Wednesday, 30 December 2009

No Rats in Ochre Arch Cottage

Over Christmas one of our nieces asked Phillip’s mother whether there were rats in the house on Ochre Arch. Given the previous condition of the house prior to the extensive renovation last year this was a perfectly reasonable question. The answer to the question is ‘no’. The question has, though, prompted the writing of this blog post to share our broader thinking on ‘creatures not generally welcome in and around farm houses’.

Our thinking and approach to pest management in predicated on the principal espoused in an old movie titled ‘Field of Dreams’. In the movie in short, a bloke builds a baseball field on his farm and this in turn leads to base-ball players ‘turning up to play’. Nature works in the same way in that (as a general rule) the habitat and environmental conditions determine the wild life that ‘turns up’.

Looking specifically at rats, the conditions they need include shelter and nesting materials similar to that found in and around houses and sheds, food that homo sapiens eat grow or throw out, access point/s to the houses or sheds and the absence of things that kill them such as predators or poisons. Specifically on Ochre Arch we do the following as a matter of course in order to discourage rats:
  • Floors, walls, windows and ceilings are impervious to them, preventing access. Screens and screen doors keep them out when windows and doors are open during warmer conditions.
  • Food that we eat is kept in sealed containers and cupboards
  • Food scraps go to the chooks and/or far enough away that it is not suitable to the rats to eat or is too far way
  • The area immediately around the house is devoid of material suitable for nesting material
  • Predators have full access to underneath the house
  • Poison is kept in the adjacent car shed that rats and mice can access, but not children

When we re-furbished the cottage we made the decision not to fence or block off access around the perimeter to underneath the house – out of the norm. We used to think that people blocked off access to underneath houses to keep all and sundry out, but we learned the main reason was to prevent dogs taking dead prey under to store for later consumption. Subsequently the stench would be annoying if not unbearable. Given we do not have and do not intend having dogs we’ve left under the house open; and as I’ve said predators as well as prey of different sorts can come and go as they please.

The common ‘prey’ species that are likely to access underneath the house include rats, mice and rabbits. The common predator species, again likely to access underneath the house, include foxes, cats, monitors, and snakes. We’ve seen all of these prey and predator species from time to time, and know that they will come and go depending on conditions. Snakes and rabbits are something we are not comfortable seeing around the house and we do have alternate strategies for their management.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Lamb Marking

6th October 2009 was Lamb Marking Day here on Ochre Arch. This blog post outlines some of the key steps, equipment and learnings from this significant activity in the annual calendar of sheep management.

1. Sourcing the equipment

Here is a list of the equipment and other bits and pieces needed for the process:

Ear tags, applicator and temporary storage vessel. The ear tags have to at least have the Property Identification Code on them; and are a pre-requisite for selling livestock through public sale facilities. In theory they allow for traceability by end users back to specific producers as part of quality control; and are especially required by export markets. The system is far from infallible given that the tags can fall off or get pulled out during shearing and general incidents. At the domestic level the tags are a bit farcical in that buyers tend to pool their purchases and the identification numbers may or may not be recorded. Ear tags are colour coded – and the 2009 tags are white.

Ear marking pliers. We used the ones that Phillip’s father owned. The pliers are used to take a small patterned section from the ear of the animal. It was necessary for us to have the pliers reconditioned (see a previous blog post) and registered with the local Livestock Health and Pest Authority. Ear marks on sheep tend to be more enduring than tags and are more relevant to neighbours in sorting out stock when they get through fences etc. Ear marks are generally placed in the left ear of a female sheep and right ear of a male. This also assists in identification during drafting.

Shears and sharpening stone. Used in the mulesing process, and supplied on the day by the mulesing contractor. Mulesing is a well known (and in recent times controversial) fly-strike mitigation measure for Merino sheep, and involves the removal of skin from around the tail of the animal. As the wound heals the skin around the area is stretched tighter, removing wrinkles. These skin folds or wrinkles can accumulate moisture, which attracts flies.

• Temporary fencing. The contractor supplied 3 fencing panels which were used to create a temporary ‘catching pen’ for the lambs adjacent to the yards; small enough in size to keep the effort in catching the lambs to a minimum.

Holding cradles into which the lambs are placed and restrained during the actual marking. Four cradles on a stand were supplied by the contractor. They were ‘home made’, extremely simple and very effective.

Elastrator and elastrator rings for castrating (de-sexing) male lambs. Castration is carried out for a few reasons: allows for better management of breeding in that high quality sire number can be kept to a minimum (generally 1 ram to 100 ewes), animals are purportedly much less aggressive and the meat flavour is not as pungent. The elastrator method involves the use of a rubber ring, which is expanded using a pair of special pliers and placed over the scrotum just above the testicles. The ring blocks blood circulation, causing the scrotum and testicles to eventually wither and fall off. It induces the same effect if placed on the tail, but we opted to use a gas knife for this aspect (see later).

Lamb marking knife with hook on the end, for castration of male lambs on an exception basis. At times it is not possible to place the rubber rings using the elastrator method over both testicles. Reasons can include lamb size (too large or small) and inability to locate both testicles (sometimes one or both of the testicles remains in the body cavity i.e. do not reside within the scrotum). Surgical removal of the testicles involves cutting off the bottom one-third of the scrotum with a sharp sterilised lamb-marking knife. The testicles are then exposed (by squeezing the remaining portion of the scrotum with the thumb and index finger) and removed with a clamp or hook on the end of the knife.

Vaccine and applicator. Lamb marking is a good time to vaccinate sheep against common diseases. We purchased the vaccine in Forbes. In our case, we injected each lamb with 1 millilitre of ‘5 in 1’. The vaccine has to be kept refrigerated prior, during and after use.

Insecticide and applicator - to prevent flystrike

Antiseptic and anaesthetic and applicator – to mitigate against infections and reduce pain (and stress)

Antiseptic and containers (stainless steel buckets) to sterilise equipment.

Gas knife, holder, connector, bottle and box of matches. A gas-heated de-tailer was used. The heat cauterises the blood vessels, which virtually eliminates bleeding. Studies suggest that there appears to be less stress associated with the operation, as lambs show normal behavioural patterns earlier. Tails are removed to mitigate fly-strike and reduce shearing and crutching times.

Shelving for placement of items during the marking process. We used the underside of an empty 200 litre drum as a small table; on which we placed the container with the ear tags in it, ear marking pliers and ear tag applicator. The mulesing contractor used the back tray of his ute to store antiseptic and many other bits of equipment.

2. Assembling the team
During discussions with the mulesing Contractor it became obvious that we needed more people to assist than we had originally envisaged, due in part to our decision to mules the sheep. In the end, a total of seven people were involved on the day.

3. Getting the sheep on hand and setting up for the activity
We brought the sheep into the Duck Dam paddock the night before the lamb marking so that they could be easily brought into the yards early in the morning. In this way stress could be minimised. When herding the sheep into the yards we (possibly) applied a little too much pressure as many of the lambs moved away from their mothers to form a mob adjacent to the ewes. They were consequently more difficult to manage.

Tim arrived the night before and stayed over. Bruce (mulesing contractor) arrived first thing in the morning with the balance of the equipment, chemicals, and temporary fencing we did not have. Bruce and Tim set up the catching pen off the small gate on the south west of the yards.

Judith and Kevin arrived in time for the commencement of activities.

4. Doing the work on the day
Once the mob of sheep was in the yards we proceeded to draft the lambs from the ewes. This makes for much easier catching of lambs as the ewes are not in the way. Phillip did the actual drafting, with Tim, Bruce and Jan herding the mob into the drafting race. Some drafting errors were made. The correction process is basically to catch the animal that was drafted the wrong way (lamb in with the ewes as an example) and lift it or take it via a gate to where it should be.

Here are a couple of photos of the lambs, taken prior to marking.

After drafting, the ewes were released from the yards into the paddock (Air Strip) where they would stay for a few days, and into which the lambs were released as they were marked.

The lambs were herded into the temporary catching pen in lots. We did find that the lambs were difficult to get into this pen and were unsuccessful in identifying the root cause. The ramifications were that the whole team ended up being involved in the penning-up process; which would not normally be the case. We do not own and did not use sheep dogs. Perhaps dogs would have made for less work?

Below are the first names of those who participated in the lamb marking, together with the activity they carried out.

Inside the catching pen (am):
• Tim – catching the lambs, placing them into to holding crates, and applying the ear tags. Tim, based on many years of prior experience, would lay the lambs on their left / near side in the cradle.
• Phillip – ear marking and release once all activities had been completed. Tim’s action in laying the lambs on their side made the tagging process simpler: if male, tag the ‘upper’ ear, and if female, tag the ‘lower’ ear.

Outside the catching pen (am):
• Judith - vaccinate the lambs
• Kevin – dock the tails
• Bruce – castrate and mules
• Jan – apply chemical

After lunch Judith and Kevin left due to other commitments, and Warren called and provided assistance. Warren took over the catching and ear-tagging, Tim did the castrating, and Bruce vaccinated, tail-docked and mulesed. Phillip and Jan proceeded as before lunch.

We found that some of the lambs jumped through the hinge-joint fencing from the Air Strip Paddock to the Front Paddock as they were released. This delayed re-uniting with the applicable ewes.

When we bought the ewes we had been told that they were all ‘scanned in lamb’ at 164 %. This means that in theory, assuming no losses, we would be marking 164 lambs for every 100 ewes. While the ewes were lambing we did notice what seemed to be quite a few losses (dead lambs). Based on this and our own lack of stock management experience we had purchased for use during the lamb marking event:
• Enough vaccine for up to a 125 % marking rate (125 lambs for every 100 ewes)
• Enough ear tags for up to a 138 % marking rate (138 lambs for every 100 ewes).
It transpired that our lamb marking percentage was 140 (140 lambs for every 100 ewes) which meant that on the day:
• We ran short of vaccine, and Phillip did an un-planned and rushed trip to Grenfell for some more;
• We ran out of ear tags – by about a dozen. The affected lambs still received all of the other treatments.

Two lambs managed to squeeze out of the catching pen and are at this point still not marked / treated.

At the start of the day Phillip was asked by Bruce whether we wanted the ewe and wether lambs to be separated. Due to inexperience Phillip thought this question literally meant we were being offered the option to split the lambs into different mobs and responded ‘No’. After we got going with the marking we realised that Bruce had actually been asking / offering to create two separate piles of lamb tails: one from the ewes and the other from the wethers. By so doing we would then be able to get an accurate count on the number of ewe and wether lambs – to assist in later management decisions. Such is life! We have carried out an estimate on the number of wether lambs based on the number of remaining elastrator rings; however this is not accurate as the rings are counted into the sale containers based on weight – and thus there can be large variations in the actual numbers.

5. Clean-up and concluding remarks
Once all of the lambs had been marked Phillip herded the lambs that had escaped into the Front Paddock and beyond into the Air Strip paddock where they could re-unite with their mothers; and Bruce, Tim and Warren disassembled the temporary yards and packed away the equipment.

It was then time for some rest and recreation … the best part of the day!

First thing on the next day we transported the lamb tails and mulesing off-cuts to the Saddle Paddock and placed them on a patch of bare ground. We are curious to see what the impact of this addition of organic matter to that area will be over time.

Here is a picture of the tails and mulesing off-cuts on the bare ground in the Saddle Paddock.

A couple of days after lamb marking we noticed that one lamb and two ewes had died. Tim mentioned that the separation process for ewes (from their lambs – no matter how short) is extremely stressful and it is common to lose some.

One of the decisions taken during the marking process was to mark ALL of the lambs we could, rather than perhaps leaving a few of the smaller ones to a later date. Whilst this might seem to have been a little harsh it is consistent with one of our goals of running a simple to manage business. Fortunately we did not lose any of the small lambs as a result.

The ear tag applicator we bought and used could have been better designed. The deficiency is that the tags can only be inserted into the tool one way, rather than two ways. We have subsequently provided feedback to the vendor of the applicator.

The key highlight of the overall day was the teamwork and camaraderie from everyone who was involved. We had a common goal and there was a fantastic balance between getting the job done and enjoying the effort.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Installation of Remote Power Supply Nearing Completion

Ochre Arch has never been grid-connected to mains power. That's right ... we have until this point managed to survive quite OK without electricity on-tap. Here are some of the most commonly asked questions we get on this subject, together with our stock-standard answers:

How do you cook and keep things cool?
Initially we relied on our gas barbecue and camp twin gas burner for cooking. For cooling foods and drinks we used Phillip's parent's small camp chest cooler; and for larger gatherings we'd buy ice in town and use this in an old small refrigerator that has the motor removed ... with us lying it on its back and using is as a chest cooler. In recent times we have up-graded to a gas stove and gas refrigerator. Toast is made on a camp toaster.

How do you get on with washing clothes?
We do have an 8 KVa petrol generator that we have used to power the washing machine, but in the main we use the laundromat in Grenfell.

What about showering?
This is where the Tardis (outdoor shower) comes in handy during the warmer months. (Refer to an earlier blog post). We now use a 12 volt battery powered camp shower in the shower recess. Water is heated in a boiler on the wood heater during the winter and stove during the intermediate months, and in a black 60 litre plastic garbage bin via sunlight during the summer months.

What about lights at night?
We have small garden solar powered lights around the yard. As a general rule we use gas lights in the house, but have also used candles from time to time. We also tend to be more attuned to the rise and fall of the sun than before ... now waking at what we used to call 'sparrows' and going to bed much earlier.

What don't you do that you used to when you had power (prior to moving to Ochre Arch)?
Ironing of clothes is no more, or hair drying. Jan does miss her electric food processing appliances. There is NO TELEVISION here at all, which to be truthful we've not missed in the slightest ... to the extent that we find the number of ads when we do visit others and see a bit of television incredibly annoying. We do like our movies and do miss kicking back and watching a good DVD on rainy days.

So will you be feeding power back into the grid once you have your remote power system in place?
We don't really understand why, but it seems most people need us to tell them 2 to 4 times that we are not on mains power or grid connected before the penny drops that we are, in fact, not on mains power or grid connected. Thus we will NOT be feeding power into the grid after our remote power system is fully operational. The nearest mains power pole is about 1.6 km away.

Setting up a remote power supply system is FUNDAMENTALLY different to having solar panels in place and feeding into the grid for at least 3 key reasons:
1. Power has to be stored on site - in batteries
2. Unless one has an unlimited budget it is essential (for serious and reliable power use) to include a back-up non-renewable energy generator into the overall set-up
3. There is no opportunity to reimburse costs (from grid-connecting).

Have you been able to access any Government funding for your remote power system?
Yes. Until recently the Federal Government provided a 50 % subsidy up to $250,000 for the renewable energy components of remote power supply systems where the following conditions were met:
1. The location was / is the principal place of residence.
2. Mains power was at least 1 km away
3. A quote had been given showing that it would cost at least $30,000 to have mains power connected.
We met all 3 criteria.

How do you manage to run a computer?
Quite a while ago we bought a 60 watt soler panel with a regulator specifically designed to charge (and not overcharge) 12 volt batteries. We have two car batteries that we rotate on the regulator ... one charging while the other is being used. This does involve manual transport of the batteries from near the car shed to the house, but in the scheme of things the set-up works well. We also have a small 300 watt inverter that runs off a 12 volt battery, which we use for charging things like mobile phones, digital camera etc.

The rest of this blog shares some bits and pieces of information and photographs on the remote power system we have almost completed. The two main activities yet to be completed are installation of the diesel back-up generator and wiring of the house and sheds (machinery and shearing).

The first major steps in setting up our remote power system were:
1. Finding a supplier / installer. We opted for Central West Solar in Orange. Robert Biviano has proven to be not only extremely knowledgeable and capable, but also great to deal with.
2. Ascertaining the system capability and design components.
3. Building a shed which has become the 'centre' for the power system.

This photo shows the shed, taken at the time the batteries were being delivered. Our need to build a shed was driven by:
1. Limited storage space on the farm to begin with
2. None of the existing buildings had north facing roof areas large enough for what we needed
3. We did not want the panels to be mounted at ground level as they would in our view be more likely to be damaged through stock and unforeseen events and they would also be easier to steal.

There are 15 X 175 watt panels in all, set up as 5 'strings' of 3 panels. In this photo you can see Robert Biviano putting the final touches on wiring each of the 5 strings into the small box (a fuse for each string) from where the central cabling to the batteries takes place. The cables used at the back of each panel are fire resistant, however it would be naive to think that the shed and system would come through unscathed in the event of a major fire event.

When building the shed we took the needs of proper positioning of the solar panels into account. Specifically:
* Half of the roof faces north
* Two of the top-hat supports for the iron are 1500 mm apart, which allows for easy anchoring of the panels
* Underneath each of these supports we have inserted 35 mm X 35 mm cross section treated pine to allow for very solid anchoring of the screws.

As a rule of thumb the angle of the solar panels in relation to the Earth's surface is 'latitude plus 10 degrees'.

For the remote power supply system to work it was necessary for us to run a range of cables under the soil surface:
1. From the house to the power control unit
2. From the power control unit to the shearing shed
3. From the power control unit to the base of the (new) wind turbine.
Rather than dig the trenches by hand we hired a trencher and driver for what turned out to be 6.5 hours. The trenches are by law to be 600 mm deep but given we are on a farm where digging for fence-lines and such like is not uncommon the main trench was dug down to just over 1 metre deep. The accompanying photo shows the Bobcat, with trencher attached, near the north east corner of the house.

We decided to incorporate a wind-turbine into our overall system for several reasons:
1. Our house is quite open to the elements and it is frequently windy here.
2. We really liked the idea that the wind turbine potentially runs 24/7, whilst the solar panels are restricted to daylight hours.
3. Inclusion adds another element for potential tourists to see when they visit.

The unit we purchased is rated at 350 watts, or twice that of each of the solar panels.

There are two types of typical tower construction, the Guyed tower and the Monopole tower. Ours is the former, and thus requires substantial footings to support each of the main guy support cables. As luck would have it the fellow who did the trenching for us also happened to have a 600 mm diameter auger that fitted to the Bobcat. This photo shows him digging to a depth of just over 1 metre one of the four holes for the footings.
The Owner's Manual for the Wind Turbine contains the following paragraph which I think is worth sharing: "The sun is the source of all energy on earth. Wind is a form of energy and is caused by the uneven heating of the earth's surface by the sun. For example, the poles receive less energy from the sun than the equator does, and the dry land heats up and cools down more quickly than the seas do. On much of the earth, wind speeds are low in the summer when the sun shines brightest and longest. The wind is strong in winter when less sunlight is available. Wind speeds are also low during the day when sunlight is strong, but increase after dark when the earth surface is cooler. Because the peak for wind flow and sunlight occur at different times of the day and year, wind energy and solar energy can compliment each other. A hybrid solar-wind power system can balance out the ever fluctuating solar and wind resources and is more likely to produce power when you need it".

When we designed our remote energy system we assumed NO energy would come into the system from the wind turbine as its reliability can be much less than with solar. Reading the above paragraph has been illuminating for us, and we feel that our decision to include a wind turbine augers well for the future of our power system. Based on the modelling done by Robert on a worst case basis, assuming peak power demand and low solar supply, during the month of June we might expect the generator to run for a total of 30 hours. It will take about one hour for the generator to re-charge the batteries when it does kick in.

This photo shows the cement mixer delivering approximately 1 cubic metre of concrete for the footing of the wind turbine / tower. There was some concrete left over and we used it to fill some of the holes in the concrete floor of the shearing shed.
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The blades of the turbine are approximately 1.8 metres in diameter. Here Jan is holding the blade assembly prior to it being affixed to the turbine itself.

I found it interesting that the turbine has the ability to stop turning in extreme conditions to prevent damage. It does this via an electromagnetic mechanism within the turbine; without any parts moving per se.

The design of the guyed tower is extremely ingenious. The concepts are simple, however I would not recommend anyone take on installing one like ours without first having seen one installed elsewhere. The tower is 13 metres tall. This photograph was taken immediately after the tower was in place. We all found it amazing that during the construction phase there was 'not a breath of wind' (perfect for what we were doing) but about 10 minutes later a heck of a breeze blew up. This allowed us to see how the turbine reacted and also to see via the control panel what the power output could get to (500 watts at that time).

Construction of the wind turbine did not finish until late in what was a long day. The wind gust gave us all a real sense of job satisfaction. This photo shows Robert and his team enjoying the experience. Those in the picture are from left to right: Damian (recently started with Robert as a 1st year apprentice. This was his first involvement in setting up a wind turbine), Sim (third year apprentice with Robert. Our remote power system was the first time Robert had put Sim in charge of an installation - under Robert's supervision when needed, of course), and Robert.

The observant readers will have noticed from the first photograph in this blog post that our new shed is basically 2 X 40' shipping containers with a (40') gap between them, all under a metal roof. Such a design was suggested to us by Jan's brother Tim. A bonus of using containers is that it is very easy to create rooms within each one. In our case we always intended having a room on the south to hold all of the controls and batteries for the power system. This photo shows the access point for the room ... accessible from inside the shed, with the door simply cut straight out of the side. We have more to do to ventilate it properly, but at this point in time 2 holes have been cut in the top of the container, over which we will install some whirly-bird vents. In the foreground you can see some of the trenching, ready for cabling to the shearing shed.

In the trench you can see is now two conduits: one for power to the shearing shed; and the other now containing telephone cabling. It is intended to install a modem in the control room which will allow for diagnostics to be carried out on the system via internet.

The battery bank is the 'heart and soul' of our remote power system. In all, there are 24 X 2 volt batteries creating a 48 volt storage system. Each battery weighs in excess of 65 kg, has no handle, and is difficult to handle. The (in excess of) 1500 kg of batteries store 1200 kilowatt hours of power. I think of this figure as basically sufficient to run 1,000 (1200 watt) vacuum cleaners for 1 hour. Here you can see some of the batteries being connected together. The batteries are 'gel' filled (rather than water) meaning they (should) last longer, require less maintenance and are less hazardous.

The technology involved in the overall system is substantial, and does require maintenance. We've a ways to go in getting up to speed with all the bits and pieces but do have an appreciation of the major components.

In this photograph you can see Robert preparing to install monitoring software on his laptop. Some of the batteries are visible in the lower right of the photo. On the wall, from left to right, is:
1. Inverter - converts the direct current (DC) from the batteries to alternating current (AC) making it in a form usable by various appliances. It also converts AC from the back-up generator to DC when supplemental battery recharging is appropriate.
2. Main cut-off switch and central wiring.
3. Wind turbine controller
4. Solar panel controller

The final photo shows the shed and system as it currently stands. The wind turbine is located immediately behind the shed, and is visible over the top of the shed if you look closely.

Some initial observations on the system at this point:
1. We think it will be 'just what we need' based on a whole bunch of factors
2. The wind turbine does make a 'whhissshhh' sound during strong winds. That said, this is offset by the noise of the wind in the trees near the house. The noise will not be a problem.
3. The tower does flex when the turbine is going. It is best that turbine be installed on their own towers rather than on fixed sheds etc. as the vibration can be noisy.
4. The controls do emit a low humming sound from cooling fans etc... not an issue at all for us given the distance of the shed from the house.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Sourcing Better Returns on Deposit Funds

The current interest rate outlook in Australia recently changed from downward / stable to upward as the economy recovers from the ‘Global Financial Crisis’. This scenario provides opportunities for banks and other financial services organisations to slow the growth of the increase in their cost of funds (interest paid out), generally by introducing new products that offer higher rates whilst leaving the rates on existing deposit accounts as they were. Thus in a rising interest rate environment those that have variable rate products should keep a close eye out for new products on offer from their bank or financial institution.

In our case we’ve been keeping the bulk of our cash savings / working capital in a NAB iSaver account. The interest rate given that the funds are at call were very competitive in the downward trending / stable rate environment, although accessing funds does entail transferring from the iSaver account to a transactional account via Internet Banking and then making the final transfer or payments from there. The NAB decided to take a slightly different approach in reducing its rate of growth of its cost of funds and introduced the concept of ‘introductory rates’ on new iSaver accounts. Old / pre-existing accounts thus continued to receive the old / lower rates. The current advertised rate for iSaver accounts is 4.65 % p.a. and the NAB website reads in part “Open a NAB iSaver on or before 12 January 2010 and you’ll receive a fixed bonus interest rate of 1.65% p.a. for 4 months, on top of the standard variable interest rate, currently 3.00% p.a.”

To further complicate things from a customer perspective it is not possible to ascertain the rate paid on one’s iSaver account via internet banking Account Inquiry as the relevant screen does not show the ‘account opened’ date or ‘actual rate being paid’. It just has a link to the ‘advertised rate’ screen on the main NAB website. To find out the rate the customer needs to ring the banker or alternatively calculate the rate of daily interest accrual by comparing interest accrued for one day to the next. NB: Check the amount accrued one day, and then log on again the next day and compare, and calculate the rate that must have been accruing based on the difference.

A good / smart banker is generally prepared on request to close off an old account and open a new one; enabling the customer to be paid the higher rate. In our case our banker did this for us when requested. Her replacement, however, was both lazy and short-sighted and refused to do the change-over – instructing us to call ‘at the local branch’ and ask them to do the work (for him). During our recent trip to Melbourne we called on a Branch Manager Phillip has known for many years. After ascertaining our goals she suggested we open an account with the NAB’s recently commissioned wholly own subsidiary, UBank. We’d not heard of this company but understand that it has been established to enable the NAB to compete with the likes of ING bank whilst continuing to pay lower rates to existing NAB customers (the second point is our own thinking).

We have now opened a USaver account at UBank and found the process painless. For anyone who is thinking of doing the same you will need to have on hand the following to make the process easier:
  • Mobile phone
  • Tax file number/s
  • Driver Licence, Passport and Medicare card
  • Email addresses (one for each person who will operate on the account/s)
  • A preferred ‘security question’ and answer e.g. what was the name of your first primary school teacher, or, what was your mother’s maiden name.

We are not, in writing this post, formally recommending or endorsing UBank to readers, simply sharing what our own experience and recent actions have been. Each reader needs to do his or her own research and make decisions based on what’s best for them.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Deformed Skeleton Weed Plants

In her last “From The Soil Up” newsletter Carolyn Ditchfield drew readers’ attention to the article “Divining the Secret of Deformed Roadkill” published recently in the online magazine, In short, Judy Hoy from Montana has been observing and recording genital malformations among roadkill for many years, and attributes the root cause to man-made chemicals.

The article reminded me of observations here on Ochre Arch where we have seen deformed Skeleton Weed plants. Here is a photo of one such plant taken in June of this year. I recall seeing plants like this when I was growing up and did not take any notice.
‘Cousin James’ visited Ochre Arch not long ago. He is of the view that the root cause of the deformed plants is man-made long-term residual chemicals such as DDT. I’ve not done any research to validate his comments but have no reason to doubt that it’s at least possible. It is now over 3 years since the paddock where the photograph was taken was cropped. The soil profile is not the best, with a hard pan evident at about 10-15 cm below the surface. Maybe this is where the residual chemical resides?

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Using Troughs to Water Stock on Ochre Arch

Since taking direct management responsibility for Ochre Arch we’ve had a bit of a dream run from a stock watering perspective. We’ve only had stock during the winter (growing season) months when the pasture has a high percentage of green grass and in all cases they’ve been sheep – which do not require water when the pasture is green and the ambient temperatures are low. The watering requirements are now more complex given we own our own stock which are at a point where they are more difficult to move off the place in case of need (recently lambed ewes), warmer weather is kicking in (drying off existing feed and higher temperatures increasing animal water requirements) and we have many paddocks that do not have water points (as a consequence of the fencing we did last year and the fact that we’ve yet to start installing our planned integrated on-farm stock water scheme).

We have decided to ‘get our hands well-and-truly-dirty’ (acquire direct and substantial experience) devoting time and effort through the rest of Spring, all of Summer and potentially a fair chunk of the coming Autumn installing temporary water points. With this as a back-drop we now have a good mobile fire-fighting pump and set-up, 3 ‘David Marsh designed’ portable water troughs and a sufficient quantity of lower cost 1 ½” rural polythene pipe and associated fittings that we hope will be see us through. There is also a reasonable amount of water in our dams (although we are very aware of likely evaporative losses and have reduced run-off due to higher vegetation cover), our stock numbers are reasonable in the context of available feed in the paddocks, and before too long it will also be easier for us to sell stock.

The key elements of the trough design are:
• Aluminium panelling for light weight and durability. The trough is strong enough to withstand a large animal (such as a cow) jumping into it.
• Overall length 4.15 metres, with 3.4 metres accessible to stock – quite long in the scheme of portable troughs allowing access for many animals
• Easily removable cover for the float, designed to ensure animals are not able to tamper with the float mechanism
• Steel ridges along the bottom of the trough at ground level and tow points at the top enabling it to be readily towed to the next location if desired
• 40 mm drain (with bath tub plug!) allowing rapid emptying.

The adjacent photo was taken on 9th September when we’d almost finished setting up the first trough in the Saddle Paddock. The last time the sheep grazed this paddock was 1-7 June and full plant recovery had occurred. Water was gravity fed via polythene pipe from the Yabby Dam. To kick off the flow we used the fire fighting pump and water in the tank at the trough to prime the pipe. This worked very effectively – off the back of a simple float on the end of the pipe where it went into the Yabby Dam. Flow into the trough was pretty good, given there was about 7 metres of head from the Yabby Dam water surface to the trough. You can see that herbage mass and ground cover was also good at the trough location. We did not want to have stock baring the ground too much as they used the trough. Distance from the dam to the trough is around 130 metres – less than the length of a full roll of 1½” polythene pipe.

The location of the trough was such that we could see it clearly from the Cottage using binoculars. For us this was fabulous as we also got the chance to see how the animals used the trough. Some of the observations included:
• Both the ewes and the larger lambs sourced water from the trough
• Each ewe lead the way to the trough, with their lamb/s at their side
• A small number / percentage of lambs did occasionally go to the trough unaccompanied
• At any one time the number of animals at the trough were up to 8 to 10
• There was never a ‘big rush’ (or certainly we never saw one) to the trough
• Time spent drinking was on average around 30 seconds for each animal. They’d walk up, drink, and walk away
• There was a constant flow of animals to and from the trough during the day
• We had no problems with the trough or float, and did check it closely each day.
• There was always adequate water available in the trough. The water in the Yabby Dam is not clear. Pat Coleby in her book, “Natural Farming – A Practical Guide”, states at one point that murky water is or can be a consequence of the soil being deficient in calcium.
• Some of the lambs had trouble reaching the water and moved along to a point where the distance to the water was the shortest. We did see one lamb jump into the trough to drink but it got a heck of a fright and jumped straight back out again.

The adjacent photograph shows the trough at the time the sheep were removed from the Saddle Paddock – after 10 full days of grazing – on 19th September. Observations:
• Whilst the area around the trough had been heavily trampled the soil had not been bared
• Some faint sheep tracks were evident – leading to the trough
• The herbage mass underneath the trough had not been eaten
• The Corkscrew Grass (part of the stipa native grass family) plant near the trough had not been eaten
• The sheep had urinated near the trough but there was not manure near the trough
• In the background are some lambs taking minerals from one of two small mineral troughs we’d made and left nearby.

We’d placed a ball valve and cam-lock on the end of the polythene pipe leading into the trough to allow for easy removal. At this point in time the pipe and ball valve have been left in the paddock for possible further use.

Prior to moving the sheep out of the Saddle Paddock we’d set up a new watering point (tank-based) in the Crater Paddock – visible in the accompanying photograph. Some of the features of this water point are:
• Source of water is Poppy’s Dam, located approximately 300 metres (2 lengths of polythene pipe) to the west in Poppy’s Paddock. The polythene pipe sits on the surface of the ground i.e. has not been dug into the soil.
• Water is being pumped from Poppy’s Dam to the water point using the fire-fighting pump. The dam is approximately 25 metres lower than the water point
• Water is being pumped into the top of a 4,500 litre (1,000 gallons) poly-tank adjacent to the trough. The trough is connected to the tank at the bottom via a 10 metre length of polythene pipe.
• Using the tank in the above way means that water heated by the sun in the long length of polythene pipe has the chance to cool in the tank prior to flowing into the trough. Also, it means that the pump is used efficiently – only to fill the tank when required (assessed manually).
• There is adequate pressure from the tank to (re) fill the trough in reasonable time. This is due to the amount of flow that comes from the short length of 1 ½ inch connecting polythene pipe.
• Ball valves have been placed at the exit point from the tank; and also at the end of the polythene pipe at the fire-fighting pump at the dam. Cam-locks have once again been used at appropriate places for ease of setting up and dismantling the water point
• The tank has been strategically placed at the top of a rise, from which it will also be possible for us to water 4 other / additional paddocks (via polythene pipe extensions and relocation of the trough) if need be: Hopbush, Amphitheatre, Quail and Yellow Box.
• Based on one of the observations in the Saddle Paddock we adjusted the trough so that when full the water level would be just below the top of the trough at the end away from the float. By so doing it will make it easier for lambs to access water.

After moving the trough from the Saddle Paddock to the Crater Paddock we moved the sheep and lambs, shepherding them around to where the trough was. See the accompanying photograph.

When we checked the sheep yesterday they had been in the Crater Paddock for a total of two days. The tank had emptied by 6 rungs (from 22 when full) and it took just under 15 minutes for the pump to refill the tank. From this we have calculated:
• 1 rung in the tank holds roughly 200 litres of water
• 1,200 litres had been used in 2 days, meaning daily consumption rate is currently 600 litres
• Pump flow rate is around 1.5 litres per second, meaning that the tank would take around 45 minutes to fill from scratch

Other comments and observations:
• We have 3 different brands of pipe fittings on hand and now appreciate the need to standardise to a single one
• Cam-locks do not seal well if there is side-ways pressure on the join

Monday, 31 August 2009

Observations: Sheep Move from Amphitheatre to Quail Paddock

On 27th August we decided it was time for the sheep to start moving into the Quail Paddock. There was still ample feed available but they’d been there since 19th August and we also felt it was time to give the plants recovery time prior to hot weather setting in. We opened the double gates in the south-east corner and left them to make their own way through. 6 mm of rain fell in the 24 hours to 9.00 am on 29th August. By mid afternoon on 29th August the mob had still not moved through the gates so we decided it was time to give them a helping hand. This blog post recounts various observations connected with and subsequent to the move.

Our approach in moving the mob (comprising ewes and lambs) was to take things slow and steady to ensure we did not place undue stress on any of the animals or leave lambs behind. For most of the way the ewes that had lambs stayed closely with their lambs. Smaller and weaker lambs took quite a while as they do like to sleep quite a bit. The older and stronger lambs (the first of the lambs were born on 12th August) seemed to have formed social groups of 10 to 20 and played together.

We’d noticed previously from a distance that one of the lambs seemed inordinately white. On close inspection we found that its coat was more hair than wool, presumably some type of reversion to the characteristics of a (possibly distant) ancestor. Another lamb has a black round marking of approximately 90 mm diameter on its back in between its shoulders.

In moving the mob we got to a point where a reasonable proportion of the ewes had entered the Quail Paddock and were spreading out, feeding enthusiastically on the fresh herbage mass in the paddock. Many had left their lambs behind, for the time being at least, and some of the lambs were running to and from the mineral trough located in the Amphitheatre Paddock - about 80 metres to the west of the gate we were trying to get them through. It was not clear whether they were going to the trough for minerals or for a drink of the water than had accumulated in the trough during the previous day’s rainfall. There were 4 ewes with very small lambs that were determined not to move with the mob, so a decision was taken to leave them and focus on getting all of the rest of the mob through the gate. The latter was due in no small part to the large number of ewes that had moved into the Quail Paddock and the large number of lambs that remained.

The rest of the move proved quite challenging due to several factors:
• Lambs had mobbed-up even more and were running enthusiastically in many directions
• Some of the lambs that had gone through the gate were running along on the other side of the fence – influencing those that had yet to go through the gate
• Some lambs were jumping through the hinge-joint fence – both ways
• Many continued to go back to the minerals troughs
• We suspect that some were trying to get back to the point were they had last seen their mothers, not understanding that those mothers were now in the Quail Paddock
• Our own lack of experience in herding lambs – they do not yet have behaviours as predictable as their mothers either.

It was dark by the time we had all of them (except the 4 ewes with lambs mentioned previously) through the gate. Chaos reigned supreme, with ewes looking for lambs and lambs looking for their mothers; all making plenty of noise. To assist in the reunion process we did go around all of the sheep and herd them back toward the gate where most of the lambs had congregated. Some of the lambs had lay down and gone to sleep, presumably to conserve energy. As there was nothing else we could do we returned home, and had a somewhat restless night wondering what the scene would be like in the morning.

On the morning of 30th August Phillip returned initially to the Amphitheatre Paddock and moved the 4 ewes with lambs individually into the Quail Paddock to rejoin the main mob. Fortunately none of these 4 ewes had lost any lambs that were with them the previous evening. During this process it became clear that one of the lambs Phillip had thought was a twin proved not to be – with the ewe pushing it away consistently, and tending to its own lamb. The rejected lamb continued to persistently try and drink from that ewe.

Whilst coming up over a rise in the Amphitheatre Paddock at one point Phillip disturbed a very large young Wedge-tailed Eagle. It was feeding on a recently dead or killed lamb carcass. The accompanying photograph shows the state of the carcass remains. There are many who are of the view that Wedge-tailed Eagles are aggressive takers of new lambs. We have no direct experience in this regard and at this point have chosen to think that they would focus on weaker animals that may not survive in any case. Interestingly, a Wikipedia article on Wedge tail Eagles states: “Their keen eyesight extends into the infrared and ultraviolet bands. This helps them spot prey and allows them to see rising thermals, which they can use to gain altitude while expending little energy.”
On approaching the main mob in the Quail Paddock it appeared that overnight all lambs had reunited with their mothers, and that there were no dead lambs or lambs on their own. Quite an achievement!

One ewe was dead, located against the northern fence near the entrance to the Spring Paddock but along the fence adjacent to the Arch Paddock. There was a big strong lamb attempting to suckle from it which ran away as the ewe was approached. On inspection of the ewe the following was evident:
• Proximity to (against it) the fence suggested that it may have been trying to get as far from the mob (separate due to illness) as possible or been trying to get into the Arch Paddock for something it wanted. NB: The plant species in the Quail Paddock are not that flash, being predominantly ‘weed’ species: Patterson’s Curse and Barley Grass. The Arch Paddock contains mainly native grasses and areas of exposed scorched earth (which may contain minerals). The Amphitheatre Paddock was far more diverse in species mix, being native grasses and many shrub and trees as well.
• It had been frothing at the mouth
• Skin colour was ‘poisonous looking’ (if there is such a thing), being pale, mauve, reddish through purple.
• The animal had been kicking its legs quite a bit whilst on its side prior to death
• The eye at the uppermost side of the head was clear and at that point had not been attacked by Ravens.
• Given that the animal had only come into the paddock the night before it looked as though it had died quite quickly.

The symptoms surrounding the death of the above sheep were materially different from the others that we’d lost since acquisition and were more alarming as it seemed the ailment might be evident in many others in the mob. Phillip contacted a neighbour and called around to borrow his two sheep disease publications: ‘Sheep Diseases’ by A Brightling published in 1988 and “Diseases of Livestock’ by T G Hungerford published in 1967. During discussions with this neighbour the following came to light:
• The neighbour Phillip saw and another adjacent one have both experienced unusually high ewe losses during this year’s lambing season.
• The main cause is thought to be magnesium deficiency in the pasture
• Older ewes are more susceptible to death when stressed than maiden ewes when lambing and raising lambs due to larger body weight, greater propensity for multiple births, and higher milk volume production – all placing more strain on the ewes when feed needs are not adequately met.
• Younger / maiden ewes, whilst arguably more susceptible to actually lambing difficulties, have more single lambs and have poorer mothering skills and instincts; meaning that they more readily abandon the lamb in the interest of self-preservation when under stress.

Jan studied the Sheep Diseases text with a particular emphasis on low magnesium caused ailments. This research suggested that the ewe probably died from Grass Tetany. The key symptoms and features connected with Grass Tetany are:
• Rapidly growing forage – we’d had 6 mm of rain which would have had a flushing impact on the green foliage in the Quail Paddock
• Animal under stress – the ewe was most likely separated from its lamb during the move and may have had extreme difficulty locating it
• Quick death
• Kicking legs
• Frothing at the mouth.

Fortunately the lick we have out for the ewes presently is designed to address magnesium and calcium deficiencies. A problem with licks, though, is that not all of the animals seek out and consume them.

Phillip is presently about half way through reading the book by Pat Coleby titled Natural Farming: A Practical Guide. This has made it very clear to us that the soils on our place on the arable paddocks (including the Quail Paddock) are really quite sick, evidenced by the high incidence of weed species, with deficiencies of both magnesium and calcium. All of the above suggests that we have a HUGE way to go in our endeavours to regenerate a large percentage of the soils on Ochre Arch.

The good news is that we think most of our ewes have in fact lambed, and the lambs do look healthy. Here is a photograph of just a few of the lambs.
Despite the fact that the lambs look good, we have decided to further increase the monitoring frequency of our mob of sheep.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Lambing Ewes – Observations So Far

The ewes we have currently on Ochre Arch began lambing in earnest on 12th August 2009, 11 days ago.

So far we have:

  • Lost 3 ewes prior to lambing, one in hindsight we may have been able to save by putting a splint on its broken leg.
  • Lost 2 ewes in the process of lambing. In both cases the lamb had died in the mother and the mother could not give birth. In one case we did came across the ewe before she died but could not get near her over a couple of days to help. With the other, the ewe died without us even knowing she was in trouble. The paddocks we have them lambing in provide excellent tree and shrub protection against the wind and rain, but a downside is that it is near-impossible to see all of the sheep in the mob.
  • Saved 2 ewes. In one case the lamb had died and was very difficult to ‘pull’, and in the other case the lamb lived, but curiously was the second of twins. Both twins lived as far as we know.
  • Picked up a very weak and apparently abandoned lamb, taking it home to poddy. Unfortunately it did not survive.
  • Observed probably about 15 or so lamb carcasses so far, with their deaths being for a variety or reasons. Most, if not all, we believe were either still-born or just not destined to survive.
  • Seen a mixture of single lambs through to in some cases triplets. At face value it looks like the overall lambing percentage and survival rates are pretty good. We won’t know the real story until lamb marking.
  • Observed Australian Ravens in amongst the mob. They seem focused on eating the after-birth and have ‘had a go’ at the lamb carcasses.
When the ewes are due to give birth they seem to deliberately distance themselves slightly on the perimeter of the mob. In the first paddock they were in (Poppy’s) those lambing were mostly on the highest elevation part of the paddock. While the new lambs are still ‘finding their feet’ for a day or two the recently lambed ewes do tend to be together, although spread out. Obviously, immediately after lambing the ewe and her lambs are less mobile and extreme care needs to be taken to try and not disturb them to ensure the mother does not abandon her lamb/s. Those that have not had lambs are both more densely mobbed and mobile, covering more area around the paddock. In the case of Poppy’s Paddock, they travelled to the lower sections and returned to the higher ground at night. Once the lambs have gathered strength after a couple of days they and their mothers rejoin the portion of the mob that has yet to lamb.

We’ve made minerals constantly available to the mob in two troughs. The mineral mix is an even (3-way) combination of ‘Medium Course Salt’ (Sodium Chloride), ‘Fine Limestone’ (calcium) and ‘Causmag’ (Magnesium Oxide). Some of the sheep are taking some minerals but the quantity being consumed is very low at present. We placed the troughs on the track (bare ground) just inside Poppy’s Paddock to begin with. In hindsight this was not the best place as we think it may have inhibited the sheep moving out of Poppy’s Paddock (see later).

After the sheep had been in Poppy’s Paddock for about 5 days we felt it would not hurt if they moved on voluntarily and progressively to the next (Amphitheatre) paddock. To avoid the risk of a rush through the gate with potential lamb abandonment we opened the gate when the mob were so far away from it that they did not see it occur. It transpired that none of the sheep either found the opened gate or went through it after 3 days. We ended up splitting the mob with as minimal disturbance as possible by walking through some thick timber that seemed to form a natural separation point. Once one half (vast majority were ewes yet to lamb or with more mature lambs at foot) of the sheep were in the next paddock we left them all alone. On return the next day we herded most of the balance through to be with the first lot. In doing so there were 4 or so lambs that looked as though they may have been abandoned. However we made the decision to leave them all just inside the ‘new’ paddock given we were confident their mothers were still alive and that it was possible those mothers would come back to get them. The next morning there were no abandoned lambs. It’s possible they were taken by predators, but who knows. It was on this next morning that we moved those few remaining ewes with new lambs to be in with the main mob. It was necessary to do this by individual ewe with accompanying lambs.

We don’t really know whether what’s occurring with rescues and losses and such like is good, bad, or otherwise. What we do know is that we are doing the best we can; balancing our desire to look closely at what’s occurring within the mob to identify problems early against the possible impact on lambs where the mothers might choose to abandon them in the event of being disturbed by our getting too close and looking.

Friday, 21 August 2009

History of our Earmarking Pliers

Earlier today we received our reconditioned sheep earmarking pliers in the mail from Hummelstad Earmarkers based at South Grafton. We decided to have this work done in readiness for lamb-marking – especially as the spring in the handle of the pliers was broken.

I rang Hummelstad Earmarkers to find out their account details so that I could pay the account and spoke to Tom; who happened to be the person who had done the work on the pliers. What follows is some of the information he passed on, which I thought was worth recording for future reference.

The process of reconditioning pliers entails:

  • Removing the centre pin from the two sections
  • Heating the metal to a temperature which removes the previous tempering (hardening)
  • Re-building and aligning the metal in the cutting section to a precision level where the pliers will cut paper (in the shape of the pliers)
  • Inserting (in our case) a new spring in the handle
  • Re-heating and tempering (hardening) the cutting section
  • Grinding and polishing the pliers

In reconditioning our pliers Tom noticed two specific aspects that caught his attention. Firstly, the initials ERH were stamped neatly and discretely near the inside of the hinge of the pliers. The initials were his great-grandfather’s, Eivan (pronounced Ivan) Raganvaldt Hummelstad. It was his practice to place his initials on all pliers he made, being very proud of his craftsmanship. Eivan emigrated to Australia from the Oslo region in Norway in approximately 1860 and in time established the Hummelstad Earmarkers business, which has remained in the family ever since. There is a region in Sweden known as Hummelstad, which may have been where the family first came from. Eivan died in approximately 1920, thus our pliers have to be at least 80 years old. Secondly, the pliers had “J P Cusack” prominently stamped on one of the handles. J P Cusack was the purchaser of the pliers at the time of manufacture. Mr Cusack was a farm produce merchant; a big man of Irish background who was a bully by nature. Eivan tolerated JP Cusack’s behaviour as he saw it as just a part of being in business.

What we don’t know is when, where and how my father originally came to own the pliers and thus where they may have been in the intervening period from the time J P Cusack first bought them from Eivan Hummelstad. Tom suggested that the volume of earmarking pliers sold to JP Cusack was such that they may have been owned by him for many years prior to purchase by the first person who started using them.

Hummelstad Earmarkers is currently owned and run by three brothers. In addition to making and servicing earmarking pliers they also manufacture brands: hot, freeze and oil based.

Monday, 17 August 2009

First Ewe Assisted in Lambing

Earlier today I received an email from a close relative who lives in Perth which read in part: “Glad to hear lambs are being dropped, have you had to deliver any as yet? I would like $10 for everyone I have back in the mid sixties.” My response read in part: “(Touch-wood) I’ve not had to deliver any lambs to this point. It may happen in time, but I think that the ewes are in just the right physical condition for lambing, coupled with the fact that, as I mentioned, this is their 4th time - with any that have not raised a lamb previously having been culled. We’ll see.”

Jan and I have been checking the lambing ewes regularly and, you guessed it, I spoke too soon in sending the above reply.

We saw a ewe not far from the mob but out on her own with the head of a lamb visibly protruding from her behind. She lay down and immediately a couple of Australian Ravens were focusing on her rear. Whilst we were quite a distance away it became clear that something was ‘just not right’ with the lambing process so we edged our way around to the other side of the paddock to were she was, trying to minimise the disturbance to the rest of the mob, most of which that were close to her were ewes with lambs at foot.

We ended up assisting in the birth, the process of which is termed locally ‘pulling the lamb’.

The main points / observations were:

  • It was not difficult for us to catch the ewe. She seemed quite prepared for us to come up to her slowly and only made a dash for it at the end. It was a relief that we caught her quickly as we don’t have dogs and wanted to minimse the disturbance.
  • The other ewes with lambs moved away, but not that far really, and watched from a safe distance.
  • It was immediately apparent that the lamb was dead. Its head and right foot were protruding and the Australian Ravens had inflicted some damage around the mouth area.
  • We lay the ewe on her side. It was much harder to pull the lamb than we’d expected.
  • On removal, the lamb was enormous. I think this was a factor of genetics as well as swelling from the ordeal.
  • The smell of the lamb was, shall we say, not pleasant.
  • Immediately post the removal the ewe lay there for several minutes, recovering from some level of shock I suspect. After that she stood up and wandered away gradually.
  • Only a few days ago my mother told me that my father had found rubber washing-up gloves very useful for assisting ewes with birthing. We were pleased to have heeded this advice given what we experienced.
  • Jan and I have agreed that we will replicate if need be what we did today. That is, I will ‘pull’ the lambs, and Jan will clean and disinfect the gloves.
  • I took the lamb away from the area and disposed of it in the adjacent paddock.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Keeping our Farming Business Simple

One of our goals is to keep our core agricultural activities as simple as possible. We define agriculture as the capture, packaging and marketing of sunlight/photosynthesis derived products. On Ochre Arch this is currently the business of growing grass which is directly accessed by livestock to produce progeny, meat or fibre.
To reduce the risk of stock poisoning we’ve been working on getting rid of the Oleander (Nerium oleander) shrubs just to the north of the cottage near where the original house. In this photograph you can see the results of a full day’s exertion, removing the branches and leaves.

An attempt was made to dig out the roots and base stems of one of the shrubs. To say this was a significant challenge would be a gross understatement as the base is akin to some species of Bamboo. In the digging process we uncovered the three bottles you can see in the following photograph.

The beer-bottle was manufactured in 1935, which lead us to think that maybe the Oleanders were planted then by the Bokeyar family. They purchased the farm at about that time.We then allowed the Oleanders to re-grow for a short period and applied a well-known Glyphosate based product; however before too long the re-growth was thicker than ever. Rather than hire or call in help in the form of a tractor or similar our latest approach has been to cover the remaining Oleander shrub with tarpaulin as you can see in this photograph. Eliminating solar energy flow to the leaves and reducing access to water should hopefully do the trick in at least killing the plants. In time it should also be easier to then remove the remaining stumps.

Over many years trees of various species have regenerated on the fence-lines. Whilst these do provide valuable habitat they also create additional cost and time wastage through damaging the fences. Examples include trees growing through the netting and around the wire, contact accelerates rusting, and branches and in time the trees themselves fall on the fence. Given that we are seeing and permitting tree regeneration in the paddocks themselves we’ve decided to progressively kill those trees that are on the actual fence-lines by either lopping or ring-barking. Here you can see one of the White Cypress Pine trees we’ve ring-barked.
What we found particularly curious about this tree was that it took in excess of 6 months before the tree showed any signs of being ring-barked. We’d expected the impact to be evident in just a few days.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Single Sheep Rejected by the Mob

On Friday 10th July we moved the sheep from the Valley Paddock to the Big Pine Paddock. Our approach is pretty standard now in that because the sheep are so good at mobbing-up we don’t bother going looking for strays. The Valley Paddock does, however, have a very dense thicket of White Cypress Pine; referred to by conservationists as an Invasive Native Species (INS) due to the prolific way in which it can regenerate in particular seasons and in response to fire.

On Monday 13th July we had some visitors and took them on a bit of a farm tour. Whilst showing them the sheep in the Big Pine Paddock we noticed a single sheep still in the Valley Paddock. This seemed most unusual given past experience. With sheep having very strong herding instincts, to the extent that they will fret on their own, we decided to move the single sheep from the Valley Paddock in with the rest of the mob. Whilst doing so we all noticed that the behaviour of this single animal was unusual: it tripped at one point, allowed me to walk right up behind it and touch its back, and when we had it in the Big Pine Paddock it seemed like it just didn’t want to be there and went over and lent against the fence and started shaking. Another observation was that it seemed to have a small amount of wool near the front of its left shoulder that had been pulled, and we assumed that a fox may have had a bit of a go at it.

In the interest of getting the animal settled as quickly as possible we went and herded the mob of sheep from where they were at the southern end of the paddock to where the single sheep now was. As the mob approached the single animal (that as little as 3 days ago was a part of the mob) none of the main mob would go within 3 metres of the single animal, with the sheep closest to the single animal standing around it in a circle and ‘baaing’ at it as if to say ‘stay well away from us’.

As luck would have it one of our visitors was our niece, Kim, who just happens to be studying Veterinary Science. She is in her 4th year of study, although she had not yet completed the sheep module which she was due to commence in the up-coming semester. We decided to catch the single sheep and see if there was anything else noticeably wrong with it. Given the earlier ‘tripping’ event Kim went through a process of checking the eyes, ears and mouth looking to see any discolouring which may indicate a neurological (nervous system) problem. All clear. It was then that we noticed on the left shoulder an abscess that had been filled with a yellow-green puss-like substance and had just burst. This was where the loose wool had appeared previously. Further inspection brought to light a similar / mirror abscess on the other shoulder. Kim drained this carefully using what we could find on hand from the medical kit we keep in the car – specifically a safety pin and some surgical scissors.

The accompanying photograph gives an insight into what the abscess looked like as part of Kim applying her surgical skills.

We left the sheep where it was and returned to the house as it was late and getting dark. Kim checked out a website used widely by Veterinarians and it seemed that the single sheep most likely had what’s commonly called ‘Cheesy Gland’. That being the case I decided it was best to return to the sheep the next day and kill it to eliminate further suffering and to protect the rest of the mob from potential further spreading of the disease. When I returned to the single sheep early on the morning of the 14th July nature had taken its own course and the animal had died overnight.

Subsequent to the above we have learned several more things. The local fellow who helped us with renovating the cottage was a shearer for 37 years and refers to the abscesses as ‘Yolk Boils’. They occur normally in sheep mobs at the frequency of roughly 1 in 1,000 and are pretty messy to have to deal with when shearing and (when not noticed) the hand-piece cuts through them. Under normal circumstances the sheep are left in with the mob and recover. Another local believes they can be a natural response to vaccinations, which makes sense given we’d vaccinated them not long before-hand. I also spoke with the local Veterinarian based out of the Lachlan Health and Pest Authority. She recommended that we closely monitor the rest of the mob and to let her know if there was any reoccurrence. So far so good! Another person we know commented that sheep tend to ‘separate’ from the mob for one of two reasons: when lambing, and when sick. This is quite natural, it seems.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

MLA Levies Survey 2008-09

Yesterday in the post we received a heap of guff from Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) titled ‘Levies Notice 2008-09’. I’m now at a stage of my life where I’m ‘over’ sitting down and poring through bucket-loads of literature I’m not familiar with and have not asked for, especially when the crowd that sends the guff to me have a 1800 number that I can call. Accessing the help centre saves my time and enables me to quickly get to the point of what I’m expected to do and what happens if I opt to do nothing.

We signed up as members of MLA a year or two ago. We did this as part of accessing National Vendor Declaration booklets. Completing and making available these declarations are the primary mechanism for complying with legislation - providing (quality) assurance to purchasers of any livestock we sell in respect of, for example, how long it has been since we may have applied some form or other of chemicals onto or into our stock for health reasons. The ‘buzz words’ are ‘Withholding Periods’; that is, we have to (with) hold the stock on the property for varying periods (depending on the treatments) prior to selling or transporting them to ensure that any animals (including we humans) who end up eating the meat and by-products are not adversely impacted. In my view this is a very valid and necessary process.

Until this last correspondence yesterday I have had two additional periods of time when I’ve looked into MLA. The first was seeing what free publications and services they offer. From this I now receive an emailed glossy newsletter at the end of each week which tells me what’s happening in the livestock marketing scene in Australia. The second was reading material inviting members with ‘voting rights’ to cast a vote for directors as part of the annual process. In reading this material it was illuminating to see that the MLA Board has in place a mechanism that allows it to filter out any possible Board nominees that might have ‘radical’ and different views to those who are already on the Board (my interpretation, not theirs). Both nominees for the vacant Board positions at that time were large feedlot operators. The overall composition of the Board is ‘the big guys’ in the industry.

In the material received yesterday the instruction line near the top of the ‘Levies Notice 2008-09’ reads “To secure your full voting entitlements: Complete * Sign * Return by 6 October”. The information requested is basically figures on how many animals of varying types we’d sold during the period 1/7/2008 to 30/6/2009 together with the $ value of ‘transaction levies’ paid. A supporting document gave a summary of the nature and amount of levies that are charged when stock are sold through selling agents. With sheep the breakdown of levies is:
  • MLA (R&D) - 0.77 % of sale price
  • MLA (Marketing) – 0.87 % of sales price
  • Animal Health Australia – 0.18 % of sale price (See The company profile states “Animal Health Australia (AHA) is a not-for-profit public company established by the Australian, state and territory governments and major national livestock industry organisations. The company's mission is to ensure that the national animal health system delivers a competitive advantage and preferred market access for Australia's livestock industries.” And “There are 8 major programs managed by the company: 1. Animal Disease Surveillance. 2. Emergency Animal Disease Preparedness 3. Animal Health Services 4. Disease Risk Mitigation 5. Livestock Welfare 6. Training 7. Communications and Information Management 8. Corporate Activities.”
  • National Residue Survey – 0.11 % of sale price. See This is run by the Federal Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Quoting from their website: “NRS monitors residues of agricultural and veterinary chemicals and environmental contaminants in Australian food commodities”
  • Total levies – 2 % of sale price.

I rang one of the 1800 numbers in the literature to find out what I was being asked to do and what the implication were if I did nothing. Basically what I’d received was a survey which would form the basis of how much ‘power’ I’d have in voting on MLA matters. The greater the levies paid when selling stock the more votes we get. This is another way in which the ‘big boys’ get to continue to go along their merry way without fear of small players making any noise. Whilst good for them it does suggest that MLA is most likely a dull and staid entity that does not need to do much other than care for the interests of the big players. By not completing and submitting the ‘Levies Notice’ it simply means I’m unable to vote. Given we are small players anyway there is no point in taking further action so I’ve filed the material received yesterday in the WPB.

One observation that comes to mind from the above is understanding why there is a fairly active market in selling outside the saleyard and agent system.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

White Basket Fungus Find

On 3rd July 2009 Jan and I were in the process of moving our sheep out of the White Box Paddock. I took the route around the perimeter of the paddock in the process of trying to locate the animals. Not far from the north-west corner I came across one of the most bazaar looking naturally formed (as it’s turned out) fungus structures imaginable, evident in the attached photograph.

You can see the 9-holed softball sized ‘cage’, and the base is evident in the top right just above the case. The base and the cage were separated when I came across the whole thing, and when I broke one of the links in the frame the cross section was honeycombed internally.

A friend of mine, Jacqui Stol, from CSIRO had previously assisted us in identifying what was called a ‘Slime Mould” from a photo I’d included in a previous edition of Ochre Archives. With this as a background I sent her a copy of the above photo and asked if she could assist with identifying this latest find.

Courtesy of Jacqui sending on my email I've subsequently received an email from Jim Trappe , an Oregon State University mycologist who is currently a visiting scientist with CSIRO and a colleague of Jacqui’s.

Here is a slightly edited copy of Jim’s email:

“You are right. It is a fungus in the stinkhorn group, Ileodictyon gracile (I use that name, although that species usually has about twice as many holes as your specimen…yours could be a related species but new to science). One common name is the White Basket fungus. I think of it as the Whiffle Ball fungus.

It forms belowground in a truffle-like form in which it becomes fully formed but tightly compressed. When it reaches maturity, it takes up water and its cells swell, creating great tension within its relatively tough covering skin. The slightest jar will cause it to expand instantly. More than once I've been startled by having it leap out at me like some huge, jumping spider when it reaches that stage.

The honeycomb structure enables it to expand far more at less need to build tissue than if it were solid.

Its spores are formed in the inner surfaces of the "basket." They are suspended in a foul smelling sticky fluid, which attracts flies. The flies get the sticky spore suspension on their feet and carry the spores as they then fly around.

The web has a number of articles about it, just Google the name.”

Prompted by Jim’s final comment my web-search brought to light the following article which gives even more detail: What’s now clear is that our find was just a tiny specimen, really.

Jim has kindly granted permission for me to post this blog article. My sincere thanks go to both Jim and Jacqui for their wonderful help. Given his comment that what we found could be a 'related species new to science' we've agreed to see if we can find another and send it to Jim for identification.

In closing I’ll share another comment from Jim’s email which is spot-on: “As the saying goes, ‘Ain't Nature grand!’”.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Property Identification Codes Information

Some time ago we obtained via application to the local Livestock Health and Pest Authority (at that time it was known as the Forbes Rural Lands Protection Board) a Property Identification Code (PIC) for Ochre Arch. This was done in the context of compliance legislation essentially designed to give protection to the end consumers of agricultural products.

Background to Property Identification Codes

To quote from the NSW Department of Primary Industries website:

“In NSW a Property Identification Code (PIC) is assigned by Livestock Health & Pest Authorities for the purpose of identifying land used for agricultural purposes. Livestock Health & Pest Authorities also maintain PIC registers which keep information related to PICs up to date. Producers usually pay a fee for this service, or the service is covered by the rates paid by the producer.

Normally each property has its own PIC; however, one PIC may be used for more than one property provided the properties are used for a common purpose and are proximate.

PICs are fundamental to the operation and integrity of the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) for cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. The PIC provides traceability to specific properties. Every livestock producer should have a PIC because:

  • the PIC is printed on approved livestock identifiers;
  • the PICs are recorded with every cattle movement;
  • the PIC is recorded on stock movement documents;
  • a PIC is required for industry quality assurance programs, e.g. Livestock Production Assurance (LPA) & Australian Pork Industry Quality (APIQ) programs;
  • an National Vendor Declaration (NVD) or PigPass is required for each consignment of slaughter stock.

Property Identification Code Formats

The identification code format comprises eight characters. The first two characters are letters and the last six characters are numbers.

With PICs for properties/holdings, travelling stock reserves, public land and public roads the:

  • 1st character: State code. The default state code is ‘N’ (for NSW).
  • 2nd character: Check letter, between A and K. The check digit is calculated according to an algorithm, allowing computer programs to automatically check whether the data entry is correct and the code is valid.
  • 3rd and 4th characters: District number. This number identifies the Rural Lands Protection District in which the property principally lies.
  • 5th to 8th characters: Property number, assigned in sequential order from ‘0001’ to ‘9999’.”
Compliance requirements for meat exported to Europe
To quote from our latest Lachlan Livestock Health and Pest Authority newsletter:
"Half way through last year a small group arrived in Australia from Europe". They were Eurpoean Community auditors and "their purpose was to check the standards of our compliance with sheep identification. The Eurpoeans insist that we are able to trace every sheep from the point where the carcase commences breakup, back to the last property that this sheep came from."