Crop Planning

We’re weaning two calves. The nose rings make it so they cannot nurse.

The student farmers at Maggie’s Farm have started their series of garden and field crop planning this week, starting with the basic principles of laying out the schedule and sequence of the growing season, then digging deeper into the details of how we ensure successful production to meet demand for all of our customers through the spring, summer and fall. This series of classes will give the students a chance to contribute to the crop plan for The Farm School’s cultivated acreage, as well as some time to imagine how they would map out their own potential vegetable production. In January, veggie growers all over New England are reading seed catalogues and dreaming big.

We have been working over the past few months to bring our sheep and layer operations into compliance with the specifications of the AWA, and we took another step forward this week with the completion of another larger chicken door on the winter coop at Sentinel Elm Farm. The AWA mandates that the chicken doors be large enough that no hen feels trapped inside, so we have been expanding the doors on both winter coops to accommodate a more free flow of hens in and out. I mentioned the start of this project last week, and I can report that we have finished both coops by now.

The next step will be do similar work on the summer ‘egg-mobiles’ used at both farms, but in that case we will be adding a second door, rather than one large door. We’ve ordered a second automatic door for the Maggie’s egg-mobile, so that both doors will have light sensitive controls opening and closing them at dawn and dusk. We also added a feed house out in the yard at the Maggie’s winter coop, hoping to encourage the hens to come outside more, and to give them some shelter out there.

We’ve gotten every student farmer through the firewood yard this week, re-introducing everyone to the hydraulic splitter, the chainsaws, the team of horses, and the mauls. Once everyone is comfortable using the requisite tools, and knows the workings of the yard pretty well, we can push production up to top speed, and try to get through this year’s quota as quickly as we possible.

The latest view at the firewood yard.

Every tool we use for making firewood is dangerous, and every step is physically demanding, so no matter how quickly we’d like to get the firewood split and stacked, the work demands care and attention.


Our chick brooder at Maggie’s has been a small outbuilding in the yard, originally built as a chicken coop. It is too small to accommodate the groups of chicks we work with for more than a couple of weeks, and we have been considering an upgrade for quite a while. We salvaged a small timber-frame structure from the sheep yard when we upgraded their situation this fall, and we’ve pulled it up near the barn to use as our new brooder house. This frame was the first built by Maggie’s student farmers way back at the start of the program, and we are currently trying to adapt it for its new purpose.

The new brooder, still working on the foundation.

Time and use have twisted it a bit out of square, and the trip from the sheep yard didn’t do much to make it any straighter, so we’ve spent quite a bit of time this week trying to establish a level foundation, and a vision for how the whole thing will work best. We need to have a suitable brooder house ready for broiler chicks coming in the mail May 1st, and while that seems to be quite a way off, the spring is notorious for getting incomprehensibly busy all of a sudden in April, and we’re trying to get this thing finished before the crush of warmer weather. We’ll keep working on the project, and I will report back with progress.

Back to Work

Snow fell on the farm Tuesday night and Wednesday, and the landscape has gone back to mostly white. Some winters, our backdrop is white nearly the whole way through, and some winters, like last, we see snow only once in a while. This winter has had an almost predictable calendar, switching from brown to white, and back to brown, like a snake shedding its skin. With warm weather in the forecast ahead, I expect that we’ll lose this latest covering pretty soon. The skating pond has held up pretty well through it all, so we’ve been enjoying plenty of winter fun, no matter the snow pack.

Emily and Phoenix trying the new feeder.

The Learn to Farm program got going again this week after a month of winter break, and the schedule has been packed with some new things, and some continuation of the pre-break work. Work at the sawmill continued, milling out the last few timbers for the timber-frame project. Students were back in the timber-frame shop as well, chipping and chiseling out the final joinery on that frame, in the hope that it can be completed in the next two weeks. Once the timber-frame is completed, and moved out of the greenhouse, that space will be cleaned and setup for starting seeds and raising seedlings. The conversion from timber-frame shop back to greenhouse is remarkable, and is a sure sign that the spring, and the growing season, are coming soon. Firewood production is ramping up, but once the timer-frame is completed, that work will really start to dominate the schedule for the next six weeks or so. We rarely get the whole student-farmer group making firewood all at the same time, but even with a half-group of seven, the work can move along pretty quickly. Bradley and his horses play a vital roll in our firewood production, helping to pull logs from the forest out to the landing for bucking, splitting and loading. Brad started taking each student on a refresher drive with the horses this week, giving everyone the chance to get behind the horses again, remember the technique and commands, and to get ready for the driving time that is coming.

img_4054We have been working over the past six months to get our livestock operation AWA inspected and approved, and one of the changes that they asked us to make in their tour of the farm, was to enhance the chicken doors on our winter coops. We were given the option of adding a second door, or making a single door large enough that chickens could get in and out without disagreement. The concern of the AWA is that a chicken near the top of the pecking order could potentially stand in a small doorway, trapping chickens lower on the pecking order either inside or outside the building. On Monday, we boarded up the old door, cut a big hole in the wall, and installed a new large door with a gloriously large ramp. Whether the new door has really made a difference in the layer’s ability to go in and out more easily or not, the new door has certainly put a large hole in the side of the building, and we are going to need to come up with some type of bad-weather adaptation to keep that house at a more comfortable temperature when the weather gets cold and nasty. I hope to do the same project on the door to the winter coop at Sentinel Elm farm this week as well.

img_4056Despite some small vital changes that I need to make, the new dairy feeding trough seems to be working well. There were several factors that encouraged me in making this change, and it has been on my mind for quite a while. The current cow feeding area is a tiled floor space just in front of their tie-ups. It is a tough space to keep clean, with grout between the tiles, lots of foot traffic in and on the area, and the whole thing right down at floor level. Watching the cows essentially licking the floor to get the last few pellets of grain, especially in really cold weather, really started to bother me, and I took some measurements and sketched out a simple wooden frame and trough that could be built in. img_4052The frame is pine, the decking is hardwood, and whole thing means that the cows are licking on wood, rather than cold dirty tile, nobody can walk directly where they eat, and there is a lip to keep their grain accessible. The new space is more difficult to sweep out, but I am hopeful it will stay cleaner in general because the cows can access all of the area to eat, and can reach every bit of grain and hay.

Most of the students and some staff are headed off to the NOFA-NY Winter conference Friday and Saturday of this week, eager to learn new approaches, dig deeper into old ones, and meet some great farmers!

The Snow is Gone

Our two winter pigs.

We’re coming to the end of another pretty quiet week here at The Farm School, with both programs still off for vacation, and only the Chicken Coop school in session. Wednesday and Thursday of this week were above fifty degrees, and the snow is gone from the fields. The field edges and plow piles are lingering, but the farm has almost entirely changed from white to brown. Work has continued on the Bunkhouse this week, with the attention shifting from the kitchen, which looks incredible, to the teacher rooms and bathroom. The kitchen, which was totally emptied for patching and painting, has been put back together and is ready for action. We bought a new huge pair of speakers for the kitchen, and we’re anticipating taking the cleanup music scene to insane new heights.

Brad’s firewood world.

Bradley and his horses make regular passes through the farm, headed out to this year’s firewood yard in the forest, and the distant whine of his chainsaw is in the air most of the day.

Meetings, planning, dreaming and preparation have continued all week, and just about every table has seed catalogues strewn across them. We’re planning the next production season, but also laying the groundwork for the coming months of the Learn to Farm Program.

The beef herd at dawn.

The schedule has seemingly limitless components, with classes, work sessions, field trips, visiting teachers, and more. They all have to be puzzled together, and an adequate amount of time has to be allotted to the vital work of the farm as well. In addition, we are in a constant search for ways to enhance and deepen the adult student’s learning and experience, and we use these quiet winter weeks to analyze, debate and develop all of our practices toward that goal. Our students make a significant commitment to spend the year here with us, and we are constantly working on ways to maximize their opportunities for learning and hands on experience.

We packed the months’ meat CSA share this week, and sent it into Boston for distribution. Josh B and Nora keep a careful inventory of the cuts that have come back from the processing facility, and work hard to craft the perfect share every month.

Inside the hoop house.

The share this month had sausages, ground lamb, a chuck roast, several other cuts, and the usual dozen fresh eggs. We try to make each bag about twelve pounds each month, include cuts of beef, pork and lamb, and make sure that we can stay consistent and varied through the season. I am super proud of the meat we produce, and I am pretty sure each CSA share bag makes each member happy, and goes a long way to keeping them warm and well fed all winter.

These quiet winter weeks are also a chance to try a few things out before the wild tempest of visiting students return to the farm, and the production season and Maggie’s really gets going. This year I built a little feeding bunk into the dairy cow feeding setup, in the hopes of getting their feeding area up off the ground. I put the contraption in place at the beginning of the week, and if it seems to be working okay by next week, I’ll include some pictures and explanation. We’ve been using it for a couple of days, but I have not heard anything from the other milkers yet about how it has worked for them.

The beef herd bull was finally picked up on Thursday, more than three full months later than we really wanted to keep him. He arrived during the first week of August, and we like to give him minimum three heat cycles to breed the cows. A cow heat cycle is about twenty-one days on average, so two months in the herd will give a bull just about three chances to breed each cow. If the bull was actively breeding for August and September, I would have been happy to have seen him leave some time in the first half of October, pretty confident that he had done his job. However, the bull owner doesn’t have much incentive to come back for the bull, since we pay the same price no matter how long he stays, and we feed and care for the bull while he is on the farm. It is understandably challenging to get that type of priority moved to the top of the to-do list, but we finally got him shipped off this week. Now, all the cows and calves can fit at the indoor feeder, and going to visit the beef herd is a little less tense.

An area Brad has cut.

New Year, New Plans

This is still a quiet time at The Farm School, with both programs taking time off until the student farmers come back in the middle of January. Despite the quiet, work continues at both farms, and the Chicken Coop School is back in session too. Work at Sentinel Elm Farm is focused on getting the facilities in tip-top shape, with special attention directed at the bunkhouse.

The Bunkhouse kitchen, renewed.

We’ve had a crew in the kitchen all week patching, painting, and repairing everything they can get their hands on, and the place is looking better than ever. Dave has been in the hay-loft of the dairy barn all week sorting through the jumble that inevitably piles up in there, discarding whatever he can, and organizing the rest. This is a seemingly yearly exercise for us, but we always find more stuff to get rid of, more curious treasures stashed away up there, and a renewed hope that we can keep the space organized and useful in the future.

With the work of last year behind us, and the flush of spring still weeks and weeks away, we spend the cold winter months planning and dreaming about next year. We look back on last season to see where we may have gone wrong, where we came up short, what we did really well, and what we would like to change.

Sentinel Elm layers having breakfast.

We look forward to the spring with an irrational optimism that we can finally get it all right, and sketch out how we’re going to get it done. I have ordered our chicks for the coming year and made our processing dates at the slaughterhouse. The new wall calendar is up in the office, and arc of the production year, at least for the livestock, is starting to take shape. Some of the big projects that we are looking forward to for the coming year include a new and improved brooder for raising chicks, and a new pullet pasture trailer for transitional housing between the brooder and winter coop for the newest layers, pasture expansion and high-tensile fencing for both the beef herd and the sheep flock, a rebuild of our piglet training area, and continued adaptations to accommodate our move toward AWA certification. I will be reporting on all of these projects over the coming weeks and months, and hopefully you’ll be able to follow along as we continue the unending work of perfecting this farm.

Daisy and Pip enjoying a sunny morning chew.

Aside from all of our dreaming and planning, winter is also firewood season, and we are making our plans for the coming production season. We try to blend three complementary goals into our firewood production approach, so there is often a bit of added strategizing that goes into this work. Firstly, we need to produce something close to thirty cords of firewood, split between fourteen-inch stove length pieces, and the longer thirty inch furnace material. This will hopefully be enough to get neighbor Maggy through next winter, and to keep our furnace chugging along too. Secondly, we need to give every student the opportunity to take the next steps in their mastery of tree felling and bucking, building on skills introduced in the Game of Logging workshop earlier in the fall. Thirdly, we try to use this work to open up pasture and veggie field edges, expand bar-ways, or otherwise optimize the effect of our work on the larger farm landscape.

Unwrapped round bale, like a big ball of summer!

In most cases, I am adamant about leaving trees around pastures to give our grazing livestock the chance to get out of the hot sun as needed, but there are certain areas, especially around veggie fields, where adding a few more hours of sunlight every day, by eliminating over-hanging trees, can really make a difference. We strive to advance all three of these goals at the same time, working through the majority of January and February to get it all done. We will be cutting around the Back pasture, Sheep pasture and trying to expand and rescue the Horse pasture this year, and I will keep you informed as we go along.