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Grooming and mating

No, not grooming for mating, two separate events.

A big, exciting project which has been going on here in Harcourt is the grooming of the picnic gully block. Katie and Hugh bought the 5ha block a few years back, which unfortunately from a grazing perspective, was way over our heads in gorse, briar rose, wild plums and black berries. As Oli’s dad said, great property for goats!

To see the ground we’re working with Katie and Hugh got in David with his groomer. A mother of a machine, we watched him reduced 2m shrub to a beautiful ground mulch with just two passes.

There are many opinions on how to manage these plants and their regrowth. Many have tried, many have failed, different combinations at different times. One thing I know is that these plants are colonisers,; full of minerals and organic matter which we need so desperately on our soils here. A friend who’d done many experiments managing gorse said it doesn’t matter what you do, if you have the grazing pressure of wallabies, nothing will ever get ahead to out compete the gorse.

So with years of work ahead we are taking the path of managed grazing. We’ve been busy hand broadcasting seed, many perennials, hoping they will take advantage of the coming Spring and the rich organic matter which is currently decomposing. Once established, we will use the cows to strip graze, followed directly by slashing any regrowth the cows missed.

Next winter we are hoping to get a large tree belt planted down the gully. This will help to stop erosion while taking advantage of any moisture to grow more tree fodder for our ladies.

The second major event that is happening is the breeding of our herd. This was going to be a simple trailer trip to the bull and 9 months later hey presto, calf. Not so, we’ve had a few unsuccessful dates with the bull and the embarrassing problem of not being able to catch Olive when she was on heat. However, another story of a ridiculously generous farmer; our patient neighbour has visited for AI and is now teaching me how to do it. This is certainly not as easy as he makes it look! I plan to always use natural mating where I can,  but the convenience and genetic options of AI has it’s advantages.

As spring has sprung I eagerly watch as the grass grows and the days warm up.

 

Construction takes time

Now that the milk is flowing, we’ve been busy trying to get the creamery up and running. Then we can get licensed to start selling and sharing this beautiful milk!

We started off with a bare bit of land next to the existing packing shed. The main issue with the site being the large granite bolder. However, this is not a problem for us as we want the factory raised so we can access all the plumbing! Thanks to Phil and his trusty plumbers excavator, we got the site cleared up and ready for the container to be delivered. We learnt that all granite is not created equal!

After a day trekking through container yards in Melbourne we found our perfect factory. Refrigerated containers; Reefers, are not so easy to come by these days, particularly ones which aren’t being decommissioned because of the extensive damage by forklifts, so when we found this one it was an easy decision. Easy was not the word I’d use for getting it delivered and in place though. I think the truck drivers words went something like ‘it can’t be done, where else can I put it’, but we persisted.

We then had a big blue box, which very quickly become home to all the tools and equipment we needed up at Harcourt. We had Morgan connect the power and then there was light!

With the skilled and daring team of Dave, Christian, Jacques and Rowan, Oli set to constructing the roof over the container. While we currently dread the idea of it, the design of the factory is to be portable. If for one reason or another we are to move the business to another property, the whole thing can be disassembled and come with us. Avoiding being locked into costly, permanent infrastructure and the need to buy land is at the core of this business model.

We purchased second hand trusses which had come off industrial greenhouses which took a special kind of engineering to erect.

However getting the pre-rolled 8.5m long sheets of tin on was testing on minds and bodies.

Building an airplane hanger? you say. No, this is our stylish shed. Providing protection for our equipment and container as well as a large amounts of storage space.

At last Rowan and Oli installed the windows and cleared the deck ready to lay the floor. No longer a daunting big box. It already feels like a factory with a view.

As I will say time and time again, none of this would be possible without all overwhelming hours of work and support which people have given us. My partner Oli in particular has had his life hijacked by this project. He is the building/engineer extraordinaire. At least there’s good food, good views, good people and spectacular cows to keep him coming to work!

And of course, my lovely ladies! We’ve had nervous times experimenting with them grazing in the orchard. Olive took a trip to the bull (what a way to spend a Sunday afternoon). Daisy, who was meant to be pregnant told us loud and clear that she’s not. The calves get bigger by the day and the worry about feed security  in the current and future season is a constant on the mind.

 

Finding a rhythm

Well, following the euphoric first few weeks of life post Iggy’s birth; the milks flowing and the calves are playing, the systems you’d assumed would work start showing cracks.

Farmings all about learning. Planning is important, but being adaptable is critical. Changes need to happen fast.

A few weeks in I had a few down days, things just didn’t seem to being going quite how I’d planned. It was wet and miserable, the calves had bad guts from drinking to much milk and the feed outlook wasn’t looking great.

Being feed secure is one of the greatest problems livestock farmers face and at the end of the day is often what makes it a slightly profitable career or a black hole to sink your money and time into. I have lots of great long term ideas for securing feed within the farming system, however many of those plans take time. We’re currently in a very rough season, the rains came too late to get much Autumn growth in the paddocks. I have the benefit of being on land which has only been kangaroo grazed for the past decade so I have more feed available than most, but planning ahead is key. A wise farmer told me if you don’t have a months worth of grass in front of you, panic! Currently I’m looking ok but staying on top of your rotational grazing plan is crucial.

I’ve been only one week ahead of my self with fencing, finding a middle ground between portable electric fencing and permanent fencing. The kangaroos run straight through and knock over the former while the latter is costly, both in labour and financial terms, and leaves little room to change the shape of paddocks later.

Keeping the herd moving so as to leave no bare ground behind is very important to me. Overgrazing and leaving exposed ground has been a major contributor to Australia’s soil carbon dropping by up to half pre-colonial Australian levels. Soil health and fertility is the back bone of food security.

I’ve been supplementary feeding oaten hay and a concentrate mix in the milking bale consisting of chaff, bran, seaweed and a handful of barley. At some times of year this will mainly be as an incentive to come in for milking, however in this season it’s definitely needed as a food source. It’s one thing to be buying in feed, but to be requiring certified organic is another story. For very good reason as it aligns with the principles of organics, many organic farmers are small and self supporting, not growing excess feed to sell but having a closed loop system where they grow what they need. This combined with the large amounts of dairies moving towards organic certification, as well as the season, make it very hard to source certified feed this year. Many farmers are buying up loads to get them through the next 12 months. I’ve been so lucky to have the support of local organic farmers who’ve helped me source feed to get on my feet. I definitely feel the drive more than ever to strive for a closed loop farm, growing as much of my feed as I can on farm, which in turn will require me to maintain a low stocking density.

Our herd has now grown to 7 with the addition of Olive, a beautiful Jersey who was walked on a lead from around the corner. It’s doesn’t get much better than that! We’ll be getting her in calf very shortly ready for an Autumn calving.

As of this weekend we will be dropping back to 6, with Rocket going to live with a lovely family in Woodend (I promise this is the truth, not the cover up for something more sinister). Her mother daisy is now learning to be milked and will hopefully regain some condition before calving in the second half of the year.

Everyone’s doing well, Iggy and Norma are growing into giant ratbags with a love for a good neck scratch.

Things are constantly changing, there’s ups and downs and just when you think you’ve found a rhythm another cow’s needs change. Never in my life have I had so many wins and losses in such a short time. Waking up can be hard and some times I feel I can’t do anything right, but most mornings I arrive in Harcourt to a pink sky, fog laying in the valley and while milking in the paddock I think, ‘how bloody lucky am I that I get to do this for a job’!

And Exhale

And Exhale

I breath with my herd.

This is one of my enabling actions from my Holistic Decision Making context.
I feel as though I can exhale now.
The last week I’ve been lying awake from 4:30 am, but not with the usual anxious thoughts which plague you at that hour, WHAT IF EVERYTHING GOES WRONG! No, lying awake with excitement ready to get up and milk!

It’s been a long journey to get here; milking my first cow with the next generation bounding around, everyone happy and healthy. I certainly would not be here without the support and generosity of people throughout my life. Some fleeting and some lifers. There was no single defining moment which lead me here, but here is most definitely where I’m meant to be.

One of those many defining moments was last year when I first met Berta. I’d spent much of the past few years dreaming of how my future dairy was going to operate. It’s easy to dream of the insignificant details when the time is not upon you; how much detergent will I need, not, how exactly will I create enough hot water for washing and pasteurisation without costing the earth; financially or environmentally? Then last winter I went to meet a local farmer who was selling his house cow. What a cow! They don’t come better than this lady! Triple score: temperament, body genetics and udder/milk quality. Meeting Berta I felt; no matter how hard things get, if I get to spend my days with this cow, everything will be worth it. At the time I was on a 6 months working study tour of dairies up the East coast and only home for a week. I would have had to pass on Berta if it hadn’t been for this farmer going above and beyond to help me get on my feet. Getting her in calf, drying her off, holding onto her until my return and then selling me the magnificent milking machine to accompany her. Overwhelming generosity.

For 9 months we’ve been with Berta, watching her get wider, becoming besotted with her. However she did take her loneliness out on us in the form of constant licking. Then two months ago a friends two jerseys came to join us; Daisy and Millie along with Daisy’s four month old calf, Rocket. Perfect, Berta has her herd. Wait… disaster! Berta’s maternal instincts kick in and she abducts Rocket! ‘Who is this neurotic cow I don’t know chasing me around and redefining the cow lick’. Separated by a fence, everyone settled back into their own rhythm.

As Berta’s calving date got closer, I was sure she would drop early. The reality of our future started to sink in, accompanied by panic of how far off ready our processing factory was. The milk flood-gates where about to open!

The days kept passing and on her due date, like clockwork, her waters broke. Oli and I were able to watch the very efficient and focused breech birth; a chestnut heifer from a dairy short-horn sire. I named her Iggy; a tribute to my father, my inspiration to farm.

A friend told me that when you plan things you should always work out how long it will take, then double it. With the milk flowing and no factory, we decided to adopt another calf to help us drink the milk and raise a future milker. And so Norma came to join us last Friday, an angelic jersey. One lick across her face and Berta took to her.

Now that I’ve got a herd of 6 and I’m milking, it’s making all those dry Food Safety and Organic Management Plans seem worth the hours at the computer.

Things are moving.

So in times to come, when I’m waking at 4:30 anxious about what could go wrong, please remind me to go and sit and breath with my herd, ruminate a while. It may not change whats going on but it may help me to recenter and connect with all which is above and below, to move forward with a clear head.