Killing Off Our Wildlife June 2016
  Sad to start the month on such a down, but it's been such a bad roadkill week. The traffic on our little Rensburg road is really taking it's toll on the wildlife. I had to take a beautiful little genet out of the the road and then next day found one of the little yellow mongoose pups also killed on the road.

Could be the same genet that got our chicken, but still, such a beautiful animal shouldn't need have it's life ended in such an unnatural way. I suspect the little mongoose pup was from the mongoose family just beyond our fence on the foot of the hill. Damn! Surely drivers can be a bit more considerate to our precious wildlife?


  Winter Beauty
  But on to more pleasant things. I used to hate winters in the suburbs. We had a very cold house (lovely and cool in summer, though) and sometimes would just sit for weeks of evenings huddled next to the gas heater - just unable to get warm. But out on the farm it's just so different. I'm almost enjoying the winter. We have built our house and garage/workshops structures to all face true north with no obstructions, so the brickwork heats up all day and we are comfortable well into the evenings. And by the time it starts getting really cold we're snuggled up in our warm blankets.

As long as the wind isn't blowing, the mornings are fantastic. We're up well before the sun pops up over the hill and although it's cold, we just dress warmly and after our coffee and rusks, just get out and do things to keep warm. Feeding the chickens, collecting eggs, letting the ducks out, giving everything fresh water and sometimes even taking the puppies for a short walk. Once the sun comes out it's not long before we have to take off our jackets and jerseys.

Lately we've been having mist over the hills almost every morning. Heidelberg is definitely in some kind of mist belt because I can't remember so much early morning mist in Joburg. Below, one of those mornings with the sun trying to push it's warm rays to us through the mist.

  And the late afternoon light is just amazing. So bright and warm.

On the right I was out doing a bit of birdwatching when I caught sight of a crested barbet in the undergrowth with the late afternoon light streaming in through the trees.

But during the day with the sun never getting very high in the sky and the grass all brown and dry, the light is rather drab.

Below left, the view from the dam into the gorge that fills the dam with water runoff from the hills during those big summer
  thundershowers. Below right, a quick picnic with all the dogs on the inside of the dam wall in the now empty dam.

  Upstairs Workshop Floor Support Beam
  And sorry, but lots more workshop woodwork to come. It will seem to almost never end!

Our first weekend of June's we decided to focus on getting the back upstairs and downstairs workshops finished. We really needed to get them finished soon so that I could move my hobby workshop and computer repair workshop out to the farm from our Joburg house.

Bottom workshop painted with plaster primer and holes      
for beam bracket rawl bolts drilled      
Now that the beams were all nicely sanded and sealed, the next steps were to put up the big extra support beam and then start on the stairway. But I don't like painting around things afterwards so I started of by painting the entire downstairs workshop with plaster primer. That took a while as I had to mask off each beam where it goes into the walls.

Then I painted the wall onto which I was going to attach the support bracket for the beam with finished colour. Two of the other walls had my stairway plans drawn on them so they couldn't be painted yet and the
  other wall with the big opening into the front workshop was being used as a shelf for all my tools and it was just too busy around that side of the room for painting.
First wall colour painted, metal bracket bolted into the the wall      
and big beam in position      
Big beam support bracket
detail with big beam mounted

  I carefully measured the bracket positioning and drilled the two holes for the rawl bolts. So far so good. Then the big stuff. We struggled a bit but got the big beam into the bracket, slid the other end up the stairway post and clamped it tight against the post until I could get the temporary support in to prop it up against the beams and get everything all straight and level.

Now the whole reason for this big beam was a bit of an afterthought in the workshop design. The 150x36mm beams that we had built into the walls (way back when we were actually building the workshop) seemed right at the time, but on second thoughts now seemed a bit skimpy for the loads that the upstairs floor may have to carry. So I decided to run this big beam right across the room, reducing their span by about a meter to help support the floor. The beam would be a "feature" of the room and could come in handy to support parts of the stairway and also become part of the ceiling storage system in the bottom workshop. Not sure how all this will work out but we'll tackle that when we get there.

Once the support prop was in and jacked up to push the big beam to level, I drilled two 10mm holes right through the beam and stairway post and bolted them together with 10mm threaded rod and bolts. I'll cut off the end bit of the beam that sticks out past the post when I finalise the stairway design.

Final job for the weekend was to double check the stairway design - basically making sure the first step and last steps start and end in the right places and all the steps are the same size! The plan was re-drawn full size on the newly painted wall and once double checked, the frame for the landing where the steps turn from the one wall to the other was built and screwed into the walls and into the post. It was built in the air right there so unfortunately I wasn't able to seal the wood before installation.

  Starting the Workshop Stairway
  And then on to building the stairway. Usage of space under the stairway is important and the corner under the landing lended itself perfectly to a cupboard. So first step was to attach the cupboard side board made from some 19mm shutterboard in place. A 35x35mm wood strip was attached to the wall using some long wall plug fixings and the board screwed to it and into the back of the main support post. This board will also be functional as it needs to secure the top of the stairway stringers.

Looking for ideas on the internet I noticed that most overseas builders use a very wide piece of timber for the stringers and then cut out the triangles. Timber must be cheap over there. Big wide pieces of timber are a bit pricey here. So to save a bit on material costs I decided to use 110x35mm stringers and cut my triangles out of a piece of 225x35mm timber - much more economical use of timber but each traingle support then needed to be glued accurately to the stringer afterwards.

In my research I also noticed overseas they always use the right grade of timber for different purposes. Dedicated timber yards here probably have the same variety of grades, but our local builder supplier only keeps roofing grade timber at reasonable prices and that was used throughout this project.

Cupboard side board in place
  Once the stringer end angles from the floor to the landing were accurately cut and temporarily fitted, it was down to cutting all the step support triangles freehand with the circular saw. They were then all clamped together and given a final sanding to make sure they were all the same size and angles.

Everything was then layed out on the floor, the positioning of the step supports marked on the stringers and glued in place permanently. After final sanding, sealing and fitting the completed stringers were attached to the cupboard side board with three big screws into each one and we were ready to move on to the second section of steps from the landing up to the top floor.

Stairway stringers cut to size
Full sized plans drawn on the wall

Cutting the triangular step supports
Step supports clamped and sanded smooth

Stringers with step supports glued onto them
First completed stringers painted and fitted

  Winter Veggie Update
Fresh peas out of the pod
We're very happy with our winter veggies so far - I think we should have just planted a bit more. But now we know for next year.

On the left, nature's perfection. Our peas aren't even getting to the pot - they're just so good to eat freshly picked straight from the pod.

Broccoli and cauliflower are also doing well and we've tried some very interesting new stuff we picked up from the nursery. In the bottom left picture, a kale storm mix (morogo) and bottom right, Tatsoi (an edible leafy plant with a mild mustard flavour.

Broccoli should be ready to eat soon
   Planted some Florence fennel as a companion plant

Interesting combo - kale storm mix
Also interesting - Tatsoi (mustard greens)

  Workshop Stairway - Landing to Top Floor
  Back to work. That second section of steps from the landing up to the upstairs floor was always going to be a bit tricky. Firstly, the bottom step started about 10cm onto the landing (to line up with the post) and there wasn't anything to support the stringer on the top. And you can't just go screwing it up onto the bottom of the floorboard - I do know for sure that would just be looking for trouble. So, a few hours of pottering and pondering and a few solutions were figured out.
The solution for the bottom of the stringer was fairly simple - just cut a notch into the stringer so some of it "hangs off "the landing. The top of the stringer fixing was a bit more difficult. The stringer had to attach securely to the side of a beam, and as the beam
wasn't deep enough, another little beam had to be added below it. Fixing the one side to the big beam was simple enough with three big screws but the other side needed to be fixed to the wall and the only solution there was to fit another beam bracket to hold it in place on that side. Another complication was that the beam that I was extending wasn't straight. So two big clamps pulled it into place using the post as an anchor to get all the angles 90 degrees between the beams. A few hours later and the stringers were trimmed to size at the correct angles, wedging securely with that notch on the landing and resting neatly up against the beam "extension" on the top.

  Tomato & Chili Jam
  That little jam tomato bush growing on top of the compost heap is looking a bit shabby right now (picture below left). The ducks attempt to get to it - hence the welded mesh wire covering, and we are now well into winter. Not sure it's supposed to still be producing fruit, but it has only recently started producing the most amazing crop of jam tomatoes.

Below right, another bowl of them, freshly picked. Below that, Martie's been busy cooking up some jam with them (and a chili or two). And the bottom picture, two bottles of delicious tomato & chili jam. Just what is needed for our early morning toast.



  Another One Taken
  Chicken management is now presenting us with a few problems. They just won't stay where we want them to - always attempting to get back to where they had been kept for the past few months. Our problem pair are now the cross-breed hens that we put into the new chicken house with the cross-breed rooster. They push themselves against the chicken mesh across the windows and door and

Prize rooster remains
dash out to hang around the growing tunnel. We would normally be able to capture them and put them back before dark, but one evening I was in Joburg till late and Martie couldn't get them back into the chicken house. They eventually flew back into the growing tunnel for the night
leaving the rooster alone in the chicken house. He seemed ok with that but just so happens on that particular night another of our unidentified predators got in and killed him. Same modus operandi - head ripped off and crop eaten out. The only consolation is that it could have been worse in that we could have lost the two hens as well if they were in there with him.

There were some tears (he was Martie's favourite and would eat from her hand) but not much we could do but move the chickens

      Footprints on the chicken tractor
  out of the chicken house until we could secure it properly with chicken mesh frames fitted on all the window openings and door.

After checking the rest of the chickens we found the predator had also attempted to dig around the chicken tractor where the "pure" bantam hen and rooster were being kept for breeding. Unusual footprints in the morning dew on the woodwork showed it had also climbed right over the structure.

  Workshop Stairway Stringers Completed
  More of the same. More triangles were cut out and glued onto the stringers. More sanding and sealing and at last all the stringers, which are really the main design of the stairway, were done.

Then it was a quick pause for some more planning. The stairway would have to have some kind of handrail on the open side of the steps on the bottom section at least. And may as well design it into the top section as well as there will have to be a railing upstairs to stop people and animals falling down from the top floor into the stairwell. I had a few ideas so we moved on to the next "step" - making the risers and treads (lots of new terminology being learned here as well).

I was going to use 19mm shutterboard for the risers but while out shopping in the builders yard I found a sheet of 10mm plywood with really clean grain. And on second thoughts, 19mm ply was really a bit of overkill just to block off the fronts of the steps between the treads. So 10mm ply it would be.

I also wanted the actual step treads to be nice and thick. They didn't really need it structurally but it would just look good. But 40mm timber was just too pricey. So a bit more thinking and
  planning and I found I could probably use some 20mm solid pine laminated shelving and edge it here and there to make the step treads look thicker. Much cheaper. And with another bakkie load of timber I was back on site to cut it all up to make some more progress on our little stairway.

  Just after an amazing weekend of weather for the second weekend of June, another big cold front moved over the highveld.

Monday and Tuesday we had full cloud cover with a bit of rain for the full two days and we had part cloud for the Wednesday and Thursday. Two days of cloud cover pushes our power systems to their limits, but the third and fourth days of part cloud was just too much. Our water reserves were fine (5000 liters in the two tanks on the pumphouse roof) but batteries were just not charging to full capacity during the day and the solar geyser was getting the water temperature to "just warm". We were used to constant "boiling" water in the geyser.

Beautifully finished new 200A/h
Lithium Iron Phosphate battery pack
  On Wednesday we had to switch the refrigerator off for most of the time and we had to go into "load shedding" mode (but at least we were able to decide when power is to be on and when it's to be off) for lighting and computer usage.

On Friday (day five) the sun was back out for almost all of the day and after a really tough power week we were back to normal. Thank goodness, but we've got to start thinking about more battery storage. Coincidentally, during that week Jacques had just completed our new battery pack and it was ready for installation the next weekend. Jacques works for Freedom Won and they specialise in converting cars to electric and also use their battery technology for home based off the grid systems.

We were a little experimental test site for him as their systems normally run on a much more efficient 48 volt battery array and invert to 220 volts, with systems capable of providing alternate power for the entire household system. Although we also run an small inverter for refrigeration and computers, I wanted to keep my battery system down on 12 volts due to the availability of 12 volt LED lighting and switching systems.

The third weekend of June was an extra long weekend due to the Thursday being a holiday and much of the country shutting down for Friday. Jacques, Janine and Amber came out and spent a lovely weekend with us on the farm.

  Back to Steps
  As well as setting up the new battery on our power system for us, Jacques helped me through the weekend on the stairway. Thank you big for all you've done for us, Jacques.
Risers all fitted to stringers      

We cut up that big 10mm plywood sheet into small squares for the risers, fitted each one, painted them and then screwed them to the front of the stringers for every step. I contemplated screwing them to the stringers from the back so that there would be no screws showing from the front of the steps, but that would involve making two little blocks for each riser - extra material and a lot of extra effort. So we decided to just screw them in from the front. The four little screw heads showing on the front of each riser are hardly noticable.

Then a bit of calculating and we cut up the laminated pine shelving to the correct length for the treads. The front 20mm of each tread was then cut off and glued under the front of the tread. There was still 20mm of nose left on the treads and this made the nose 40mm thick, making the entire tread look like a 40mm thick tread. This also allowed

      Fitting the first treads
  the tread to be screwed to the riser from the back so there would be no visible screws on the treads. Some extra bits of 20mm shelving were cut and glued under the ends of the treads to make the sides thicker as well.

  Two of Charlie's Puppies Come to Visit
Charlie and her four puppies     
on the way to the dam    
On Saturday Paula, Nicolas and Dane brought their puppies out to the farm for a puppy "reunion". Their puppies Gaby and Bailey have really grown up to be great dogs. I'm not sure if Charlie recognised them as her puppies, but after a little territorial domination problem with our
Eva, they all got along fine.

After lunch we took them all for a walk over the hill to the dam. Their puppies enjoyed the running and all the space and later in the afternoon headed off home for a day or two of recovery rest. They were definitely no longer farm fit. It was so great to see them all again.
    Dane with Bailey
    and Nicolas with Gaby

Lots of black and white border collies    
- all the puppies and their owners at the dam    

  More Power
  During the long weekend Jacques and I also got going on installing the new battery into our solar power system. I drilled the two mounting holes in the wall in the garage just around the corner from the workshops. He put in the rawl bolts and tightened them up so that we could "hang" the unit.

The Lithium Iron Phosphate battery technology was a lot lighter than the old lead acid technology we were presently using, but still heavy to hang up there. Connection was easy using the little junction box I had made. We disconnected the lead acid batteries from the busbars and it was just a matter of getting the positive and negative wires into the box and screwing them onto the busbars.

The "white box" had all it's own under- and over-voltage controllers built in so we didn't change anything on the solar charge controller. It just started charging the batteries and we were suddenly on new technology power.

The aim of this exercise (other than being an experimantal project for Jacques) was not only more battery storage capacity for us, but better battery storage capacity. These batteries are
guaranteed for 15 years at a full cycle every day. You'd be very lucky to get two years out of a lead acid battery.

And the discharge capacity is so much better as well. We should be able to run our refrigerator 24 hours a day and survive two cloudy days comfortably.

Final little job was to bypassed my little amp meter for monitoring the output from the batteries to the inverter and put in a much thicker cable between

Thicker cable from the
busbar to inverter
      New battery
      mounted and connected
  the busbar and the inverter. This immediately stopped the inverter alarm going off every time the refrigerator compressor kicked in. We measured the compressor startup to draw about 40 amps at 12 volts from the batteries. At 480 watts it was still (just) within the 500 watt inverter specification, but the inverter had never been too happy with that current draw spike and the thicker wires did seem to ease the load a bit.

  Middle of Winter
  We had fantastic weather for our mid-winter day on the 21st. But one day after that our next cold front came through. The nights and early mornings were a bit cold and we had early morning mist for a few days. But once the sun was up the days were wonderfully warm. Up here on the Highveld we must have one of the best climates in the world and we're actually very spoilt with our glorious winter weather.

But back to our Winter Solstice (Latin: "solstitium" means "sun-stopping") - the shortest day of the year when the sun's zenith is at its furthest point from the equator. But no need to get too excited here. Although we pass through the middle of winter, the worst is not over as our next two months July and August are normally our coldest.

For us, mid-winter to mid-summer difference is the sun rising up from the north-east over the hill in front of us on mid-winter mornings and the sun coming up from true east directly over Che's farm homestead on mid-summer mornings. And in peak summer, we also have an additional three hours and fifteen minutes of sunlight per day more than in deep winter for charging batteries.

Interestingly, this month's full moon (the June full moon is commonly known as the "Strawberry Moon") will coincide with the June Solstice. The two events haven't occurred on the same day since 1967 and will not coincide again until 2062. Even more special, this full moon, in addition to its falling on the solstice, is the fourth full moon (normally there are only three) between the March 2016 equinox and the June 2016 solstice, making it a Seasonal Blue Moon (in contrast to a Blue Moon by the definition of second full moon in a calendar month).

And finally, any mad hatters in areas from just north of the Arctic Circle to the North Pole will be able to witness the "midnight sun", where the sun is visible (weather permitting) throughout the night. Down our way in the same areas around the South Pole, they will witness a "polar night", where they will not see the sun at all during the day. Brrrrr.

  Woodworking in the Forest
  I'm thoroughly enjoying woodworking out in forest shelter, even though it doesn't yet have a roof. Just a flat area to work on and having the birds twittering in the trees all around is great.

On the left, the treads for the stairway having their "thickening" ends glued on and below, the work area getting a little untidy when in full production. Lots of wood shavings and sawdust on the floor which can now just be swept down into the forest to decompose back to nature like the twigs and leaves from the trees.


  Of Eggs and Feathers
  Two of the little wonders of nature. First, the egg.

So, how amazing is it that that bright yellow blob in a chicken egg can turn into little bones, beak, eyes, ears, brain, heart, nerves, arteries, muscles, lungs, legs, and everything else that makes up a live, breathing, cute, and cuddly chicken?

Basically, a chicken will, on an almost daily basis, develop a new egg composed of yolk and albumin (egg white), then covered by a thin layer of shell.
      Some eggs from our farm. From left to right: duck, jumbo
      chicken (from the supermarket), bantam and quail
  When a rooster is present and mates with the chicken, the chicken will store the deposited rooster sperm in a small internal pouch. As the newly forming egg passes by, it will be fertilized by this deposit of sperm. And in yet another absolutely amazing display of nature's prowess, the contents of the egg are wrapped in a perfect, seamless, incredibly strong shell as though by magic! The egg will then be laid. Fertilised and unfertilised eggs all look pretty much the same.

If the mommy hen is broody, she'll collect and protect her eggs for about a week to ten days and then sit on them for three weeks, incubating them by turning them regularly and keeping them at a constant 38 degrees centigrade until after exactly twenty one days, the little chicks will break out of the shells.

And if you don't want cute little chickens (or mommy hen just doesn't feel broody for a while) we can just pick the eggs up every morning and eat them. You can fry an egg, boil an egg or scramble an egg.

      And sometimes little Eva
      manages to find the duck eggs
      before us in the mornings
  Eggs are used in many of our cooking dishes and are essential for baking. Their main function is aeration, which is a critical function in the formulation of baked foods. Egg whites can be whipped to produce a foam that is six to eight times greater in volume than in it's original form.
  Then, on the right, a simple duck contour feather in the early morning sunlight - but how beautiful is that.

Feathers are remarkable not just in the way they look to the naked eye, but also for their intricate microstructure. Each feather on a birdís body is a finely tuned structure that serves an important role in the birdís activities. Feathers allow birds to fly, but they also help them show off, blend in, stay warm, and keep dry. Although not so colourful, the duck contour feather on the right has some downey barbs near quill to
  keep the duck's body warm and then towards the outer tip of the vane, the magical hooklet and barbule system that works very similarly to the way that magical velcro stuff works for us. Next time you see a feather, pick it up and carefully split the barbs apart carefully and then see if you can stroke them back together again. Magic.

Throughout the year, the bird maintains its mature feathers through regular care, or "preening". Whenever the barbules become disturbed, the bird uses its beak to carefully guide them back into place.

This results in feathers not lasting too long and when many of the bird’s feathers have experienced enough wear and tear that preening can no longer maintain their structure, the bird will molt. This normally happens on an annual cycle where the bird will grow a completely new set of feathers. It's interesting to note that some birds lose and regrow a few of their flight feathers at a time so that their flying is not affected too much and some, like the ducks, lose all their flight feathers at once and have to walk for a few weeks while their new feathers grow.

  Stairway Handrail up to Landing
  With all the treads now fitted (but not yet properly secured) the basic stairway was really looking great, as seen in the picture below left. Next step was to get that handrail built onto the first section from the floor to the landing. Yikes. And now things are really starting to get complicated.
  I'm not good with angles - and the handrails were all angles. I started with the bottom post and cut out the corner of the bottom tread for it (picture below). I'll secure the post with a threaded rod into the concrete floor and a few screws through the stringer into it. That should be strong enough.


Next I cut one piece of the floor post (two more will be laminated together with it to make the square post) and clamped it to the stringer. Then I clamped some strips to the floor post and main post to get the height of the handrail and all the angles right (picture above centre). The angle has to be the same angle as the "pitch line" of the stairway.

I also decided I wasn't going to go to the trouble of fitting balusters between the handrail and the baserail and rather just lift the baserail a little higher to close the gap between the step and the handrail. Should be safe enough for the workshop.

I marked the angles and cut out slots to take the handrail and baserail (I suppose I'd have to now call it a midrail) in the piece of wood I used for the floor post and then laminated another two pieces of wood each side of it (picture below left). In the picture below that you can see how I made up the handrail from a 75x35mm beam with a 35x35mm square glued to it and then rounded off all the top and side corners with the router. It felt comfortable enough for the average sized hand to hold on to firmly.

Then in the picture below centre the floor post all planed and sanded nicely and checking that it fits snugly into the bottom tread cutout. Below right, the floor post, hand rail and midrail all sealed with Silkwood and ready for final assembly on the staircase.


  But one more thing before we put it all together. Using the router I carefully cut out the slots in the main post to take the handrail and midrail (picture far left). Cutting those angles into the post was very tricky and didn't turn out that well. There's some gaps that I'm going to have to fill in later.

The final assembly was also tricky as the threaded rod in the bottom of the post had to be fixed into the floor with RockSet at the same time as the handrail and midrail all had to be glued into the slots in the floor post and main post and then once everything was together, the floor post screwed to the
  staircase stringer to lock everything into place. Once the RockSet had set and all the glue had dried, the whole handrail system was amazingly sturdy and strong. The picture above right shows the complete handrail system installed.

  Month End Animal News
  Finishing off the month on a leasurely note, seen from our pumphouse bathroom window, a very relaxed small herd of eland taking a short midday break just over the other side of our log fence.

And some exciting news: our first chicks to hatch on our farm. The bantam hen and rooster we put
  together in the chicken tractor did it. Two very cute little chicks being well looked after at the moment by the proud mommy bantam hen.