Spring Cleaning

Veggie work has been a challenge this week, with rain keeping the ground pretty wet throughout the week, and lots of rain here at the end soaking us even more. Despite the difficulties, Alex, Kate and the student farmers were able to keep things moving forward beautifully this week, and they even got the tomato starts in the ground on Thursday. Tomatoes like hot dry weather, which has not been the character of the season so far. With soaking rain all night last night, and more coming down right now, we’ve got to keep our fingers crossed that those newly planted starts can hold on until the sun comes out again tomorrow. The green house and hoop houses are full of starts ready to go out as well, so the veggie growers are really hoping for a little run of dry weather to get out there prepping beds and planting.


The beef herd enjoying some tall grass.

Josh and the student farmers spent most of this week digging out the sheep winter area. The sheep have an indoor space they use for really nasty weather and lambing, and another covered space for eating and hanging out. We try to make the sheep walk back and forth between these two areas during the winter to make sure that their growing babies stay well aligned and ready to come out smoothly when the time comes. Both areas get bedded deeply, so the spring dig out is a real project. We used two tractors, and Josh’s large dumping wagon, and moved a massive amount of poop-infused bedding straw and hay from the sheep yard at Maggie’s Farm over to the composting yard behind the dairy. Our work over the past year to re-develop the sheep yard and systems there really paid off in this work, and we were able to quickly and safely muck out the area, and generate a huge pile of material for composting.

The broiler chicks in the new brooder house were let out into their yard this week, and

The ‘egg-mobile’ out on pasture at Sentinel Elm Farm. 

after a tiny bit of hesitation at first, they all piled out and enjoyed the fresh air and increased space. Using the new brooder house has been a real learning experience for all of us, and this part of the process was no different. We built the chick door to serve as the clean-out door and a ramp, when opened, for the chicks to get down to the ground. The door is quite large and heavy, and we had to do some quick retrofitting and adaptation to get it to function somewhat properly. There are some further changes that I would like to make to the building to really get it working just right, but with a batch of layer pullets coming quick on the heels of this group of broilers, I’m not sure we’ll have time to do much. The broilers should go out onto pasture next week, meaning they will have been in the brooder for a little more than three weeks. (They arrived May 5th, and will go out by the 31st.) We may have shortened this period a bit with warmer and drier weather, but with a cool wet spring we are going to keep them warm and dry for as long as we can. The larger and more fully feathered out the little birds are before they go out onto pasture, the better chance they have of thriving. The layer pullets will spend longer in the brooder since they won’t have anyone coming in behind them, and they grow more slowly than the broilers.

We also spent some time this week getting the pig summer area ready for our pigs coming next week. We’ll be getting 25 piglets, and they’ll spend a couple of weeks in the training yard before going out to the woods for the summer. The forest area needs to supply food, water, some shelter when they’re little, and the means for us to catch and load them in the fall. Pigs are super rough on everything they can touch, so we try to take real care in developing a system that will work for the pigs and for us, and hold up to their abuse. A couple of years of doing this, and some challenging experiences trying to load large pigs, has taught us to lay out the system carefully.

Summer Time

We caught hold of a little shot of summer weather this week, with temperatures well up into the nineties on both Wednesday and Thursday, giving the farm the feel of late July here in the middle of May. The leaf cover is at about three-quarters of full right now, so while there is some shade out there for our animals to hide in, they did face a little more direct sun exposure than they liked during the hot spell. Everyone seems to have come

The new egg-mobile is done. 

through the challenging weather well, and things have cooled off Friday after a truly epic thunder and lightening storm came through last night. The chicks in the new chick brooder were the most difficult to keep comfortable, but we put up a screen door, turned off the heat, and setup a fan to keep the air moving through the building. We built that structure in the cold of early spring, and thought a lot more about keeping it warm than we did about keeping it cool. We’ll have to do some retrofits to increase airflow between this batch of chicks and the next, putting in screens and windows that can open. Chicks like temperatures in the brooder right around ninety, mimicking the body temperature that they would feel from the broody hen. It easy to get them too hot if things get much warmer than that, so we need to have careful control of the brooder environment to keep everyone happy and healthy.

Cutting hay

To further the summer feel around the farm, we also started cutting hay Thursday on some of our pastures used for beef grazing. The grass grows so quickly here at the beginning of the season that our little herd cannot get to all of it before it goes to seed and becomes much less palatable. If we hay some of our acreage at the beginning of the season, and then let it grow back up for grazing, we can use a smaller and more manageable amount of acreage for grazing now, when we have too much grass, and increase the grazed acreage later in the summer when we have too little. This is our first season trying this approach in regard to the beef herd and their acreage, though we do something very similar with the dairy acreage every year. We operate some really well aged haying equipment here at The Farm School, but between Josh, Tyson, Warren Rice and the student farmers, we manage to keep it working well enough to just about get the job done every year.

A well used tool

This year, just two passes into cutting our largest and first field, the belt on the mower-conditioner failed. We made an emergency run to the supplier, did some ‘in the field’ repair, and got back to mowing within a couple of hours. This first-cut hay will be rolled up into large round bales, wrapped in twine and then white plastic, and stored for winter feed for the beef herd. We make some of our own hay for the beef herd every summer, and buy in the rest. I am optimistic that we will be able to tip that balance a bit more in our favor this year with this more aggressive haying on the beef pastures, hopefully saving us a bit of money at hay buying time. Harvesting hay is nutrient extractive in regard to the soil and pasture plants however, and this practice will demand that we are careful to keep our soils well fed down the line.

A map/plan for the summer pig yard

Alex and his crew made some great progress in the veggie acreage this week, and the warm dry weather gave that effort a real boost. The onions are out, planted through beautiful straight rows of black plastic, direct seeding is moving forward full speed, and the greenhouse and hardening off house are bursting with starts waiting for their turn to ride out to the fields and go into the soil. Weeding started in earnest this week as well, another clear sign that the season is advancing all over the farm. Early weeding, done before things get well established, deep rooted and tall, is significantly easier and more effective, so Alex and his crew do their best to stay ahead on this front as well as they can.

Farmer’s View

Endless tomato starts in the greenhouse

The start of the growing season is a frantic rush to get everything setup and in place as early and quickly as is possible so that we can capture every possible moment of the short stretch of warm weather from May to October. We’re pushing forward as hard as we can right now to get the starts in the soil, the fences up, and the new animals growing, and we’ll spend the rest of the summer maintaining those things toward harvest in the fall. This always seems to be the busiest time on the calendar, when lots of essential things are crowding each other for attention at the top of the to-do list, and lots of other things that we know we should be doing are falling off the bottom. In a few more weeks, we should have our systems in place for the summer, and then be we’ll able to slow down a bit as the work shifts toward just keeping those systems up and running for the summer and fall. We setup fences in the spring, and weed-whack them in the summer. We plant in the spring, and weed in the summer.

We’ve caught a nice little dry spell over the past week, and Alex and the student farmers have been able to make a great push cultivating and planting quite a bit of our vegetable acreage. We have had pretty cool and cloudy weather however, and the soil has not been

The ducks lay their eggs wherever…


drying or warming as much as Alex would have hoped for by this point in May. The cool wet conditions are ensuring a superior degree of soil moisture however, and this feels like a much more comfortable place to be in comparison to last year at this point when we were already entering drought conditions. With nearly no snow last winter, and the insignificant snow-melt that followed, we went into the spring with dry soil, got nearly no spring rain, and then went into an extended summer drought. Those three factors together put our area into an extremely dry pattern that we are only now coming out of. We have some significant rain forecasted for this weekend, so Alex is racing now to get beds cultivated and shaped ahead of time so that they can be planted next week without the need to drive the tractor over newly soaked soil.

Phoenix and her new bull calf

This is also the season when we’re adding new baby animals to the farm, from chicks coming in the mail to new calves in the dairy and beef herds. We have twenty-one lambs out there running around the sheep pasture, eleven piglets in the training area with twenty five more on the way next week, one-hundred layer chicks coming in a few weeks, and turkeys poults after that. The brooder is full of broiler chicks, and we had our first dairy calf Thursday morning at around 1am. This was Phoenix’s first calf, and she has done a wonderful job looking after her little baby boy. The visiting students will vote on a name this morning before they go home, and I’ll let you know what they pick next week. Phoenix is the daughter of the wonderful Patience, and we are all really happy to keep that family line going here at The Farm School, and eager to see her deliver some heifer calves in years to come. We add animals through the spring and early summer, with the beef calves and the turkeys (scheduled for pickup June 22nd) vying to be the last ones to show up. We reverse the process in the fall, processing animals for the freezer and working our way back down to the principal group that will stay through the winter and start it all over again next spring.

As the leaf cover gets thicker on the trees our view around the farm gets shorter, and we

Growing piglets

turn our eyes to the work closer at hand. The seed in the furrow, the grass in front of the scythe, and the ewe cleaning her newborn lamb all call our attention to the world within reach all around us, and to the urgency of the task of the moment. The bare trees of winter describe a landscape well suited for gazing back and forth across the year, but in the spring and summer, we keep our eyes firmly fixed on the ground beneath our feet.

Rain = Grass

The dairy herd back on grass.

All of our animals, other than the piglets in the training area, are back on pasture by now, and the pace of the season has sped up to match that change. Now that we’re grazing full time, now that we’ve cut the connection to the barn, the constant movement of the animals across the farm landscape sets the rhythm of each day, and each week. The time frame has been condensed down to the day, the need is immediate, and the whole grazing infrastructure has to be ready to accommodate animals now, because now they are in relentless motion.

The beef herd enjoying a sunny graze.

In the fall we prepare the winter chicken coop to house the laying flock for six months, and then move the birds in and maintain and service the space through that time. With the layers on the move in the egg-mobile, the time frame has been shrunk down to a week, and we need to be ready and available to relocate and re-establish the chickens over and over again through the summer. The beef herd moves every afternoon, the dairy herd moves morning and afternoon, the layers move once or twice per week, and the sheep move every five days. I’ll spend most of the rest of the next six months making sure that we’re setup and ready for the next move, whichever group of animals is next.

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The rainy weather has made some pasture roads pretty muddy.

We’ve had another stretch of cool rainy weather this week, and while that has been great again for the pastures (‘A cold wet May means a barn full of hay.’), Alex and his veggie work have had another frustrating spell. They got a little window to work in the fields Wednesday and Thursday, and really tried to make the most of that stretch to get veggie starts and seeds into the ground, but we got more than an inch of rain Friday into Saturday, and that is going to make bed preparation challenging again next week. If we can’t cultivate and prep beds, we can’t plant starts and seeds in the beds, so we really need to soil to get dry enough for cultivation for the whole process to get started. As the guy monitoring and

The sheep getting a little grass too.

managing the pastures however, I love the rainy weather, and it sets the stage for strong pasture growth for the coming months. Water is the single most significant determiner of our pasture growth, and so far this spring has been just about perfect for growing grass.

Our new home-made chicken feeder.

We have chicks in the new brooder at Maggie’s Farm, turning what was a beautiful, but empty space, into a peeping rollicking good time. Lots of farmers were making noises about moving into the brooder for the summer, but luckily we got some chicks in there before anyone packed up and made the move. This first batch of chicks is our broiler group for the summer, and they’ll move into movable pasture pens in a few weeks, and spend the summer scratching and pecking their way through the sheep pasture for before processing in July. The layer chicks come in a month, and they’ll go into the brooder once the broilers have moved out and the place has been cleaned and setup again. We made more good progress on the layer pullet’s new mobile house, and I’ll update you on that project next week!