Things have been a little tense lately (and my thoughts on grass)


Looking to the east…

Looking to the west...

Looking to the west…

The photos cannot convey the surreal feeling when your home is surrounded on all sides by a smoky haze.  Australia is experiencing a heatwave, and Tasmania currently has over 40 fire related incidents that the Tasmanian Fire Service is dealing with.

The TFS Online page has been up on the laptop for nearly the last 48 hours straight.  Some Tasmanian communities have been severely damaged by fire, over 100 homes destroyed to date, but at present, as I am aware, no lives have been lost.  However it looks like the next 2 to 3 days will continue with challenging weather conditions.  Our thoughts and our prayers go out to the families and animals that have been affected by the fires and our intense thanks and gratitude to the members of the Fire Service and other emergency departments that are working tirelessly throughout this troubling time.

Whilst we have discussed various fire plans and directions we would relocate to based on the location of a potential fire, the thought of leaving the farm and our animals is not pleasant.

I was brushcutting part of our front lawn that was knee high and had gone to seed in places and I was contemplating all that I know about the growth of grass and plants in general.  This was the second cut to this patch for the season and it may get cut once more before winter.  It was first cut in October or November (with a brushcutter) and then raked up and put down in a pen for our broody mothers and their young chicks to scratch through.  If I had cut it with a lawnmower the resulting mulch would consist of many short pieces of grass, these short pieces of grass are not good for chooks and can actually block up their crops and cause what is known as ‘impacted crop’.  This can lead to the death of the bird which has happened to a rooster of ours.

My aim with most of our lawn (at least for the short term) is minimum maintenance, maximum health (for the lawn) and maximum diversity (for the ecosystem).  The long term plan is to gradually plant out the majority of our ‘front lawn’ areas to a food forest style system.  However a large part of our grassed areas (around the house yard) are grown as grazing areas for ducks, rabbits and chicks.  These areas are rarely cut by me, except around the edges, as we move various mobile structures through with rabbits and chicks inside them and the ducks freely graze these areas as well.

My readings, particularly of Joel Salatin’s work, imply that the most nutrition (for the animal grazing this grass) will be gained from an actively growing grass.  Which he manages to create by a grazing system using cattle and poultry.  In his system, as I understand it, the grass may only ever reach around 6 inches long.  It is systematically grazed, by cattle, fed by cow droppings, which are then scratched through by chooks (grass is aerated) and fed again by chook poo.  He talks about the ‘candy grass’ that occurs a certain time after the chooks have been through which his cattle absolutely love.  Anyway enough about his system, it is great, it works and is a result of his many years of experience and observations and I’ll edit in a link when I get a chance.

Back to my meanderings, my observations this morning of my knee high grass were this – whilst I may not have achieved maximum health of the grass, I feel I had come close to maximum diversity.  There was heaps of insect life and various broad leafed plants that would not be tolerated in many ‘lawns’.  In my mind this ‘grass’ is excellent for my chicks to graze through as it has loads of insects, broad leaf ‘greens’ and a variety of seeds.  This would provide a diet high in a variety of protein sources amongst other things.  It may not be as good for our rabbits but as they are also fed a seed/grain and lucerne supplement then the grass is not meant to provide all of their nutrition.

As I was brushcutting I kept trying to create a rotational system with rabbits and chicks similar to Salatin’s but what he has, is 2 animals that are miles apart in digestive systems and diseases.  Rabbits and chickens are both susceptible to a disease called coccidiosis and for this reason alone I need to be very careful about any mixed grazing I do.

This is not meant to be a completed treatise or anything, I’m just getting my thoughts out there, rambling to myself in a fashion.

So far I haven’t mentioned what’s happening underground, and I am basing all of my thoughts on the theory that the size of the root system mirrors the size of the plant above ground.

So, in Salatin’s system – As the vigorous healthy grass grows out to 6 inches or so, so do the roots, seeking out water and nutrients, along comes a cow and eats it back to, say, 3 inches.  Some of the root system dies off, stimulating decomposition and the microorganisms that accompany or follow this process.  The chooks have come in, scratched through the cow manure, thus aerating the top 1-2 inches of soil, and fertilized it as well.  Then the ground is irrigated, allowing all of the goodness in both manures to penetrate deep into the soil, in particular the top 5-10 inches and stimulating the biomass within this space even more.  The roots of our grass then grows into this space, and potentially beyond, and the result could well be this ‘candy’ grass that Salatin talks about…maybe.

I’m going to leave this post at this point and perhaps come back and add some more at a later date, maybe…

I’ve been thinking dirty thoughts lately…

The word has got out and

despite some technical difficulties,

the paparazzi have gathered.  (Don’t worry Mum, it’s just some stuff I’ve been looking at on the internet.)

I can’t seem to stop thinking about stuff like this,

and this,

and most importantly this.

I’ve had plenty of time to think because I have been doing this:

I must give thanks to some online colleagues for some timely blogs of inspiration.  Thanks to Wooleylot for reminding me about Dr Elaine Wingham’s work on compost teas in their ‘Sense of Humus’ blog.  Also a very big thanks to Mike and his Tiny Farm blog on an awesome book ‘Building Soils for Better Crops: Sustainable Soil Management‘, I am just over 100 pages in and soaking it up.

In a nutshell these guys have cleared the sod and fertilized the ground for us, the owner of the sheep that graze on our property turned the soil for us and I’m just finishing off the beds by hand prior to planting.  I had hoped to have our rotary hoe up and running for this part but I’m more than happy to finish it off with the mattock.  It gives me time to plan what comes next and also allows me to experience the soil with all of my senses.

One of the first things I noticed was the overwhelming smell, when I break the soil, of ‘pigscrement’.  I am concerned that we have a sandy loam and with these types of soils it is a challenge to maintain the organic matter, keep the water up to it and increase and improve the organic matter content.

The most important thing I have learnt, so far, from ‘Building Soils for Better Crops: Sustainable Soil Management‘ is that organic matter is broken down into 3 parts; the living, the dead and the very dead.

The living part of soil organic matter includes a wide
variety of microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses,
fungi, protozoa, and algae. It even includes plant roots
and the insects, earthworms, and larger animals, such
as moles, woodchucks, and rabbits, that spend some of
their time in the soil. The living portion represents about
15% of the total soil organic matter…

The fresh residues, or “dead” organic matter, consist
of recently deceased microorganisms, insects, earthworms,
old plant roots, crop residues, and recently
added manures. In some cases, just looking at them is
enough to identify the origin of the fresh residues. This part of soil organic matter is the active, or easily decomposed, fraction. This active fraction of
soil organic matter is the main supply of food for various
organisms—microorganisms, insects, and earthworms—
living in the soil. As organic materials are decomposed
by the “living,” they release many of the nutrients
needed by plants. Organic chemical compounds produced
during the decomposition of fresh residues also
help to bind soil particles together and give the soil
good structure…

The well-decomposed organic material in soil,
the “very dead,” is called humus. Some use the term
humus to describe all soil organic matter; some use it
to describe just the part you can’t see without a microscope.
We’ll use the term to refer only to the well decomposed
part of soil organic matter. Because it is so
stable and complex, the average age of humus in soils is
usually more than 1,000 years. The already well-decomposed
humus is not a food for organisms, but its very
small size and chemical properties make it an important
part of the soil. Humus holds on to some essential nutrients,
storing them for slow release to plants. Humus
also can surround certain potentially harmful chemicals
and prevent them from causing damage to plants.
Good amounts of soil humus can both lessen drainage
and compaction problems that occur in clay soils and
improve water retention in sandy soils by enhancing
aggregation, which reduces soil density, and by holding
on to and releasing water.’

(Building Soils for Better Crops: Sustainable Soil management)

I’ll leave it here for now and keep you updated as we plant out this lovely north facing slope.