Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Harvesting water for the house and animals (2016 update)

When I first wrote this post back in 2011, Queensland had too much water, but usually water is very precious to us.  Being in a rural area, we rely on our own rainwater supplies for drinking water and septic to treat our sewerage.  I’m quite happy with that arrangement, as it means we don’t have to drink the unnecessary levels of fluoride and chlorine in town water.  It also means that we have to ration our own water supply when the weather is dry and consider everything that we put down the drain.  I feel sorry for people in the city having water rationing forced on them through water restrictions, we just have to be responsible for our own use.  The funniest thing is that my first reaction now when it rains is to put on several loads of washing so that the water isn’t wasted by running out of our full tanks (luckily we have plenty of space on the verandah to hang it to dry).

We had TOO much water in Dec/Jan 2011
At our previous property we also had two large dams.  We used the water from the dams for the steers, the chickens and on the garden.  When we moved to Nanango, we found out that our dam was saline (our neighbour told us a few hours after we moved in!).  We used a salt meter to check the salt concentration, and its too high for chickens or the garden, but ok for the cattle (read more about testing water quality here).  This meant that we had to rethink our water strategy.  We have more water tanks at the new house, so there was plenty to share with the chickens, but there wasn’t enough for the garden.

eight acres: harvesting water for the house and animals
Three water tanks (about 22000 L) for our drinking water and the chickens
At first I emptied buckets of bath water onto my garden of pots of herbs that I rescued before we moved.  Then Pete decided to build something more permanent.  Our old house had a grey water system, but we never used it much apart from moving the hose around the lawn so it didn’t create a bog.  We’re not really supposed to use greywater on gardens in Queensland these days (the other system was old), so I won’t go into too much detail here.  Basically all bath and washing machine water goes into a tank that I pump out to the garden in the afternoons.  As far as I know, the main reason that this isn’t allowed is that there is the potential for people to get sick from eating veges when greywater is used for irrigation if there are pathogens in the water.  As we are aware of this issue, we are very careful to wash all veges thoroughly before eating, especially any that aren’t cooked (mostly only lettuce), and we only use bath and washing machine water, so its reasonably dilute (no kitchen waste water).  We have been doing this for a year and haven’t got sick from it yet.  I can’t see a major risk as I put manure tea on the garden anyway, so surely that is just as likely to make us sick!

Out dam at Nanango is too saline for the garden,
but ok for the cattle to drink.
The other reason that grey water isn't recommended is that salts in the water can build up in the soil.  For this reason I'm very careful about the soap we use in the bath and the laundry.  We only use organic products and laundry detergent that's certified for grey water systems.  Luckily we get plenty of rain when its hot, so the garden gets a good flush out when it needs water, and less rain when its cold, but I don't have to water as much then anyway as evaporation is lower.  I hope that topping up the garden with compost, manure and mulch is enough to prevent accumulation of salts.

For the house, we have three tanks about 20,000 L each, which are filled from run-off from the shed and the house.  This is plenty for two people and they often overflow.  If you need to estimate how many tanks you will need, consider how much water you will use (some estimates are 300 L/day, but I think you find that you use much less when you are paying for it directly, read more about our water conservation measures here), then work out the size of your catchment area and your average monthly rainfall.  You can then estimate how much water you will harvest each month and how much you will use, and work out what buffer you will need in the form of tanks.  Catching rainwater in tanks is by far the cheapest way to get more water, compared to digging a dam or a bore, so the more tanks you can afford to install, the better.

In 2014 we decided to replace two of the leaking metal water tanks pictured above with plastic tanks.  See this post about moving the tanks around the yard.  I wasn't convinced about getting plastic tanks (as we try not to drink out of plastic drink bottles), but the other options are not great either.  Concrete tanks always end up leaking, as to the metal tanks, unless they have a plastic liner.  After the tanks were installed I realised that the water was low pH and we had to add some limestone to neutralise the water (it was previously buffered by the rusting metal).

Overall, this means we’re responsible for both our drinking water and our waste water.  If we stuff up, we have to pay, either buying water or having the septic pumped out, but I like to know that we are self-sufficient and can manage it all ourselves, without relying on the government or local council to tell us what we can and can't do.  

Are you self-sufficient for water on your property?

Monday, November 28, 2016

Getting prepared

A while ago I wrote that I'm not a prepper, but we do like to make sure we're prepared.  I mean I don't spend all day considering doomsday scenarios and on the lookout for zombies, but I do know that we are at risk from floods and storms some years and bushfires other years, so its good to have a bit of a plan in case disaster occurs.  This post is about how we plan to provide our own energy, food and water needs if SHTF, whether is for a few days (last year we had no power for three days following a summer storm) or indefinitely.

The prepping tendency is possibly also because I grew up in New Zealand, where its normal to stockpile bottles of water and have a "bug out bag"!  I remember seeing instructions like the image below in the phonebook when I was a kid.  The recent earthquake is a good reminder to review your preparations.

We primarily need energy for keeping food cool, cooking and heating the house in winter.  While we were very tempted to build our secondhand house with offgrid solar, it just wasn't practical, so this is what we've done instead.

We have a grid connection for running our fridges and freezers (which are important to our food plan below).  If we lose grid power, we have a petrol powered generator which will run two freezers and the fridge.  We have had to use that when we lost power for three days last year during summer, and it worked ok, but was very loud and had to be turned off at night.  The main problem is that it does use petrol, a couple of litres a day, and if we can't get into town to buy more fuel we would eventually run out (we try to keep about 40 litres here).  Long term, our plan is to have grid-connected solar panels on our shed, these will be connected to an inverter which will disconnect from the grid if it goes dead (most solar systems go dead when the grid goes dead, to protect linesmen, so you have to specifically get one that will continue to run your house).  We will have the freezers on a circuit fed from the solar panels so that they would at least be able to run during the day.

In the meantime, we also just bought a stand-alone battery box, which can be charged by our car, mains electricity or solar panels, and has both DC outputs for charging phones etc and a small AC inverter.  This will be primarily for camping and driving holidays, but is going to be good to bring inside and run lights and charge a few things if we lose grid power.  We also got a 40L fridge that will run off the battery pack, so that we can keep a few things cold if we run out of generator fuel.

For heating and cooking we have our woodstove.  We also have a gas BBQ and gas cooktop in the kitchen.  But if we run out of gas, we can always use wood as we have plenty.  We will be installing solar hot water and are considering a wet-back from the woodstove as well.

We also tried to build our secondhand house with as many passive heating and cooling features as possible, so that we are not relying on air conditioning to keep us comfortable in summer.  We haven't lived there yet to try it out, and it might be a bit hot without the ceiling fans running, but so far the insulation, light coloured roof and solar shading seems to help.

Rather than stockpile food, which will eventually run out or go off, I prefer to have my food "on the hoof" or in the garden (as OFG used to say).  This means that it doesn't need to be stored for as long and you can always make more if needed.  For the garden, this means being self-sufficient for all inputs, including compost for fertility, mulch and saving seeds.  A great resource is also our local share group where we can swap local seeds.

For meat, we have the beef steers that we kill once a year or so and lots of chickens.  When we move the Cheslyn Rise we will also try goats or sheep and pigs.  The smaller animals do not require as much freezer space and will be more managable for Pete and I to butcher ourselves.  We also have more space and pasture there, which reduces our inputs of hay and grain to feed the animals.  I will be planting a food forest and lots of forage for chickens to reduce their need for grain.  We are also keen to set up aquaponics (fish and veges) fed from meal worms and compost worms.

Without water, nothing else will work.  This is part of the reason that we wanted to move to a larger property with better water catchment and more dams, as the dam here at Eight Acres is small, salty and goes dry.  We are currently borrowing water from a neighbour's dam (with permission!).  At Cheslyn Rise we have been focusing on developing water infrastructure.  For stock and garden purposes we have several large dams near the house and our solar bore.  For human consumption we have four 20,000L tanks fed from the roofs of the house and shed.  I'll be installing a water filter in the kitchen.  Our last step is to make sure the water can be fed from the tanks when the power goes out, so we will be installing a header tank with a solar pump as back up to top up the header.

Mitigating Damage
As well as all of this, we have tried to design the house placement so that it was away from flood danger (on top of a hill) and mitigate bushfire risk by removing trees near the house, installing a dam in our bushfire zone and planting fire resistant vegetation around the house/keeping grass short.

Are you prepared for disaster?  What do you do differently or the same as us?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Guest post: Three Things To Ask Yourself Before Getting Backyard Chickens

It’s not hard to see why backyard chicken-keeping has become increasingly popular. Raising chickens comes with a host of benefits — whether it be eggs, meat, or companionship. However, if you’re looking to keep your own flock, there’s a lot to know before you get started. No matter what reason drives you to get chickens, ask yourself the following questions...

This is a guest post from occasional contributor Liz Greene.  Her last post was Bee-Keeping and Happy Neighbours.

1) Is It Legal?
Poultry keeping is regulated at the local, state, and federal levels, and if your property is zoned as residential, you should expect certain restrictions. In addition to zoning regulations, you may also run into restrictive covenants — a clause in your home’s deed establishing constraints on how you’re allowed to use your property. If you’re subject to a restrictive covenant (or other homeowners association rules), you’ll need to determine if there are terms surrounding the keeping of chickens.

Don’t forget to speak with your neighbors before bringing chickens onto your property — it’s common courtesy. It’s likely your neighbors will turn into allies if they’re made aware of your chickens beforehand. Plus, you can always sweeten the deal with fresh eggs as a way to thank them for their patience. Keeping your neighbors informed and happy is so much easier than ending up in small claims court should they decide your chickens are a nuisance.

2) Can You Protect Them From Predators?

Depending on what part of the country you call home, any number of predators may pose a problem for your flock. Coyotes, raccoons, foxes, weasels, birds of prey, opossums, skunks, and snakes — even domestic cats and dogs — are all dangers you may face. It’s not an easy job protecting your chickens from the creatures that want to eat them — and it’s also not cheap.

Securing your chicken coop entails quite a few things. First, it needs to be raised two feet off the ground to keep snakes and skunks from lodging beneath it and stealing eggs, chicks, and pullets. You’ll need to cover all openings in the coop (think windows and vents) with hardware cloth. Your Finally, the coop door will need a sturdy, multiple step lock as raccoons are quite capable of unlatching single step locks and turning door handles.

In order to keep your birds in and predators out, the run should be made of welded-wire mesh, electric netting, or other fencing materials with small openings. If your run doesn’t have a roof, cover it with a wire mesh net to protect your flock from birds of prey. Since some predators are absolutely relentless when trying to get to your chickens, you may want to consider adding some electric fencing to your run. A ground wire placed four to six inches from the bottom of your current fence, a wire along the top (to deter climbing predators), and a 5,000 volt charger will work perfectly to keep danger out.

3) Can You Commit to Their Needs?

Keeping a happy, healthy flock requires of substantial investment of both time and money. The costs of food, a coop and run, as well as protection from weather and predators can add up fast. Just like cats and dogs, chickens require periodic veterinary care for vaccinations, illness, and injuries.

They also live outdoors — which means you have to provide dedicated, consistent care, even when temperatures soar or plummet. Rain, snow, and ice can make going outside seem like a nightmare, but you still have to do it. Requiring daily care also means arranging for alternate care when you’re on vacation or away from your home for a long period of time. Expect to do all of this for up to ten years — that’s how long chickens live.

Keeping backyard chickens can be a real joy — but it can also end in heartache if you’re not adequately prepared. Before you take the plunge, be sure to do tons of research, know everything your chickens will need, and consider what’s best for both you and your family. Only then will you be able to make an informed decision.

What do you think?  What else do you need to consider before you get backyard chickens?

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews of the Design and Use a Chicken Tractor

Monday, November 21, 2016

Getting started with Beekeeping: what equipment do you need?

If you're thinking about getting bees, you might be looking at all the equipment in the beekeeping shop (or website) and wondering what you actually NEED and what is just nice to have.  We were lucky to buy a lot of gear pretty cheaply from an older commercial beekeeper who wanted to get rid of all his beekeeping gear, and we have gradually figured out what its all for and what we need to keep.  Here's what I think you need first up and what you might need in the future.

eight acres:Getting started with Beekeeping: what equipment do I need?

Hives and bees
You are going to need at least one hive box and if your hive is productive you will need to give them more space in the form of a "super" pretty quickly.  In Australia you typically buy a nucleus hive or "nuc", and depending where you buy it, you may need to provide the nuc box as well (more info on buying bees).  You will need enough frames to fill your boxes (see building frames and wiring frames here).  This is assuming that you've decided to use Langstroth hives and there are other options available, more information here.

Equipment for inspecting hives
We have a "bee bag" which is an old sports bag where we keep everything we need for inspections.  Beehives need to be checked every couple of weeks in spring through autumn and less often in winter.  You will need:
  • Protective gear, at least a veil, but most likely also gloves until you are confident
  • A hive tool for opening the hives and removing frames
  • A smoker, including lighter and fuel - we keep ours in the metal bucket, not in the bee bag!
  • A small container to keep burr comb that you remove from the hive (this can be melted down to beeswax when the container is full)
  • A notebook and pen to record what you find when you open the hives, as you get more hives or inspect less frequently this is one of your most important tools for managing your bees
  • First aid supplies, including antihistamine tablets and ointment, cold packs and aloe vera, just in case your or someone with you has a bad reaction to a bee sting
  • Small hive beetle traps if they are a problem in your area (and management for other pest or diseases that may be an issue for you)

eight acres:Getting started with Beekeeping: what equipment do I need?
hive tool and smoker

eight acres:Getting started with Beekeeping: what equipment do I need?
Pete modelling the protective gear you will need at first

eight acres:Getting started with Beekeeping: what equipment do I need?
a few first aid supplies just in case

Equipment for extracting and storing honey
This depends how many hives you have and how much honey you expect to produce.  If you only have a few hives you can use the crush and strain method of extraction, or find someone else with a spinner who will let you borrow it.  We have a small two frame manual spinner, which is great for 10-20 hives.  As you get more hives you will eventually need a larger motorised spinner.  You also need a strainer and buckets to keep your bulk honey.  Sally explained it really well in her interview with me here.  Don't spend too much money on this part until you know how many hives you will have and if you really like beekeeping, as you don't need to extract honey right away.

A bee brush and escape board are also really handy for getting the bees off the honey frames!

eight acres:Getting started with Beekeeping: what equipment do I need?

Do you keep bees?  What else would you say is essential equipment when you first get started?

eight acres:Getting started with Beekeeping: what equipment do I need?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Holistic Management - Part 6: Testing decisions

The book Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making (affiliate link) sets out a guide to developing a holistic goal for your farm or business.  See my introduction to Holistic Management here, and part 2: four key insights for the reasons why holistic management is important and part 3: holistic goal for understanding what you are managing and what you want from it.  I reviewed the ecosystem processes in part 4 - the water and mineral cycles, energy flow and community dynamics.  In part 5 the book takes that understand of ecosystem processes and discusses the tools that we can use to manage ecosystem processes in brittle and non-brittle environments, including: money and labour, human creativity, technology, rest, fire, grazing, animal impact and living organisms.

In part 6, we learn about questions to ask to test our management decisions against the holistic goal defined in part 3.  This ensures that every action takes us closer to achieving our goal.  The test are:

  1. Cause and effect - does this action address the root cause of the problem?
  2. Weak link - does this action strengthen (or attack) the weakest link in a process or life-cycle?
  3. Marginal reaction - which action provides the greatest return, in terms of your holistic goal, for the time and money spent?
  4. Gross profit analysis - which enterprises contribute the most to covering the overheads of the business?
  5. Sources of energy and money - is the energy or money to be used in this action derived from the most appropriate source in terms of your holistic goal?
  6. Sustainability - if you take this action, will it lead toward or away from the future resource based described in your holistic goal?
  7. Society and culture - how do you feel about this action?  Will it improve your quality of life without adversely affecting others?
Not every test will apply to all decisions, and in the end its a gut-feeling having reviewed all the tests, which helps you to decide whether a decision has passed overall.  I'll briefly review each test here, there is a chapter for each, so if you think this will help you, consult the book for more detail.  Some of the questions require a basic understanding of accounting and project economics, if you don't already have this, try to attend a local course or ask your accountant for an hour or so of lessons in this area.

Cause and effect
Does this action address the root cause of the problem?

This test generally applies to actions intended to solve a particular problem.  Finding the root cause is often difficult and may require some trial and error, but obviously an action targeted at the root cause will result in longer-term success than actions that merely address symptoms of a problem.  For example, spraying pesticide on a crop instead of considering ways to improve the soil for healthier plants or reducing monocultures, or encouraging natural predators, to prevent future pest problems.  

The best way to find a root cause is to keep asking "why".  Why are bugs eating my crops?  Because they are nutrient deficient.  Why are they nutrient deficient?  Because microbes have been damaged by fertiliser and pesticide use by previous farmers.  That's really the last why in that chain, as you can now address the problem of building soil fertility rather than the pests themselves.

In this example, pesticide may be a short-term solution to get you through the season, as part of a long term plan to make other improvements that will eventually correct the root cause.

Weak link
Does this action strengthen (or attack) the weakest link in a process or life-cycle?
Whether you want to strengthen a system (production) or weaken a system (pests), the weakest link is the place to target your action.  For example, pests often have a vulnerable stage when they are easier to kill.  With Small Hive Beetle in our beehives, we've read about the lifecycle and worked out that the best time to kill them is when they crawl out of the hive as a larvae stage (haven't figured out exactly how yet).  In your production system there's only advantage in strengthening the weakest link, as it will always restrict improvements in other areas.  For example, we want to raise more cattle to larger size, but we don't have enough pasture at the moment, this is a weak link that we should take action to improve.  Again, asking "why" will help you to find the weak link (for example, why can't we produce more? and then considering which answer is the true restriction).

Marginal reaction
Which action provides the greatest return, in terms of your holistic goal, for the time and money spent?
This question is used for comparing one or more actions to decide which should be completed first.  We all have finite budgets and time to get things done around the farm, often we do the easy jobs first and the hard ones get left behind, but these might be the ones that could create the most benefit.  I often see farmers ploughing a field over and over again, even when there's no rain forecast, its like they feel they are doing "something" however it may not be the best use of time and money, its just an easy job to sit on the tractor for a few hours.  

I think this question needs to be used in conjunction with time management principles.  We need to tackle urgent and important tasks first.  Maintaining the tractor may not produce immediate return, but it is important to prevent failures in future.  Castrating the bull calves may not provide immediate return, but it must be done before they get too big.

An example in our lives at the moment is working on our house vs working on our solar bore piepline system.  We have lately decided to dedicate ourselves to getting the house finished so that we can move in, and this will enable many other tasks to be completed more easily.  While the bore and pipeline is very important to us and will be necessary for getting gardens established around the house, it can wait until we have made more progress with the house (apart from urgent jobs such as castrating bull calves).

Gross profit analysis
Which enterprises contribute the most to covering the overheads of the business?
This test is interesting because it assumes that a business has diverse enterprises that individually contribute to the overall profits.  Many farms have only one enterprise and should look at diversification in general (great advice from Joel Salatin's "You Can Farm").  Assuming that you have diverse enterprises, this question looks at the additional cost of running each enterprise vs the profit from each enterprise.  For example, with our honeybees, we should consider all the annual costs and time involved in building and maintaining each hive, vs the money (and neighbour goodwill) from selling honey, beeswax and bee colonies.  We don't include our vehicle costs, even though they are critical to us being able to run the bees, we would still have the vehicle without bees.  The honey spinner and other equipment costs should be divided over the useful life of the equipment to get an annual cost.  I think this is very useful analysis.  I find a lot of farmers marvel at their wonderful crop without considering the cost of all the inputs - fertiliser, seed, tractor fuel, and the very small remaining profit margin, especially if everyone had a good year and prices are low.  This analysis will show you which enterprise makes the largest contribution AND where to look for improvements in other enterprises.

Sources of energy and money
Is the energy or money to be used in this action derived from the most appropriate source in terms of your holistic goal?
This test is about favouring renewable or sustainable energy sources over fossil fuels, and internal capital over external (loan) capital.  There are additional questions as part of this test:
  • Is the proposed use of money/energy providing infrastructure that will assist in reaching your holistic goal? - including knowledge/skills, buildings, roads, dams, machinery.  Delay purchase of infrastructure until it is really needed, otherwise it just contributes to your overheads without contributing to profit.
  • Is the proposed use of money/energy merely consumptive, with no lasting effect?  - Many farm expenses are consumptive, including tractor fuel and services such as accounting.  Check that this consumption moves you closer to your holistic goal.
  • Is the proposed use of money/energy cyclical in that once initiated, it would not require more money, or the purchase of more energy? - Effectively this is an ongoing savings, for example by replacing a petrol pump with a solar pump, you need to consider the fuel savings in some of the other tests, and in this test you would favour a cyclic use if it also moved you towards your holistic goal.
  • Is the proposed use of money/energy addictive in that once initiated, you risk an undesirable dependence on further inputs of energy of money? - Obviously addictive or ongoing spending commitments should be avoided.  For example, once a farmer starts using fertilisers, especially those that are highly acidic, the microbial life in the soil is compromised.  Each year more fertiliser (and more money) is required to get the same result and each year it is more difficult to rebuild what has been lost.

If you take this action, will it lead toward or away from the future resource based described in your holistic goal?
Where the previous tests have focused mainly on financial outcomes, this test now considers societal and environmental implications of your decisions (also known as triple bottom line accounting).  In our holistic goal I listed the following as my future resource base: perennial pastures, dams and borewater, biodiversity, and the perspective of neighbours and community that we are hardworking and productive.  In this test we should also consider our impact on ecosystem processes.  "None of what is described in your future resource base will be attained quickly and with only a few actions.  Yet every action, however small, that takes you in the direction you want to go is progress, and cumulatively small actions add up to a big difference".  Therefore, actions that enhance or maintain perennial pastures, dams and bores, biodiversity and community perception, should be favoured over those that have detrimental or no effect.

Society and culture
How do you feel about this action?  Will it improve your quality of life without adversely affecting others?

In our holistic goal I described quality of life as including: debt-free, minimal off-farm work, positive relationships with community, positive attitudes to our work.  At the moment, we both work full-time, in an effort to achieve the first part of our quality of life statement (debt-free) but the second part reminds us not to take on more debt.  

Putting it together
All of the tests that apply to a decision should be considered in order and then together to give you a feel for the appropriate action.  Ideally you would only proceed with actions that pass all tests, however at time you will have no choice, but at least you will understand the impact on your holistic goal and how you may overcome this in the future.

I am looking forward to using these tests for decisions.  I think at the moment we use some of them unconsciously, but it is helpful to have a framework that we can both follow to make decisions in future and work consistently towards our holistic goal.

Below are some Amazon affiliate links to books related to Holistic Management.  If you would like to read my reviews of these books, see the following links:

Joel Salatin's books

Peter Andrew's books on Natural Sequence Farming

Permaculture Principles


Monday, November 14, 2016

Shocking tactics! How to use electric fences on the homestead

We have some areas of our property with severe erosion damage that we are trying to repair (more here).  This means that the cattle need to stay out as they just do more damage, however we don't want to be building massive permanent fences all the time, particularly when it may only be a temporary need.  The solution is electric fencing.

fencing off our drain area and hoping something will grow
Now that we have the gear and fence set up, I can't believe we didn't do it before, its so easy!  It can be a little expensive, but so are permanent fences, so you just have to weigh up the benefits and if you want something that's quick to set up and easy to remove later, this is the way to go.

Firstly, we were given a small energiser (father-in-law bought it at a garage sale, amazing what he finds sometimes!), and a small roll of tape.  We bought a new car battery and some electric fence stakes.  We plugged it all in and dared each other to touch the tape......but there were so many knots in the tape it didn't produce a decent jolt, more like a small tap on the shoulder.  Start again.....we bought a big roll of heavy duty tape and some steel picket attachments to make better corners, and an electric fence tester (no more touching the fence!).

the special electric fence stakes

battery and energiser

special steel post attachments for the corner posts,
the electric fence stakes are a bit bendy
We set it all up again.  Turned it on, tested it, close to maximum, perfect.  Let the cattle into the paddock and waited, wondering who would be first to touch the fence.  It was Molly the calf, and it took a little while to zap her, because its only ticking every couple of seconds, but she felt it when it hit her!  And the rest of them must have done the same when we weren't watching because we have had no trouble with them pushing through the fence, which happens to be a shortcut between two favourite areas to stand (the food dishes and the house yard gate).

The reason I was a bit scared of electric fences before is they seem so "technical", I thought I wouldn't know how to hook them up properly and they would require frequent checking, but lets face it, I can make the laptop talk to the printer on the wireless network (thank you, I'm quite proud of that), so surely I can make an electric fence work.  As far as I could see from a brief internet search (good explanation here), the main thing is to connect one battery terminal to the fence and the other to the earth.  The better your connections, the stronger the shock.  The earth terminal is attached to a metal rod which is pushed into the ground (the deeper the better), the area around the rod must be damp as its the earth that completes the circuit when the animal touches the fence, so damp earth will conduct the electric charge better than dry earth.  The amount of shock the animal gets will depends on the length of the fence too.  Once the animals are used to seeing electric fences you can increase the distance and they will stay away if they remember that first nasty shock.  Another good point from that website is that some animals have thick skin and lots of hair/fur, so they won't feel the shock as strongly as a human (another reason to use a tester and not touch the fence yourself!).

The only other thing to remember is, after you've got it all set up and working, don't forget to keep an eye on it as the battery will go flat eventually.  In our case it took about 4 weeks.  Luckily the cattle had got used to avoiding the area and didn't seem to notice that the fence wasn't working.  We charged the battery overnight and plugged it in again the morning.

Do you use electric fencing?  Any tips?

A few affiliate links to help you get started:

OzFarmer - electric fence wire

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More about using electric fencing, and how we use them to strip graze on our property.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

(Soap) Nuts about laundry

As you know, I really don't like using chemicals in the house or for the animals, but it is gradual process to reduce and change what we use.  For the laundry, we already use a grey-water friendly product, as all the washing-machine water is used to water my vege garden, however I was sure there was still opportunities to improve.  I'd read a bit about soap nuts and thought about it and hadn't done anything about it until I saw them at the local market and finally bought some.  I admit that I was a little skeptical, and I do have a boilermaker husband who can come home in some pretty dirty work clothes, so these soap nuts had a challenge ahead of them.

soap nuts are actually dried berries
For those who haven't heard of soap nuts, they're actually a dried berry from the sapindus mukorossi tree, which grows in India and Himalayas.  They are imported to Australia by various companies (just google soap nuts and you will find them).  This is the only thing that worries me about soap nuts, I would prefer to use something local, but then you can't really fault supporting industry in those countries either.  As far as I can tell, we can't actually grow the tree in Australia, the guy I bought them from said it is a weed and the fine is $20,000, and as the nuts are irradiated at customs its pretty much impossible to get the seeds to grow anyway, more info here.  If I could get an Australian equivalent and grow it in my garden, that would be the ultimate self-sufficient laundry solution!  Any ideas?  

**Last minute update: I am excited, I just read about the soapwart plant (here and here), and I should be able to grow that in my garden and use it for various soap applications, but until I get that established, I have soap nuts**

Anyway, moving on with the story, the idea with the soap nuts is to use the coldest wash available, pop 4-6 nuts in the little calico wash bag, put that bag in with your washing and they should last a few washes, not as many if you use hot water.  We normally use either a 45 min quick wash, or the 2 hr "cotton" wash for the boilermaking clothes, so I've tried the nuts a few times on both of those wash cycles.

dirty boilermaking jeans

my dirty farm jeans - note molasses stain!

I took some before and after photos of some of our really dirty jeans, because I thought they would be the hardest to get clean.  In general I've been pretty happy with results.  As you can see these jeans got as clean as I would have expected from the bought laundry powder we usually use.  They don't always come out perfect, but they are only going to get dirty again, so we don't worry so much about work clothes anyway!  Pete has requested that his work jeans are washed in hot water with laundry powder so that he looks presentable before he gets dirty again.  But apart from that, I think soap nuts are great for all other laundry.

The main thing I noticed was that the washing didn't smell of anything.  Normally it has that added fragrance, so you know its "clean", that was really weird at first, but good because I don't like artificial fragrance!  After the first wash I added a few drops of lavender oil to the powder dispenser, and then the washing smelt like lavender, which was much nicer.

cleaner boilermaking jeans
and clean farm work jeans, molasses stain gone!

The main difficulty I have with the soap nuts is remembering to find the nut sack (te he) from one load and putting it into the next load if I'm doing a few loads in a day.  I have wars with that washing machine, and you will notice that the handle is missing, yep I broke that off one time ages ago when it wouldn't let me back in, so the problem is that once you press buttons the door locks and its too late to add the nuts.  But I just have to get into the habit, and its not too late to add powder if all else fails!

I also used the nuts to do some hand washing, just soaked the nuts in hot water for 10 minutes, added some lavender oil and washed as normal, no problems and less suds to rinse out as well.  This website has lots of great tips for other uses for soap nuts.

The nuts are also supposed to work out way cheaper, however I'm not so sure.  One website has them for $26 for 500g, which does over 200 washes, I get 60 washes from my current washing powder  (reading the box, not counting personally), for about $10, so its a bit cheaper, but I also like to know that the water going to my garden is as chemical-free as possible.  If you buy in bulk it works out even cheaper.  You can get Soap Nuts at Biome (affiliate link).

Have you tried soap nuts?  Do you like them?

Soap Nuts at Biome

Monday, November 7, 2016

How I use herbs: Nettles

This is another herb in my garden that I'm not entirely sure about.  I know its a nettle, because it stung me.  Fortunately it was only small at the time and it didn't hurt much, but it did make me stop and look at this new plant in my garden, growing in amongst the chickweed.  I can't remember if I had some nettle seeds, I think a friend did give me some, and if I "planted" any (by planted I mean threw seeds around at some stage), but I can't think where else they would have come from.  Unfortunately, I therefore don't know which nettle I have!  There are three suspects:
  • Urtica dioica - Greater Nettle - this one grows to 1-1.8 m, so far the plants are small, but the leaves don't look quite right for this one
  • Urtica urens - Lesser Nettle - this one is smaller and grows in QLD in the cooler months
  • Urtica incisa - Scrub Nettle - native to Australia and hardy, it looks like the right leaf shape

It doesn't matter too much, because the uses are common to all three species.  I just need to decide now what to do with the nettle patch, I'm not sure I really want it to stay in the middle of my garden, especially if it happens to be the Greater Nettle, which spreads like mint!

How to grow nettle
For the Greater Nettle, you can propagate by root division, but the others are propagated by seeds (and I haven't seen mine flower yet).  Apparently it is very hardy, so it will be interesting to see how it survives our summer, or a harsh winter (we only had a mild winter this year).  I would ideally plant it in a patch where its safe to spread, or in a container.  The small sting that I received was not painful, but apparently it can be awful, so I wouldn't want to be accidentally walking past it regularly.  This is a great post about harvesting and preparing nettle leaves, I will be working with gloves and tongs because I'm a wuss.  I intend to remove all the nettle plants and move some of them to a more suitable area, and dry the rest of them to be used for tea and possibly some of the other suggestions below.

How to use nettle
You know its a special herb when it has six full pages in Isobel Shippard's "How can I use herbs in my daily life?"!  Here's a summary of some of the less bizarre uses listed in that and other herb books, there really are far too many to repeat here:
  • Pain relief - this sounds crazy, but nettle stings stimulate blood flow and many people have found relief from pain (a less extreme option is to put nettle leaves in your bath), and they are used to increase circulation.
  • Eaten or taken as a tea, nettles have anti-inflammatory, detoxification and antioxidant properties.  It is also rich in vitamins and minerals.
  • Nettle stops bleeding - either the leaf or tea applied to a wound or nose bleed
  • Used to treat allergies, including hayfever and eczema (it can be made into a salve by infusing in oil) 
  • For enlarged prostate - nettle roots can inhibit overgrowth of the prostate
  • Green dye and fibre for ropes etc
  • The leaves or the roots can be used in shampoo to stimulate circulation in the scalp - for dandruff and hair loss.
  • Nettle leaves can be eaten like any green leafy vege - steamed, added to soups, smoothies - the leaves don't sting when they are heated, blended or dried.  Older leaves are high in calcium oxalate (like spinach and silverbeet).
  • Dried nettle can be fed to animals (the usually don't like being stung by fresh leaves)
  • Nettle fertiliser tea can be made in the same way that comfrey is used, and nettle spray can be used to deter bugs in the garden
Nettles are a really useful herb, but one that needs to be controlled carefully in the garden.  Do you grow and use nettles?  Any tips?

eight acres: how I use herbs - nettles

How I use herbs - Mint, Peppermint and Spearmint

How I use herbs - Aloe Vera

How I use herbs - Basil

How I use herbs - Ginger, galangal and turmeric

How I use herbs - Marigold, calendula and winter taragon

How I use herbs - Lemon balm

How I use herbs - Soapwort

How I use herbs - Comfrey

How I use herbs - Nasturtium

How I use herbs - Parsley

How I use herbs - Borage

How I use herbs - Herb Robert

How I use herbs - Purslane

How I use herbs - Chickweed

How I use herbs - Neem oil

How I use herbs - Rue, tansy and wormwood

How I use herbs - Brahmi

How I use herbs - Yarrow

How I use herbs - Arrowroot

How I use herbs - Lucerne (afalfa)

How I use herbs - Lavender

How I use herbs - Rosemary and Thyme

How I use herbs - Oregano or Marjoram

How I use herbs - Sweet Violet

How I use herbs - Gotu Kola

How I use herbs - Lemongrass

How I use herbs - Coriander (or cilantro)

How I use herbs - Dill

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Farm update - November 2016

It has been a gentle start to spring.  We've had HOT days, but the nights are still cool and a few showers and storms have kept the grass green (only just!).

Food and cooking
Just for a change, we've been eating a bit of pork and lamb that we've bought from friends, so not just beef!

Land and farming
Somehow we found some time to mow the perennial pasture and let the cows in to trim it.  I was starting to feel uncomfortable about the long dead grass near the house, both the fire-risk and the damage to the pasture of over-resting it.  Now we just have to judge the right time to get the cattle out of that paddock, and find the right time to plant the rest of the grass seed!

I am locked in a battle of wits with a certain hen who has found a way to get into my garden and scratch up all the mulch.  Every time I think I've won, I find her in there again.  At least she doesn't do too much damage by herself.  And this photo is proof that chickens eat grass.  Actually they LOVE grass and that's what makes our homegrown free-range eggs taste so good!

Cows and cattle
Here are our curious cows and calves checking us out while we have lunch near their paddock.  We really need to get them in the yards and castrate the bull calves and put in some fly eartags before summer.

Bees and Beekeeping
We have so many bees we can't keep up with boxes for them!  And even though I want to sell some nucs, its actually difficult to organise the timing before the hive gets too strong and needs a bigger box.  The other day I was sitting outside and heard a growing buzz, and checked the hives to find one of the larger boxes swarming!  They landed in a tree branch, luckily quite low, and we were able to catch them in another box.  We also harvested 20 kg of honey from our older hives, its tastes wonderful and I'm selling it in 500 g and 1 kg jars.

I've started to get some summer plants going.  Beans and capsicums and tomatoes.  A pumpkin has sprouted from the compost.  There are lots of silverbeet and kale still growing.  I really need some zucchini or tromboncino.  I've spotted a choko vine starting too.  And there are lots of blackberry flowers this year, is it the rain or the bees encouraging the flowers?  I've put photos of the flowers in the garden on instagram and facebook if you want to see more.

We finished all the window and door trim with the help of Pete's parents, just in time for the new ironbark floors to be installed.  And then we had one week off work and my parents came to stay for another painting blitz.  This time we tackled the veranda and finished the posts and handrails, its looks so much nicer without the red bits!  I also painted the bathroom ceiling and walls, but I'll wait until the electrician has put the lights in before I share the finished product.  We still need to put up the front window awning and the gable decoration, it looks very plain at the moment!  And the gutters will be brown, not blue.  We are currently negotiating with a cabinet maker, but he probably won't be able to install the kitchen until early next year.  I am completely worn out from all the decisions about bench tops, cupboard colours and heights, nobs, drawer runners, kickboards, waterfall bench ends, dishdrawers and shelf spacings!  I fear that I will end up regretting some of the rushed decisions, but I also don't want to spend too much time deliberating on each detail.  Anyway, the new floors will not be polished until the kitchen is installed, so I'd better make up my mind.

The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited (or only limited by the imagination and information of the designer). 

This works as soon as we stop thinking about monocultures and start stacking functions and production methods (such as Joel Salatin's Polyface farm).  Sure, you can't just plant more of one crop and expect more yield, or try to fit in more of the same animals, but if you think more broadly about potential yields, you can find more opportunities.  For example, we now have bees on our property, and the trees that many farmers see as a waste of space (that we already valued for timber, firewood, shade and fertility) are now a source of nectar for our bees so that we can produce honey, beeswax and more bees to sell.  Suddenly we have a new yield based on a resource that was already on our property.  Another example is adding poultry or small animals to an orchard operation, or in combination with mob-stocking of cattle, using the same land for more than one yield.  Converting a waste product into a yield, by making soap from tallow or compost from food waste, is yet another yield.  If the limit is imagination and information, then the best way to improve yield is to research, talk to other farmers locally and globally, and just keep observing, looking for patterns in nature and in society, thinking of things that people need that you can provide.

Support me
I wanted to remind you to get soap and salves orders in before Christmas (guess what I'll be giving everyone for Christmas!  Soap!).  If you are looking for gifts, the shaving soap in a tin with a nice shaving brush is a good one for men, and the four pack of nice soaps, or the muscle salve (similar to tiger balm), for the ladies.  (See my shop below, or follow this link).

And I'm working on another ebook, this time all my tallow soap recipes and some info about making tallow soap.  It will be available soon, I've written nearly 40 pages, I just need to double-check that all the recipes work perfectly.

How was your October?  What are you up to in November?

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