down on the farm
Playing in the dirt has brought remote parts of Ruth’s farm a little closer.
Fun with DIY infrastructure
Ihave written occasionally, and thought often, about the delights of having space to play... I mean work. This is serious work.
In the last couple of months I’ve been required to be a bit more active in some of the physical aspects of our farming life, since the other one of ‘us’ buggered a knee. I’ve freed up some of my time and energy to get out onto the land, which I have been really enjoying.
However, the big infrastructure changes still fall to he who has the longterm tractor-operating experience. SOME PEOPLE get thrills out of new furniture, new cars, new technology. We get ours out of doing this sort of thing.
The first of the year’s big projects was the development of a track we initially formed 13 years ago. In 2004, one of my big steers got stuck in a gully, presumably seeking water to drink. The back of the farm had never had a reticulated water system since there were streams or wetlands in most paddocks. Steer 356 got wedged between hard clay on both sides of a narrow watercourse. He was there for less than 24 hours but the pressure on the large muscles on one side did a tremendous amount of damage. Even when we freed him from the restriction, he couldn’t immediately walk out on his own. We had to dig a track into the gully so we could lift him with a sling on the front-end loader and help him to get his muscles working again so that he could eventually walk back to safer pastures.
Since then ‘Route 356’ has remained very much as it was formed. There were some boggy places which had to be touched up with the back blade whenever it got dry enough in the summer, and a culvert was eventually installed where a small gully brought water continually down the hill.
The big gully in which 356 got stuck never had a culvert installed, being at the end of the track. None of the cattle ever had any trouble crossing the soft soil there and so it stayed on the “some other time” list of things we might do.
But there were two pressing reasons for upgrading that track. Firstly, it runs alongside an ecologically-significant wetland watercourse and we’ve wanted to get that fenced off for years. We know
there are mudfish and koura living there and for their sake, for any other native creatures, and downstream water quality, keeping cattle out of the area is important.
Secondly the upgraded track would reach right through to the paddock in the middle at the back of our property – the Middle Back – which has always had to be accessed via the paddocks on its boundaries. Management would be vastly easier if cattle could be shifted directly into, or out of, that paddock.
Work began with further track widening. There’s no point, on clay, in having a track without putting metal on it to keep it in good order, and we needed to make it possible to get bigger vehicles in there. We had anticipated having to spread metal with a small, borrowed truck but in the end, access was good enough to have it done by a big truck directly from the local quarry.
Having had the track in place for so many years, we were confident that the land wouldn’t move beneath it or, apart from along one short section, fall down onto it.
The culvert pipe needed re-laying, since its depth wasn’t quite right and it had continually silted and blocked. The big gully required a much bigger pipe and a lot more work.
Perhaps this is where employing someone with stacks of experience in making roads may have saved some time, using bigger, more efficient machinery. But it wouldn’t have been half as satisfying, would probably have made a great deal more mess, and financially it would have been a much bigger undertaking. We were also able to feel our way in regard to the best way to tackle the steepest, last part of the track.
The weather is always a limiting factor when working on clay. There were periods when work had to pause until the ground dried sufficiently for safety and workability.
As soon as the track was mostly formed, Stephan erected a two-wire electric fence along its wetland side so that the cows could be grazed on the rampantly-growing kikuyu (there are always upsides to a wet and warm end of summer).
When things had dried out again, we engaged the local quarry to bring us as
many loads as necessary of AP100 lime rock, to provide a reasonable base to the track.
Seeing a 10-tonne truck coming around the corner, spreading metal as it went, was thrilling. Who’d have thought, all those years ago when getting along through here was a back-breaking, toestubbing, ankle-turning crawl through the scrub, that this would ever be possible?
Just after this dumping, there was an enormous dump of rain and a couple of fence posts which had been driven in to soft fill – that Stephan had hoped would have consolidated sufficiently by this stage – were washed out and fell over. We bought longer posts, sorted out a couple of wet spots, and retrieved about a domestic bucketful of lime rock from where it had been washed off the track.
However, the track and the drainage we’d put in mostly came through extremely well.
Metalling tracks has been the biggest improvement, from a usage point of view, that we’ve been able to make to the farm. Being able to get around easily, on foot or motorised transport, has made a huge difference to our winters and this new track opens a lot more area for easy access. IT WAS that access which then allowed us to continue with another upgrade with the installation of a new tank just up the hill from the end of the new track.
A few years ago we bought a 30,000 litre tank to provide back-up storage after our gravity-fed water supply was temporarily interrupted by a huge slip up in the bush. That event demonstrated how vulnerable we could be to interruption, something more serious than a bit of flooding which sometimes dislodges the intake or washes away a bit of the pipe.
Friends helped us roll the enormous, plastic tank up a hill to a pre-prepared site. We plumbed it in and have since enjoyed a sense of water security previously unknown.
We set the system up so that when the gravity system failed, we could feed back into the pipeline to the troughs all over the farm. But it didn’t work everywhere and we couldn’t figure out why until we started checking relative altitudes with the GPS. We were astonished by our findings, since it’s an easy stroll out to the back of our farm in either direction. It turns out that the back paddocks are about 10m higher than the tank where it sits, quite a way up its hillside.
The big tank couldn’t really have gone anywhere else, so we’ve not lost
by that installation. But to ensure more flexibility in grazing the back of the farm during water system outages, we needed another tank.
We checked out the sizes of plastic tanks available, choosing the biggest one we could easily fit in the place we’d chosen (which we’d carefully checked was higher than all the farm’s troughs) and which we thought we could roll up the hill on our own.
The plan was to plumb this tank so that it feeds one trough just below it, to circulate the stored water, with a tap to switch the tank through to the rest of the system when the gravity system isn’t running. There’ll be another tap further down the line to stop this tank draining directly into the big tank, or into the troughs on the flats, which it doesn’t need to fill.
There will probably be unforeseen hiccups but we’ll sort them as they come to light. One day we’ll be experts!
With all this exciting work, I’ve been feeling like a pioneer. It’s been a delight to rediscover some latent skills and develop other new ones. It’s also tremendous fun to discover that even on a property we know so well, it is still possible to get excited about new developments, to find ways to make things much better than they were before. If we were fully capitalised from the start, we might have got contractors in to do these things a lot earlier but we both have deep DIY tendencies and so figuring things out as we go makes this all very much our own project, not someone else’s. We love it. •
BEFORE LEFT: Before there was a track, there were pathways through the scrub and alongside the swamp at the bottom of the hill.
Replacing a washed-out post in the big gully.
Clockwise from top left: The original track was formed with our little old tractor and its front-end loader bucket, all done in emergency-speed hurry to rescue steer 356 in 2004; cattle coming around the first corner in 2005; the upgrading, February 2017 (same view as top right); ready for metal to be spread. BELOW: What a thrill, seeing such a big truck here! AP100 limerock provides us with a good, usable base, comfortable for the cattle to walk on. In time we’ll have a smaller grade spread to allow the surface to be more easily worked and smoothed. BEFORE
ABOVE, clockwise from top left: preparing the site for the new tank; the tank was an easy size to manage between us; some timber, sand and a bit of preventative drain digging and we were ready; the tank, in place, needing only a couple of fence posts to extend the electric fence around it.