Drought

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The summer sun has been so intense I had to get a new sun hat.

Our fields and pastures have been getting pretty dry over the past couple of months, and in the past week they have gotten much worse. We’ve started a full time irrigation schedule on the most delicate veggie beds, trying to keep the youngest and most vulnerable plants from succumbing to the dry conditions. We do not have an irrigation system installed, so our approach has been to use a 350-gallon tank mounted on a trailer, a small generator and sump-pump, and drip line irrigation hose.

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Patrick and Bennet explaining our irrigation system to Student Farmers.

We can cover three or four long beds per day, and each treatment should keep the plants going for about a week, so we’re optimistic that we can ride out this dry period until it rains again. We can’t irrigate our pastures however, and they are gradually turning brown. The stress of the hot dry weather makes the grass hurry to put out seed, in the fear that it won’t get another chance, and without any rain, nothing has come up underneath the initial growth to fill in. Pastures that have been grazed during this dry spell have not grown back, and I am getting pretty nervous about our next grazing rotation.

All of our goats have had their babies for the year, and we have five goat kids running around there being the cutest things on the farm. One mother goat is only letting one of her babies nurse, so we have a baby to bottle-feed. Our visiting students love that chore more than anything, so no one complains too much about the added work.

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The beef herd in summer splendor.

In addition to a baby goat to bottle feed, we have an orphaned calf from the beef herd that we’re bottle-feeding in the dairy too. Monday afternoon, two student farmers weeding carrots, noticed a little red calf wobbling along in the pasture nearby. They knew that the beef herd was more than a half-mile away on another pasture, so they called me. We caught the calf easily, loaded into a truck, and drove it to the dairy barn. The little heifer calf was super weak with a totally empty stomach. We’ve been slowly getting her milk rations ramped up, she is great with the bottle, and we hope that we can get her back on track. However, now that she has been separated from the beef herd for so long, we will not be able to get her back in the care of her mother.

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Little Sojourner, now in the dairy barn.

We’ve all been speculating about how this little calf, who the kids are calling Sojourner, got so far from the beef herd, but no explanation makes much sense. Once this little girl has gotten her strength back, we’ll see if we can’t get her adopted by one of the dairy cows and moved out into their care.

We have eleven laying ducks here at Sentinel Elm Farm, living in a fenced area with a moveable pond and shade. We shift their scene all over the farm through the warm months, and collect their eggs every day to add to those from the chickens. Ducks, unlike chickens, are not really interested in nest boxes for laying, and seem to prefer laying their eggs all over their area on the ground. This makes collecting eggs a bit of a search, but we try to get every egg every day.

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A duck egg, half eaten by crows, on some horse manure.

These girls are prolific layers, so we are getting seven or eight eggs per day. An average hen will lay right around two hundred eggs in a year, and our Khaki Campbell ducks can easily lay over three hundred eggs in the same time period. However, our resident crows have noticed that the ducks lay eggs all over the place, and have gotten into landing in the duck area, picking up an egg (I’m not sure how they can do this), flying out of the pen, and pecking open the egg to eat it. There are duck egg shells on the ground around the duck area, and several folks here at the farm have witnessed this behavior.

Keep your fingers crossed for some rain at The Farm School, and I’ll keep you up to date as the season unfolds.

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Summer Dry

We’ve been going through quite a dry stretch of weather here at The Farm School, and we are several inches short

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The beef herd enjoying fresh pasture.

of our usual rainfall totals for this point in the year. Things can certainly change quickly in New England, but the concern we’re facing now is that we are experiencing late summer dryness several weeks ahead of what are usually our driest months. We expect hot dry weather in July and August, brown grass and dusty dirt roads are pretty normal after the 4th of July holiday, but being August-dry in middle of June is a little worrying. If our dry season is as dry as usual, we could be in for a tough growing season for both pasture and veggies.

Several years ago, in the midst of a particularly wet summer haying season, an equipment dealer in our area called to try to sell us a preservative sprayer to attach to the back of our hay baler. His argument was, with climate change, we would never have enough good dry stretches of weather to adequately dry hay before baling. His piece of equipment, bolted to the back of the hay-baler, would spray a preservative onto the damp baling hay so that it would not mold or rot in the barn. However, in the years since, we’ve been facing significantly more periods of drought conditions than rainy weather. I’m certainly no ‘climate change denier’, but weather records show that average rain-fall amounts are typically reached through several years of below average rain-fall and a single year way over average. We’re eagerly waiting for that wet year to come soon!

We’ve had our first goat kid of the year, with Minerva delivering a little buck kid on Tuesday afternoon. The campers here at Sentinel Elm are suggesting names, and we will all vote on Friday before the campers go home. Keep your fingers crossed for ‘Monty’.

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Minerva’s buck kid, a day old.

Maggie’s Farm is now fully in the summer harvest and market schedule, and almost all of the work at that farm is focused on keeping all the veggie fields in tip top shape, harvesting and washing produce, and taking it all to market. We harvest on Monday and Wednesday, and do markets on Tuesday and Thursday. That leaves Friday for classes, field trips and tracking, and not much else on the schedule. Summer is veggie season, one of the strongest examples of the wonderful seasonal nature of farming.

Josh B and Bennet have been working over the past few weeks to restore some our old haying equipment, in the hopes of making some square bales ourselves.

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Our fleet of well-used haying equipment.

We have been partnering with local hay producers to help get the job done on some of our fields, but Josh and Bennet were able to make 40 square bales last week from a small field that the beef herd usually grazes. They have high hopes for cutting and baling more of our own hay in years to come, if they can keep our vintage hay equipment in working order.

Veggie Time

Scrolling back through my posts over the last few months, my eye is drawn to the pictures first. The most striking thing about the pictures is the stark transition from the browns and greys of winter and spring to the overwhelming green of summer. The conversion that the New England landscape goes through from winter to summer is astonishing, and seeing it over a series of pictures really makes it crystal clear. We actually spend many more days with little or no leaf cover on most of our trees, although the thick green canopy all around us now sometimes starts to feel like the standard. I am appalled every year by the unreasonable force of the grasses, shrubs and bushes as they fill every void and push ever outward and upward. Most of my time, from now until the fall, will be spent in a vain attempt to beat back the riot of leaf and shoot in the hopes of keeping our farm infrastructure above the flood.

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The dairy herd on pasture.

The beef and dairy herds have started their second rotation through their grazing pastures, and as rain gets scarcer and the soil gets drier, I have really started looking out weeks in advance and worrying (as usual). I look at the grass growing in the pastures and wonder if it will hold out, whether it will be tall enough by the time the cows get there to graze, and whether there will be enough water in the soil for it to regrow in time for the next rotation. I also spend a silly amount of time looking at the ten-day forecast in the hope that rain is coming. We’ve had a fifth calf in the beef herd, and Patty, due in two weeks, is the last expectant cow in the dairy. We will start breeding again in July in the dairy, hoping for calves in May, June and July, and the bull will go in with the beef herd some time at the start of August.

The full-blown harvest and market schedule starts at Maggie’s Farm next week, signaling a real shift into the veggie season. With full harvest days on Monday and Wednesday, markets on Tuesday and Thursday, the timetable of the farm really has to fit itself into the rhythms of the fields. We keep doing livestock chores to start and finish the day, and we’re now spending Fridays in ‘Tracking’, with each student selecting either Vegetables, Livestock or Small Fruits to focus on every Friday for the rest of the program.

The peppers have all been planted, carrots are poking up in their beds, we’re harvesting strawberries, and all the veggie beds have been cultivated and are just about prepped for planting. Weed control continues full steam all over the farm, mechanically, manually, and with hoes.

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The pigs enjoying some shade.

We have gotten the pigs out to their summer quarters, and after two mass escapes in two days, I think we are looking good out there for a nice few months of growing, rooting, and resting. Pigs absolutely love to be out on the ground, tearing everything apart, arguing constantly about it all, and having a great time. The pig area for the summer includes lots of wet spots, lots of shade, and lots of green plants to eat. The pigs will have it all torn up in no time, but we’ll work to get them more space soon.

We brought in our first square bales last night, purchased from John Moore, who cuts hay just on the other side of the ridge. We’ll try to get between 1500 and 2000 bales of first cut hay in the dairy barn hay loft before the season is over, and add another 500 bales of second cut to that. All of that hay is in addition to the 175 round wrapped bales of haylage that we also buy and produce for winter feeding.

Spring into Summer

There are no visiting students at Sentinel Elm Farm this week, as we take a short break between our last visiting class and the first week of summer camp. This is a great opportunity to do some deep cleaning, renew heavily used spaces, and get setup for the summer season. The farm is strangely quiet without all the kids tearing around, but the work goes on. Maggie’s Farm students have been hard at work all week, with their first significant veggie harvest of the season, and a marketing workshop to go over our market stand and routine. The harvest included kale, pac-choi, mesclun mix, haukeri turnips and spinach.

Calves have finally started to arrive in the beef herd, with three born this week. They have all been heifer calves (girls) so far, and I am hoping for a few bull calves down in the coming weeks. The steers, bull calves castrated in the first ninety days, grow up to be the best contributors to the beef component of our Meat CSA. Unlike the heifers, who spend energy developing reproductive systems, the steers just grow big and fatty. Although heifers produce good meat, they have a greater potential as long-term mama cows.

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Our beef herd gets the best view on the farm.

Sunday night was the Big Pig Gig in Cambridge, with the Spirit Family Reunion and a room full of our wonderful supporters and donors at The Charles Hotel. Chef Peter Davis put on an incredible feast, with most of the ingredients coming right off the farm. The night was a huge success, and everyone here is feeling immensely thankful and honored by the generosity of The Farm School community of supporters. We auctioned off tons of great prizes, including a mini Big Pig Gig, a year membership in the Meat CSA, a trip to Italy, and some of the incredible art produced for the event.

We’ve got 115 broiler chicks scheduled to arrive at the post office this morning, and the brooder at Maggie’s Farm is ready and waiting for them.

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Broiler chicks enjoyed food, water and heat.

After these chicks, the fifty turkeys coming the first week of July will be the final animals added to the mix for the season. That is always a significant milestone for me, knowing that we’ve got all the animals we’ll have for the season, and we just need to keep them all growing and thriving for the next few months before things start to wind down again in the fall. This time of year, when we’re setting up fencing, water and feed systems all over the farm, and adding animals all the time, can feel a bit crazy, and it is always nice to know when we’ve got everything here for the year.

We are expecting kids (baby goats) to arrive any day now at Sentinel Elm Farm, and although Dave checks first thing every morning, nothing has happened yet. Several year ago, Visiting Students at The Farm School conducted a scientific study to determine the most mind-meltingly cute baby animal on the farm, and baby goats won by a landslide. We are all eager to have them back in the mix soon!

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Tom and King enjoy a cool farm evening on pasture.

First hay cutting

With almost a full inch of rain over the past weekend, the grass and the weeds are exploding up out of the ground all over the farm. Lawn mowers are going full time, the pasture grasses are getting far ahead of the cows and sheep, and the student farmers are weeding like crazy. The Big Pig Gig, our annual fundraising celebration in Cambridge, is this weekend, so the preparations for that event are also adding to the frenzy.

The community of pasture plants is made up the widest variety of species as we can accommodate, in the hopes that our pasture will thrive in the broadest conditions, and provide the broadest levels of nutrition. However, a generalization can be made to classify pasture plants into warm season and cool season groups, with the cool season class far out numbering the warm. The preference for cooler weather in the majority of our pasture plants, and the universal need for regular and adequate water, means that we face a usually predictable pattern in the growth cycle of our pastures. There is an amazing flush of growth in the spring, and marked plateau or even dip in the middle of the summer, and a small recovery in the fall before winter dormancy. Right now, we are in the middle of the spring explosion, with the pastures getting taller by the minute. This year, with less rain than the pastures would prefer, many of the grasses have already gone to seed in response to the stress they perceive in their environment. This makes it tougher to keep the grass in vegetative growth, and many plants that put out seed will go dormant for the rest of the growing season.

The chicks have moved out of the brooder and into a mobile house that will move around the Sheep Pasture for the rest of the summer. IMG_2998115 new chicks, to be raised for eating, will come in the mail on the 9th and move into the empty (and cleaned) brooder. This year we will be raising Heavy Silver Cross broilers from Hoffman Hatchery, just like last year.

Work continues on the pig’s summer accommodations, with the deck and feeder installed so far. We are working to establish the automatic water system and the electric fencing that will keep contained in the area we’ve selected. I hope to get them out of their training area and into the woods some time next week.

Cultivation, bed prep, planting and seeding continue with Alex and Bennet, and the weed pressure has really set in this week. We do as much mechanical weeding as we can, but there is still quite a bit of hand tool work to done. The tomato plants are coming along nicely, enjoying the moderate rain and nice warm sunny days that we’ve been having here over the past week.

I cut our first pasture of hay yesterday, and it is out there drying down a bit right now for baling later this afternoon. We make round wrapped bales for the beef herd for winter-feeding, wrapping up the half dry grass in airtight plastic to stop mold and rot and to allow the hay to ferment a bit for storage. We don’t make the super high quality hay that the dairy cows need to continue milking all winter, but the beef cows seem to love the product come winter.IMG_3001