Grazing season begins

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Dairy cows back out on the grass, after a long winter.

“Only green growing leaves capture solar energy and make cattle feed.”

– Jim Gerrish

It’s easy, after years living and working here at The Farm School, to lose sight of the splendor of the Sentinel Elm farm. On a evening like this one however, after a hot and busy day, when the cool breeze smooths out all the rough edges, when every single fruit tree is deep in flower and shedding perfect petals into the breeze, and the clear dusk sky crystallizes the details of every living thing, even the most weary of us can’t help but feel the gravity of this place. The air is an elixir, the livestock a chorus speaking of contentment, and every plant and tree is breathing deep after a hot day under the sun. The staff has put together a wonderful shared dinner; our potatoes from the root cellar cut into fries, ground beef from the freezer pressed into burgers, fresh greens from the hoop house tossed into a nearly living salad, and everyone sharing in the preparation, rejoicing in the food, and pitching in to clean up.

As the pastures slowly green up and the grass gets taller and taller, my thoughts have turned to electric fences, weed whackers and mulit-flora rose. Getting out into the pastures to setup fences means walking all through every field, and allows me a wonderful snapshot of the condition of our grassland acres. Most fields look similar in the winter and early spring, but now that growth has resumed, the strength and weakness of each pasture is much clearer. I can see where the clover is growing nice and thick, where the bed-straw is filling in and beating out the other grasses, where growth seems good and where it could use some support. Our pastures have been generally headed in a positive direction over the past few years as we have been following a strict rotation plan and applying beneficial sprays as often as we’re able. However, more can always be done, and I am looking forward to enhancing our manure application this fall. We have also been looking into putting some rock dust on the fields this fall along with the manure as a way to improve the mineral content of our soil. Grass quality is really a reflection of soil quality, and a focus on healthy thriving soil will lead to healthy thriving grass, and healthy thriving animals that consume it.

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The beef herd getting their first taste of grass of the spring.

We’ve started giving all of our grazing animals little bits of pasture to start transitioning their rumens from digesting hay over to grass. We try to make the change slowly to avoid the dangerous bloating that can happen when a ruminant switches quickly from hay to the rich wet grass of spring. We’ll spend a few days giving them ever increasing areas to graze, and by the end of the week we’ll have transitioned over to full time grazing. The sheep get their one chance of the year to get into the home orchard, grazing under the apple trees for a few hours a day. Orchard grazing runs the risk of the sheep becoming more interested in the leaves on the lower branches than they are in the grass, and we really want to avoid them doing any damage to the trees pulling and eating from those low branches, so we try to keep their time in the orchard brief, and we make sure that they have plenty of good grass to keep their focus downward.

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The sheep grazing in the orchard.

Our weather station recorded almost 2/10th of an inch of rain today, our first rain in more than a month, and a much needed drink for the thousands of fresh transplants that Tyson and student farmers have been putting out throughout our cultivated fields. Our pastures, populated with perennial grasses, have a stronger root base that gives them access to the moisture remaining 6 inches deep in the soil, so the grass has not been suffering at quite the same level as the newly planted vegetable starts. However, I expect to see the pasture respond positively to this bit of rain, and it might give everyone a few days off spot watering all those transplants.

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