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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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