The Snow is Gone

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Our two winter pigs.

We’re coming to the end of another pretty quiet week here at The Farm School, with both programs still off for vacation, and only the Chicken Coop school in session. Wednesday and Thursday of this week were above fifty degrees, and the snow is gone from the fields. The field edges and plow piles are lingering, but the farm has almost entirely changed from white to brown. Work has continued on the Bunkhouse this week, with the attention shifting from the kitchen, which looks incredible, to the teacher rooms and bathroom. The kitchen, which was totally emptied for patching and painting, has been put back together and is ready for action. We bought a new huge pair of speakers for the kitchen, and we’re anticipating taking the cleanup music scene to insane new heights.

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Brad’s firewood world.

Bradley and his horses make regular passes through the farm, headed out to this year’s firewood yard in the forest, and the distant whine of his chainsaw is in the air most of the day.

Meetings, planning, dreaming and preparation have continued all week, and just about every table has seed catalogues strewn across them. We’re planning the next production season, but also laying the groundwork for the coming months of the Learn to Farm Program.

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The beef herd at dawn.

The schedule has seemingly limitless components, with classes, work sessions, field trips, visiting teachers, and more. They all have to be puzzled together, and an adequate amount of time has to be allotted to the vital work of the farm as well. In addition, we are in a constant search for ways to enhance and deepen the adult student’s learning and experience, and we use these quiet winter weeks to analyze, debate and develop all of our practices toward that goal. Our students make a significant commitment to spend the year here with us, and we are constantly working on ways to maximize their opportunities for learning and hands on experience.

We packed the months’ meat CSA share this week, and sent it into Boston for distribution. Josh B and Nora keep a careful inventory of the cuts that have come back from the processing facility, and work hard to craft the perfect share every month.

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Inside the hoop house.

The share this month had sausages, ground lamb, a chuck roast, several other cuts, and the usual dozen fresh eggs. We try to make each bag about twelve pounds each month, include cuts of beef, pork and lamb, and make sure that we can stay consistent and varied through the season. I am super proud of the meat we produce, and I am pretty sure each CSA share bag makes each member happy, and goes a long way to keeping them warm and well fed all winter.

These quiet winter weeks are also a chance to try a few things out before the wild tempest of visiting students return to the farm, and the production season and Maggie’s really gets going. This year I built a little feeding bunk into the dairy cow feeding setup, in the hopes of getting their feeding area up off the ground. I put the contraption in place at the beginning of the week, and if it seems to be working okay by next week, I’ll include some pictures and explanation. We’ve been using it for a couple of days, but I have not heard anything from the other milkers yet about how it has worked for them.

The beef herd bull was finally picked up on Thursday, more than three full months later than we really wanted to keep him. He arrived during the first week of August, and we like to give him minimum three heat cycles to breed the cows. A cow heat cycle is about twenty-one days on average, so two months in the herd will give a bull just about three chances to breed each cow. If the bull was actively breeding for August and September, I would have been happy to have seen him leave some time in the first half of October, pretty confident that he had done his job. However, the bull owner doesn’t have much incentive to come back for the bull, since we pay the same price no matter how long he stays, and we feed and care for the bull while he is on the farm. It is understandably challenging to get that type of priority moved to the top of the to-do list, but we finally got him shipped off this week. Now, all the cows and calves can fit at the indoor feeder, and going to visit the beef herd is a little less tense.

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An area Brad has cut.

New Year, New Plans

This is still a quiet time at The Farm School, with both programs taking time off until the student farmers come back in the middle of January. Despite the quiet, work continues at both farms, and the Chicken Coop School is back in session too. Work at Sentinel Elm Farm is focused on getting the facilities in tip-top shape, with special attention directed at the bunkhouse.

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The Bunkhouse kitchen, renewed.

We’ve had a crew in the kitchen all week patching, painting, and repairing everything they can get their hands on, and the place is looking better than ever. Dave has been in the hay-loft of the dairy barn all week sorting through the jumble that inevitably piles up in there, discarding whatever he can, and organizing the rest. This is a seemingly yearly exercise for us, but we always find more stuff to get rid of, more curious treasures stashed away up there, and a renewed hope that we can keep the space organized and useful in the future.

With the work of last year behind us, and the flush of spring still weeks and weeks away, we spend the cold winter months planning and dreaming about next year. We look back on last season to see where we may have gone wrong, where we came up short, what we did really well, and what we would like to change.

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Sentinel Elm layers having breakfast.

We look forward to the spring with an irrational optimism that we can finally get it all right, and sketch out how we’re going to get it done. I have ordered our chicks for the coming year and made our processing dates at the slaughterhouse. The new wall calendar is up in the office, and arc of the production year, at least for the livestock, is starting to take shape. Some of the big projects that we are looking forward to for the coming year include a new and improved brooder for raising chicks, and a new pullet pasture trailer for transitional housing between the brooder and winter coop for the newest layers, pasture expansion and high-tensile fencing for both the beef herd and the sheep flock, a rebuild of our piglet training area, and continued adaptations to accommodate our move toward AWA certification. I will be reporting on all of these projects over the coming weeks and months, and hopefully you’ll be able to follow along as we continue the unending work of perfecting this farm.

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Daisy and Pip enjoying a sunny morning chew.

Aside from all of our dreaming and planning, winter is also firewood season, and we are making our plans for the coming production season. We try to blend three complementary goals into our firewood production approach, so there is often a bit of added strategizing that goes into this work. Firstly, we need to produce something close to thirty cords of firewood, split between fourteen-inch stove length pieces, and the longer thirty inch furnace material. This will hopefully be enough to get neighbor Maggy through next winter, and to keep our furnace chugging along too. Secondly, we need to give every student the opportunity to take the next steps in their mastery of tree felling and bucking, building on skills introduced in the Game of Logging workshop earlier in the fall. Thirdly, we try to use this work to open up pasture and veggie field edges, expand bar-ways, or otherwise optimize the effect of our work on the larger farm landscape.

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Unwrapped round bale, like a big ball of summer!

In most cases, I am adamant about leaving trees around pastures to give our grazing livestock the chance to get out of the hot sun as needed, but there are certain areas, especially around veggie fields, where adding a few more hours of sunlight every day, by eliminating over-hanging trees, can really make a difference. We strive to advance all three of these goals at the same time, working through the majority of January and February to get it all done. We will be cutting around the Back pasture, Sheep pasture and trying to expand and rescue the Horse pasture this year, and I will keep you informed as we go along.

Winter Break

Hello friends, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and stay warm out there. The Farm School Manual will return the first week of January with a new entry. We’re all enjoying the wintry farm, doing lots of ice skating and cross country skiing, and making plans for the coming spring! We’ll be back in the new year!

Quiet Times

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The log pile, ready to bucked, split and stacked.

This has been the final week before the Learn to Farm Program takes a month long winter break, so we have been finishing up several projects around the farm to make sure that the place is ready for the quiet times ahead.

We put in a solid week of work on cord wood production, bucking and splitting in the yard at Maggie’s Farm as well as at the log landing just south of the farm complex.

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A growing firewood pile, and rounds to split beyond that.

The log pile at Maggie’s is finished, but there is a massive pile, left by the logging crew that did our forest thinning project this summer, to work through at the landing. We have dreams of producing forty cords of firewood this winter, so that will be the work of the next few months.

The tools of farming change with the season, as the work moves from cultivation and fencing to firewood and forestry. There are tools, like the harvest knife or the scuffle hoe that almost become extensions of our bodies through the summer months, only to be set aside for new tools used for new work when the weather gets cold. Winter is the chainsaw season, the maul season, and the splitter season.

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The gear lineup for firewood work at the landing.

Things forgotten become newly essential, like winter gloves, a good hat, and warm boots, and things used everyday are put away to be forgotten again until spring. This change is reflected in our travels across the farm, where certain areas become focal points for a time, only to be left again for other projects in other places. In the warm months we are out in the fields and pastures, and we spend countless hours in veggie wash-up, but now our work is in the barns and yards, and wash-up is cold and dark.

We put up walls on the north-west corner of the new sheep shelter yesterday, working in some really cold and windy conditions to get the sheep a bit of a wind-break down at their hay feeder. We had milled siding material at our sawmill from pines harvested by Brad and his horse team, so the whole project, other than the screws, was sourced here on the farm.

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Sheep enjoying the new finished corner.

The walls had a great effect on the feeder area, and once we’d bedded the area with an extra bale of straw, we all wanted to curl up and nap in the cozy corner we’d built, out of the wind. Of all of our livestock, I think that the woolly sheep mind the cold and wind least of all our animals. However, it is essential that we provide them with a dry place to stand and eat, which they do for hours and hours every day, and we really want to keep the blowing snow out of their shelter. The new walls block the wind and snow, and also give the sheep a sheltered spot to ruminate. Every calorie that they spend keeping warm on a cold windy day is a calorie that is not going to their growing lambs, or their own fat reserves, so a simple wind break can do a lot to enhance their condition.

The student farmers took their annual trip up to visit the Adams Farm slaughterhouse on Wednesday, looking in on the kill floor, hanging coolers and processing room. This visit affords our students an intimate view of the process of turning our livestock into cuts of meat, and it feels like an important part of the cycle to see and to understand. This can be a challenging visit for our students, and we always follow the trip with a chance to sit around the farmhouse table to talk about the experience. There is no nice way to do the work that is done up at Adams, but they do it well, and do it efficiently, and have taken every step they can to develop as humane a process as is possible.

This week also included our final Monday morning with Dr. Major, this week focusing specifically on dairy cows. The group spent some time in our little dairy, looking at the cows and their facilities, discussing some of the common issues that dairy cows face, as well as some of the adaptations and improvements that modern dairying has made to house cows comfortably. This was followed by a visit to Hunt Farm, just down the road in Orange, MA. They milk about 115 cows, using many of the hallmark components of more modern dairying, and this visit was an opportunity to expose our students to that approach to dairying. George Hunt Jr is always a wonderful host, answering questions honestly and openly, sharing the many challenges that he faces on his dairy farm, and really offering wonderful insight into some of the business pressures that face farmers operating at his scale. From tax law to hiring staff, George gives our students a truly essential look into production farming and commodity marketing.

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A view into the inferno.

Both of our wood fired furnaces are going full speed this week, and with the super cold weather to finish out the week, we’ve been busy keeping them well stocked and cranking out heat.

Freezing

Winter seems to really be here now, with snow on the ground, ice in the water troughs, and sand spread on the driveway. We’ve had two little snow events over the past week, neither of which amounted to much, but which collectively have turned the farm nearly white. With some cold weather in the ten-day forecast, and more snow too, it is beginning to feel a lot like….

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A view under the Reemay in the hoop house; spinach and arugula might not get to full size this year.

Sentinel Elm Farm, the home for the Program for Visiting Schools, is feeling a bit empty this week with Friday of last week marking the end of programing for the winter. We hosted The Village School and our own Chicken Coop School on Tuesday, bringing the place back to life a bit for a day, but we’re missing the kids already. We’ve got a few projects to button up before the quiet winter break really takes hold, and we are spending this week making sure everything is resolved. We put a new roof on the wood shop yesterday, we’ve dusted off the wood splitter and tuned the chainsaws for firewood time, fences are down, grain is stocked up, and the windows are on the barn.

Similar work continues this week at The Learn to Farm program, with Alex leading the work of shutting down veggie operations for the winter. Wash-up and the walk-in are closed down for the winter, and strawberries and garlic will be mulched with straw in and all-group-work-project to end the week. We spent a good part of our weekly staff meeting yesterday mapping out the firewood production plan for the winter, trying to pair our production goals with the need to get every student ample time with a chainsaw in their hands, and under good supervision.

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Timbers finished and drying in the shop.

This is one of the most challenging teaching components of our program, with ambitious production targets, a super dangerous tool to master, and elevated staffing requirements to ensure super-direct one-on-one instruction. The work can also involve further daring complications, like dragging logs with the tractor, driving a team of draft horses, hand splitting with a maul, and operating the hydraulic splitter. All of these additional components deepen the learning opportunities for the student farmers, and demand heightened management from the Learn to Farm staff.

Work continues in the greenhouse on this year’s timber frame, with the hope that it can be completed and put away to dry before we break for the holidays. Students also continue to plug away at the sawmill, milling out boards to use as siding for our new sheep shelter as well as our enhanced chick brooder.

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The sawmill, and some finished boards.

They take round logs, mill them off into square or rectangular beams, and then slice them over and over, each time an inch thick, to create ‘one-by’ siding. (The siding is one inch thick, and after ‘by’ you’d say whatever the other dimension is, but ‘one-by’ can be used to refer to any one inch thick board, since they come in so many different widths. We produce ‘rough-cut’ lumber on the mill, which refers to lumber that has not been run through a planer to make it smooth. The dimensions of lumber refer to the size before the planer, so a 1×8 from a conventional lumber yard is not actually one inch thick and eight inches wide, but is usually 3/4 of an inch thick and 7 1/4 inches wide, and is still called a ‘one-by-eight’).

Pearl was in heat again Wednesday in the dairy, and Brad and Rachel managed to try another breeding attempt during evening chores. A cow bred now can be expected to deliver a calf in the middle of September, so December breeding is fine for us. We try to avoid winter calving, so December and January are really the last months that we are willing to breed in the dairy.

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Pearl, on a nasty day at the farm.

Cold weather calving can just add complications to the process that we are happy to avoid. Unfortunately, that means that we have occasionally had cows that don’t breed within our preferred window, and that we then have to carry them through quite a ways with no calf in their future. That is a significant cost to us, and we always have to decide whether it would make more sense to move an un-bred cow along to another destiny rather than keep her on the farm. Pearl is the best cow in the dairy, so we will make every effort to get her bred successfully and on target for another great year to come.

Fall Rain

This post includes more pictures from our Learn to Farm draft-horse series at Fair Winds Farm. The work is picturesque and a joy to admire, and the picture are from Amber Bahn, a student in this year’s class. 

We’re coming to the end of a wet week here at The Farm School, with just over a half-inch of rain on Tuesday, and more than an inch through the day on Wednesday. This part of New England is still in drought, and the heavy rain has been a welcome addition to local reservoirs, and our little ice-skating pond.img_3880 These conditions have also really tested our winter livestock accommodations, and have forced us to make some great changes to help keep our animals comfortable and dry. Most of our designs rely on the ground freezing, and more snow falling than rain, and those have not been the conditions on the ground here yet this early winter. In response, we have enhanced our covered indoor spaces, added more bedding, and spread deep beds of wood chips to dry out some of the muddiest locations. We also built a hay feeder inside the beef barn, big enough to accommodate all of our beef animals, and out of the mud and rain. Wednesday was the new hay feeder’s inaugural run, and it seemed to work really well. It is always very rewarding to identify an issue that our livestock is facing, figure out and execute a solution, and see the animals adapt and benefit from the work. Seeing the whole herd lined up in the barn enjoying fresh dry hay from the new feeder while the rain poured down in sheets outside was certainly one of those rewarding moments.

This is the time for the final steps in putting the vegetable growing acreage to bed for the winter, and we’re lining up our straw supply for bedding strawberries and garlic for the winter. We want those plants to survive the winter and be ready for vigorous growth next spring, so we cover them in a thick mat of loose straw to shelter them from winter weather. Most of the rest of our cultivated acreage is under a nice growth of cover crop, and will rest in that condition until tillage begins again in the spring.

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We’ve taken in all the fencing, and stored it for the winter.

Monday morning of this week saw the first of three workshops at the Learn to Farm Program with Dr. Major, of Green Mt. Bovine Clinic. He takes the adult students through a three part examination of livestock health and upkeep, focusing on the life-cycle, reproduction, feeding, housing, common illnesses, and basic healthcare of our beef and dairy cows, sheep, and horses. The third component of this series has usually included a visit to a large conventional dairy in our area to look at discuss some of the different issues that they face within their system.

This week at LTF also includes an introductory look at our beehives with Anne, weather permitting. Anne participated in the program a few years ago, and developed a passion for beekeeping. After graduating, she stayed in the area, furthered her bee knowledge, and has installed and manages several beehives throughout our acreage. Students work alongside Anne whenever the opportunity presents itself, and have the chance to harvest honey, extract it from combs, and enjoy it, if the season has been a successful one. Students will have a class this week with Tyson as well, focused on ‘whole farm planning’ and regenerative agriculture.

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Bale Mountain- winter feed for the beef herd.

Tyson is working to develop a long term farm plan for all of the acreage that The Farm School stewards, and he meets regularly with our adult students to share his work with them, and to discuss some of the principles that guide his work.

One More Week

This week was the last in our three-part draft horse, timber frame, chainsaw training series, so now every adult student has had a week in each of these three areas. The skills and confidence that they developed over these weeks will be put to the test over the coming winter, with the bulk of our work focused on forestry, firewood production, and chiseling out our annual timber frame.

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Driving the Suffolk-Punch draft horses at Fair Winds Farm.

The Farm School Learn to Farm Program is unique in the breadth of skills and topics that we include in the year, and this most recent span of programming is a great example of some of the exceptional areas that go into it.

Turkey processing is happening on the farm as I write this, marking the end of the livestock production season. We have been going full speed since lambing started the first week of April, then hundreds of chicks came in the mail, piglets arrived, calves dropped in the beef and dairy herds, and our community of animals got larger and larger. The opposite trend started in August, with broiler processing, fall trips up to the slaughterhouse for lambs, pigs and beef, and finally, with the turkeys gone, we are back roughly to where we started.

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Jay Bailey and student-farmer Sophie working the reins.

This year’s turkeys came a month later than usual, and it looks like the finishing weights coming from the packing table are a bit smaller than we usually achieve. With one month less to grow, most of our turkeys this year are coming in just under or over ten pounds.

This week also saw our first pack-out for the meat CSA, and Josh B and the adult students spent the morning on Tuesday picking up our meat from the slaughterhouse, organizing our big walk-in freezer, and crafting a wonderful blend of cuts for the first delivery. This month’s share includes pork butt roast, ham steak and pork chops, half a leg of lamb, some goat chorizo, and a dozen eggs. The share is typically about twelve pounds per month, with a diversity of types of meat, large and small cuts, some fancy items and some of the basics.

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Finished turkeys in the walk-in, ready for the holidays!

Our last cow in the dairy came into heat on Wednesday, and Brad stopped by to breed her that afternoon. If the breeding is successful, that will mark the end of the breeding season in the dairy, and we can pretty accurately map out the calving schedule for next spring and summer.

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The cow breeding board for 2016/17

A cow bred in middle of November should deliver her calf at the end of next August, with a gestation of about 280 days, or nine and a half months. We try to spread calving out through the spring, summer and fall to ensure that we have fresh cows producing lots and lots of fresh milk throughout the long year.

The bull is still in with the beef herd, and although I am pretty confident that he has accomplished his task by this point, it can be a challenge to get his owner to come by and pick him up. Not only have the feeding costs shifted to us while the bull is here, but, unless the bull is destined for another breeding situation, picking him up understandably hangs out near the bottom of the to-do list. He is not a major burden in our feeding schedule, but we are all a bit more at ease going in with the herd once he is gone, and we’d like to see him move along some time soon.

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Cow info for visitors

The ram stays in with the ewes all winter, and we don’t separate him out until just before lambing season begins. He is in the ewe flock for shearing day, and we typically get him, and his brother, off to their own yard just after that. Shearing the large ram is an annual challenge that some brave student farmers attempts every spring, and with the wonderful support of our shearing instructor, the job gets done one way or another.

The Program for Visiting Schools hosted Orchard Gardens for the first half of the week, and Nativity Prep for the back half. Orchard Gardens is a public K-8 school in Boston, and Nativity Prep is a tuition-free Jesuit all-boys middle school also in Boston. Both groups were truly wonderful, enlivened our farm environment beyond any imaginable level, and also got some vital and significant work accomplished. They put the garden to bed, cut, split and stacked lots of firewood, cooked some incredible meals, and looked after all the livestock with love and attention. We are all grateful for their energy and help!

The Season’s End

We’re finishing up another week of timber framing, draft horses and chainsaw work at the Learn to Farm Program, and we have concluded another great week in the Program for Visiting Schools as well. We hosted 7th graders from the Lawrence school this week, and they were able to bring three groups over four days for shortened one-night visits, accommodating their larger class sizes and giving every 7th grader the chance to come out and spend the night at the farm. Our Learn to Farm students go through a full Game of Logging workshop over the course of their week with Bill Girard, our local Game of Logging instructor. They learn the ins and outs of the chainsaw, including service and chain maintenance, how to fell a tree safely and to a chosen location, and how to limb and buck the tree in preparation for firewood production. Safety is obviously the primary focus of this training, and Bill does an incredible job every year getting folks from wherever they start in their knowledge and comfort with a chainsaw to a place where they can use the tool safely and effectively, feel confident in using it on their own farm, and step into a vital role here in our considerable yearly firewood production effort.

We have completed all of our processing dates for livestock for the year with six steers coming out of the beef herd last Sunday, and now have just the Thanksgiving turkeys to finish up before the livestock year can really be considered finished. We’ve moved all of the layers at Maggie’s Farm into the winter coop for the colder seasons ahead. Both the pullets and the layers were under some pretty heavy predator pressure this summer, so we ended up just blending the two groups of about sixty into one large flock of one hundred and twenty birds. Both groups started out close to one hundred birds, and I detailed some of the issues we faced last winter with hawk predation, so we will have to step up our protection approach significantly next year to avoid losses like we experienced this past year. We anticipate getting between two hundred and two hundred and fifty eggs from each productive hen before culling, so the loss of eighty hens, multiplied out, approaches twenty thousand eggs.

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The layers checking out their winter scene. 

 

This was our final week of veggie harvest and markets, and Alex was also able to run the disks over the majority of our remaining beds not already under cover crop. The vibrant and assorted colors of the growing veggie beds have been replaced with dark brown soil and green cover crop, and to the eye, the slate has been wiped clean for the winter. We rest assured that the swirl of life in the soil, under the surface, continues at least a bit longer into the late fall, until hard freezes really set in. The winter rye cover crop is happy with this weather, and has put on a lovely thick green flush this fall.

There is just one more cow to breed in our little dairy, and if we can get her taken care of in the next few weeks, we should have a nice spring and summer calving season next year. Pearl was the first cow to deliver a calf this spring, and we thought we had bred her successfully a few months after that. However, she repeatedly showed the initial signs of coming into heat each month, without every really following through with the whole process. I asked Dr. Major, from Green Mt. Bovine Clinic, to come out and do ultrasound pregnancy checks on the cows, and in that process he determined that Pearl had a case of Pyometra. We treated her with two doses of Lutalyse to help her cycle properly and flush her uterus, and we are now waiting for her first natural cycle to attempt to breed her. Pearl retained her placenta after delivering her bull calf Prince this spring, and it seems that that complication was the probable cause of her challenges in breeding this summer and fall. Pearl is our best cow in the dairy at this point, we look forward to years of working with her, and we are confident that she will have a full recovery from this process.

Timbers, Trees and Horses

This has been the first week of an incredible stretch of programing in the Learn to Farm Program, with a third of the class spending their first week in the timber-frame shop, another third of the class in the woods for a few days of The Game of Logging, and the last third of the class at Fair Winds Farm in Brattleboro learning to drive draft horses. The schedule will rotate over the next few weeks to get every student their week in all three areas, and have everyone ready for the work of the winter.

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The greenhouse is a timber-frame shop now.

These are really wonderful weeks in the fall schedule, introducing our students to some really captivating skills and exciting instructors, and highlighting some of the true depth of the Learn to Farm Program. The bulk of our time in the late fall, and most of the winter, is spent logging, making firewood, and chiseling out the timber-frame. Livestock chores continue and we have some great classroom time too, but firewood and timbers move firmly into our focus.

This week saw another round of pig loading, and this time we were unable to load four of the ten pigs left to go. The pigs were super flighty about the process, executed some incredible escape maneuvers, and refused to have anything to do with us by the time we gave up. We have made some changes to the loading setup, moved food and water into the transport trailer, and we will give it another shot in a couple of days.

Luckily, we have a strong relationship with our local slaughterhouse, and they are willing to give us a little flexibility in this process. There are few things on the farm that humble and frustrate me more than a pig that won’t load, and they can really be one the most challenging animals to move when they’re feeling stubborn. The pigs are the smartest animals we keep, they are incredibly strong with a low center of gravity, they have nowhere good to grab onto, they don’t herd nearly as well as sheep and cows, and they’re clever enough to figure out the loading process and defy it. So much of farming is dictated by lists, plans and a sequence of events that will allow the rest to fall into place, but when the pigs won’t load, the whole thing feels like it is coming apart all around us. After that quick moment of despair, we’re quick to trouble shoot the situation and make a plan for accomplishing the necessary adaptations. We can always find ways to shuffle the schedule, add some things to the list, and remember that there is almost always a solution.

Our two rams went in with the ewes on Monday, keeping with our traditional November 1st opening of the breeding season. That should give us lambs arriving some time at the beginning of April, late enough in the winter to avoid really cold weather, but early enough in the spring to have a good growing season ahead for the lambs. The rams spend most of their year together in their own pen, separated from the rest of the sheep flock, to avoid out of season breeding.

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The hoop house is greening up.

This allows us to schedule lambing pretty directly for when we want it, and helps avoid surprise lambing. The rams will be in with the flock for the majority of the winter, and won’t be removed again until just before lambing begins in the spring. They get their work done in the first few weeks that they’re in with the ewes, but they certainly prefer living as part of the flock, so we let them stay as long as we can.

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The new manure/compost pile for next year.

We spread tons and tons of manure this week, hoping to set some up of our hay fields and pastures for vigorous growth in the spring. Our little dairy generates a lot of really wonderful manure, mixed nicely with wood shavings and straw, and we are able to work that up into some pretty nice compost in the yard behind the dairy barn. We mixed carbonatite rock dust into the spreader loads with the composted manure this year with the goal of adding more minerals to our pastures as well. We spread manure over about eight acres at Sentinel Elm Farm, including the Sawmill, Poll Barn, and North West pastures.

A Whisper of Winter

We are coming to the end of another busy week here at The Farm School, and with colder weather drawing near, the pace of preparation for winter has increased. We had two nights down below thirty degrees this week, freezing water systems, and reminding everyone that winter is drifting our way.

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A frosty sunrise with Tom and King

Our lambs went to the slaughterhouse on Wednesday, cutting the sheep flock just about in half, and making much more room at the hay feeder. The second round of pigs went off too, leaving us just nine more to go. The four beautiful Berkshire pigs that Dave was raising at Sentinel Elm Farm (home of the Program for Visiting Schools) were included in this week’s load, and they were some of the best pigs we have ever raised here. The heritage breed pigs develop larger shoulders and hams than the modern Yorkshire varieties, they stay shorter and rounder all over, and seem to be a bit more motivated to root and forage. More modern pigs have been tailored to fit our prevailing production systems, with whiter, leaner meat, and a long, tall, thin frame that can hang more efficiently in the cold storage of the slaughterhouse and packing facility.

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Dave built this great loading setup to load his pigs.

Harvests continued this week, featuring kale, carrots, cauliflower, leeks, garlic, cabbage, shallots and onions. Kale is the last leafy green going, but this is prime time for carrots sweetened by a little frost, and wonderful cabbages, onions and garlic that has been growing all season just for this time of year.

The student farmers had their ‘Dairy Transformation’ class on Thursday with local cheese-maker Emily Anderson. The class is an introduction to cheese making, and the students have the opportunity to try several different cheese types over the course of the day. This year’s efforts included fromage blanc, two types of mozzarella, ricotta, yogurt and kefir. Every year we hope that a few students are inspired enough by the cheese class to find a real passion for cheese making, and to start supplying us all with fresh homemade cheese.

Lamb loading day, and the preparation and planning that go into it, is always one of the first and most powerful moments of realization for our new student farmers about some of the harder truths of farming in general, and livestock farming in specific. We keep a flock of sheep for several purposes, including wool production and educational value, but primarily for the meat. The creation of that product necessitates the slaughter of lambs every fall, as well as the culling of older ewes or ewes that are not thriving on our farm. Many years, there are ewes to cull where there is no doubt that the animal should not stay on the farm, should not breed again, and should be shipped off. We have been culling pretty aggressively over the past few years, eliminating most of the poorer animals. This year we had no flagrant candidates, but to make room for younger ewes with fresh genetics, we had to be more aggressive in culling for potential problems, advancing age, and animals that appear fine now, but seem likely to have problems in the near future. Culling any animal is tough, and that struggle is made even more uncomfortable when the cause of culling is not clearly visible. However, the long term work of developing a superior population of animals on the farm, a group that has the desired traits, that fits our ecosystem and farm system, and that produces economically, is one of the most interesting and thought provoking aspects of livestock farming.

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A truly wonderful farm dog

We’ve had quite a bit of rain to end the week, and when that inch and half is added to what we’ve gotten so far this fall, our recovery from the drought of the summer seems to be advancing pretty well. There is a little shallow pond tucked along the road between Sentinel Elm Farm and Maggie’s Farm where The Farm School community ice skates and plays hockey when conditions permit in the winter. The summer drought had just about dried it up completely, with just a few wet spots in the middle by the driest point, and we were all worried that we’d have to find a new spot to take a spin on the ice this winter. The fall rains have started to fill the pond back up, there is water stretching from side to side, and our local pond-hockey fanatics are optimistic for upcoming season again.