One More Week

This week was the last in our three-part draft horse, timber frame, chainsaw training series, so now every adult student has had a week in each of these three areas. The skills and confidence that they developed over these weeks will be put to the test over the coming winter, with the bulk of our work focused on forestry, firewood production, and chiseling out our annual timber frame.

Driving the Suffolk-Punch draft horses at Fair Winds Farm.

The Farm School Learn to Farm Program is unique in the breadth of skills and topics that we include in the year, and this most recent span of programming is a great example of some of the exceptional areas that go into it.

Turkey processing is happening on the farm as I write this, marking the end of the livestock production season. We have been going full speed since lambing started the first week of April, then hundreds of chicks came in the mail, piglets arrived, calves dropped in the beef and dairy herds, and our community of animals got larger and larger. The opposite trend started in August, with broiler processing, fall trips up to the slaughterhouse for lambs, pigs and beef, and finally, with the turkeys gone, we are back roughly to where we started.

Jay Bailey and student-farmer Sophie working the reins.

This year’s turkeys came a month later than usual, and it looks like the finishing weights coming from the packing table are a bit smaller than we usually achieve. With one month less to grow, most of our turkeys this year are coming in just under or over ten pounds.

This week also saw our first pack-out for the meat CSA, and Josh B and the adult students spent the morning on Tuesday picking up our meat from the slaughterhouse, organizing our big walk-in freezer, and crafting a wonderful blend of cuts for the first delivery. This month’s share includes pork butt roast, ham steak and pork chops, half a leg of lamb, some goat chorizo, and a dozen eggs. The share is typically about twelve pounds per month, with a diversity of types of meat, large and small cuts, some fancy items and some of the basics.

Finished turkeys in the walk-in, ready for the holidays!

Our last cow in the dairy came into heat on Wednesday, and Brad stopped by to breed her that afternoon. If the breeding is successful, that will mark the end of the breeding season in the dairy, and we can pretty accurately map out the calving schedule for next spring and summer.

The cow breeding board for 2016/17

A cow bred in middle of November should deliver her calf at the end of next August, with a gestation of about 280 days, or nine and a half months. We try to spread calving out through the spring, summer and fall to ensure that we have fresh cows producing lots and lots of fresh milk throughout the long year.

The bull is still in with the beef herd, and although I am pretty confident that he has accomplished his task by this point, it can be a challenge to get his owner to come by and pick him up. Not only have the feeding costs shifted to us while the bull is here, but, unless the bull is destined for another breeding situation, picking him up understandably hangs out near the bottom of the to-do list. He is not a major burden in our feeding schedule, but we are all a bit more at ease going in with the herd once he is gone, and we’d like to see him move along some time soon.

Cow info for visitors

The ram stays in with the ewes all winter, and we don’t separate him out until just before lambing season begins. He is in the ewe flock for shearing day, and we typically get him, and his brother, off to their own yard just after that. Shearing the large ram is an annual challenge that some brave student farmers attempts every spring, and with the wonderful support of our shearing instructor, the job gets done one way or another.

The Program for Visiting Schools hosted Orchard Gardens for the first half of the week, and Nativity Prep for the back half. Orchard Gardens is a public K-8 school in Boston, and Nativity Prep is a tuition-free Jesuit all-boys middle school also in Boston. Both groups were truly wonderful, enlivened our farm environment beyond any imaginable level, and also got some vital and significant work accomplished. They put the garden to bed, cut, split and stacked lots of firewood, cooked some incredible meals, and looked after all the livestock with love and attention. We are all grateful for their energy and help!

The Season’s End

We’re finishing up another week of timber framing, draft horses and chainsaw work at the Learn to Farm Program, and we have concluded another great week in the Program for Visiting Schools as well. We hosted 7th graders from the Lawrence school this week, and they were able to bring three groups over four days for shortened one-night visits, accommodating their larger class sizes and giving every 7th grader the chance to come out and spend the night at the farm. Our Learn to Farm students go through a full Game of Logging workshop over the course of their week with Bill Girard, our local Game of Logging instructor. They learn the ins and outs of the chainsaw, including service and chain maintenance, how to fell a tree safely and to a chosen location, and how to limb and buck the tree in preparation for firewood production. Safety is obviously the primary focus of this training, and Bill does an incredible job every year getting folks from wherever they start in their knowledge and comfort with a chainsaw to a place where they can use the tool safely and effectively, feel confident in using it on their own farm, and step into a vital role here in our considerable yearly firewood production effort.

We have completed all of our processing dates for livestock for the year with six steers coming out of the beef herd last Sunday, and now have just the Thanksgiving turkeys to finish up before the livestock year can really be considered finished. We’ve moved all of the layers at Maggie’s Farm into the winter coop for the colder seasons ahead. Both the pullets and the layers were under some pretty heavy predator pressure this summer, so we ended up just blending the two groups of about sixty into one large flock of one hundred and twenty birds. Both groups started out close to one hundred birds, and I detailed some of the issues we faced last winter with hawk predation, so we will have to step up our protection approach significantly next year to avoid losses like we experienced this past year. We anticipate getting between two hundred and two hundred and fifty eggs from each productive hen before culling, so the loss of eighty hens, multiplied out, approaches twenty thousand eggs.

The layers checking out their winter scene. 


This was our final week of veggie harvest and markets, and Alex was also able to run the disks over the majority of our remaining beds not already under cover crop. The vibrant and assorted colors of the growing veggie beds have been replaced with dark brown soil and green cover crop, and to the eye, the slate has been wiped clean for the winter. We rest assured that the swirl of life in the soil, under the surface, continues at least a bit longer into the late fall, until hard freezes really set in. The winter rye cover crop is happy with this weather, and has put on a lovely thick green flush this fall.

There is just one more cow to breed in our little dairy, and if we can get her taken care of in the next few weeks, we should have a nice spring and summer calving season next year. Pearl was the first cow to deliver a calf this spring, and we thought we had bred her successfully a few months after that. However, she repeatedly showed the initial signs of coming into heat each month, without every really following through with the whole process. I asked Dr. Major, from Green Mt. Bovine Clinic, to come out and do ultrasound pregnancy checks on the cows, and in that process he determined that Pearl had a case of Pyometra. We treated her with two doses of Lutalyse to help her cycle properly and flush her uterus, and we are now waiting for her first natural cycle to attempt to breed her. Pearl retained her placenta after delivering her bull calf Prince this spring, and it seems that that complication was the probable cause of her challenges in breeding this summer and fall. Pearl is our best cow in the dairy at this point, we look forward to years of working with her, and we are confident that she will have a full recovery from this process.

Timbers, Trees and Horses

This has been the first week of an incredible stretch of programing in the Learn to Farm Program, with a third of the class spending their first week in the timber-frame shop, another third of the class in the woods for a few days of The Game of Logging, and the last third of the class at Fair Winds Farm in Brattleboro learning to drive draft horses. The schedule will rotate over the next few weeks to get every student their week in all three areas, and have everyone ready for the work of the winter.

The greenhouse is a timber-frame shop now.

These are really wonderful weeks in the fall schedule, introducing our students to some really captivating skills and exciting instructors, and highlighting some of the true depth of the Learn to Farm Program. The bulk of our time in the late fall, and most of the winter, is spent logging, making firewood, and chiseling out the timber-frame. Livestock chores continue and we have some great classroom time too, but firewood and timbers move firmly into our focus.

This week saw another round of pig loading, and this time we were unable to load four of the ten pigs left to go. The pigs were super flighty about the process, executed some incredible escape maneuvers, and refused to have anything to do with us by the time we gave up. We have made some changes to the loading setup, moved food and water into the transport trailer, and we will give it another shot in a couple of days.

Luckily, we have a strong relationship with our local slaughterhouse, and they are willing to give us a little flexibility in this process. There are few things on the farm that humble and frustrate me more than a pig that won’t load, and they can really be one the most challenging animals to move when they’re feeling stubborn. The pigs are the smartest animals we keep, they are incredibly strong with a low center of gravity, they have nowhere good to grab onto, they don’t herd nearly as well as sheep and cows, and they’re clever enough to figure out the loading process and defy it. So much of farming is dictated by lists, plans and a sequence of events that will allow the rest to fall into place, but when the pigs won’t load, the whole thing feels like it is coming apart all around us. After that quick moment of despair, we’re quick to trouble shoot the situation and make a plan for accomplishing the necessary adaptations. We can always find ways to shuffle the schedule, add some things to the list, and remember that there is almost always a solution.

Our two rams went in with the ewes on Monday, keeping with our traditional November 1st opening of the breeding season. That should give us lambs arriving some time at the beginning of April, late enough in the winter to avoid really cold weather, but early enough in the spring to have a good growing season ahead for the lambs. The rams spend most of their year together in their own pen, separated from the rest of the sheep flock, to avoid out of season breeding.

The hoop house is greening up.

This allows us to schedule lambing pretty directly for when we want it, and helps avoid surprise lambing. The rams will be in with the flock for the majority of the winter, and won’t be removed again until just before lambing begins in the spring. They get their work done in the first few weeks that they’re in with the ewes, but they certainly prefer living as part of the flock, so we let them stay as long as we can.

The new manure/compost pile for next year.

We spread tons and tons of manure this week, hoping to set some up of our hay fields and pastures for vigorous growth in the spring. Our little dairy generates a lot of really wonderful manure, mixed nicely with wood shavings and straw, and we are able to work that up into some pretty nice compost in the yard behind the dairy barn. We mixed carbonatite rock dust into the spreader loads with the composted manure this year with the goal of adding more minerals to our pastures as well. We spread manure over about eight acres at Sentinel Elm Farm, including the Sawmill, Poll Barn, and North West pastures.