Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Rehabilitating our property OR how to choose a small farm

This is a post from February 2011, back when we only had Eight Acres and were working on fixing the soil fertility and clearing the paddocks.  A few thoughts on what you can do with a small property.

This is the second small farm/acreage property that we've lived on.  The first one, in the Lockyer Valley, was fairly flat and cleared of all but a few tall trees, with two good dams and few rocks or weeds.  We were hoping to find something even nicer when we moved to Nanango, but we couldn't find anything in our price range, so settled for one of the cheapest options we could find.

We didn't know how lucky we were with the first property!  It was selected by Pete for its dirt bike riding potential more than any small farming ideas, but it worked out just perfectly when our focus changed to self-sufficiency.  The place we found at Nanango is steep, rocky, weedy and the dam was quite saline when we first arrived, but it was cheap and had a perimeter fence.

One of the paddocks that we haven't cleared yet.

This lead us to investigate how we could rehabilitate the property.  Unfortunately, most small acreage blocks (5-20 acre) will have similar problems, that's why they were split off the main farm in the first place.  They tend to have less fertile land and more rocks or be a steep area of the farm.  This is compounded by the popularity of horses on small blocks.  It seems that horse owners often underestimate how much a horse will eat, or overestimate how many horses a small property will sustain, in any case, horses are picky eaters and can quickly strip all the good grass, leaving only weeds.  We were lucky that our property had six months to recover from the previous owner's horses before we moved in.  We were then very careful to rest the paddocks to let the grass grow back in between grazing.  We have seen some devastated properties around to Lockyer Valley due to overstocking of horses.

We have tried to follow the principles of Natural Sequence Farming described in Peter Andrews' books "Beyond the Brink" and "Back from the Brink".  Most of the these techniques have to be adapted for small properties as some of our problems, such as the salinity, originate on a neighbour's property and its difficult to do much about that, but we are doing what we can within our own boundaries.

Firstly, we have been removing any weeds that are poisonous to the cattle (especially lantana) and any small wattle saplings, and then slashing the rest of the paddock.  This provides plenty of mulch to start to build up the soil fertility again.  We have also been putting out grass seed and trace minerals to improve the pasture.  This is starting to work (and we've been very lucky with this recent rainy season) and the paddocks are becoming far more productive.

One of the cleared paddocks.

Some of our neighbour's Lantana.

We are also picking up rocks as we find them and using them in our drain.  Unfortunately, with our steep property, the shed has been placed so that during heavy rain, water pools around the base and leaks in.  Our neighbour used his tractor to dig out a drain around the shed and we are trying to get some more grass to grow on the slope above it to stabalise it.  We also need to fence it off to keep the steers out so they don't stamp all over it.  (See more about how we've improved this eroded area here).

The drain around our shed when arrived (Bruce on the edge of the shot)

Our remodelled drain, soon to be fenced off from the cattle.

Our dam turned out to be a little saline, but is ok for the cattle to drink.

We would like to do more about the dam salinity problem, but it seems to be coming from our neighbour's property.  We have walked around and tested all the dams in our immediate area with a conductivity meter and found that the salt is coming from our neighbour's dam and moving across our property and into the neighbours on the other side.  We suspect that the saltiest dam has been dug too deep and hit a layer of underground salt water.  Peter Andrews talks about this in his books.  We think the only long-term solution would be to fill in the neighbour's dam, which is too salty for stock to drink from anyway, but they are not interested in stock, so they won't be doing that.  Our dam has been around 5000 ppm since we moved in, and lower now since all the rain, so its still ok for our steers, but no good for the garden or the chooks.

Overall, when looking for an acreage property, I recommend that you take a conductivity meter, or look for signs of salinity in the dam (salt crystals around the edge, salty smell/taste to the water) and take a crow bar so you can have a good look at the soil structure.  We were in a hurry to buy and just chose something cheap, but if we had more time to compare properties it would have helped to know more about the dam water and the soil (you can even take samples and get them tested if you're really keen!).  If you are happy to put some work in, you can pick up a cheap property that needs some rehabilitation.

Do you have any other suggestions for rehabilitation?

See more information about soil and soil testing here.

Where should I start with a new property?  See this post.

** 2017 note: We found that the dam is really no good when we have long periods of dry weather.  We were lucky that the neighbour with the less salty dam has let us take water from his dam for our cattle.  Water really is essential for homesteading, so do make sure you test the water before you buy.  This is part of the reason we decided to buy a larger property with more secure water int he form of several dams and a bore.**

Monday, March 20, 2017

Getting started with beekeeping: how to harvest honey

While honey is not the only product from a beehive, its the one that most beekeepers are interested in and it usually takes a year or so to let the bees build up numbers and store enough honey before there is enough to harvest.  There are a few different ways to extract honey from frames.  We have a manual turn 2-frame certifugal extractor.  A lot of people with only a few hives will just crush and strain the comb.  This post is about how we've been extracting honey so far (four times now), and there are links at the end to other bloggers who use different methods so you can compare.

Choose your frames
Effectively the honey is emergency food stores for the bees, so you have to be very careful not to take too much from the hive.  You need to be aware of what is flowering and going to flower next and the climate.  Particularly in areas with cold winters, where the bees cannot forage for some time.  We are lucky to have something flowering most of the year and can take honey in Spring and Summer.  You can take any frame that has more than 70% of the comb capped (sealed),  Don't worry if there is some brood on the comb - you will strain that out, but make sure you don't take the queen!  We stopped using queen excluders (that stop the queen getting into the top box) as it seemed to make the hive weaker.

Collect your frames
We put the frames that we are taking into a clean empty super, with a spare lid underneath, and put an escape board on top.  You can brush most of the bees off the frames, and then the rest will fly out of the escape board (it lets them out but not in again) and this means that MOST of the bees won't be joining you when you're extracting the honey.

Uncap the frames
We use a hot electric knife to uncap, you can also get steam knifes or use a scraping tool.  I have the scraping tool for doing little areas that the knife misses.  Pete operates the knife and aims to get MOST of the uncapping beeswax and honey into the bucket.  We got this neat little plastic board that fits over the bucket and holds the frame, really helpful!

Load up the extractor
We can it two frames in the extractor.  It works best if the load is balanced, so make sure you have the frames loaded opposite ways.  Sally wrote a great post for me before we ever extracted honey and I think of her wise words as I spin the extractor:
Spin the first side at half speed and only for a few turns to release half the honey in that side. Then stop, remove each frame, turn it around to its other side and replace into the extractor so the honey is being spun from the other side of the wax. Then spin the honey out gradually gathering more speed. Then turn the frames back to the first side again to remove the remaining honey in that side. This is to prevent breaking the wax as the weight of the honey and the centrifugal action forcing the frame to the outside is too heavy for the wax to remain in one piece. The least breakages in the wax means the bees can spend less time repairing the wax and spend more time gathering nectar and pollen to make honey.

Strain the honey
We got some nice stainless steel sieves for straining the honey into the first bucket, its easy to keep them clean.

Bottle and label your honey
I got new jars for our honey, I think that's nicer for customers, but we re-use plenty of other glass jars for our own use and to give to friends.  Research the labeling requirements in your state, we have to include the word "honey", the date of processing, our address and the country of origin.  More info here.

Clean up the sticky mess
Hot water is required to clean up all the sticky honey before the ants find you!  When the honey in the extractor is strained I then strain the cappings honey and melt down the remaining beeswax.

That's basically all there is to it.  Have you extracted honey?  What method do you use?

Here's some inspiration from other bloggers:

Schneiderpeeps - bees (an update)  - with photos from a crush and strain experiment

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

How to make soap with beer (and tallow)

I may have mentioned this before.... soap making is addictive!  Once you start, you just want to keep making more soap.  And not the same soap, you want to try all sorts of different soaps.  I made the mistake of joining a facebook group called Saponification Nation and now my facebook newsfeed is full of glorious soaps, in all colours and shapes, which makes it even harder to resist the urge to experiment.  One soap that kept popping up a few weeks ago was soap made with beer.

I generally prefer not to use ingredients just for the sake of it, I like to know that they are adding something to the properties of the finished soap.  As you know, I don't like to use artificial ingredients either (colours or fragrances).  When I read about beer in soap I found out that beer adds sugar to the mixture, which increases lather.  I use tallow in my soap, which has limited lather, so anything that adds lather could improve the soap.  It also contributes a tan or brown colour to the soap depending on the beer and the concentration.

For this soap I used Coopers stout, which is a rich dark beer.  Before making soap, the beer must have no bubbles left, so you can either leave it in an open vessel for a few hours or boil it and let it cool - this also increases the concentration of sugars and colour.  I chose to boil the stout for about an hour, which reduced it to around half the original volume.  

I didn't add any fragrance to this soap as I wanted to try using oil infused with hops.  I had some hops in the fridge from our beer-making hobby (I also had some toasted barley, which I used on top of the soap).  I infused the hops in olive oil using the waterbath method, and the oil smelt very hoppy before making the soap, however the fragrance did not transfer to the finished soap, or only a very subtle whiff anyway. It mostly just smells faintly like scorched beer.

To use the beer in the soap, you replace the water in the lye solution with beer.  As the caustic soda dissolves in the beer, the sugars scorch, which causes the smell.  Next time I will use an essential oil to cover this (the same thing happens with my coffee soap).

Tallow Beer Soap Recipe
This is the recipe I used, but you can just substitute beer for water in your favourite soap recipe if you want to use different oils.

900 g beef tallow
100 g olive oil infused with hops
131 g caustic soda
300-330 mL flat beer - I used a dark stout, which I also concentrated
Roasted barley to top

Follow instructions in this post or wait for my tallow soap ebook coming VERY soon....  it includes information about working with tallow and a beginners guide to making soap at home, plus 10 tallow soap recipes with step by step instructions.

The results of this experiment were interesting.  I love the colour.  As I said above, the hops smell didn't really come out in the soap.  The lather is no different from plain tallow soap I think.  I'm not sure if its worth the effort of preparing the beer, but it is a nice gimmick for a gift, particularly for men (although some may prefer to have the beer separately).

What do you think?  Have you tried making soap with beer or other weird ingredients?

Monday, March 13, 2017

Growing your own - Feast or famine?

Here's an old post from July 2011 that I thought you might enjoy reading again :)

Since we have started producing our own veges, eggs, beef and chicken meat I have noticed that we get used to making our own and have been reluctant to buy these items when our own production levels are low.  This means we usually have either too much or not enough of some things, but its just become a way of life for us.  Sometimes if we don't have any of a particular food, we just go without, but we don't even think about it now.

When we are milking our cows, we usually have too much milk at first, which is lovely, because I get to try making cheese without worrying too much if the end result is a disaster!  The other week I made feta, too much feta, which neither of us particularly like (it was just an easy cheese to try) so I started looking for recipes to use it up.  I found this lovely recipe for chicken meatballs with feta in the middle.  This would use up feta, chicken mince from our own chickens, silverbeet from the garden (instead of spinach) and cream from Bella.  All I needed was one egg.  So I went to talk to the chickens, who have not been providing a very consistent supply lately (maybe 2-3 eggs a week).  They didn't look very interested.  I went to the supermarket for the weekly shopping and stopped in front of the eggs.  I picked up the only free range eggs option ($5 for half a dozen) and read everything on the carton.  But I couldn't be sure if the hens were happy or well-fed, like ours are, so I put it back.  I just couldn't bring myself to buy any eggs, I was prepared to make falling-apart meatballs rather than buy those unknown eggs.  When I got home, the chickens had laid ONE egg for me!  So my meatballs were a success and I was so glad that I didn't buy any!

For me and Pete, the animal welfare aspect of food production is the most important thing, so we don't like to buy chicken or eggs, knowing what meat and laying birds go through, and we know we shouldn't buy pork that's not free-range either (so hard to resist!).  Sometimes we seem to just live off our own beef for weeks, but its doesn't really worry us.  At the moment we have so many beans I can't give them away.  I've started feeding them to the steers and the roosters just to get rid of them!

Its funny how you get used to making do with what you have, going without, and using things up, when you make it/grow it yourself!  Do you do the same?

Note from 2017: we never seem to know what glut to expect next, currently its eggs and beans :)  You will see from my lunch recipes that I just use up whatever we have.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

How I use herbs: Chilli

I have three large chilli bushes in my garden.  I don't know exactly what kind they are, they sprouted in a pot of raspberry canes that I was given.  I thought they were capsicums, but they grew into the chilli bushes.  The raspberries didn't make it through our hot summers, but the chillies did great, they are taller than me and I always get a massive harvest.

How to grow chillies
According to Isabell Shipard's "How can I use herbs in my daily life?", there are two species of chilli bush - Capsicum annum (bushes 50-150cm tall, single fruit from each node) and Capsicum frutescens (tiny bushes to 2m tall, 2-4 fruit per node). I think I certainly have one of the second type, although I'm still not sure exactly which variety.  These are not hot at all, I can put several in a meal and I don't particularly like hot food.

Both species are perennial in our sub-tropical climate, but will be annual if winters get too cold.  I find that these bushes die back when we get frost and I usually give them a good prune when all the leaves fall off, but by spring they will come back to life.  I have to trim them regularly to keep them  under control and so that I can access parts of the garden, as they do sprawl over the path.  In summer, the fruit get attacked by fruit flies, the best harvest is later in autumn when the fruit flies are gone.  

How to use chillies
You might have been surprised to see chillies as a herb, but they are considered to have medicinal properties - particularly warming, either ingested or as a topical application.  A few of the uses for chillies are:
  • improved circulation
  • boost metabolic rate
  • improved digestion
  • healing of wounds or ulcers
  • to treat coughs and colds
  • as a stimulant
  • to prevent heart attack
I have no idea if any of the above are proven or useful, so please do more research, I just thought it was an interesting list for a common ingredient in so many foods!

Personally, I don't like hot food, but a little chilli can be a nice flavour and these chillies are not too hot for me.  I use them in food rather than medicinally.  But how to preserve such a huge harvest that only comes once a year?

In the past I've made chilli flakes, this year I asked the question on the Eight Acres facebook page and got a number of suggestions.  I decided to try making chilli oil and chilli honey as well.  Unfortunately, I learnt the hard way that its better to dry the chillies first - both the oil and honey became very watery, and I had to throw out the honey, but I put the oil in the fridge and it should be ok.  Next time I will dry the cut chillies before putting them in oil or honey.

The chilli oil is great though, I used it in my Mexican Mince recipe and it gave a nice chilli flavour without being too hot.

Do you grow chillies?  How do you use them?  Do you like them hot or mild?

Monday, March 6, 2017

Designing a homesteader's house

A friend of mine is considering moving to a new block of land and building a house.  She has similar goals and lifestyle to me, so she asked what we considered when designing our house.  I guess she assumed that we had it all figured out.  The funny part is, the main reason that it took us over a year to get a house organised, and in the end we just bought a secondhand house and moved it, BECAUSE we couldn't decide what we wanted in a house.  (read more about our secondhand house here)

More correctly, we couldn't decide if we should build what we wanted or build it to suit mainstream tastes, for resale value.  The main sticking point was the ensuite.  We have always lived in a house with one bathroom.  We are happy with that and would build a house with one bathroom, but new houses typically come with an ensuite and a walk in wardrobe.  Both things that we don't particularly need.  Finding the secondhand house, we overcome that problem as it only has one bathroom and no space for an ensuite.

I think we would have got around to building something eventually, after we got through all those design questions!  I thought I would note down at least a little advice for my friend, who is currently baffled by standard house designs and not sure where to start.
  1. Work out what you actually need in a house based on how you live (or if you are building a standard house for resale and just going to tweak it to work for you).  Number of bedrooms and bathrooms is a good start.  If you're a keen cook, make sure the kitchen is big enough and if you're into food preservation, go for a large pantry.  If you do stuff outside and need a room to take off all your dirty clothes, maybe a laundry, mudroom or utility room is required.  We have three bedrooms and a big "sunroom" enclosed veranda, so plenty of room for guests, storage, and study/craft areas.  One bathroom and a giant kitchen.  A laundry with external access and a second toilet.  
  2. Consider your climate and design for comfort.  Look at temperature extremes, are you going to be bothered by hot temperatures or cold temperatures?  We are mostly trying to avoid hot temperatures, so we made sure that we had verandas on the North and East of the house (Southern hemisphere), which keeps sun out of the house in the hottest months.  We made sure we had plenty of insulation in the roof, ceiling fans and windows positioned for good ventilation.  Even though it was a house that we moved, we still got to choose the orientation that worked best for the house on our site.  In colder climates, you might actually try to use solar gain to keep your house warm in winter. A great book for the Australian climate is Warm House Cool House: Inspirational Designs for Low-Energy Housing (affiliate link) - it gave a great explanation of what you can do when designing a new house or retrofitting an existing house.
  3. Still on climate, how much will you use outdoor areas and should you incorporate these into your plan?  We spend a lot of time on our verandas and they are like an extra room (undercover and with plastic blinds to keep rain out) making our little house feel way bigger.  If your climate will allow you to spend more than 6 months using an outdoor space, its definitely worth considering how you can use outdoor spaces.
  4. Try to choose decor that is going to match you lifestyle and level of cleaning care-factor.  I love the way the house looked in crisp white primer, but knowing that we are surrounded by red clay soils, I did not want to be keeping that clean.  We went for beige walls, with brown trim.  I will brighten it up with some colourful furniture.  I HATE carpet because I HATE vacuuming, we went for tiles in the bathroom and laundry and wood floors in the rest of the house (as they will move with the house), these should be easy to keep clean.
  5. Think about what works in your current house, features that you like in houses that you've been into, look through magazines, try to picture how you will use the space and where you would put your essential furniture.  Reducing the overall floor area can be a massive cost saving, so don't build it bigger than you need to.  Those savings could go into building a decent shed or barn for additional storage and workshop areas away from the house.
  6. Speaking of storage, we have put in lots and lots of cupboards because I want to be able to store everything away and not have clutter out on any surfaces.  We've also decluttered a lot of stuff before moving.
Overall, we used a permaculture approach to our house.  Making sure to observe our location first, to set up the house to use wind and solar energy to our advantage.  We also get rainwater from the roof (obtain a yield).  We will be heating the house with wood from our property (use renewable resources).  We have tried as much as possible to reuse materials (produce no waste) and let the spaces be flexible so they way we use the house can evolve as we grow into it (design from patterns to details).

Have you built a new house?  Any tips?  Anything you would keep or change in your existing house?

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