Monday, January 31, 2011

More geese

A new pair.   
Found another breeding pair of Pilgrims. These are a really nice example of the breed and unrelated to our other pair. Word gets around that we are keeping Pilgrim geese and these were offered to us as their owners were moving to the mainland. Sometimes you can just get lucky.
We are taking a slightly different approach to commercial flock production with our geese breeding. Rather than run five geese to one gander, we going to let them remain in bonded pairs. Given the opportunity, geese mate for life and while total production per adult bird will decline, I believe it will be better for the welfare of our birds.
If commercial production was the dominant factor in selecting our geese breed, the Pilgrim wouldn’t even rate; their average egg production is only about 30 per year, poor hatching rates in an incubator and slower growth rates. However, left as pairs, they are excellent natural parents, are not aggressive, forage well and are supposed to be one of the best eating geese. Ideal for small scale free range production.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The past

The past is important as it shapes the person we are today. Names and other details may be changed only to protect the guilty, for the innocent have no need for such protection.

In 1985 Michelle and I bought Varna, a 50,000-acre block of hard red mulga country in western Queensland. This was sheep country, a starvation block in all but the best years, but it was ours, and we were young, naive and full of enthusiasm. This was where Michelle and I were to start our family and battle the relentless drought and the just as relentless bank manager.
Our home for four years

 I still remember the house as I first saw it standing alone in the mulga. It had once been a grand old house but the endless passing of time had left their mark. The house been abandoned to the elements more than thirty years ago and kangaroos had taken up residence. White ants were slowly, steadly devouring the structure; both ends of the house were drooped towards the ground.

The previous occupants had left sometime in the nineteen fifties and appeared to have just walked out, never to return. Cups, plates, saucepans and cutlery still filled the kitchen cupboards. Oil lamps, the oil long since evaporated still stood ready to illuminate the night. The pantry was a treasure trove of long forgotten items. Egg glass, carbide, preserving salts, ornate bottles of Rosella chutney, caster oil, strychnine and patent livestock medicines shared space with piles of 1940s newspapers. The shed still held a Ford Mainline ute, resting on perished whitewall tires, keys in the ignition, waiting for the driver that never returned.
A womans work is never done.

There was no sign of a bathroom in the old house. Our first bathroom was a sheet of corrugated iron on the ground under a mulga tree. We would heat a bucket of water up on the stove and hoist it into the tree. That worked very well until the first chills of winter hit. Nothing like ice on the ground and a southerly wind to make an inside bathroom became a priority.

Beside the house stood the engine room. This was home to a 1930s vintage Southern Cross YB diesel driving a 32volt generator. Four and a half feet high, three quarters of a ton of black greasy raw brute power, all of 4 horsepower. It hadn’t run for thirty years but it still had dregs of fuel and when I filled the hopper with water and swung on the crank handle, it fired back into life- we had power. For the next four years the steady reliable beat of that remarkable old engine became the heartbeat of Varna.

In 1985 wool prices were low, interest rates had started their remorseless climb towards 20% and cattle were the only bright spot on the rural landscape. The only problem was, we didn’t have any, and so we decided to remedy this deficiency using the time-honored traditions of the bush. We would just help ourselves.
Varna joined the Mariala reserve, crown land that has since been turned into a National Park. There were some small mobs of cleanskin cattle living on the creek flats; the need was imperative, the opportunity was clear, the temptation was great.

Technically I suppose they belonged to the crown, but the Queen had never show any great interest in her cattle and besides our need was greater. We set of in the Suzuki Four wheel drive, myself, Michelle, a couple of dogs and a rifle, just in case. This was never going to be easy, but given the right conditions, a bit of luck and some hard driving, we were in with a chance. 
A steam engine we found in Mariala while looking for cattle.

As we followed one of the creek flats we came upon a small mob of cattle, about a dozen head of cows, a few calves, couple of mickys and a scrub bull; all cleanskins. All out in the open, we just had to keep them out of the scrub, our luck was in! The roan bull was a magnificent specimen of a scrub bull- all shoulders and neck with thick stubby horns about a foot long. In stud livestock terms, all horns and balls, but as a scrub bull, perfectly adapted to his environment.

We quietly eased the Suzuki around the cattle to point their heads towards home. At first the cattle took little notice however as we edged in closer the cows and calves started to feed out in the right direction, but that old bull stood his ground and never moved from the shade of the mulga tree. Quietly, slowly we eased in closer, not quick enough to make him run, trying to giving him time to get used to us and move of with his herd.

Instead, he launched himself at the vehicle, and he caught us flat footed. There was no way the Suzuki could outpace him in the short distance and he rammed one of his horns through the back of the cab on the Michelle’s side. Immediate acceleration. Blood and snot everywhere. The window glass disintegrated and rained as small glass cubes through the front of the vehicle. Michelle tried to sit on the gearstick which made driving just a little bit more difficult. I said “shoot him, shoot him” but she seemed more inclined to stay as far away from that bulls head as possible. Fifty metres or so later, the bull freed from the vehicle, trotted of to regain his herd that had disappeared into the shelter of the scrub.

We decided the Queen could keep her bloody cattle!
To be continued ???

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wascally Wabbits

Bailey and Holly
Why have we got Rabbits you may ask, they don’t contribute anything to the farm.  Well it’s just because I always wanted a pet Rabbit when I was a child, so I’m fulfilling a childhood desire and they are so adorably cute as well. In Queensland it’s illegal to keep Rabbits so once we moved to Tassie I thought, why not have a pet Rabbit. Now to convince the better half it’s a good idea. Ummm…. Darling I thought of a really cool Christmas present we could get the kids (both grown up and in their early 20’s). Well any excuse will do won’t it?

 When our youngest Daughter flew down just before Christmas I told her about my idea and she thought it was great. The next day Jess and I went into Devonport to do some Christmas shopping and we just happened to go and look at the pet shop. Sitting in one of the cages were the most adorable pair of young Miniature Lop Eared Female Rabbits. Jess and I couldn’t contain ourselves we gooed and garred over them.  Anybody hearing us would’ve thought we were looking at a couple of babies. I told the lady in the shop we loved them but just had to convince Hubby it was a good idea. When we got home we worked on John, subtly of course.  It worked.

The next day into town we went to pick up a Rabbit Hutch (a two storey one so they have more room to run around in) and the Rabbits (which luckily were still there).  Then it was up to Jess and Fiona to name them. Jess called hers Bailey (because it’s the colour of Baileys Irish Cream) and Fiona called hers Holly (because it was near Christmas time).  Every now and then I let them run around inside for more exercise and don’t they love it.  They are curious little critters and like to check everything out. Prada our miniature Poodle thinks they are fun and likes to throw her ball to them. I’m convinced she thinks they are dogs she does the same thing to the pigs it’s hilarious to watch.

 Here’s a quick history of the Miniature Lop Rabbit. They can be traced back to the Netherlands during the late 1940’s when Adrian de Cook had a vision to produce a miniaturised version of the larger French Lop. He used a French Lop buck and a Netherlands Dwarf doe but it was unsuccessful the litter being born too large. In the second attempt a Netherlands Dwarf buck was crossed with a French lop doe it went well although the ears were all erect. Then one of the does was mated to an English Lop buck. The English Lop was chosen because it is a smaller size than the French Lop and it has very long lopped ears. This was very successful and all ears were floppy. Now for some interesting facts, did you know Rabbits need to eat their own droppings this enables them to digest even more nutrients. A shame mine don’t eat more, every morning there seems to be so much Rabbit poo for just two little Rabbits. A healthy and cared for Rabbit can live up to 10 years. You can toilet train Rabbits to use a litter tray (that I’d like to see). Rabbits can’t sweat so to regulate their body temperature they use their ears.

The Hutch

Monday, January 24, 2011

Why Free Range

Wander through the grass
Root around

Fill up on pig pellets and fruit and have a good nights rest

                    Nothing more needs to be said!!!!!

Light Sussex Chooks

Our Light Sussex Chooks

Nothing says, “Farm yard” more than Chooks running around the place. Chooks were high up on our list of animals to get. There were a few requirements I desired in the type of Chicken breed I wanted. They had to be friendly, non-aggressive, good layers, good mothers, one of the larger older breeds, able to tolerate the cold and of course they had to have an appealing colour. Not too much of a list?  Thankfully there are so many Chicken breeds around now that it’s not too hard to find what you are looking for.I did a lot of research (thank God for the Internet) and came up with two of my favourite breeds the Light Sussex and the Buff Orpingtons. They are both very beautiful birds. Next step was to scan every Saturday paper and ring around the pet shops and stock feed shops etc. Finally someone gave me a name and phone number of a breeder at Sheffield. So I rang him and he had some Light Sussex that would be ready in a few months. Right Light Sussex it is then.  We ordered 6 Hens and 1 Rooster. John and I then set to work fixing up somewhere for them to live when they arrived. They have settled in really well and are so quiet and friendly.  When I’m out gardening they are right there with me they seem to like the company and are good at cleaning up the snails and slugs. It didn’t take them long to get to know our two dogs either. They all get on famously. As I write this they are now five and a half months old. Their tail feathers are not fully-grown yet however they are such a big bird you would think they are older.Some interesting facts about the Sussex breed of Chicken. The Sussex were bred to be a dual-purpose bird and is one of the most productive breeds of poultry. They lay large eggs that are cream to light brown in colour. The Sussex chicken was created around 1900 in the county of Sussex, England. The original colours were the Brown, Red and Speckled. The Sussex is one of the oldest breeds of chicken that still exists today.
 The Light Sussex fowl description originally referred to a type of table bird that was produced by farmers in a district of Sussex in the 16th century. In fact Sussex and other type of fowl existed for hundreds of years. The Sussex where not standardised until 1904 when the Sussex breed began to be shown. The Light Sussex is the main variety and should be white with the neck hackles prominently striped in black. Black is also seen in the flight feathers when the wing is opened and the tail is also black.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Pilgrim Geese

Smudge, our black lab knows the routine.  To the dam

             And back outside the kitchen.

The menagerie is growing, we now have geese. We got one pilgrim and three-crossbred female geese along with three gander goslings from up near Wynyard and then four young pilgrim ganders from Hobart.

Pilgrims are light geese, known for being quiet and docile. They are very hardy, are very good foragers, they make excellent natural parents and will frequently hatch and raise their own young. Their auto-sexing characteristic makes maintaining flock ratios easy and the excess birds make excellent eating. Pilgrim geese are critically rare, yet easy to care for and perfect for the small farm.

Our geese have settled in well.  They have access to a dam and good clover but just like the pigs, left alone they sit and wait outside the kitchen window. Every morning we walk them the hundred metres down to the dam and watch as they instantly pile in the water for a swim. Leave them alone and five minutes later they are heading single file back to the house and their chosen place outside the kitchen window.

I would like to source some more pilgrim females to breed a line of pilgrim geese but it might take a while to locate some good breeding stock. Many of the “pilgrim geese” available are not true pilgrims, there seems to be a common practice to label any goose with any gray feathers a pilgrim.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Rare Breeds

Pilgrim geese, another endangered breed.

Rare breeds are domestic livestock breeds that became rare because they did not fit well with modern, intensive agricultural production systems. Rare breeds such as the Wessex Saddleback pigs and the Pilgrim geese are old breeds whose development was centred on traditional free-range smallholdings.  They are slower to mature than more modern breeds, produce less lean meat and have a poorer feed conversion factor.

 So the real question is: Why would anyone keep rare breeds?

I suppose the standard answer is to protect biodiversity within the gene pool, but for me the answer is simpler; because I care and because I can. There is no business plan for our farm, no budgets, no profit and loss statements and a recognition that it will always depend on outside employment to stay viable.

Most of our animals will be destined for slaughter and while this may seem a strange way to preserve rare breeds, in the long term it is the only way. All domestic livestock breeds have to pay their way and rare breeds are no exception.

Who knows, with the coming ban on sow stalls, the cost structures will change and may possibly allow some of these old breeds to once again have a wider role in the pig industry.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Three little pigs.

We bought three 8-week-old female Wessex Saddleback slips.
Wessex Saddleback pigs are listed as 'critically endangered' by the Rare Breeds Trust of Australia. Until the 1930s the Wessex Saddleback was one of the more popular pig breeds then they almost disappeared with the advent of modern intensive piggeries, replaced with leaner, fast maturing breeds. They became extinct in Britain, only surviving in very small numbers in Australia and New Zealand. There are less than 100 registered sows in the world. Recently Wessex Saddleback embryos were sent to Britain to re-establish the breed.
The Wessex Saddleback does well when free range, produces excellent pork and is very quiet and good-natured.
We took a trip up the Tamar with the trailer behind the Polo and picked up the three pigs. They arrived home carsick in the trailer, a little sad looking but settled into the stables for the night.  Pinky, Perky and Petunia. It is a mistake to name farm animals, as there seems to be an unwritten law that you can’t eat any animal that has a name. These pigs will be the start of our breeding herd. We just have to locate an unrelated Wessex Saddleback boar.

The great escape.
After a couple of weeks in their paddock the three pigs discovered they could escape by walking up the cattle-loading ramp. Once out they had almost endless options, down the road, head for the hills or bolt for the river. Our intrepid trio decided instead to walk up to the house and waited patiently on the lawn outside the kitchen window. They were happy to see us and went straight back to their stable as soon as I opened the door for them.

The pigs are now about 18 weeks old and growing fast. They are fat as fools, very friendly, come when they are called, follow you around like a dog and love a belly rub.

Our Farm

 Our farm
 Gunns Plains
In 2010 Michelle and I took the next great leap into the unknown and bought a small farm in Gunns Plains Tasmania. We had talked about buying a farm ever since the kids left school, traveled up and down the east coast of Australia looking and finally decided it was time. You only live once so you might as well follow your dreams and hope they don’t turn into nightmares.

Gunns Plains is a fertile farming valley 20 kilometers from Ulverstone in North West Tasmania. No mobile phone coverage, (this seems to be a surprise to Telstra), Internet only via satellite, (again seems to be a surprise to Telstra) and television only via satellite. Black angus cattle, a couple of dairies including a goat dairy next door, potatoes, opium poppies and a wildlife park are the main industries. What will they think of a couple of new aged gypsies from Queensland?

Our Farm fronts the Leven River, 20 acres of rich alluvial river flats rising to 20 acres of flat to undulating red soils. A word of warning, definitions in Tasmania are different to the rest of Australia. Flat – you can drive in 2 wheel drive, Undulating- you can drive in 4 wheel drive and Steep- bring abseiling equipment.