The week beginning the 29th of February 2020.
Saturday the 29th

I tired of catching up with pages, so here is the latest week and I'll go back to the others later.

Drought anxiety is constant. It's not directly about rain, although obviously that's the primary problem, but about the baking heat that's drying out what's left of the grass. That's a subtle distinction, perhaps, but I really haven't given much thought to rain, other than in the abstract and wouldn't it be helpful if some actually fell?

Our primary pasture species is the sub-tropical Kikuyu, a native of Kenya. It has a root system that extends for great distances, both vertically and horizontally, so the Kikuyu near any waterway is still growing a little bit of green and providing some cattle feed. At the bottom of some of the hillsides with which we have so much trouble in the winter months because of too much water, the Kikuyu remains green. Lucky.

On the hillsides and any higher ground where there is no Kikuyu, most of the grass is dead and bare patches of soil are obvious. There are deep cracks in many places.

The radio news seemed quite mad today. Firstly there were reports of supermarkets in Auckland being chaotic and emptied as panicking people frantically filled their shopping trolleys with toilet paper, tissues, hand sanitiser and tinned foods, after news yesterday that COVID-19 has arrived in the country.

I've been watching reports of the virus since the first one from an email list I've been on since Sarah and Mike visited us for the second time, in 2012. Sarah told me about the list that reports on incidences of any human or animal disease in the world and at the time she was particularly interested in the Schmallenberg virus, which had or subsequently caused losses in their sheep flock. I signed up to follow its progress too.

The new strain of pneumonia-causing illness was reported on the ninth of January on the list, looked interesting then and so it has proved to be.

We have quite a store of toilet paper and an extra box or two of tissues ourselves, but that's because we buy in bulk most of the time, to save emergency trips to town. I did think, when we shopped ten days ago, that should things continue to develop as they have, taking advantage of a couple of "specials" in the supermarket then might be wise. Otherwise we sometimes find, at times of unusually high demand (just before Christmas, on many occasions), supermarket shelves empty of necessary items. One summer we couldn't buy flour! Bread yeast is often missing too.

The other mad news was of the level of activity surrounding a big lottery draw tonight, with tickets being sold at an unprecedented rate during the latter part of today. The chance of "winning" in either case (getting COVID-19 in Aotearoa, or winning Lotto), is about the same at present. That didn't mean I didn't buy a ticket. I dream, one day, of being able to say, à la the Blues Brothers, we're getting the farm back together!

bird nest

We walked around the reserve near the pond this morning, deciding whether or not it was practicable to let Zella and Glia in here to graze some of the long grass - they'd already had access to some just beyond the paddock fence.

I noticed this bird nest as we passed one of the harakeke (flax) plants. It was firmly fixed, so had not just fallen down from elsewhere. Birds like the owner of this nest don't usually nest this close to the ground.

electric tape fencing

We erected an electric tape around the outside of the area and Stephan finished off by putting some tape (not connected but the cows won't try it) around one of the small Kauri in the middle.

Then we let the two cows and their calves in for the day.

The dry-looking stuff is where they grazed previously.

pig rooting

It really isn't helpful when feral pigs come down out of the bush and turn over what little grass we're actually still growing. They go for the bits where there's still been a bit of moisture for some reason, which is of course also where the diminishing grass is present.

grass

Stephan loosened the fence along the side of the Mushroom lane, so we can let the cows graze what grows here. It's dry and long, so doesn't have a lot of food value but at least it's grass.

I put a tape along the edge of the stream bank to protect what has been growing up there since we fenced the area off.

scrub-cutting

Then Stephan went up into the Swamp East Left, where we will soon have a fence. We'd previously run electric tapes up the hill to exclude the cattle from a large area between the two halves of the Swamp East but when we walked around it the other day, realised how much of this part of the paddock we could bring in for their use.

This is a gently-sloping hillside of regenerating Kānuka and Tōtara. The largest of the Kānuka will remain standing but the Tōtara can all go from this face. They're still low and spiky and can be cut with the scrub-bar.

cattle

It's very odd seeing cattle here! They will browse the Puriri, all of which are large enough to stand a bit of low branch pruning and the flax plants are so well established that they too will recover from any assault.

I don't imagine they'll make use of the slide, the ladder being too steep.

cattle

In the six hours since we'd opened the area beside the Mushroom lane for the cows early this afternoon, nobody had dared venture in.

I had to fetch some Puriri leaves to tempt someone over the un-crossable line of the downed fence. Then most of them followed the lead of the first intrepid explorers and happily munched their way through the new offering.

cow and calf

I'm watching cow condition with concern, waiting for the lack of grass to begin showing in the fat and muscle cover on the cows. Most of them are still looking fine, including young Ellie 171, one of the first-time two-year-old heifers.

hillside

Fortunately for my state of worry, the cows are being very tolerant of their meagre dietary offerings.

We've been relatively lightly stocked for several years, since the wet shock of Winter 2008, after which I reduced numbers significantly, which then got us through the drought of 2009/10 without much bother, eighteen months later.

This drought is much worse than that one for us. Then we kept getting little bits of rain to sneak us through with ongoing grass growth, totalling 77.3mm in January and February 2010; this year there's been much less, 12.6mm in the same months. The average rainfall for the two months is 226mm.

In my booklet I noted this evening that I'd managed to stroke heifers 188, 872 and 877. My taming work continues.

Sunday the 1st of March
farm

Still no rain.

Here is Stephan, winding up the wires from another of the drain reserve areas. We contemplated putting some electric tape around the trees - those we planted up the top end and the few that have grown from bird-sown seeds - but most of them are big enough to survive being browsed by the cattle.

gate

I had strung an electric tape across the inside of this gateway, to stop bull 178 either pushing against the steel gate, or, potentially, jumping over it if a hot cow or heifer came along the lane. Today Stephan replaced that with a permanent spring gate, freeing the tape for use elsewhere.

It has long been my practice to prevent something I know an animal might do, rather than wait until they show they can do it. Bulls have jumped and bent our gates in the past and so I decided I would never provide the opportunity again. In some places an unprotected gate will be fine but where other cattle are beyond it or passing by, it's just silly to leave the bull right up against the other side.

trough

And on the subject of bad bulls, here's another bit of 176's work: he'd somehow knocked the water pipe feeding this trough and the one beyond it in Flat 4.

176 is in Flat 3, with electric tape around the plastic trough at the other end of the paddock and still he's managed to do damage to the system!

pig rooting

The Back Barn paddock is much drier than around the other side but the pigs have been here anyway. I do wish they'd all go away and die somewhere.

I moved the cattle into this paddock. This is why I'm feeling stressed: there is barely anything for the cows to eat in many places.

I arrived back at the house feeling despondent, so Stephan suggested an outing to see Roz and Alan around near Takahue. That was an excellent move, their company cheering me up no end. We had entertaining conversations about toilet paper, public panic and other mad behaviours before working our way back to drought commiseration. We both live beside streams that continue to run, so at least we don't need to panic about that.

We came home with lots of fallen fruit for the pigs to enjoy.

man with dead possums

On his way out to start some work on the digger, Stephan disposed of some extremely stinky possum carcases that had sat in the sun for too long.

They were mostly from Jane's traps. She phones in the morning when she finds them in the traps around her garden and Stephan goes and shoots them. After plucking their fur for later sale, he takes the bodies out to place under trees, returning stolen nutrients.

cow

Glia saw the blue bin and came running: blue bins usually mean Molasses. How disappointing for her.

Glia is still fat, which is a good state to be in when only three and raising your second calf. Zella is beginning to look a little thin, this level of feed being insufficient to keep her fat while producing milk for her fat daughter and us. Her production has dropped a bit in the heat and because of the reduction in feed levels.

Zella and Glia are roving all around the farm, sometimes wandering right out the back (as far as they can go along the lanes), grazing wherever they find some grass. Two cows and their calves can find enough to eat over a large area, even when there's as little grass as this. It's a fun game trying to find them in the evenings, when they have to come in. This morning they came into the Windmill and will be here for the day.

Walking the tracks has done Zella's feet a lot of good, her hooves now appearing near normal in length and shape.

digger

The digger is making a huge difference to the ease and efficiency of some of the work Stephan would normally have done with the tractor.

We've long had problems with the culverts we installed along the bottom of the Swamp East hillside, partly because we couldn't do enough to shape the surrounding ground and the tracks that then went over them. Progress!

Monday the 2nd
farm

0.75mm of rain falling this morning.

cow

Stephan opened this bit of the Mushroom 1 Puriri reserve a couple of days ago but it took a while for Eva to find it.

The cattle know where their boundaries are and when something changes, they don't notice for a while - well they don't notice when you want them to; if something falls down and they can get in where they shouldn't, you can bet they'll see it far more quickly.

We have been giving Eva pain relief injections every three days for the last week and a half, after the vet came out to look at her. He initially thought she'd dislocated her hip but then thought her stifle was potentially involved too - the equivalent of our knee. Watching her since and listening to where the alarming clunk happens when she walks, I now think it's primarily in her stifle.

It's difficult to see whether or not Eva is in much pain, although presumably so. But watching her when the vet was here, she'd take a clunking step mid-munch, without any perceivable pause. The pain relief was prescribed "off label", meaning use beyond the manufacturer's instructions, in this case for a longer period than normal, to see whether we made any difference to her daily life. Tonight I decided to discontinue the treatment, since it didn't seem we'd changed anything for her with it, other than annoying her with the injection every three days.

cattle

The largest mob of cattle at present numbers 34 head. They made it clear they were not happy this afternoon, in the PW.

cattle

I drove past them, calling, and eventually they followed me as I walked ahead of them along Route 356 to the Middle Back gate.

It didn't look much better there and there was a lot of calling once they were all through the gate; but most of that would have been mothers and calves making sure of each other's presence.

scrub-clearing

Meanwhile I could hear Stephan with the chainsaw on the Swamp East hillside. He has begun cutting Kānuka, the tall trees that are similar to the smaller Mānuka and make the best firewood. Much of this slope was clear on the farm aerial photograph of 1982.

photo

All of the area indicated is covered in Kānuka where it was clear pasture 38 years ago.

The big trees in the gullies on either side are beautiful and Stephan will erect new fences to keep the cattle out of those areas. When we walked through there the other day, we realised more could be cleared than we'd previously thought and the old photograph confirms our thoughts. The area to the right of the yellow line at the top of the shape, will become part of the Swamp East Right, and the rest, part of the Swamp East Left. It's always exciting making these changes.

Quail

This family of brown quail have been regularly around our house for the last week or so. I presume they're the same birds I saw as tiny chicks earlier in the summer (in a page yet to be written, I think).

Here they were up the top end of the House paddock: they obviously range far and wide, since they're also often out by the road.

cow and calf

When I appear at the gateway with Eva's evening Molasses in its blue bin, she comes quite quickly in my direction, so I move as fast as I can to get it to her where she is. But her enthusiasm for it and her determination to move suggests she isn't suffering a great deal of pain from whichever joint is causing her lameness.

We bought Andrew a bag of calf meal, to begin getting him used to eating it, which he now does with enthusiasm. Anticipating that Eva may require euthanasia at some time before Andrew would otherwise be weaned, we want to ensure he'd receive adequate nutrition to continue his excellent growth, or at least prevent him being seriously stressed by the removal of milk from his diet. I thought it a good idea to get him started on it now, so the transition will be easier, should it be necessary.

Whatever has happened to her leg, Eva cannot live with it like this for very long and there's no practicable way to fix it, so we must begin our leave-taking. You will know that Eva has been a favourite of mine from the start; I was not expecting to have to say good-bye to her so soon. As long as she continues in tolerable comfort, she can stay in this or a neighbouring paddock, not obliged to move great distances for feed. But if her condition deteriorates, we will have the vet out to put an end to her suffering.

Tuesday the 3rd

Bull 176 is still waiting for a date for the works. I notified the stock agent of my wish to send him away (before he breaks any more plastic troughs), around the 23rd of January.

bull

We're being restricted on all sides this summer: COVID-19 has slashed China's demand for beef and New Zealand having allowed itself to be sucked into the biggest market as its demand grew, is now in a sticky place. The meat companies don't want to kill as many animals, just when drought-stricken farmers really need them to go, for stock welfare reasons.

I hear that people booking stock in for killing are asked if they still have water and those without are rightly having their animals prioritised.

tree

I'd hoped the cows wouldn't destroy the little Tōwai in the drain reserve. It still has some leaves at the very top, so perhaps it will recover. They're very common along the stream banks, growing from seeds dropped by birds, or washed up in the floods.

I thought I'd taken pictures of the cattle happily grazing in the drain area but it would seem I did not.

stream

The stream from Puketutu, the hill behind our farm, is still running but is much reduced from normal flows. It may not be very much lower than in any other dry summer but it's always hard to remember, hence my decision to photograph it now.

cow

Fancy 166 is starting to look a little thin. She's three and a half, raising her second calf, so doing very well in her productive life so far but still a youngster. She's also part of the 34-head mob who were with the bull and it is probably time I drafted the four younger cows out, so they're not having to compete with the older cows for feed.

The cows seemed content here today, so I quietly went away after checking them all.

It rained this evening when we weren't home to watch it but in town the moderate downpour looked likely to be significantly wetting. There were puddles all over the tarmac in town and for some of the journey home, then the roads seemed a lot drier. But we turn a wide circle to get to our place from town and by the time we headed back in towards home, things were looking wetter again.

Wednesday the 4th

Four millimetres of rain in the gauge this morning, then a little more during the late morning... It's not a huge amount but it has wet the ground more than any other attempts at rain in the last many weeks. The Kikuyu will certainly respond to this amount of moisture.

farm

There's some lovely, lush, Puriri foliage on these big trees at the top of the Big Back North, so we went up there this morning to cut some and throw it over the fence to the animals in the Middle Back.

cattle

It took them a while but eventually they all climbed the steep slope to join in the feeding frenzy along the fenceline.

heifer

Dushi 170 is starting to look a bit thin. She's doing a lovely job with her bull calf, so she's working pretty hard in this tough season.

cow

811 demonstrates the difference a year's extra maturity can make, having calved for the first time as a three-year-old.

trees

Many of the Taraire trees have yellow and brown leaves. Many more around our area have died in the last year or two. I think this is cause for great concern but cannot find anyone else who shares my worry or has noticed the phenomenon.

Young trees appear to be surviving; it's only these large, older trees that are succumbing to whatever ails them, whether it's the drought, the heat or some unknown disease.

man

The worker on an unscheduled, unapproved break.

trees

We'll have a glut of firewood in the winter of 2022. In the mean time we have an absence of helpers to gather and stack it, so Stephan is doing it all himself. Sadly it's not work my body can sustain.

calves

I called the cows and calves out of the Middle Back, thought enough of them were moving to allow me to go ahead along the track but then only counted 15 calves as they passed me on their way out of the PW.

Fortunately these last two steers were just a bit slow but easily followed the track their mothers had taken. I had a bit of bother when they thought they should turn the wrong way and join the other mob who were nearby at the end of the track but after a bit of dashing about and swearing (I'm still not very good about keeping calm when things aren't going to plan), they wandered away in the right direction.

cattle

Here is the other mob, hoping I'd come and move them to somewhere with live grass. Fortunately they obviously get fat on air.

I had to push them back along to the gate, they having come away from it when they heard the other cattle moving along the lane. Sometimes they're really good about remembering how to go to the gates and other times they seem utterly stupid.

I counted them all out around the end of the fence and into the lane and then felt a sharp prick under my arm that turned into searing pain and then I realised there were wasps, lots of them. I ran, fast, away down to the stream, in case they were following me. Looking back there were wasps all flying around the gate post, so I wondered whether there was a big paper wasp nest there I hadn't noticed, which didn't seem very likely. What had happened was that one of the cattle had trodden in the entry of a ground nest of the nasty German wasp and then I'd walked through the same area. I hadn't noticed the cattle moving to avoid stings, as I'd been concentrating on counting them all out and making sure the last calves went with them.

cattle

On the other side of the stream, some green feed.

I shut the gate and took one of the antihistamine tablets I always carry in my camera bag.

hen and chicks

The little chicks are doing well so far (I've lost my usual confidence after losing one to probable Marek's Disease last time round).

It looks like there are at least four hen chicks amongst them.

I went off to bed at 10pm, then half an hour later, as I turned off the light and opened the windows wide, I could hear the insistent call of one of the cows. Up and out again because that sort of racket is unusual at this stage of the lives of the calves and cows so there must be something wrong. No. Just 811 on the Flat 1 side of the (now open) drain and her calf on the other side in Flat 2. They could have reached each other either via the usual gateway, or by going up the top and crossing the shallow area of the dry drain.

When I eventually got her moving and around to her calf, she bashed him around for a while before letting him feed. Reprimanding cow!

Thursday the 5th
wasp hunting

Stephan took wasp-toxin to the nest of wasps who'd stung me yesterday. From the track we could see the wasps flying in and out of the ground amongst some of those little Tōtara trees.

cows and calves

Early this afternoon I brought the big mob along the lanes and drafted out the four young cows and their calves. The other 26 animals continued down the lane to the front of the farm and we put them Over the Road.

These, including Fancy 166, Ellie 171, 812 and 813, went into the House paddock through the top gate, while the gate at the bottom was open for the 13-head mob to join them from Flat 1. I will now have three similar-sized mobs of 26, 24 and 21, which makes management a bit easier. All 13 cows in the biggest mob are mature animals, so I can be slightly more relaxed about their feed levels than I need to be for the younger mothers. Nobody's getting as much as they need in any case.

cattle

Before Stephan began work in the Swamp East Left we took the electric tape away from where we'd run it up the hill along the edge of the big gully. But there's grass growing here and my cattle need to eat it, so I ran the tape back up the hill, leaving him a driving track around to where he's working.

These low, green areas are a salve for my anxious mind.

In town the other day I met a teacher I used to know at College, who's a keen pig stalker and tonight he brought a couple of friends and some big guns out to see if they could track down the feral pigs on our place. They were unsuccessful but saw a large number of rabbits and possums and asked if they might return again, with smaller weaponry, to make a dent in some of their number instead.

Friday the 6th
drought

The little bits of rain have helped the Kikuyu where it was still green enough to respond to the moisture. The rest will need more before it perks up again.

There are large cracks appearing in the ground and most of the fence posts are wobbly, as the soil has shrunk away from them.

grass

But turning back and walking along the Bush Hill fenceline, the Kikuyu is quite lush and thriving. There's a big drain on the other side of the fence that has long been there, taking water from the Bush Hill and away along toward the stream. The Kikuyu here must still be reaching sufficient deep moisture to have remained green and growing.

I had come to open the gate between Flats 5d and here, 5c, for bull 178, since there wasn't much left to eat in 5d. I daren't put the two bulls back together, since they'd developed such a violent relationship before. This bull doesn't seem to be harming the troughs quite as much as is 176's habit.

Kingfisher nest hole

This is a vertical piece of bank Over the Road, where Kōtare sometimes nest and all that white dribble out of and below the hole, indicates the presence of chicks. I heard them before I saw them, with their funny, continuous "grumbly old man" noise.

logs

Stephan cut down one of our Pine trees last week and today loaded the two bits of log, one cut for coffin lengths*, onto Jonny's trailer to take to Oscar's mill.

* Please do not be alarmed, this is not a COVID-19 response plan, just something he's wanted to do for a long time, since building Dan's coffin.

The hunting party returned again tonight, just on dark and went out to exercise some control over our burgeoning rabbit population.

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