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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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