Winter Break

Hello friends, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and stay warm out there. The Farm School Manual will return the first week of January with a new entry. We’re all enjoying the wintry farm, doing lots of ice skating and cross country skiing, and making plans for the coming spring! We’ll be back in the new year!

Quiet Times

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The log pile, ready to bucked, split and stacked.

This has been the final week before the Learn to Farm Program takes a month long winter break, so we have been finishing up several projects around the farm to make sure that the place is ready for the quiet times ahead.

We put in a solid week of work on cord wood production, bucking and splitting in the yard at Maggie’s Farm as well as at the log landing just south of the farm complex.

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A growing firewood pile, and rounds to split beyond that.

The log pile at Maggie’s is finished, but there is a massive pile, left by the logging crew that did our forest thinning project this summer, to work through at the landing. We have dreams of producing forty cords of firewood this winter, so that will be the work of the next few months.

The tools of farming change with the season, as the work moves from cultivation and fencing to firewood and forestry. There are tools, like the harvest knife or the scuffle hoe that almost become extensions of our bodies through the summer months, only to be set aside for new tools used for new work when the weather gets cold. Winter is the chainsaw season, the maul season, and the splitter season.

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The gear lineup for firewood work at the landing.

Things forgotten become newly essential, like winter gloves, a good hat, and warm boots, and things used everyday are put away to be forgotten again until spring. This change is reflected in our travels across the farm, where certain areas become focal points for a time, only to be left again for other projects in other places. In the warm months we are out in the fields and pastures, and we spend countless hours in veggie wash-up, but now our work is in the barns and yards, and wash-up is cold and dark.

We put up walls on the north-west corner of the new sheep shelter yesterday, working in some really cold and windy conditions to get the sheep a bit of a wind-break down at their hay feeder. We had milled siding material at our sawmill from pines harvested by Brad and his horse team, so the whole project, other than the screws, was sourced here on the farm.

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Sheep enjoying the new finished corner.

The walls had a great effect on the feeder area, and once we’d bedded the area with an extra bale of straw, we all wanted to curl up and nap in the cozy corner we’d built, out of the wind. Of all of our livestock, I think that the woolly sheep mind the cold and wind least of all our animals. However, it is essential that we provide them with a dry place to stand and eat, which they do for hours and hours every day, and we really want to keep the blowing snow out of their shelter. The new walls block the wind and snow, and also give the sheep a sheltered spot to ruminate. Every calorie that they spend keeping warm on a cold windy day is a calorie that is not going to their growing lambs, or their own fat reserves, so a simple wind break can do a lot to enhance their condition.

The student farmers took their annual trip up to visit the Adams Farm slaughterhouse on Wednesday, looking in on the kill floor, hanging coolers and processing room. This visit affords our students an intimate view of the process of turning our livestock into cuts of meat, and it feels like an important part of the cycle to see and to understand. This can be a challenging visit for our students, and we always follow the trip with a chance to sit around the farmhouse table to talk about the experience. There is no nice way to do the work that is done up at Adams, but they do it well, and do it efficiently, and have taken every step they can to develop as humane a process as is possible.

This week also included our final Monday morning with Dr. Major, this week focusing specifically on dairy cows. The group spent some time in our little dairy, looking at the cows and their facilities, discussing some of the common issues that dairy cows face, as well as some of the adaptations and improvements that modern dairying has made to house cows comfortably. This was followed by a visit to Hunt Farm, just down the road in Orange, MA. They milk about 115 cows, using many of the hallmark components of more modern dairying, and this visit was an opportunity to expose our students to that approach to dairying. George Hunt Jr is always a wonderful host, answering questions honestly and openly, sharing the many challenges that he faces on his dairy farm, and really offering wonderful insight into some of the business pressures that face farmers operating at his scale. From tax law to hiring staff, George gives our students a truly essential look into production farming and commodity marketing.

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A view into the inferno.

Both of our wood fired furnaces are going full speed this week, and with the super cold weather to finish out the week, we’ve been busy keeping them well stocked and cranking out heat.

Freezing

Winter seems to really be here now, with snow on the ground, ice in the water troughs, and sand spread on the driveway. We’ve had two little snow events over the past week, neither of which amounted to much, but which collectively have turned the farm nearly white. With some cold weather in the ten-day forecast, and more snow too, it is beginning to feel a lot like….

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A view under the Reemay in the hoop house; spinach and arugula might not get to full size this year.

Sentinel Elm Farm, the home for the Program for Visiting Schools, is feeling a bit empty this week with Friday of last week marking the end of programing for the winter. We hosted The Village School and our own Chicken Coop School on Tuesday, bringing the place back to life a bit for a day, but we’re missing the kids already. We’ve got a few projects to button up before the quiet winter break really takes hold, and we are spending this week making sure everything is resolved. We put a new roof on the wood shop yesterday, we’ve dusted off the wood splitter and tuned the chainsaws for firewood time, fences are down, grain is stocked up, and the windows are on the barn.

Similar work continues this week at The Learn to Farm program, with Alex leading the work of shutting down veggie operations for the winter. Wash-up and the walk-in are closed down for the winter, and strawberries and garlic will be mulched with straw in and all-group-work-project to end the week. We spent a good part of our weekly staff meeting yesterday mapping out the firewood production plan for the winter, trying to pair our production goals with the need to get every student ample time with a chainsaw in their hands, and under good supervision.

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Timbers finished and drying in the shop.

This is one of the most challenging teaching components of our program, with ambitious production targets, a super dangerous tool to master, and elevated staffing requirements to ensure super-direct one-on-one instruction. The work can also involve further daring complications, like dragging logs with the tractor, driving a team of draft horses, hand splitting with a maul, and operating the hydraulic splitter. All of these additional components deepen the learning opportunities for the student farmers, and demand heightened management from the Learn to Farm staff.

Work continues in the greenhouse on this year’s timber frame, with the hope that it can be completed and put away to dry before we break for the holidays. Students also continue to plug away at the sawmill, milling out boards to use as siding for our new sheep shelter as well as our enhanced chick brooder.

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The sawmill, and some finished boards.

They take round logs, mill them off into square or rectangular beams, and then slice them over and over, each time an inch thick, to create ‘one-by’ siding. (The siding is one inch thick, and after ‘by’ you’d say whatever the other dimension is, but ‘one-by’ can be used to refer to any one inch thick board, since they come in so many different widths. We produce ‘rough-cut’ lumber on the mill, which refers to lumber that has not been run through a planer to make it smooth. The dimensions of lumber refer to the size before the planer, so a 1×8 from a conventional lumber yard is not actually one inch thick and eight inches wide, but is usually 3/4 of an inch thick and 7 1/4 inches wide, and is still called a ‘one-by-eight’).

Pearl was in heat again Wednesday in the dairy, and Brad and Rachel managed to try another breeding attempt during evening chores. A cow bred now can be expected to deliver a calf in the middle of September, so December breeding is fine for us. We try to avoid winter calving, so December and January are really the last months that we are willing to breed in the dairy.

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Pearl, on a nasty day at the farm.

Cold weather calving can just add complications to the process that we are happy to avoid. Unfortunately, that means that we have occasionally had cows that don’t breed within our preferred window, and that we then have to carry them through quite a ways with no calf in their future. That is a significant cost to us, and we always have to decide whether it would make more sense to move an un-bred cow along to another destiny rather than keep her on the farm. Pearl is the best cow in the dairy, so we will make every effort to get her bred successfully and on target for another great year to come.

Fall Rain

This post includes more pictures from our Learn to Farm draft-horse series at Fair Winds Farm. The work is picturesque and a joy to admire, and the picture are from Amber Bahn, a student in this year’s class. 

We’re coming to the end of a wet week here at The Farm School, with just over a half-inch of rain on Tuesday, and more than an inch through the day on Wednesday. This part of New England is still in drought, and the heavy rain has been a welcome addition to local reservoirs, and our little ice-skating pond.img_3880 These conditions have also really tested our winter livestock accommodations, and have forced us to make some great changes to help keep our animals comfortable and dry. Most of our designs rely on the ground freezing, and more snow falling than rain, and those have not been the conditions on the ground here yet this early winter. In response, we have enhanced our covered indoor spaces, added more bedding, and spread deep beds of wood chips to dry out some of the muddiest locations. We also built a hay feeder inside the beef barn, big enough to accommodate all of our beef animals, and out of the mud and rain. Wednesday was the new hay feeder’s inaugural run, and it seemed to work really well. It is always very rewarding to identify an issue that our livestock is facing, figure out and execute a solution, and see the animals adapt and benefit from the work. Seeing the whole herd lined up in the barn enjoying fresh dry hay from the new feeder while the rain poured down in sheets outside was certainly one of those rewarding moments.

This is the time for the final steps in putting the vegetable growing acreage to bed for the winter, and we’re lining up our straw supply for bedding strawberries and garlic for the winter. We want those plants to survive the winter and be ready for vigorous growth next spring, so we cover them in a thick mat of loose straw to shelter them from winter weather. Most of the rest of our cultivated acreage is under a nice growth of cover crop, and will rest in that condition until tillage begins again in the spring.

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We’ve taken in all the fencing, and stored it for the winter.

Monday morning of this week saw the first of three workshops at the Learn to Farm Program with Dr. Major, of Green Mt. Bovine Clinic. He takes the adult students through a three part examination of livestock health and upkeep, focusing on the life-cycle, reproduction, feeding, housing, common illnesses, and basic healthcare of our beef and dairy cows, sheep, and horses. The third component of this series has usually included a visit to a large conventional dairy in our area to look at discuss some of the different issues that they face within their system.

This week at LTF also includes an introductory look at our beehives with Anne, weather permitting. Anne participated in the program a few years ago, and developed a passion for beekeeping. After graduating, she stayed in the area, furthered her bee knowledge, and has installed and manages several beehives throughout our acreage. Students work alongside Anne whenever the opportunity presents itself, and have the chance to harvest honey, extract it from combs, and enjoy it, if the season has been a successful one. Students will have a class this week with Tyson as well, focused on ‘whole farm planning’ and regenerative agriculture.

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Bale Mountain- winter feed for the beef herd.

Tyson is working to develop a long term farm plan for all of the acreage that The Farm School stewards, and he meets regularly with our adult students to share his work with them, and to discuss some of the principles that guide his work.