down on the farm

Play­ing in the dirt has brought re­mote parts of Ruth’s farm a lit­tle closer.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Con­tents - Words & im­ages Ruth Ren­ner

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.

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