Early Morning Visitors March 2016
 
  We had some early morning visitors on on the first Sunday of the month.

Che, her two daughters Janine and Jackie and their friend Lara came across on an early morning ride. A few of the kids came along as well and after some refreshments and letting the kids ride a bit in our yard, they all headed off again into the distance. And we scored a few piles of fresh horse manure.

Cindy and Precious riding out in the field

  Chicken House . . . Work Continues
  Full speed ahead on the chicken house this month. First job was to clean up all the woodwork after the plaster patching and give it it's second coat of sealer - lots of woodwoork on the chicken house - roofing beams, window frames and a door frame. Not sure if wood was such a good idea there, but it was the cheapest solution.

Then it was down to filling in all the plaster imperfections on the walls with Polyfilla. Next the tedious job of sanding down all the walls to get the loose plaster off and smooth the Polyfilla. Finally the big
 
Front window frame      
clean up - dusting off the walls and sweeping the floor after the sanding and I was then able to fit the four roof sheets that I had cut to size.

Now just finishing off the roof and painting to go before I make the door and windows, fit it out with roosting stuff (Martie's doing the research on that), put up the outside fence and gate and we'll be able to move some chickens in. Must all be done before winter gets here so the chickens can sleep warm and cosy.

Roofing beams and "window vents" woodwork

 
Half the roof now on - view of the back of the the chicken house

  Large Crops Update
  With reasonable and regular rainfall during the last week of February, when the sun came out for a few days our large crops went through a good growth spurt. The mealies have all suddenly seeded and the sunflowers have reached a good height. We have one or two sunflowers and every other
  plant has at least one flower bud getting larger every day.

First sunflower      

Maize getting to reasonable height      

Sunflower plants      

  And Look Who's Discovered the Duck Pond
  After sitting quietly and observing the ducks in the water for a while, curiosity got the better of him and Spottie herded the ducks off and tried this swimming thing out for himself.

Obviously a new sensation but by the look on his face I don't think he's getting quite the same enjoyment out of the water that the ducks do. "And how come I get all wet and soggy and those ducks come out dry?"


  Great Weather for the Ducks and Growing Tunnel Area Update
  During the second week of March we had really good rainfall (almost 40mm over two days).

Looking at the rainfall stats, we've had much better rainfall during the first three months this year compared to last year. In fact, over double the amount of rainfall and we're only halfway through March and our ducks and plants are loving it. All the crops that survived the
  last three months of last year's extreme heat and dry conditions are now doing well but due to their early life stress, are not really producing as they should.

Our growing tunnel area is starting to look very busy but still only two of the six tunnels (numbers two and five, the two center tunnels) are in full production. Martie is busily preparing number three for winter crops. Number six is still our nursery (and tortoise home), number one is working compost (with the duck pond in the corner) and number three is still the temporary home for our chickens.

The building structures are the water tank station, the garden shed and the chicken house (still with some scaffolding around it until the roofing is completed).

 

  Misty Mornings
  And with the rainy weather we are having the most beautiful misty mornings. Heidelberg seems to get mist and early morning low cloud often compared to Joburg. The mist sits in the valley from Boksburg all the way through into the Heidelberg town. We're on the other side of the hill from town and seeing it overflowing over the hills in front of us and evaporating as it descends into our valley is always a lovely sight. It does mean our solar system batteries often start charging a bit later in the mornings, but we normally still get to full charge on the batteries well before midday anyway.
 

  Some Birding Stuff
  Competing for the highest bird species population in the forest, below left the black-throated canary (sometimes called the yellow-rumped seedeater) and below right the laughing dove.
 
  The little canary above was found dead in the house construction site area - not sure what happened to it. The little canaries produce most of the lovely early morning and evening singing and chirping in the forest next to the driveway. We often see them swooping down into the grass around the forest areas to collect grass for their nests and eat seed. They're so light that when they land on a grass stalk it just sways slightly to support them.

The laughing doves are seen all over the forest floor and often flap up above the tree top height to glide across to another area of the forest. Now that there's always a bit of chicken and duck food around the growing tunnels, they often visit to feast on the left-overs. They are prolific breeders but are very bad nest builders. They build their nest from a few sticks stacked into the fork of some tree branches and we often see fallen nests, sometimes with "expired" chicks. They also seem to on the very bottom of the food chain - all the raptors, jackal and domestic cats and dogs eat them and we often see "feather patches" in the forest where a kill has taken place. Their calls can be heard all day and sometimes well into the night.

Then below left, the left wing from a Nightjar found killed on the road outside our front fence. The Nightjar is one of our favourite birds and we often hear them calling through the night around the farm. This one is from a Rufous-cheeked Nightjar (I think - without the call Nightjar identification gets very complicated) - such amazing feather colour patterns.

And while on the subject of beautiful feathers, our little Mallard drake has finished molting and has now grown all his breeding plumage (below right). Courtship in Mallards begins in Autumn after migration (but our guy somehow lost part of his left wing - that's why he's never been able to join the flock to migrate). His bill has turned very yellow, his head feathers have changed to an iridescent green colour, he has a distinct white collar and beautiful chestnut breast. On his wings he now has a bright purple speculum bordered with black and then white to add to the contrast. He looks stunning, he knows it and is often seen trying his luck with the Pekins. They are actually quite receptive to him
  but because of their size differences, he battles a bit.



  Cutting More Grass
  Time to cut some grass. Grass growth has been vigorous over the past few weeks with the good rainfall we've had and walking around the property is becoming difficult due to all the long grass along the front fence (and we continually lose puppies temporarily).

I started by cleaning up the driveway a little and then cut the section from the gate to the first trees along the front fence. The grass was long and thick and it was tough going but the old faithful tractor got through it. Martie raked the cuttings into heaps while I cut.


  2016 DJ Rally
 
  On Friday the 11th about 90 vintage bike enthusiasts left Hillcrest just outside Durban for the
 
Friendly rider on an old Royal Enfield      

Very old Harley Davidson passes by      
Vintage and Veteran Club's 103rd DJ Run. The event is a two day regularity trial which commemorates the original motorcycle road race between Durban and Johannesburg which was staged between 1913 and 1936. In 1936 the authorities banned racing on public roads on the grounds of safety, hence only pre-1937 motorcycles may compete on this gruelling drive on the old road route from Durban to Johannesburg.

A major innovation this year was the introduction of GPS data logging on each motorcycle to track and record the competitors at the designated checkpoints instead of having to position a team of marshals at each of the checkpoints on the 700-km route.

The competitors spent the night in Newcastle and got through to Heidelberg at around 13h00 on Sunday.

We are very fortunate to have the route run right past our front gate. So we set up our camping chairs and with some snacks and refreshments spent an hour or two watching all those beautiful old bikes come past on their way up the steep hill into Rensburg.


  Moving the Bedroom
  We've started working on getting the upstairs workshop interior finished and with filling, sanding and preparing the walls for painting, it was just not practical to have our bedroom underneath it. Trying to work up there without making dust was impossible and having the dust and grit come down on our stuff continually was just not on.

So on the second weekend of March we decided to give the double garage area a good cleanout and we moved our bedroom and office into the garage. Part of the double garage was the present
  main workshop which had to stay, so a good tidy-up there was in order. Unfortunately the tractor had to be moved out to the forest shelter for the time being (sorry, Trekkie - you'll have to sleep outside for a while).

Living conditions out on the farm are a little rough at the moment but we don't really miss any of our old suburban luxuries. We're comfortable being really close to nature, life is much simpler and priorities are very different. Water, solar power and lighting seem to have moved right to the top of the daily chore priority list.


      New bedroom in the double garage. Roll out of bed into the workshop!

  Upstairs Workshop Progress
  With the bedroom moved out from under the upstairs workshop and the downstairs area cleared, we could get going on some messy and dusty work up there.

Big job, finishing a room from a plastered surface. First task was to fill the bigger holes in the walls and touch up the window surrounds where the builders attempted (sometimes well, sometimes not so well) to merge the plaster from the wall into the plaster of the window surrounds. Then we needed to sand down all the walls lightly to get all the bumps and loose plaster off and then dust them off before any paint could be applied.

Also, before the painting could begin all woodwork needed to masked off so it didn't get all messed up with paint. And no matter how steady your hand, if you don't mask it off you will get paint on the wood! Thankfully all the aluminium windows still had their white protective tape on them.

Finally, on to the painting. I opted to brush the plaster primer on so I could get it into all the smaller holes and plaster cracks. Very slow and tedious work but after two days the job was done.


  Mealies
 
  Just before the Christmas holidays we gave Robert and Maria a handful of our "Revolution" mealie seeds to to plant on their farm across town. I went across to visit them and was amazed at the size of their mealie plants compared to ours - they're nearly three meters high and each plant is yielding between three and four mealies. He gave us a few and they were absolutely delicious - the best mealies we've ever tasted - and so soft you could bite deep into the cob and even eat the tip off!
 

On our side our first planting of mealies are really not looking good at all. They were planted during the peak heat and drought spell last year and were the Starke Ayres Zama Star seeds. The second planting was from the Revolution seeds and those plants are noticably better. With the extreme weather conditions we had, we're not sure whether the hybrid Revolution seed are a much better seed or whether the planting time and conditions had anything to do with the results. We could try the experiment again next year but I think we'll just go with the Revolution seeds from the start. The seed stock is obviously good and we just need to work on our soil and irrigation.

Two mealies from Robert and Maria's farm - absolutely delicious

      Our crop almost ready to harvest


  Looking Out
  The last of our puppies to go to a new home, Mr T, is now gone. Kevin, the owner of Diesel, the father of the litter, took him on. And with that came the sad news that Diesel had died of biliary fever. Kevin had moved out to the new stud farm a little way down the Balfour road and Diesel had obviously been bitten by a tick there. The tickbite fever treatment seemed successful (with the necessary blood transfusions and medication) but we think he picked up a kennel cough bug at
 
How boring - all inside looking out      
the animal hospital and just wasn't yet strong enough to get through that.

So now we're left with the two pups that we are keeping, Eva and Spot. Eva is the smallest pup of the litter and Spot is the largest. They are great playmates. But they're still a handful and they've still got a lot to learn about how we want to run the farm.

If let loose on their own, they tend to get up to mischief with the chickens and ducks and head into the forest often. We just don't
have the time right now to keep an eye on them all the time and find them in the forest. So for now they mainly stay idoors and we take them out for "controlled" walks often. All garage and workshop entrances are blocked just high enough to keep them in but so that they can always see what's going on outside.
      Standoff with one of the chickens


  Excess Brinjals and Peppers
  We had an excellent pepper harvest this year. So what do you do with so many peppers all harvested at once? Martie decided to add some onions and the last few brinjals from our brinjal harvest, stew it all up with some vinegar and other secret recipe stuff and made some chutney.

Preservatives are going to have to become a big part of our food storage system once we really get going with growing our own food on the farm. Lots of experimentation and learning ahead.

 

  End of Season Veggies
  We had just over 40mm of really good continuous soft rain during the third week of March to keep the vegetable gardens going into autumn. Our spinach patch is looking a little shabby at the moment but has given us many good harvests and kept the tortoises fed for a good few months. The tomato bushes in the main tunnel are still looking very good and we should be able to harvest in the next few weeks. The brinjals are all finished now but we're still harvesting green peppers and chillies.

Our experimental compost heap has sprung a thick covering of tomato bushes (and some cosmos) and a lone mealie plant has popped up on the front edge. The grass there is also getting a bit out of hand but we'll leave clearing all that up until winter.

 
Tomatoes almost ready to harvest      
Spinach (swiss chard) that has given us multiple good harvests

Compost heap overgrown with tomatoes and a lone mealie in front

  Houtpoort Valley
  As you rise over the hill coming from Rensburg the beautiful southern part of the Houtpoort valley spreads out wide in front of you. And now that the farmer that owns the property on the hilltop has cleared most of the trees there in preparation for working the land, the view is so much better. It's always such a welcome sight when coming back to the farm after the long drive out from Joburg.

The little yellow arrow shows our little farm, which is 4km away from this point. Use the scroll bar on the bottom of the picture to see the full panorama.

 

  Serious About Grass
 
Some grass already baled in the background, the rest raked and ready for baling right up to our log fence
  Che's daughter Janine has taken on the grass business on the farm and is doing very well with the teff fields she planted last year. She's also making sure this year that she bales as much of the eragrostis and veld grass as possible for sale as well (just in case we have a really dry winter and early next summer). The field across the road has already been done, she's now doing the field next to us and will soon start on the field behind us at the foot of the hill. Hopefully all that should make her some money and firefighting a lot easier for us all this winter.
      Janine checking as her baler poops out another one
 
Che's field next to our driveway. All the grass cut, raked and baled

  Upstairs Workshop Painting
  Thanks to some inexperience in building techniques, it took a few days of painting to get the colour coat on the walls for the upstairs workshop done. The time consumer was that the builders didn't put a perlin up against the back wall and plastered the wall right up to the roof sheeting. Lots of little corners to fill, sand and paint. Very odd that they did the front wall correctly. The screw-up has been noted with expletives and I'll be making sure nothing like that happens when we build the house.

Once the painting was done I removed all the masking tape from the woodwork and the protective tape from the window frames and it now looks ever so neat. I only gave the walls one coat of colour paint. With the a good plaster primer and being a good finish paint, that should do for the workshop. We'll see how it looks after a few months and that will determine whether we have to second coat
 
the house walls when we get there. Now just got the window sills to paint and then we can start working on sanding and sealing the floor beams, building the stairway, the laying down the new plywood floor.

  Midnight Marauder
 
That's him looking very guilty! This bliksim just wiped out our entire sunflower crop in one sitting
  And the sunflowers were coming along so nicely. During the last week of March a lone eland bull hung around the area for a few days. We watched him, he watched us. And then one night he made his move and came in and devastated our entire sunflower crop while we were sleeping. He ate every leaf and broke most of the main stems. Funny how he only ate the petals of the flowers - left
 
all the seed parts of the flowers intact. I would have thought the seeds were the most nutritious part of the plant, but at least we may have a chance of saving a few of them for planting next season - and maybe some for eating as well.



  Taking the Doggies for Walkies
  The Easter weekend came a bit early this year and with our Human Rights Day holiday on the Monday before the Easter weekend, it gave us two long weekends in a row - the second last and last weekends in March. Schools were closed for the short three day week between the two long weekends so we got to have my granddaughter Mia over for two sleepovers just before the Easter weekend. She had a great two days getting to know the puppies and other animals on the farm.

Here she is out with Martie taking all the dogs for a walk. We often keep Tess on lead as she dashes off too far ahead and the puppies tend to follow her. We also keep Eva on a lead as she dashes off in any direction at any time and just makes walkies a stressful affair. Spottie is generally very obedient but now takes advantage of Eva's restraint and launches constant play attacks at her while walking. We're hoping to one day be able to take our calm and leasurely walks around the farm again.

 

  More Chicken House Progress
  Work continues on the chicken house. There was no rain expected for a while so after giving all the woodwork another coat of sealer we took a chance and painted the interior walls with plaster primer while waiting for the roofing order to be be processed. Looks all very "white" inside.

Then after the tedious (weigh bridge queues and in amongst all the seriously big trucks getting in and out of their warehouse) BSI Steel collection I was able to put on the rest of the roofing sheets.
 

Finally we were able to put on the interior coat of colour paint. We used the same medium brown that we used for the pumphoue control room feature walls. A good practical choice as once the chickens move in, the walls will probably end up about that colour no matter what colour we painted them now.

And seeing as I made the door frame a bit of a non-standard size, I'm going to have to make the door as well. But that's a whole nother project there, together with all the main window and window vent chicken wire covers. So lots more woodwork before we're done with the chicken house.

 

  Rough Play
  With the puppies Eva and Spot, everything is about learning by sniffing or tasting. And whew, can those puppies play. Unfortunately though, the best playground is just where we don't want them to play. Like in the lucern and mealie fields which are a bit dusty at the moment. Here they're having a go at each other in the lucern patch. Although spot is by far the bigger of the two, as can be seen in the picture sequence below, Eva sends him packing when playtime starts getting a bit rough.
 

  Forest Shelter Laminated Beams
  To finish off the month's work on the farm I made a start on the laminated beams for the forest shelter roof. I had drawn up some basic plans with measurements so that the roofing guys could
 
quote on the beams and trusses (left) and finally decided to make the two laminated beams that would run down each side of the structure to support the trusses myself.

I bought a few fairly cheap 450mm plasticy "squeeze" clamps and began contemplating how I was going to keep the 5,5 meter long timber straight while gluing the strips together to make up the 300mm thick beam. Working on trestles wouldn't work too well as the floor wasn't 100% level
 
First strip in place against wall      
Second strip glued to first one      
and all my trestles were slightly different heights. Looking around for a long straight edge, my only other option was to build the beams against the back wall of the forest shelter. That wasn't 100% straight either (with the odd brick jutting out here and there) but with a few plywood spacers I eyeballed it as straight enough.

The first 75 x 50 perlin was clamped to the wall with the spacers and then glue applied to the second perlin, which was then clamped to the first one against the wall and left to dry for two days. So far so good - first two perlins glued together, five more x2 to go.