Transitions

Although the last few days have certainly felt like summer, we have been getting little tastes of fall around the edges, and the end of the growing season really seems to be approaching.

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The beef herd grazing as the sun goes down.

There are leaves changing color up and down the ridge, we’ve had nighttime temperatures down in the forties, and the ten-day forecast even includes a few nights down in the thirties. Other signs of fall include the greenhouse full of curing root crops, turkeys growing out on pasture for Thanksgiving, and the pullets just starting to lay the first eggs of their lives.

 

We got a huge rainstorm through this part of Massachusetts Sunday and Monday, with over three inches of rain falling here on the farm.

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Our rain gauge, checked often…

The rain was so welcome here, and really has the potential to setup the whole rest of the fall growing and grazing season. Ponds in the area have a bit of water back in them, the ground is not too hard to put fence posts in anymore, and the pastures are green and vibrant again. Getting all that rain in a matter of hours was a bit much for such parched ground, but, at this point in a droughty year, we’ll take rain in any form we can get it.

The Student Farmer class of 2016 has graduated and left the farm, and we’re down to a skeleton crew to keep the whole place rolling along as best we can until the next class arrives. Their first day is October 6th, so we’ve got a couple of weeks to hold it together until the cavalry arrives to pitch in. The Maggie’s farmhouse is getting its yearly refurbish, with drywall, paint, plumbing and electrical work going on throughout the building. The farmhouse is more than two hundred years old, heavily used by many many people every day, and it takes some real work to keep it together through the year.

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The bull on the left, a steer on the right. Aside from the obvious differences between them, a bull also develops other visible traits that show his fertility. The clearest one shown here is the curly hair on his head and shoulders. 

 

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Dry beans processed and in storage.

The extended dry summer has given us the opportunity to brush-hog in pastures, corners and roads where we rarely get to go, and we have been able to tame some pretty wild areas of the farm. Surprisingly for a farm stretching along a ridge, we have quite a few spots that are consistently too wet to drive a tractor over, and those spots can end up growing some pretty gnarly stuff without the attention of the brush-hog. Though there are few benefits to long-term dry weather, one silver lining is the manicure we can put on all of those spots usually too swampy to address.

Wind and Rain

There is a definite chill in the air this morning, and with the thermometer reading in the low 40s at dawn, it certainly feels like fall is here.

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Visiting students learning to milk.

A cold front went through here yesterday afternoon, but the rain that it brought never got close to this farm. We did have a quarter inch of rain on Sunday, but the farm remains profoundly dry. This cooler weather should lead to nice heavy morning dews, so that should pep the pastures up a bit, and hopefully will carry us through October.

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The lane at Sentinel Elm Farm at dawn.

 

 

The rain Sunday was accompanied by some really strong gusts of wind, and our little pasture turkey house went for a short flight before a rough landing. One turkey was killed in the event, and three others seemed injured. We moved them into the hospital ward in the barn, but things were looking pretty bad. Surprisingly, within 24 hours they were back on their feet and acting totally normal, so they were put back in with the big group on Tuesday.

Storage crops are coming this week, with pumpkins, winter squash and potatoes coming out of the fields. These crops are out there for a long time, growing big and full, and curing a bit in the field before we harvest them.

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Pumpkins ready for harvest.

These big crops are really capstones to the veggie production year, and the proper wealth our of farm can be genuinely felt looking into the greenhouse with all these beauties piled up for more curing before they out to the CSA or into storage. The watermelons have been coming in this week too, though they head out to market and CSA pretty quickly. The hot dry summer concentrated the flavors in each melon this year, and the results have been delicious!

This has been the final week for the student farmer class of 2016 in the Learn to Farm Program, with graduation this Saturday at Maggie’s Farm. This has been a wonderful group, and they have faced a truly difficult and unique season enduring this droughty summer.

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Milkers enjoying fresh grass.

They have all found ways to make our work better, they have made The Farm School a stronger place, and we have all justly enjoyed working alongside them. Some are going on to college, some to farm on other farms, and some are still working on their next move. They will all make the world of agriculture stronger.

Our forest-thinning project came to an end this week, and I think that we are all relieved that it is over. The machinery and traffic at the sight was really remarkable, and although the long-term impact of the work will be a huge positive for the land that we steward, the immediate impact has been astonishing. I will try to get down into the site next week for pictures and a good write-up of the whole thing.

Further Fall

There are trees on the ridge just beginning to show the first signs of a change in color, and the start of fall seems to be creeping in here at The Farm School. The clearest sign of the changing seasons is the change in daylight,

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Afternoon light in the dairy

and I realized fall must be coming this morning as I clipped a pasture in the dark at 5:30. At the peak of summer, there is enough light to go to work right at 5am, and often those early hours are a vital part of full day of work. Those days are winding down as we move deeper into September, and my thoughts have begun to turn to how to wrap up this season. It seems strange to think of extra hours of work as a luxury, but at the height of the crazy summer production season, the early morning hours are a wonderful opportunity to stay ahead of the workload, and are often the difference between getting it all done, and not.

The dry weather has continued here over the past week, and we watched Hurricane Hermine spinning off of Cape Cod with a bit of longing. Although we would never wish dangerous weather on anyone or on our farm, we certainly could have used some of that rain! The brief period of regular rain that we had in August is a distant memory at this point, and we are back to a world of dusty roads, browning pastures, and irrigation on the veggies. There are fewer new plantings out in the veggie beds, so there is much less urgency in the watering work, but there are still crops that need support to continue growing and producing. That rainy time did produce and moderate bit of growth in the pastures, so our grazers are out there now enjoying what may prove to be the last green grass of the season.

Rumor is that the forest thinning project we’ve been hosting over the past month is about to wrap up, and I am really excited to get in there to see the results. I have been looking into the possibility of generating an accurate map of the logging roads that have been established throughout the forest, and I will be sure to put out a full write up with images as soon as the project is truly completed. Once the loggers leave, the NRCS foresters will be back out to make sure that the work was done within their guidelines, and then hopefully they’ll pay us for the work.

The Visiting Schools program has begun again this week with our first school group of the fall season. The Charles River School seventh and eighth grades are our first compnay of the fall every year, and they always bring a big group of enthusiastic kids to get this place back in action. The fall season is just three months long, and we have plenty of work to get done before winter arrives, so we are always super excited to see big groups of big kids, ready to dig right into the work.

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Dry beans, grown on the farm, shelled by students.

They are out there now helping to finish up the last loads of hay in the dairy barn hay loft, process the dry beans with Bradley, make a final push to get the year’s firewood cut, split and stacked, cook our meals, and keep all the livestock fed and happy.

Next week is the final week for the 2016 class of Maggie’s student farmers, and it certainly is a bittersweet time. Every student is now a vital and effective part of our farm community, and we are so proud of the work and learning that we have done together over the past eleven months. It is truly heartbreaking to see them leave now, with all their skills, their confidence, and their deep knowledge of this farm, but we are also really excited for the impact that they are going to have out in the world, on their own farms,

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The corn says the season is about over…

working for another farmer, or in their communities. It has been a challenging and wonderful year with these great folks, and we have all been honored to work with them.

September

With a few close misses on the rain over the past ten days, unfortunately the farm has really started to dry out again. Irrigation restarted on the veggie beds today, with two water wagons, generators, pumps and drip tape redeployed up and down the ridge.

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Our young turkeys have moved out of the brooder.

Our pastures have lost that vibrant green glow they were showing last week, and although there seems to be quite a bit of grass out there now, I am concerned that this might be the last gasp for the pasture plants for the year. We typically graze until the first week of November, but if we only have one more turn through our pasture rotation, I don’t think we’ll get past the end of September. We have secured a pretty healthy supply of winter hay, and even made some of our own, so we might just squeak through the year by a breadth. It is a bit alarming to consider just how much rain we’ll need to make up for the deficit this summer has put us in, and a local farmer shared with me yesterday his belief that we’ll need weather systems coming in from the ocean, rather than as they usually do from the west, to change our current situation much.

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This year’s bull has just one horn.

The rental bull arrived on the farm yesterday, and went in with the beef herd to get to work. He came from Rotokawa Estates, in Hardwick MA, and he is a new bull for us. Cows are pregnant for about nine and a half months, or 285 days, so we expect calves to start arriving on the scene next June some time. There is always some doubt about how quickly a bull will start breeding the cows, and there are lots of factors that go into that process. Depending on the cow’s heat cycles, the bull’s assertiveness and how easily he integrates into the herd, we expect breeding to get going within a day or two. By comparison, the ram is mounting and breeding ewes within a minute or two of going in with them in November.

 

Our forest thinning project has continued through this week, with semi-truck loads of chip heading down the hill on a regular schedule all day. I have not had chance to walk down to see the work, but I am getting very positive reports from our forester who is on site to inspect twice per week.

We harvested storage onions from the Flat-Field early this week, and they have been setup to cure in the greenhouse under a shade tarp. The garlic is in, the pumpkins come in next week, the beans have been harvested and the veggie season shows signs of nearing the end.

Although there are plenty of crops that we will tend and harvest all the way to the first frost, we’ve passed some of the big landmarks of the season here at the first week of September.

 

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Broilers in the freezer

Our broilers came back from Stillman Quality Meats at the end of last week, and they are in the walk-in freezer ready for sale. This will be our first try at raising birds for sale, and we are all eager to see what the demand out there is like.

 

A Taste of Fall

The first few days of this week brought a little taste of fall, with temperatures in the seventies during the day and the low forties at night. It was a wonderful relief from the heat of the summer, and a reassuring reminder that this crazy summer will eventually transition into another season. This has been one of the most challenging seasons that I can remember in my time at The Farm School, and while we have all learned a lot from these trials, we are all looking forward to a change.

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The Egg-Mobile working a pasture edge.

We also had three-quarters of an inch of rain Sunday night, keeping the nice string of rain accumulations going, and keeping the veggies and the pastures moving in a positive direction. We have now had a few weeks with somewhat regular rain, and the whole farm is getting back on track.

The beef herd started grazing again on Tuesday evening. They will get tiny sections of new grass every evening through the remainder of the week, easing their digestive systems back over, from the hay that they have been eating over the past six weeks, to green pasture. We are also taking advantage of this grazing period with the beef herd to do a little weed control in the pasture that they have just begun grazing. The pasture, named Upper Racetrack, is one that we have used for overwintering the beef herd, with our massive grid of round bales pre-set in the fall for winter feeding.

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Pasture re-growth

This practice adds tons of manure and grass seed, but also sometimes introduces strange seed from the bales that we buy in. Several years ago, I noticed a new weed taking over in this pasture after we had used it for the winter, and now we are going to see if the beef herd can take care of it. With the small sections of new grass, less than they would like to have, I am hoping that they will be motivated to eat the weeds they would otherwise pass up.

The Maggie’s student farmers processed their broiler chickens on Tuesday. They raised one hundred birds from chicks delivered in the first week of June by Hoffman Hatchery. The Heavy Silver Cross Grey Broiler grows a bit more slowly than the industry standard Cornish Cross, but they seem to avoid most of the challenges that the Cornish Cross has with it’s super rapid growth. The Silver Cross Broilers also forage on fresh pasture better than the Cornish Crosses, and are able to walk along in our daily-move pastured system very well. The Cornish Cross birds are typically raised for only seven weeks, so our approach adds time and cost to the process, but seems more humane and successful to us.

 

We sent seventy-five of this year’s birds to a Massachusetts approved processing facility, and kept thirty for processing on farm. The on farm processing system that we teach starts with killing the birds, dunking them in a pot of hot water to loosen their feathers, a spin in the plucking machine, evisceration on the table, and a drop into the ice bath to cool. Every student has the opportunity to try their hand throughout the whole process, and can take a bird from start to finish, or find one job in the sequence to really master. By doing just thirty on farm, we take away most of high-paced pressure that a full one hundred would bring, and give the students plenty of time and space to navigate what can be a very difficult experience. The chilled birds end up in the kitchen, where Cristina (Head Chef/Kitchen Master) and Josh Buelle (New Age Renaissance Man) teach students how to break down the carcass into usable parts. They are vacuum sealed and frozen for next year’s student farmers to eat throughout their time at The Farm School.

The student farmers put up their timber frame last weekend, completing a nearly eleven month process from log to standing structure. They milled timbers on our sawmill, chiseled out all the joinery, and finally put the whole time together on sight. This year’s frame was actually sold to a student from this year’s class who lives locally enough that we could make it work. He hopes to apply the things he’s learned in his year at Maggie’s to an expanding homestead, and the timber-frame barn will be a part of that growth.

Late Summer

With a bit more rain this week, vibrancy and vigor continues to seep back into the pastures and the vegetable beds at The Farm School. Plants are standing tall and glowing green again, the ground is soft under foot, and the animals are busy grazing and growing.

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Looking fresh and healthy!

With everyone but the beef herd back out grazing, the rhythm of the farm is returning to normal after the strange lull we experienced in June and July. Pasture rotation is back at the top of my list, with daily checks on grass condition, paddock size, and planning for the next move. It is wonderful to see the sheep and dairy cows back out on the hillsides doing what they do best, and I am really looking forward to getting the beef herd back out grazing again next week. From a mix of soil conditions, slope and aspect, and probably many other factors that I don’t fully understand, their pastures have been much slower to recover than the sheep and dairy cow’s.

 

The Farm School has undertaken a large forestry project over eighty acres or so down below the Maggie’s Farm complex. In cooperation the state of Massachusetts, the NRCS, and a local forester, our project is thinning the forest by between a third and a half, with a focus on removing poor quality trees.

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A view of the log landing.

The NRCS encourages this type of work, and even pays us to do it, in support of a goal of a healthier forest full of larger, and ultimately, more valuable timber. The forester walks the forest and marks the trees that are to be removed, the logger buys the trees as they are based on the foresters calculations, and then harvests them for sale. The vast majority of this harvest is going into wood chips since the trees coming out are small, crooked or are otherwise low quality. For us, this project includes a nice payoff, but it also sets our forest up for long-term healthy growth into the future, and the potential for smaller more lucrative harvests down the line. This approach, called ‘low-grading’, is the counter to ‘high-grading’, which would be the harvest of only the largest, best, and most valuable trees. This would pay in the short-term, but leads to the degradation of the forest over the long run as only the weakest and worst trees are left. The work of forestry at this scale is now done almost entirely by machine, with feller-bunchers, skidders, a truly massive chipper, and semi-truck loads of chip leaving all day. Although the project as it is happening is loud and rough, tearing things apart and cutting lots of trees, the long-term response of the forest should be a real positive for us and that ecosystem as a whole.

With just a couple of weeks before school programing resumes at Sentinel Elm Farm and the Program for Visiting Schools, work has begun on our annual efforts to renew the bunkhouse and surround grounds. Every nook and cranny gets a deep clean first, extra stuff that’s collected from the year gets moved along, and the while place gets a detailed inspection. We’ve had some light carpentry on the boy’s side of the bunkhouse, we’ve got some painting going on now, and, as usual, Ben and Brad are busy at work making the grounds beautiful. Flower plantings are ready, the weed-whacker is humming full time, and place is really looking nice. We host a few different events in the weeks before school starts again, from teacher retreats to visiting friends, and the work to keep the place looking nice for every visitor never stops.

Past the mid-point

We’ve gotten a bit more rain since my last entry, with half an inch in the rain gauge by evening chores yesterday. Every bit helps a lot right now, and like I described last week, we are really thinking more about the timing and sequence of the rain events more than the actual accumulation.

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Corn loves hot dry weather, it has grown well this year.

We have a promising outlook for the next five days, with thunderstorms and lots of rain forecasted. The issue on many livestock producer’s minds in Massachusetts now is the second cut of hay, and if the recent rains are going to do enough to make a decent hay crop at the end of August or beginning of September. For The Farm School, this is especially relevant because we feed our small dairy herd wrapped round bales of second, or even third cut hay in the winter (not this year!). Those bales provide the cows with a super premium feed through cold winter weather, and they really go a long way to keep the milkers healthy, well fed, and making good milk. Opening a fragrant round bale of high-quality second-cut hay on a cold day in January is a momentary journey back to summer, and a reminder of all the warmth, sounds and smells that went into making that bale.

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Tom and King cool off in the shade between jobs.

The dairy herd went back out on pasture this week, taking it bit by bit ,to transition their digestive systems back into fresh grass shape. They have loved the change back to pasture, and have been happy to lounge on fresh grass, rather than in their old holding-yard. The sheep flock also went back out onto grass this week, and we’ve taken a similar slow and steady approach to get their rumens reacquainted with fresh green forage. The sheep, always by far the most vocal group on the farm, have suddenly gone silent, with their heads down in the grass rather than up complaining about something. We were even able to find some fresh grass for our two rams, cleaning up around the lower barn at Maggie’s Farm.

As hard as it is to imagine, work in the veggie world has already begun to look at the end of the production season. August is in the back half of our short growing season, and Alex and his crew are already prepping and seeding beds for cover crops and rest.

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Brad planted peanuts, and they’re doing well so far.

Harvest, weeding and seeding are still going strong, but the first markers of the season’s decline are passing us now. An observer can get a concise look at the character of New England farming in the August preparation of veggie beds for winter; the season is fleeting, planning and preparing ahead are vital, and some work done today can really make tomorrow better.

Tomatoes really seem to be the most cherished summer product, and I am happy to report that we are having a good tomato year. Tomatoes love hot dry weather, and we’ve had plenty of that this summer. The Late Blight that has effected our area the last few years is not here yet, and the dry weather that we had last month really arrested its progress moving up from the south. Late Blight is a fungal disease that effects our tomatoes, riding here on weather systems from the south, and lit oves humid conditions. We are expecting that type of weather this weekend, so it may be here next week. The tomatoes are doing great now, and we are all enjoying them with every meal!

The fruit is a bit less plentiful that we would like, but the hot dry weather has  meant that each individual tomato is super flavorful and rich, with not too much water is there to make things bland. A similar description can be applied to many of our crops this year, with flavorful individual fruits, but a bit less volume that we like to see. The dry weather has concentrated the production into fewer, but more delicious produce.

Breeding continues in the dairy barn. Patty was in heat this week, but we missed breeding her, and Emily bred yesterday. The Farm School is hosting a farming group from Yale, and they all enjoyed Brad’s breeding demo in the dairy barn at chores yesterday evening. I expect the beef bull to arrive on the scene next week, and breeding in the beef herd to begin directly after that.

Some Rain

We got an inch and a half of rain over last weekend and the beginning of this week, and it’s made us all feel so much better about the season and condition of the farm. We’ve been able to take a break in irrigating the veggie beds, and the pastures, though thin and short, are greening up a bit. The ever-present dust has been rinsed off of everything, changing the world from grey to green again.

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The grapes are coming on, and housing a robin’s nest.

Central Massachusetts is still several inches below our annual average for rainfall at this point in the year, so while this latest accumulation eases the panic a bit for now, all eyes are still on the ten-day forecast, looking for the next storm. When it comes to rain on a farm in the summer, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ is really the issue, and we’re always looking for the rain that’s a few days away.

Our grazers are still in holding yards, eating hay and waiting for the pastures to come back from the drought. I have been doing regular pasture walks every day to check on recovery after the latest rain, and the pasture plants definitely responded well. If we can get a bit more rain this weekend, as is forecasted, we might be back grazing within two weeks. Just like we ease the animals through a transition from eating hay all winter to spring grazing, we will need to be careful as we move the sheep and cows back onto green grass. A full day’s paddock of fresh green grass would make them all bloat dangerously, since their rumens have adapted to digesting only hay for the past few weeks.

Every plant in every veggie bed loved the rain, and they are all standing up tall and strong again after sagging their way through the dry weather. The soil has returned to a beautiful dark brown shade, and with the dust washed off the leaves, things look vibrant and fresh again. The rain is probably going to draw out a flush of weeds, with seeds waiting in the soil for conditions just like this, so cultivation and weeding may move to the top of the list in the coming days. The dry weather had kept weed pressure pretty mild to this point, but that may change now. There certainly were weed varieties thriving in the dry conditions, since there seems to be a weed adapted to just about everything imaginable, but the broad population of weeds out there had a hard time with no rain, just like the veggie plants.

The broilers are growing well, with a scheduled processing day at the end of August. We will be taking most of them to a state inspected processing facility this year, which will mean that we can sell them in the state. Keep a look out for word about that opportunity this fall!

This season’s blueberry crop had a wonderful start, with a strong flush of large berries. Berry size suffered a bit with the lack of water, but production continued on strong, and we hope that the latest rain will help keep the season going a bit further. Berries of all kinds, coming out of the freezer, keep us all going through the winter and remind us of the summer’s growing season.

It’s breeding season in the dairy, and we are on the look-out for heats. When a cow comes into heat, which she does about every twenty-one days, the other cows will periodically jump up on her back end.

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Brad trying to breed Phoenix.

If she stays still, rather than running out from under them, then she is in ‘standing heat’. That’s the sign to call the breeder, and luckily we have a resident cow breeder in Brad. This picture shows Brad trying to breed Phoenix, and two-year-old heifer, and this would be her first pregnancy. Brad’s left had is in there to feel the various parts of the cow’s reproductive system to make sure that the breeding tube, holding the tiny straw of thawed semen, in his right hand, finds the right place. Things can be a bit trickier with a cow that has not bred before, but Brad felt confident that this attempt went well. We do all of our breeding with purchased semen, rather than owning or renting a bull.

Field Trip

The Farm School’s Learn to Farm Program has always included a Vermont farm trip in the summer, and we went up for our annual tour this past weekend. This year’s itinerary included stops at Shelburne Farms, in Shelburne, Maple Wind Farm in Richmond and Huntington, and Vermont Shepherd in Putney.

We left The Farm School early Friday morning, made a quick stop at the Brattleboro Co-op for supplies, and headed north for a 10am appointment at Shelburne Farms. Head grower Josh Carter met us at the Visitor’s Center, and we spent the next couple of hours checking out their impressive operation. With 1,400 acres of conserved land, Shelburne Farms is a magical kingdom of rolling hills, open pastures and deep forest. The action certainly spreads out a bit over all that land, with cows, sheep and tidy veggie beds coming into view around every turn. We stopped at the Farm Barn to see cheese making, the bakery, and some delightful animals in the barnyard. We took a quick look at The Breeding Barn, with its massive open indoor space and fascinating history. We saw the greenhouses, orchards, sugar-shack, compost area and campers in action picking berries. The visit was a whirlwind, but we got a good sense of the incredible breadth and quality of the work being done at Shelburne Farms.

Our next stop was Maple Wind Farm, which is spread over three properties near the Camels Hump State Park about half an hour south-east of Burlington Vt. Bruce Hennessy and Beth Whiting lead the charge at Maple Wind, and it is quite an undertaking. The heart of the operation is the Andrews Farm in Richmond, where they have built a USDA inspected modern processing and storage facility for the 40,000 pastured broilers that they produce yearly. This new building also includes cool storage for vegetables coming out of their seventeen acres in cultivation. The Andrews Barn sits above the Winooski River, and the property includes beautiful river-bottom pastures where about thirty steers graze to finishing weight. Above the barn, on the other side of Rt. 2, are further high hillside meadows where the rest of the ninety cows and calves graze. Bruce describes their pasture management as ‘soil-first’ and ‘tall-grass-grazing’, and the work they have done to develop the fertility and health of their pastures shows in the vibrant grass and healthy animals. Maple Wind Farm also raises about a hundred pigs for processing each year, and 1000 organic turkeys for the Thanksgiving market. Their home farm, where the whole thing started seventeen years ago, is home to the sows that produce each year’s piglets, bulls for breeding the beef herd, and winter housing for all the animals. Bruce and Beth are very clear in their commitment to producing the highest quality food possible, and they take that obligation to heart. There are no corners cut, nothing is half done, and every single part of every one of the many components of their farm is considered, researched and executed to the highest standard. All of that focus and persistence is in service of their singular goal of super high quality food.

The last stop on our Vermont farm tour, on Saturday morning, was Vermont Shepherd, in Putney, Vt. David Major and Yesenia Ielpi own and operate this historic farm, milking between 150 and 200 ewes twice per day, and producing award winning sheep’s milk and sheep and cow’s milk blended cheese. David’s parents owned and operated a sheep farm on the sight before Vermont Shepherd began, and the current generation of farmers was able to add a neighboring property to bring the whole place up to its current size. They make all their own hay over hundreds of acres, graze several groups of sheep, and manage the whole thing with a team of border collies born and bred on the farm. David took our groups through the entire cheese creation process, from milking the sheep, processing the milk, forming individual cheeses and finally into the cheese cave. We even got a taste of this years batch, and it was wonderful!

Each stop on our tour added to our growing sense of the depth and diversity of the farming community in New England. Every farmer has to find a way to keep their farm healthy and thriving, from the veggies to the bottom line, and the three great farms we toured on this trip offered insights only they could share, knowledge gained only in their experiences, and expertise found only on their farm. Every chance that we have to dig into that process with a farmer is inspiring and precious for our burgeoning new farmers.

Trapping Flies

The middle of Massachusetts is in a drought, and our pastures have turned brittle and brown. We’ve stopped grazing, and now have all three groups of ruminants off pasture. There isn’t really anything to eat, and we need to keep our grazers from doing long-term damage to the pasture plants. The beef herd, our flock of sheep, and our little dairy herd, are in three different locations around the farm, but all three locations share similar characteristics. These ‘yards’ have to have good shade so that every animal can stay out of the sun comfortably throughout the day. We need easy access with water so that we can ensure there is a constant supply for thirsty livestock on a hot day. Finally, we need a close and ample hay supply, since all of animals are now eating purchased hay in place of pasture grazing.

Another concern that these events have raised for me is flies. One of the great side benefits of rotational grazing is the fact that the moving animals get to leave many of the flies behind every time they change pastures. Although this does not eliminate flies on the animals, it does enough to keep the situation somewhat reasonable. However, now that these groups of animals are stationary, the flies have the potential to get out of control. Our animals experience regular face-flies as well as the wide variety of biting flies. We have purchased several different types of flytraps to address this issue, all with varying degrees of effectiveness. However, last week we built a large biting-fly trap that is really interesting.IMG_3245

After some internet research, I found the Horse-Pal Biting Fly Trap, as well as several similar products both commercially made and built at home. I asked students in the Livestock Track to do some thinking and planning of their own as well, and last Friday we set to work trying to build one of these things ourselves. Taking inspiration and design elements from several different ideas, we came up with a trap that, so far, has proved to be effective. It cost us less than $100, we built it in four hours, and it is trapping flies.

This design is based on the observation that flies always fly up when leaving an animal that they have landed on. They can certainly fly down, but only go up and away when leaving their host, or when trying to escape. This trap takes advantage of this trait by enticing them to land on an object that mimics a potential host, and trapping them from above and funneling them into a space they cannot get out of. As they continue their attempts to fly up and away, they are funneled further and further up, and finally into the container on top, where they are trapped to die.

The black ball hanging beneath the trap is a painted horse-ball (sold as a toy for bored horses) which we have painted black. It warms in the sun to attract flies which, looking for a live animal, are drawn to warm dark objects. Once the flies have landed on the ball, they realize it is not what they were looking for, and fly up to leave. The screen pyramid-shaped section funnels them up toward the peak, which finally emerges inside a large re-purposed water-jug. Once they are in the jug, again they won’t fly down to get out, and just head up and away to be trapped against the side and eventually die.

We found a lot of innovative and creative designs out there for trapping flies, but this seemed like something we could figure out and build. So far it has been effective, and the jug is filling with flies. Yum!