Tuesday, 24 October 2006

Ochre Archives Newsletter - Issue No. 3

Welcome to the third edition of ‘Ochre Archives’. Our farm continues to reveal its features and secrets to us, as you will see in what follows.

Findings from recent trips to the farm
Trees and Shrubs
There is a large Red Gum that has developed what in we’ll call large calluses, caused by branches growing out and rubbing against and in time ‘welding’ to the rocks creating additional anchor points. The callous in the photo is approximately 600 mm across.

Many of the native species are currently in flower. Mikla Lewis has kindly informed us that the species with blue flowers in the picture below is Rock Isotome (Isotoma petraea) which was used by Aborigines as a substitute or addition to 'Pituri' - "a highly valued stimulant used for ceremonies, operations, socially and for spiking waterholes to aid the capture of game".

The Yellow Box (Eucalyptus melliodora) trees have an amazing volume of flowers on them, especially given the current dry conditions.

Rock Formations
Along one of the ridges are 3 outcrops of rocks that are akin to packs of playing cards on their sides. The one in this photo has a shelter under it, used by species such as Red-Necked Wallabies and Euros.

Geckos are regularly seen under bark in fallen timber. This one hangs around the house and is deadly on moths!

We’ve knick-named the large Lace Monitor (Varanus varius), also known as a Goanna, that lives in the trees in the front paddock “The Boss”. It is about 1.5 metres long and occasionally wanders around the house and sheds like it owns the place!

Native Animals
It’s not that often we get to see Echidnas on Ochre Arch, but they are around. We snapped this one down the creek in the front paddock after dark last week.

The Crested Pigeons that nest in the car shed have successfully raised a new generation:

Three more bird species have been identified, taking the total to 61 so far:
Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike (Coracina novaehollandiae)
Leaden Flycatcher (Myiagra rubecula)
Brown Thornbill (Acanthiza pusilla)

Following light rain in early September some native bees invaded the rain gauge on the property.

Dung beetles were also ‘weaving their magic’, digging manure deep into the soil and creating their tunnels that improve aeration and water infiltration.

In Closing
There’s much more we could tell you but in the interest of space and time that will do for know. Phillip continues to compile other more in depth articles on his blog site, http://ochrearchives.blogspot.com.

Once again, feedback is most welcome, via email to pdiprose@optusnet.com.au. Best wishes for the festive season.

Kind regards… Phillip & Jan Diprose

Link to: Ochre Archives Newsletter - Issue No. 1
Link to: Ochre Archives Newsletter - Issue No. 2

Thursday, 12 October 2006

Global & Australian Water Situation

Last night I attended a Lecture at Melbourne University given by Maude Barlow on the topic “The Right to Water: Approaches to the World Water Crisis”. Maude is the National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians (Canada's largest citizen's advocacy organisation), a Director with the International Forum on Globalization and co-author (with Tony Clarke) of "Blue Gold. The fight to stop the corporate theft of the world's water".

Her initial foray into this critical global issue started over 15 years ago in response to Canadian concerns about the USA taking actions to source water from Canada to help sustain its business and population needs concerns that remain valid today.

What follows is a sample of the facts and issues she spoke of last night.
* Canada is known as a water rich country, whilst the Mid and South West of the USA is going through the driest recorded period in the past 500 years.
* The World Trade Organisation now classifies water as a ‘good’ making it ‘acceptable’ for it to be traded and treated the same as another other commodity.

Maude outlined 2 major concerns in respect of water globally:

1. Ecological
Surface and ground water is progressively becoming polluted. In China, as an example, some 85 % of surface and 90 % of ground water in the cities is polluted due mainly to the impact of manufacturing. The Chinese believe that 60 times the profit is made from a single drop of water if used in manufacturing as opposed to agriculture, and as a consequence have diverted water from the agricultural north to the cities.

Coca Cola now supplies 10 % of human ‘liquid intake’ in industrialized countries and has a goal to increase this to 20 %. They have constructed huge armed fortresses in poor countries within which they have undergound water pumping facilities. In some of the cold climates they now ‘harvest’ melting ice in the spring. One of the core strategies for achieving the ‘liquid intake’ objective is through negotiating agreements with schools whereby the higher the per capita consumption of Coca Cola the higher the profit margin will be to the schools from these sales.

Mexico city is currently sinking due to the extraction of underground water, and they are piping water in.

2. Water Inequity
Globally it is estimated that 2 billion people do not currently have adequate water supplies, whilst it is wasted by the rich. In one poor country the poor pay about 14 times the amount for water compared to the rich – driven by the rich having the water piped to their houses whilst the poor have to pay for water transport.

Last year 200 billion litres of water was bottled and sold creating a substantial pollution issue with disposal of the plastic bottles. It is Maude’s view that water should not belong to any person or corporation, and that it is a basic human right to have good quality adequate water supplies.

Australia is the driest human inhabited continent with the most variable rainfall - which is declining. Our rivers are salinated and our aquifers under the cities are being polluted and drained. The rate of water extraction in 25 % of the water catchment areas throughout the continent exceeds to rate of recharge, and our population is forecast to grow by 25 % in the next 15 years. At current water usage rates Sydney is competing with Beijing and Mexico City to be the first major city in the world to run out of water. Our general populace (and particularly our politicians) believes that we should continue to strive for unlimited economic growth. We are the 3rd highest per capita users in the world, after the USA and Canada. Since the 1990’s our water usage has increased by 65 %, and there has been a 90 % increase in ground water use. We are also a massive exporter of “Virtual Water” – water is used to produce goods that are then exported – and by so doing we are exporting ‘fruits’ (for want of a better term) using water in such as away that we damage the environment.

Currently the Federal Government is espousing 3 ‘solutions’:
1. Installation of desalination plants. These should be seen as a last resort as they are incredibly power hungry (electricity – generated via non-renewable resources) and they generate substantial pollution in the air (visual and smell) and water around them
2. Increase underground water pumping
3. Introduce water trading – This is likely to increase the gaps between the haves and the have nots. The biggest problem will come if we allow the government to introduce ‘corporate middlemen’ (apologies – this is not meant to be a sexist term) who make profits out of buying (e.g. from farmers) and selling (e.g. to city users) water. There have been instances overseas where these decisions have been made, with disastrous social consequences.

Maude suggests that our community and governments need to take 3 significant steps:
A) Accept that we can no longer sustain ‘unlimited growth
B) Create a new ‘water ethic’ encouraging better practices. Maude quoted Martin Luther King who once said: “Legislation won’t restrain the heart, but will help restrain the heartless”.
C) Water needs to be acknowledged as a basic human right rather than a good or commodity

Getting involved
Those seeking more information or wanting to get involved should check out the Watermark Australia website at http://www.watermarkaustralia.org.au/ (email enquiries@watermarkaustralia.org.au) which is funded by the Victorian Women’s Trust (http://www.vwt.org.au/.).

Wednesday, 4 October 2006

Domestic Animal Breeding Tables

At the bottom of my father’s papers that Mum and I sorted through after he passed away some years ago was a document titled “Breeding Tables”. It lists the main types of domestic farm animals together with information on the duration of various breeding aspects. I came across the document again earlier today and decided to create a blog article outlining the core content. Here goes!

GESTATION PERIOD (days): Mares 340, Cows 283, Ewes 150, Sows 112, and Bitches 63

Duration: Mare 5-7 days, Cow 1 day, Sow 1-2 days, Ewe 2-4 days, Bitch 1-3 weeks
Return after Parturition: Mare 7-10 days, Cow 21-28 days, Sow 4-6 months, Ewe 5-6 weeks, Bitch 5-6 months
Return if not Impregnated: Mare 2-3 weeks or more, Cow 3-4 weeks or more, Sow 17-20 days, Ewe 20-21 days, Bitch 5-6 months

Pulse beats per minute: Horse 38-43, Cow 50-60, Sheep75-80, Pig 70-80, Dog 80-90
Respirations per minute: Horse 8-12, Cow 12-16, Sheep 20-30, Pig 20-30, Dog 15-25
Temperature Degrees Celsius: Horse 37.8-38.3, Cow 38.3-38.9, Sheep 39.4-40.0, Pig 38.9-39.4, Dog 38.3-38.9

Tuesday, 3 October 2006

Snakes Keeping Other Snakes Away - A Myth

Various people have commented to me from time to time that some species of snake keep other species away. For example, some say that pythons (or carpet snakes) keep black snakes away, and that black snakes keep brown snakes away.

I decided to find out whether such statements were fact or myth, and touched base with an authority (James) who works in the Biodiversity Conservation Section of the NSW Department of Environment and Conservation. James' reply to my email reads:

"The theory that some snakes keep others away is an urban (or rural in your case) myth. Snakes have habitat preferences like every other animal so it may be that this story arose out of the fact that in certain habitats you see more of one kind of snake than another. There is no evidence that the type of competetive exclusion you are referring to occurs, in fact there are plently of areas where you will find pythons, black snakes and brown snakes living together. They tend to eat different things and use the habitat differently so as not to compete too much."

Thanks for clearing that one up, James.

Growing Trees & Creating Hollow Log Habitats

Matt Kilby is a bloke who is passionate about trees, and is a well known and respected guru in designing tree and shrub based nature corridors and such like. If you are looking for advice and assistance in this field, Matt works for Trees for Earth whose web site is www.treesforearth.com.au.
If you are thinking of installing 'hollow log habitats' for use by birds and animals then check out www.hollowloghomes.com.au.

Sunday, 1 October 2006

Growing lawn without watering

Last night at a dinner party here in Melbourne the question was asked by one of our hosts whether anyone had any tips on how to grow green lawns without watering. Jan and I have never watered the lawn on any of our house blocks and in recent years I’ve made several changes from conventional lawn growing practices that have at least in part resulted in us having what I consider to be reasonable year-round green grass cover on our house block. Each of these changes, together with the underlying logic is below. It is the combination of factors rather than one item in particular that provide us with the end result we now have.

Not watering the lawn
Our basic belief is that nature will make available the most appropriate vegetation type to match the soil, climatic & other conditions. Watering lawns favours the development of shallow rooted plants and creates a dependency on regular watering. Conversely not watering fosters the growth of deep rooted plants. The deeper the plant roots the greater the organic matter in the soil and the greater the ability the plants have to draw both water and minerals from depth.
It is also important to know that if treated well the type of plants growing will progressively improve to those that are generally accepted as being the best for the environment. In the early stages bare ground will be covered by mosses and in some cases lichens. In the first photo you will see ‘grass’ species growing. When we first came to our current home most of the area in the photo was bare ground and moss.

Cut the lawn at maximum mower height.
Cutting the lawn at maximum height means that there is (or should) always a reasonable amount of green leaf left on the plants. This is turn means that each plant has at least some amount of ‘solar panels’ left to continue photosynthesis, recover reasonably quickly and maintain a green appearance. Interestingly, when cattle graze a healthy pasture for short durations at high densities they tend to leave the pasture height at a level similar to what a lawnmower does at full height. Mowing at maximum height also means that it is easier to push the mower through the grass and it can be done effectively using lower revolutions and fuel.

Cut the lawn when the plants are within growth Phase 2, which also by default means the frequency of cutting is reduced.
Plants have 3 core growth phases:
Phase 1 – Essentially plants are ‘getting organised’ in terms of root mass and leaf volume for the major (next) growth phase. Most people tend to cut their lawns while the plants are still in Phase 1. This equates to over-grazing in a farming system. Plant root mass declines such that the plants die (in some cases) or at least never really prosper. Without ground cover and organic soil matter the loss of soil moisture is very rapid.
Phase 2 – This is the ‘power growth’ phase and lasts from the end of Phase 1 through to the time that the plant has just flowered and set seed but is still green. To grow healthy and dense pasture in a grazing enterprise the goal is to introduce stock when the plants are near the top or end of Phase 2. Mowing the lawn at this stage has the same impact of encouraging denser plant tillering and keeping the plants still in the green phase. NB. There is still likely to be ‘haying off’ or drying during the peak of summer but if the grass stand contains perennial plants there will still be a small amount of green leaf matter in the dry stand – meaning that recovery after rains is very rapid.
Phase 3 – This is pretty much the ‘haying off’ or drying period for the plant, during which gradual senescence occurs.

Cutting the lawn within a couple of days of rain
Until such time as the lawn creates its own level of ground cover I only mow within a couple of days after it rains. In so doing I’m avoiding creating a mini-dust storm and also ensuring that as much top soil and organic matter remains on the soil surface as possible.

Not using the grass catcher i.e. leave the clippings on the lawn
The lawn clippings (where they are thrown by the mower) will normally not be noticeable within 2 days of mowing. So doing allows nature to recycle the nutrients, reducing or eliminating the need to apply external fertilizers, and supplies a natural mulch – increasing soil moisture retention and infiltration. It also makes the effort of mowing much less and avoids the need to (and expense of) placing the clipping somewhere else.

Not applying fertilizers
The application of inorganic fertilizers (which are by default ‘salts’ as they are water soluble) can increase the salt levels in the soil and in so doing kill off worms and other in-soil organisms. I guess I could apply organic fertilizers. However this would make the grass grow faster, meaning I’d have to mow more often, which I don’t want to do!
Worms play a very important role in soil health through creating ‘tunnels’ to enhance water infiltration and also improving soil quality. Did you know that all worms have the ability to detoxify carcinogenic substances in the soil (assuming they are able to actually survive in the toxic soil)?

Not trimming the edges (or out the back at least)
The main reason I don’t do this is that I could not be bothered! However by not trimming the edge I am also encouraging ‘edge effect’ within the back-yard environment – creating a different environment or micro-climate for the protection and encouragement of creatures such as small lizards, which in turn help control the numbers of some ‘pest’ organisms such as flies and other insects.

Not using Glyphosate to kill plants in the lawn
Glyphosate is the key ingredient in Roundup, and is used by many people to kill unwanted grass around edges, in garden beds, and in cropping. It is known and accepted that glyphosate kills tadpoles (and by default up to 95 % of frogs in the environment) if it ends up in creeks and water supplies. Allowing the chemical to go into water is in direct contravention of the labeling instructions, but never-the-less I happen to believe frogs (especially tadpoles) have an important role in nature and do not want to take the chance of making an error.

Covering bare walking tracks with fallen leaves and bark from eucalypt trees
Most people tend to lay pavers, which pretty much prevent water infiltration and encourages more rapid run-off, leading to flash flooding. Using bark and leaves reduces cost, improves infiltration, stops erosion, provides a place to spread the leaves and bark (rather than take the stuff to the tip), and provides a safer surface to be on in the wet as it is non-slip. Of course we also spread the leaves and bark on garden beds and other bare ground to provide cover and natural mulch.

Minimising the use of pavers in other locations
Our backyard, like many others, has a basketball ring and clothes line. It was tempting initially to pave the area under the clothes line and where the family plays basketball but we resisted; and only have pavers where one stands when actually hanging out the washing and practicing penalty basketball shots. Thus we are still allowing as much of the backyard as possible to directly receive and utilise natural rainwater. In the 3rd photograph you will see how healthy our lawn is, together with the location of some of the pavers ... and where the family plays basketball! Interestingly, if we don't play basketball for a couple of months the grass grows back over the bare ground progressively.

Looking for & marveling at the gradual increase in plant diversity
Rather than ‘freak out’ when seeing, say, a milk or other thistle in the backyard we look at the plants and wonder what it is in the environment that led to nature’s decision to prompt such a plant to grow. Thistles are a broadleaf and have tap roots. Thus they are very effective at covering bare ground (reducing erosion and evaporation) and opening up the soil structure. They are also fairly low-down in the plant succession hierarchy. Thus as the health of the soil and ground cover increases their numbers decrease and will disappear. Broadleaf plants have great difficulty growing in dense healthy and high perennial pastures as they don't get the light they need to start, and find it difficult to spread their leaves.

Trialing ideas
Most people have grown up in a paradigm telling them that a good lawn is a single plant species (monoculture) of, say, Couch or Kikuyu or Buffalo that is kept even through regular cutting. I challenge readers who have such a mindset to have the courage to run a small experiment in their backyard by setting aside an area of, say, 4 square metres (2 metres X 2 metres), not mowing it for 3-6 months, and closely watching to see what grows. Don’t freak out and run for the chemicals if you see Clover occurring … this is nature creating its own source of nitrogen for the benefit of other plants. If after then you mow that area when the plants are in Phase 2 you should be able to create an acceptable looking lawn that you can use like you have in the past.