Mildly summer

Ahh…what a wonderful reprieve we have enjoyed from the fiery breath of summer! We braced ourselves for an onslaught of hot, windy, horrendous conditions for January…and yet heard whispers of ‘above average rainfall forecast for western Victoria for Jan and Feb..” Nah, not here, not for Clunes…we never get any rain…

But the skies opened and lovely, cool, wet rain dampened the earth.  9mm one day, 16 another, 30mm another time!  Happy Dances all round!  In a place like Clunes, where it is so dry that the tough conditions bond townsfolk together in a mutual hardship, there was literally dancing in the street to celebrate the downpour!  Giddy smiles at the thought of water tanks being topped up (many people were having to buy water in during December as we had such dismal rainfall in winter and spring), gardens soaked up the rain goodness and the landscape was flushed clean.

It was so wonderful to see puddles on the ground, to feel a cool breeze on your face, to get mud on your boots again…

Feather, Fez and puddles

My poor baby chickens didn’t know what to make of it – they had never seen rain before! It took a couple of minutes to coax them out from their house in the morning. But all of the wet, bedraggled chooks enjoyed the cooler conditions. The rain encouraged bugs out of hiding places and soaked the newly spread hay.  Yay for more soil creation with a bit of moisture!

What February will look like, who knows?  Maybe we’ll get more of the beautiful wet stuff and the weather forecasters prediction of ‘above average rainfall’ will come true or maybe it will dry up and we’ll receive that hot blast of summer again.  At least we enjoyed those magical days of milder weather and the green flush of growth that follows.

Spotlight: Chook of the Week

This week we’d like to introduce you to one of our wonderful girls, Bentley. Bentley has been with us from the start, one of our original girls that we bought as a pullet from a guy who sells Hyline Browns. Hylines are an Australian breed and are reputed to be good egg chooks, being bred for maximum egg delivery and robust health.  We’d have to agree, as Bentley has been a fantastic layer over the last 3 years, with a great temperament and a strong and healthy chook in the outdoor free range environment.

Bentley the chook

Bentley has enjoyed raising a few broods along the way too.  As with most chooks, at some point they tend to get clucky.  If the timing is right then we are more than happy for the girls to raise some chicks. It’s always a wonderful journey to watch them raise their young fluffy charges.

Bentley & chicks

Bentley is a very attentive mum, finding them yummy food, teaching them how to dust bathe and protecting them from the other rowdy chooks.  If there is food available, Bentley is the first one to it and is a prolific scratcher, so she has taught her children to forage well!

bentley and chicks

Bentley & Cardigan

She’s one of our best chooks, helping to teach all the young up-and-comers a thing or two about life in the free range chook yard here at White Stone Farm!

Resilience of Chickens

Chickens are amazing creatures.  They are really tough in many respects and really fragile in others. A chest infection or eggbound oviduct can kill them quickly, whereas grave wounds can just seem like an annoyance and they pull through.

Take, for example, one of our beautiful, big Light Sussex girls.  In the morning, as they burst out of the chicken Falcon to have breakfast, I didn’t even realise anything was amiss.  Everyone ran around and had their breakfast in a frenzy of food gobbling excitement, I gave them a cursory glance over to see if anyone looked mopey, dull feathered or otherwise untoward and then headed to the Big Shed to help Stace with some stuff.

About half an hour later the chickens ran past in their excitable hurry to find the next tasty grub.  There is usually one particular hen, or sometimes it’s the rooster leading the charge to the next feeding spot and everyone hurries along after, fearful of missing out or being separated from the flock (leaving them vulnerable to attack by our resident Magpies). The main group passed and then hobbling along behind trying to keep up was one of the big beautiful Light Sussex hens.  With blood pouring out of her foot!

Stace and I raced over and grabbed her and were horrified to find that two of her toes were missing!  They had been sheared clean off!  Perplexed how it may have happened – perhaps she got her toes caught in the wire floor of the car as they all jumped out…I raced her off to the house for emergency medical treatment.  For me it was an emergency…to the chook it just seemed like an annoyance because she wasn’t eating with the others!

I bathed the foot and inspected the wound closer.  Two of her toes had been cut off from the first knuckle.  She patiently let me bathe her foot in a warm saline solution, then treat her with antiseptic and bandage the would.  We set up a clean and dry hospital cage outside the back door and although perplexed by her new bandage, she settled in well.

Chook with foot injury

We inspected the chook Falcon but couldn’t work out exactly what had happened.  No toes remained…likely they were gobbled up by an over eager breakfast eater!  Eeew.

Each day I would change the dressing and ensure that the wound was healing well and she was bestowed with the name Peggy…short for, you guessed it, Pegleg.  It looked horrific, but the healing process was amazing, with the skin growing over the exposed bone.

Chook with foot injury

Chook with injured foot recovering

Eventually it was healed enough for the Great Outdoors and Peg had taught herself how to balance on her limited number of toes.  She is going great now, with no hint of a limp or disability – you can’t tell her from her Light Sussex sister.  She has adapted her scratching technique and forges on in her chookie way.  What a trooper is our Peggy!

Peggy the chook recovering from a foot injury

Waiting for chickens

With my new found hours here at the farm, it’s been timed perfectly with our decision to incubate a new batch of chickens for our laying and eating flock.  Carefully collecting up the best selection of eggs from our favourite hens, we carefully stored them until we had enough to turn the incubator on and start the 21 day process.  And then my mother hen duties began.

My vigilance over the last couple of weeks has been firmly concentrated on the incubator in the spare bedroom.  Inside the quietly humming machine, the miraculous growth of baby chicks from mere fertilised cells to gorgeous fluffy, fully-functioning chickens curled inside their protective shell is taking place.  In order for this to go smoothly, the incubator must be kept at the right humidity and temperature, so regular checking to make sure that the power hasn’t failed, or the ambient temperature isn’t affecting the machine or that the humidity is still good is a regular part of my new routine here at the farm. I hover around the machine that provides such life support to our growing chicks to ensure that the specific temperatures indicated on the incubator instructions are set correctly and that all is well: 38.2ºC from 1st – 6th day, 38ºC from 7th – 14th day, 37.8ºC on the 15th day, then 37.3ºC from the 16th – 21st day and make sure that the auto rotator in the incubator is doing its job a couple of times a day.  It never ceases to amaze me that hens control all of these important temperature and humidity functions that are required with a developing egg just with their body, the amount of time they spend sitting on the eggs and they instinctively know when to turn them, heat them up, cool them down and just when their babies are preparing to hatch.  Nature is truly an incredible thing.

So, when the time comes in the next couple of weeks and all being well, our babies will hatch and we’ll have another new brood of (hopefully!) lots of new female layers to add to our pastured poultry flock.  Our incubator chicks from last year are doing really well. It’s been amazing watching them grow over the last year.  From early beginnings as they struggled to get out of the egg and take in the world for the first time…

chicks hatched

Tiger Newly hatched

Becoming inquisitive balls of fluff, where every day is a delight watching their antics as they eat, sleep and explore…(I spend a lot of my time ‘chicken watching’ during this particular stage…!)

Incubator chickens at White Stone Farm

baby chicken morning

Sleepy chickens

Enjoying their first dust bath…(and appreciating just how instinctual dust bathing is for them!)

First dust bath

Those early childhood years as they continue to explore their surroundings and get ready for the big move outside…

Young chicks

Watching as their feathers start to come through and the array of beautiful colours they will become…

Different coloured chicks

More world exploration (and dust bathing!) as they are moved outdoors into a protected spot to enjoy the sunshine and warmer weather…

Young chicks outdoors

Meeting the other hens…

Chicks meeting chickens

Those awkward teenage years where they are finding their independence and exploring their world (although they still want to get close and sit on your shoulder!)…

Chicken on shoulder

To capable and independent adults with beautiful personalities and temperaments.

Older chickens exploring

It’s always an exciting journey watching them grow and develop.  The hardest part is when the roosters come of age and after enjoying halcyon days on the farm without a care in the world, they leave this earth and are loved and respected at the dinner table.  There is always tears then…but that is the path of ethical meat for us.  With lots of love and respect every step of the way.

So, as I wait for these new chickens to come into the world, fussing and clucking like a mother hen to make sure that their conditions are juuuust right for a successful hatch, I am eager to meet these new personalities and can’t wait to get to know them as they enjoy their lives here at White Stone Farm.

Winter Is Coming

Our seasons have been delayed.  A long, hot, dry, dusty summer has given way to a long, hot, dry, dusty autumn.  A strange autumn, with no rain until the very last few days.  It’s been tough here at White Stone Farm, with our dams drying and plants dying, surrounded by this brown landscape.  We’re lucky though, ours is a mere hobby compared to the ancestral tracts of land from which many farmers must carve out their entire livelihoods throughout rural Australia.  For them the prolonged dry weather has been most difficult, with feed prices sky-high, crops failing and livestock going hungry on the barren ground. When food comes so readily from supermarkets and seems so abundant, we can easily forget the physical and emotional hardships it takes to get it to our plate.

The White Stone Farm herbivores tend not to stray far from their meal during those energy taxing dry days and the prolonged dry weather has cost us more in feed than we had anticipated.

Dinner time at White Stone Farm

Our hay bales for growing, so dutifully and painstakingly collected in summer and readied for the autumn rains have stood dry.  Our grand plans to have them soak up the autumn rain in preparation for garlic planting stood unfulfilled.  We emptied the last of the dam water trying to give them some moisture so that the first stage of decomposition could take place.

White Stone Farm hay bales

We seem to be caught within a rain shadow of a rain shadow.  Clunes is reputedly quite dry and then where we are located just north of the town seems to be further shadowed by Mount Beckworth.  With our beautiful view of the surrounding volcanic landscape, we watch rain storms gather and scud across the skies beyond our boundaries.  We’re jealous to hear about the torrential rain in Ballarat, or a deluge in Melbourne.  But no amount of rain dances have brought them our way…

And then, in the final week of autumn, Mother Nature finally helped out in our dry, parched world.  The rains we were eagerly waiting on and hoping for so that we could plant our garlic finally arrived, with the skies opening up to a brief deluge to moisten the ground and refresh the landscape.  Our first 10mls was cause for celebration.  Maybe that last rain dance did work.

The light flush of green on the landscape is now taking hold, as grasses and plants rise forth out of the dusty, bare ground.  Gumboots are now out in force to combat the muddy clay and numerous puddles.  The sodden ground is slippery and you can just about hear the plants taking a big long draught of water before it disappears down the large cracks that opened up the clay during the dry!

Winter fire at White Stone FarmAll too quickly, the brief autumn rains and warm sunshine are giving way to winter.  The chill is in the air and winter is coming.  Frosts are starting and words like “brrr…minus 2 degrees this morning” have returned to our vocabulary.  The type of weather that you can pull out all those lovely, warm jumpers, long socks, scarves, beanies and gloves, get out your favourite long-johns and cosy up to the fire with a good book and a bowl of steaming vegetable soup whilst the night cools down or the rain beats down outside.  Sunset is early and night falls quickly, with us needing to dash home from work to lock up the chooks.  No detours allowed as we race to beat the setting sun and the prowling foxes and get our chicken girls safely to bed.

But it does allow us long luxurious time indoors as the early darkness closes in, time to read good books to relax and inspire, spin llama wool, weave new creations, discuss more sustainability ideas that we want to implement or go over our permaculture designs and house renovations that we have planned for the warmer months to come.

Already the garlic is sprouting, the chickens are going through their moult (although some have stoically continued to lay eggs in the colder weather – it must be all the lovely extra food we are giving them!) and the bugs are returning to the damp places beneath rocks and logs.  It’s becoming a chicken paradise again with lots of green pick to enjoy and protein galore as worms and bugs return near the surface of the moist soil.

Garlic sprouting

The herbivores are also enjoying the greenery and Jess and the llamas are full of new life that comes with the energy hit of delicious, fresh grass.  After such a protracted, hot and dry few months, it is certainly nice to look out over a carpet of green that now adorns the landscape and appreciate Mother Nature’s watery gift of goodness from the clouds above.

Newfound freedom for all

As Autumn rolls on, our baby chickens are growing rapidly.  The youngsters that we raised as surrogate parents from the incubator are enjoying the A-frame chook house that Stace built – complete with a llama to watch over them (when she’s not distracted eating grass or daydreaming!)

Llama and chook house

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even though our babies are growing quickly, it still takes about 5 months for a young female to start laying.  With the demand for our tasty White Stone Farm eggs amongst our family, friends and work colleagues growing, there was an increased need for more immediate layers – and fast!

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Marching into Autumn at White Stone Farm

Phew – a long hot summer is now behind us.  Scorching temperatures, tinder dry landscape, fierce winds and bushfires here, there and everywhere!  The hills and paddocks are a golden yellow of dry grass stalks or (as in the case for some of our paddocks) sun-baked earth as the new grass seeds wait for autumn rains to encourage their new green growth.

The incendiary landscape and strong winds were a real concern some days, with the car packed with valuables and important documents and fire plan at the ready should we need to evacuate.  Luckily it didn’t come to that, but there were some anxious days watching wind direction and hoping that fires burning a few kilometres away wouldn’t come racing over the back fence.  We chose White Stone Farm carefully, ensuring we are not among thick bushland (the tragedies of Black Saturday bushfires here in Victoria were still fresh in our mind when we bought the property in 2011 and served as a good reminder that being engulfed by trees can also lead to being engulfed by flames).  The property backs onto large tracts of open pasture and grassland, although grassfires can also be incredibly fast and destructive.  We kept our eye on this one burning not far away…

Bushfire

The dry spell was broken by a watery reprieve the other week, prompting some new growth to poke its green shoots through the dirt (only to be eaten by hungry chickens!) and the weeds are coming back with a vengeance! Continue reading

The Highs and Lows of Ethical Meat

One of the biggest reasons that we moved out of Melbourne and onto our own land at White Stone Farm was to be able to produce our own food.  Where food comes from is important to us.  What chemicals have been used in the production of fruit and vegetables, what sort of conditions were supposedly ‘cage free/barn laid/free range’ chickens kept in (you’d be surprised just how little area is allowed for commercial ‘free range’ egg production) and how long has that leafy green been in cold storage and trucked across the nation to get to our plate??  When you buy your produce from a supermarket, you can never be really sure of the answers to all of these questions.  And that just wasn’t good enough for us.

The same goes for meat. Top of our concerns is the treatment of animals, the conditions they are kept in and very importantly, how much stress they had to endure as they meet their maker to become made into meat.  In today’s mass consumerism for meat products on a huge scale, it requires a huge need for thousands of animals to supply the demand.  And conditions are not always so favourable. Continue reading

Poultry Politics

Our poultry are an important part of White Stone Farm.  They are our natural insect control, fertilizer makers and feathery entertainers.  (And one day, some of them will make it to the dinner table as well).

Poultry are fascinating.  The way the chickens go about their business in their endless search for tasty bugs, the way they relate to each other in the flock, maintain their pecking order, interact with the other animals, peck, preen, dust-bathe, squawk, cheep, cluck, scratch, explore and cock-a-doodle-do (for the rooster at least!) – all of that is really interesting stuff!  And it entertains us to no end!  Except the cock-a-doodle-doing at 4am…

Chicken peckOur house chooks – Avalon, Bentley (and her 2 chicks), Commanche, Delorian, Eldorado (and her 9 fluff-ball chicks), Ferrari, Galaxy and rooster Henry Ford (yes, all alphabetical and car-themed…) live in the old stables and go about their business of scratching and exploring around the house, garden and nearest paddocks.  On a hot day their favourite spot is under the house, so it’s not uncommon to be sitting in the lounge and have Henry cock-a-doodle-dooing under your feet directly under the floor! Continue reading