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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Drying Racks, Grain Grinder, Macadamia Cracker, Olive Trees, Bobcat, New South Wales (Australia) Solar Bonus Scheme

Drying racks

Drying Racks
Some years ago we were lucky enough to be offered some pasta drying racks in exchange for a little labour assistance. What a bonus these turned out to be. Although they were old, damaged and had been repaired many times it didn’t take all that long to refurbish them. The joints were strengthened and the metal flyscreen repaired. The racks slide into a metal stand that is on castors. All this was cleaned, rust proofed and painted. The stand has 18 large slide out drying racks.
The racks are now used to dry Garlic, Basil, Chillies, Turmeric, Macadamias, onions and anything else that comes along.

Grain Grinder

Grain Grinder
This little gem was obtained from friend many years ago. The electric motor needed replacing. We put in a more powerful unit to ensure it could take a heavier duty cycle. The grinding stones had cracked but with carefully fitted stainless steel bands tightened around them they have carried on for nearly 20 years.
The flour is quite coarsely ground but still makes very good bread and pasta.  The bread always seems nicer with fresh flour.

Macadamia Cracker

Macadamia Cracker

The only problems with macadamia nuts are husking and cracking. This machine solves both problems. We bought the base unit which is manually operated. The first pass through, one section de-husks, and the second pass through, another section cracks the shell. There are many add on pieces available to automate such as a motor connection, feed in trays and feed out graders etc. The whole thing can be ramped up to a commercial unit. For us though this simple base unit is adequate. It is permanently setup so that as we need some nuts we process what we require in a few minutes.

Olive Tree Problems

Olive Tree Bug
Well all this wet and humid weather has been great for most of the orchard trees but the olive trees are suffering badly. No longer is there luscious new green shoots. Instead they are the colour of grey and brown. Black spots underneath the leaves indicate the presence of a pest in massive proportions. With the smaller trees the solution has been to wash the foliage with soapy water and dislodge the bugs. This may need to be done again. How often this will need to be done is an outstanding question. With the larger trees the only thing to do initially is spray the entire foliage with the soapy solution. As a last resort it may mean spraying with vegetable oil.


Bobcat as in bull dozer or backhoe came to us via the local vet. A full male sent to the vet to be euthanized as the family no longer wanted his company. Apparently trying to starve him hadn’t worked as he still hung around although a bit leaner. You could see he was desperate for affection. Although wary,he still purred when stroked.  Getting to the stroking stage did take some time. The initial reaction was to place his mouth over your hand as a warning. Not bite enough to break the skin, but a definite warning to be careful.

Prior to arrival at the farm he was de-sexed. This must not be a pleasant event for a mature cat. The bobcatty area at the rear was definitely off limits to the human hand no matter how affectionate he became with time.
Bobcat’s arrival coincided with a rat plague in our ceiling space. The earlier attempts by others to starve him had created an efficient killing machine. Within a month very few rats survived. Those that did led a miserable existence; too afraid to come out they subsisted on glass wool insulation and wood.  Off came the roof one winter and the mess vacuumed, new insulation installed and all access areas vermin proofed. No more rats in the belfry. Bobcat turned his attention to the farm buildings to maintain his skill set.
Everyone (except a one-eyed cat called Lucinda) was frightened of Bobcat (including his new parents). He maintained a strict discipline. Out hunting (or playing cards and drinking with his mates – who knows?) all night then home promptly at 5am when the Friskies were put out for breakfast. The only one of five cats who could remember which was his bowl at meal time he would sit quietly at his bowl with tail neatly curled and wait patiently as long as needed for the food to be put out.
As time moved on the affection and trust from him grew and he became more and more touchable. The dogs still gave him a wide birth.
Then exactly a year ago he didn’t arrive for breakfast. His body was on the road 300 metres from the house. At first he looked as if asleep. A closer look showed a little blood on his mouth. The dear little bloke had been heading home for his breakfast and never made it. He’s buried at his favourite spot out the front of the house where he would sit and look over his valley thinking how lucky he was to find a good home.

New South Wales (Australia) Solar Bonus Scheme

This is an interesting scheme. Originally the state government only offered a net rebate i.e. you got paid for anything produced above your own consumption at the same rate you would pay for any kilowatts you used. Then came what seemed an extraordinary new scheme where you would be paid 60 cents per kW for all the electricity you produced while only paying back the 19 cents for what you consumed. On top of this was the federal government rebate up to $8000 depending on the size of your installation. The only provisos were that the scheme would be reviewed in 2 years or when the installed base reached 50 MW and the scheme would offer the rebate for 7 years from start up.
This original gross feed in rebate seemed very generous, but was it? The latest modification to the scheme of 20 cents per kW certainly makes it less of a business case to the point where it is really only for the conviction environmentalists, and even in that grouping only those with the income or assets to make the investment on any scale.
When assessing the business case or even the practicality of installing solar panels, there are some matters to be taken into account.
Firstly, if you are passionately green and have access to the funds required and are not concerned with the business case, then go for broke and put in the biggest system you can afford or fit on your block.
If not in the above group then look at the following points that need consideration:
1)   Remember from day one you will be still paying for your electricity at the current rate. So it is not free and you will still need to perform all the tasks that are recommended to keep your consumption down.  The price per kW has been going up each year. Last year it went up by 20%. This year, in our area, it went up another 20%. Why? Because the government decided it needed some money, not because the cost of generation went up or there was a carbon trading scheme. The government pocketed something like $200 M. They probably need the money to pay for the scheme.
2)   Each panel you buy has a rated output . Your chances of achieving that are zero or less. The rated output is based on that panel being in ideal conditions. Those conditions are as follows:
a)   The temperature at which the panels work best vary from brand to brand, some say 20 degrees Celsius and others 25 This means that the panels will be in ideal temperatures during very few times of the day and year depending on your location.  The hotter they get, the less efficient they become.
b)   The panel faces the sun at the correct angle both horizontally and vertically. Unless you buy a sun tracking unit or mount a hinged frame to adjust seasonally, then the angle will be incorrect most of the year, reducing efficiency.
c)   The sun is shining and not obscured by smoke, cloud or the shade of the trees nearby. Again conditions vary by location, but be assured there are plenty of unhelpful days.
3)   The payback period will be much longer than that advertised.
a)   If you were looking at a business case then a payback of 3-5 years or less is what you would like. If you are staring at a payback of 7-15 years then think about how much you would earn if you put that money aside and kept re-investing the interest. If you’ve borrowed the money, look at how much interest you will pay.
b)   Once the scheme goes back to net in seven years that may well be the time to look at what is available and at what cost. The money you have saved by not buying the system now may pay for the next generation system. Especially if the technology continues to advance at the current pace. Even the existing technology has decreased significantly in cost in just the last 12 months. How much cheaper will it be in a few years time as world production ramps up.
c)   If you have had the past opportunity to install the panels as a commercial arrangement i.e. as part of a business when the federal government was offering a 50% deduction on capital investment you would have been in a much better position especially with the rebate and the deduction of GST.
4)   Some people in our area who have installed panels have reported very poor results. One in particular reports the income being only 40% of the forecast amount. Another who has measured the KW output meticulously for the first 12 months reports a result of 60% efficiency.
5)   Then of course there are those areas that do not have the infrastructure to cope with the volume of electricity being fed back to the grid.
It seems the original scheme seemed too good to be true which means it was too good to be true. The happy side of the state’s cynical attempt to promote solar power was that it took off with a bang and generated lots of employment and made some businessmen wealthier. The not so happy side was that money came from lots of well intentioned people who were not provided with all the information they needed.
The problem with fixed price rebate is that it lends itself to be overtaken by the increasing price of power. A multiple of the price per KW scheme would have been better.
The scheme does not provide no interest loans which would make it viable to low income households.
The seven year time limit meant only earlier adopters could obtain maximum benefit. A 20 year scheme from day of installation is more realistic.
The only reason for mentioning this was we almost invested a small fortune in the scheme. After talking to a few implementers, obtaining quotes and spread sheeting some scenarios we realised that waiting was a much better option for us.

Summer Salad, Oysters, Preserved Lemons, Bread, Peacocks and Peahens, Chillies

Summer Salad

The problem with Summer is that everything grows so quickly. The lawns need constant attention, not so much for looks as to enable free passage and a clear vision of any resting snakes. The weeds in the vegetable beds aren’t dormant either. As quickly as the vegetables grow so do the weeds. The humidity and heat make working outdoors unpleasant and worse is the need to wear long pants and sleeves to protect against the sun. The hat to shade your face also keeps in the bodily heat. It’s for all these reasons that little in the way of capital works gets underway. Capital works include re-trellising the vineyard, a new front boundary fence, a bedroom that needs painting etc. Well at least you could say after a busy Autumn, Winter and Spring maybe it’s time to take some rest and recreation and read a book or three in the heat of the day.
Well, if the weeds grow well so do the salad ingredients. A salad we are enjoying at the moment reflects the Summer. Starting with onion halves thinly sliced and sprinkled with vinegar (red, white or apple cider), scrunched with your hand to bruise the onion and mixed in the vinegar. The tomatoes sliced and then the slices quartered not too thin and not too thick. Aim at some chunkiness but don’t overdo it. Then the cucumber, small Lebanese less than 25 mm in diameter with immature seeds sliced into 4-5 mm thick rounds. For larger cucumbers halve or quarter length wise first. If you have carrots cut lengthwise into quarters or smaller, then slice into little chunks. The aim is to get raisin sized pieces that won’t feel too heavy in the mouth. The same process with young immature raw zucchini and capsicum can be followed if you have them. Avocado can be added as well for some softness. A good sprinkling of chopped or crumbled feta. Finally a couple of boiled eggs also chopped. Mix it all up and add some olive oil or any dressing you like. The chunkiness of the salad truly reflects Summer.


About this time of year the oysters are beginning to come into their best. In our area the best time is from Christmas to Easter. Collection for us involves an hour’s round trip and to be economical we take the dogs to the beach for an important dose of salt water and some exercise. The oysters are collected on the way back. Not too many just four dozen enough for two nights.

Oysters still muddy
The oyster farmer and his wife have become friends over time. We bring along some surplus vegetables, cheese or wine as a friendly gesture. Later, when opening the oysters somehow the four dozen has grown considerably. I suppose they either breed in bucket on the way home or the oyster people have lost count. Either way it is a generous gesture on their part and we are loyal customers.

Preserved Lemons

There are two recipes we use which produce outstanding results. They differ significantly. One uses olive oil and salt while the other uses nothing but the salt and the lemon juice, best called Moroccan Lemons.

Moroccan Lemons

Moroccan Lemons

Use as many lemons as you want.
Slice the lemons into quarters but leave the quarters attached. Put a table spoon of salt into the sliced lemon and stuff into the jar. Pack tightly and be generous with the salt. When the jar is fully packed, top up with lemon juice from spare lemons. Seal and leave for at least a month. They keep forever. Once the jar is open keep it in the refrigerator. A quarter or two goes nicely with all sorts of dishes. They are so tasty they even work with scrambled eggs.

Preserved Lemons

450 gm Lemons sliced thickly
¼ cup salt
5 cloves garlic finely minced
5 tablespoons crushed hot chillies
3 cups olive oil
Salt the lemon slices and pack into one litre jars with the chillies and garlic mixed throughout.
Heat the oil in a saucepan until hot (but not hot enough to break the glass jars then top up jars.
Leave the jars in a warm oven for 2-4 hours
These lemons age well and the juices form a lovely pungent jelly. Ideal for additions to Indian or Moroccan dishes. Chopped finely it is excellent for making Moroccan olives


After making bread for going on 25 years it may surprise everyone that we just might be getting the hang of it. We both noted this week that we have had several consecutive successes ie the dough has risen well, the centre hasn’t dropped as it sometimes does and the loaf cooked nicely throughout. It seems after many years of mucking about with varying recipes, we have hit upon the few important things. Well at least the few important things that work for our method. The basic ingredients have stayed the same as the simple recipe in the bread making machine’s book. What has always beaten us is that our coarsely ground wholemeal flour behaves differently with differing results. The changes that have worked for us are that there is only one rising. It is ready to bake when it reaches a certain height up the tin. This height has been ascertained by trial and error. Too high and the loaf slumps, too low and the bread is heavy. The second key item is more water to make a stickier mix. It works. The substitution of milk for water also works well and appears to give a better rise. Finally, a longer cooking time finishes the loaf nicely. We have no plans to go commercial but at least we make a reliable loaf for ourselves with more successes than failures.

Peacocks and Peahens

Nearly 20 years ago we acquired a peahen. It wasn’t all that long afterward a mature peacock arrived seeking love and companionship.

The favourite food of peacocks seems to be birds eye chillies, semi ripe blueberries, boysenberries and gooseberries. There are always enough chillies to around but we are yet to taste the blueberries, boysenberries and gooseberries
There was some breeding in the early years but disease, foxes and rehousing kept the numbers down. The biggest issue was at breeding time ie September through to April two males find it difficult to co-exist. Endless chases around the house and paddock. The eldest peacock ‘Big’ was a bit of a gentleman and treated his young son with some kindness. Unfortunately ‘Young’ left for better pastures. His replacement was soon named ‘Head‘. He was un-relentless in the pursuit of ‘Big’. ‘Big’s’ advanced age and arthritis led to his demise one night. A very sad event after nearly 20 years of his presence and friendly shared breakfasts where he would take titbits from your hand.
The unpleasantness of this combatative nature of males dictated that we would no longer breed. This has led to another great sadness. The peahen has tried over a number of years to produce offspring. One Summer perched on the water tank she had to be hosed repeatedly to keep her alive in 40 degree Celsius heat. Like all good mothers she was willing to die for her young. The job of destroying her eggs either by removal or drilling holes was always unpleasant. But the sadness of the failed mother was really devastating. Someone who just wants the warmth of her own kind to raise and cannot achieve that position. Whenever she sees a chicken mother with a brood of little chicks she just stops and stares, a great sadness shows in her eyes.
But the reality must be faced each year that they cannot survive in this area without protection and that protection can only be offered to a few.


There was always this impression that there were mustard eaters and chilli eaters. This is no longer true. After many years of weeping eyes, running nose and burning mouth our mustard eater has acclimatised to chillies while still enjoying mustard. The pain and half eaten meals have been worth it. What a wonder of nature!
Dried Chillies
During the year our many chilli plants produce copious amounts of fruit. One bush has larger mild chillies ,while the other has small very hot little babies. Most of the time we will use the fresh chillies to spice up a dish but from time to time the bushes are bare and we keep a reservoir of dried chopped fruit.
Putting together a store of dried chopped chillies is quite easy. When in its peak the chilli bush is covered in fruit. Once every week or so it’s easy to spend a few minutes collecting a small quantity and laying them out to dry on racks. We are fortunate to have some retired pasta drying racks. This is merely a set of wood frames with some flyscreen as a base. To protect the mesh we lay down a few sheets of newspaper. Gradually over a period of months a good supply of dried chillies is built up.
The processing step again is simple, although care should be taken to not get the dust into eyes. We use a food processor with the blender attachment to coarsely chop the fruit. After processing the material is warm. To ensure it is completely dried the lid of the container is left off for a couple of days.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sawdust, Garlic, Mower Blades, Camembert, Cucumbers, Beans and Zucchini, Roasted Tomato Chutney


At the beginning of Spring all the sawdust in the chook yard was shovelled out and most of it used to make beds for the tomatoes and melons and some put aside for use in other vegetable beds. After nearly 12 months of being scratched and manured by the chickens it was full of nutrients and well broken down. Finally this week it was replaced with fresh sawdust, 150-200 mm thick. If it is made too thick it forms a hard pan and needs to be chipped part way through the year to ensure it is fully aerated and exposed to droppings. The easiest way to obtain sawdust is from any nearby sawmill by the truck load. 20 cubic metres lasts many years as long as there is somewhere to store it. Luckily in this area there is also a small holder with his own mill who cuts the odd log. He happily lets you take his waste for nothing. He even loads your trailer with his bobcat.
One of the advantages of having a few acres is the space to use a tractor, and one of the advantages of a tractor is its ability to have an hydraulic bucket on the front. One of the advantages of a hydraulic bucket is the ability to move large volumes of sawdust. There is nothing like a little mechanisation to speed up tasks. The tractor has a slasher attached partly to counter balance a full bucket and partly because it is the most used implement. Rather than remove the slasher to tow the trailer of sawdust to the chook run there is a tow ball welded to the slasher. This makes quite a long train moving through the orchard, but it works.
It is also useful to have one end of the chook run opening completely with a large, hinged panel. The panel is large enough to enable the tractor loader to fit through.


Garlic in Drying Racks
The annual supply of garlic was harvested this week. Looking at some of the varieties it seems we may have left a couple a little late as the corms had split open. Some of this is due to the wet conditions. There are seven varieties we have collected over the years. Some have been found in supermarkets and some through seed suppliers. Mainly we keep the purple (tinged) varieties because they have higher levels of allicin – the stuff that is good for health. There is some variation in corm size. Since the beds were identically prepared this must be just a seasonal variation. We always plant the largest bulbs to ensure we maximise the end result.

Mower blades

With a property resplendent with rocks no matter how many are removed to a rock repository, more seem to emerge from the ground. These sneaky little beasts cause the ride on mower a lot of problems. Not so much it seems in blunting the blades as in curving the blades upward. The end result is a very poor cutting edge. A simple solution has been to grip the leading edge of the blade in a shifting spanner and twist the blade back to horizontal. A little angle grinding also helps provide an edge. After every mowing, some time is spent digging out newly exposed rocks with the hope that one day they will stop growing.


The Raw Product

As an extra treat for Christmas, some camembert was made this week. About 12-15 litres of raw milk resulted in 15 small rounds which should be just about ready in time for Christmas day. At the very least it will be pleasantly edible even if it hasn’t reached that runny stage. Normally the mould spore added would be Penicilium Candidum but just for a change Geotricum Candidum was used. Because of the change, the recipe was followed meticulously. Past experiments have involved using the Brie recipe but the Camembert size small rounds. That blend has worked well for us. However, when trying something new for the first time, past results have shown it is always better to be exacting with the first trial batch before deviating.

Camembert Forms

Once made, the small rounds need a humid environment in which to mature. Refrigerators will dry out anything left uncovered. The solution is simple: place the cheeses on a tray and place the tray inside an air tight plastic bag. Seal the bag with a couple of twists and a twist tie. The moisture in the cheese will provide sufficient humidity; if it doesn’t just put a table spoon of water in the bag underneath the tray. The bags can be cleaned in the washing machine and reused many times.

Under wraps ripening

A nice big slice runny Camembert on some toast, with a glass of chilled wine is a most pleasant experience. Unfortunately, once it ripens, there is only a short period before it begins to get an ammonia smell and then sadly for us and happily for the chickens it is consigned to the girls. Progressively we have reduced the number made and increased the frequency to try and balance this situation. In addition, eating a few just that little bit earlier has provided some longevity in consumption.

Some Finished Product

The cheese fridge is reasonably full at the moment. The door has 7 Parmesans aging while in the shelving there are a few Swiss and Cheddars maturing. As always, a goodly amount of Fetta is in a light brine – this keeps very well and is easily made in large batches. As Summer is with us and tomatoes are coming on, a reasonable amount of Haloumi is on hand. Again, this is one that keeps very well in its brine solution. A short soaking in water removes much of the salt and then fried both sides so that it gets a little golden brown provides a nice topping to thick slices of fresh tomato. It has got to be one of the best Summer nibbles around with the harder texture and saltiness of the cheese balancing against that enticing tomato smell and flavour.

Asparagus weed update

Previously there was a mention of an invasive weed that appears to have held back the growth of the 4 year old asparagus. Well, the non chemical solution seems to be working as far as removing its presence. Initially, a number of hours of thorough weeding were completed, then on successive days much less time was spent going over the bed as a follow up, picking out any roots that were missed. Starting with a daily weeding in the first week, moving to weeding every couple of days for another fortnight, and then once a week. Finally, it is now just casting an eye over the bed for the telltale leaf structure and spot weeding as necessary and carefully following the root down until it is completely removed. The edges of the bed have been closely examined and weeded to depth. It appears this constant harassment has weakened the plant to a point of near extinction. The asparagus has suffered a little with having some roots disturbed and occasional minor damage to the crown. Hopefully it will now be free to grow robustly for the remainder of the season. To ensure maximum benefit no further picking was conducted allowing all energy to go towards plant strength.

Cucumbers, Beans and Zucchini

As always happens at this time of the year, there is a surplus of cucumbers, beans and zucchini. Many friends also grow vegetables, these three are not in short supply with them. Fortunately there are always a few city friends who appreciate a gift of fresh produce. The cattle have developed a taste for fresh garden produce and have no trouble eliminating any bumper harvest every day. So tasty are these vegetables, they’re whipped straight from the hand with a long, snaking tongue. It’s good to see nothing being wasted.
While speaking of cucumbers, it is only fair to mention the Japanese Climbing Cucumber. This incredible plant grows relatively slowly, as does its fruit. The fruit reaches large proportions at maturity, in the vicinity of 400 mm. Until it reaches full size, the seeds are still immature it is delicious and tender.

Tomato recipe

After having made the generalisation that no recipes will be published in this blog unless they are simple and delicious it seems that the very next posting will contravene that rule. But, this recipe is incredibly delicious even if not all that simple. It can be made in large batches and stored in small jars and eaten in smaller amounts to spin out the supply so the memory of the hard work involved fades. It goes really nicely with meat.
The recipe comes from Gay Bilson’s book Plenty.
Roasted Tomato Chutney
2 tbs black mustard seeds
400 ml malt vinegar
5 kg ripe tomatoes
300 ml Olive oil
200 g chopped ginger
20 cloves garlic
10 birds eye chillies
2 tbs turmeric
4 tbs roasted cumin seeds
2 tbs sambal olek (chillies in salt) (or just some ground chillies as we used)
250 gms palm sugar
100 ml fish sauce
Soak the mustard seed overnight in malt vinegar
Peel (we don’t) the tomatoes and roast in olive oil for up to 3 hours at 200 degrees Celsius. Don’t roast too many at once otherwise the steam will stop the roasting process. They should be dark and almost dry.
Blend all the remaining ingredients and simmer the resulting paste for up to an hour.
Add the tomatoes and their roasting oil. Add more oil if necessary.

Backyard Chickens – Part 2 Housing

Backyard Chickens – Part 2 Housing

Chook Knox

Enthusiasm can be a double edged sword, if I may use a clich̩. And I know that better than most. Having decided that you want to get some chickens Рand that has been a well thought out idea, weighing up not only the delights and benefits, but the ongoing commitment and work Рthen the first area you must place your enthusiasm is in the housing. This may appear a rather boring expression of that enthusiasm you feel, but without predator proof and appropriate accommodation, your enthusiasm and, more worryingly, the girls themselves, may all disappear down the throat of a fox or some other local animal in the space of several minutes. If not a predator, then in our typical Summer conditions, the chickens can die of heat exhaustion as they crowd into the pen seeking shade.
Either of these scenarios is a most distressing sight and, in most cases, can and must be avoided.
On our farm, housing has been given a lot of thought and has been built with several important ideas incorporated. That said, in reality the hens and roosters don’t spend all that much time there. Perfect; they are out grazing, foraging, dust bathing and just generally chatting with friends, rather than being cooped up and confined to a set piece of ground. A “set piece of ground” to us implies barrenness, parasite conditions, boredom, poor health and poorer quality eggs.
Just as dark settles on the farm, one of us goes out to lock up. We leave it until this late – we have been forced to leave it until this late –because by then we are assured that the last stop out has gone to bed. They love being out all day and almost appear a little reluctant to have to stop the delights of the day. I guess that when life is stress free, safe, communal and all your basic needs are met, then why would you want one day to end! Couldn’t we humans learn a lot here!


In line with t he permaculture zones concept, chickens should be close to the house. Firstly, so they can be enjoyed visually (and on a one to one basis). Secondly, they need to be  accessed several times each day: let out, fed, watered, eggs collected and locked up. Thirdly, any issues can be heard or sighted if they are nearby.

Feed Containers.

We have used a number of different feed containers in the past and found them unsuccessful. The big bin which is filled irregularly and fed out from a shallow rim at the base was found to be wasteful. Rather than clean up the lot, the girls pick the best and flick out the rest. It also precludes from easily changing the feed routine. We now have some large rubber tyres cut in half. They are easily cleaned and the amount of feed regulated daily so the girls clean up completely.

Water Containers

Water needs to be cool. Automatic drinkers are fine as long as the source of water and the lines are shaded. We use fairly large plastic containers which carry about 10 litres of water. There is a tap and hose near the pen for washing and refreshing these. During baby chick time a couple of bricks in and out of the containers provide a safe entry and exit for little ones.


Protection from the Southerly and Westerly wind is by having the house with blank walls to those directions. North or East facing is good.

Yard Size

This is dependent on the number of birds and whether or not the girls are let out each day. Ours have a predator free Orchard in which to roam and do not need a massive yard size but large enough to potter about in the early hours before we release them.

House Size and Perches

From a maintenance point, it is best to have a house in which you fit comfortably. Getting inside the house daily to collect eggs is a good way to inspect conditions and make prompt decisions about cleaning and maintenance. So a height of 2.1 metres and width and depth adequate to take all the nesting boxes and perches with space for you to access the boxes is good. Each bird needs room to perch. In hot times they need more space, when cool they will snuggle together. Allow about 300 mm per chicken on average. We use a tiered structure and keep the perches up high so that cleaning underneath is easy; birds like to be up high too. The roof of the house extends forward about 1.5 metres outside the house providing shelter from the rain for feeders and chickens. It also serves as another way of stopping the sun beating directly on the front of the house.

Nest boxes

Laying hens need about 1 nesting box for every 5 hens. There are many different designs. Some people use old lawn mower catchers and others 20 litre square drums with the top or front cut out; be certain all edges are smooth to avoid injuries. Roughly, the size of each nest should be about 300 mm x 350 mm. If a fully enclosed box is used allow a front height of 300-350 mm and a little more at the rear. Check the size of your chickens too and make sure they will fit comfortably, and can easily access and exit the nest

General protection from the elements

Some deciduous shade trees have been planted to help cool the house and yard during Summer, particularly on the western side. A misting type watering outlet is located on the roof and can be activated on the worst Summer days to ensure coolness. Also a strong trellis has been constructed to wrap around the actual house. It has been built about a metre out form the exterior of the house and a Passionfruit vine planted to climb up and around the trellis to provide further shade protection and fruit for us. You could use a grape vine or any hardy, rampant grower, preferably one that produces some food for you and/or the chooks.

Maintenance and practical features

Our pen is divided into two units with a joining door. Sometimes when we want to isolate some birds ,we shut the internal door. This is handy when introducing new chickens.
The entire front of each half is a door which can be opened to allow a trailer or small tractor to enter.
Although the floor is a dirt base with sawdust infill, the entire structure sits on a concrete foundation raised about 300 mm off the ground. This keeps the sawdust in and the digging predators out. We raised the entire steel pipe framework off the ground which reduces corrosion possibilities; chicken manure is very corrosive. Full galvanised steel pipe forms the frame for the heavy duty chicken wire (the chicken wire is also used to enclose the top of the pen and yard too in order to stop bird flying in and taking eggs. This butts up against the wood frame house which is clad in coated galvanised corrugated steel sheeting. Care has been taken to reduce gaps to a size which prevents goannas from entering.
The access doors, suitable to admit a 2m tall person without stooping, are steel pipe frames with chicken wire infill. The latches are accessible from inside and outside the pen. The house area is three sided with a flat roof ; the fourth side is covered in shade cloth for better ventilation. This is the side facing the north easterly direction.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cultured Butter, Nuts, Olive Oil Storage, Tomato Ketchup, Buying Wine, Manure, Firewood, Tools and Generosity

Cultured Butter

Most weeks we make a little butter. Because the milk is collected in a 20 litre container and repackaged into one litre bottles, the cream rises to the top after a day or two. All we do is decant the top 25-50 mm into a jug whenever a fresh bottle is opened. Sometimes we pour the entire 20 litres into our 25 litre stainless steel cheese vat and set the spare refrigerator to a low temperature overnight. This facilitates the cream rising and the broad surface area of the vat enables a quick collection of cream.

Cultured Butter

For ordinary butter it is a simple matter of using the electric mixer to churn away until the butter forms. Our Kenwood Chef has a clear plastic cover plate for the bowl which stops splashes making a mess. Once the butter forms, pour off the butter milk for own consumption or feeding to the chooks. Stirring and rinsing the butter in fresh cool water is done as often as needed until the rinse water isn’t cloudy. If the butter is not for immediate consumption, we store in glass or food grade, freezer tolerant plastic containers with a small piece of paper inside giving the date. These keep very well in a normal freezer.
Of recent, we have become devotees of cultured butter. All this involves is a little starter culture stirred in and left at room temperature for 16 hours. Because the cream is still cold when we start we only begin counting the 16 hours from when the temperature reaches about 20 degrees Celsius. The starter culture is from Cheeselinks but any good supplier of cheese making supplies will be able to recommend the appropriate starter.
Cultured butter has an extra dimension of flavour and texture. We don't bother salting as we find the pure taste very acceptable.

Chestnut Catkins

Hazel Nuts
Over the last few weeks the various nut trees have flowered and have now formed catkins or nuts. For only the second time we have Hazel Nuts and for the first time Pecans. One of the Almonds has a small crop while the other is bare. As usual the Macadamia trees are laden. These are so consistent that they have become our staple. The chestnuts are producing as well although in past years the fruit has been disappointingly small. Our Winters are not really cold enough for them.


500 ml Storage Jars

Olive Oil Storage

When buying olive oil in bulk such as 3, 4 or 20 litre containers, we try to ensure that as little oxygen as possible interacts with the oil. The 3 and 4 litre containers once opened are decanted into 500 ml glass bottles and corked while a 20 litre is decanted into glass flagons of 2-3 litres and then these, once opened, moved to 500 ml bottles. The glass containers are kept out of sunlight. This may seem tedious but it ensures the oil is kept at its freshest.

Tomato Ketchup Recipe

There seems no value in publishing a recipe if it is just mediocre. Unless it’s an outstanding recipe in terms of simplicity and taste it won't get a mention in this blog. Hence with tomato season upon us, here is a recipe which is superb, can be made in large batches, has a long shelf life and all the ingredients apply to the same season. The recipe is sourced from Mike Michaelson's book A Tomato Cookbook and it’s called Fresh Tomato Ketchup. We have modified it slightly to make a chunky ketchup rather than a sieved sauce. It is a delicious adjunct to scrambled eggs or omelettes and many other dishes.
u  4.5 KG fresh chopped Tomatoes
u  2 cups chopped onions
u  3 cups chopped seeded capsicum (red if available otherwise we use green)
u  4 tsp whole Allspice or 2 tsp ground
u  1 tsp whole cloves
u  1 tsp whole black peppercorns
u  1 cup cider vinegar
u  2/3 cup sugar or less to taste
u  2 tsp paprika
u  1 tsp celery seed
u  1 tsp mustard powder
u  2 tbs salt
Cook first three ingredients together in a large kettle, uncovered for 30 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients. You can put the chunkier spices into a bag for removal before bottling. We don’t bother. Bring to the boil for a few minutes then bottle in small jars.

Wine $

We love our wine and we love exploring different brands and varieties. In order to show some restraint in our purchases, we set ourselves a maximum limit of $12 per bottle (give or take a dollar or so). Be assured there are an unlimited number of quality wines available within this price limit. However, as with all things there is always one that eludes the price limit, usually an import from a very special region with wonderful health giving benefits or a particular variety which is highly regarded and rare.
To overcome this price restraint has proved not excessively difficult. It is a matter of averages. As most stores offer an attractive discount for purchasing by the case it makes sense to collect a dozen different tasting samples and make good the discount. Given that, with a price ceiling of $12 that sets the case limit at $144. Naturally some of the samples will fall well below the $12. This allows the surplus from each bottle to be accumulated and put towards that sought after rarity which may be winking at you from the $25 shelf. In desperation you can buy two cases or more. This provides some additional surplus dollars should the apple of your eye be significantly higher. So, as long as when you are loading the rear of your car with the purchases you can confidently divide the total spent by the number of bottles and arrive at a number that is 12 or less, you are sitting pretty.
A frugal life does not have to be a life devoid of simple pleasures, whether of the eye or the palate.

Manure, Firewood, Tools and Generosity of Spirit

We normally collect our weekly quota of milk during milking time as it is easier to fill a 20 litre container from the pipe going to the vat than ladle it from the vat a litre at a time afterwards. As part of the visit, it seems only polite to stop and chat to the farmer and pitch in with helping to wash out. The opportunity of company is warmly received and to shorten the milking time with some assistance is always valued. Most small dairy farmers spend a lot of time working on their own and generally they are a social group. It wasn't long before this routine of stop and chat and wash out moved to helping with the fitting and removing cups as the chat extended. This once weekly visit became a valued addition to the loneliness of milking and the dairy farmer reciprocated in kind.
One thing that dairy farmers have a lot of is manure. It accumulates rapidly and usually in places where it is not required. The offer was simple. If we wanted to remove the manure out the dairy yard (a concrete pad at the entrance to the dairy) from time to time we could keep all the manure. Well what a bonus! Endless amounts of manure for the orchard. Each pick up every 3 to 4 weeks resulted in nearly a trailer load. This was dumped in windrows between the fruit trees in the orchard. The chooks were in heaven spending all day scratching and spreading with their legs, showing brown high tide marks by day’s end.

Four Barrows of Manure after two Weeks
And then of course there was the Christmas Bonus ie a share of the sediment pond when it is cleared annually. This provided 3 or 4 groaning trailer loads of soft well fermented manure.
One of the continuous tasks on any large property is the renewal of fencing. On a dairy farm this is particularly evident as the property is broken into many more grazing cells. This farm had been in the family for generations and the farmer is in the midst of replacing grandfather’s fences on the rich alluvial flats. A lot of time is spent pulling and winding up kilometres of rusty barbed wire before removing the aged ironbark posts and in some cases even rails.
We seem to be always on the lookout for firewood for heating during winter and the idea dawned that a trade may be possible to the benefit of both parties. The idea was broached and accepted enthusiastically. In return for removing the fences we keep the very aged timber. In addition, we could use the farm equipment to do the task. This was soon followed by the offer of paid work to assist in the erection of the new fencing.

Fence Posts for Firewood
From time to time we have a need to borrow specialised tools or equipment from friends or neighbours. Usually items which you would only use once in a while and not something to justify a purchase. We always return them promptly and in better working order if possible. A sharpened chainsaw, a little rust removed and paint applied, fuel topped up, some oil or grease where necessary or even some cheese and wine as a thank you. It’s not surprising that these friends and neighbours are enthusiastic about putting their tools in our safe hands. Our belief is that along with the tools comes the responsibility of fixing it if you break it.
We have a strong belief that it is important to be generous with your time and to demonstrate willingness to do a good job and to not have expectations and not want something for nothing. The benefit of having no expectations is that you cannot be disappointed only gladdened when reciprocal generosity is demonstrated.

Backyard Chickens Part One Introduction

The Girls
We love chooks! To see them sailing, like small, curved ships, around the farm or garden is so relaxing and pleasurable. Our girls (and their roosters) spend their days grazing on green grass and dust bathing in the Orchard and Nuttery. They give so much: delicious, nutritious eggs, high nitrogen fertilizer, a meal if you can arrange for them to be humanely ‘processed’ (a nice euphemism for killed and dressed). They also give companionship and a great deal of fun and pleasure.
There has been a resurgence of interest in being a “backyarder”, the name given to people who keep a few chooks to supply eggs, as opposed to the “fancier” who usually specialises in a particular breed or two and focuses on the breeding of specified characteristics. We are very happy to be a backyarder as, underneath this conservative, middle aged exterior there may lay a touch of the animal liberationist.
If people are interested in acquiring some girls, and perhaps their male counterpart, there really needs to be some serious planning and preparation before the girls arrive. Like everything, they need a comfortable, safe house and yard; they need good quality food, companionship and room to move and express their personalities. And personalities they do have!
For gardeners, it may be better to keep garden and girls separated. What gardeners call mulch or compost, chooks call food. And they are very efficient foragers. So they can be great little helpers under fruit trees for example, as they will scratch and graze on bugs and pests, as well as any fallen fruit. They leave their droppings around the area which helps feed the worms and other living organisms in the soil. This chook manure is quite high in nitrogen and is excellent for some high foliage plants but can burn others; left to break down or incorporated into the compost, it is terrific stuff.
What they eat, can lead to what you eat, most quickly as eggs. We run our small farm organically/biodynamically. Therefore, no chemicals are used on any plant or animal; the girls can safely eat anything they are given access to, as we can. The eggs are as Nature intended. Most commercial eggs, in particular those labelled as ‘cage’, but also the “free range” or “barn laid” rarely see a blade of grass. The very nature of being a large scale, commercial producer necessitates the need for volume. Too many chooks on any amount of land leads to dirt, at best (battery hens don’t even have access to this!).
Hens need green grass (and what lives in and under the grass), as do most farm animals. It is what they were intended to eat. It supplies them with good amounts of Omega 3 fatty acids (albeit in a different form to those found in fish, but still very beneficial to our brains and cardiovascular systems in particular) as well as carotenoids in the form of beta carotene (a precursor to Vitamin A). This helps to give the eggs that golden colour and the long list of vitamins and minerals. Commercial feeds often contain an additive to colour the yolk. Hens who graze all day have higher amounts of Vitamin D, a vitamin now believed to be very important in helping to avoid osteoporosis by assisting the body to absorb calcium and deposit minerals on the bones. We get Vitamin D from sunlight on the skin, but the body’s ability to utilise and convert the sunlight decreases as we age, hence the need to include this vitamin in our diet.
Of an evening, we supplement this grazing diet with some whole grains. They love them, and the various grains we give them (corn, wheat, unhulled sunflower seeds mainly) supply some Omega 6s, of which chooks and us need less than what has become fairly prominent in the human and animal diet. Too much of these Omega 6s are now being blamed for inflammation in the body which is being increasingly linked with diseases such as arthritis, rheumatism, digestive problems, skin reactions, stress and also heart disease. The list goes on.
So what the chooks eat is really important to their health, longevity and happiness, as it is to ours. By allowing the girls to lead a healthy and contented life, they contribute to our own health, happiness and longevity.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cattle Feeding, Fixing Things, Bitter Melon, Bulk Meat & Home Kills, Home Brew Beer

Cattle Feeding

Companion Steer
Today we moved the cattle (all three) into our best grazing paddock. This is the one in which we have grown tomatoes and melons in different patches over the last 15 or 16 years. The small section allocated as the Tomato and Melon bed this year is protected by an electric fence. Part of the paddock was slashed nearly three months ago and with the ample rain, has grown a solid cover of various grasses. The animals ran into the grass and the sound of ripping grass and munching was evident. This is probably one of the most pleasing sounds.

Fixing Things

Rechargeable Torch
Over the years we have collected a few expired, rechargeable torches. They were kept for spare parts as we always purchased the same make and model. While scavenging for a spare part, the realisation dawned that with a simple modification some standard rechargeable AA batteries could be utilised to replace the originals. It is a shame it took so long for this to become apparent. Now we have a bank of working rechargeable torches to choose from.
Just to boost our stockpile in this area we found an almost new waterproof torch washed up on the beach during a recent walk with the dogs. The battery was one of those large 6 volt non rechargeable models. After carefully prising open the black battery box and removing old batteries it was a matter of fitting an alternative. There were two spare 3 volt batteries from an old non digital camera that provided the immediate solution. When these die they will be replaced with an assembly of rechargeable batteries.
Having been spurred on by the success with torches, when our very expensive can opener ceased operation it was dismantled and the broken component replaced. It was just a matter of finding a piece of scrap metal to serve as a handle. This can opener removes the lid by cutting inside the rolled lip without leaving any sharp edges. The task took less than an hour. The dollar saving was substantial.
Unfortunately, we live in a throw away world where repairs are more expensive than replacement. This never takes into account real cost on the environment of replacement nor disposal of the expired item. There is an image in our minds of large amounts of raw material being dug out of a giant pit. An enormous factory is built and fed by electricity generated by a power station belching smoke. At some point, a pristine cardboard box exits from a door to be loaded onto a container ship and delivered to our house. Very shortly afterwards this $10 item stops functioning and goes into landfill nearby. Maybe we could skip a few steps and save all that hassle. Just on principle, we are prepared to expend a little time and attempt to patch and repair.

Bitter Melon

Bitter Melon Vine
The Bitter Melon seeds we planted had a bit of a chequered start. Something managed to nibble away at the seeds as they poked their heads above the ground. Nonetheless, these things are pretty hardy. They struggled on through this early adversity and are now thriving. Seems they must be a very hardy plant.
Once the fruit is available they become an addition to any stir fries. The bitterness when cook is apparent but not abhorrent. This provides a nice little dimension in flavour. Wikipedia provides a substantial amount of detail on its medicinal and culinary values. 

Bulk Meat – Home Kills

Although one of us is a vegetarian, meat still plays a part in our food requirements especially with cats who love their mince and dogs who love some meaty bones. Often it is possible to pick up scraps of meat and bone from the supermarket where they are packaged and labelled as pet pieces. We are fortunate to have access to a number of small farmers who happily sell an entire beast as a home kill. The price per kilogram is the equivalent to the pet pieces but is much more than the farmer producer would expect to obtain through the normal commercial sale.
The animal is sent to the abattoir and the carcase forwarded to our local butcher. The butcher is most helpful organising the cuts to suite our needs ie no corned beef or sausages and more mince and pieces for the dogs. There is an option to pay a little extra and have everything pre-packaged in small packs and individually labelled. We choose to collect the cuts in bulk, package and label ourselves.

Frozen Home Kill

The usual arrangement is for our solitary human omnivore to start with the best cuts while the dogs and cats start at the other end. All seem to be happy with this arrangement.
Our only lament is for the arrangement we had on our previous property where a skilled neighbour would attend the property and dispatch the animal in question while it quietly grazed, eliminating any stress. The body would then be hung for the appropriate time in a cool room and then cut to suite by this home butcher.
The last comment we have on home kills is on the feeding regime. If you must eat meat, a grass fed animal is the best for you. Grain feeding is an unnatural diet for cattle, sheep and pigs. This overloads their system with Omega 6 fatty acids which find their way into your diet. So unnatural is the grain diet that in order to prevent ketosis and other issues, the grain is supplemented with a low level antibiotic and other additives. More importantly, a grass diet usually means that the animal has lived a natural existence.

Home Brew Beer

Home Brew Fermenter
There are some very tasty beers available on the market and some of these are expensive. Alongside them is a swag of mediocre brews at varying prices. Although we like to try some of these quality items from time to time it is a practical and enjoyable measure to brew the bulk of our requirements ourselves.
Some people have superb palates and every nuance of the flavour profile stands out for them. We are not in that category but we can discern rubbish when it enters a glass. Hence, we don’t go to outrageous lengths to make the ultimate beer. Our makings are perfectly acceptable to the average set of taste buds.
The perfectionist home brewer will start with grains, hops, yeast and water and with considerable skill produce a superb beer to be savoured by the experts.
The next level down is to buy a high quality (and price) kit beer with some additional bits and pieces such as hops and/or special grains to enhance the kit and bring it closer to its suggested style. Some home brew shops have developed these recipes from arduous and selfless testing as well as input from their customers. Home brewers are a generous crowd who are willing not only to share their secret recipes, but also the outcomes.
Moving down the scale, the next level and probably the most utilised is the standard beer kit from the supermarket or home brew shop. Extremely inexpensive and able to pass muster as a good beer assuming the various hygiene processes are followed.
Lastly, there is the old family recipe handed down from first born to first born involving the basic of all ingredients: brown sugar, water, golden syrup and hops with a little molasses for flavour. A robust ale not to everyone’s taste, more for a memory of leaner times.
After trying the family recipe for a time we moved onto the basic supermarket kit some of which were pretty reasonable and of late some are very good. For such specialist items as homemade Guinness we use a local brew shop’s fully tested combination of extras and output a brew which in blind tastings gives the real stuff a run for its money.
Hygiene is a critical factor in producing a good quality result. Sterilising the fermentation vessel and the bottles is mandatory. A little aging (6-18 months) adds a lot of flavour, particularly with the heavier beers such as stout. Wheat beer though doesn’t improve with age, best drunk within a couple of weeks, after that it doesn’t change.
The best time to brew is in the cooler months when the fermentation naturally takes a little longer. Put down a few batches initially to provide a buffer that has some bottles receiving that needed bottle aging. Bottles, both full and half size, suite us best although some enthusiasts skip this tedious step and use CO2 to gas up their kegs which are kept on tap in their own refrigerator. For the enthusiast this takes out a number of additional steps but may create difficulty in tracking consumption.