Monday, March 31, 2014

The Stockmen - The making of an Australian legend - book review

Evan McHugh's latest book, The Stockmen - The making of an Australian legend, is a beautifully presented and detailed account of the stockmen and women who have worked the outback of Australia from settlement until modern day.

My favourite part of the book was the illustrations, numerous historical works of art, I am a sucker for images of riders on horseback working cattle!  The text is detailed and in some parts it was more that I really wanted to know.  I think it would be a good reference for a student of Australian history, but I was happy to skim read and pick up the interesting parts.

Being in a drought at the moment, I found the accounts of drought times particularly shocking, I could really empathise with the stockmen moving huge mobs of cattle long distances only to find that the next waterhole was also dry, it must have been devastating, and yet they persevered in harrowing conditions.  The changes from droving along stock routes to moving cattle by truck were also interesting.

Not having grown up with Australian history, I really enjoyed the earlier chapters and I learnt a lot about the conditions immediately after settlement.  It was pretty funny reading about how the first cattle that were brought to Australia initially escaped, I could just imagine that happening, those poor inexperienced convicts!  Its really quite amazing to consider the conditions that the first farmers endured, the isolation and manual labour would have been incredibly tough.

I was surprised that the stockmen living at stations seemed to mainly survive on beef, tea and damper, and really relied on supplied from the coast.  There didn't seem to be an effort to develop self-sufficient homesteads with gardens and chickens and house cows, and I'm not sure why that was.

Overall, it is a book that will appeal to both the history student and to those who like to look at the pictures!  It would make a lovely gift for someone who has an interest in cattle, sheep or outback life in general.

The book was sent to me by Penguin, the opinions in this post are my own.

Read any good books lately?

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Stairs for our removal house

When we moved our new old house to Cheslyn Rise last year, the one thing that the removalist would not do was replace the external stairs. At first I wondered why, but when the house was settled in its new location, it was obvious that the old stairs were the wrong height! The thing with a removal house, is that it generally gets set up differently in its new location, different orientation, different height, so it needs different stairs. We had thought of just modifying the old stairs, but they were in terrible condition, quite rotten, which is another reason the removalist would not want to reinstate them.

The house in its original condition - the old ramp
More original house - old wooden stairs

For several months we had a house perched about a metre above the ground with no stairs! The poor plumbers and electricians had to climb in and out of the doors until we had a chance to build the stairs. It took us a while to get the stairs organised because we are hopeless at making decisions and because its actually quite tricky to do.

the house when it first arrived - floating!

First we decided to get rid of the ramp that used to go up to the veranda because to meet modern building requirements for ramp slope it would have had to wrap right around the house! We moved a handrail and put in a set of lovely wide stairs in a different spot instead. From the “sunroom”, the door previously opened out directly onto stairs, but this is also not allowed anymore, so we had to build a platform to step out onto instead. To make things even more complicated, each set of stairs was a slightly different height due to our uneven house pad and the different starting points, but we wanted to try to keep all the stair tread spacings consistent to prevent tripping when using different stairs.

working on the front steps

The front steps - finished
The most important thing for a new house is comply with local building codes. In Australia, we have to comply with the Building Code Australia (if you are modifying an existing house and don’t HAVE to get building approval this is optional, but can be used as a guide to good practice, don’t get me started on how much I hate having to comply with building codes!). Pete had made industrial stairs before and was prepared for some tricky precision welding work, but fortunately the residential code is more lenient than the industrial code, although it still reads like some kind of logic problem. You should read the code for yourself, but the most important points that we needed were:

  • Ensure that your design will be within the riser (vertical distance between treads), going (horizontal distance between treads) and slope requirements
  • A 125mm sphere must not pass through a riser opening – remember to take into account the thickness of your treads as well as the riser spacing

As we were considering different tread options (used vs. new), which were different thicknesses and widths, and different numbers of treads for different heights of stairs, it did get complicated! We worked it out roughly using a spreadsheet with the different options (who would have though trigonometry would be useful after highschool?!), to give us an idea of how many treads and the distance from the house to the bottom of the stairs for each set, but in the end we had to draw out each set of stairs on a large piece of plywood just to make sure we had it all right before Pete started cutting and welding it all together.

working on the kitchen stairs

more kitchen stairs progress

the kitchen stairs finished

We bought standard tread brackets from a welding supplies store (for cheaper than you would make them) and Pete cut the stringers from galvanised RHS. He made brackets at the top for attaching the stairs to the house (remember that the distance from the veranda/platform etc onto the top step must be the same as the distance between each step and again with the bottom step to the ground!). And at the bottom he attached a vertical length of RHS which we cemented into a 50cm deep hole.

For the short stairs, we bought a flight of eight steps from the removalist we used, and we were able to use 3 for the sunroom stairs and 5 for kitchen stairs. They were unpainted except for a little stripe on each side, so Pete sanded them and they came up like new. For the longer stairs at the front of the house, we bought 4 new treads made by a local saw mill. Again, Pete had to sand these to prepare them.  For the platform, we took decking boards off the old ramp and cut them to suit.

the back "platform"

working on the back stairs

The platform finished (it does have handrails though)

It took us several weeks to install each set of stringers, cement a pad at the correct height under each set, sand and prepare the treads, and finally install them on the stringers and seal them with wood oil. I am so glad we bought a second hand cement mixer, no more mixing in the wheel barrow!

It was a wonderful feeling to see the new stairs finished. Not only is access greatly improved, but it looks inviting, I love the long stairs that we put on the front.

Have you built stairs?  Any tips to add?

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Animal behaviour and staying safe around cattle

Lately I have been reading two books by Temple Grandin (am I the only one who reads more than one book at the same time? I think I have four on the go at the moment!). If you haven’t heard of Temple Grandin, she is an amazing lady. I first discovered her one lonely night in a hotel when I flicked channels and came across the biographical movie about her work with cattle. Temple is autistic, and extremely good at understanding and explaining cattle behaviour. She explains that her autistic brain works in a similar way to an animal’s brain, they see things in the same way, and so she has become a sort of interpreter between humans and animals. She has also done a huge amount to help parents and carers of autistic children to better understand their children.

Braford weaner calves rounded up and ready to sell
Reading Temple’s books and watching the movie about her life, and numerous other videos on youtube has taught, me to start to think differently about cattle and dogs. As Temple says, humans with normal brains tend to assume that animals think like we do, that they understand consequences or that they are stupid or naughty for not going through a gateway or resisting what we want them to do. Temple did the same at first, she assumed that animals thought they way she did, but lucky for her, she was right! And the changes she made to cattle handling facilities worked perfectly, which is the proof that she was doing something right. So for non-autistic people, we need to stop assuming that animals are like us, they think differently, they see the world differently, and when you realize that, their behaviour starts to make sense, AND its much easier to get them to do what you want and handle them safely.

If you’re interested in finding out more, the two books that Temple has written on animal behaviour are:

Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (A Harvest Book)

Humane Livestock Handling: Understanding livestock behavior and building facilities for healthier animals

And the movie about her life is called “Temple Grandin”. And just search for her in youtube to find lots of other great talks and information about autism and animal behaviour.

Since we’ve been keeping cattle, I’ve slowly made a few or my own observations about cattle behaviour and safety when working around them, so here are a few thoughts. Even though cattle may appear docile when they are standing out in a paddock, in close proximity they can pose a danger if not handled correctly. Cattle can kick both forwards and backwards with their back legs, and can use their heads to butt or gore (if they have horns). It is wise to be wary of all cattle, even those that are usually tame, as they can lash out if they feel threatened.

When approaching cattle in a paddock, it’s a good idea to call out to them from a distance, so that you don’t startle them. Then, if possible, walk around them, giving them plenty of space to move away if they are not comfortable with you. Try not to make them feel cornered.

Working with cattle in stock yards can be dangerous, and there are a few things you can do to keep yourself safe. In particular, when walking around an animal, try to walk around its head. If you have to walk around behind it, make sure you give plenty of room in case it kicks out at you. Never turn your back on an animal as it may charge you when you’re not watching. Bulls and cows with young calves can be especially aggressive, even in paddock situations, so make sure you have an escape route if they do decide to charge at you.

If you need to do any work on a cow, or to have the vet do AI or give an injection, it will help to have some way of restraining her. Our milking bales were originally built to be a “cattle crush” with a feed trough in the front instead of a “head bale”. As our cows are tame, this is sufficient for any injections or vet attention. For our more wild beef cattle, we have a head bale in the race of our cattle yards, and we use that to restrain them for branding, castration, ear tagging and any vet work.

For calves, if they are small enough, you can tackle them to the ground (don’t worry about being rough, they are very robust) and hog tie their legs while you castrate or ear tag them. If you’re doing more than a couple of calves, it may be worth investing in a “calf cradle”, which is used to restrain small calves for castration and branding.

With Temple’s advice, you can learn to handle cattle calmly and set up your cattle yards so that the animals move where you need them to go without the need for excessive force or putting yourself in danger. I’m excited to keep reading and learning more, and apply this to both the cattle and to training our future cattle dog Taz.

Have you heard of Temple Grandin's work?  Do you have any of your own observations of animal behaviour to add?

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Monday, March 24, 2014

Keeping multiple roosters

For a many years we thought it was impossible to keep two roosters together, and then, completely by accident, we ended up with two roosters who did not attempt to fight to the death at every opportunity. As this has only ever happened once, I can only guess at the reasons, and I’m hoping that others can share their own rooster experiences to try to figure out the best way to keep them. 

eight acres: keeping more than one rooster

Previously when we’ve had more than one rooster, we haven’t been able to let them all free-range at once because inevitably, as if drawn together by a magnet, the roosters would end up fighting. This was very frustrating, as we like to keep several tractors of hens with a rooster in each one, and we really like to let them all out to free-range. We could just keep one rooster, but this means that not all hens have regular access to a rooster (so the eggs may not all by fertilized) and it makes it impossible to succession plan. We like to replace the rooster every 2-3 years, and we can’t grow up a new rooster if we can only keep one at a time.

A couple of years ago we hatched a clutch of chicks and raised the hens and roosters. When they were old enough, we let them all out to free-range, we kept the roosters in the house yard, and the pullets and adult chickens were in another yard with a large Rhode Island Red rooster. One day the rooster figured out how to get into the house yard. I thought he would attack the young roosters, but instead he spent the day walking around with them. Later when we let all the chickens free-range together, the older rooster still didn’t attack the young roosters. I think it might help that the roosters get used to each other from a young age. The younger ones didn’t challenge the old one and the old one didn’t feel threatened by the young ones, and possibly didn’t want to take on a whole mob of them.

When it came time to kill the young rooster to eat them, we kept the two nicest Rhode Island Red roosters from the bunch, one for us and one for a friend. They great thing about being able to select roosters from a group of them is you can choose the roosters that get on well with the hens. As Harvey Ussery writes in my favourite chicken book of all time, an often overlooked factor in egg fertility is whether the rooster can “dance” for the hen. If the rooster has an ability to look after the hens and attract them, rather than chasing after them, he’s more like to be accepted by the hens. Anyway, we chose to keep a couple of roosters who were real ladies-roosters and they grew up together.

When it came time to dispatch the older rooster, we were left with the two younger roosters who had grown up together. We just kept letting them out to free-range and they learnt to stay away from each other. They each had their own end of the paddock and their own flock of 8-10 hens. For over a year they lived in harmony and we had no rooster fights at all, it was quite amazing! We never got around to given one of them away.

Then gradually the stronger rooster started to pick on the weaker one, and the hens started to hang around the stronger rooster more often. We were breaking up rooster fights quite regularly and the weaker rooster had ended up blind in one eye, which wasn’t helping him win any fights. In the end we decided it was time to kill the weaker rooster before the stronger rooster did the job for us. It was quite disappointing that our rooster harmony didn’t last for more than a couple of years.

And now we have the big rooster and a younger one that we kept from a previous hatch. They seem to be getting on OK at the moment….

As I said, I really don’t understand why roosters get on at times and fight at other times. I think that it helps if they are evenly matched and have plenty of hens. We never make them live together in the same tractor, they always have their own space with their own hens. It probably also helps that they grow up together, so they know each other from a young age, but even then, they can turn on each other. My advice is don’t assume that roosters won’t get on, but don’t assume that they will! And even if they do at first, it may not last forever. It is worth a try if you can get two young roosters of similar size and have plenty of hens for them to share, but be prepared to remove one rooster from the situation, one way or another.

What is your experience with keeping more than one rooster?

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews of the Design and Use a Chicken Tractor

Friday, March 21, 2014

Cheese-making tips and tricks

We have lots of milk again, since Molly calved, but we never had much time for cheese-making, so here are a few tips that you might find useful when you need to make cheese in a hurry.

Make one big cheese rather than several smaller ones
We realised that most of the time involved in cheese making is all the heating and stirring.  We decided to make the largest possible cheese, using our 10 L and 7 L pots at the same time.  When the curd was ready in both pots, I scooped it into our largest mold to make one giant cheese, then there was only one cheese to look after until it was ready to wax.

Save time fishing the spoon out of the pot by securing it to the handle with a twisty tie
You don't want to know how often this has been a problem!

Sterilise your pot just before you start, so you know its clean and you have a warm pot to heat the milk in
I sterilise the pot by putting a little water in the bottom, sitting it on the largest burner with the lid on, until it boils and the steam can sterilise the entire pot.  Then I can just tip out the water and the pot is ready to use.

Preheat milk from the fridge in a sink of hot water while doing other chores
Its easy to ruin a pot of milk heating over a burner while you are efficiently multi-tasking (ie distracted), a double-boiler is ideal, but I don't have a big enough pot to double-boil the 10 L pot!  The next best thing is to fill the 10 L pot with milk and sit it in the sink, and then fill the sink with hot water.  In about 20 minutes the milk will be close to the cheese-making temperature (you could also use boiling water to get even closer) and the last few degrees can be added using the stove.

Use a digital timer will remind you when its time to do the next step
Cheese making involves so much waiting, I often get distracted on other tasks, but this little timer has saved me many times.  Its great for making hard boiled eggs too! 

Do you have any cheese making tips and tricks to add?

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

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Can't buy me rain....

We have only owned our farm since March 2012 and I think I’ve figured out the problem with farming already. The problem is that the most crucial input, the weather, is completely out of the farmer’s control! Not only that, it seems to be impossible to predict accurately. Some years will be average, some will be amazing and some will be awful, and you never know what you’re going to get, but you need to always plan for the worst. Sometimes I wish we could just pool our money and buy some rain, but of course, it’s the one thing that we can’t buy.

Our largest dam

We made two mistakes this year, and we are determined to learn from them and become better at managing our farm.

The first thing we did wrong was overstock our property. We knew we had too many cattle, but at first we had an awful lot of excess grass, so it seemed like a good way to clear the property and find out where all the stumps and logs were lurking in the long grass. Also the Brafords were doing a great job of eating the African Love Grass that we wanted to be rid of, so it seemed like a good plan at the time. We planted forage sorghum and millet, so we knew we had enough to feed the cattle when the rain came.

Our second mistake was believing the weather forecast. Back in winter, we saw forecasts for a wet spring. This encouraged us to plant forage and to keep the cattle. We did have a little rain, enough to plant the forage, but it was not a wet spring. During spring, we were told it would be a wet summer, so we thought the forage would grow and we would keep the cattle. At the same time, things were going pretty badly in western Queensland and the cattle market was flooded with animals anyway, so it wasn’t a good time to sell. During summer, we slowly realized that it was not going to be a wet summer, in fact it was the driest and hottest on record in some parts of Queensland. The cattle gradually ate through the remaining grass, we fed them molasses, hay and mineral supplements (which then became difficult to buy), as the forage that we had planted wilted in the field. The cattle market got worse and worse, until the meat works were booked out weeks in advance. It has become increasingly difficult to buy hay for the cattle and we are now running out of surface water (dam water) for them to drink.

If we were depending on these cattle to make an income (like real farmers), we would now be faced with an awful decision. Either try to keep the cattle alive buy hauling feed and water to our property, so that when things improve we still have some breeding stock, but get into massive debt in the process, or try to sell the cattle while they are still in good condition, and at least get a little money for them and let the property recover (but have no hope of an income for over a year and the certainty of having to buy back cattle later when the prices have increased). Fortunately we have an off farm income and that makes the decision easy. We decided to sell as many of the cattle as we can, and leave the hay and water supplies for the real farmers that need them more than we do.

It’s a shame to see the Brafords go, we’ve only had them for a couple of years and they have made some lovely fat calves for us to sell, and done a great job of eating the African Love Grass, but we now we are thinking of trying a different breed. Maybe something smaller. We will wait for the grass to grow back before we buy anything else though!

What did we learn? Don’t overstock the property, don’t get stuck with stock when the market goes bad and don’t believe the weather forecast. What are we going to do differently? Increase our water supply (bigger dams and a bore), develop permanent pasture on our cultivation ground instead of planting each season and be more flexible with cattle numbers (fewer breeding cows and buy and sell weaners when we have the grass for them). As for the weather, I have never thought about the weather so much in my life as over the last 2 years and I still have no clue how to predict or understand it, I will be doing some reading…

What have you learnt from the drought/weather at your place recently?

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Guinea Fowl Realities

We got our ten guinea fowl keets in December the the year before last.  I have always thought that they were pretty birds, but we needed a reason to get them and when I found out that they were supposed to eat ticks, that was ideal.  Any natural method of reducing our paralysis tick numbers instead of using chemicals on the animals has got to be worth a try.

All went well at first.  For the first few weeks the keets were just like chicken chicks, but when they out-grew the brooder box and we put them out in a cage it soon became evident that they were very different to chicks.  The first thing we noticed was their tendancy to fly, particularly when we opened the door of their cage to top up food and water and they all tried to fly out!  One did manage to get out and fly up over the water tank and into another paddock.

When we moved them into a chicken tractor Cheryl somehow managed to get one of them out the back of the tractor and ate it, so we were down to nine.

When the guinea fowl were big enough, we started to let them free-range, so they could start their work of eating the paralysis ticks.  This was mostly successful except that the guinea fowl occasionally decide not to go back into their tractor at night.  Over the last few months, on the nights when they have not all gone home, we have lost six guinea fowl to night predators (probably foxes).  The guinea fowl are very easily spooked by any changes in or around the tractor, unfortunately the whole idea of the tractor is that it moves to fresh ground quite regularly, which seems to upset the guineas.  The chickens also developed a habit of standing in the guinea tractor, which the guineas don't like either.

I did hope that the guineas would move out of their tractor and live in the trees.  So far they just camp on the ground.  We have a routine of going outside around dusk and herding them into their cage if they haven't gone already.  This is a very slow process as they don't react well to being herded, and they have to check out the door of their cage very carefully before going inside.  Cheryl sometimes indulges us and sits long enough to be a help on one side of the door so that they don't walk right past it.

We have got to the stage, with only three guinea fowl left, that we would rather keep them locked up (and move the tractor along for them), than let them out and deal with the nightly herding exercise.  But if they are locked up, they are not eating paralysis tick.  What else are they good for?  You can eat them, but they are quite small, so I think we are better off eating chickens for the effort involved in plucking.  We have been collecting their eggs, which are smaller than chicken eggs, and we have eaten a few and hatched the rest.  You probably think we are mad, but at $10 a keet, we can at least make our money back!  So far we have hatched 14 of them and sold seven.

And now we're not sure if we want to keep them or not!

This hasn't put us off guinea fowl completely.  I think they have potential, and we have learnt so much about their habits and personality.  They do not do well in tractors, but if we can build them a fixed pen or get them to live in trees, maybe they can live at Cheslyn Rise, live in the trees and eat the paralysis ticks.

I have been asked if they do eat paralysis ticks.  Its pretty hard to tell, I don't watch everything they eat.... and we found a tick on Cheryl last year, which was one since we've been here.  And I think some of the chickens that died last year may have had ticks on them (but I didn't find any).  So its hard to know if they were eating them or not!

People also complain about the noise of the guinea fowl.  They do get a bit painful, and we did move their tractor away from the house.  As the numbers dwindled, the noise was less annoying....

Have you or do you keep guinea fowl?  Any thoughts on our experience with them?

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Friday, March 14, 2014

Dried garlic granules

Last year we made dried garlic granules, and we found them really useful.  It took an hour or so to peel 1kg of garlic, but then over the year when we were cooking we could quickly and easily add a teaspoon of granules to cooking without having to fiddle around with garlic, so it was worth the effort and stick fingers at the time!  We also didn't have to buy any foreign garlic when the Australian garlic ran out towards the end of winter.

The finished product - 1 kg of garlic dried to fit in one jar
Seeing as the granules were such a success, we decided to do them again this year AND I remembered to take photos to share with you.  The process is really very simple.  We peeled the garlic, put it in the dehydrator (I ave a cheap sunbeam one), and ran it for a few hours (less this year because it was so hot anyway, I just left it outside for a few days).  After a week the garlic was not quite dry, still a bit sticky and gooey, so we whizzed it in the food processor and put it back in the dehydrator - I think this is easier than chopping the wet garlic and makes sure that it dries completely.  After another week we whizzed it again to make granules.  I grind it quite finely so it can go straight into cooking and it not too chunky.

the wet garlic

after the first food processor step

after being dried and processed again

Have you made garlic granules?  Any tips?  What else do you dehydrate?

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Can cows save the planet? - book review

The book Cows Save the Planet: And Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth, by Judith D. Schwartz, covers a whole range of topics including soil carbon, water, minerals, and of course, cows, and their impact of climate and human health.  When I read about this book, I knew I wanted to read and review it, and Judith was very kind to arrange for me to get a copy from New South Books.

I enjoyed this book so much I started to get a little jealous that Judith got to travel around and meet all these fascinating people and learn so much about soil, but I'm also very glad that she shared her journey with us.  Whether you have a personal interest in soil as a farmer or gardener, or just wonder how we humans are going to get ourselves out of this climate change mess, there is much to learn from this book.

Here's just a few of the people that Judith met and wrote about in a very approachable style:
See why I'm jealous?

The most confronting chapter for me was the forth, "The return of lost water", in which Judith describes the latest theories of how human activites, particularly clearing forests and draining the land, have disrupted both rainfall paterns and surface water supplies (creeks, streams, rivers, dams etc).  The New Water Paradigm Group warn that lack of water could be more dangerous than temperature increases due to climate change, apparently we only have a few years supply if the rain stopped completely.  Maybe because we are in the middle of a drought, but that chapter filled me with slow creeping dread.  Especially because it is very similar to the theories of Peter Andrews, but backed by some pretty credible research.

Later in chapter eight Judith writes about seeing first-hand a couple of ranches that were using Allan Savory's Planned Holistic Grazing and seeing not only improved pasture, but also more surface water.  At first I couldn't see the connection between soil and surface water until I saw a few other diagrams when I was looking into our plans for bores.  This is what I put together: surface water is connected with ground water, if the water table is high, then surface water will be "gaining", but if the water table is lower than the surface water, it will be "loosing".  Removing trees and draining the land lowers the water table, so more surface water will be loosing water to the ground water.  If we can maintain trees and build soil carbon to hold more water in the soil, we raise the water table and improve soil water, and then we will see surface water improve.  That's why creeks that used to run don't run anymore, but we can restore them when we understand the water cycle better.  You know I'm obsessed by water at the moment, but the other chapters are equally fascinating.

Image source

Image source

And how can cows save the world??  If we manage them correctly, we can use them to build soil carbon, which is good for stabilising the climate and the water table.  We can also improve soil nutrients, which is good for our health, and biodiversity, which is good for the planet in general.  One strong message of the book is that it is not enough to focus on reducing emissions, we need to start putting that carbon back into the soil, and we need plants (and cows) to help us to do that.

Did this catch your interest?  Do you think cows can save the planet?

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

Monday, March 10, 2014

Permaculture - applying the basics with Homehill Farm

John and Jean write a blog about their property Homehill Farm in rural NSW, here's their thoughts about permaculture basics and how they apply them at their place.

Casuarina wind break
In trying to put together a post explaining how HHF has used Permaculture we found it difficult to decide how to present the information or for that matter where to start.  We went back to basics and re-examined the publications by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison i.e. Permaculture One, Permaculture Two and Permaculture A Designers' Manual. In addition, further investigation was made into other sources such as Wikipedia.

Home Hill Farm (click to expand and see the notes)
Do we go through the 12 Design Principles or do we address the core tenets? Maybe it would be better to look at how we incorporated tools such as Patterns, Layers, Guilds, Edge Effect, Zones etc?

If we did all that it would be a huge post. In the end, we decided to just look at how we compare against the generally accepted description of Permaculture and the Core Tenets; audit our work, in other words.

The best summary of Permaculture that appealed to us was from Wikipedia and is:

“Permaculture design emphasizes patterns of landscape, function, and species assemblies. It determines where these elements should be placed so they can provide maximum benefit to the local environment. The central concept of permaculture is maximizing useful connections between components and synergy of the final design. The focus of permaculture, therefore, is not on each separate element, but rather on the relationships created among elements by the way they are placed together; the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts. Permaculture design therefore seeks to minimize waste, labor, and energy input by building systems with maximal benefits between design elements to achieve a high level of synergy. Permaculture designs evolve over time by taking into account these relationships and elements and can become extremely complex systems that produce a high density of food and materials with minimal input.”
Well the reality is we didn't buy the property because it had all the elements needed to create a Permaculture heaven and then sit down and plan the layout. We bought the property because it had a soul pleasing view, it was within reasonable travel distance of work and it was cheap.

Planting the orchard

the orchard today
 It had a crap house and the soil was non existent. Had we not been focused on relocating our possessions 150 km and settling into a new job and new community, we may have taken the opportunity to spend time planning the layout and working towards the completion of that plan. We had after all both attended a Permaculture course held by Taree TAFE only a couple of years earlier.

Instead, we had to find/build a place to house our chooks and we needed to get some vegetables planted. So we started without a plan. This was a mistake that has taken 20 years to retract and is still working against us in some areas.

We did some things correctly, but more from luck and happenstance.

• The vegetable garden was built close to the house. It could have been closer but we didn't want to block vehicle access to the garage where our belongings were being stored in boxes.

• The first temporary, and then permanent chicken run, was well placed but not incorporated into the vegetable garden.

• We discovered that living on a rocky outcrop enables every gust of wind to treble in strength. We planted a westerly wind break of fast growing Casuarinas immediately which, within a few years, created a microclimate that worked in unison with the orchard trees. On the southern side we built a lattice work walled garden for protection from the almighty southerlies and let the native forest further down the slope away from the house grow.

• The house's aspect is south easterly with a broad view over the valley. Part of the west was protected by the garage. But the exposed house suffered from the westerly sun. A pergola was built on the western side and vines planted which quickly gave relief from the Summer setting afternoon sun.

• Water would have become/ was an issue for maintaining fruit trees and vegetable gardens, and/so we acted quickly to install a 7 mega litre dam. In hindsight, before any of the trees were planted ,we should have installed swales and tried to reduce our irrigations needs.

• The roof was removed and we installed new insulation (after removing the resident rodents) including over the verandas. A massive change in Summer comfort. We still use the air conditioner but now it is just for a couple of hours at the end of a 40 plus C day to dissipate the radiant heat from the interior.

• We left the natural forest of Spotted Gums to regenerate and keep only a few cattle to keep the understory clear of heavy vegetation.

Gradually, each year, we target different areas in an endeavour to reduce waste, labour and energy. The various elements are gradually pulling together. The task remains unfinished but the systems are slowly coming together. We may never reach a point where it is possible to sit back and say “well that's all done”.

Western side of the house before the garden

Western side of the house now, just magical!

But we are having a lot of pleasure working towards that ultimate goal.

Who are John and Jean?

John and Jean are a semi retired, semi self funded and semi working couple. 

Jean, a carinvore, first taught English and History at high schools and then went on to teach Academic English at university.

John, a vegetarian, spent 30 years in computer technology.

They both now job share part time as farm labourers on a small beef cattle property near their 25 acres in the Williams Valley.

Intially interested in organic farming methods, it was easy to embraced Bio Dynamic processes and Permacutlture guidelines and are continually exploring the realm of self sufficiency by growing and making as much of their own food as possible. Apart from growing vegetables and fruits, they make cheese and other dairy products from raw milk, brew beer, make wine, cider and perry. Nothing is too mundane to try at least a couple of times, including making coffee from home grown beans.

A collection of poultry reside on Home Hill Farm including, chickens for eggs and meat, Guinea Fowl for amusement, Indian Runner ducks for entertainment and a peacock for prettiness. Two cats, one of whom works as a ratter, and three dogs, one who converses with Jean. There are three companion cattle for undergrowth control.

A belief in minimsing waste and caring for the earth and for all life forms features at HHF; this includes taking responsibilty for personal health through all forms of exercise and quality food. 

What do you think about applying permaculture to your place?  Comment over at John and Jean's blog, Adventures at Home Hill Farm.

Would you like to guest post?  Email me at eight.acres.liz at gmail dot com

My previous permie guests have been:

I'm looking forward to hearing about some more permaculture experiences!

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Homestead Barnhop

Friday, March 7, 2014

How I use herbs - Aloe Vera

I want to write about Aloe Vera next in my herb series because its the one herb that I have potted up and taken to my unit in the city in case I need it during the week.

Aloe on the garden
Aloe Vera syn. A. barbadensis is a member of the Liliaceae family and originated from Northern Africa. In my garden I grow an aloe that I thought was aloe vera, but having read the descriptions in Isabell Shipard's book I think I actually have Aloe perryi, which has similar properties.  The aloe perryi has orange flowers, whereas aloe vera has yellow, and I know mine is a bright orange, so that confirms it.  Whether you grow aloe vera or aloe perryi, the growing conditions and applications are the same, so I'll just refer to them both as "aloe".

How does Aloe Vera grow?
Aloe is a succulent that multiplies by forming small plants called a "pup" at the base of the adult plants. It is easily propagated by digging up a pup and replanting it, that's how I started one in a pot to take with me. Aloe vera prefers shade and moist conditions. At first I assumed that it was a desert plant and I put it in a sunny corner, but it is doing much better now that I’ve added a hessian sack for shade. Occasionally it puts up a bright orange flower.

What’s Aloe Vera good for?
The aloe leaf consists of two parts, the yellow sap and the clear gel in the centre.  The sap is astrigent and bitter, so it can be used a laxative.  The gel is calming and cooling and has strong healing properties.

Some people eat or juice the aloe gel or the sap, but I haven’t used it for this purpose. I find aloe vera gel particularly effective for skin conditions, it is very calming on burns, insect bites and eczema. I even used it to remove a wart on my finger when I was at school, I just kept putting aloe vera on the wart and covering it with a plaster for weeks and eventually the wart disappeared.  It is the aloectin B compound in the gel that stimulates the immune system to accelerate healing.

Aloe vera is also useful for making a brew for the garden. I have been trying to expand my aloe vera patch so that I have excess to use for brewing.  There's more information here, I haven't tried it yet to be able to report the results.

Have you used aloe (vera or perryi) on your skin? to eat? in the garden?  elsewhere?

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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Farm update - March 2014

Its been really really dry, no rain for us, although some in our area got some good storms, we missed out completely, so no rain in February at all, and its usually our wettest month.  On top of the lack of rain, we've had more high temperatures, so the evaporation rate has been terrible, our paddocks are painfully dry and brown.  We have stepped up our drought plans and I'm actually feeling less stressed about it now we've made some management decisions.  We've decided we just need to sell our Braford cattle before we run out of water for them, and keep buying hay when it comes available, so we can keep our house cows going.  We are going to kill the big steers as early as possible, so there's more feed for the others.  I've got Donald advertised for sale, but he's not exactly in demand so far!  Anyone want to buy a friendly Dexter bull, we can deliver?  At least now that some other areas have had some rain we might have a better chance of selling our cattle (lately the market has been flooded with people needing to move cattle off their droughted properties).  We are not in the terrible situation that full-time farmers are facing, either keep paying to feed stock (and get in more and more debt) or try to sell (but its not easy to sell them if they are skinny) and have to buy stock back when the rain comes and they are 10 times the price.  How anyone makes any money out of farming beats me!  We are hobby farmers with off-fram income, so we can make some decisions to save our sanity and settle with losing a bit of money on our investment.

Just to prove that I'm not imagining it, here's the official map, we are in the dark red blob near the east coast, either that or the dark pink, which means we either had lowest on record or 5% of our normal summer rainfall.

Even though some areas got rain, most of QLD and some of NSW is still drought declared, there was a good doco about it on TV the other night too.  If you're in the city, there's a few things you can do to help farmers in droughted areas:
  • Buy beef and lamb, we need to keep these animals moving through the meat-works, otherwise farmers are having to shoot animals that are too skinny to travel, and they would much rather get some money for them and see the animals at least used for something, so keep buying meat!  
  • Don't buy hay unless you have to, if its for your garden, please leave it for a while, let the farmers have the hay, they need it, its getting hard to find.
  • Donate to Aussie helpers, they are giving out hay and groceries to farmers in need. 

I'm glad we got Taz, she's been a little ball of energy and a distraction from obsessing over the weather forcasts.  Cheryl has been so good with her, they play tuf-of-war almost non-stop.... and look how big she's getting!  She has a habit of sleeping UNDER our bed, so I'm waiting for her to get too big to fit under there :)

The chickens and guinea fowl are roaming around finding anything green they can (including my garden).  The first round of chicks are getting bigger (and only 9 of them is a managable amount compared to 30 last year!), and we hatched 11 more chicks and 7 guinea keets (I already sold the first 7), does anyone want to buy some guinea keets??

Molly had her calf Ruby early in February, and Pete has done a great job looking after them and milking daily, one good thing about the dry weather is she's not making as much milk as last year!  Molly is producing 6L a day and is a perfect lady in the milking bales.  Pete made a wonderful cheese, and we've been making yoghurt, kefir and cream cheese.  Even with dry grass Molly makes lots of cream, so we'll be making ice cream soon too.  AND I forgot to tell you last month that my article about calves and cows was published in the Jan/Feb Grass Roots, Miss Molly was even featured on the back cover, she's a celebrity cow now, but it hasn't gone to her head....Here's our lovely cows with their calves tucking into a lucerne round bale.

In the kitchen, here is my helper ready to clean up any scraps or spills, she stays out of my way, but she's on alert!  I'm getting better at making bread, love the sunflower and chia combination.  We are making lots of kefir and I've started some fermented cucumbers from the 2 massive cucumbers we've harvested so far (I wrote about the garden here).  And we bought 2 kg of garlic and already dried 1 kg to make garlic granules, we are just finishing the ones we made last year, so they've been really good and we didn't ahve to buy any chinese garlic when the Aussie stuff ran out.

Do you want to guest post about permaculture?  I've had a few amazing volunteers already, please join in if you would like to share your experience with permaculture, we are all learning together!

A few blogs you might want to check out:

Adventures at Homehill Farm
An English Homestead

How was your February?  Any plans for March?

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