Whiskey and Cider-Fed Pigs?!

Whiskey and Cider-Fed Pigs?!

A month ago I blogged about our approach to nutrition.  The reasons for this are many, but it’s mainly in an effort to practice, and promote, complete transparency.  Nowadays people are entirely removed from their food source. That distance leads to animals being exploited for profit, and the result is the abhorrent intensive farming practices we see today.

The theory is that connecting people back to their food will lead them to an understanding that their steak/lamb chop/pork roast came from a living, breathing, sentient animal, and that said animal deserves to be treated with as much respect and care as possible.  Now, linking that kind of education with an end to intensive farming practices is grossly simplifying what is a complex problem, but it’s a start.  It’s also a start that we’re able to make ourselves in our modest little venture, which makes me happy.

The aim with our feeding, as with everything we do, is to be sustainable.  At its core, growing animals for meat on the scale that the Western world now demands, simply isn’t sustainable.  Something has to change, hence our practice of feeding brewer mass, both in an effort to reduce the amount of grain grown for animal feed and to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill.  Since posting that blog article we’ve managed to increase our source of mash, and add cider apple pulp to our list of alcohol-making by products!

First of all, we were contacted by the good folk at Wickerman Cider, who have both a web page  and Facebook presence .  One of the owners is a market customer of ours, and had heard of our brewer mash practices.  They’re ramping up their own production, and found themselves with quite a bit of apple pulp. In fact, they had over 4 tonnes of it.

Now, this is 4 tonnes of what is effectively just crushed apples.  Why wouldn’t that be fed to stock animals?!

This is Jon. He's the legend from Wicker Man Cider who delivered over 4 tonnes of apple pulp to our place. He then shovelled half of it!

This is Jon. He’s the legend from Wicker Man Cider who delivered over 4 tonnes of apple pulp to our place. He then shovelled half of it!

We were concerned at first that the apples would upset the pig’s stomachs.  We took it easy, adding a relatively small amount to their ration, and we had no problems at all.  The pigs LOVE the apple in their feed too.  Seriously, they go nuts for it. It’s awesome.🙂

Our next win was with a distillery called Tin Shed Distilling Company, who make a whiskey called Iniquity .  The first part of the distilling process is to make a wort, just like when brewing beer.  The tricky part comes when they distil that down to make whiskey, and the super cool part is when they then age that to make it delicious. 🙂

This is a still. It's where magic happens.

This is a still. It’s where magic happens.

The result at the start of whiskey making is the same as beer making though – brewers mash.  The guys from Tin Shed called to say they were also ramping up their production, and would be regularly producing a tonne or more of mash a week.  They’re located quite close to our mates at Pirate Life, so the logistics are pretty easy and we don’t need to make any special trips.

This is well over a tonne of brewers mash. Two years later will be whiskey. It's not a short process...

This is well over a tonne of brewers mash. Two years later will be whiskey. It’s not a short process…

I can’t express just how exciting this is for us.  Each one of these producers who sees what we’re doing and who hears our message gets us one step closer to a sustainable meat future.  Of course, it doesn’t all have to be linked to alcohol, but so far we’re not complaining.🙂

 

Husbandry – Nutrition

Pigs are true omnivores, meaning they eat, quite literally, anything. You’d think that would make them pretty easy to feed, and to some degree that is true. However, proper nutrition for pigs, especially in a commercial context, is really quite complex.  The factors that we’ve found that complicate things are:

  • The efficiency and sustainability of meat production. This is a huge one, and is a problem for all kinds of meat production, not just pigs.  This could go into the “Things that bother Neil” category below, but it really is bigger than that.
  • The legalities of what you can’t feed to pigs.
  • Specific dietary needs, especially around amino acids.
  • Things that bother Neil:
    • The presence of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO).
    • The carbon footprint of the food.
    • Sourcing only Australian grown or manufactured feed.
    • A desire to give the pigs a diet that is clean, and as close to their natural diet as possible.

I’ll expand on each of these points below.

 

EFFICIENCY AND SUSTAINABILITY OF MEAT PRODUCTION

Several years ago the UN released a report called “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production” which led them to urge people to adopt a more meat-free and dairy-free diet to help prevent world hunger, fuel-poverty, and climate change.  One of that report’s two major findings was that agriculture and food consumption are “one of the most important drivers of environmental pressures, especially habitat change, climate change, fish depletion, water use and toxic emissions”.  The remit of that report is clearly much broader than what I want to talk about here, but it does call out clearly my concerns when it comes to what I feed my own pigs.  This includes the fact that over 50% of the world’s crops are used to feed animals rather than people, and that much of what we grow to feed those animals, in particular corn and soy, is biologically inappropriate as the livestock’s digestive/nutritional systems aren’t designed to eat those plants.

A more recent synopsis of this problem can be found in the article, “Is Meat Sustainable?”, which states that 70% of the grain grown in the US is fed to cattle.  It does the sums when it comes to food productivity: it takes 20,000 kcal (kilocalories) for a cow to produce 2,000 kcal of useable energy.  Basically, the logical argument is that the grain being fed to the cows would be used much more efficiently if fed directly to people.  Exactly the same premise applies to feeding pigs and every other sort of livestock.  Growing the increasing amounts of grain for our increasing meat demand is inefficient, and ultimately not sustainable.

All of this was a big problem for me.  I wanted to grow pigs on a much larger scale, but at the same time I didn’t want to contribute to what I knew is a very serious problem.  I didn’t want to be buying tonnes and tonnes of grain that I knew would be better feeding people directly.

We got around this problem in a couple of ways.  Firstly, almost all of the grains we buy to feed the pigs are seconds, or what they call “screenings”.  They are the smaller, lower quality grains that have been judged not suitable for people.  They are perfectly fine, and are actually often higher in protein and so great as pig feed.

The second way we addressed this problem is by using spent brewers mash.  We were lucky enough to be able to build a relationship with Pirate Life Brewing, and have taken every single kilogram of their mash since they started brewing.  This mash is crushed and soaked malted barley, and perfect as a stock food. It’s high in fibre and protein, though low in carbohydrates (that’s left behind in the beer).  The low carbohydrate content means you have to limit the amount you include in the pig’s ration, normally to 50%, but we’ve actually found that it has some added benefits.

The Atherton Farms are on a few menus now. It's always exciting. :)

The Atherton Farms are on a few menus now. It’s always exciting.🙂

One of the problems we had with our heritage breed pigs, particularly the Large Blacks, is the fat content.  This is a problem we’ve heard of from other pig growers, both intensive and extensive.  A local small intensive piggery experimented with Large Blacks, and told me that they were the fattiest pigs they’d ever seen. They were feeding the Large Blacks the same ration and amounts as their white pigs, and their solution to the fat problem was to restrict the quantity fed to those pigs.  They fed them the same kind of food, but in much, much smaller quantities.  The result was less fatty pigs, but they were always hungry.

Putting the pigs on a starvation diet does not fit with our ethos at all.  Our solution is to use the brewers mash to modify the nutritional profile as required.  If we have pigs that need to be slimmed down, we increase the amount of mash in their ration, letting them eat their fill but not get fat. Conversely, if we need to fatten some pigs up, we’ll reduce the brewers mash in their ration and increase the whole grain/legume portion accordingly.  The mash allows us to really fine-tune the energy content of the pig’s diets but not compromise on their comfort at all.

Pigs love the mash, especially when they've been introduced to it at a young age.

Pigs love the mash, especially when they’ve been introduced to it at a young age.

Photogenic pig is photogenic!

Photogenic pig is photogenic!

Another benefit of us taking the brewers mash is that it’s a waste product that would go to landfill otherwise.  We can’t currently use all of the mash that the brewery produces, but we take it all and share it with another couple of local farmers.  Some weeks we might get 10 or more tonnes of brewers mash, and that’s 10 or more tonnes that is saved from landfill.

Basically, every tonne of mash we feed our pigs is a tonne of grain that is not being grown for livestock consumption, and is a tonne less that goes to landfill.  It’s an environmental twofer, and it makes me very, very happy. Combine that with the fact that we only feed the pigs screenings, and I believe that our pork production is entirely sustainable.

We like the mash for the heritage breeds as it allows us to fine-tune their caloric intake...

We like the mash for the heritage breeds as it allows us to fine-tune their caloric intake…

... but sometimes they like it more because it's warm and comfy.

… but sometimes they like it more because it’s warm and comfy.

 

THE LEGALITIES OF WHAT YOU CAN’T FEED TO PIGS

We’re part of a Herd Health Management Program with our local veterinary college.  Their head pig vet has told me stories about how back in the day, and not actually that long ago, piggeries would have contracts with abattoirs for all of the meat waste.  The piggeries were viable because they were able to feed their pigs a super high protein diet of offal.

I’ve had the same stories from my retired farmer neighbour, John.  He has an ancient wheelbarrow that has “meat works” stencilled on it.  He’s told me about that wheelbarrow being full of blood and guts, and wheeling it down to the pigs.

This is called “swill feeding”, and gross as it is, on the surface it actually sounds like a fairly efficient use of waste. The problem is the risk of disease, particularly things like BSE (mad cow disease), and Foot-and-Mouth Disease.  Probably the best known example of this is the BSE epidemic in the UK over the late 1980s and through most of the 1990s.  180,000 cattle were infected, and nearly four and a half million killed during the eradication program.  The cause was that the cattle were fed infected bovine remains in the form of meat and bone meal.  By mid-2014 the human variant of the disease had killed 177 people in the UK, and 52 people outside of the UK.

In Australia, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, predicts that even a small Foot-and-Mouth Disease outbreak in Australia, controlled in 3 months, could cost around $7.1 billion, and a large 12 month outbreak could cost $16 billion.

With the impacts to the UK beef industry and with the loss of human life, and with similar potential losses in Australia, there’s no surprise that swill feeding is strictly illegal in Australia, as described by Australian Pork and the Australian Veterinary Association.  That ban is something that all pig growers, both big and small, need to be aware of.  Even families raising a couple of pigs for themselves have to be careful that their kitchen scraps haven’t come into contact with meat or meat products.  That’s actually harder than you’d think.

 

SPECIFIC DIETARY NEEDS

The big gotcha’ with pigs seems to be with amino acids. At least that’s the one that bit us early on.  We had one litter of pigs years ago that just seemed scrawny. They got plenty of feed, and they had good appetites, but they just never bulked out.  On the flip-side of that, we had other litters that went from strength-to-strength on exactly the same diet.  I think the secret there, weirdly enough, was in their bedding.

We’d change the pig’s bedding every couple of months. Actually, “change” is the wrong word, as it implies we took out spent bedding and gave them new bedding.  With pigs it’s more a case of replacing the last lot of bedding because they ate it all.🙂

The bedding we always used was pea straw. We’d get the big round bales, and fill up the areas in and around their shelters.  Pea straw is full of peas still.  You don’t realise just how many peas are left behind until you handle the straw. The pigs loved that, and for days and days after you’d hear them crunching their way through every pea they could find.

I didn’t make the link back then, but I’d guarantee that there was a correlation between the scrawny litter and the end of their bedding cycle.  As it turns out, peas, and all of the other legumes, are high in the amino acid lysine.  Lysine is called a “limiting amino acid”, and is necessary for the production of muscle protein.  Basically, pigs can eat protein all day long but will only synthesise protein to the level of the lysine in their diet, hence the “limiting” part of the title.

Lysine is the most likely amino acid to be lacking in a pig’s diet, but there are others too.  These are commonly added to pig rations in a commercial context, often in synthetic forms.  My very strong preference is to find natural sources of the required amino acids, and we’ve done that with legumes.  For the most part, that’s in the form of field or stock peas.  They can be expensive, and not always easy to find depending on the time of year, but they are a permanent fixture in the diet of our pigs.

Piglets LOVE their peas!

Piglets LOVE their peas!

 

THINGS THAT BOTHER NEIL

There are a number of things that I want to avoid in my pig’s diets because of the way my ideologies lay.  To me, these are essential parts of the ethicality of what we do.

The Presence of GMO

There are a huge number of studies that point to problems with pigs who are fed diets containing GMO.  These can be things like general listlessness and lack of contentment, through to spontaneous abortions, deformities in new-borns, and an increase in aggressiveness.

The use of GMO in general is a hot debate topic, and can be really quite emotive.  There are pros and cons, and I can see both sides. However, I won’t feed anything to my pigs containing GMO.  There are too many unknowns, and too much evidence to show that it can adversely impact the animals.

The Carbon Footprint of the Food

This is fairly self-evident when you consider our standpoint on most things environmental, but it’s worth mentioning.  I find it mind-boggling that people will ship parts of their pig’s rations from overseas or interstate when there are locally grown or produced options.  Not only that, a lot of pig feed is highly processed, and that also takes a significant amount of energy, thereby increasing the carbon footprint of the ration.

We combat this by always sourcing locally grown feed.  The furthest we travel for our feed is 25km to the place I get our peas.  We’ve actually been able to buy wheat and barley grown in the paddock next door to our pigs, and most of it comes from within a few kilometres of our home.  With the exception of our weaner feed, we also avoid processed feed.

Sourcing Australian Grown/Manufactured Feed

This is partly linked to reducing the carbon footprint of the pig feed, but is mostly because I want to support Australian farmers.  It’s exactly the same choice people often make when buying their groceries; I just make it on a larger scale with purchases measuring tonnes.🙂

Giving the Pigs a Clean/Natural Diet

It goes without saying, but intensive pig farms stink.  They seriously, seriously stink.  We’ve bought a few pigs from local intensive farms as breeders, and they stink for days.  Their poop is black and sticky and putrid, and a direct consequence of the food they eat.  That food is completely nutritionally balanced, but is highly processed, containing meat and fish meals for protein, and synthetics for things like amino acids.

I also want to avoid the various protein meals as they can have a huge impact on the flavour of the pork.  Fishy tasting pork and pork products from pigs that eat a lot of fish meal is a huge problem, and who the hell wants to eat fishy-tasting pork?!

A large part of our pig raising ethos involves allowing them to exhibit their natural behaviours – digging, wallowing, natural matings etc.  That should logically extend to their diet.  Of course, there’s really no such thing as a natural pig diet in Australia, as we don’t have native pigs.  We have introduced/wild pigs that do quite well, but I suspect they eat a lot of things that we can’t feed our animals (e.g. carrion).  We also don’t have the kinds of environments in which pigs thrive overseas, environments that give the animals access to foods like nuts.  What we do have, however, is the ability to feed our animals natural and clean foods.

Little growers eating their fill.

Little growers eating their fill.

 

We’ve spoken to a professional nutritionist about our pig rations.  We ran into a few barriers though.  Firstly, we had a lot of trouble convincing them that our aim wasn’t to grow the pigs as quickly as we could.  We’ve had trouble convincing a lot of the professionals we’ve spoken to about that, so we’re kind of used to it.

Secondly, it was initially difficult to factor in the brewers mash, as it’s not exactly your normal piggy fare.  However, with some research, the nutritionist was able to work it out. At least we got that tick of approval, which was nice.

Thirdly, it was difficult to find rations specific to the heritage breeds.  The focus was always maximum energy for fastest growth in the commercial white breeds.  The heritage breeds, who grow more slowly anyway and who can run to fat quite easily, have completely different nutritional needs.  For some reason, it was hard to separate those facts when it came to the different rations.

We did end up with a couple of recommended rations.  There were still problems though:

  • They contained soy meal, with no guarantee that there was no GMO content.  Soy meal is apparently almost ubiquitous in commercial pig feeds, as it’s a cheap source of protein.
  • They contained meat and fish meal, and I don’t want to use either. There’s just too large a risk of it hurting the taste of the pork.
  • The amino acids came almost entirely from synthetics.
  • Some of the ingredients, and some that would be required in significant amounts, were sourced from overseas. After explaining what I wanted around that, we were able to source some of it from within Australia, but not from within the state, and there was no guarantee that the source would last.
  • It would have ended up being the kind of highly processed food that makes intensive farmed pigs stink so much.
  • The carbon footprint would’ve been much, much higher than our current approach.

The result of all of that is we have a couple of different rations, both of which are the result of lots and lots and lots of research and practice.  It’s really a number of rations, but it’s made up of two rations, one of which we vary as required.  That’s confusing, isn’t it? :)  Here’s what we do:

  • Ration 1 – Weaners (birth to several weeks old).  For this we buy a commercial feed.  We make sure it’s all Aussie made and doesn’t contain the nasties described above.

Piglets don’t need much, if any, supplementary feeding for the first week or so of their lives.  I put out some feed after several days, just so they can have a nibble and get a taste.  They don’t really start hoeing in until the second week though.

We only use this feed on its own for a week or so, and then start to phase in a version of our other ration.  I’ll crack the peas and grains, and start mixing that with the commercial feed.  Over a week or two we then phase to just the non-commercial ration.

We don’t introduce brewers mash until after they’re weaned.

  • Ration 2.  This is made up of:
    • Brewers mash.
    • Soaked cereal grains.  Grains have to be soaked or cracked for the pigs to absorb the maximum nutrition.  About 50% of whole grains are passed through undigested, where the pigs are able to absorb around 90% of cracked or soaked grains.
    • Peas/lupins/beans.

We use variations of this ration for growers, lactating sows, dry sows, and the boars.  We change the quantities as required – growers and lactating sows get as much as they can eat, while others have a more limited, maintenance diet.

We also change the mix according to the pig – those with higher energy needs (e.g. growers, nursing or pregnant mums) get a higher percentage of peas or grain, while those with lower energy needs (e.g. heritage pigs, dry sows) will get more mash and less peas/grain.


That’s a lot of words, much of which is me putting constraints on what we could do, and effectively making our lives much harder. :) It would be much easier for us if we just bought in the commercial feed and didn’t worry about that wall of words above.  However, I firmly believe that all aspects of our pig husbandry are tied to the ethicality of what we’re doing, and the nutrition is an integral part of that.  People don’t just buy a great quality product from us when they buy our meat – they’re also paying for the provenance of the animals.  They’re paying for the peace-of-mind of knowing that I’ve fed the pigs the best quality diet, that it’s as clean and natural as possible, and that we’ve put in this level of thought and research.

Change of Market!

We’d been running The Atherton Farms in an official capacity for at least 6 months before the idea of selling at market occurred to us. In fact, it didn’t occur to us before the opportunity actually presented itself.  Our business model had been to sell in bulk via internet orders.  We didn’t really attend markets ourselves, and didn’t believe that there was a place there for meat.

We were very, very wrong.

This is Marvin the Market Mascot. A customer bought him for us from interstate. He goes to every market with us, and often features in our social media adverts.

This is Marvin the Market Mascot. A customer bought him for us from interstate. He goes to every market with us, and often features in our social media adverts.

The first market we joined was great, but wasn’t a true farmers market. It was mostly re-sellers, with very few producers. The produce was invariably cheap, often both in price and quality. What we wanted was a market home where we could not just sell our wares but also spread a message of ethically raised meat and sustainable farming practices. We found that demographic at both The Gawler Farmers Markets and its parent market The Adelaide Showground Farmers Market.

The showground market has been voted the best in the country, and was what we were aiming for. The fact that they had been asked to open one in Gawler, quite close to home, was just icing on the market cake.  The market management know what they’re doing, know how to run a market, and know how to engage the public.  I can’t sing their praises enough.

Our first day at Gawler. It's an entirely outside market, quite small and intimate but a lovely spot and always busy. It's dog friendly too, which is an added bonus for us. :)

Our first day at Gawler. It’s an entirely outside market, quite small and intimate but a lovely spot and always busy. It’s dog friendly too, which is an added bonus for us.🙂

Our first Wayville stall outside. It was a great spot, but we asked for an inside slot and were lucky enough to get one inside of a month or so.

Our first Wayville stall outside. It was a great spot, but we asked for an inside slot and were lucky enough to get one inside of a month or so.

Our inside stall. We can set up permanently, which is really helpful, and it'll be sheltered in winter. Notice the awesome fridge - we scored it from a pizza shop that was closing down in the city. It took a little bit of work to fix up, but that thing is a beast!

Our inside stall. We can set up permanently, which is really helpful, and it’ll be sheltered in winter. Notice the awesome fridge – we scored it from a pizza shop that was closing down in the city. It took a little bit of work to fix up, but that thing is a beast!

Our first customer was former Green senator Penny Wright! She's now a regular and loves the rasher bacon.

Our first customer was former Green senator Penny Wright! She’s now a regular and loves the rasher bacon.

We live in a country dominated by a supermarket duopoly, where clever marketing tells people what they should buy, what they should pay, and even what constitutes quality. People no longer know the provenance of their meat.  They can’t definitively say where their food comes from, how the animal was treated, or what chemicals they’re putting into their bodies as a result.  Farmers markets break that mould.

I gave a "cooking demonstration". That's in inverted commas because the demonstration involved cooking bacon. There's nothing complex about that, which made this more a bacon tasting than a demonstration. :)

I gave a “cooking demonstration”. That’s in inverted commas because the demonstration involved cooking bacon. There’s nothing complex about that, which made this more a bacon tasting than a demonstration.🙂

I was in the paper. It was kind of a big deal...

I was in the paper. It was kind of a big deal…

At a farmers market the person selling you the produce is the person who grew it. You can have a conversation with them about how their animals are transported/fed/bred/housed/slaughtered. You can look that person in the eye and build an actual relationship with them. You can’t even do that with butchers now a days, nor have you been able to for years.  The market management at the Gawler/Showground markets go so far as to come out and inspect the farms of the producers before they allow a stall at the market, and this producer guarantee is then hung from the back of each producer market stall. For the first time in a long time, you can be entirely sure of where your meat comes from, and how the animal was treated throughout its entire life.

Apart from growing it yourself, farmers markets are the best way to connect back with your food and be sure of its source and quality.  It’s how it should be.  Don’t take my word for it though. Listen to the guy on this video about The Gawler Farmers Market.

We had people loving the lean chops... can't work that out myself...

We had people loving the lean chops… can’t work that out myself…

We have double market weekends fortnightly, and then just a Sunday market on the weeks in between. On the double market weekends we tend to take beef, because cows are big and we have to sell a whole one. That's market math.

We have double market weekends fortnightly, and then just a Sunday market on the weeks in between. On the double market weekends we tend to take beef, because cows are big and we have to sell a whole one. That’s market math.

We've really gone hard trying to push a whole-animal philosophy. Lamb necks are a bit of a success story along those lines, and we rarely don't sell them.

We’ve really gone hard trying to push a whole-animal philosophy. Lamb necks are a bit of a success story along those lines, and we rarely don’t sell them.

We've experimented with the best cuts and variations, and about have it right now. That's boned, rolled, and stuffed lamb shoulder there. Seriously, seriously delicious.

We’ve experimented with the best cuts and variations, and about have it right now. That’s boned, rolled, and stuffed lamb shoulder there. Seriously, seriously delicious.

We've found that the white pigs slim down quite a bit over summer, while the heritage breeds maintain a nice fat layer. That actually lets us cater to two kinds of people - those after lean meat (aka crazy people) and those who like fat (aka people like me).

We’ve found that the white pigs slim down quite a bit over summer, while the heritage breeds maintain a nice fat layer. That actually lets us cater to two kinds of people – those after lean meat (aka crazy people) and those who like fat (aka people like me).

Rack of lamb. Just a little bit fancy.

Rack of lamb. Just a little bit fancy.

Scotch fillet. I want to bite that raw and eat it like an apple.

Scotch fillet. I want to bite that raw and eat it like an apple.

You have to love a good pork chop.

You have to love a good pork chop.

Bacon. Enough said.

Bacon. Enough said.

 

 

We’ve Expanded!

We’ve been looking for a second place for a long, long time. We had huge expansion plans, none of which would work on our modest block at Templers. We spent, quite literally, years trying to find the perfect place.  A few things were defeating us.

Firstly, we live in the middle of South Australia’s bread basket. While that makes our surrounds quite pleasant, it also makes them quite expensive.  All of the places close to home were out of our price range.  At first I didn’t think they would be, but that leads me to my next point…

Secondly, the current lending rules are prohibitive to most people who want to buy rural property.  This is a big one, and I’m going to devote a whole other blog post to how shit this is, and how I believe it risks the longevity of our farming community.  We had a nice deposit, we had some equity in our other places, and we had income to service a loan. However, even a relatively modest $300k property meant we would require a $110k deposit.  How does that even make sense?!  I won’t bang on about it here, because I’ll never shut up.  However, think about any farmers you might know. How many of them are first generation?  I suspect the answer will be none of them, and the current lending rules are a big part of that.

Thirdly, there’s a dearth of nice-sized farmlets, which are smallish holdings – bigger than a hobby farm, but not broad-acre farm big.  Those around us tend to get snapped up by the big guys, and were probably beyond what the bank would lend us anyway.

We started looking further and further afield to find a place, and one that we could afford.  We could get land close to home without a house, as we’d be able to go back-and-forth to feed. However, finding a block of land that had water was hard enough, and finding one with water and power turned out to be impossible.  Finding smallish (sub 100 acre) blocks without a house was difficult, and it meant that the only lending option was pure rural.  They sometimes popped up with houses, which solved the water/power problem and made the lending easier, but it often more than doubled the price.

If we went further out we could find affordable blocks, though we faced the same power/water issues.  However, we’d need a house so we could spend the night, and that of course forced the price up.  We ended up looking at dozens and dozens and dozens of places over the course of a couple of years.

We ended up finding a place at Lochiel, which is slightly less than an hour north of us.  It was perfect – over 70 acres, lots of infrastructure, and a nice house.  Even then, it took us finding an amazing bank business loan/mortgage guy to help us get it over the line. Seriously, the hoops we had to jump through to make this happen were incredibly frustrating. I got my stubborn on though, and we ended up settling on a place on Christmas Eve.

And yes, the house still uses those kinds of keys. We also found out just how expensive it is to get them cut!

And yes, the house still uses those kinds of keys. We also found out just how expensive it is to get them cut!

 

This is the only real picture I have of the house. While the house wasn't really a consideration for me, it is genuinely very nice - 9 foot ceilings, timber floors, 4 bedrooms + study, new kitchen etc. To be honest, I like it more than the place at Templers.

This is the only real picture I have of the house. While the house wasn’t really a consideration for me, it is genuinely very nice – 9 foot ceilings, timber floors, 4 bedrooms + study, new kitchen etc. To be honest, I like it more than the place at Templers.

I wasn’t sure how to approach this blog.  Should I pontificate about the block, the infrastructure, and the house? Should I bang on about the work we had to do?  Should I describe all of the things we want to do there?  That all sounded like way more work than I wanted to do on a Monday night, so I figured I’d make this mostly a blog in pictures.  We’ve taken enough of the bloody things since we found out we could have the place, so I might as well make good use of them.🙂

I’ll start small and work my way up…

This is a stumpy lizard, or shingle-back skink. Linhda calls him Lionel. They're everywhere, and she calls every one of them Lionel.

This is a stumpy lizard, or shingle-back skink. Linhda calls him Lionel. They’re everywhere, and she calls every one of them Lionel.

Lionel pops up everywhere.

Lionel pops up everywhere.

On the back porch.

On the back porch.

In Bruce's bowl.

In Bruce’s bowl.

Eating our grapes off the vine.

Eating our grapes off the vine.

And he even pops up from around things, just to look snake like and give you a little fright.

And he even pops up from around things, just to look snake like and give you a little fright.

This old plough is lovely, but huge and in exactly the wrong spot. We wanted to move it, and had to do it before we could build any fences.

This old plough is lovely, but huge and in exactly the wrong spot. We wanted to move it, and had to do it before we could build any fences.

I wasn't sure the Ranger would be able to move it.  The plough must weigh a tonne or two, and it's not exactly in good repair.

I wasn’t sure the Ranger would be able to move it. The plough must weigh a tonne or two, and it’s not exactly in good repair.

We ended up ploughing the ground between its old spot and its new spot just a little. :) You can see how we've cleaned up under the trees here.  Those trees are probably 50 or 60 years old, and I doubt they'd ever been trimmed back. We had to make it pig friendly and make it so we could walk under them.

We ended up ploughing the ground between its old spot and its new spot just a little.🙂
You can see how we’ve cleaned up under the trees here. Those trees are probably 50 or 60 years old, and I doubt they’d ever been trimmed back. We had to make it pig friendly and make it so we could walk under them.

And this is the final resting place - behind the workshop.

And this is the final resting place – behind the workshop.

The place has never had front gates.  That may be because digging holes next to the driveway was so hard that I considered giving up partway through. :)

The place has never had front gates. That may be because digging holes next to the driveway was so hard that I considered giving up partway through.🙂

 

The infrastructure on the place was what first attracted me to it.  The sheds are old, and a couple need some work, but every single one of them will be useful to us.  The implement shed alone is over 300 square metres! There are housing blocks in the suburb we used to live in that are smaller than that!

And don’t get me started on the loading yards. I would’ve bought the place for those alone.  They’re older than the house, which makes them over 60 years old, and they’re 100% hand-made.  They need a small amount of work, and we need to put in a lower ramp.  They’re freaking gorgeous though.

The implement shed. Seriously well built and HUGE!

The implement shed. Seriously well built and HUGE!

This isn't a great shot, but it has the Ranger for scale.

This isn’t a great shot, but it has the Ranger for scale.

The workshop. You can't see, but it has a pit on the other end and lots of benches.

The workshop. You can’t see, but it has a pit on the other end and lots of benches.

The last owners used this as a chook shed. I'm not sure what it was originally, but there are other foundations around. It might've been part of an original house.

The last owners used this as a chook shed. I’m not sure what it was originally, but there are other foundations around. It might’ve been part of an original house.

Inside the old chook shed, which is now one of my farrowing sheds.

Inside the old chook shed, which is now one of my farrowing sheds.

Longer view of the workshop. Those trees to the left are all cleaned up now and it's fenced off for the breeders.

Longer view of the workshop. Those trees to the left are all cleaned up now and it’s fenced off for the breeders.

This looks dodgy, but is awesome. It's an old fuel shed/depot.  It's perfect for storing grain - just back the Ranger up and cart the bags on/off.

This looks dodgy, but is awesome. It’s an old fuel shed/depot. It’s perfect for storing grain – just back the Ranger up and cart the bags on/off.

This is an old motor shed - around 3 x 7 or 8. We've also converted this into a farrowing shed, but will need to put up lean boards before putting a mum in there.

This is an old motor shed – around 3 x 7 or 8. We’ve also converted this into a farrowing shed, but will need to put up lean boards before putting a mum in there.

This is where it's at! These are my loading yards. So beautiful, and so freaking useful!

This is where it’s at! These are my loading yards. So beautiful, and so freaking useful!

We have a huge amount of work to do.  That started with clearing undergrowth out from the shade trees, and putting in a heap of yards/fences.  That was all over summer and the ground is more than a little unforgiving at times.  We were determined to not make the same mistakes we made at Templers, where we moved in over summer and almost killed ourselves by working in the heat.  That determination mostly paid off, though a few times I had to force myself to stop before the sun did some damage. Still, no risks, no rewards, right?🙂

This is most of the rocks that came out of the hole I dug for the post in the background. That's from one hole, and I had to dig them out with a crowbar.

This is most of the rocks that came out of the hole I dug for the post in the background. That’s from one hole, and I had to dig them out with a crowbar.

The first yard we built was for the Saddlebacks. It was actually one of two huge yards, attached to a larger free-ranged paddock.

The first yard we built was for the Saddlebacks. It was actually one of two huge yards, attached to a larger free-ranged paddock.

Farmgenuity is using a triple truckies' hitch to pull the panel up tight. Impatience is putting the F100 into reverse to get it that bit tighter.

Farmgenuity is using a triple truckies’ hitch to pull the panel up tight.
Impatience is putting the F100 into reverse to get it that bit tighter.

Fencing is a family affair.

Fencing is a family affair.

Our first race.

Our first race.

We learned from our other race, and made this one a bit narrower. You don't want them turning around.

We learned from our other race, and made this one a bit narrower. You don’t want them turning around.

We've not used this as a race yet, and need to extend it down towards the grower paddocks so we can run it into the loading yards.  That'll happen in slow time.

We’ve not used this as a race yet, and need to extend it down towards the grower paddocks so we can run it into the loading yards. That’ll happen in slow time.

We've seen a lot of pig paddocks/yards/enclosures, and most of them are super dodgy. There's something about housing pigs that makes people think they should throw material together rather than build something permanent.  Not these paddocks though - they're pro!

We’ve seen a lot of pig paddocks/yards/enclosures, and most of them are super dodgy. There’s something about housing pigs that makes people think they should throw material together rather than build something permanent. Not these paddocks though – they’re pro!

We made as much use as we could from the limited shade but building the breeder paddocks around the trees.

We made as much use as we could from the limited shade buy building the breeder paddocks around the trees.

We've had to run a heap of water too, and will have to run a heap more.

We’ve had to run a heap of water too, and will have to run a heap more.

The most terrifying tool on any farm. That's why I let dad use it. :)

The most terrifying tool on any farm. That’s why I let dad use it.🙂

This is my pig lock (patent pending). The theory is that we can get in there with a vehicle, and close the gate behind us before opening the gate in front. It works well, but we need to modify the design a bit on the next ones. I may actually end up tearing half of this one down and rebuilding it.

This is my pig lock (patent pending). The theory is that we can get in there with a vehicle, and close the gate behind us before opening the gate in front. It works well, but we need to modify the design a bit on the next ones. I may actually end up tearing half of this one down and rebuilding it.

Our first pig shelter on the place.

Our first pig shelter on the place.

The pigs approve.

The pigs approve.

As does Bruce.

As does Bruce.

Shelter up, complete with shade. We modified the design a bit to allow us to tension the shade cloth. It works well.

Shelter up, complete with shade. We modified the design a bit to allow us to tension the shade cloth. It works well.

We'll stack the big half-tonne rectangular bales of straw around the outside before the wet weather hits.  They'll be snug and dry.

We’ll stack the big half-tonne rectangular bales of straw around the outside before the wet weather hits. They’ll be snug and dry.

Sometimes even a farmer needs to take a breather. In my defence, it was 35 degrees and super high humidity that day, and I was the one digging the holes.

Sometimes even a farmer needs to take a breather. In my defence, it was 35 degrees and super high humidity that day, and I was the one digging the holes.

The infrastructure and the house are nice, but the thing I wanted most was the land.  That’s what it was all about for me.

A bit of a panoramic shot facing west from down near the loading yards.

A bit of a panoramic shot facing west from down near the loading yards.

Facing the wind turbines. They stretch for miles.

Facing the wind turbines. They stretch for miles.

There's a block of scrub behind us, complete with kangaroos.

There’s a block of scrub behind us, complete with kangaroos.

From near the northern boundary facing the house and sheds.

From near the northern boundary facing the house and sheds.

Facing south and west from the back of the block.

Facing south and west from the back of the block.

I think those hills are called The Bumbungas.  I have trouble saying that without sniggering though.

I think those hills are called The Bumbungas. I have trouble saying that without sniggering though.

This is standing to the west of the house, and facing west. Believe it or not, that's an intensive pig farm just over those trees.

This is standing to the west of the house, and facing west. Believe it or not, that’s an intensive pig farm just over those trees.

Panoramic shot facing north and west.

Panoramic shot facing north and west.

Facing east along an old fence line. Most of the work we face is removing 50+ year old fences and making pig-friendly yards.

Facing east along an old fence line. Most of the work we face is removing 50+ year old fences and making pig-friendly yards.

And of course, we only have the land so we can keep animals.  The first animals we moved there were sheep.

The first animals we took up. We spent a good few weeks getting fences in before getting the pigs up there.  The sheep were pretty easy though - fire and forget in the back paddock.

The first animals we took up. We spent a good few weeks getting fences in before getting the pigs up there. The sheep were pretty easy though – fire and forget in the back paddock.

We got the sheep up for their annual shots.  This was the first test run of the loading yards and they worked a treat.

We got the sheep up for their annual shots. This was the first test run of the loading yards and they worked a treat.

We had 2.5 inches of rain in one day, which was both amazing and scary. The result was greenery a week later though, which is nice.

We had 2.5 inches of rain in one day, which was both amazing and scary. The result was greenery a week later though, which is nice.

The downside of having tame animals...

The downside of having tame animals…

You can't tell, but these guys are facing off against Bruce.  The one on the left is Robert, one of our rams.

You can’t tell, but these guys are facing off against Bruce. The one on the left is Robert, one of our rams.

Most of why we have the land is for pigs.  I want lots and lots of pigs.  We started by buying in a breeding herd of Wessex Saddlebacks, and our first litters should be dropping in April/May, 2016.  We’ve since then moved almost all of the pigs from our Templers place, including the litter Honey had shortly after the fires, and we bought in a heap of Berkshire piglets.  They’ll fill the gap in production caused by the fires, and we’ll be able to choose breeders from the best of the gilts.

A big boost to our plans to phase to heritage breeds - a breeding herd of Wessex Saddlebacks. This is the boar, Reggie (pedigree name of "Dominator"), Mable, and Ginger.

A big boost to our plans to phase to heritage breeds – a breeding herd of Wessex Saddlebacks. This is the boar, Reggie (pedigree name of “Dominator”), Mable, and Ginger.

This is Molly, Melba, Betty, and Lucille.

This is Molly, Melba, Betty, and Lucille.

Reggie doing what he does best. Well, the thing he does second best.  There'll be another picture of what he actually does best in a little bit...

Reggie doing what he does best. Well, the thing he does second best. There’ll be another picture of what he actually does best in a little bit…

Molly.  I think she might be my favourite.

Molly. I think she might be my favourite.

Reggie courting one of his ladies.

Reggie courting one of his ladies.

This isn't a great picture, but this is what Reggie does best.  He just prefers a bit of privacy...

This isn’t a great picture, but this is what Reggie does best. He just prefers a bit of privacy…

A Berkshire grower in our first free-range grower paddock. That's a hectare of space behind it, but it's more interested in saying hey to me.

A Berkshire grower in our first free-range grower paddock. That’s a hectare of space behind it, but it’s more interested in saying hey to me.

I like to tour the fences on the motorbike. The Berkshires seem fascinated by the bike, and like to chase it up and down the fence line.

I like to tour the fences on the motorbike. The Berkshires seem fascinated by the bike, and like to chase it up and down the fence line.

Reggie close-up!

Reggie close-up!

This is Ginger. She's gorgeous.

This is Ginger. She’s gorgeous.

Reggie with part of his harem.

Reggie with part of his harem.

Baby Berkies!

Baby Berkies!

It looks like the bigger baconer there is cracking a joke. She's a sweety.

It looks like the bigger baconer there is cracking a joke. She’s a sweety.

Always curious.

Always curious.

This is Honey's litter, born not long after the fires.  We converted the old chook shed, which is a solid double-brick structure, into a farrowing shed with attached free-ranged paddock. For now, it'll do for these babies.

This is Honey’s litter, born not long after the fires. We converted the old chook shed, which is a solid double-brick structure, into a farrowing shed with attached free-ranged paddock. For now, it’ll do for these babies.

They're good looking piglets.

They’re good looking piglets.

Chowing down on brewer mash, soaked barley, and peas.

Chowing down on brewer mash, soaked barley, and peas.

We’ll keep a boar and two or three sows at home, and use them to breed our replacement gilts.  That means that once we have the genetics set up, we can have a closed herd and mitigate the risk of introduced disease.  That’ll leave maybe four pigs at home, which will be a doddle.  With growers, we should top out at over 200 pigs at the Lochiel property, all free ranged and all happy.

This isn’t the end of our expansion plans.  Ideally we’ll end up with a lot more land, enough to keep our own cattle on our own property.  For now though, we have enough to ramp up our pig production to where we want it and to start our own breeding flock of sheep.  That in turn has allowed us to branch out to more markets, and we’ve managed to score a spot at the best market in the state, if not the entire country.  That’s a topic for another blog though…🙂

Babies!


I’ve not blogged in a while. One of the ironies of our farm life is that it keeps me too busy to talk about farm life on the internet.🙂

One thing I noticed when looking back at the blog is that the past few posts have been seriously depressing! Fires  and lost lambs do not good internet reading make, as my old grand pappy used to often say. With that in mind, and in homage to my wise old grand pappy, I figured I’d post something a bit more upbeat.

As awful as November was with the Pinery fires, as horrible as it was having to start over with most of the infrastructure, and as soul-numbingly crushing as it was to have to shoot pigs I genuinely love and a lamb I helped hand rear, 2015 actually didn’t end badly at all.

That last paragraph started depressing, and at the end only picked up a little. I’m building suspense. It’s a writing technique.  Pretty pro, right?!

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: farm life has an enormous number of ups and downs. Thankfully, there really are a lot more of the ups than there are of the downs.  As shit as the fire was, and as much as still thinking about little Rosie makes me tear up, and it really does, the subsequent ups really do make it all worthwhile. The most immediate of those after the fire were the babies.

Now, we ended up with ducklings, lambs, AND piglets inside of a fortnight of the fire. I’m going to call it now though – there will be more pictures of, and words about, the piglets than the lambs or ducklings in this blog post. Don’t get me wrong, ducklings and lambs are awesome, but I think we can all agree, they’re no piglets.

We had a good six to eight clucky ducks, and they were spread quite literally across the entire property.  We’d have them nesting under farm equipment, behind water tanks, under bits of tin – pretty much everywhere except their purpose-built laying boxes.  We even had the scenario where we had about two dozen ducklings born when one of the mums came waddling in with another six following her. We didn’t even know she was missing, which is one of the downsides of having so much poultry – they can be tough to keep track of. Either way, this girl had been sneaking off to nest outside of our fence every night for a month and then brought her babies back.

Ducklings!!!!!!

Ducklings!!!!!!

We’ve raised ducklings using all of the permutations of incubator/natural and mum-raised/brooder.  Hands down the most effective method we’ve found is when we take them from mum and raise them in a brooder. Letting the mums hatch them is no problem, though we need to watch for mums that’ll have half the eggs hatch and then leave the rest to go cold. However, letting mum raise them is just too risky.  It sucks taking them from the mums, but the mortality is too high otherwise.

By way of example of that last point, we ended up with 31 ducklings when one of the mums hatched a clutch of five.  We’d had two lots already – one of 26 and then one of five.  We’d raised them in a big brooder, and then put them into what we call our “nursery”, which is a “fox-proof” (that’s in inverted commas because nothing is ever really fox-proof) free-ranged run where we grow the babies on in relative safety. They were all about ready to come out into general population when one of the mums hatched her five.  We knew she was sitting on eggs, but hadn’t held out a lot of hope. She proved us wrong though, and waddled out with her handful of babies.

Now, I should’ve grabbed those babies and put them in the brooder. However, I really do hate taking the babies from the mums as it seems quite cruel. At the same time, we had a metric butt-load of ducklings (that’s the official unit for lots of ducks), and I figured we could afford the risk to see how that mum went.  She lost three of the five on the first night, and the other two didn’t make it through the second day.

In addition to losing all of the live ones, she left a nest with one mostly hatched baby and a few eggs that were viable but died.  One of those eggs was pipping when I found them, so I put the whole lot in the incubator.  Had I caught them maybe 12 hours earlier I probably could’ve saved them all, but none of them made it.  Effectively, we had maybe 10 babies that were lost, both in-ova (I made that word up just now) and post-hatching, where our active intervention earlier would probably have saved them all.

There’s a philosophical debate there around natural hatchings and raisings versus human intervention. I’m onto my second pint of beer though, so that debate is currently beyond me and getting further and further out of reach with every mouthful.

Basically, this year had we actively searched out the duck eggs, incubated them, and then raised them in the brooder, we probably could’ve cracked 50 ducklings.  As it was, I think we found a nice middle-ground between nature and our involvement, the result being more than 30 ducklings. And seriously, who the hell needs more than 30 extra ducks?!

Our next baby win was lambs!  And they were twins!!!!!

I have a few pictures of flames tearing through our place with some sheep in the foreground blissfully ignorant as they eat hay.  I actually hate looking at those pictures, and suspect I always will, but they illustrate something interesting here. Here’s one of them:

Mary is the sheep oblivious to the apocalypse happening behind her.  She gave birth a week later.

Mary is the sheep oblivious to the apocalypse happening behind her. She gave birth a week later.

That sheep there eating as 25 metre long flames stream behind her dropped twins about a week later.  Sheep are either incredibly resilient or a little stupid. I like to think it’s a bit of both.

It was impossible to get these little buggers to both look forward at the same time, so this is Fawkes saying hey....

It was impossible to get these little buggers to both look forward at the same time, so this is Fawkes saying hey….

...and this is Toast.

…and this is Toast.

The little brown one is a ewe and the black and white one is a ram.  We had a competition on our FB page to name them, the kind that has no prizes, which means it’s either not a competition or is at best a really crappy competition.  They are now Toast (ram) and Fawkes (ewe).  The first name is self-explanatory when you consider the fire.  The second name makes sense if you’re a Harry Potter fan.

The little ewe we’ll keep as a breeder.  Her mum, Mary, was pregnant when we bought her, so Fawkes isn’t related to our rams.  The little ram, Toast, has been promised to friends of ours who want to start their own little breeding flock.  While I was more than ready to whether the little man and fatten him for market, I’ll gladly admit that I’m happy he’ll be living his life out as a breeder.🙂

These lambs are in direct contradiction to little Rosie.  Their mum knew exactly what she was doing, and they ate well right from the start.  They overtook Rosie in size quite quickly, and really are what lambs should be.

The final baby addition to our farm family was Honey’s fourth litter of piglets. Before I start to gush about them, and I fully plan on gushing to the point of annoyance, I’d like to spend a paragraph or three paying tribute to Honey, possibly also to the point of annoyance.

My Honey Pig being a great mum.

My Honey Pig being a great mum.

Honey was one of the first pigs we ever bought.  She’s currently closing on 4 years old, and this was her fourth litter.  In that time, she’s given us 44 babies with 39 being weaned.  She’s lost three that were stillborn and two that were squashed.  The two squashings were from her second litter, and the stillbirths were across her first and third litters. She didn’t lose a single one of the ten born to her fourth litter, and she’s never given us less than double digits (10, 11, 13, and 10).

Now, that seems like a lot of numbers for no reason, but the result is that she has a piglet mortality rate of 11%, which is around the industry aim for intensively farmed pigs.  She gives birth in a purpose-built farrowing shed where she has full access to the outside.  We have a creep (a barrier to let the babies get away from her) with supplementary heat, but the rest is completely natural.  She’s given us nearly 40 weaned piglets without the use of farrowing crates and with a piglet mortality rate that is around the industry average. It’s hard to overstate just how valuable that is to small holders like us.

The other point to make about Honey is that she was sick or recovering for a good six to eight months. I’ve been to an intensive piggery where out of several hundred sows they had only a few who had given birth to three litters.  They start breeding at under a year, and by not much more than two years old are done. They either don’t get pregnant, come up lame, or get sick. There aren’t second chances in that environment, and so they are “chopped” (sold as salami or maybe pet food).  On average, there’s a 40% turnover of sows in intensive piggeries, so you can imagine just how many are chopped each year.

Honey came down with pneumonia when she was near 2.5 years old.  She’d given us three litters with no problems, but came down sick not long after weaning the last litter.  Now, in an intensive farming situation she’d have been chopped. You don’t nurse that kind of sow back to health. That’s not because those farmers don’t care either – I don’t want to give that impression.  Rather, that industry works on such a low margin that it’s all about volume, and you simply can’t carry non-performing stock.  That’s a direct result of the public’s current expectations of cheap and abundant pork, which is entirely due to the marketing of our ridiculous supermarket duopoly.  I’d bang on about that for a while, but my third pint of beer precludes it. Suffice it to say, had Honey been on an intensive farm, the first sign of green snot, and there was lots of that, would’ve seen her either shot and buried out the back, or sold as salami.

I’d like to make it clear just how much I love Honey. That’s not a feeling shared by everybody in the family, as Honey can be a straight-up bitch. When in season, Honey has been known to bite Peyton… okay… every time Honey is in season she ends up biting Peyton. She’s also stubborn (Honey, not Peyton), will tear her water container off of wherever it’s connected to if you don’t give her a wallow in time, and will let you know in no uncertain terms if you’re not feeding her fast enough.  She’s also broken her fair share of fences and gates.  However, she’s an amazing mum, will let any of us hover over her as she gives birth with complete trust, and will follow me anywhere if I just give her a pat and a scratch. The day she came down ill she was down in the back corner of our back paddock.  I went up to her, gave her a big love, called her to me, and walked all the way across the property and into one of the yards with her following me. She’s like a dog, if that dog were a quarter tonne, stubborn, and would eat you if lay down long enough.

I put Honey on her own the day she got sick, and I called the vet out. I’ve had farmers tell me that getting the vet out for stock is a waste of money, and that the best course of action is to let them either get better on their own or to euthanize them. Now that seems heartless, but there is some wisdom in it. There are economic considerations here, and vets aren’t cheap. However, I would respond to this point-of-view in two ways. Firstly, a healthy sow has the potential to give you dozens and dozens of piglets. Looking after a proven breeder can make very good economic sense.  Secondly, after a sow has given me 30 weaned piglets, then I think she’s earned a vet visit.  She’s future proofed her entire life with those 30 piglets, and I’m going to drop the few hundred dollars to make sure she’s okay.

As it turned out, Honey had pneumonia.  The vet gave her some antibiotics, and it took us at least half a year to nurse her back to health. It took a while for the infection to pass, and in that time she lost a heap of condition.  The rest of the time was us feeding her up to get her back into shape.

The culmination of all of that effort was Honey being hugely pregnant when the Pinery fires went through. We weren’t exactly sure how pregnant she was, as the dates in my spread sheet and the dates that the rest of the family recalled were conflicting.  As it turns out, the spread sheet was right and I should’ve trusted it over my family’s faulty memories. Don’t tell them I said that.

It was around two weeks after the fires that Honey dropped.  She had 10 babies, five of each gender, with no stillborns or squashings – she weaned all 10. I remember Peyton messaging me when I was at work, telling me that Honey was a few piglets into her delivery, and then updating me during the morning. I didn’t realise until that day just how much tension I was still carrying from the fires. Honey having those babies was this amazing catharsis – it was like somebody released the valve on a pressure cooker.  In that analogy, the pressure cooker is my repressed emotions, and the valve is the relief of having stock, especially pigs, and especially pigs after I had to shoot pregnant sows, give birth.  It was almost symbolic of the rebirth of our entire venture.  That’s super cheesy, but I stand by the analogy, even if it is a bit beer sodden right now.

I got home that night and didn’t even change clothes – I went straight from the car to Honey’s farrowing shed.  I have never been more glad to see piglets on the property.  I’ve never appreciated Honey and her amazing capacity to be a mum more.  I’ve never loved what we do more.  That day, that litter, was the antitheses of what we’d gone through with those god awful fires. I love Honey for that healing more than anything else.

Piglets at around 12 hours old. All pooped out from pigletting.

Piglets at around 12 hours old. All pooped out from pigletting.

Piglet pile up!

Piglet pile up!

The supplementary heat means they can slip away from mum to get warm and reduce the risk of squashings.

The supplementary heat means they can slip away from mum to get warm and reduce the risk of squashings.

A long suffering mum making sure that she's laying on her teats - no litter of piglets bugging her now.

A long suffering mum making sure that she’s laying on her teats – no litter of piglets bugging her now.

Piglet close up.

Piglet close up.

There's always one piglet that looks like Babe.

There’s always one piglet that looks like Babe.

Don't let the cute fool you - that little bugger is biting me!

Don’t let the cute fool you – that little bugger is biting me!

Apparently this piglet likes the smell of my shin.

Apparently this piglet likes the smell of my shin.

Piglets feeding after a couple of weeks. It's amazing how quickly they put on condition.

Piglets feeding after a couple of weeks. It’s amazing how quickly they put on condition.

For the record, Honey has earned her place on our farm for life. One of the harsh realities that we’ve had to face is that breeding stock sometimes has to be moved one. While we certainly have more leeway than an intensive farm that can’t afford to carry any non-performing animal, there are still economic realities.  We may be able to take the time and expense to nurse a sick sow back to health, but there is a line that has to be drawn sometimes.  We’ve only ever once had to draw that line, and that was coincidentally with Honey’s sister, but I have no doubt it’ll be another awful choice we’ll have to face many times over the upcoming years. However, not with Honey. Honey will live her life out in peace on our farm.  I have no doubt that she’ll happily give us more litters, but as soon as it becomes hard for her, then she’ll be retired to a life of leisure in one of our back paddocks, where she’ll be free to root in the earth and bite Peyton whenever she feels like it. Peyton will just have to live with that.

SPECIAL ROSIE

Back in September we were happy with a number of new babies on the property – ducks, piglets, and our very first lamb.  Having babies, any babies, is always a cause for celebration.  I’m not sure what it is, but there’s a visceral reaction to having little ones here, and the place never feels quite right when it’s totally baby free.  That reaction is always stronger when the babies are born here, rather than brought in, and especially strong if it’s a first-timer.  We experienced that with our beautiful Rosie, the first lamb ever born on our property .

Rosie’s mum was a first timer and quite small, and had about as little idea as we did when it came to raising lambs.  Rosie was a good 12 to 18 hours without a feed before we started to bottle-raise her, and she spent much of her first week of life in with us.  The result is that she’s not really bonded to her mum, or even the flock.  We’ve since had twins born (spoiler alert!), and they’re the complete opposite.  Their mum fed them and nurtured them right from the start, and they’re a firm part of the flock.  Not our Rosie though. She’s always out on her own, and will come to us over her mum’s bleats every time.

What makes Rosie even more special though is that I’m fairly sure she has slight brain damage.  She had a seizure when she was little, which I think is due to overeating disorder .  That’s quite common in lambs, especially bottle fed lambs, and is when certain kinds of gut fauna bloom and create toxins.  That fauna is always there, but doesn’t normally cause a problem.  It’s when lambs overeat, or are bottle fed with formula that has the sugars and starches that this fauna likes, that it becomes a problem.  The result can be death, and often without any signs of symptoms.  In our Rosie’s case, we’ve seen her have maybe a dozen seizures, and one day where she had a few in quite a short space of time.

Rosie changed after that first seizure.  She seemed to not take as much notice of the world around her, and she certainly almost always ignores the other sheep, including her mum.  There are times where you have to be almost on top of her before she realises you’re there, so her hearing and/or eye sight may be impaired.  The biggest change though is in her behaviour.  She circles our back paddock for much of the day, just walking the boundary on her own.  When she’s not doing that, she sucks on the fencing wire, and can stand there for hours just nomming away.  We don’t see her eat much, and on warm days we kind of have to remind her to drink.  Seriously, she’s more work than most of our other animals combined.🙂

The result is that we have one very special lamb. :)  I doubt she’ll ever be part of our breeding program, mainly because I doubt she’d know what to do with a ram or any resultant lamb.  I could be wrong, and instinct might take over, but I don’t think I want to risk her.  She’s still as sweet as ever, and comes up for loves whenever she notices us.  We recently started to introduce her to the dogs, as I’m keen to keep her in the back garden a bit.  I suspect she’ll end up being a woolly dog pet for the rest of her life.🙂

Our special Rosie Lamb.

Our special Rosie Lamb.

We lost Rosie on January 2nd. 😦

As clueless as we were about lambs, we did everything we could.  Her mum was hopeless, so we bottle fed Rosie from the start.  The problem was that bottle feeding ended up with her having fits, but her mum barely let her feed.  Rosie wasn’t eating enough solids, and so if we didn’t feed her she’d lose condition and would eventually have starved. It was a god awful catch 22.

I thought we’d found a happy middle-ground where we fed her enough to keep condition on her, but not so much that she was having lots of fits.  She was eating some solids and was definitely drinking lots of water.  She wasn’t as big as she should’ve been, but she seemed to be perking up.  I just wanted to get her through to a weaning age where she could eat the same as the other sheep.  After that she would’ve been okay.

Rosie was really good on New Year’s Day.  She was bright and active.  She was drinking out of a container rather than a bottle, which is logistically much easier to manage.  She had a great day, and we got a huge amount of loves from her.  However, the morning of January 2nd wasn’t so good.  She had clearly had a seizure and was barely aware of us.  She hardly ate, though she did drink water.  We left to spend the day working on our other place, and when we got home Rosie was pretty much gone.  She couldn’t get up at all – couldn’t even hold her head up.  Her breathing was shallow, though she’d seize every now and then.  She was clearly very close to the end.

I’m not sure if Rosie knew we were there, but Peyton and I both spent time giving her loves.  I was hoping that she’d just pass peacefully as we hugged her, but as we’ve found lately, all of our animals are too tough for their own good.  She may not have been feeling anything, but there was a chance that those seizures were causing her discomfit or pain.  I dug her a grave next to Peyton’s cat, I carried her and gave her some final loves, gently laid her in the grave, and I shot her.

I love our lifestyle, but there are times where it really, really sucks.

RIP Rosie.  We loved you.

The day Rosie was born.

The day Rosie was born.

FIRE!

Farm life and battling adversity are almost synonymous, and a strong part of our nation’s history and psyche.  We’ve had our fair share of setbacks and a steep learning curve at our beloved Atherton Farm, but I’d never class us with the likes of the broad acre farmers who are at the mercy of the weather.  We’ve had the odd tragedy or three, but nothing that could break us.  However, at the end of November we faced true adversity and we almost lost everything for which we’ve worked so hard.   

The last couple of weeks of November had some hot and windy days.  There was one day in mid-November where local schools closed pre-emptively.  I didn’t understand it at the time, as it wasn’t a particularly hot day, though it was very windy.  I figured it’d have to be a hot day to be a real risk.  We learned just how wrong that is. 

Just as an aside, our bushfire preparedness plan was almost non-existent.  It’s not because we hadn’t thought about it, but rather because we were advised by locals that we just didn’t need one.  The land around us is flat and used exclusively for broad-acre farming.  In the event of a fire, and we have had them close by before, every cocky around us rocks up with their own fire-fighting units to battle the blaze.  The CFS is also very responsive, and between them they control most fires in fairly short order.  We did get our own little fire-fighting unit, and the advice we received was to use that on our place to fight any spot fires should anything get close. 

I was at work on Wednesday, November 25th.  I was coming back from lunch with some workmates when we saw a huge amount of smoke to the north.  We’d heard that there was a fire locally to work, and assumed that was the source of the smoke.  As it turns out, that smoke was from a fire that started at Pinery.  Pinery is just to the south and west of Owen, and about a half-hour drive from where we live, and a full hour from work.  It’s somewhere between 30 and 40 kilometres from home in a straight line, which is really a long way when you’re considering a bushfire.  Especially a bushfire that is burning mostly in open paddocks without a lot of actual bush. 

Linhda called me at work an hour or so after lunch, and said that the fire was closing on Templers where we live, and that the authorities had started to close roads.  She advised that I come home to avoid the road closures.  At the time there was no real sense that I’d have to go home to fight a fire, but more to avoid the inconvenience of closed roads. 

That fire that was local to work, the one we’d mistakenly though had produced that massive pall of smoke, ended up burning all of 5 acres, but was enough to close the freeway I take to get home.  It took some innovative navigation to make it the 10km from work required to get past the blockades, and as a result I ended up taking maybe an hour to get home rather than the normal 30 minutes.  I was about halfway through that when Peyton called to say that she and Linhda had evacuated with the cats and dogs.  I honestly thought they were over-reacting.  There was nothing around us to burn – all of the crops had been harvested, and the paddock next to us had grown lupins which meant that it looked like almost bare earth after the harvest.  However, I figured it made sense for them to evacuate if it made them feel better, and the cats and dogs wouldn’t be so stressed due to smoke or sirens. 

I remember two things just after Peyton called me.  Firstly, the wind was incredible.  I’ve never seen or felt anything like it.  Secondly, I watched the water bombers taking off from the glider club at Gawler, which is right next to the freeway.  They were taking off into the wind, and it looked like they were barely crawling.  That, against the backdrop of giant clouds of smoke, was surreally terrifying. 

I realised how serious it all was as I was getting close to Roseworthy, which is about 5 minutes to the South of home.  The smoke was incredible and Roseworthy was completely engulfed in it.  The wind was out of the North West and the fire was past Wasleys, which is about 5 minutes to the West of home.  It was dark as midnight in Roseworthy, and it was like a scene from hell.  I was lucky to get through there just before they closed the highway. 

Just north of Roseworthy I actually spotted flames for the first time.  To the West, which was to my left, I could see across paddocks for a kilometre or two, and it was a wall of flames.  There was nobody in front of it.  There was nobody fighting it.  It was in front of every effort to contain it. 

Dad took a heap of pictures just before that time from home that give some indication of what was happening.  At that time, you couldn’t see flames from our house. 

Dad was driving back from the abattoir to home - this is him heading West out of Freeling towards our place.

Dad was driving back from the abattoir to home – this is him heading West out of Freeling towards our place.

This is the pall of smoke from Wasleys. They lost buildings in the main street.

This is the pall of smoke from Wasleys. They lost buildings in the main street.

This is apparently as Linhda and Peyton were packing to leave. I was leaving work right about now.

This is apparently as Linhda and Peyton were packing to leave. I was leaving work right about now.

Looking South and West across our back paddock.

Looking South and West across our back paddock.

Looking South and West across our back paddock - there's another picture later that shows a similar vantage but you can see the flames.

Looking South and West across our back paddock – there’s another picture later that shows a similar vantage but you can see the flames.

Pigs happily ignorant of what was coming.

Pigs happily ignorant of what was coming.

 I got home around 2:30 I think, though it may have been closer to 3.  Dad had organised the tractor and our little firefighting unit, and positioned them down the back of our place – in the South-Western corner.  We have a line of tall pine trees and that was where any fire would hit us first.  We figured that would be the best place to stop anything coming our way.  As it turns out, that logic was spot-on, but the thought of us stopping that fire were completely naïve. 

Getting the tractor and firefighting unit situated. Ironically, we used the firefighting unit to put out the tractor, and then the firehose burned so I had to use a wet towel.

Getting the tractor and firefighting unit situated. Ironically, we used the firefighting unit to put out the tractor, and then the firehose burned so I had to use a wet towel.

 Even at that time, even with the smoke and the very clear dangers, we were fairly confident that we were fine.  The wind was strong but was blowing to the South and East.  We started to see flames on a ridge that is somewhere around one or two kilometres from us to the West, but they were pushing past us.  We could see giant gum trees silhouetted along that ridge line, and there were fire tornadoes that were at least twice the height of those trees.  That was all terrifying and mesmerising, and the result is that we took very few pictures.  We did get a couple of the fire as we first spotted it though.

There's a group of pictures earlier from nearly the same vantage that show the smoke. This one is shortly after I got home, and is when the flames first showed.

There’s a group of pictures earlier from nearly the same vantage that show the smoke. This one is shortly after I got home, and is when the flames first showed.

 

Dad and I stood there and watched them for maybe 10 or 15 minutes when we felt the wind change direction.  It started to blow directly into our faces out of the West.  The result is the fire we had been watching stream past us became the front and it changed direction to come directly towards us.  It took somewhere between one and two minutes to get to us. 

This is just before the wind changed direction....

This is just before the wind changed direction….

... at this point the wind was mostly out of the North West, and so blowing South and East. It was pushing the fire past us.

… at this point the wind was mostly out of the North West, and so blowing South and East. It was pushing the fire past us.

At this point the wind changed direction, and the Eastern edge became the front.

At this point the wind changed direction, and the Eastern edge became the front.

The smoke and dust quickly built up and was on us in a minute or two.

The smoke and dust quickly built up and was on us in a minute or two.

This is after the initial firestorm had been through, just before the bulk of the flames hit us. I just had time to get from the tree I'd hidden behind to dad who was in our cow shed.

This is after the initial firestorm had been through, just before the bulk of the flames hit us. I just had time to get from the tree I’d hidden behind to dad who was in our cow shed.

One thing we’d not noticed until afterwards is that the fire went around us.  I have a picture facing East that clearly shows fire burning towards Freeling before the fire actually hit us – we are between Wasleys, where the fire came from, and Freeling.  It was just before, a matter of a few minutes, but it was definitely over the highway East of us before it started to burn our place.

This is pointing East, just before the firestorm hit us from the West. The fire was around us at this point, and was already burning towards Freeling.

This is pointing East, just before the firestorm hit us from the West. The fire was around us at this point, and was already burning towards Freeling.

 

I’ve never been in a bushfire before, though I’ve been close to them.  I’ve never been on the ground experiencing them though, and you can’t understand what it’s like until you’ve felt it.  The wind was strong to start with, almost strong enough to make you stagger.  Ahead of the fire though, right before the firestorm hit us, the wind would’ve taken you off your feet.  Dad was in the cow shed, and I hid behind a big pine tree maybe 10 seconds before it got to me.  It blew around me like nothing I’ve ever felt – rushing wind and smoke and dust, all of it red and black and burning. 

A CFS firefighter explained to me what that firestorm was, either that night or the following day.  I’d said to him that it made no sense that a paddock with next-to-no stubble on it could sustain a fire that furious.  He said that the firestorm rolls across the country side, pushed by that giant wind, and it picks up every combustible thing in front it.  It basically brings its own fuel with it, until it hits a fuel load, which it then ignites.  That’s exactly what we saw as it hit our place.

These flames extend from the fence line out maybe 20 to 25 metres.

These flames extend from the fence line out maybe 20 to 25 metres.

This picture was taken a fraction of a second later, and you see how far the flame has already started to burn into our paddock.

This picture was taken a fraction of a second later, and you see how far the flame has already started to burn into our paddock.

The back paddock burning.

The back paddock burning, along with Sheldon.

This is after the pigs had been let out, and Ziggy and Stumpy were gone. I tried to put out those sheds for hours, but they ended up burning down to almost nothing.

This is after the pigs had been let out, and Ziggy and Stumpy were gone. I tried to put out those sheds for hours, but they ended up burning down to almost nothing.

I took this picture just as I heard little Rosie crying. The rest of the sheep were safely ensconced down the side away from the fire, but she'd wandered out. I ended up leaping over a couple of fences to rescue her and drag her back to the flock. That lamb will be the death of me...

I took this picture just as I heard little Rosie crying. The rest of the sheep were safely ensconced down the side away from the fire, but she’d wandered out. I ended up leaping over a couple of fences to rescue her and drag her back to the flock. That lamb will be the death of me…

 I never thought our place would burn.  Maybe the stubble in our paddock, but nothing else.  The fence posts would need a load of fuel near them to get started.  The pig sheds would need even more than that, as they were made out of large, smooth, planed sleepers.  Hell, I could’ve held a blow-torch against them and they’d not have started to burn.  As the actual flames hit us, I thought it would blow through, burn up the stubble, and continue on its way.  I was so very, very wrong.

Dad and I started to run around and do what we could.  We quickly found that smoke and blown dust made most things impossible.  I ended up putting on safety goggles and wrapped a wet rag around my face, which let me get around pretty well.  We then spent an hour or two running back and forth reacting to whatever problem we could see.

We moved our sheep into a side yard that was protected from the fire.  When our neighbour’s house started to burn, we were able to move the sheep back on to the burned ground.  I saw Farmer John’s house start to burn.  In fact, I heard it as the fire started in his pergola.  There was a CFS unit at the place behind us, and I got to them across our burned paddock in only a minute or two.  They maybe took that long to get to the house, but by then they assessed it as too far gone.  It took most of the night to burn down to almost nothing.  I remember sitting on my roof with a hose, trying to keep embers from John’s house from burning my house, and trying not to cry.

I was sure the pigs would be okay, as their shelters seemed relatively fire proof.  Yes, much of their structure was wood, but I couldn’t see embers, or even their bedding, setting that alight.  Again, I was wrong.  We’d just had an MFS unit leave our place when the pig runs started to burn in earnest.  I opened the gates and got most of them into the front paddock near the house.  We had two girls in with Boris though – Ziggy and Stumpy.  Ziggy was hands-down my favourite, as she had the best nature and was so much fun.  Stumpy had been positively pregnancy tested the day before.  It would have been her third litter, and she was a great mum.  I couldn’t let them out the front with the rest because of Boris.  He’s a good boy, but with the smoke, fire, and noise, I couldn’t let him out where all of the firefighters were.  He may be good, but in a panic he could do some real damage to somebody.  I was sure they’d be okay in their run though.

I had just gotten the rest of the pigs sorted out when I heard Ziggy and Stumpy screaming.  Their shed was fully ablaze.  I raced down there as fast as I could, but I couldn’t even get close to the gate because of the heat.  I saw one of them, Ziggy I think, rearing up in front of the shed, burning and screaming.  There was absolutely nothing I could do.

I remember the very short conversation I had with dad a minute later when I went back to the shed:

Me: “Ziggy, Stumpy, and Boris are gone.”

Dad: “Gone?  Where did they go?” 

Me: “They’re fucking burning.  They’re fucking dead.”

We’ve actually tried to joke about that confusion since, but it never really seems funny, even weeks later.

That was the shittiest day of my farming life, and would rank up there with probably the shittiest day of my entire life.  You want to know what makes the entire thing even shittier though?  The toughness of pigs.  I saw Ziggy and Stumpy burning.  I heard them screaming.  I was sure they were dead.  They survived the fire though, despite horrific burns.  They survived and I had to shoot them.  It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it took a good couple of weeks for the nightmares involving blood and burned flesh to go away.  Thinking about it now still makes me tear up. 

Ziggy and Stumpy weren’t our only pig losses.  I had one little grower girl who I’d seen taking shelter in a bath tub earlier in the afternoon.  There was stubble burning a few metres from her, but she was safe in the tub without a heap of radiant heat.  I’d lost track of her and one of her sisters, but remember seeing her in that tub and cheering.  I called her a good girl and told her to stay put and that she’d be okay.  Pigs being pigs, meaning they don’t understand me when I speak to them, and even if they could they’d probably choose to do exactly the opposite, that little pig decided to get out of the bath and walk through three burning runs to get back to her original water drum.  I found her in there after the fire had gone through, and she was burned all over.  She was so badly hurt that she couldn’t move.  I had to drag her out, screaming the entire time, and shoot her.

That little grower’s slightly bigger sister, the other pig I’d lost track of, ran through the fire to the back of the property.  That meant she basically ran the entire breadth of the fire on our property.  She wasn’t as badly burned as her sister, but the back half of her body was still horribly burned and she was unable to walk.  I had to shot her too.

It felt like a lifetime, but I doubt the entire episode took more than a couple of hours.  I was up to nearly 2 the following morning putting out spot fires, but the worst of it couldn’t have been more than two hours.  It didn’t end with the fire passing through though.  Farmer John’s house burned for a long time, and was a real threat to our place.  The last CFS crew at our place had to leave, and explained to us how embers could sneak in under the tiles on our roof.  They suggested that I get up into the roof cavity every 10 or 15 minutes and make sure nothing was burning.  They left me a fire extinguisher to put out anything I found in there.  I alternated between sitting on the roof, watching the house of Farmer John, who is the best of men, burn, with a hose in my hand to put out the embers that were raining down on my place, and running down a ladder to stick my head into our roof cavity looking and sniffing for fire.  I’ve never felt so powerless in my life.

I have pictures of Farmer John’s house burning, but I’d never post them.  His and Cynthia’s life was in that house, and they lost the lot.  It would be inappropriate for me to expose that to anybody else, despite the tourists that have been coming past since the fire.  I’ve developed a pretty good glare for those dicks.

Putting out the spot fires took a surprising amount of time.  The fence posts were especially hard to put out, as they burn from the ground up and it’s difficult to put that out with buckets of water, which is all I could really use (I did pee on a couple – desperate times call for desperate measures after all…).  The other threat was Farmer John’s front garden, where plants were burning and streaming embers into my place on the wind that still hadn’t let up.  I finally got that out near midnight, just as a final CFS crew called past and offered to help.  They ran their hoses up and down the fence line and made sure I’d not missed anything.

We spent a couple of days without power, but used our generator to run the big freezers to save the large amount of meat we have stored.  Insurance would have covered that, but letting that much meat go to waste would fly in the face of everything we’re trying to do here.

We had to rush around and look after the stock we’d saved too.  We put up temporary electric fencing for the pigs, who were quite happy to sleep against the big shed in the shade and ignore most of our efforts.

The day before was horror and disaster, but today is being pampered and taking naps.

The day before was horror and disaster, but today is being pampered and taking naps.

As it turns out, Boris was almost untouched by the flames that maimed his two girlfriends.  He had a bit of a limp, but wasn’t burned at all.  He was super wary of the burned ground though, and it took me until late the following day before I could get him out of his burned run.  He’d spent that night nestled against poor dead Ziggy, which was heartbreaking.  I ended up having to lure him over his run with a bucket of grain, picking a relatively clear patch through the burned ground.  He’d not step on the black ground at all.  It wasn’t hot from the fire, but was warmer because of the sun.  He’d not go near it either way, and it probably took me 15 minutes to get him out of there so I could drag Ziggy and Stumpy’s bodies out.

It took me maybe 15 minutes to walk Boris 20 metres. I had to pick out an unburnt path for the big sook.

It took me maybe 15 minutes to walk Boris 20 metres. I had to pick out an unburnt path for the big sook.

As horrible as that all was, one of the surviving sows, Socks, showed some real interest in Boris after I moved him.  I figured he could do with some company, and so let her in with him.  Inside of maybe 60 seconds they were… healing their emotional wounds together.  If you know what I mean.

Boris and Socks finding comfort in each other's arms (aka boning).

Boris and Socks finding comfort in each other’s arms (aka boning).  That blood on his shoulder isn’t his – it came from Ziggy.

The aftermath of the fire was devastating, with the loss of almost all of the infrastructure we’ve spent years building.

 

This is a panoramic shot facing West - the fire here would've been coming straight at the camera.

This is a panoramic shot facing West – the fire here would’ve been coming straight at the camera.

It could’ve been much worse though.  The big pine trees along the fence where the fire first hit ended up not burning.  They were burning fiercely after the firestorm went through.  Both dad and I saw them burning and were sure they were gone.  For some reason the fire went out though, which I’m thankful for as they would’ve burned for a long, long time, and would’ve showered the place with embers.  I think it was the wind that actually helped in that instance.  They didn’t burn at all on the side hit by fire.  Rather, it was the leeward side away from the wind that had caught and was burning merrily at the start, which was when dad and I had to start running around looking after stuff.  Sometime shortly after that the dust, smoke, and wind must have snuffed the fire out.  I can see charred wood a good 10 or 12 feet up those trees, right close to heaps of dry pine cones, but the trees are mostly undamaged.

This is the tree I hid behind when the firestorm first came through. It's scorched a good 10 to 12 feet up, but the fire was snuffed out by wind, smoke, and dust. Thankfully.

This is the tree I hid behind when the firestorm first came through. It’s scorched a good 10 to 12 feet up, but the fire was snuffed out by wind, smoke, and dust. Thankfully.

Only a week later we had some folks from our local Transition Movement come and help us rebuild runs and fences.  The handyman from the brewery where we get our spent grain had an idea on how to build some pig housing out of pallets, and he and a friend of his, who is now firmly a friend of ours too, got stuck in and built a couple of shelters that’ll do quite well.  The entire thing was humbling but saved us so much work.  I’d never have asked for that help, and would’ve taken a week to accomplish what the group did in a day.

We had between 12 and 15 people helping out a week after the fires. This is dad high-fiving our good mate Peter.

We had between 12 and 15 people helping out a week after the fires. This is dad high-fiving our good mate Peter.

This is dad high-fiving our good mate Mark, who built our pig shelters.

This is dad high-fiving our good mate Mark, who built our pig shelters.

This is me high-fiving Miranda, who helped Mark build the pig shelters, and dad taking the opportunity for a sneaky hug.

This is me high-fiving Miranda, who helped Mark build the pig shelters, and dad taking the opportunity for a sneaky hug.

This is one of the pig shelters that Mark designed and Mark and Miranda put up. It'll need some insulation come the cooler weather, but it works a treat now.

This is one of the pig shelters that Mark designed and Mark and Miranda put up. It’ll need some insulation come the cooler weather, but it works a treat now.

 It’s now a little over six weeks since the fires, and the property is fully recovered.  In fact, in some respects we’re better than we were before, as we’ve made some modifications as we rebuilt. 

This is one of the improvements we've added since the fires. We've done the same over one of Mark's pig shelters, and probably will over the other one too.

This is one of the improvements we’ve added since the fires. We’ve done the same over one of Mark’s pig shelters, and probably will over the other one too.

 

I’ve thought long and hard about our decision to stay and fight.  We never made a single bit of difference to that fire.  I can say definitively that we never, not once, slowed the fire, changed its direction, or altered what it wanted to burn.  It took what it wanted, and we were nothing to it.  However, we saved our house, we saved most of the animals, and I was here to make sure that the burned pigs didn’t suffer. 

The CFS unit came back the following day to get their fire extinguisher.  The lead of the crew told me that he hadn’t been at all confident that our house would still be standing when they came back, so dire was the danger we were in when they left.  I am fully confident that we would have lost the lot had we not stayed, but next time we’ll be much better prepared.  I have plans for petrol pumps, extra tanks, sprinklers on the roof, extra fire hoses etc.  The next time this happens, and I expect with our changing climate that it will happen again, we’ll be ready and we won’t be powerless.  That will result in a much happier blog post.  I’m going to call that one “The Day Neil Beat a Bushfire and Then Had a Beer”.

For some reason, I find this the saddest picture I took after the fire. :(

For some reason, I find this the saddest picture I took after the fire.😦

A different kind of fire - a sunset a couple of days after the bushfire came through. It may have burned us, but it didn't burn away the pretty. :)

A different kind of fire – a sunset a couple of days after the bushfire came through. It may have burned us, but it didn’t burn away the pretty.🙂

 

At no stage do I want to sound flippant about any of this, despite my tendency to use humour to deflect pain.  Templers is small – we have maybe 15 houses.  Three of those houses were lost, and dad and I helplessly watched two of them burn.  Between Templers and Roseworthy on the highway there are about eight houses, and four of them were lost.  I read stats a few days later that spoke of 16,000 sheep, over 50,000 chickens, and 500 pigs lost.  Two people died, and over 100 houses were lost in total.  None of that is funny, and none of it should ever be forgotten.  However, I’d like to firmly raise my middle finger to bushfires and make it clear that next time we’ll be fighting it far more effectively. 

 

 ADDENDUM:

It occurred to us in the aftermath of the fires that we may have a problem with dust over summer.  The fires hit right at the start of the hot weather, and summer here is merciless at the best of times.  We expected it to be dry, and combined with the hot northerlies we get, it stood to reason that the dust may be problematic. We were right.

The back paddock, facing east, during one of the many, many dust storms.

The back paddock, facing east, during one of the many, many dust storms.

The sheep don't seem to care so much. Then again, these same sheep were busy eating a bail of hay at the height of the fire.

The sheep don’t seem to care so much. Then again, these same sheep were busy eating a bail of hay at the height of the fire.

Back up towards the pig yards. We've rebuilt, so this must've been two or three weeks post-fire.

Back up towards the pig yards. We’ve rebuilt, so this must’ve been two or three weeks post-fire.

We had dust storms most days, though not always to the degree shown in those pictures.  It got to the stage where we just quit trying to clean up outside. Our entertaining area was covered in drifts of red/brown for a good 10 weeks.

The local farmers ploughed to combat the dust, which of course is a loss of their nutrient-rich topsoil.  That sounds a little counter-intuitive, as you’d think that not disturbing the dirt would be the way to go. However, their aim was to turn over big clods of soil, giving the wind less loose stuff to blow around.  It worked, though it took time.

Luckily we had some early rain in the form of a couple of huge showers over a couple of weeks.  At first that kind of makes it worse – the rain/wind stirs up the dust and you end up with both a dust and a rain storm at the same time, the result of which is mud.  That’s about as much fun as it sounds. However, the rain brought that welcome tinge of green, which is both pretty and keeps the soil where it should be.

It’s now the start of April, and I’m pretty sure the dust is behind us.  At least we’re confident enough that we’ve cleaned up the entertainment area. :)  It’s still weird driving through the fire grounds and seeing the difference between what was burned and what was spared.  Seeing the burned out houses, or the cleared spots where you knew there used to be houses.  Seeing the carbon deposits on the roads where you know there used to be a tree, but where there’s literally not even a stump left now, so ferocious was the fire.  It’s getting better though, and that’s something.

This is looking west, and is the direction from which the fire hit us. We were facing this way, watching it stream to the south and east when it changed directions can came straight at us. Note those two trees...

This is looking west, and is the direction from which the fire hit us. We were facing this way, watching it stream to the south and east when it changed directions and came straight at us. Note those two trees…

...this picture is looking the same way - you can tell from those two trees. It's a much prettier view without the dust though, yes? :)

…this picture is looking the same way – you can tell from those two trees. It’s a much prettier view without the dust though, yes?🙂