Winter? Really?

Snow is falling steadily here at The Farm School today, taking us from what seemed like the first real stirrings of spring, back into winter. The forecast calls for more than a foot of snow through today and tonight, and I am certainly feeling a bit of whiplash from this sudden turn-around. Our pastures were finally clear of snow after a warm sunny day yesterday, the mud of the previous couple of weeks was beginning to show the first signs of drying out, the ground had thawed enough to start work on pasture fences, and we even had our first lambs this morning. Now we’re taking a leap back in time, the snow shovels are back out, the plow-truck will be running soon, and this latest storm promises another long spell of muddy yards and roads. Farming in New England has always been unpredictable, but the dial seems to have been cranked a few clicks crazier in the past few years. Just as a reminder, we were up near just shy of eighty degrees for a few days at the end of February.

IMG_4367
There are three lambs in there.

The morning sheep chore folks found four lambs in the sheep pen this morning, and though things seemed to have gotten a bit mixed up, we now have the ewes in jugs, one with a single lamb and the other with three. We were a bit unsure of which lamb belonged to which ewe, but after some experiments and close observation, we think we’ve got it straightened out now. The single lamb is enormous, full of milk, and bouncing off the walls. The triplets are having a few issues, and we have been bottle-feeding the smallest of them since she just could not get a turn on the teats or any attention from her mother. We have lots of willing bottle feeders here at The Farm School, so what can be an onerous task for a single farmer ends up being a real treat for the student farmers and kids at The Chicken Coop School. Each ewe has just two teats, so that third lamb, unless it really is aggressive and lively, often ends up undernourished, scrawny, or starved, and is usually best served by some support from a warm bottle of milk. Also luckily for us, we have a nearly inexhaustible supply of rich jersey milk coming out of our small dairy down the road, so we have plenty of fresh food for lambs.

Work has continued on the new chick brooder all this week, and we are really coming toIMG_4366 the end of the project. The inside is completed, with a small area for storing equipment and supplies just inside the door, and a nice large space for raising the chicks. We have a large door built into the east wall of the building, and that will lead to a ramp down into a large yard. I am always eager to get our chicks access to the outdoors once they’ve put on some real feathers, in the hopes that this will help them acclimate to the weather better, and get them scratching and pecking as young as is possible. The brooder is getting the final trim, siding and paint now, and we hope to have it all done by the middle of next week. Our attention will then turn to building a new mobile pullet house. This will be similar to the egg mobiles that we already use, but will house the pullets, young hens between chicks and layers, before they start laying eggs and move into the layer house.

The rams were separated from the sheep flock this week into their own yard with the goal of getting them off the scene before lambs started arriving. It is much easier and more comfortable to work intimately with the sheep without the rams sniffing around everything.

The greenhouse is filling with starts, and Alex has been busy all week getting all of our cultivation equipment in perfect running order. He also spent this week finishing the last few tractor one-on-one training sessions, making sure that every student feels as comfortable as possible with the equipment before the fields season really gets under way.

We expect more lambs next week, we’re hoping to finish the brooder, and lots of other things that I’ll keep you up to date on.

Turning seasons?

Here is a collection of pictures of some super-pregnant sheep; expecting lambs in the first week of April.

As we draw towards the end of March we are quietly slipping back into that time of year when every farmer begins to pay closer and closer attention to the ten-day weather forecast. The weather in the heart of winter is certainly worth keeping an eye on, with special attention paid to really cold nights, rain, and big snow-storms, but with the ground frozen and the livestock off the pastures, it is all a bit abstract. Now, with the growing season coming into sight over the horizon, these factors take up their rightful place in our thoughts, and become more and more influential on the farmer’s state of mind. When will the snow be off the pastures? When will the soil dry down enough for the first round of cultivation to begin? When will soil temperatures rise enough for the initial plantings? What will conditions be like when lambing starts in ten days? How closely will snow-melt and pasture green-up be spaced, and how will that affect the first flush of grass growth? In addition to those examples, we have a long list of projects to complete that are waiting for the snow to reveal the ground, and the ground to thaw enoughfor digging holes.

Our farm landscape is about half brown and half white now, with the pastures slowly clearing of snow, and paths and roads clear as well. Buds are just revealing themselves on the maples, but we still got some good sap runs in the first half of this week. The sugar shack has been running full speed most of the week, trying to work through a few full tanks of sap, and the jars of syrup or collecting in the kitchen. We made five gallons of syrup this week.

IMG_4319
Tar paper and trim

The student farmers moved several great projects ahead in leaps and bounds this week, with seeding in the greenhouse, serious progress on the new chick brooder house, a major pasture edge renovation, one-on-one tractor training, several great classes and field trips, and the final presentation of their business plans. We’ve had a bad cold going through the community this week as well, so all of this great work has been done by a revolving crew of survivors powering through the illness. The brooder house is drawing close to completion, with the door and some windows in, and the clapboard siding painted and ready to go on the exterior. We will use the brooder for our first round of chicks coming to the farm in the first week of May, so we are eager to get it all finished up with plenty of time to work out any last minute details before then.

In our constant effort to give the beef herd plenty of shade options throughout their

IMG_4333
The fence line was at the dark posts…

grazing rotation, we spent a couple of days this week clearing out the north-west corner of our ‘1-Acre’ pasture to give the cows a spot where they will be able to get under some trees. My chief concern for the beef herd is direct sun in the afternoon, from about 1-4pm through the warm summer months, so we are looking for shelter to the north and east of trees to block the afternoon sun. Our cows, with English origins, really prefer cool cloudy weather, and temperatures over seventy start to send them looking for relief. Ample shade is essential in keeping them comfortable, and although we don’t seem to have temperatures here that would pose any real danger to the beef herd, I am committed to keeping them as happy and comfortable as is possible. Hot cows do not graze efficiently, so giving our herd the chance to cool off in the shade between rounds of grazing seems to help keep them eating  enough to keep growing and making milk.

We’re all setup and ready for lambing, though hopefully we can wait one more week before they start to arrive. I’ll be sure to keep you up to date on everything that happens here on the farm.

Back to Winter, again.

IMG_4304
The barn for the beef herd is open to the east, and unfortunately the nor’easter blew snow right in on the herd.

This has been another great week here at The Farm School, highlighted by a significant nor’easter coming through our area on Tuesday. Snow started falling around dawn, and we had several hours through the middle of the day with nearly complete whiteout conditions. We had a steady east wind driving the snow into every nook and cranny of every building, and gusts that shook the trees and knocked branches down all over. We were all truly thankful that the power managed to stay on throughout the storm, and our visiting students stayed warm and comfortable as best they could. We ended up with about a foot of snow, although with the wind pushing it all around, that number is more of an average than a measurement. Two weeks ago, temperatures here were in the seventies and we were thinking about seeding pastures and setting up fences, so this dramatic return to deep winter has been stunning, to say the least. We had been completely snow free, and this latest storm is going to guarantee a significant volume of spring snow-melt run-off to keep the soil wet for a nice spring flush of pasture growth.

Monday seeding days in the greenhouse have started in earnest, and we’ve got onions

IMG_4315
Onion starts poking through.

germinating in there now, with Bok Choi, grown for the Big Pig Gig, to come Monday of next week. We grow both sweet and storage onions, with names like Red Wing, Cortland, Red Marble and Elsa Craig. We cure all of our onions in the greenhouse after harvest in the late summer, but the sweet onions, with lower sulfur content, go out in CSA boxes right away while the storage onions go into the root cellar or walk-in cooler to be doled out through the winter. We’ve got 150 trays of onions started, each tray has 128 cells, and each cells has two or three seeds in it, for a potential of more than forty-thousand onion plants coming up in there. The warm humid greenhouse is a remarkable place to be these days with wind-swept tundra all around us, and no signs of anything growing outside, and the emerging potential in there is tangible.

IMG_4310
Three lambing jugs in the upper barn.

We expect lambs to start showing up on the scene in the first week of April, and we took a few important steps forward in our preparation for that this week. We use lambing jugs here to give every ewe and her lambs a few days in their own space to get acquainted and gain strength before mixing with the full flock, and we set those jugs up this week. The connection between the ewe and her lambs is the most important factor in determining our level of success in raising each lamb up to be big and healthy, and independent of direct hands on care from us, so we try to do everything that we can to help ensure that their connection is strong. Using lambing jugs gives us the chance to isolate the ewe and her lambs, to give them a good chance to cement that bond, as well as giving us the chance to make regular observations of the new family in a controlled space. We can check on the ewe and her lambs, watch for successful nursing and growth, make sure everyone is being cared for, and address any challenges

IMG_4308
The new brooder, with a classic JB diamond window.

that we see before they go out into the larger group and become much more difficult to get a hold of. I also lead our yearly lambing class with the student farmers on Thursday, introducing them to the lambing process and going step by step through the vital part that they will play in assisting ewes and lambs through the event. We strive in our management of the flock to promote easy lambing and good mothering, but there is always a little support provided to each ewe and her new lambs. My objective is to give our students a good introduction to the progression of lambing and their role in it so that they are able to provide calm and effective support through the process.

Work also continued on our new brooder house this week, with progress on the east wall, including a frame for the high window and completion of the ceiling.

Sugaring Season

Ten days ago it felt just about like summer here at The Farm School, with temperatures

IMG_4280
1st cut, 2nd cut, and straw. I love an organized barn.

well up into the seventies and the snow melting fast. Rivers and streams in the area, bursting with the quick snow-melt, rapidly climbed to the tops of their banks, the yard turned to mud, and the evaporator in the sugar shack was going full tilt. Farmers here have even been finding ticks on themselves and their dogs. The temperature has been going down pretty steadily all of the past week though, and by this morning, we sit at 2 degrees. We were so blinded in our glorification of spring that the returning cold air froze the cow barn water system before we realized that winter wasn’t quite over yet.

IMG_4293
Steaming coming off the pan, Stephanie in charge.

Last week was a busy sugaring week, with some big runs throughout the week, and the sugar-shack cranking out syrup at full speed. We boiled all day, and most of the night, throughout the week, and worked through several full tanks of sap. The shelves are filling up with finished half gallons of syrup, and the quick warm up of the week is reflected in a quick transition from the clear syrup of the early season to the darker syrup of warmer weather. The initial run of sap, coming up from winter storage in the roots, is the cleanest and sweetest sap of the sugaring season. Once the weather warms, and the tree begins to take in moisture from the soil again, things begin to get a little more cloudy. This phenomenon is strongly enhanced by warm air temperatures, since the sap begins to age more quickly in the buckets at each tree as the temperatures rises. These two issues can lead to a darker product coming out of the evaporator pan, though that usually means a stronger maple flavor as well. Most serious maple producers strive pretty strictly for the clearest Grade A Light Amber, but here at The Farm School, the kids eating in the bunkhouse are happy with just about anything sweet and delicious coming out of the sugar-shack. Now that temperatures have gone way back

IMG_4282
A view under the eave.

down to single digits, I really hope that we have reset the season a bit, and that we can go back to some nice clear sap runs and lighter syrup for a while. We’ve got a little stretch of poor sugaring weather here forecasted for the middle of this week, but then it looks like we settle down into another good stretch of warm sunny days and cold nights to keep the maples pumping up sap.

Work has moved ahead on the new Maggie’s Farm brooder house, with our focus last week turning to the ceiling and eaves. We really need to make sure that this building provides our tiny little chicks with a safe environment to grow up in, and that means doing everything that we can to keep out other creatures, and to keep the heat in. We are sheathing the underside of the eaves in 1×10 rough-cut pine from Heyes Forest Products, and putting the same product on the underside of the rafters to create a ceiling. This work will hopefully keep the roof system inaccessible to any and all intruders, make sure that no one is nesting in there, and help to keep the chick space inside cleaner.

IMG_4291Last week was our final push on cord-wood for the winter, and we took down a few trees right around the yard, and bucked, split and stacked them for the furnace. Those trees had been standing between the main farmyard and one of our closest pastures, and the change in the view from the yard is remarkable.

Last week also included our yearly series of pruning workshops with Brad Maloney. He comes out every year to take the students through three full days of pruning, starting with an introduction to the basic concepts and tools, and moving pretty quickly out onto the farm for work in the trees. We have fruit trees all over the ridge, and between Brad, Carlen and all the IMG_4289students, they try to prune them all. This series of workshops has been happening here at the farm for quite a few years, and by this point, our trees are beautifully shaped and healthy.