A week of summer

We are getting our first taste of summer weather this week, with temperatures in the upper eighties and full-bore sunshine. It feels a little early in the season for such summery conditions, and the pastures could certainly use more rain before we head into the true heat of summer, but with 3/10 of an inch of rain on Tuesday, things continue to grow slowly out on the farm.

On Tuesday morning, we picked up thirty piglets from the Cummings Veterinary School in North Grafton MA and brought them back to the farm. Sentinel Elm Farm has a little piglet training area in the barn-yard, and the piglets will spent a few weeks in there before going out to the woods for the summer.

One happy piglet

The training area serves as their introduction to the electric fences that will keep them contained out in the woods. Piglets will often jump forward, through the electric fence, when they first touch it, and our training yard has a hard fence behind the electric one to make sure they stay home as they learn not to touch the electric fence. The training area also has the same automatic water system that the pigs will use out in the woods, and we make sure that they know how to use that before they leave too. We provide water in dishes alongside the automatic system to start, and slowly reduce access to the dishes as more and more of them adapt to the automatic system. The last thing that we are looking for before they head off for the summer, is to make sure that every pig seems happy and healthy. Once they’ve moved to the woods we see them much less, and the training pen is a great chance to give every piglet a visual check every day.

Work continues on the revamped sheep system, and the new shade and feeding barn is completed except for the roofing (the part that makes shade). The sheep have been out grazing for a while now, but we are all eager to get their fencing system resolved as well, and really have that area all set up.

Veggie bed prep and transplanting is charging ahead full steam this week, with lettuce, radishes, spinach, carrots, beets, chard, kale, cabbage, hakurei, bok choi, arugula and parsnips already in the ground. Tomatoes also went in this week, and we are all keeping our fingers crossed that those wonderful summer treats will do great this year. Tomatoes are tropical plants, and they face significant pest and disease pressure up here in New England, with Late Blight doing real damage the last few years. Next week we’ll be planting squash, cucumbers, zucchini, corn and eggplants, and adding more plantings of just about everything that is already started. This week also saw the start of significant weed pressure out in the beds, and we were able to hoe weed just about everything in the ground so far.

Calving has not really gotten going in the beef herd yet, with one still-born calf a few weeks ago, and no other action. The bull went in with the cows the first week of August last year, and with a gestation period of about 285 days, we would expect to have calves by now. There is almost always some time between when the bull goes in with the cows and when he is actually breeding cows, but we are certainly within the time that I would expect to accommodate that lag time.

The beef herd, trying to share the shade on a hot morning.

Spring Growing

We’re having another cool sunny week here at The Farm School, great for growing grass in the pastures and delicate vegetable starts in the veggie beds. We’ve had just barely enough rain to keep things moving along, although not quite as quickly as we would all like, and I’ve been checking the ten-day forecast more than I’d like.

The wealth of a spring pasture

Rainfall, its frequency, amount, duration and rate all become the most significant issue that I, and I bet most farmers, think about during the growing season. Rain makes the grass and veggies grow, and the positive impact that the rain has on plant growth increases as the amount of rain increases. Rainfall is the single most important factor in pasture and plant growth, and it dictates, more than anything else, the amount of pasture forage available to our grazers, and the production of vegetables. While pastures can accommodate quite a high volume of rain, up to standing water, annual vegetables are easily overwhelmed with too much rain. Their vulnerability to various mold and fungus diseases makes constant wetness a real danger. So while I am hoping for lots and lots of rain, all the time, Alex, our head-grower, is hoping for just the right amount of rain, at the right time and rate.

Our chicks have been let out into the little yard connected to the brooder, and they are out there all the time, scratching and pecking their way through the old leaves and dirt in search of tasty treats. It’s great to see those girls outside and doing the things that make chickens chickens, even at such a young age. They had spent their whole lives inside on wood-shavings bedding, but as soon as they get out on the actual ground, they go right to work. These little girls are going to be our next laying flock, and they will start laying eggs some time around six months old. They will lay consistently perfect eggs for about a year once they’ve started, and then, at about eighteen months old they’ll start to slow down laying, molt their feathers, and stop laying eggs for a time. After the molt, hens will start laying eggs again, but never achieve the consistency of the daily perfect egg that they had in their first year of production. The timing for all of these benchmarks in the layer’s life vary depending on the bird, the breed, management conditions, and many other factors.

We’ve gotten the sheep out on pasture a bit this week, despite sheep yard getting all mixed up as we work to build a new sheep shade structure. We’ve been re-imagining the fencing systems down there for the sheep, but for the time being, we’ve just been sneaking them out when and where we can. They were super excited to finally get out on the fresh green pasture, and just about every lamb was left behind in the night-yard as they mothers dashed out onto pasture to graze. The lambs, having never been out on grass, didn’t know what the excitement was all about, but they’ve caught on by now, and they’re out there nibbling grass alongside their mothers.


The bed-straw monster at work

Smooth Bed-straw (Galium mollugo L.) is a weed that has really developed into a challenge here in The Farm School’s pastures and hay fields. Bed-straw has appeared in more fields, and has spread significantly in the fields that it is already in. While most of our livestock will eat bed-straw if they have to, it has very little nutritional value and can be a bit toxic at high enough quantities. Bed-straw, like most weeds we don’t want in the pasture, takes advantage of soil conditions that are less than ideal. The mix of grasses and legumes that we strive for thrives in well-balanced soil, and most weeds are ready to pounce when those conditions become imbalanced. Although I strongly believe in maximizing diversity in our pastures as a way to ensure that we are resilient in all weather and seasons, and to help our grazing animals access the widest variety of forage possible, we really need to avoid having any single pasture plant species crowd out everything else. Bed-straw makes a lot of seed, and those seeds remain viable to for up to a year. Once bed-straw is established in a field, it also spreads through underground stems (rhizomes). We have a hay field that has been just about totally over-run with bed-straw, and we had to brush-hog that field this week to cut the bed-straw before it went to seed. We are now exploring strategies for controlling the existing bed-straw in the field. I will report back further as this project unfolds.


Grazing and growing

We’ve gone from a week of rainy weather to a week full of warm sunny days, and the trees and pastures have really exploded with green growth. The dry weather has allowed Alex and Bennet to prepare quite a few veggie fields for planting as last week’s rain soaks down into the soil leaving the top ready to work. The beef herd and the dairy herd are both out grazing full time, and our last ewe delivered the last lamb early this morning. Once all the lambs can keep up with their mamas, the sheep herd will go out on pasture too.

We try to manage the transition from winter hay feeding to spring pasture grazing carefully to avoid getting our ruminants into trouble with bloat. Their giant rumens have been geared toward the successful digestion of hay over the winter months when there is no growing grass. They have been working hard to extract the nutrients required from dry hay and round bale silage that is drier and less nutrient dense than pasture forage. Spring grass, super rich and growing vigorously, full of water and packed with nutrients, is much easier to process in the rumen, gives off more gas, and is much more palatable to the cows.

Rotokawa Red Devons, chewing cud

The cows and sheep are eager to consume more and more new grass, they can digest it quickly, and there are acres and acres of it spreading all around them. We give every ruminant between three days and a week of transition time as they switch from hay to grass. They start with just an hour or two of grazing on the first day, either by giving them just a small area to graze, or by taking them back off pasture quickly. Each day, the ration increases, until they can be out grazing full time. Round bale silage and hay are offered before and after each grazing session, and the hay fed before is important to help take the edge of their hunger, and to lay down a buffering layer in the rumen.

Work continues on the new and improved sheep yard and chick brooder house. We finalized cleanup in the old sheep yard at the beginning of the week, and Josh B has been working with student farmers to prepare the footers for the new sheep shade house.

Quick footers to set posts onto

The Farm School has begun the process of getting our livestock practices AWA certified, and part of that certification mandates square footage per animal for shelter. For sheep, the AWA calls for sixteen square feet of space per animal in any shelter. We have between sixteen and thirty-five sheep on the farm, depending on the season, so our sheep shade structure will be thirty-five by sixteen square feet.

The chicks in the brooder are growing and thriving, and we have not lost a single one yet! A ten percent loss per group of chicks is pretty normal, so we buy 115 chicks if we want a laying flock of about 100. There are many causes for chick loss, including crowding on top of each other, various environmental diseases, predator pressure and genetic issues with the chick. Our most common challenge is Coccidiosis, which is a regularly occurring parasitic digestive disease.

The chicks are growing!

We feed our chicks a starter feed specially formulated to help them overcome Coccidiosis, and we have had great success with this approach so far. In years past, ‘medicated feed’ was available for this purpose, but feed companies have recently switched over to  MOS as an additive to help chicks deal with digestive system challenges.

The PVS barn staff has been preparing for our goats to kid in the next week or so. We have three bred does, and expect between three and six little babies when all is said and done. Similar to sheep, the goats need a separate space to spend some time as just mama and baby, before mixing with the whole group. The mother goat will get some nice second cut hay, molasses mixed into her water bucket, and lots of attention while she is closed in the ‘jug’ with her babies.

Next week, ‘The Bed-Straw Invasion!’ Stay tuned.

Duck Days

This has really been a ‘duck’ week here at The Farm School, with rainy days starting Monday and running through

Onion transplants enjoying the rain

the end of the week. Although we haven’t gotten lots and lots of accumulation from the rainy weather, we certainly have not seen the sun all week. The cool rainy weather is great for pasture growth, and although it’s not great for the veggie starts already planted out, the rainy days are doing a lot for establishing a nice supply of soil moisture for when the sun comes back.

Most of our livestock is of English origin, and was developed for the typically cool rainy English weather. They are much more suited for this type of weather than they are for the hot dry days of summer, when they so easily get overheated, and they are totally comfortable lying out in the pasture, chewing their cud in the rain. In the heat of summer, the sheep and cows are always looking to get out of the sun, and providing them with adequate shade is an issue that I think about quite a bit.

Digging into some dry hay

When temperatures get over seventy degrees, our sheep and cows start thinking about shade. The only group of animals that really prefer hot dry weather is the chickens, and they spend most of their time in their ‘egg-mobile’ when it’s raining.

Cultivation of beds for planting vegetables has to stop in wet conditions since the tractor ends up doing quite a bit of damage to the soil full of water. Alex and the student farmers have taken this opportunity to transplant lots of lettuce starts, and to prepare the wash-up area in the lower barn at Maggie’s. All this rain is probably going to mean a really healthy crop of weeds when the sun comes back out, so we’ve been trying to button up as many projects as possible now so we can try to stay ahead of the weeds when their time comes.

Josh B and the student farmers have been working on a re-work of the Maggie’s sheep complex, trying to streamline the back paddock area to allow for a more efficient use of that space.

The ‘bus-stop’ moved to a new spot

We’re also working to build a new long-term shade and feeding structure for the sheep in that space to replace the greenhouse and tarp style system we had been using.

We got 115 ‘Production Gold Sex Link’ (their name, not mine) layer chicks in the mail from Hoffman Hatchery Wednesday morning. The term ‘sex-link’ is used to describe chicks that have distinguishing characteristics at hatching based on gender, like color or color pattern. They are easy to sex at hatching because of these differences. This trait is found in cross bred chicks only. Our Gold Sed-Links moved right into the brooder, all setup and ready for them, and they’re doing great so far. They get ‘chick starter’ feed for a few weeks, before switching over to ‘layer mash’ for the rest of their lives. One of the biggest dangers for new chicks is coccidiosis, and the ‘starter’ feed that we use is specifically formulated to address this challenge.

2 days old, enjoying the heaters

We use Lancaster Agriculture for the majority of our livestock feed, and after the ‘starter’ feed, these little layers will start on Lancaster Agriculture Layer Mash.

The beef herd and dairy herd have gotten out onto pasture full time this week, and they are enjoying the fresh grass! The sheep are still in winter quarters, waiting for the last few ewes to lamb.