Sunday, 20 November 2011

Tallabung Mountain Telstra Tower Outage

First thing on Thursday morning 17/11/2011 we noticed we had no signal for our wireless internet connection or mobile phones. This is not unusual as on occasions Telstra carries out maintenance activities. By lunch time there was still no signal so we decided to call the Telstra technical support number to resolve the issue. After selecting various options on the automated voice response we were put through to a consultant, who it turns out is based in the Philippines. He carried out some searches which suggested there were no problems with any of the communication towers in our area and proceeded to get us to de-install and re-install the software on our PC for our BigPond wireless connection.

During the reinstallation process the phone cut out and we were basically left in ‘no-mans land’. On calling back the technical support unit we were put through to a representative of the ‘Customer Excellence’ team (still in the Philippines) given that our service problem had not been resolved on the first call. It was at this point we were basically told that we were at fault because we did not still have the original installation CD from when we bought our USB modem and set up the internet plan. We were also informed that the software could be downloaded from the internet; but obviously this was not acceptable to us as we no longer had internet access! The option put to us was to ring the Young Telstra franchise store to see if they had a copy of the software. We did this and were told that they had received about 25 recent calls from customers located west of Grenfell through to around Temora suggesting that one of the Telstra towers was experiencing an outage, and that they did not have a copy of the software but have a consultant who comes into the store on Wednesday afternoons who might be able to assist with re-installing the software.

We put another call into the Telstra technical support team and ended up speaking with a different member of the ‘Customer Excellence’ team. They had been incorrect in telling us that that there were no outages with any towers and they had also misled us by getting us to de-install the software from our PC. Off the back of this we sought approval to contact the consultant that goes to the Young Telstra store and get him to re-install the software, with Telstra to pick up the tab for the cost. On the cost side we explained that we would be prepared to travel to the consultant at our own expense, and thus they would only be up for the cost of the consultant’s time. Our suggestion and the background to it was communicated to the Telstra ‘complaints’ unit, with us being given a complaints reference number, a phone number for the complaints team and told that the matter had been logged as urgent and that we might get a call within 24 hours. The consultant also told us that he had arranged for a copy of the software we needed to be posted to us and that it might reach us in 5 working days.

To us connection with the internet is important as aside from personal use it is also handy for our farm and consulting activities. We were not prepared to wait indefinitely for a telephone call from the Telstra complaints team so rang them first thing Friday 18/11/2011. The case manager assigned to us read the background from their case management system and we also explained what had happened. Her initial stance was that Telstra would not pay for the consultant’s time, that the only option was for us to wait until we received the software CD, and that Telstra does not have any technical support people that do face to face work (all of them can only be accessed by phone). She put a call in to the Telstra technical area and was told that there were no outages in our area. We put it to her that she was thus basically saying that the person we’d spoken to at the Young Telstra store the day before was a liar, and asked her to call him. She did this and we were pleased that from that point on she was no longer implying we were lying and insisting that the problem was not at their end.

Telstra has an internal database called something like ‘Network Wellbeing’. From this customer service staff can do searches to indentify reported problems with communication towers and the like. After quite a bit of searching our complaints case manager found that the Tallabung Mountain Telstra Tower had been experiencing an ‘outage’ since late on 16/11/2011. We can see this mountain from our verandah, happen to know it is located about 30 km in a direct line, were aware that it had communication towers on it but believed they were owned by Optus and Vodafone. . Until that point in time we did not know that Telstra also had a tower on it and that it was the source of our Telstra wireless and mobile signals. We finished the call with our complaints case manager with agreement that they would waive a full month of our total telecommunications fees and call us every two days until we had connection installed, and that we would try and access the consultant who works out of the Young Telstra store at our own expense.

We called the Grenfell Internet Centre and were pleased to learn that they were willing and most likely able to get our PC software issue resolved. Later in the day we took the PC to them and it was up and running within about an hour. By yesterday morning our signal was back up and running i.e. we were ‘back on the air’.

The key lessons others might like to consider taking from our experience are:
1. Get to know your signal origin tower name. This information can be found on most mobile phone bills. It is from this that you will be able to give sufficient information to the telecommunications provider when something goes amiss. We'd have saved ourselves a lot of angst had we known this when we first called for help.
2. Be wary of the advice that comes from the technology support team.
3. If asked to de-install software first check to see if you still have the original installation CD on hand
4. Don’t be bull-dozed by the complaints case managers and stay focused and determined in dealing with them. They do have authority if pressed to at least temporarily waive plan fees to help compensate you for the run-around where errors do occur. They are performance assessed based on complaints closed at minimal cost and our experience suggests that the culture, policy and processes centre on not believing what complainants say.

Having made the last point above we are not suggesting that Telstra’s staff are unskilled or unhelpful. All those we dealt with tried to help. It’s just that there are massive disconnects in their spatial knowledge about rural areas. By way of example, the bloke we spoke to first in the Philippines mentioned at one point that he’d never come to Australia ‘because it’s too cold’.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Shearing 2011

The main shearing for 2011 on Ochre Arch was completed Monday through Wednesday of this week. Once again Heathcote Shearing Contractors provided the team of workers, with our role being primarily to have the sheep ready each day. We also help out in the shed and are available to assist as and when appropriate.

This year we decided to have ALL of the sheep (ewes, lambs, ewe hoggets and rams) shorn during the period given:

  • Experience last year with some lamb losses due to the impact of seed burden from the native Corkscrew Grass. These plants are currently seeding. This year we are managing the grazing plan differently to (hopefully) avoid a repeat and have been assured by many that shearing the lambs (not done at this time last year) will help.
  • Forecast for a relatively wet summer (although not as wet as lat year) which can mean ideal fly strike conditions. Having the wool short should help. That said, our sheep have been bred to minimise the risk of fly strike - plain bodied (less wrinkles to trap moisture) and more 'open' wool (able to dry out faster after rain)
  • Shearing the lot at once means that all the animals are aligned and we thus minimise the number of times  we have to arrange for shearing each year - hopefully to just the once. We do have them crutched on a needs basis.
Our shearing this year was more complex because of the constant threat of rain and our desire to make sure that lambs were not away from their mothers for more than 24 hours at a time - much easier said than done, but preferred given the lambs are not yet weaned i.e. they are still sourcing milk from their mothers.

On Sunday we drafted off sufficient ewes for a full days shearing and shedded them overnight - with some in the shearing shed and the balance in the solar shed which we'd fenced on a temporary basis specifically for this purpose. We are pleased to know that we can now shed enough sheep for a full day's shearing. Here you can see some of the ewes in the solar shed.
The team of workers for Monday comprised Howard (wool classer - lives locally), Nicole (roustabout - from Germany currently 2 months into a 12 month working holiday), Belle (trainee roustabout - originally from Gilgandra), Eddie (shearer - based at Dubbo and originally from New Zealand) and Tim (shearer - lives locally). In the following photo you can see from left to right: Tim, Eddie, Howard, Belle and Nicole.

On Tuesday Tim was replaced by another local shearer, Michael.

For Belle, Monday was only the second day she'd been in a shearing shed or near sheep with the first having been on Sunday when she spent half a day helping by sweeping the board for the shearers. Sheds like ours are ideal for learners as the pace is less hectic. We quite like the idea of having learners on our place as there is a great need for more people in the shearing industry and they have to learn somewhere. The new skill Belle worked on acquiring during Monday was how to 'throw' a fleece onto the wool table. This is not at all easy and we gave her full credit for trying hard, staying focused and willingly seeking coaching all day. Here is a photo of one of her early attempts. One of the trickiest aspects is to hold the fleece together and get the whole thing onto the table. In this shot the neck area didn't quite clear the edge of the table ... but almost!
A critical part of the shed work is preparing the wool for sale. The wool classer is the key player in this respect. That said, we are also fortunate in that our wool broker (Rowan from Jemalong Wool at Forbes) takes a very active role as well and comes out to see the condition of the wool on the first day of shearing and to give guidance to the wool classer where appropriate. If the wool is classed the way the buyers like it then this does translate into a better price for us. Here you can see both Howard and Rowan skirting one of the fleeces on the wool table whilst discussing what the wool was like and agreeing the classing criteria. Not all wool classers are open to suggestions from wool brokers - no problems at all with Howard though, who takes considerable care and attention in performing his role. 

In this photo you can see some of the shorn sheep waiting to be returned to the paddock as well as some of those who were soon to enter the shed. Quite a contrast!

In days gone by it was the role of the farmer to have available equipment in the shed enabling the nominated 'expert' or in some cases the shearers to sharpen the combs and cutters used in the hand pieces. Times have changed and it is now the case (there are some exceptions) that all shearers have their own grinders, with most sharpening taking place after hours. Eddie asked if it would be OK if he set up his grinder in the shed and did the sharpening during lunch. Fine by us. Here's a photo of him 'in action' on the sharpening. We hope that he doesn't one day learn the hard way the benefit of wearing safety glasses!

In the interest of work efficiency the wool classer has to quite early on determine the type of wool that is to become the 'main line'. It is these fleeces that go directly into the wool press to avoid double handling. The remaining lines are stored in 'bins' until either there is enough stored in one to create a complete bale or the end of the shearing. The following photo was taken at around 9.00 am on day 2 (Tuesday) and shows what by that point had been stored in the bins.

We hire our woolpress and this year sourced one from Young Shearing Supplies and Woolpress Hire. All went well in this regard.

The ewe hoggets were shorn after the ewes. It was then on to the lambs. Whilst our lambing percentage was down on prior years we are very pleased with the growth and condition of the lambs we do have. Here you can see a group of them in the yards just after we drafted them from their mothers.
Only a few of the lambs were shorn on Tuesday. Thus almost all of Wednesday was devoted to lamb shearing. It was not necessary due to the shortness of the lambs wool to have a wool classer at hand and the roustabout workload was also much less. Thus the team on Wednesday was just Michael, Eddie and Belle with us taking the main role in penning up the lambs. Shearing the lambs makes them look like 'real sheep'. Here's some post shearing.

Earlier this year we changed ram supplier. Some of the rams have genetics from the Konsortium Merino group in South Africa. One of our ewe lambs for some reason stands out as having something special about her - assessed in terms of growth rate, wool growth, absolutely no wrinkles and fine features. She was the only one to have grown sufficient wool within a maximum of 10 weeks such that the fleece could potentially have been thrown onto the table. At marking about a month ago she literally hurdled two fences in the sheep yards and we at that time named her 'Springbok' reflecting the country of her genetics. Given Belle is still a bit anxious about sheep having not worked with them we caught Springbok and got her to hold her for a while. Thus this photo:

After the lambs were shorn it was then time for the rams. You can see in this photo that the are very substantial animals with horns to match. We had hoped to trim the horns but decided to defer this for the time being.

Arrangements are in place to have the wool bales collected this coming week and most of it will be sold at auction shortly thereafter.

Our remote power supply system once again handled the power demands of the shearing effort. It was overcast on Monday and Tuesday which did mean that the diesel generator kicked in late Tuesday. This did create a tad more 'excitement' than we'd planned. We had the lambs penned up in the solar shed at the time. They were spooked by the noise and all rushed into the temporary fence breaking the wire. By the time we got to them about half had escaped and we ended up placing those that had escaped in the shearing shed. Such is life! Being on remote power does at times have its advantages. On Monday due to a lightning strike a fair chunk of New South Wales was blacked out during the day ... including our area ... and we motored on totally unaffected.

In closing ... a big thank you goes to Jan's sister Ros who was a great help with the sheep work in the paddock.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Preparing for Shearing 2011

This year we decided to 'bite the bullet' and finally fix the concrete floor in the shearing shed prior to shearing.
It proved a fairly labour intensive activity.

The first step was to remove the old concrete floor. It turns out that the original construction method was basically:

  • Create a layer of sand
  • Bring in rocks, presumably from off the farm somewhere, and set them up so that the tops were reasonably level
  • Fill the gaps between the rocks with more sand, creating a relatively level surface
  • Pour a layer of concrete on top and level off as best as they could
From what we could see the old concrete most likely had no cement mixed into it and was more like a mortar. It certainly was not reinforced in any way. Whilst we did borrow a jackhammer to help break up the old surface it proved a bit of over-kill in that the old material shattered making it time consuming to move out of the shed. We ended up cracking the old surface with a crowbar and moved the material in pieces.

A big question was 'What to do with the old material'? The answer ... something useful without carting it too far away. It turns out there's a deep hole in one of the creeks not far from the house that continues to get bigger each time we have a major fall of rain. The 'fill' is clean and comprises the concrete and some of the rocks. Here you can see us off-loading some of the stuff from our trailer. With luck the hole in the creek will now no longer get any bigger.

The following photograph is a progress shot in getting the surface ready for the blokes who we selected to lay the replacement concrete. Basically we re-used most of the rocks but buried them in the old sand. On the right side of the picture you can just see the level sand surface. As the new concrete was to be 100 mm thick we used several pieces of baling twine to act as the leveling guides together with a piece of timber that was 100 mm wide, dragging the latter across the surface to finish it off.

All in all it took us a day to remove the old surface and two days to level the sand.

Next step was for the professional concrete company (Makcrete Concrete Services in Grenfell ... they were excellent) to prepare the level surface prior to the concrete pour. Here you can see the result, with the plastic layer in place overlaid with the steel reinforcing. Nice job!

Then it was time for the concrete pour, and here's an action progress shot.
The chute from the concrete truck is visible in the foreground. In the background you can see Justin and Matt flat-chat moving the slurry into place quickly before it set. One thing about concreters ... they certainly earn their money at this point!

Once all of the concrete was roughly in place and fairly level Matt uses a 'bull float' to do the initial final level (if that makes sense). Here he is in action:

Over the next couple of hours as the concrete cures an automated trowel (AKA helicopter or whirly bird) is used. It serves to properly level the surface, force the gravel under the surface and create a proper surface prior to drying. Here's a link to a short video of the machine (guided by Justin) in action: 

After 3 days the new concrete was ready for use. Here's a shot of the final product. Perfect!

The other major non-routine task getting the shed ready was repairing the roof on the skillion on the western side. When originally constructed second hand iron was used. Thus there were plenty of holes to fill in using silicon, and it also proved necessary to replace a whole bunch of nails and screws. Another aspect was that a year or so ago the flashing that covered the gap between the main section of the roof and the skillion blew off in a very strong wind storm and needed replacing. The question was: "How to do this cheaply, effectively and in a way that continued to allow light into the shed"? The answer took a long time to come up with but was very simple in concept: take one piece of poly-carbonate, cut lengthwise into 4 equi-strips, and install using specially designed screws used solely on poly-carbonate sheeting. In this photo you can see the final product.
During the shearing earlier this week (further blog to come) the poly-carbonate solution proved to be just what we needed ... especially given that it rained a few times.