Beef Calves

We put our first loads of hay into the hay loft of the dairy barn Thursday night, starting against the wall at the south end of the space, and shrinking the dance-floor by ten or fifteen feet. We usually head out on a hay run in the afternoon, once the hay has dried down

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An orphan beef calf getting breakfast at the dairy

completely and the baler has started running. We can transport around 175 bales per load, so on a big day, we end up doing multiple rounds of loading in the field and unloading at the barn. With an afternoon start, 350 bales to pickup, and another load of loose hay after that, we finished up Thursday around 7:30, with flood lights on in the hay loft as we stacked bales. The farm workday runs from dawn until dark, or just after, and with sunrise just after 5am and sunset at 8:30, we’re putting in pretty long days at this point in the summer. There is an essential back-and-forth between the short winter days, when we just can’t seem to find the time to get everything done that we want to do, and these endless summer days when we have to find ways to summon the energy to see the day all the way through to the end.

We had another wonderful inch of rain to start the week, refreshing the moisture in the soil and powering up the pasture plants and veggie starts for another growth spurt. We followed the rain with some incredibly hot and humid weather for a day or two, a beautiful taste of cool dry weather in the middle of the week, and back to pea-soup humidity to finish out on Friday and Saturday. All together it’s been a pretty typical stretch of summer weather, and as long as we continue to get regular rain, things are looking pretty good. We had gone weeks without rain by this point last year, the ponds were shrinking, the pastures had stalled, and irrigation was ramping up to keep the veggies happy and growing.

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A new beef calf hiding in the tall pasture

We’ve had four beef calves born this week, with three happily staying alongside mama out on the pasture, and one here at the dairy barn. Like last year, we found a beef calf abandoned out in a pasture the herd had moved through, half a mile or more from the group. We scooped the little bull calf up, drove him over to the beef herd, and put him down to see if any mama cow would show ownership. Nobody reacted positively, despite the little guy’s best efforts to get a hold of an udder of milk, so we scooped him up again and drove him down to the dairy. He sucked down a bottle of milk in short order, and we’ve spent the last few days working to get Patty to adopt him as her own. She had a calf a couple of weeks ago, and has plenty of milk and patience, so we’re optimistic that she will provide for both calves. The kids here at camp named the little red bull Jax, and he is now out with the dairy herd trying to learn the routine here at Sentinel Elm Farm. Last year I assumed that we had an issue with our management of the beef herd when this same sequence unfolded, but with this very similar recurrence, I am starting to wonder if we have a mama cow out there a little deficient in the responsibility department.

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One bay of the brooder, full of poults

I picked up fifty-one turkey poults from Bob’s Turkey Farm on Thursday morning, and they’ve been moved into the brooder in the back of the dairy barn. They’ll be in there for a few weeks, until they make the transition from fluffy down to real feathers, and then they’ll move out to spend the rest of their time on pasture. We’ll process them on the farm the weekend before Thanksgiving, and make them available to the Farm School Community.

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Drying out a little…

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Alex doing some primary cultivation

We’re coming to the end of our first dry week of the spring, and our vegetable acreage is really starting to get into summer shape after the solid block of work that this drier weather has made possible. We saw cultivation, bed prep, direct seeding and transplanting up and down the ridge, and we were even able to pay some attention to keeping ahead of the weeds as well. The soil just under the surface is still really damp, so our starts and seeds, as well as the weeds, have had the moisture they’ve needed to come up strong in response to this week of sun. Farmers all over New England have been cutting hay this week, and we are looking forward to starting on our winter stockpile in the coming days as well. We had temperatures well over ninety degrees on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday of this week, so the feel of summer has certainly arrived here at The Farm School.

The incredible fluctuations of New England weather astonish me every season. Although

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The new batch of layer chicks in the brooder

the transition that we just experienced, from a low temperature on Saturday of forty-eight degrees, to a high on Monday of ninety-five degrees, felt jarring, it was certainly in keeping with the reputation of New England’s weather. There is not much that we can do to prepare for conditions that change so quickly and swing so far, but we try to build flexibility into everything as much as we can. Keeping things mobile, diversifying enterprises, and developing new approaches to the work that we do, help to keep us from becoming too rigid in our work and helps to ensure that we can adapt to the conditions around us. For our livestock, the water systems, providing adequate shelter, shade, heat and bedding as needed all play important parts in keeping the animals reasonably within their range of comfort. Although we have been limiting water in dishes as we try to train our newest piglets to use their automatic water system, we did give them large dishes of water that they could climb into for a cooling soak during the hottest weather.

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Two automatic water dishes

We finished up the summer pig water system this week, with two automatic water dishes supplied by a 275gallon water tank that we can pump full as needed. With their feeder and milk trough in place on the deck, we just need to spend a little time getting their fence and the fence charger setup before we can move the pigs in. They seem to know the electric fence well at this point, and I am reasonably confident that they all know how to use the automatic water system too. There is one little pig in there that is looking a little droopy, so I have been researching the idea of trying to worm her before the group heads out to the woods for the summer. Once the pigs are out for the summer, running around in the woods and hiding in the undergrowth, they become much more difficult to catch and treat. We do the best that we can to make sure that they’re all healthy and ready before sending them out on their own.

Our little milk cow Patty delivered a calf about two weeks ago, and despite our careful attention and care, developed a bit of milk fever a few days after freshening. Dr. Boyd, from Green Mountain Bovine Clinic, came out to the farm on Labor Day and successfully treated Patty, and she was back out with the herd a few hours later. However, Patty

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Our little dairy cows enjoying some tall-grass-grazing

relapsed a bit on Saturday of last weekend, and with all the vets in our area unavailable, we successfully treated her ourselves. No one here has ever experienced a cow getting milk fever more than once in a lactation, so I dug into the issue a bit in an effort to find any changes that we could make in our management to avoid this issue down the road. Older cows can grow more and more susceptible to developing milk fever, so our commitment to long-lived cows will probably expose us to this challenge more in the future. Dr. Major and Green Mountain Bovine Clinic also had some good suggestions for us, and we’re looking forward to developing our approach to this issue.

Love the rain!

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The sheep following the broiler houses

I’m beginning to feel like these updates are getting a little repetitive, but we’re drawing to the end of yet another week of heavy rain, moderate temperatures, and just a little sun. We had more than an inch and a half of rain to start the week, shutting down tractor work on the cultivated acreage for several days and topping off the soil moisture again. By Wednesday, the water standing in the pastures and fields had just about soaked in, but tractor work was still limited by the wet soil. Our CSA and market harvests began this week, but with the cool wet start to this year’s growing season, there has not been much to harvest yet. All of this rain has really gotten our pasture forage plants growing in top gear, and the acreage that we cut for hay over the past couple of weeks is coming back fast and strong. I think that we are all still a little uneasy after last year’s extended and devastating summer drought, and I am still half expecting the rains to stop at some point here, and be gone for the rest of the summer.

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The LTF layers emerging after a move

We spent the first part of the week making some changes to the new brooder house, and our latest batch of chicks came in the mail yesterday and moved right in. We’ve reduced the initial floor space that the chicks have access to, with the plan to expand it as they grow. We’ve also made it so that the windows can be opened and closed to increase our ventilation options, and we’ve changed the door to simplify letting the chicks in at out. The move in was very successful, with just one dead chick in the box when it was opened, and everyone busily getting a drink and a belly full of our good organic chick starter feed.

This week marks the transition from our spring schedule to our new summer plan, and with a few bumps along the way on this inaugural run, we are really looking forward to giving every student full weeks focused on individual components of the farm. Our goal, in developing the summer schedule, was to allow each student to dig deeply into a particular aspect of the farm, to gain intimate knowledge of the whole of that area over the week, and to start to feel a real sense of mastery and ownership for it. We hope that this process can build toward the final segment of the program when we turn the operation of the farm over to the students, as much as is possible.

We are still waiting for our first calf of the year in the beef herd, and I am starting to get

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We built a deck for the PVS pig feeding area. 

a little nervous about the situation. The bull went in with the herd on August 10th of last year, and with a gestation of about 283 days, we expected to start seeing calves some time in the middle of May. There is usually a little lag time between when the bull arrives, and when he is able to get down to business, but this delay has got me a little worried that he may not have been a viable breeder. The bull was in with the cows for an extremely long period of time last year, from August until the end of the year. As a result, we could be seeing calves born any time between now and October, if he bred cows further into his time here. That potential for late calving is another reason that we are eager to get the bull picked up in a timely fashion, usually after about ninety days with the herd, but it is understandably frequently difficult to get the bull owner to prioritize that project. I’ll be sure to keep you up to date, with cute pictures, if we have any new calves in the coming weeks.

The pattern continues…

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The Maggie’s laying flock enjoying new pasture.

With another week of generous rain, sparse sun, and cool temperatures, the work of the farm carried on under this spring’s enduring weather pattern. The pastures love it, the veggies endure it, and Alex seizes every fleeting opportunity to cultivate and shape beds for planting. We had an inch of rain on Monday and Tuesday, but the sun came out enough over the second half of the week to dry down some veggie beds, and we were even able to cut and bale hay at the dairy farm. We made round wrapped bales, which are rolled up and wrapped in plastic when the hay is about half dry, so the process demands a much shorter window of dry weather than traditional dry hay production. Round wrapped bales, also referred to as balage, haylage and wet-bales, are usually baled after a single day of drying, while dry hay usually requires two or even three days of sunny weather. The wrapped bales are made as airtight as is possible, and the moisture and lack of air inside allows them to ferment rather than rot.

The broiler chicks went out into their mobile houses on pasture this week, emptying the

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Round wrapped bales of hay for winter feeding

brooder and giving us the chance to clean and renovate it a before the next batch of laying chicks arrive in ten days. We are going to divide the brooder space in half to start, and change the chick door to make it a little more user-friendly. With more time, we’ll change some of the windows so that they can be opened to allow for more ventilation. The broilers are happy out on grass, and they are quickly learning the routine of daily afternoon pasture moves. The whole house slides forward one length every PM chore, getting the birds off the space they have manured, giving them access to fresh forage and insects, and spreading their droppings over a larger space.

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25 new piglets sharing the house

We picked up our second batch of piglets on Wednesday, and they’ve moved into the piglet training area for a few weeks of observation and a chance to learn our fence and water systems. They are a mixed group that includes just about every strain of heritage breed out there. There are quite a few red and white, black and white, and all red pigs in the mix. They are all looking really good at this point, enjoying our high quality Lancaster Ag feed, keeping a close eye on the electric fences, and figuring out how the automatic water system works. We need to put the final touches on the pig summer area out in the woods, and then they’ll move out there for the next few months until processing in October and November.

Sunday is our annual Big Pig Gig fundraiser in Cambridge, and the whole community has working at full speed to develop art and decorations for the event. Party preparations always bring in an eclectic group of wonderful alumni who gather at Josh B’s barn to turn stone, metal and wood, gathered from the ridge, into distinctive farm-themed works of art. This year’s celebration will feature our very own West Hill Woodcutters, an

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One of our Jersey heifers ruminating on the hill

old-timey band of Farm School musicians featuring traditional American music. The Woodcutters put on a square dance every Wednesday night for the visiting students, and on Sunday they’ll bring the show to Cambridge to entertain our donor community as well.