Spring?

“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep the Spring from coming.”

– Pablo Neruda

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Snow and new grass, together.
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The first calf of the year in the dairy, napping.

Conditions on the ground, in the air, and in the barns and greenhouse are coming along nicely so far this spring, despite the fact that it snowed here on Friday. Our last ewe has successfully lambed, and we have more lambs this year than we’ve ever had. Now we just need to grow them up big, strong and healthy. Our first calf has arrived in the dairy, and Pearl, a first time mother, is doing a wonderful job keeping a close eye on her new tiny baby girl. First-calf heifers, having never been milked before, are almost always a challenge to get into the milking line-up. The sensation of the milker, the noises and routine that go along with it, and the separation from the new baby, all can make the process difficult. Pearl has been very calm, patient, and cooperative, so far, and we all have high hopes that she is going to be a great addition to our crew.

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We put in the large wooden posts to hold up the roof, then knocked out the old cinder-block wall.

We have undertaken a significant rescue project in the back of the barn at Sentinel Elm Farm, removing the old cinder-block foundation walls at the back of the barn. We are going to pour full cement replacement walls which will hopefully be stronger, more durable, and less prone to movement. Once the new wall is in place, we plan to gut the back of the barn almost completely, and to build in free-stalls. These will give the cows a nice dry clean place to lie down at night, and in bad weather, while controlling where they can deposit manure. Free-stalls are really what they sound like: a series of four-foot wide stalls for the cows to use by choice rather than to be confined in. However, the stall will be the only soft, bedded area to lie in, and the floor of the stall will have a slight slope to it. These characteristics will encourage the cows to lie down only in the stalls, with their heads at the higher end (and back ends sticking out the lower end), and all pooping in the same general cleanable area.

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Long raised beds in the Flat Field, ready for plants.

Tyson and the student farmers have continued cultivation in the Flat Field, which is our first field to dry out every spring. Raised beds were formed yesterday, so the field is now ready for planting. Our first transplanting of the season is scheduled for later this week, when those beautiful baby plants have to leave the comfort of the hoop-house and go bravely out into the world. Once they’re outside for good, they are really in the hands of the weather, out of the protection of the plastic, the heater, the regular watering checks, and all that has gone into their early care. Although this transition can be difficult for the plants and the farmer, there is a certain liberation in putting them out into the actual soil and weather. Their care has been passed on to the larger farm, and our partnership with the natural world deepens. We cannot control conditions out there nearly as much as we can inside the heated greenhouse, but we can trust in the care that we gave while we could, in the innate strength of each seedling, and the deep rapport between plant, soil and sun.

The pastures are slowly turning green, and although the grass is not ready for grazing, the deep green all around can’t help but buoy our spirits. Soon the grazers will be out grazing again, shedding their winter coats, lying out in the sun, and getting fat. Last year, we had most of our grazing animals out on the pastures again by the 15th of May, and this year is shaping up for a similar launch date. There are days when it feels like the grass will never grow again, how could it after all that snow? But then there are days when I swear you can see it reaching up towards the sun.

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Sheep breeding and cultivation

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The Athens disk, ready for tillage.

With only one ewe left to deliver, everyone at The Farm School is eagerly looking forward to the end of this year’s lambing season. We have had a great season so far, though there have been some real complications and challenges.

We are transitioning our sheep flock from Border-Leicester ewes to Dorset, and at the same time, trying to develop a younger profile in the group. Our flock was older and was not genetically strong or well defined, and our production numbers clearly showed that a significant change was called for. We have been culling older ewes for a few years, and last year we started using a Dorset ram from Sweetwater Farm, in Petersham, Massachusetts for breeding. We ended up purchasing the ram last fall, and he came with his larger and more assertive cousin. So both rams, named Dirk and Atticus, by the student-farmers, went in with the ewes on Halloween of last year, and we have been seeing more and larger lambs throughout the season. Dorset sheep are known for their strong breeding abilities and prodigious milk production, and they are the second most popular white-faced sheep in the U.S. behind only the Suffolk. Since we wanted more and larger lambs, these two strengths really appealed to me when I went looking for a new ram.

There are many ways to approach a change in livestock breeds on a farm, with different challenges, costs, risks and benefits to each. The simplest and fastest approach is to sell or slaughter all the animals that you currently have, and replace them with those of the breed you want. This can be difficult if you cannot find a local producer who has the type you’re after, and it can cost a lot to buy good female animals. This approach also opens you up to the danger of unknowingly buying someone else’s unwanted or less-desirable stock, and putting the genetics of your flock in the hands of another farmer. Farmers typically are not eager to sell their best animals, especially if they have been working for years to develop genetics that they really like.

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Getting the Flat Field ready for planting.

A second approach to breed transition, called ‘grading up’, is simply to repeatedly match your ewes to a ram or rams of the breed you want to transition to, and replacing the older original ewes with replacement crossbreeds until the whole flock has switched over. This is a slower method, taking several generations, and it gambles on putting most of your genetic eggs in the single basket of that individual male, but it does not require total flock replacement. (The phrase ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’ is peculiar when discussing male breeding stock, but I can’t think of anything clearer.) This transition method can also flirt with line breeding or inbreeding since you are repeatedly breeding ewes to the same ram. If I decide to change breeds, and go out and find and purchase a ram with exactly the genetics that I want, I will be inclined to breed him for several years to ensure that his genetics runs throughout my flock. His daughters will share half of his genetics, and if he breeds them, the offspring will be 3/4, and his great grand-daughters will be 7/8. This type of line-breeding is an effective way to spread the desired genetics in the flock, but it has all the risks inherent in such close breeding, especially if the ram has hidden genetic weaknesses. The solution is to change rams every year or two, buying and selling rams of the same breed as needed, and incurring the added cost, risks and work that comes along.

Finally, a farmer can develop their own genetic lines, keeping ram lambs from their own ewes, and developing several different genetic lines. This multiple-line approach will allow a farmer to avoid inbreeding and line breeding, but will require very specific record keeping and breeding management to ensure that each ewe is bred to a specific ram that has been selected to match her genetic history. This will likely mean using artificial insemination to manage the breeding.

We have had a nice run of warm and dry weather, before today, and we have been able to do some of the initial cultivation in our veggie fields in preparation for the first round of planting. This process begins with pulling all the cultivation equipment up to the shop, checking it all over, ordering and repairing parts as needed, and getting everything into running order. Our fields all dry-down at different rates, depending on soil type and location, and Tyson checks them regularly through the early spring until he decides that the soil can handle the tractor. We also had a chance to spread some manure and grass seed before the rain today, and hopefully that will help get our hay fields growing strong this summer.

 

Vegetable Production tech.

crows
When the high
Snows lie worn
To rags along
The muddy furrows,
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And the frozen
Sky frays, drooping
Gray and sodden
To the ground,
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The sleek crows
Appear, flying
Low across the
Threadbare meadow
 __________________
To jeer at
Winter’s ruin
With their jubilant
Thaw! Thaw! Thaw!
___________________
by Valerie Worth
 __________________
From Farm School Head Grower, Tyson Neukirch, who has been working to keep our vegetable production connected to new technology and innovation in the world of small farming:
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I am writing to let you all know about a exciting collaborative research project that we are involved evaluating the usefulness of wireless digital sensor technology for small farms. We have partnered with UMASS extension and Larry Manire of Databasics to implement this experiment. 

There are two general classes of sensors that we are using. First are the digital weather stations. We now have one weather station at Maggies Farm (located next to the Student Farmer parking lot) and one at Sentinel Elm (located on the south side of the lower orchard). These weather stations have digital consoles with real-time read outs that are located in the Maggie’s farm house and the greenhouse respectively. These weather stations are linked to Weather Underground so you can access the realtime weather data at the farm from your computer or smartphone by visiting http://www.wunderground.com/. The station IDs for our weather stations are KMAORANGE4 (Maggies Farm) and KMAATHOL6 (Sentinel Elm). If you really want to geek out you can download the Wunder Station and Wunder Map apps for tablet and smartphone platforms.

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The new weather station in the Sentinel Elm garden.
The second class of sensors we are using measure individual characteristics (air temp, humidity, leaf wetness, soil moisture, soil temperature, etc). We will be trialing these sensors in Home Base field at Maggies and the hoop house and Flat Field at Sentinel Elm. I am still in the process of configuring these sensors but when they are up and going I will let you all know and you will be able to track these data points as well. 
We hope to use these sensors to improve our agricultural decision making on the farm, particularly as it relates to IPM strategies by having more localized data to input to models that track life cycles of diseases and pests so that we can better plan our intervention and mitigation strategies. That said, there are endless possibilities of how these sensors could be used to provide farmers with more accurate data which (hypothetically) can help said farmers make better decisions. 
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 The sugaring season has ended on a strong note here at The Farm School, with a great last run that filled every last jar we have with beautiful syrup. We’ll be rationing it out in the bunkhouse over the next few months, but we can never make it last long enough. Young plants are growing bigger and bigger in the greenhouse, and the students have cleaned and prepped the neighboring hoop house that we use to transition plant starts into more natural temperatures before going out into the fields. They have also started seeding some of the warm season plants like eggplants and tomatoes, getting ready for the next wave of plants that love the long hot days of middle summer. We are working fast to finish up our firewood work for the year, burning brush piles, splitting and stacking the last few log rounds, and cleaning up before the grass starts to grow and covers everything up. We are down to the last three ewe of lambing season, and the student farmers, who’ve been checking on the ewes every two hours, twenty-four hours a day, for the past five weeks, are looking forward to the arrival of the last lamb. We have twenty lambs so far, and the season has been great so far.
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Our new piglet house, all finished, and looking to me like a big mushroom.i

Getting ready for piglets, and sugaring continues.

I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.
– Winston Churchill

The Farm School raises between forty and fifty pigs every year to supply our meat CSA, the kitchen at The Program for Visiting Schools, the farm house at The Learn to Farm Program, special events, and our wider community. We purchase feeder piglets in the spring from a few reliable sources, rather than keeping and breeding sows.

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The frame for a new piglet house, built from slab from the sawmill.

The piglets are usually about eight weeks old when we get them, they have been weened from their mother’s milk and they’re big enough to make it on pig food. The transition that we take them through, from purchase to when we send them out into the woods for the summer, is a really important stage in their lives that helps to ensure that we all have a successful growing season. We set up a special training area at Sentinel Elm Farm to house the new piglets for a few weeks before they go into the woods. The goals of our training are to teach them the electric fence, teach them the automatic water system, make sure they are all healthy, and get them a little larger before putting them out in the ‘wild’.

We use two strands of electric fence to contain our pigs while they are out in the woods. The lower strand is close to the ground to ensure that they don’t root through the fence, and the upper strand is about a foot off the ground to keep them from stepping over and out (pigs don’t really jump). We power the fence with a Premier PRS 100 Solar Energizer. The pigs get a large area in the woods, mixed with open and forested areas, to explore, root up, and make home. We need to make sure that the sight of the electric fence is enough to stop them, that experience has left a clear and powerful memory in their minds that the little black and white string is super unpleasant and that they should not go near it. The piglets learn this important lesson in the training area where there is a strong electric fence just inside a existing ‘hard’ fence. If a piglet touches the electric fence and gets shocked, and dashes forward (which is their natural tendency), the hard fence will keep them in. After a touch or two, they know to never touch the electric fence again. We know that this training has been accomplished when the piglets start to visibly avoid going near the electric fence. An electric fence is much more of a psychological barrier than a physical one, since a determined pig (or any other animal) could easily cross the fence if they really wanted to, and as unpleasant as it sounds, we put a lot of focus on making sure that every piglet’s initial experience with the electric fence is unforgettable.

The automatic water system is another vital component of our pig’s wilderness home that we need to make sure they master before we can send them out to the woods. We have developed a system that uses a 275 gallon water tank to gravity feed automatic water dispensing dishes that the pigs learn to activate to get water. The unit has a small metal dish with a paddle or button at the back of it that a pig can press to start water flowing into the dish. Another option would be a nipple-drinker, which has a toggle switch that pigs press as they bite down, and a jet of water sprays directly into their mouths. I have found these nipple-drinkers to be much better than the dish approach because, as is always an issue with pigs, there are less parts and less area to break and defile. The one drawback that I have faced with nipple-drinkers is that bored or hot pigs will hold the toggle switch down without drinking, letting water run out of their mouth, creating a mud pit at the base of water source. This isn’t really a problem if you have a continuous water supply, and pigs love a muddy wallow, but with our remote water tank approach, this would drain the tank in no time. We use the dishes, setting up two or three depending on how many pigs we have, and we use one in the piglet training area and make sure the piglets know how to use it. There is a delicate time, while the piglets are learning how use the automatic water, when we slowly reduce the amount of supplemental water that we provide them, hoping, through thirst and mimicking their peers, that every piglet will figure out the new way.

We buy piglets from several good sources, and since we mix them into one big group, we need to make sure that everyone is healthy and thriving before they go out for the summer. Their time in the training area gives us the chance to closely observe every piglet several times every day, and to notice individual or group problems hopefully before they escalate. Time in the training area also give us a few weeks to get the piglets a bit bigger, in the safety of our farm, before going out into the woods. Although most wild animals keep their distance from loud smelly pigs, we’d like the piglets to be hard to handle before facing coyotes or foxes.

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Golden deliciousness, straight from the sugar-shack.
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Finished syrup in The Farm School walk-in.

It seems like our maple sugaring season is going to come to a close here in the next week or so, as night-time temperatures stop falling down far enough to encourage a strong run. The sap starts to yellow in the late season, it ages quickly in the warmer weather, and buckets start to fill with insects emerging into the spring. Here in New England, the end of the sap season is called the ‘frog run’, referring to the sound of peeper frogs singing in the pond at night while the sap boils in the sugar-house. This late sap produces thick, dark, flavorful syrup, in contrast to the clearer fine result of the first sap run. The last few days of the season have been really productive, and our store of syrup is satisfying and beautiful.

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Greens growing big and strong in the greenhouse.
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Lots of onions shoots will be lots of onions some day.

Seedlings in the greenhouse keep pushing up and up, and we have prepped the hardening off house to receive the first batch of onions and scallions soon.