Thursday, June 17, 2010

View from the Top


(literally Crooked Heights) is the most readily identifiable point on the farm, and can be seen for miles around. Our western boundary runs along the bottom third of the mountain, though the summit is on the neighbouring farm. The whole area is approximately 1600m amsl, although the summit of Krömhoogte towers another 220m above the table land.

Brother R and some of the neighbours climbed to the top and took some photographs which I think are exceptional and give a great perspective of the layout of the farm.

The farmhouse is in amongst the trees towards the left of the picture. The large dam may be seen in the distance at the top of the photograph.

The mountain has attracted, like most high points in an area, numerous visitors over the years. It was also a lookout post for British soldiers during the Boer War at the end of the niniteenth century. I am still doing research on the part played by the farm and the town during this period and it will hopefully be the subject of a future post.

One of the visitors, not suprisingly, was the original owner of the farm - Cornelius C. Vermaak - who left his initials on the summit in 1900.

The above series of photographs, give a good idea of the general topography of the region, as well as showing that all the dams in the immediate area are full to overflowing. For at least the past 8 years, the area has had exceptionally good rains. Climate change (although I dispute totally that the cause is anthropogenic) seems to be a reality, and is certainly benefitting the area - rainfall wise.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Let the Cat out the Bag

One of the logistical problems of spending an unknown amount of time away from home on the farm is the question of what to do with my (as opposed to the farm) cat. She is a pavement special, rescued from a vet who was about to put her down, who has never really bought into the whole happy families thing! While not wild, she is stand-offish in the extreme and not really amenable to petting or playing. Still she is an interesting character. She also hates other cats. She tolerated dogs, preferrably from a distance and as long as they ignore her. I decided to take her with me, and as a precaution I asked our local vet for travel tranquilizers for her for the seven hour trip. He advised against it and recommended I use a naturopathic concoction, or " just before you travel, dunk her in a bath of warm water, and she will spend the whole trip grooming herself, and not worry about the journey". I took the former option although that was totally unsuccessful.

The night before I left didn't feed her, so she was easy to catch and put in the car. She was not impressed, although after the first 100km or so she found herself a comfortable place; and slept. Arriving at the destination she headed into the garden to relieve stress and headed up a small tree, hissing and clawing at anyone or anything that approached her. Later that night I got a towel and removed her from the tree and settled her in my bedroom with her food.

She has taken the usual feline curiosity with enclosed spaces to extremes. One of her passions is finding hidden places to sleep. One such place was between two pillows under the cover of my bed! Another was under a layer of polyfibre roof insulation, which over time became her preferred sleeping place. I took this, folded it in three, and fabricated a 'sleeping bag' by stitching the panel together with fishing line. This, and its several successors are her passion. She will actively search the house until she finds it and curls up inside.

Once she had found her 'den' in the farmhouse, she quickly settled down and was no further trouble. There were a few run-ins with James and the cats, but nothing serious and she settled into the life of a country cat.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Tot Facienda Parum Factum

"So much to do, so little done". This is the motto of Cecil John Rhodes; the founder of Rhodesia, and the benefactor of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust. It certainly applied to the farm.

While the previous owners had removed all their possessions of value, they left behind years and years worth of other accumulated junk. One entire storeroom was full of old magazines - SA Farmers' Weekly' which although of interest, needed to be disposed of. Likewise with bottles and old machinery chassis and other metallic junk.

Inside the house, major changes were needed, including the need to do a complete renovation of

the bathroom


and kitchen.

More importantly, there was an old gas oven (top right in the photograph) that was the only means of cooking - it had to go! Shopping was necessary to start the process. In short order we bought a deepfreeze, a new oven and a washing machine.

With the deepfreeze in the storeroom, the new oven placed temporarily in the old cupboard space and the washing machine placed in the

outside rondavel,

we were in business. I placed a water feed and a drain into the building (there was a power point already installed). One of the greatest advances, in my opinion, in modern agriculture is the invention and development of the black plastic pipe. What would previously have required a great deal of time, a plumber and specialized equipment can now be done professionally by amateurs - and I should know!

This rondavel is an interesting bit of agricultural history. It was originally built as a cream store. It previously had an internal wall. the space between the exterior and interior walls was filled with charcoal. Water was sprinkled on the charcoal and evaporation kept the interior many degrees lower than the ambient temperature. Churns containing cream were thus able to be stored for several days without the cream going sour, before being taken to the rail siding and sent to the dairy.

The construction of the external wall is of interest. It is built of naturally occuring ironstone "spheres" which are as hard as hell, held together with cement.

Blue Tongue and Other Ovine Afflictions

The first few months on the farm were charactersised by an inordinate amount of rain - 431mm for the first four months of that year. To put this into perspective, this is a good average annual rainfall for the area. The consequence was an explosion of diseases of the sheep related to the wet conditions. "Bromme" or maggot flies soon made their appearance. The Afrikaans slang word is derived from the characteristic buzz the fly makes. It is highly distinctive in colour, being a metallic green.

Blue Tongue made its appearance as well. This latter disease is a virus spread by midges (culicoides) or "miggies". It derives the name from the characteristic cyanosis of the tongue. There is no cure - the vet advised that the affected animals should be kept hydrated and penned in the dark, until the symptoms had dissipated. All this made for a rather hectic few weeks, as the number of sheep needing treatment increased. Fortunately the number of fatalities was limited, and the crisis soon passed.

As an interesting aside, one of the effects of 'climate change' is the occurence of Blue Tongue in Europe - it was first reported in 2006. In 2007 Britain reported its first case of the disease. It has now spread as far north as southern Sweden.

Blue Tongue is not a highly visible disease; the same cannot be said of maggot fly strike! The fly is attracted to wet patches on the skin of the sheep, usually but not always in the area of the crutch of the animal. The fly lays innumerable eggs which hatch, in short order, into live larvae (maggots) that literally devour the living flesh of the sheep. Keeping a close lookout for those so infected is an integral part of the day to day managment of the flock. Treatment is usually effected by shearing the infected area, washing the area with a strong insecticide and then dusting with an antibiotic. A truly nasty parasite!


I have been very idle, and haven't updated the blog for a long while!

An internet friend Carolyn from San Francisco gave me a much needed kick up the butt and told me to get on with it!

Thanks Carolyn

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Dan, Dan the Maintenance Man

Once we were more or less up to speed on the stock management; or as up to date as is possible with sheep, repairs and maintenence became the priority. The major project in the "plan" was to subdivide the main stock handling area into smaller pens, all interleading and gated, so the flocks could be split up, for various procedures. This was accomplished rapidly, and we then moved onto windmill maintenance. For some reason, there would be a windmill breakdown at least once per week. Critical as they are, one just has to put up with their temperamental nature, and fix them as soon as they break down.
Fences and gates were also a priority, and several gates were taken down and rewelded and rewired at the house. The main irrigation system suffered a lightening strike, so that meant a huge amount of expense and frustration.
The biggest frustration came not from the farm directly, but from the local farmer who grazed cattle for a fee on the property. It was a 'grazing only' contract; no management by the farm staff was included in the fee, but this guy would frequently arrive and insist that the staff help him with whatever needed doing - dosing dipping feeding etc. Not wanting to antagonize him, he being a stalwart in the community! I let it go for a month or two. The final straw was when he was busy, in my absense, with his bulls, and the broke the main gate to the handling facility. No note, no phone-call, no offer to repair.
I let it be known in the 'community' that this was not the right thing to do, and a couple of days later he arrived with a new gate which was installed until he returned with the old one, fully repaired. Shortly thereafter, I gave him notice of termination mid month, and he moved the cattle a few days later. He even had the temerity to ask if I was going to charge him for the half-month grazing. Definitely! He paid up without a problem. Such are the joys of living in a small community.

Getting to Grips

I soon settled in, and started getting organized. One thing that I abandoned very quickly was the old "Store". For generations, the staff were able to 'buy' basic commodities ( mealie meal, sugar, yeast, cooking oil, soap washing powder etc) from stocks kept at the house. It soon became clear that it would be a nightmare keeping track, and worse - it was obvious that the staff would spend a large portion of their wages at the store during the month and then have very little left at month end. Inevitably this would result in them requiring a loan which would have to be rolled over the following month. In consultation with brother R, it was decided to pay a portion of salary at mid month so that incidentals could be purchased. We further abandoned the practise of dishing out loans. Once the staff became used to the new system it worked without further problems.
There were several labour issues that had to be dealt with, most were resolved amicably. It was made quite clear that whatever was done in the past would only be continued if it were efficient and reasonable. The staff, as was to be expected, 'tried it on' to their benefit. Farmer I had never been, people manager I have been my entire working life.
The first issue was the Gardener. Like most farms in the area, the staff members all are either closely or not so closely related. This particular man used the fact that he was related to most of the other members to do as little as possible. Since the farm took precedent over the domestic chores, very little time was spent on monitoring his output. It was quite obvious that he was doing nothing, and after about two months, I took the day off from farming, and supervised him directly. It was amazing what he achieved that day. Sadly the work output was never repeated, as he resigned the following morning.
There was a large amount of 'jockeying for position' between the two most senior men, and also between the two wives, who were employed in the house. Again, I tried to ignore most of it and was successful unless it impacted on the operations.
Still the first few months gave a clear indication how hard the staff worked, and how capable they were at the many tasks, both stock management and maintenence, involved in farming in the area.