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.

Springing our way into greenery!

Spring is finally here at White Stone Farm.  Hooray!   Winter was frosty and we got a good dose of rain.  Our water channeling system successfully harvested rainwater throughout winter, with our drainage channels filling and slowly but surely moving the water across the block, collecting in small pools along the way.  Our main dam is nearly full now!  Double Hooray!

Dam in flower at White Stone Farm

These pools are now a fantastic habitat for the many wild ducks as they come in their pairs during Spring to stake a claim over one of the many hollows in the River Red Gums and frolic on their newly made ponds.

The landscape has also appreciated the watery gifts from Mother Nature, with grass growing in abundance where there was only bare, baked earth a couple of months ago.  It never ceases to amaze me how grass and other plant seeds can lay dormant over those perishing, dry months and create a resurgence of greenery when the rains finally appear.

Chickens grazing at White Stone Farm

Misfit moultingThe chickens LOVE the greenery, turning into grazing herds in these springtime months and the warmer mornings and longer days kick-start their egg laying once more.  It was pretty ugly times over winter with our Misfits (our ex-cage layers who already have some physical appearance disadvantages!) going through their molt.  Why Mother Nature’s colder weather inspires their little chicken bodies to shed their feathers is still a mystery to me!

Our A-frame chickens are growing fast, with a number of stunning roosters in the mix. They are now urgently seeking homes (let us know if you are keen!), otherwise they will sadly end up in the pot.

Light sussex roosters at White Stone Farm

The llamas are appreciating the fresh green grass and are busily mowing some areas for us!  They always look so miserable in the cold and wet, so it’s nice to see them enjoy the warmer days in the sunshine.

Llamas at White Stone Farm

Our greenhouse carefully protected a number of more fragile plants from frost over winter and we now have lots of lovely seed to collect, dry and replant for next season.  One of my favourites was the gorgeous purple basil – a stunning colour and super tasty!

Purple basil

Winter was a great time for creating in the kitchen.  Our Autumn harvest was turned into soups, stews and chutneys.  With a long history of European farming settlement out here, there is also an abundance of European trees – many now classified as weeds, that are both tasty and incredibly good for you!  The humble Hawthorn berry makes a wonderful chutney – and goes particularly well with kangaroo! Yuum!

Hawthorn Chutney at White Stone Farm

Kombucha at White Stone FarmInspired by some recent workshops with the Ballarat Permaculture Guild, Tread Lightly Permaculture and the Hepburn Relocalisation Network, I’ve been fermenting lots of foods. In a world where everything store-bought is highly processed, pasteurised, neutralised and homogenised, little goodness remains.  Fermentation helps to naturally increase the longevity of foods, but also does wonders to your intestinal bacteria and overall health. Sauerkraut, Sourdough bread, Keffir, Kombucha (right) and Miso have all been made and enjoyed and will keep us well fed and nourished over the months to come!

And a recent change in my working life – with a sudden loss of my desk-based job has created new opportunities to be on the farm full time.  It’s exciting to be able to turn much more of my time, energy and attention to White Stone Farm and all the projects we have on the go…as well as lots more in the pipeline!

After all, it’s not a bad office to spend your days, is it…?

White Stone Farm vista

 

Hazy shade of Winter

Look around…

Leaves are brown…

There’s a patch of snow on the ground…

Frosty morning at White Stone Farm

Winter has arrived and thankfully some good soaking winter rains arrived with it.   It was a dire time throughout Autumn, with the rains arriving on the very last day.  But then Winter descended and with it those cold mornings that our central highlands of Victoria are renowned for.  Mornings were frosty and it was difficult to get out of bed!  Even the chickens struggled to get out of their Chook Falcon on those chilly days!

Frosty chook falcon at White Stone FarmLlama in puddleBut the nights were good for cosy-ing up next to the fire with a good permaculture book or two!

Leading up to winter and the promise of rain approaching, we realised that we needed to improve the water harvesting and drainage on our property.  Over the last 2 winter seasons here, we have been inundated with rain and bad drainage, creating a swampland across the entire block.  I’m sure the llamas and horse started to get webbed feet!

With our winters so wet and our summers so dry, we needed to be able to channel that resource into catchment areas to decrease their evaporation and increase their usefulness (other than just breeding mosquitoes!).

Last winter, we painstakingly mapped out the slightly-lower-than-very-flat areas on the block (did I mention we’re sitting on a plateau and have very little slope?!) and Stace worked hard digging (mostly by hand) a series of channels and pools to collect and move the water across the block.

Poor drainage at White Stone Farm

Stace digging channels at White Stone FarmThe chickens helped where they could…most of them just hanging around for a tasty worm to be turned over with the next clod of earth.  Most of the time they just got under Stace’s feet…but that’s what happens when you have free range chickens!

With torrential rain finally falling down, we watched with expectation…and discovered that Stace’s hard work creating a system of drainage channels throughout White Stone Farm worked a treat! Hooray!

Winter used to depress me, with our beautiful property becoming a cold, sloshy, swampland…but no longer. I now see it as working with nature and utilising her bountiful resource.  We now have a series of ephemeral pools and can move water slowly through the paddocks and use it more effectively to grow veggies, get water to stock and continue to rejuvenate the landscape.  Our small aquaculture dam beside the greenhouse, which is the main source of water for the greenhouse as it cycles through, ran completely dry over summer and autumn, but is now nearly full to brimming!  Hooray!  Our native fish that nearly perished in the hotter months and had to spend some time in the fish tank in the lounge room are back in their outdoor home finding natural food and (hopefully) growing big and fat!

Greenhouse and aquaculture dam

Winter is such a cosy time, for hot soups, crackling fires and long days of rain to refresh the landscape after a parched dry season.  And now we will get to enjoy all that water long after winter is gone.

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!

Continue reading

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

Move Hay While the Sun Shines

Here at White Stone Farm we are often presented with challenges.  The hot, dry summers, very wet winters, poor drainage over most of the property, heavy frosts in winter, the house that needs a bit of TLC…but one of the biggest challenges we face is our lack of good topsoil.  The farm is situated on an ancient alluvial floodplain of heavy clay, with some of the oldest soil this Earth has to offer (Ordovician soil, circa 500 million years for those playing at home…).  In winter the clay holds water, in summer it cracks and dries as hard as concrete, the clay shrinking and expanding depending on moisture content.

WSF landscape sunset

Prior to our purchase of the land, the property was also overstocked with horses, creating further compaction of the soil.  It makes for one slippery clay-ridden landscape in the depths of wet winters and is in desperate need of some more organic matter to boost the growing capacity of the land.  Phew…so glad that we like a good challenge!!  On the positive side, clay already has a number of nutrients that we can build on for our soil structure, we just need to improve the drainage and help it along a bit with some more organic matter.  Hey, at least it’s not sand! Continue reading

The Magic of Springtime

The chill of Winter is leaving the landscape and the warmth of Spring is finally upon us. Thank goodness!!  Those -2°C mornings (down to -6°C one day…brrrrr!) are behind us for another year and we can look forward to longer days, more sunshine and a verdant, productive landscape.  Even the llamas are happy about the plentiful, fresh green growth…

llama landscape

Spring is my favourite time of the year, a reminder after the dry summer and cold winter that there are ideal growing conditions to be had in this part of the world, blue sky days, clement weather and a myriad of birds filling the farm with a joyful chorus as they do their birds and the bees stuff.  Nests are popping up all over the place, birds are courting each other, plumage colours are enhanced (even our male duck’s bill gets a bit more orange and he struts around proudly!) and it’s a great reminder of the joys of new life. Continue reading