I think that having considered climate, land shape and water, we should then consider the location and type of trees on our property, before we design the roads.

Yoemans writes about establishing trees on contour lines, but again, he is starting from few trees. We have the luxury of many trees, and government legislation that prevents us from clearing most of them, so we will be keeping more than rows of trees on contours. Within the bounds of what we are legally allowed to clear, we have decided to leave trees on all steep slopes and all south-facing slopes. We are going to open up a few of our lower valley areas by removing undergrowth, but not the tall trees, as these provide shade for the cattle. We are going to maintain fire-breaks around the house and sheds, and keep fence-lines clear of trees.

As for roads, I think we are going to have to move some roads to accommodate our water plans, as some of the roads currently run down the valleys.

Buildings and Fences
Buildings and fences are the next level of permanence and having considered all the other factors it makes sense that these come next.

Soil is the last level, not because it is the least important, but because it is the least permanent.  Top soil blows away in the wind if there's no crop cover, but with the right strategies it can also be improved over a short time frame.  This was quite a radical concept at the time of these books being published.

The other thing that I found a little confusing is that we don’t actually plough all these valleys, as they are steep, they are more suited to trees. The areas that we do plough are virtually flat, North facing slopes. On the contour map most of the areas is within one 10 m contour band. The areas are already divided by “contour banks”, which are built on the contour to prevent soil erosion in heavy rain events, this means we have to plough along the contour. The ideas about leaving trees in bands along the contour is quite different to the structure of our property, where we have decided to leave trees on all steep and south-facing slopes. We want trees for firewood and fence posts, so it seems like if they have to grow somewhere, these are the most appropriate places where we couldn’t grown good pasture anyway.

How does this apply to a small farm?
It is difficult to apply the keyline concept to 260 acres, let alone eight acres, as you will be lucky to have even one complete valley on that area of land!  Our eight acres is on the side of a hill, we have a dam in the creek at the bottom of the hill.  Ideally we would have water storage further up the hill.  We don't do any ploughing or cropping on this land.  The most useful concept is the hierarchy of permanence, which works on all scales, even if some of the details are more suited to larger properties.

Have you read the books?  Have you applied the concepts?  What do you think?

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

Creatively Use and Respond to Change  

Friday, July 19, 2013

Learning canning and bottling

Of all the options for preserving what we grow, or can buy cheaply in bulk, I prefer to ferment or dehydrate.  These methods do not cook the food, so the raw enzymes are preserved, along with any heat sensitive vitamins and other nutrients.  However, if something is going to get cooked anyway, like tomato sauce, it doesn't really hurt to cook it into a sauce and either freeze or can it.

Lately I have been freezing everything because I didn't know how to can, but with our next steer due to be cut up and the gift of a bucket of lovely ripe tomatoes, I thought I'd better learn how to can, so that I don't fill the valuable freezer space with more tomatoes.

As far as I can figure out, canning and bottling are really just different terms for the same thing.  You either pour hot food into heated jars (overflow method) and seal them with hot lids, or you heat the food in the jars (waterbath canning).  These low pressure methods can be used for anything that is acidic, sugary or salty enough to prevent growth of dangerous bacteria (such as the one that causes botulism).  A pH of 4.5 is usually the cut off point.  At any higher pH (lower acidity), pressure canning is used.  When the jars are heated in a pressure canner, the temperature can be raised above 100degC (boiling point at atmospheric pressure) when the pressure is increased, and this kills more of the bacteria spores that are able grow without oxygen in low acidity.  I presume this also kills more of the nutrients in the food though.  Pressure canning is used for low acidity vegetables, such as beans, and for anything containing meat, or meat stocks.

In Australia, where we can grow vegetables year-round, it is less necessary to can (or root-cellar) through a long cold winter.  I don't really see a need to use pressure canning to preserve vegetables, when we always have a fresh vegetable option in the garden, and things that I might use throughout the year can easily be frozen (for example, green beans).  Pressure canning could possibly be useful for preserving meat without needing to run a freezer, but there are also options to dehydrate or smoke the meat, which I would also like to try.

Once I figured out all of that, I realised that my mum uses the overflow method to bottle tomato sauce, jams and fruit, so I called her to find out the details.  She told me to put the clean jars (reusing old jars with metal lids is ok) in the oven at 150degC for about 30 minutes, and boil the lids.  Heat the sauce to boiling, and funnel the sauce into the hot jars.  Its also important to use a recipe designed for bottling, so that the sauce will have the right acidity.  I used a recipe from the Edmonds Cookbook.  I also tried to be clever and test the pH using pH strips, but 3-4-5 is yellow-orange-red on my strips, so that's not great resolution for testing tomato sauce!  I should have used our pH meter, but I didn't think of that until later.

I also made some sweet chilli sauce, which is mostly vinegar, so I was quite confident that it would be ok bottled too.

Do you can or bottle food from your garden or bought in bulk?  Any tips?

monday's homestead barn hop
From The Farm Blog HopThe Self Sufficient HomeAcre  Small Footprint Fridays - A sustainable living link-up    

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Getting started with chickens - Linda from Greenhaven

Farmer Liz: Today I have another interview in my series on "getting started with chickens".  Linda from the blog Greenhaven lives in the country on forty odd acres with her husband and three of her children. As part of their effort to live in a way that is thoughtful of this planet they garden, raise chooks and live fairly frugally. They find chooks fit in perfectly with their lifestyle.

How many chickens (and other fowl) do you keep, what breed and what do you use them for (meat, eggs, slug control etc)?

Linda: We have quite a few chooks. We have an Australorp rooster and six hens. We have a Dorking rooster and three hens. We also have an Isa Brown and a bantam. We also have three geese.

The geese are a recent addition because we needed to keep the grass down in the orchard. Our chooks are for meat, eggs, pest control and to add fertility to our property. We carefully chose breeds that should be suitable for our climate and be good for meat. I recently wrote a couple of posts on our chooks and you can read about them here and here.

FL: Where did you get your first chickens and how do you now replenish your flock?

L: We inherited chooks when we bought the place. I loved them so much that we went to a chook auction to buy more. I had never been to any type of auction prior to this and I got very excited when I realised I could always win the bid if I just paid the most! Lol! We ended up buying more than I could humanely put in the car so I gave a bunny (yes I know… I told you I got carried away) to a man I had met at the auction. Now we are just breeding our own birds. The bantam has successfully sat on other breed’s eggs several times now. Bantams are great mums!

FL: Fixed chicken run or movable pen? Why?

L: We have a pen in the orchard so that we can run the chooks in there, and another near the house. We separate our poultry when they are having personality issues (which often happens with chooks) and the underdogs come closer to the house.  We occasionally set up temporary pens around a spent garden so that the chooks can eat the last of the vegetable remains and drop their fertiliser on the bed at the same time.  If we hand raise chickens, we use a little movable pen for an hour or two each day to get them used to the outside world. When they’re old enough they join the others.

FL: How do you integrate your chickens into the rest of your garden/farm?

L: We use the orchard flock to keep down pests. They love to scratch all day looking for bugs etc. and all the while, they are also fertilising our fruit trees. It’s best to keep them away from citrus though. Citrus are shallow rooted (so chooks can damage them by scratching) and they don’t like too much nitrogen when they’re setting fruit.

We are in the process of developing a new orchard in a very sad looking paddock. We intend to put all our Dorkings in this orchard. They will help us improve the soil in there.

FL: What is your biggest chicken challenge at the moment?

L: Arrghhh! That’s an easy one to answer. I can’t stop the chooks flying over the fence. They are all so young and healthy! I have cut their wings but they seemed to overcome their lopsidedness within a week! I probably should have cut more off their wings. We have the orchard fenced to keep them in, but also have very good fencing around our yard to protect the veggie garden. At the moment they are getting out of the orchard but can’t get over the fence around the yard. If you want veggies you must KEEP THE CHOOKS OUT!

FL: What is the best thing about keeping chickens?

L: I love everything about my chooks! I love the way they move, the noises they make and how they make me feel calm. They give me eggs and meat and work very hard at pest control and fertility. They are amazing!

FL: What is your advice to new chicken owners? What do know now that you wish you knew before you got chickens?

L: Don’t be daunted at the thought of owning them. Chooks are little, easy to care for and so useful. Throw yourself in feet first and you’ll be fine.

I would add though, you need to be prepared for deaths. They happen. It’s just a fact of life when you own chooks. We’ve lost chooks to foxes, through old age and others just seemed to drop dead for no reason. It doesn’t happen often but it is inevitable so it’s good to prepare yourself mentally.

Again, fence any areas where you will be growing a garden because chooks make short work of plants.

FL: Any advice for keeping chickens around children (or children around chickens!)?

My children are great around the chooks. They have been taught to be thoughtful of animals. Chook chasing is definitely frowned upon and they know it!!! One of my children spends hours with them and she takes time getting them to hand feed. They have a much stronger bond with her than the rest of us.

Sometimes roosters (and occasionally hens) can be aggressive. If you have children and this is the case, they have to go (the poultry, not the kids). Children are at a level where the birds could fly at their faces and attack with their feet and spurs.

FL: thanks so much for joining in Linda!  What excellent advice, I really like to see how you integrate the poultry into your orchard, and thanks for being honest about their tendency to get into gardens (and to occasionally drop dead!), all things that need to be considered when getting started with chickens.  Now if you'd like to comment or ask Linda a question, please head over to her blog.

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, July 15, 2013

Growing forage or perennial pasture

Our property is 258 acres in total, with about 60 acres of ‘cultivation land’, which means that its been cleared of trees, it has contour banks to prevent erosion and it has been regularly ploughed and planted with forage or crops. Forage is anything that can be made into hay or fed straight to the cattle, whereas crops are grown for grain or seeds to sell (and the remaining straw might be baled or fed to cattle). Some species are available as either a forage or a crop variety, such as oats or sorghum. The forage variety will grow thicker leaves and seed late, while the crop variety is short and produces copious seeds. Growing forage is one way to supplement pasture, especially through winter, and to make a high quality hay, which can also be used to feed during winter.

When we first bought the property, the previous owner had planted about 10 acres with forage sorghum and cut it once to make hay. When we put the offer on the property the hay had just been cut, and by the time we owned it 6 weeks later the sorghum was over our heads already! We paid our neighbour to cut and bale it for us. And then we ploughed up the area and planted forage oats. We were hoping to make more hay, but we had a wet winter and oats got ‘rust’ so we let the cattle into the paddock to eat the oats instead (they got red noses from the rust, but they seemed to like it).

In spring we planted forage sorghum again after the first rain event in November and it came up, but then we had virtually no rain until January. I was amazed that the sorghum kept growing even through the dry period, it got to about 50 cm high, but looked very water-stressed. The grass in the rest of our paddocks was dry and eaten right down and the cows were skinny and hungry, but we couldn’t feed them the sorghum, as it can contain dangerous levels of prussic acid when its short, and particularly if its stressed. There didn’t seem to be any way to test for prussic acid content either, and we didn’t want to risk killing our cattle, so we just had to buy hay to feed them. When it did rain in late January, we let the sorghum grow nice and tall and waited for a dry period to cut it for hay, but it just kept raining, so we let the cattle in to eat the sorghum (using the electric fence to strip graze).

In autumn we ploughed up the sorghum again and planted forage oats again. When we planted the sorghum into the oats we were able to plant directly into the oats without ploughing, as the cattle had eaten most of it and oats doesn’t produce much ‘trash’ (the stalky bits), however, planting directly into the sorghum was impossible, the cattle had left all the tall, thick stalks, and even after disc ploughing the paddock, the stalks got stuck in the cultivator (planter) tynes. Pete had to stop the tractor each time he went round the paddock, so we could pull all the trash from the under-carriage, otherwise it was just dragging too much trash and soil and likely to damage the cultivator.

When we looked at how much we had spent on diesel, seed, and fertiliser just to plant these forage crops, which never made it to hay bales, we started to question whether it was really worth doing. Forage crops do have more energy and protein compared to perennial grasses, but they cost more to grow and are unpredictable in dry-land farming. We certainly wouldn’t plant sorghum again after our experience over summer, millet would be a much better option, as we could have let the cattle eat it even when it was stressed, it would have been better than nothing.

We have a few beef cattle books that list the nutritional value of a range of forage and pasture varieties and the expected weight gain per day, and these are of course average figures, but they give you an idea of how the different options compare relative to each other. The problem is working out whether its really worth the extra expense to get the average predicted weight gain, given that in dry-land farming you are relying on the weather to cooperate, and whether its too wet or too dry, chances are you will not have an average year! If you don’t get the weight gain, then the extra expensive is not justified, but you don’t know that until the end of the season.

From a permaculture perspective, all this driving around in the tractor, ploughing and planting, when we could be just maintaining a perennial pasture, is not really optimising our yield. On a monetary basis, maybe when diesel and fertiliser were cheaper this was worth doing, but from what we have seen so far, and given that costs are only going to increase, we would be better to maintain a perennial pasture. And on a time and energy basis the arrangement is far from optimal. A perennial pasture that is established and just needs to be maintained with both careful management of cattle and the occasional dose of fertility enhancers would be more optimal in terms of energy, time and money. While we do occasionally need some hay if we have a really bad season, it would also be better for us to let the cattle do the harvesting, by strip grazing the paddock, instead of driving around making and stacking bales.  And we can make hay from perennial pasture instead of planting forage.

I have read some information about establishing a perennial pasture and the advice is to “resow” the pasture every 5-7 years! That’s not perennial! Who is publishing this stuff? My guess is the seed companies, because they do much better from us constantly buying seed. And guess which seeds are the more expensive? The plants like cow pea that easily set seed and regrow the next year, because then you don’t have to pay for them again.

The other problem with planting forage is the lack of biodiversity. The first year we planted forage oats, we planted oats only. When we came to planting sorghum again, we added cow pea, and it was a really good combination. The cow pea is a low bush, in some areas is started to grow up the sorghum, they did really well together, and all the cow pea seeds that didn’t get eaten ended up back in the soil to come up next year. The cowpea being a legume would have added some nitrogen to the soil (whether it does this while growing or after is dies is unclear). The second time we planted oats, we added medic, I wanted to add brassica as well. The guy at the feed store told me that brassica can really turn into a weed. A what? Its not a weed if the cattle eat it, its free food! It was really expensive, so we didn’t include it this time. I think the main reason that people don’t include lots of plants in their forage is that its harder to dry it evenly for hay (I'm just guessing here), and harder to set up the cultivator for different size seeds, but it does produce a better mix of feed for the cattle, healthier plants (think companion planting) and feeds the soil microbes that in turn feed the crop.

Anyway, with a perennial pasture we can establish lots of different species, that can provide feed right through winter, as well as plenty of legumes for nitrogen, and deep-rooted plants to bring up minerals from down deep. Being in a sub-tropical climate, we can grow pasture right through the seasons as we don't get any snow. Its still important for us to have hay as well, as we don’t have very reliable rainfall, but if the rainfall is there, a pasture will grow. This is a different situation to areas that have snow through winter and need to focus on only a spring/summer/autumn growing period.

Most pasture species in our area are summer active, that’s because we get the summer rainfall. In Australia, we typically have to match pasture to rainfall, rather than temperature, except for irrigated land. There are lots of native grasses that do well, but we seem to have mostly ‘African love grass’ (AGL), which is considered a weed due to low feed-value. Our lovely Braford cows eat it if they have to, and have done a great job of controlling it, especially when they got really hungry, but we owe them better feed than that, so we will have to plant some imported species to prevent ALG establishment. Rhodes grass is one from Africa that does really well in our area, and as long as we keep up the soil fertility, we have seen it out-compete the ALG.

We want to also including some winter active species in our pasture. If that doesn’t produce enough feed, our other option is to use no-till seeding. We would need to either convert our cultivator or buy a different one that can sow directly into the pasture. We could then sow oats into our Rhodes grass pasture in autumn when the Rhodes grass is dormant. We can still use our cultivation areas to make hay from our pasture if the weather allows, as they are flat North-facing fields, clear of trees and rocks.

As for the need to resow the pasture, we are planning to manage our pasture using strip grazing, and use the time that was spent ploughing and planting to instead spray compost tea and other fertility enhancers such as fish meal and seaweed. If we work to improve the soil fertility, we shouldn’t need to re-establish the pasture regularly, that’s the theory anyway!

We will start with our 60 acres of cultivated areas, gradually establishing them as perennial pasture, then we will start on some of the existing pastured areas, which are mostly clear of trees, so can be lightly ploughed to introduce some new species other than the existing cooch grass and ALG, we can also spray fertility enhancers on these areas. At the same time we will be thinking about how to improve our treed areas with shade tolerant species.

What do you think?  Do you grow forage or pasture?
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