Spring all Winter

We had our laying flock closed up most of last week to keep them safe from a hawk who has moved into the area and developed a taste for our well-fed slow moving chickens. On Friday, FedEx delivered a 100×25 ft net ordered from FarmTek, and on Saturday AM we strung it up as quickly as possible. The project took most of the morning, but before lunch

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The view through the net

we had the door of the coop open and the chickens were outside again. They are now understandably nervous about the potential for a hawk to attack them at any moment, and they spend a lot of time hiding inside whenever the rooster sounds the alarm or they catch sight of a large bird fly overhead, but we are all relieved to have them outside again. The layers can all fit comfortably in the coop every night and during inclement weather, but after a few days of close quarters they start to turn to each other for something to peck…

Work is ongoing at the greenhouse, setting up tables, cleaning and organizing. We are scheduled to get our yearly delivery of potting soil today. We’ve got 6 single ton bags coming this year, with a little left over from last year’s order to cover any extra projects. We order potting soil from Vermont Compost Company, and we typically order a blend of their Fort Vee and Fort Light mixes. This year we will also be adding                                   RootShield to the mix as well. Farm School head grower Alex Vaughn writes,

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The tables are set up in the greenhouse.

“One way we try to prevent disease in the greenhouse is by mixing Root Shield into our potting soil prior to seeding trays.  Root Shield is a biological fungicide that acts against common soil pathogens like Pythium, Fusarium and Rhizoctonia.  It does this primarily by out-competing pathogens for space on the roots of our transplants.”

We have scheduled a greenhouse training intensive for our student farmers on Monday morning, and our first seeding of the year will start the same day. Onions and scallions go first, and this year we’ll be seeding 59 trays of storage onions, 33 trays of sweet onions, 8 trays of scallions and 16 trays of shallots.  All told that’s 14,848 plants that will be ready to go in the ground in April.

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Patty from the dairy

We have certainly experienced a strange and mild winter this year. We’ve had a few cold days and nights, we’ve had some snow, but no long stretches of either. At a workshop last week I heard an attendee compare last winter, when things froze up and stayed frozen all winter, to this winter where things seem to freeze and thaw three times every week. Our skating pond has gone through just about every imaginable surface condition this winter, and we’ve only had a handful of truly good skating days. So I’m calling it ‘Spring all Winter’, and I’ve included a few pictures of our livestock enjoying a warm sunny day last week. One feature of spring all winter is winter rain, which can be a real challenge to livestock. Most of our animals do fine in the dry cold, but even the mosthearty can be challenged by temperatures below freezing when they’re wet. This winter has a been a test of our housing systems, and regular deep bedding has kept everyone pretty comfortable. We researched and built a new housing area for our dairy cows this summer, and this winter has been our first heavy use of it. Next week I’ll include pictures and a description of that process.

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A comfortable ewe

 

 

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Hawks and Burn Piles

Crazy winter weather has continued this week, with some of the coldest temperatures that anyone has seen around here for a long time. We set low temperature records Friday, Saturday at Sunday nights with -8, -9 and -14. Saturday night also featured 25mph winds, so things were pretty chilly out there on the farm. All of our livestock has a shelter to go into any time they want to, all winter, and we made sure to give everyone a deep fresh pile of straw to hunker down in before the cold really set in. Ducks, sheep and chickens are well insulated, cows and horses are big enough and operate hot enough that they don’t mind the cold too much, and the pigs burrow down into their straw bedding and snuggle to keep warm. Everyone came through well, and Tuesday it was fifty degrees and raining. The rain and melting snow really added up fast, and our farm was a wet flooded mess Tuesday afternoon. Drastic changes in temperature are hard on our livestock as they try to adapt to current conditions only to have those conditions constantly changing. Our animals had dealt with a few days of super cold, then we had a twenty-four hours of warm and wet, and by midnight Tuesday night, we were back below freezing and all the water standing in the fields, roadways and yards turned to ice and frozen mud. I am a strong advocate against confinement livestock practices, but with weather like we’ve been having, I can see some of its appeal.

We all got together on Monday for a whole farm project, clearing the edges of a single large pasture and processing 4+ cords of firewood from trees cut from the pasture perimeter. It was incredible to see the work we could all do working together for a full day, and the long term positive effect we had on our farm environment. We cleared fifteen or twenty feet of brush around the full perimeter of a 5 acre pasture, creating hundreds of square feet of grazable area in a single work day, and made Carlen a supply of firewood that will last her many years. I wrote last week about exposing the old stone walls again, and how nice it is to see them again so clearly in our landscape. This pasture has been finished now, and the effect of the full perimeter of wall standing out clearly again is wonderful.

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View from the top of the pasture.

 

 

 

Our laying flock is still under pressure from a visiting hawk, with another two birds taken in the past week. Despite a ridiculous amount of strings, ribbons, cds and other flashing deterrents, as well as Hedwig the owl dummy, the hungry hawk will not be denied. We now have the layers closed in their house (not a situation they enjoy at all), and an1980-01-01 00.00.13.jpgd we have a huge net on order to string up. We’re trying to keep the hens entertained while they’re in lock-down, so we keep bringing them scraps, we add hay for them to scratch and peck through, and some of our adult student-farmers are working on a Broadway style song and dance routine to perform in the coop. There is a process for application for a permit to shoot birds of prey that are destroying livestock in the state of Massachusetts, with a burden of proof on the farmer that they have tried to drive the bird off by other means. We have certainly tried other means, and I am confident that we could get a permit to dispatch this particular hawk, but that is an option that I would like to avoid if possible. Birds of prey are, to me, the most incredible part of our New England landscape, and seeing them around our pastures and forests is always a treat. I often find myself driving our farm roads with my neck craned out, watching a hawk, falcon, owl or eagle glide over our fields scanning for prey, and those are some of my favorite moments on the farm.

Winter at The Farm School

As I mentioned in the previous post, which was a lost episode that I rediscovered as I got things cleaned up for this effort to renew the Farm School Manual, I am planning on reviving this blog. My plan is to post weekly with updates from The Farm School, trying to cover as much of the work we’re doing as I can. I manage the livestock at The Farm School, so that area will take more of my focus than others, but I’ll try to report on everything that’s going on. Thanks for coming back, enjoy.

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You can see brush pile, a cleared section, and the rest.

Although there are a few snow flakes falling on the farm right now, and although Boston is getting real snow for the second time in a week, we have had a very light winter out here in North Quabbin region. I love winter, it’s a great time for all of the natural systems that drive our farming environment to reset, but this light winter has afforded us a unique opportunity that I have never experienced before. The ground is frozen, but there is no real snow, and we can cut brush and trees more effectively that we have ever been able to before. Skidding logs, either by tractor or horse, is easier with some snow to slide along on, but cutting trees, clearing brush, and cleaning up bar ways and hedgerows is tougher when you’re dealing with a deep snow pack. Last winter, we were three or four feet off the ground, and had to do some serious snow excavation before we could start our yearly firewood production push. This winter, we can get right at the ground, cut trees low, access the base of the brush, thorns and bushes we

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A completed section

need to cut, and really do a thorough job of it. We are trying to take advantage of this opportunity to clear the persistent ten or twenty feet at the borders of seemingly every pasture, taking them back all the way out to the stone walls, and maximizing the space for growing grass. These walls are beautiful, and the work that went into creating them is mind boggling. Their re-emergence in the visuals of the farm is a wonderful added bonus, and feels like a nice nod to the farmers on this land before us.

We convert the greenhouse into a timber framing shop for the winter months, and student farmers hack and chisel out a sixteen by sixteen timber frame for sale, or use on the farm. That whole process just ended, and the greenhouse is getting a deep clean in preparation for turning back into a heated safe-house for seedlings and baby plants. All the wood chips and sawdust get swept out, the  whole place gets a spray down, the tables move in and get setup,

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The timber frame is gone, time to cleanup for starting seeds.

the soil bins move in, and all the sensors and record keeping supplies are installed. The greenhouse may have been the most dynamic and transformational addition to our farm over the past five years, and there are time in the year when it is the heart and soul of this whole place.

Timber framers turn into lumberjacks when the frame is completed and cleaned up, and our yearly firewood production time is now upon us. We make 5 cords for neighbor Maggie, (Student farmers live and work at “Maggie’s Farm”) 20 cords for the outdoor wood furnace that heats the Chicken Coop School and Maggie’s Farm farm house, 20 cords for a similar furnace that heats the Bunkhouse at Sentinel Elm Farm (home of the Program for Visiting Schools), and 23 cords to heat staff housing cabins, sugaring wood and wood for the pizza oven. All together, that’s 68 cords of firewood, produced at various lengths to fit various uses. Our resident teamster Bradley uses the horses to pull the majority of the logs from the woods to our production yard, but we do buy some from a local logger to supplement the supply.

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The firewood yard at Sentinel Elm Farm

 

We had a bear visit our bee hives this winter, with quite a bit of damage. I wish that I had a picture of that to share with you. The hives have been re-enforced and protected in the hope that we can get the surviving hives through to warm weather and rebuild the farm population. Anne has setup an electric fence around the hives and strapped them down tight to their stands in the hopes that that will keep anybody from getting after them again.

Livestock is in winter quarters all over the farm. The rams are still in with the ewes, making sure that everyone is bred. They will be sheared with the ewes in the first week of March, and then separated into their own fenced pen before lambs come. It is much easier to deal with lambing ewes without two rams getting involved too.

That’s all for now. Next week I hope to report on the hawk that has been getting after our laying flock, more pictures and updates from firewood production, and everything else happening at The Farm School.

 

Systems

 

I am going to make every effort to revive the Farm School Manual this winter, and to keep it going. In that effort, I discovered this old post, written last year in the depths of a snowy winter, but never posted. Here it is, I know that it brings back great memories of last winter, in contrast to the mild escapade we’re going thru this year. Enjoy, and look for more coming on a weekly basis moving forward. Thanks!

“The finest growth that farmland can produce is a careful farmer”

  • Berry, Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer

 

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Most of the work that we do in our care for the livestock at The Farm School is focused on the development of effective systems. We try to maintain systems that support a positive environment for our animals, systems that we can use every day that preserve our physical wellbeing, and systems that will keep our animals healthy, growing, and content. Our animals appreciate repetition and predictability, and farmers appreciate having what they need at hand when they need it.

 

 

 

 

This winter’s cold and snow has changed the physical environment of the farm so drastically that almost all of the systems we put in place this fall for winter livestock care have failed. The lines of the world have risen around us, and everything has become hard, brittle and rigid. The snow is so deep that the cows are peering down over their electric fences wondering if there’s anything greener on the other side. The cold has been so deep that wells and water lines have frozen deep underground. The snow has piled up around the water troughs so that the cows are almost kneeling to drink. Not only have the physical systems that we put in place proved to be inadequate, but our approach to work has as well. The snow is three or four feet deep, and stepping off the packed cow path into the soft pasture is a risky undertaking. I have found myself more than once laying out flat across impassible snowdrifts trying to reach electric fences.

 

Here at The Farm School, we setup round wrapped bales of hay in grid patterns out on pasture for winter feeding for both the beef herd and the dairy herd. Then we use portable electric fences to expose the bales one at a time, giving the cows access to them as needed. We use fiberglass posts to hold the fence up out of the snow, and use a cordless drill with a large bit to drill holes into the frozen ground to put the fence posts in. This system allows us to feed the cows outside all winter, to spread nourishing manure on the fields that need it, and to avoid using a tractor, or ourselves, to move hay around.

 

Last weekend I had to reset the electric fence in use around the bales setup for the dairy cows because the deep snow had made our carefully setup fencing system obsolete. With three feet of snow in the pasture, the temperature seven below zero, and a twenty-mile-an-hour wind, the project took more planning than I ever could have imagined. I had to plot the whole endeavor step by step, to make sure that I had every tool I might need ready at hand, and to prepare my attire accordingly. There is no putting the drill down in three feet of soft snow. Gloves that come off have to be held onto, and they have to go back on pretty quickly. Tying a knot in an electric fence string with bare hands felt like one of those moments Jack London depicted in “To Build a Fire”.

 

The whole endeavor felt like what I imagine a walk in space to be like, deep in a hostile and alien environment, trying to accomplish simple steps made suddenly and implausibly challenging. But when I cut oIMG_1580pen a bale, and peel off the plastic wrapping, warm fragrant green grass, kept as fresh as the day it was cut by the tight wrapping, springs out like a portion of summer, right there in the middle of a field lost in the snow. The wind howls and swirls in my eyes, but I can see the summer that has past, and I can imagine spring.