April 28th, 2016

The mad dash into the growing season has begun here at The Farm School, with onions in the ground, grazing fences going up as fast as we can work, and the grass growing taller by the minute. There are baby animals all over the place, and we’ve started talking

Onion starts in black plastic in the Flat Field.

about putting up the big tent over the picnic tables for eating outside. Although three or four inches of snow fell Tuesday just an hour north of here, we have buds on the trees, leaves on the lilac bushes, and we’ll be grazing the dairy herd by this weekend.

We have had two new calves born in the dairy herd over the past couple of weeks. Pearl had a bull calf that the students named Prince, and Emily, who has delivered four bull calves in a row, finally had a heifer that we’ve named Eleanor.

Prince in front is Pearl’s, and Eleanor sleeping the back is Emily’s.

Emily is one our two best cows, the cows that we would like to build the herd around genetically. So her daughter, Eleanor, is really exciting and long awaited to me. Patty is the other cow that really has the genetic make-up that seems to fit best with our farm, and she has already given us Pearl three years ago, Pip from last year, and we have high hopes for another daughter this year. The other side of the genetic equation is the bull, and since we don’t keep a bull here on the farm, we have a really wide variety of choices to select from. However, we are trying to operate a low-input grass-based dairy here at The Farm School, and our priority is on health and suitability to our system. This is in contrast to the industry standard that is directed at enormous production with heavy grain feeding. We need to look for bull genetics that line up with our priorities of thriftiness, and the ability to thrive on just grass, and that eliminates almost all of the semen commercially available to us. So I looked around for quite a while for a semen supplier who was breeding for similar goals to ours, and finally found Holt Creek Jerseys in Nebraska. Ben Gotschall has been developing his herd of Jerseys to thrive on only pasture for the last twenty-five years, and the semen that he sells is from the best bulls in his herd. We have been really happy with the calves delivered from our cows bred to Holt Creek semen, and Emily’s calf Eleanor is another great example of that.

We have begun the work to establish a new bed of grapes at Sentinel Elm Farm, adding to the well loved vines already thriving the home garden.

Little grape vines

The existing grapes provide wonderful picking and eating for the visiting students and resident farmers every summer and fall, and we are all really looking forward to bigger and better harvests in years to come.

Sentinel Elm Farm is home to twelve laying ducks, and we work hard to keep them happy and healthy. We always try to raise and house animals in a way that gives them a chance to do the things and live the way that they are suited to, to allow them to express their true nature as much as is possible. So pigs get to root, chickens get to scratch, and ducks get to swim.

The duck’s new pond.

Providing ducks with clean water to swim in is a real challenge, since they are such messy animals, but this year we are trying to turn that challenge into an opportunity. We have designed and built a mobile duck pond, which is really just a kiddie pool up on a platform with skids under it and a drain installed. Our ducks are moved around the farm in the warm months, and our hope is that they can generate several hundred gallons of manure infused water every week that we can drain onto pastures and orchards as a nice way to irrigate and fertilize at the same time. The pond has been deployed for two weeks so far, and I finally saw a duck in it for the first time this morning. We are currently building a larger ramp in the hope that this will make them more comfortable getting up to pond level.

Next week we should be grazing, so I hope to have a chance to write a bit about the process of getting all these grazers out on the spring grass.

Rolling along

Spring is rolling right along now, with lambs tearing around the winter sheep yard, two calves added to the dairy herd, and pastures growing taller by the minute. Vegetable starts will be going out into prepped beds at the end of the week,

Black plastic covered beds in the flat field, ready for onions.

the greenhouse is full of seedlings, and our flocks of laying hens are in their ‘egg mobiles’ out on the pastures. We have had temperatures in the seventies for the past week or more, and it really feels like the season is accelerating quickly.

This has been a unique week here at The Farm School because, with spring break, we have not had any visiting students at Sentinel Elm Farm. Although the farm has been quiet, Maggie’s Farm has been humming right along. We hosted a composting workshop on Wednesday with Bruno Follador, and he helped us develop a deeper understanding of the intricacies of compost, as well as offering guidance on our own compost production.  Thursday’s schedule was filled with our yearly ‘work songs’ workshop, led Bennet Konesni.

Besides for these great workshops, the Sentinel Elm staff has spent the week cleaning up the farm now that all the snow is gone, the grass is growing, and garden beds are getting prepped for planting. Asparagus is just about to poke up and leaves are emerging on the hedgerow bushes. We have had the goats out on the pasture edges trying to get ahead of the brush there, and they are enjoying the baby leaves after a long winter of eating hay. We have deployed the crazy new duck pond, and although the ducks have not figured out how to get into it yet, we have high hopes for the season. I will take pictures and describe the duck pond more next week!

I’ve spent the week checking and repairing the our electric fences used to contain the beef herd, starting at the southern end of our pastures, and working north. It appears that a moose may have crossed the fences in a few places this winter, with broken posts and snapped lines.

The old fence torn out and the replacement installed.

Although there are many ways a fence can be broken, moose get a lot of the blame around here because they seem to completely ignore fences, and walk right through them. People driving snow mobiles, bears, and freezing rain can also snap our fences, but when the damage is really dramatic, I tend to think of moose. Whether the fence is on or off, moose don’t seem to care, and can end up doing a good deal of damage tearing things apart and trailing material all over the place. Over the past few days, we have been out replacing snapped off posts, re-hanging lines, and cleaning up the mess.

I’ve mentioned the work that we did this winter and spring to clear brush at the edges of several pasture, pushing the open space back to the original stone walls. That work left a significant space between the edge of the grassy pasture and the stone wall, covered in leaves and sticks, and full of the little stumps of the brush we had cleared. I couldn’t think of a really feasible way to churn this zone up to prepare it for seeding grass, and I was despairing that we were going to lose our chance to reclaim the area for grazing.

The egg-mobile and layers in action.

However, when it came time to find a spot to put the Maggie’s egg-mobile, I realized that the laying hens might do the trick. They love to root and scratch through any loose material in search of seeds and bugs, and that action is now being applied to our newly exposed pasture edges. Although they cannot remove the little stumps, my plan is to give the hens a week or so to stir up the leaf litter, move them, and seed grass in behind where they’ve been. I’ll try to update our progress on this project as we go along.





Lambs and Calves at last

We farm several hundred acres of land here at The Farm School, and that work takes us all over that land. Every year I am struck by the revolving locations that we focus our time and efforts on as we develop the different enterprises that make up our farm. This winter and spring, we all worked for several weeks in the Three Trees pasture, clearing pasture edges, burning brush, and building high-tensile electric fences. The attention of the whole organization was turned to

The view thru the fence at the new pig deck and feeder.

those five acres, twenty or more people were on the ground working together on a single project, and we transformed the landscape. Now that the work there is done, the field has been left alone to grow its grass, and, although I glance up the hill at our work every time I drive by, our attention has moved on to lambs and calves and other projects. We put the years crop of pigs in a new area every spring, rotating them through forested acreage that has road access for water and feed deliveries, and easy loading in the fall. Every spring, about this time, we spend a couple of weeks developing our infrastructure for the pigs, including a large wooden deck, an automatic feeder and water system, electric fences, a loading chute, shelters and a milk trough. All these parts demand careful preparation and work to setup, and my focus and labor is turned to the project and place fully. We plan and work, think and scheme, in that space for a short time, turning what had been some sleepy corner of the forest into a human environment, and ultimately a pig environment. Chain saws roar, hammers bang, voices call out, and if we’re lucky there might even be some music on a radio. Every year I am surprised to find myself working in some new spot in the woods, spending all my time invested and engrossed in a place that I had never considered before.

Lambs have started arriving on the scene in the Maggie’s sheep flock, with seven born as of Thursday morning. Six have been ram lambs so far, and only one set of twins out of six ewes delivered.

Just born, so tired.

Luckily everyone waited until the really cold wet weather had passed, and now that we’re having wonderful sunny spring days, the lambs are out running and jumping around their yard. We have four first time yearling ewes that we kept from last year’s crop of lambs, and one of those delivered her first lamb ever this morning. After the usual confusion and hesitation that seems to accompany first time ewe mamas, she and her tiny lamb got down to the business of nursing and growing.

Pearl delivered the first calf in the dairy last night at around 11:30, and the visiting students are collecting names for the little bull for a Friday morning vote before they go home. We insist that calf names start with the same first letter as their mama’s name, so we are looking at names starting with ‘P’ for a bull.

‘P’ names so far.


We try to time calves to match grazing season so that new babies can go out onto nice green pasture, rather than the muddy mess of the spring yard. Pearl was a bit early this year however, so I am eager for the warm sunny weather to dry things up a bit before we let that new baby out of the barn. The mother cow and her new calf spend a day or two after birth in the birthing pen getting to know each other, and giving the calf time to get its feet solidly under it.

Pearl’s new calf working on breakfast.

Mama comes out to the main barn for milking, and after a few days we will start letting the calf come out with her to explore. Calves are not very good at listening to our instructions, so a loose calf in the barn ends up knocking things over, peeing in the hay, and generally being a nuisance. If the weather is nice enough, we’ll have mama and baby going back outside with the herd in daylight hours after three or four days. We usually close them back up inside a night for a week or so, but we’ll need that birthing pen for the next cow pretty soon, so babies have to be out full time as soon as they’re able.

The PVS barn staff has been working for the past few weeks on rehabbing our hay wagon, and they’ve made some great progress on the new decking this week. We had broken just about every wooden component on the original, so we tore it down to the metal running gear, and built a whole new wooden top structure from pressure treated lumber.

The newly decked wagon, and Gus.

The wagon is used to move large items, or lots of small items around the ridge-top, and it is a vital tool when Alex and the adult students are transplanting from the greenhouse to the fields.

Winter, again.

I’m starting to feel a bit repetitive, but we’ve had another week of wild weather here at The Farm School. We had a bit of snow on Saturday night into Sunday, and Sunday was a strange, mixed up, windy day. The sky was full of enormous dark islands of cloud absolutely tearing by overhead and spitting snow, and breaks of blue sky in between. With the wind whipping the trees and blowing last falls leaves around, and the crazy sky above, it made for a really dramatic scene. Sunday night, which was the third of April, we got four or five inches of snow, and we’ve had night-time temperatures in the teens since then. The forecast for today is for temperatures in the fifties and an inch of rain.

Towering onion starts in the greenhouse

As I’ve mentioned before, these fluctuations can be really challenging for our livestock since they never get the chance to really get accustomed to conditions before the conditions change dramatically again. Cold animals are fine, and wet animals are fine, but cold wet animals can have real trouble staying warm, especially with a good wind blowing like we’ve had seemingly all spring long.

We are waiting for our first lamb of the season, and this weather has really gotten me nervous. We time our lambing to avoid newborn lambs coming onto the scene while the weather is still too cold and wet, planning to lamb in April when, typically, things have warmed up a bit. Many farmers time lambing for much earlier in the spring or even in the heart of winter, in the hopes that the lambs will grow larger by fall slaughter if they’ve had a few more months to grow. The challenge in that approach is the cold winter weather, and the added pressure that puts on the new-born lamb, emerging weak and wet from that nice climate controlled space inside the ewe. We’ve added more towel drying to our new-born lamb routine to make sure that the lambs are dry as quickly as possible, but with no lambs born so far this year, we are yet to give it a shot.

Big-bellied ewes, waiting for lambs

The first warm drink of colostrum also becomes more important to a new lamb since they will be burning more calories just to stay warm, and will really need a good fill-up from mama. Warming new-born lambs artificially is a complicated issue, and we have been able to avoid this practice entirely with our warm weather lambing calendar. There are many ways to warm a cold lamb, and this can be a life saving endeavor when a lamb’s body temperature goes below 99 degrees. Warming boxes seem to be the preferred approach to warming a cold lamb, but there are many other techniques out there.

The strange spring weather has also been difficult for Alex and the student farmers as they work as quickly as possible to prepare veggie beds for our first planting of the season.The planting schedule for the year has April 18th as our first planting day, which is coming pretty soon.

The Flat Field, cultivated, with snow…

They had a nice run over the last few weeks, with fields drying down a bit enough to get the big tractor out there plowing up beds, but we’ve been rained, and now snowed out now for the last week or more.

The return of winter, again, has given us another chance to work on pasture edges, clear brush, and burn. This week we have been focused on the Sheep pasture, nearest the Maggie’s farm house. Josh B and his crew have been out cutting thorns, removing dead trees, and cleaning up along the electric fences to make sure that they are unencumbered all the way around the pasture. Although the ground has thawed by this point, and the grass is greening up, the snow offered enough of a cushion for us to drive out on the fields and go to work.

The sheep road, reclaimed from the jungle

Spring seeps in

Crazy weather continues here in central Massachusetts, and spring seems to be coming in all the wrong order, coming on strong some days and gone the next. A warm south wind is whipping the bare trees along the hedgerows today, the temperature is over seventy degrees, and we have snow in the  forecast for the weekend. Our pastures are slowly turning green, but we’ve still had several nights below freezing over the past week, so progress has been incremental.

We’re all still waiting for the first lamb in the sheep flock at Maggie’s Farm, and the adult students have started their traditional wager on which ewe will deliver lambs first. It always seems that their bellies can’t get any bigger, that they must deliver those lambs today, but they just keep on stretching and stretching, waiting until those babies are good and finished. I know that in previous posts I’ve described some of the challenges that ewes in late gestation face, but the issue is super relevant on the farm right now, and on my mind. With so much of lamb growth in-utero coming during the last month of pregnancy, ewes face pretty dynamic nutritional demands that a farmer must keep ahead of for successful lambing. Too much nutrition in the first few months of pregnancy will lead to lambs too big to come out without significant assistance, and too little nutrition in the last month will lead to pregnancy toxemia and death. The feed ration must reflect these changing demands as they progress, and we generally follow an ever increasing ration of high-nutrient feed as the last month goes along. We strive to maintain a ‘grass-fed’ label for all of our meat, so alfalfa pellets, with about 18% protein, both keeps us ‘grass-fed’ and supplies our ewes with a nutrient dense feed. We do add a little sweet sheep grain into the mix at the very end, but eliminate it again once there are lambs on the ground to make sure that they don’t ever eat any grain.

We kept two heifer calves born last year in the dairy, and after spending a month separated from the herd to get weaned, Poppy and Gladys have moved into the main milking barn.

Poppy on the left, and Gladys on the right.

They had not been handled much at all, having been in the care of their mothers since birth last summer, and then being on their own in the weaning pen, so Dave, Rachel and Sophie (PVS barn staff) have been working patiently to civilize them enough to come into the barn. We have two really great cows in the dairy named Patty and Emily, and we are trying to build the rest of our herd around these two genetic lines. Poppy came from Patty this year, and another cow in herd named Pearl was Patty’s calf three years ago. Emily keeps delivering bull calves, so we have not been able to keep any heifers from her yet, but we have had a series of of calves named Elvis, which I truly enjoy. Gladys came from a cow named Goldie, who was not a superior cow at all, but Gladys is so darn sweet and gentle that we decided to keep her around.

At about this time each year, we try to get both the beef herd and dairy herd off the pastures as much as we can to let the grass have a chance to grow up big and strong before the grazing season begins. The cows have been over-wintered on a single pasture with round bales pre-set for feeding, and they have put down quite a bit of manure over the winter months.

Student farmers finishing pasture cleanup.

Once they finish the last pre-set bale, we bring them into a much smaller yard with enough bales to cover the next month of feeding, or until we go to grazing full time. With the cows off almost all of the pasture, we can go in with a tractor, chain harrow all the manure and old hay into a nice seed bed, re-seed the pasture with a mix of seed we like, and chain harrow that again into the freshly mixed manure and hay. This leads to a great flush of grass on that pasture for the grazing season ahead, and it is a simple way to refresh a pasture on a yearly schedule. We did this project yesterday at the Racetrack Pasture, and also took the opportunity to spread a huge pile of composted manure on the 3 Trees pasture.

Cristina and Eliza hosted the first pizza night of the season at Sentinel Elm farm last night, heating up the outdoor wood-fired oven and cranking out some incredible pies. The oven was a student-farmer project with Josh Buelle a few years ago, and it has been an remarkable addition to the scene.

Pizza master Molly tends the oven.

After getting the oven hot for pizza, we can put large cuts of meat in there to slow cook overnight, and we’ve even done very successful Thanksgiving turkeys in there occasionally.