For twenty years now, we have been trying to eradicate the blackberries in our main gully through the farm. This area would have once supported a gentle seasonal flow, from the top of the farm, wending around the huge granite rocks and slowly flowing into Myrtle Creek, just beyond our western boundary. Before squatters and dams and fences that is. When we first came here, the gully was being used as a rubbish dump, maybe an attempt to hold back some of the erosion. For a few years we were constantly picking out bits of plastic and other detritus.
Slowly but surely, we have been improving the gully. Planting acacias to hold and improve the soil on the upper banks, and carex and other water loving grasses and reeds in the gully itself. Strategically placing woody debris and fine branches in the base, to slow the water and reduce erosion. We have always kept stock out to allow the groundcover to recover.
In all this time, we have never managed to tame the blackberries though. Until now. And thanks to our brave young goaties, it has only taken about a fortnight to make real and lasting inroads.
Putting goats in a granitic gully is not something we would normally recommend to anyone. But in this case we were prepared to because we had prepared well. Firstly, the area already had some level of restoration; it wasn’t a basket case. Secondly, the season has been kind; there was a good coverage of native and introduced grasses and leaf litter to protect the soil. Thirdly, we chose our goats carefully for the task.
This small herd of 20 future dairy does are a perfect fit for the job, and not just because they are brave climbers and leapers … they are young (three and six months old), light on their feet (and lightweight, plus their udders aren’t developed enough to be damaged) and far less savvy (not yet learnt bad habits like ringbarking!). And they are fantastic at eating blackberry flowers, fruit and leaves, laying bare the canes – and any rabbits -so we can more easily deal with both. We don’t think there is another domesticated animal that could do the job so effectively.
We have rigged up 200m of solar electrified mesh fencing to surround the briar patch, provided a salt lick and plenty of piped fresh water. They receive a small amount of concentrate each day (we would never feed hay down here: too much of a risk of bringing in weed seeds) and then they basically browse the blackberries, augmented with grasses, gum leaves and reeds.
It is amazing to watch them tackle the thorny plants, getting the best bits and somehow avoiding the painful bits, with dexterous lips, tongues and bottom palates. Oprah (daughter of Ryder) and Swallow (Bird’s progeny) showed us how it’s done.
Not to mention their dexterous hooves as they leap from boulder to rock, as sure footed as .…well, the proverbial. Sutton Grange may be nowhere near the Alps, but our goats carry rock climbing in their genes. It’s part play, part instinct – the need for a good vantage point to search for predators and food, or to be top goat.
We love being down here amongst the granite and the redgums too. There is something incredibly calming, beautiful and joyful about sitting high on a big rock, in the cool shade, surrounded by native grasses and being right amongst the playful, chomping, stomping goaties.
(And watch out for Swallow’s follow up Blog on cudding!)
The only lockdown that our goats are experiencing now is their usual one – being permanently locked out of our tree plantings and remnant bushland paddocks. Otherwise, for the goats at least, life goes on, with the rising and setting of the sun and the moon. Milking twice a day, rumination time, grazing time and sleeping time.
For the rest of the herd – that’s us – there’s been some big adjustments. And with all new challenges comes innovation and adaptation. One of our responses has been to make our cheese available for purchase on-line for delivery to Victorian cheese-lovers.
In line with this big new world of on-line and not in-person selling, we’ve given our website an update. It’s been seven years since we began the website and although nothing has changed about our vision and values and approach to natural farming and cheesemaking, the ways people access and use social media and the world wide web certainly has!
We now offer a weekly Holy Goat Cheese Box delivered directly to Victorian customers in most metro and select regional areas. The Box contains a selection of our best cheeses for the week; a mix of styles and flavours chosen by the cheesemakers. You choose a set price for your box, starting at $60 plus delivery.
As a small, dynamic farmstead, we make our cheeses according to the goats (and cows) and the season, and we release them at peak eating. By providing you with a mix of fresh curd, soft rind, semi-soft and semi-hard cheeses, your Cheese Box should provide perfect eating, at your leisure. We also provide notes on care and storage of your cheeses, to keep them at their living best.
It’s a good time of year to be getting a Cheese Box. It’s now Spring according to the calendar, but our farm certainly started to experience spring conditions many weeks ago – or perhaps “Sprinter”. Whilst winter milk is the richest and also the lowest volume (some of the goats have kidded, the weather is cold and the goats put energy into growing their kids and keeping warm), Spring milk is sweet and light with medium levels of fats and protein. Goats have excellent access to green grass which encourages milk production. We’ve had good rain too, so this Sprinter/Spring’s exceptional milk is directly expressed in all our cheeses – but especially in our fresh curd cheeses.
And a reminder that we are still relying on our primary form of cheese selling – face-to-face at the Farmers’ Markets, as well as to our current retail and restaurant operators who have supported us throughout the last six months. Whilst Farmers’ Markets are still continuing to operate, we’ll be there with our cheeses. Because the Covid 19 situation is changing daily, please check – either with our Instagramaccount link or with the Markets directly – to see where and when Holy Goat will be this week.
We hope the new website is easier to navigate, find information and also for those who can’t access a market, to buy our cheese. Please be patient as we get our weekly cheese boxes up and running. It’s a brave new world for us all at the farm – but not so much for the goats.
We are celebrating our beautiful goats with a series of goat portrait Photo Cards. The photographs by Bronwyn Silver and Janet Barker were taken over a ten year period and highlight a few of our favourite Cuprines.
When most people look at our herd of goats they tend to see, well, a herd of goats.
When we look at the herd, we see a group of individual goats, all with definite personalities and traits, we see some strong friendship groups of goats, and then we see the herd as a whole ‘animal’ or ‘goat super-organism’ all of itself.
Goats are very self possessed animals; they are calm, proud and dignified, with a strong sense of self. All goats are individuals with strong personalities, but being a highly social animal, they also hanker for the herd. They have particular friends they hang out with – like 7yo Octavia and 11yo TuTu who have claimed their own special spots in the shed and always sleep together.
We’ve explained before why (and how) we name all our goats – see this previous post (and follow its links for more info). – It’s not just for effect, this method of naming helps with breeding plans and herd management. After 20 years we can still know everyone in the herd and easily keep track of their long lineages.
When we look at an individual goat, we see more than her name. We also see -thanks to Obsalim -a whole lot more about the physical and social wellbeing of the goat, thus of the herd, ending in the cheese.
But before all this, we always see the beauty in the goat.
We also love the idea that our Photo Cards can go out into the world where people may not be able to go themselves, especially in these Covid times. Taking the time to write to someone not only eases isolation, but the card – and the goat- stays on.
The Photo Cards (10 cm x 14 cm folded) are available in a pack of eight cards with envelopes at our Farmers’ Markets ($20).
We think the cards portray “Essence of Goat” beautifully. Take a closer look.
From an evolutionary perspective, goats are a prey animal and you can really see that in their constant alertness, especially around the ears and eyes. Ears swivel a full 360 degrees to pickup sounds. Eyes can track 270 degrees (blind spots are front and centre and back). Those wide, rectangular pupils let in lots of light in and allow them to see predators approaching from all sides (and escape routes!) when they are head down and grazing.
See the affectionate gaze that connects us with them. Not like a dog’s affection though, even though goats and dogs were both domesticated with humans thousands of years ago; they identify as goats within their herd, but they also identify separately with us people.
Some of our goats sport beards. This is not necessarily associated with age, though 40% of our herd is aged eight or older. That’s certainly mature by conventional dairy standards. Our “bearded ladies” stay with the herd and continuously lactate. We have long lactations to minimise the stresses of kidding. This season, out of our 99-strong herd, only ten are in kid. Enough for our dairy herd to be sustainable, productive and long-lived.
See the toggles. Not all goats display toggles. These weird hair-covered outgrowths are the subject of much conjecture (there’s still plenty of mystery around the goat…). They are probably evolutionary relics of glands (or gills?!) that the body no longer needs.
Look behind the goats. See the flourishing native pastures; green in spring through summer and then straw-colored in late autumn. See the lush winter green pick. See the corrugated gal of the lounging sheds – a very cosy spot in winter. The seasonal cycle of the farm underpins everything we do.
These goat portraits provide us with a meditation of and in the goat. We hope you enjoy meditating on our Photo Cards as much as we did selecting and reflecting on the portraits. Goats are incredibly special creatures and it’s a privilege to live and work with them.
At the recent Sydney Royal Show Dairy Awards, we were thrilled to win awards for two of our iconic Holy Goat cheeses, Brigid’s Well and Nectar cow/goat semi-hard.
Our Brigid’s Well, ash covered, with a wrinkly rind, creamy texture and amazing depth of flavour, is one of our earliest cheeses; we have been crafting her since 2007. But the cheese – and the award – means much more to us than a Silver Medal. Our Brigid’s Well cheese was named to honour and cherish our precious time spent with the Kent family.
The genesis of this cheese is from Ireland. The name came from the ages old well that sits on the road verge outside St Brigid’s Church in County Wexford, opposite the Kent family farm. The marker on the well signs that it was enclosed in 1862 but the well is much, much older in the context of Irish culture and spirituality. Brigid’s Wells are sacred sites found all over the country. People visit them to seek solace and healing from the waters and to make offerings. In Irish mythology, Brigid was the Celtic goddess of fire, poetry, unity, childbirth and healing. More recently, she is one of Irelands patron Saints – known as Mother of the Gael.
A typical Brigid’s Well (image J. Demetrescu)
St Brigid (image Anthony Murphy)
The Church gateway at Terrarath (image Michael Proctor)
The Enclosed Well at Terrarath (image @irarchaeology)
Our Brigid’s Well even looks like the Irish exemplar – the rough texture of the rind, ashen coating, its shape and proportions. And we do pay our dues and make our supplicants at/for the well every week!
Brigid’s Wells before ashing and salting
In 1993 we turned up on the flagstep of a rural farmhouse in New Ross, Terrerath, County Wexford where Aine (pronounced “Onya” in Australian) her mother Mary and father Liam were running a small (by Australian standards) herd of 40 calves, a few goats and a flock of guinea fowl. Nothing remarkable about the farm at first sight, but there was something about it that really attracted us, something in the way that we wanted to farm.
Mary especially, had a way with animals and people and the land. She would say things like “did you notice the stillness of the air when you visited the cows?”, or, “when you feed the calves, stay a while with them and sure the one that feels poorly – you will see her”.
That first day, Aine and Mary had us sweeping the square (the farm is set up with buildings, dairy and house around a big courtyard square). Sizing us up. Seeing where we were at. Could we hold a broom and use it? Know how to be aware in our bodies? Complete a supposedly menial routine task? To Aine and Mary, our sweeping the courtyard told them volumes.
It was their way of sensing and observing that was so attractive, and formative, to us.
About the herd. The way that all the animals in the herd recognised each other and had a sense of connection; there were groups within groups. The way that the herd itself was a living thing, a sort of super organism – one brain, many bodies is how you might describe it. Within the herd, each calf had an independence and a strong sense of self, but their desire for the herd connection was very strong,
It was the rhythm of the days and the work.
Ireland was cold! We would work for a few hours and then come inside to warm up with a cup of tea and soda bread, always soda bread. Hand carting poo, cutting hedgerows, berry collecting, making jam, gardening, building and renovation projects. Goats were hand milked and the pails of milk delivered onto the bonnets of the cars parked outside St Brigid’s church whilst the occupants were attending Mass inside.
The life of the farm and the farmers was inseparable.
In the evenings, Mary would come up to our room, light the fire, knit and talk and drink tea with us, tell us stories.
Mary was unforgettable in her openness, her thoughtfulness, her knowledge, her way with animals and sense of the land and its secrets. She encouraged us, invited us into her seeing, hearing, feeling the land, animals and the life around us. We came to know her daughter Aine and see the special relationship they had, from and with the farm.
We embedded ourselves into the Terrarath farm and it into us. It was only three months, but they were significant life changing months. Look at us now, with a beautiful goat herd, our loved land, our team of workers and the cheese. All this was built on those solid foundations.
This blog, and our very special St Brigid’s Well cheese, are an ode to Mary who died last year and to Aine her daughter now finding a new way to live and be.
Postscript. Our Nectar Goat/Cow semi-hard cheese won a Gold Medal at the Sydney Royal.
The terrible summer, all around us, continues. We send love and hope to every dairyfarmer, and to everyone, being affected by these devastating fires.
We too, are working on the premise that this summer is the new normal.
Every summer prior to this one, we have been putting actions and intentions in place, so we can be as responsive and ready as we can be, rather than reactionary, when the heat and fire risks hit. But we realise that it’s also unknown territory.
We’ve done our best to make good the conditions for everyone (and everything) on our farm; animals, people (and vegetation, pastures, soils, compost, nestboxes, etc.) everyday, every year.
Summers here now aren’t just ‘business as usual’, we don’t just ‘soldier on’. We make good choices for the welfare of all who come under our care and responsibility and we think about what’s best for the farm as a whole. In summer, winter, and every challenging season.
Two written protocols inform our summer management though (we also believe if things are first taken on and then documented, they will happen) – Hot Response Days and Total Fire Ban Days. Fire Ban Days are obvious triggers, but we have other certain ones that will enact our Hot Response Day Plan, think high temperatures, low humidity and northerly winds, or even Total Fire Bans in the region to the north of us. How the humans and goats are faring, after multiple hot days.
It’s possible to get complacent about the long summer when day after day is, well, hot, hotter, hottest. But we will stick to our protocols, and also learn from them, and from the farm, and most importantly, continue to change things as we learn. For example, on a Hot Response Day, our grazing management plan goes out the window and we focus on putting the herd in one of our paddocks that is well shaded with high tree cover, but close enough so we can closely monitor them. We make sure all outdoor work is completed before 1pm and that our people stay healthy and well hydrated. Wet towels for the goats, too.
On a Total Fire Ban day our preparedness goes up a notch, or four. We clear the floor of the dairy and bring the goats inside if there is a fire alert; the goatlings go up on the milking stand, the kids on the eastern side of the shed, the milkers hanging all about all within. And us too. Our recent fire drill (a 42 degree day with a blustering northerly) saw the herd and staff all safe inside within 13 minutes. The goats weren’t stressed because they associate the space with feeding and milking. We have a powerful 80KVA generator which keeps power on and means we can run industrial fans to keep us all cool and keep the smoke out. Plenty of drinking water all round.The Cheeseroom is clad with cement sheeting and aluminium shutters which also protects its coolroom panelling material from flame. In the dairy, the goats (and especially their feet and udders see this link to feet and this to udders) are protected from destructive radiant heat. Our bucks are moved to the rumination paddock – this is our most grazed paddock and closest to the sheds. As good as being in the dairy, without being in it. (Phew!)
On very hot days, we pay particular attention to our most vulnerable – kids and older does. Electrolytes, cool wet towels, bring the older does in with the herd, but take them off the milking line, give everyone extra care where needed.
industrial fan in the dairy
cool goat with wet towel
We believe our farming practices may challenge some farming norms. But hopefully, just like our summers, many of our practices will also be the new normal. That we all learn much more from these summers, and for the future of farming more broadly. It’s as important for our staff, as it is for our animals, that we do so. And for our many long and loyal cheese buyers, who ask all those good and specific questions at the farmers markets, or connect with us on-line, for all those retailers and distributors who take on the selling of our cheeses with such heart.
Of course we are well placed, after all our work and thinking, feeling, about farming. We have a relatively small herd and a relatively small team, plus we have accrued decades of farming and life experience. Just like that ship metaphor, it’s much easier to change tack in a sailboat that sits lightly on the ocean, than in a massive container freighter or a huge cruise liner. Yes, we are living in extreme times; it’s not business as usual. But due to good management and a little good luck, we are very happy that we are the ones in the sailboat and not on the Titanic. We feel hopeful and trust that our farm will be capable to manage the new normal.
Every week we prepare a cake for our staff meeting. But this cake isn’t for morning tea – it’s a poo cake. This poo cake, together with a milk curd test and specific herd observations, forms the basis of our Obsalim practice and is helping us to produce consistently high quality cheese every day, every year, regardless of the season.
If you are a regular reader of our blogs you will know that we love Obsalim! (See this earlier blog post, and this one, for a start.)
We’ve been working with Obsalim for five years now, but it has only been in the last six months that we have been applying the method in a consistent, analytical way – carrying out standard operating procedures, observing, recording, then discussing the results and deciding on a definite action.
Obsalim helps us manage herd health and cheese quality. It gives us instant feedback. This is really empowering for managing our enterprise as we can directly see the impacts of our management actions in the milk, and in the cheese. As Isis said, “I didn’t quite believe it before. Now I do!”.
Since we’ve been employing Obsalim in this systematic way, everyone on our farm has become engaged with it; Paula our office manager, our quality control and dispatchers Julie and Annie – everyone involved in the farm business is learning about these techniques and what is happening in our herd, then discussing what this means for the cheese. We can also rely on the results, regardless of who at Holy Goat is doing the testing.
How do we do it? Using three tests:
The Obsalim Cards
The Poo Cake Test
The Micro-curd Test
The Obsalim Cards – we consider the whole herd, not just individual animals, and at least 60% of animals need to be showing a certain sign (eg. hair/pH – see the card below) to use that card. You also need to have at least three cards to get a result. There’s more info on using the cards here. If we can’t get three cards, we just consider their current grazing (what is the quality and quantity of pasture they are eating?) and their hay (is it short or long fibered, how nutritious?) over the past week. We look at the pH zone on the goats flank, and their eyes.
The Poo Cake Test – the goats’ manure tells us a lot about their health and digestion. A stable rumen means the goats are digesting every bit of feed and extracting maximum nutrients from it. Which is borne out in their milk.
We are always scanning the poo inside and outside of the sheds, but on Mondays we collect it from a defined area in the holding yards. We take one cup and then wash the poo under running water until the water runs clear, press the ‘poo’ – now more undigested vegetable matter and fibre than poo – into a potato ricer and turn it out onto a piece of absorbent towel. We measure the height of the cake. A smaller cake means more fibre has been digested, a larger cake means less digestion.
Finally we break open the cake and look for any undigested grain and at the fibre size – are the fibres big or small? Ideally there will be no grain visible and only small fibres.
The Micro-Curd Test – this is a really quick and easy test to look at the strength of the curd, which reflects Calcium and Phosphorus levels in the milk, plus protein. We can use raw and/or pasteurised milk.
We put decreasing amounts of milk in five test tubes and add decreasing dilutions of rennet, from 100% then 70%, 50% and finally 30%. We look at the size and shape of the curd that forms. Ideally it should be about 4mm thick and should have a slight twist.
If the curd is dead straight, Calcium levels are too high and Phosphorus too low. If the curd is very kinked, Phosphorus is too high. It is easier to increase Calcium levels – we simply add limestone (Calcium carbonate, CaCO3) to the feed. Adjusting Phosphorus is a bit trickier. The adjustments are tiny, for example we might only add 1/4 cup of limestone to the feed and then wait a fortnight to see what happens. It means we can also fine tune our need to add Calcium Chlorine (CaCl) post-pasteurisation.
If a curd forms at the lowest rennet dilution (30%) that means protein levels are good. The micro-curd test allows us to keep our cheese quality consistent all through the year. It is of great benefit to the cheesemaker.
Then we look at the results across the three tests and decide on an action. Often the action is to take no action!
The weekly testing and recording allow us to build a picture of the herd health and milk quality through the year and to see the impact of changes to diet or herd health. For some conditions/cards it will take a fortnight or more to see the results of a management intervention. Other changes are instant.
Here’s an example:
Observe the herd
Line up the cards and see the results
Do the micro-curd test
Our workings – interpret and discuss, then act!
The micro -curd was strong and consistent, showed a good Calcium Phosphorus balance, but the poo cake and Obsalim cards showed a lack of long fibres.
Increase the rumination time by taking the goats off the pasture and away from the short green oaten hay, with more time for rumination and digestion:
Give the herd longer fibres – we fed out black wattle branches (high in tannins) for two days.
Reduce ‘gutsing’ on hay by putting herd in the rumination paddock earlier in the day,
allowing the herd to ruminate for longer to ensure total digestion.
And the result? We will find out next Monday! Though we have noticed the goats are holding their heads higher and generally coats are in better nick.
Dairy farmers everywhere can be overwhelmed by the quantity of data, information, testing and records that their farm produces and collects. Some of that record keeping is required by agencies and authorities, for food safety, quality control and organic certification. Some is essential for animal health and breeding purposes. But some – perhaps much more – serves little purpose beyond its collection.
In the wide world of dairy data, we see Obsalim – and our three-step weekly test – as critical to our herd and our cheesemaking.
And maybe someone will bring another sort of cake for Monday morning tea?!
Review and reflection is key to how we farm at Holy Goat. We review, reflect and then make well considered change. From the small (how best to sweep the dairy) to the large (implementing a new milking line, or installing a triiion to convert from 2 phase to 3 phase power) making a change on the farm for us is positive and part of a bigger picture.
Over time we’ve made big changes in the dairy, the cheese room and the paddocks that have improved the care and quality of both our herd, our people and our cheese. More of our land is being planted out to trees and understorey for fodder, fuel and habitat. We’ve also improved efficiencies. Now we are looking to human-centred change.
Farming is physically and mentally demanding, it requires long hours and unlike other occupations, is strongly dictated by the seasons (which in Central Victoria means long hot, dry summers and literally freezing winter mornings). A typical work day for us would start at six in the morning and finish at six the other end. There is more than likely some unscheduled or untimetabled work outside of those hours, too. We love farming and we love our farm, but we just don’t think those hours are always sustainable. We’d like to have an ‘average’ workday, as would our staff. (Not that we ever stop thinking about farming, or goats, or cheese!).
Changes to our own worklife open up opportunities for others. Having a dedicated afternoon milker who takes on the latter part of the day is something we are considering at the moment. The role would require someone, who, just like our current staff at Holy Goat, puts the animals first and foremost, gets to know the goats inside and out, and can also manage the mechanics of milking. Connection to the cheese room would also be an important part of this role.
We reckon there is the talent and skills resident in Australia (though we really do appreciate the skills and enthusiasm our French interns bring to the farm). Plus we provide a pretty unique opportunity for training, learning and support that’s rare to find. Our connections with specialists like cheese technician Ivan Larcher and Obsalim creator and trainer Bruno Giboudeau enable us to delve into aspects of animal husbandry and cheesemaking that few other farms offer. You can learn more about poo cakes, pH and titrations than you ever thought possible! Our natural animal treatments and work with Obsalim are quite unique to Australia.
Nectar Goat – Wheel
We aren’t employing right now, but we are looking forward, reflecting on what the farm’s workforce needs are and will be, and how we might best address them.
We are looking for a pretty special person, not necessarily experienced in dairy farming or dairy goat herds – obviously a link with the land and the physical workings of it will be very desirable – but most important is an approach and way of thinking that fits with our team, our farming values and cheesemaking techniques. Being able to learn to understand the herd, the milk and the cheese in a way that’s beyond textbook. Although we value the textbook too. The way we think about and run our herd and make our cheeses is more than a management system. It’s a mindset. We’re looking for people with a similar mindset and certainly not looking to be a traditional dairy farmer, or follow conventional dairy systems. Also someone with capacity for physical work and, at times, true grit!
Someone who just ‘wants a job’ on our farm, isn’t going to work here because organic dairy farming and cheesemaking is more a vocation than a job. We won’t ask you to don the wimple or forsake creature comforts, but we will ask you to be alert to the life of the goats…. and to read our blogs to understand more about how and why we farm the way we do.
We are not currently hiring, but if you can picture yourself working together with us and our staff, please email your resume to email@example.com. We will keep it on file and forward application details, when appropriate..
remnant noun 1 they cleared up the remnants of the picnic: remains, remainder, leftovers, leavings, residue, rest; stub, butt, end, tail end; dregs, lees; technical residuum. 2 remnants of cloth: scrap, piece, bit, fragment, shred, offcut, oddment.
We try to create an environment on our farm where everyone and everything thrives – people, goats, flora & fauna, soil, microbes, cultures, cheese.
This is why we were so pleased at the results of our nest box monitoring last week. We have 25 boxes set up across the farm. They are located in our remnant patches of bush. The word remnant suggests a negative connotation. But the woodland remnants on the property are rich and vital, not just to our farm, but for the surrounding landscape and the broader region.
Our remnants are hugely beneficial to our farm; they work as shelter belts to protect the goats, pastures and people from the prevailing winds and weather, come summer and winter. The birds and creatures they harbour help keep our paddocks free of pests and diseases. Their deep leaf litter covers our soils and keeps them cool and moist.
Our goats would love to have access to our remnants, but they are and always will be goat-free-zones. Our Trust For Nature covenant ensures this and our NAASA organic certification requires it. But that’s not the only reason we take care of our remnants. The phascogales (and other birds and critters) need large nesting hollows. We put up the nest boxes so there is somewhere for them to stay, whilst we wait for the trees to get old and large enough to create their own hollows. And it’s not just all about the nest boxes. We let fallen trees lie and are not tempted to “clean up” branches and leaf litter, nor harvest for firewood.
We give the goats the run of the rest of the farm and plenty of good habitat, just for their needs, so although it would be a goat’s dream to get into one of our remnants, they are very happy in the paddock and don’t feel the need to go anywhere else.
Last week’s nest box monitoring was carried out by Asha Bannon and Jess Lawton as part of Connecting Country’s Brush-tailed Phascogale habitat restoration and monitoring project. From 2009 to 2011, clusters of three nest boxes were installed at approximately 150 sites across the Mount Alexander Shire. The boxes are a tool to monitor the distribution and health of the threatened Brush-tailed Phascogale (also known as the Tuan), as well as providing extra habitat for them.
“Connecting Country have 450 nest boxes across the Shire. Holy Goat has nine that were put up in 2010/2011, but Carla and Ann-Marie have also put up lots more themselves”, says Asha.
“Our boxes are tailor-made by Miles Geldard for the Brush-tailed Phasgogale, but sugar gliders also like them too. The phascogale’s presence is a good indicator of a healthy property. If the phascogales are there, then it’s more likely other less threatened species will be too,” says Asha.
On our farm, 23 of the 25 nest boxes (the first put up in 2005, then in 2010, 2011 and 2017) showed evidence that either sugar gliders or phascogales had been using them. And in two of those boxes, someone was home!
Jess has been studying the Phascogales for three and a bit years, with another 10 months left of her PhD at La Trobe University which is looking at the effects on their distribution across Victoria, specifically food sources and landscape ecology. Jess has worked in with Connecting Country’s monitoring project for the past two years.
“The Mount Alexander region is a quite special place for them. Even though we don’t have that many large tree hollows and that there is a lot of cleared land, our Shire does have some reasonable patches, compared with the rest of Victoria. Overall, our region is reasonably well connected and we suspect that’s why they use the smaller patches.” says Jess.
“We survey in Autumn because that’s when the populations disperse and there’s more activity, so it’s more likely we will detect them. It’s mating time and the males are travelling far to find their mates.They can travel long distances. Phascogales have large home ranges, at least 50 hectares. And they really eat a lot – insects, occasionally small vertebrates, as well as nectar – so they need large areas to forage in. Ann-Marie and Carla have provided them with excellent foraging material – lots of logs on the ground, lots of deep leaf litter and many box trees with rough bark.”
Jess says that because phascogales travel so widely, they often aren’t home at survey time and when they monitor, ecologists will rely on evidence that a nest box has been used.
And it’s pretty obvious. We can tell whether a sugar glider or a phascogale has been resident in ours. They are like chalk and cheese in their housekeeping habits (hmmm…). Phascogales are pretty scrappy. If you see feathers, piles of smelly scats and a mess of nesting material, that’s a Brush-tailed Phascogale. Sugar gliders are more neat freaks – no scats to be seen, fresh leaves carefully placed in a circular fashion, more clean leaves regularly added and the whole thing smells pretty nice really.
You can see what we mean below:
Interestingly, we have put up a mix of plastic and wooden nest boxes and the resident phascogale was found in the plastic one. Jess isn’t sure whether this is because it’s a slightly different shape, or whether the plastic has different insulating properties, but the trend at Holy Goat has been to find sugar gliders in the wooden boxes and phascogales in the plastic. Maybe they’re less choosy, or something, and it’s another PhD topic, surely!
Aside from the Connecting Country official nest boxes and surveying project, anyone can install nest boxes, says Asha.
“And you don’t need to get up a tall ladder to check for habitation – simply sit away from the box and watch, or put up motion sensitive cameras to see if anyone is visiting, and staying”.
“We love working with Holy Goat as they are so engaged with their farm’s environment and in sharing it with Connecting Country,” says Asha.
We love working with Connecting County, as we get to share the riches of our farm with others who appreciate it. We also get to understand where our place fits within the broader landscape and how we can connect more.
We’d like to improve and extend the quality of our covenanted areas, not just on our farm, but to link with neighbouring properties and roadsides that have good remnant patches. The phascogales need more than we can provide here.
We are inspired by the creatures that have chosen to make their home on our farm, and also by the thought that if we could connect up all these small scraps of precious remnants then what a magnificent cloth to cover the landscape that would be.
We’ll be at the upcoming launch of “Reinventing Farmhouse Cheese”, a book by British cheese stalwarts Bronwyn and Francis Percival which focusses on the lost (well, certainly not lost from a Holy Goat perspective!) art of farmhouse cheesemaking; once de rigour across the UK, USA and here in Australia.
Global industrialisation of food production has had a big impact on cheese making, but some small producers have held out, stayed true to their herds and their small-scale cheesemaking craft and now many others see it as a viable, sustainable way of production.
To launch the book, the Australian Specialty Cheesemakers Association (ASCA), of which we are members, is holding a panel session at the Calendar Cheese Company, 326 Lorimer Street, Port Melbourne on Friday 23 March, 5.30 – 8pm.
Richard Cornish will moderate the panel, which will focus on the important and exciting work and collaboration between scientists and cheesemakers.
Carla and microbiologist Dr Ian Powell will talk about our work in culturing great goat’s cheese.
Other speakers include Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont, USA and Bronwen Percival of Neals’ Yard Dairy in London. Mateo and brother Andy create raw-milk cheese on their farm and also age cheeses from other small farms in the area in their Cellars at Jasper Hill.
At Neal’s Yard Dairy, the Percivals select, mature and sell farmhouse cheese from the UK and Ireland, working with about 40 cheesemakers to select the batches the Dairy will mature and sell.
Hear about what it takes to flourish in the world of farmhouse and artisan cheeses today, then taste some of these cheeses, accompanied by matching wines.
Cost to attend is $25 for ASCA members and $50 for non members. You don’t have to be a cheesemaker to join ASCA; being a cheeselover alone is enough to become a member. For more info on the night and to book and purchase tickets, click here.
Dr Bruno Giboudeau has just completed his Victorian workshops (the last one was at our farm) and he headed back to France yesterday, having brought the Obsalim techniques and learning to over 50 keen participants over the past fortnight. Though most of the workshoppers were dairy farmers, we also had a vet, animal nutritionist and organic milk supply manager attend.
Since Obsalim is regional (and farm) specific, the format of the workshops involved using local farms as case studies for the training. Bruno and Lucy Quin – who worked with us to organise and manage the logistics of the workshops and assisted Bruno with the training – visited the case study farms prior, took photos and carried out some Obsalim investigations, providing the host farmers with a report before the workshop proper. During the workshop session, participants were able to learn from the case study farm directly.
Lucy has arrived at Holy Goat after a big career change and is particularly interested in the links between animal health and the quality and nutrition of produce and how Obsalim can make those connections.
“We had really engaged and interested farmers at every workshop; there were lots of questions, a really positive energy and everyone was really happy to learn and observe and interpret.”
Dr Bruno Giboudeau revisits Australia to run a series of Obsalim workshops around Victoria
Dr Bruno Giboudeau revisits Australia to run a series of Obsalim workshops around Victoria revisits Australia to run a weries of Obsalim workshops around Victoria
Ron and Bev Smith, long-time farmers at Fish Creek said they benefited from Bruno’s training and learnt new things, even as dairy farmers for 50 years. “Retired” to 12 acres and two cows, (though they have a newsletter connecting 400 dairy farmers and are off to King Island next week to advise and support other farmers …).
Bev says the workshop had a good energy and they had a great time as host farmers.
“We started farming in the 1970s and then organic dairying from the 1980s, when we had 95 head on 250 acres and it was all pasture based,” says Bev. “We did introduce a keyline irrigation system for the summer months and we had a big variety of pasture species.”
“We attended last year’s workshop with Bruno at Holy Goat which was great – I saw it as another tool that we can use – but I found this year’s workshop of much more direct benefit, since the focus was on cows and in our part of the world.”
“Most participants were farmers within an hour of our farm, two were organic and one was in-conversion. I think Obsalim needs to get into the conventional stream though; that’s where the biggest benefits will be. The uptake of Obsalim will be a bit like the early days of organics; but it will happen in time.”
Ron agrees. “I really loved the workshop. I think it’s cutting edge stuff for Australian farmers. When they realise and understand it, I think our whole industry will benefit hugely.”
It’s about being animal-focussed, not farm/farmer focussed. Ron gives the example of another participant who attended the workshop who told him afterwards ‘I look at animals over the fence much differently now’.
“I’ve been milking cows for over 50 years and I’m still learning. I’ve always observed the cows and known their names, their natures and their inclinations. When our cows were on heat I could tell the animal from 150 meters away. The eyes, ears, nose, demeanour, they way they act, are all telling. You can see if something is amiss. These things we have observed all the time, but Obsalim really puts it all together for us in a meaningful way.”
“We’ve been growing many of the species that Bruno suggested – cocksfoot, timothy rye, red clover – which was affirming too,” adds Ron.
The herd at the Kyabram workshop
Pastures up close
Cows up closer
How, when at what the feeding schedule is – a major focus of Obsalim
One of the key aspects of Obsalim is being able to make a direct link between the appearance and health of the animal and the quality and composition of the milk, through milk testing.
“Farmers can see straight away how efficiently their animals are converting their feed and the quality of that conversion, “ says Bruno.
Lucy agrees. “Dairy farmers get results, maybe weekly, from the processors about their herd’s milk solids and protein, in percentages, but not about the quality of that protein, which is really important in cheesemaking and for the digestion of drinking milk.”
Casein is the important protein for cheese quality and yield.
“The milk test shows the coagulation of casein, globulin and albumen. The casein correlates to cheese yield and quality. We want more casein than the other proteins for cheesemaking,” says Lucy.
Grazing management – what, when and for how long – influences the milk proteins.
Dr Bruno Gibidou revisits Australia to run a weries of Obsalim workshops around Victoria
“With changes to the herd ration and to the cycles of feeding, we can see greater energy efficiency and feed conversion – in Obsalim we talk about the Global Energy – so there will be more casein than globulin with better efficiency. The timing of feeding and cudding and the type of pasture have a big influence,” says Bruno.
Bruno stresses that Obsalim is not asking farmers to implement wholesale, large-scale changes to their farming operations.
“The main thing is for farmers to have confidence in their observations and the confidence to make changes. We advise making small scale changes and observing. It is not about making large changes to the farm management or buying in concentrates. It is about committing to the system and using what you already have – your seasons, soils, pastures – in a more efficient way.”
“In France, 70% of farm house cheese makers use Obsalim. Of those half would use it on a daily basis and the other half would know about it and use it less regularly. But they are all able to manage their pastures in a more economic way. We see an increase in the cheese quality and a decrease in vet expenses on these farms.” says Bruno.
Now the workshops are over, Bruno and Lucy aim to keep farmers connected and motivated to continue to use Obsalim on a regular basis, as well as to develop further training opportunities.
“I would like to come back and run a more complete course that goes to a deeper level, as well as the more basic sessions,” says Bruno. “It is a new approach for Australia. After the course people will go back to their usual routine, so it is important that the Obsalim becomes part of that routine; that the observing becomes second nature.”
“We are looking to build the momentum and consolidate participants use of Obsalim,” says Lucy. “After the workshops we now have a nucleus of engaged and interested farmers. We want to find the best way to keep the conversations going and to keep them practising the techniques. It could be an Obsalim helpline for farmers, or on-line support and updates.”
And Bev and Ron are off to King Island next week, where they’ll meet other dairyfarmers and talk about the Obsalim workshop held on their place. Who knows, perhaps King Island will be the next stop next year for Bruno?