A Taste of Fall

The first few days of this week brought a little taste of fall, with temperatures in the seventies during the day and the low forties at night. It was a wonderful relief from the heat of the summer, and a reassuring reminder that this crazy summer will eventually transition into another season. This has been one of the most challenging seasons that I can remember in my time at The Farm School, and while we have all learned a lot from these trials, we are all looking forward to a change.

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The Egg-Mobile working a pasture edge.

We also had three-quarters of an inch of rain Sunday night, keeping the nice string of rain accumulations going, and keeping the veggies and the pastures moving in a positive direction. We have now had a few weeks with somewhat regular rain, and the whole farm is getting back on track.

The beef herd started grazing again on Tuesday evening. They will get tiny sections of new grass every evening through the remainder of the week, easing their digestive systems back over, from the hay that they have been eating over the past six weeks, to green pasture. We are also taking advantage of this grazing period with the beef herd to do a little weed control in the pasture that they have just begun grazing. The pasture, named Upper Racetrack, is one that we have used for overwintering the beef herd, with our massive grid of round bales pre-set in the fall for winter feeding.

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Pasture re-growth

This practice adds tons of manure and grass seed, but also sometimes introduces strange seed from the bales that we buy in. Several years ago, I noticed a new weed taking over in this pasture after we had used it for the winter, and now we are going to see if the beef herd can take care of it. With the small sections of new grass, less than they would like to have, I am hoping that they will be motivated to eat the weeds they would otherwise pass up.

The Maggie’s student farmers processed their broiler chickens on Tuesday. They raised one hundred birds from chicks delivered in the first week of June by Hoffman Hatchery. The Heavy Silver Cross Grey Broiler grows a bit more slowly than the industry standard Cornish Cross, but they seem to avoid most of the challenges that the Cornish Cross has with it’s super rapid growth. The Silver Cross Broilers also forage on fresh pasture better than the Cornish Crosses, and are able to walk along in our daily-move pastured system very well. The Cornish Cross birds are typically raised for only seven weeks, so our approach adds time and cost to the process, but seems more humane and successful to us.

 

We sent seventy-five of this year’s birds to a Massachusetts approved processing facility, and kept thirty for processing on farm. The on farm processing system that we teach starts with killing the birds, dunking them in a pot of hot water to loosen their feathers, a spin in the plucking machine, evisceration on the table, and a drop into the ice bath to cool. Every student has the opportunity to try their hand throughout the whole process, and can take a bird from start to finish, or find one job in the sequence to really master. By doing just thirty on farm, we take away most of high-paced pressure that a full one hundred would bring, and give the students plenty of time and space to navigate what can be a very difficult experience. The chilled birds end up in the kitchen, where Cristina (Head Chef/Kitchen Master) and Josh Buelle (New Age Renaissance Man) teach students how to break down the carcass into usable parts. They are vacuum sealed and frozen for next year’s student farmers to eat throughout their time at The Farm School.

The student farmers put up their timber frame last weekend, completing a nearly eleven month process from log to standing structure. They milled timbers on our sawmill, chiseled out all the joinery, and finally put the whole time together on sight. This year’s frame was actually sold to a student from this year’s class who lives locally enough that we could make it work. He hopes to apply the things he’s learned in his year at Maggie’s to an expanding homestead, and the timber-frame barn will be a part of that growth.

Late Summer

With a bit more rain this week, vibrancy and vigor continues to seep back into the pastures and the vegetable beds at The Farm School. Plants are standing tall and glowing green again, the ground is soft under foot, and the animals are busy grazing and growing.

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Looking fresh and healthy!

With everyone but the beef herd back out grazing, the rhythm of the farm is returning to normal after the strange lull we experienced in June and July. Pasture rotation is back at the top of my list, with daily checks on grass condition, paddock size, and planning for the next move. It is wonderful to see the sheep and dairy cows back out on the hillsides doing what they do best, and I am really looking forward to getting the beef herd back out grazing again next week. From a mix of soil conditions, slope and aspect, and probably many other factors that I don’t fully understand, their pastures have been much slower to recover than the sheep and dairy cow’s.

 

The Farm School has undertaken a large forestry project over eighty acres or so down below the Maggie’s Farm complex. In cooperation the state of Massachusetts, the NRCS, and a local forester, our project is thinning the forest by between a third and a half, with a focus on removing poor quality trees.

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A view of the log landing.

The NRCS encourages this type of work, and even pays us to do it, in support of a goal of a healthier forest full of larger, and ultimately, more valuable timber. The forester walks the forest and marks the trees that are to be removed, the logger buys the trees as they are based on the foresters calculations, and then harvests them for sale. The vast majority of this harvest is going into wood chips since the trees coming out are small, crooked or are otherwise low quality. For us, this project includes a nice payoff, but it also sets our forest up for long-term healthy growth into the future, and the potential for smaller more lucrative harvests down the line. This approach, called ‘low-grading’, is the counter to ‘high-grading’, which would be the harvest of only the largest, best, and most valuable trees. This would pay in the short-term, but leads to the degradation of the forest over the long run as only the weakest and worst trees are left. The work of forestry at this scale is now done almost entirely by machine, with feller-bunchers, skidders, a truly massive chipper, and semi-truck loads of chip leaving all day. Although the project as it is happening is loud and rough, tearing things apart and cutting lots of trees, the long-term response of the forest should be a real positive for us and that ecosystem as a whole.

With just a couple of weeks before school programing resumes at Sentinel Elm Farm and the Program for Visiting Schools, work has begun on our annual efforts to renew the bunkhouse and surround grounds. Every nook and cranny gets a deep clean first, extra stuff that’s collected from the year gets moved along, and the while place gets a detailed inspection. We’ve had some light carpentry on the boy’s side of the bunkhouse, we’ve got some painting going on now, and, as usual, Ben and Brad are busy at work making the grounds beautiful. Flower plantings are ready, the weed-whacker is humming full time, and place is really looking nice. We host a few different events in the weeks before school starts again, from teacher retreats to visiting friends, and the work to keep the place looking nice for every visitor never stops.

Past the mid-point

We’ve gotten a bit more rain since my last entry, with half an inch in the rain gauge by evening chores yesterday. Every bit helps a lot right now, and like I described last week, we are really thinking more about the timing and sequence of the rain events more than the actual accumulation.

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Corn loves hot dry weather, it has grown well this year.

We have a promising outlook for the next five days, with thunderstorms and lots of rain forecasted. The issue on many livestock producer’s minds in Massachusetts now is the second cut of hay, and if the recent rains are going to do enough to make a decent hay crop at the end of August or beginning of September. For The Farm School, this is especially relevant because we feed our small dairy herd wrapped round bales of second, or even third cut hay in the winter (not this year!). Those bales provide the cows with a super premium feed through cold winter weather, and they really go a long way to keep the milkers healthy, well fed, and making good milk. Opening a fragrant round bale of high-quality second-cut hay on a cold day in January is a momentary journey back to summer, and a reminder of all the warmth, sounds and smells that went into making that bale.

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Tom and King cool off in the shade between jobs.

The dairy herd went back out on pasture this week, taking it bit by bit ,to transition their digestive systems back into fresh grass shape. They have loved the change back to pasture, and have been happy to lounge on fresh grass, rather than in their old holding-yard. The sheep flock also went back out onto grass this week, and we’ve taken a similar slow and steady approach to get their rumens reacquainted with fresh green forage. The sheep, always by far the most vocal group on the farm, have suddenly gone silent, with their heads down in the grass rather than up complaining about something. We were even able to find some fresh grass for our two rams, cleaning up around the lower barn at Maggie’s Farm.

As hard as it is to imagine, work in the veggie world has already begun to look at the end of the production season. August is in the back half of our short growing season, and Alex and his crew are already prepping and seeding beds for cover crops and rest.

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Brad planted peanuts, and they’re doing well so far.

Harvest, weeding and seeding are still going strong, but the first markers of the season’s decline are passing us now. An observer can get a concise look at the character of New England farming in the August preparation of veggie beds for winter; the season is fleeting, planning and preparing ahead are vital, and some work done today can really make tomorrow better.

Tomatoes really seem to be the most cherished summer product, and I am happy to report that we are having a good tomato year. Tomatoes love hot dry weather, and we’ve had plenty of that this summer. The Late Blight that has effected our area the last few years is not here yet, and the dry weather that we had last month really arrested its progress moving up from the south. Late Blight is a fungal disease that effects our tomatoes, riding here on weather systems from the south, and lit oves humid conditions. We are expecting that type of weather this weekend, so it may be here next week. The tomatoes are doing great now, and we are all enjoying them with every meal!

The fruit is a bit less plentiful that we would like, but the hot dry weather has  meant that each individual tomato is super flavorful and rich, with not too much water is there to make things bland. A similar description can be applied to many of our crops this year, with flavorful individual fruits, but a bit less volume that we like to see. The dry weather has concentrated the production into fewer, but more delicious produce.

Breeding continues in the dairy barn. Patty was in heat this week, but we missed breeding her, and Emily bred yesterday. The Farm School is hosting a farming group from Yale, and they all enjoyed Brad’s breeding demo in the dairy barn at chores yesterday evening. I expect the beef bull to arrive on the scene next week, and breeding in the beef herd to begin directly after that.

Some Rain

We got an inch and a half of rain over last weekend and the beginning of this week, and it’s made us all feel so much better about the season and condition of the farm. We’ve been able to take a break in irrigating the veggie beds, and the pastures, though thin and short, are greening up a bit. The ever-present dust has been rinsed off of everything, changing the world from grey to green again.

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The grapes are coming on, and housing a robin’s nest.

Central Massachusetts is still several inches below our annual average for rainfall at this point in the year, so while this latest accumulation eases the panic a bit for now, all eyes are still on the ten-day forecast, looking for the next storm. When it comes to rain on a farm in the summer, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ is really the issue, and we’re always looking for the rain that’s a few days away.

Our grazers are still in holding yards, eating hay and waiting for the pastures to come back from the drought. I have been doing regular pasture walks every day to check on recovery after the latest rain, and the pasture plants definitely responded well. If we can get a bit more rain this weekend, as is forecasted, we might be back grazing within two weeks. Just like we ease the animals through a transition from eating hay all winter to spring grazing, we will need to be careful as we move the sheep and cows back onto green grass. A full day’s paddock of fresh green grass would make them all bloat dangerously, since their rumens have adapted to digesting only hay for the past few weeks.

Every plant in every veggie bed loved the rain, and they are all standing up tall and strong again after sagging their way through the dry weather. The soil has returned to a beautiful dark brown shade, and with the dust washed off the leaves, things look vibrant and fresh again. The rain is probably going to draw out a flush of weeds, with seeds waiting in the soil for conditions just like this, so cultivation and weeding may move to the top of the list in the coming days. The dry weather had kept weed pressure pretty mild to this point, but that may change now. There certainly were weed varieties thriving in the dry conditions, since there seems to be a weed adapted to just about everything imaginable, but the broad population of weeds out there had a hard time with no rain, just like the veggie plants.

The broilers are growing well, with a scheduled processing day at the end of August. We will be taking most of them to a state inspected processing facility this year, which will mean that we can sell them in the state. Keep a look out for word about that opportunity this fall!

This season’s blueberry crop had a wonderful start, with a strong flush of large berries. Berry size suffered a bit with the lack of water, but production continued on strong, and we hope that the latest rain will help keep the season going a bit further. Berries of all kinds, coming out of the freezer, keep us all going through the winter and remind us of the summer’s growing season.

It’s breeding season in the dairy, and we are on the look-out for heats. When a cow comes into heat, which she does about every twenty-one days, the other cows will periodically jump up on her back end.

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Brad trying to breed Phoenix.

If she stays still, rather than running out from under them, then she is in ‘standing heat’. That’s the sign to call the breeder, and luckily we have a resident cow breeder in Brad. This picture shows Brad trying to breed Phoenix, and two-year-old heifer, and this would be her first pregnancy. Brad’s left had is in there to feel the various parts of the cow’s reproductive system to make sure that the breeding tube, holding the tiny straw of thawed semen, in his right hand, finds the right place. Things can be a bit trickier with a cow that has not bred before, but Brad felt confident that this attempt went well. We do all of our breeding with purchased semen, rather than owning or renting a bull.