Summer Rain

In last week’s update I revealed my growing worries about a lack of rain, but we got

Alex and the Cub, veggie-masters

more than a full inch of wonderful, gentle, soaking rain on Monday, and a bit more on Thursday, and things are looking up again here at The Farm School. The dust has been washed off the leaves, the pasture plants are standing up tall and practically glimmering in the bright sun, and I am optimistic again about the next few weeks of our grazing plan. Rain in July is a real treat, giving plants braced for the hot dry stretch of summer weather a respite from the persistent drying of the sun, and a boost of energy and vigor. I always expect July and August to be rainless and hot, so this storm system was a real treat that the pastures, veggies, and I truly enjoyed.

The pullets marching down their ramp for the first time

We moved our pullets out of the brooder this week, shifting them into the new egg mobile that Josh and the student farmers built this spring. They spent a night getting used to the their new accommodations, and then headed out to a fenced pasture paddock in the Middle Earth Pasture. They will move every other week or so, getting fresh ground to hunt for insects and other good things to eat, and doing their part to help till up some acreage to make space for better grass. They had a little trouble figuring out how to get back inside the house after their first day outside, and I ended up spending a good deal of time on my belly under the house last night, catching them one at a time and putting them on roosts inside the house. Needless to say, the ground under the coop was not the cleanest place to crawl around, and I am hoping that they can do a bit better for themselves in the days to come.

New micro-compost bins at Sentinel Elm Farm

Going back through these weekly updates over the past few months, the growth that the new animals have put on is really clear to see. We see the pigs, turkeys, calves and pullets every day, so it is hard to see their growth from day to day. When I track back through these pictures however, their rapid development becomes crystal clear, and it is really impressive to see. It would be really interesting to take a picture of the same young animal every week, and to track it’s growth through the season to watch it develop. Like most ideas on the farm; ‘maybe next year’.

Veggie plants and fruit trees are really showing the maturation of the season, with apples and pears developing really nicely on some of the trees at Maggie’s Farm, and the corn tasseling beautifully in the home garden as well.

There are tomatoes and peppers plumping up out in the fields, melons and squash everywhere, and the wealth of the fall harvest season is truly starting to show all around the farm. The period from August through the end of October is really the most abundant time of the farm, with the young animals reaching their full potential, fruit and veggies bursting out, and cold storage filling up.


Summer Heat

The turkey poults are growing. 

We are at the end of a week of real summer weather, with every afternoon topping out right around ninety degrees this week, plenty of humidity to make everything sticky, and no rain in sight. With a full week without rain, I am starting to get worried about our pastures again, though we are not in any real danger yet. We have had a really nice growing season so far, with ample rain arriving with just the right timing, so I think our soil is still holding a pretty nice level of moisture.

We had one last surprise calf in the beef herd to start the week, and the hot weather has been a challenge for that baby who has not yet figured out to seek shade during the heat of the day. The cows are headed into one of their longest stretches of pasture without shade trees on the pasture edges, but the ten-day weather forecast looks like they will not be facing much really hot weather. They are moving into a large pasture in two sections

Our enormous Berkshire pigs

that we call Lower Barn Pasture and Lower Racetrack Pasture. This is acreage that we cut hay off of so far this season rather than graze, and it has grown back as a lush stand of dark green forage that I think the cows are really going to enjoy. Great grazing means more milk for the calves, and it means growth and weight gain for the steers that we plan to take for processing this fall. Growth, and taking in enough energy to start laying down inter-muscular fat, is what makes beef tender and delicious, and this next stretch of grazing promises to be a really productive period of growth for our beef animals.

We picked up a little load of sixty bales this week, finishing off our first cut quota for storage for the year, and topping off the dairy barn hayloft almost all the way to the ceiling. It feels great to have a huge supply of winter feed, and puts us in a much better position than we were in last year when we scrambled to get just more than half this much during the drought.

Racks of curing garlic in the hoop house

Alex and the student farmers harvested the garlic this week, and moved it into the hoop house to cure. The garlic was planted in the fall of last year, just in time to take root before going dormant for the winter under a deep bed of mulch straw. It put shoots up through the mulch in the spring, grew tall scapes that we harvested, and put on nice big bulbs over the last few warm months. We will take cloves out of the harvest to use ourselves as seed, sell the rest, and replant again this fall to complete the cycle and keep process going.

We are headed into our last session of summer programming at Sentinel Elm Farm on Monday, and this final program runs for two weeks with the oldest kids of the summer. We are looking forward to getting some serious work done with these able-bodied kids, and we’re hoping to really get the farm into tip-top shape before the place quiets down for a stretch until school groups come again at the end of August. One big project that I anticipate working on a lot is a new house and yard for our two growing ram lambs and buck goat, hoping to get them away from the girls before we have

Our little goat herd working on a new hedgerow

unintended pregnancies. These new breeders will live together, as laid out in the AWA rules prohibiting animals from living alone, and will cycle in and out of their respective herds for breeding seasons.

The Middle of July

The beef herd at dawn, in some scrubby pasture

We put a bunch more hay up into the hay loft of the dairy barn on Monday, bringing our total so far to just over two thousand square bales of first cut hay. We try to get between two thousand and twenty-five hundred, so we’re getting really close to calling the loft full for the year. We’ve had rain on and off every day after Monday this week, so that has put a stop to the haying for a while, and given us a chance to rest up for the next load. There will be another extended break in the haying schedule between first cut, which is coming in now, and second cut, which should start at some point in the second half of August. We usually try to buy between five hundred and a thousand bales of second cut hay, and use that primarily for the sheep.

The Farm School is running two groups of pigs this summer, with one group of eleven at Sentinel Elm Farm, and another group of twenty-five down the road at Maggie’s Farm. The group of eleven, made up mostly of Berkshire pigs, is about a month older than the larger group, and has been growing remarkably well this summer. They have been

The home garden at Maggie’s

getting the extra milk from the dairy, and are from outstanding genetic lines, and they are growing into truly beautiful pigs. They are scheduled for processing in October, and after going out to see them this week, I called the slaughterhouse to see if we could get an earlier date. Many of these pigs are already approaching two hundred pounds, and the slaughterhouse charges a ten cent penalty per pound for every pound over two hundred at processing. Although this penalty is not much of a deterrent when we sell our pork at around ten dollars per pound, we do try to stay somewhere close to their two hundred pound target and in the good graces of the facility operators. These Berkshires, close to two hundred pounds now and growing the way that have been, will probably be pushing four hundred pounds by October, and will certainly be challenging to deal with. We are hoping to develop some special pork sausage products this coming winter, so the glut of pork that I expect to come in from these pigs may end up working out well, but the challenge of dealing with such large animals has got me a bit nervous.

The sheep are trying to clean up any grain that the broilers dropped. 

Our head grower Alex mentioned at a meeting this week that he is keeping a close eye on the garlic these days because it is almost ready to be harvested and put up to cure in the hoop house. Garlic harvest is the first sign I’ve noticed that this growing season is maturing, that although it often feels like we are still just getting started, just getting things setup and growing, we are moving rapidly through the summer and heading irresistibly toward the fall. It seems rare to me that I feel ready for whatever is coming next on the farm; seldom do I feel like I have my plans set, my equipment ready and all the vital parts prepped for a smooth roll out and use. More often, we are reacting as well and quickly as we can to events as they unfold, and too quickly moving on to the next pressing issue. In late winter, with spring approaching, we scurry around trying to lay things out just right to be able to seize the coming growing season and wring the most we can from it. Inevitably, by July however, it seems we’re just racing to keep up. The potential for garlic harvest this week reminds me that another growing season is quickly passing us by, and there is still so much left to do.

The broilers go off for processing on Tuesday, with seventy-five going to a facility in Warwick for processing and packaging for sale, and the other twenty-five or thirty

Kosher King broilers, ready for processing

staying for on-farm processing by the adult students here. Those birds will go into the farm-house freezers for next year’s class to use throughout their time here. This will be the final poultry processing work for this year’s class, and after starting with turkeys and layer culling in November of last year, our hope is that the students feel confident enough to raise and process birds on their own farm some day. This year’s crop of broilers looks much better than last year’s, and I am really looking forward to getting the finished product back from processing and to get them out for sale.

Drier Weather and Hay

A little dew to make it look incredible!

We had a pretty dry stretch of weather this week, and that of course had me worried that the rains were gone for the summer. Luckily, we got a few tenths of an inch of rain Friday morning, and more through Saturday, and I’m calming down a bit. Surface soil that had been drying out got another nice soaking, and all the veggie plants out in the fields are looking clean and vigorous. Bradley has corn growing beside the dairy barn at Sentinel Elm Farm, and it is growing visibly taller by the day. Our pastures have been growing nicely all season, and so far we have been able to hold some acreage out of the grazing rotation for making hay. We try to keep some acreage for making the first cut of hay, but this year I am hopeful that we will also be able to get a second cut off that area as well. Every bale that we are able to make ourselves is one less that we have to buy, so we are glad to have the weather that allows the grass to grow well enough that we have this opportunity.

Our broiler chickens, started in the brooder and now living in mobile houses out on

Brad’s corn starting tassels. 

pasture at Maggie’s Farm, are scheduled for processing on the 18th of July. They have just about reached full size by this point, but we’re hoping that they can pack on a little extra weight and really fill out over the next ten days before processing. They look to me to be a much better size than last year’s group, when we were so disappointed in their growth, and I am looking forward to adding them to our product list in a few weeks. The roosters start to show male characteristics, with different plumage, larger combs and wattles, and even a few early attempts at crowing, and we know they’re approaching full size.

This was another big hay week here at The Farm School, and we put more than a thousand bales up into the hayloft of the dairy barn. We try to get between two thousand and twenty-five hundred stored away in there over the course of the season, and plan for

Beautiful rows of chard

two-hundred days of hay feeding over the late fall, winter and early spring. The bulk of our hay comes to us in round wrapped bales, but the supply of small square bales plays a vital roll in feeding sheep, goats and horses, as well as filling in the edges of the feeding schedule for both the beef and dairy herds. The small square bales also give us a bit more flexibility in our feeding regimen as we transition out of hay feeding in the spring, and they also play a vital roll in feeding animals separated from the group with a new baby. We need to make sure we take enough in now to see us through the winter and to meet all of the vital needs. A big stack of bales in the hay loft helps any farmer feel a bit more safe, secure and wealthy.

Peaches and apples are starting to grow in our small orchards, and at this point, the peaches look like they’ll be the better crop this year. The peach trees put on way too much fruit to start, and we try to do a little thinning at this point so that they are not over burdened

Tiny peaches on a blue-bird morning

once the fruit starts to really get larger. Thinning also gives the tree the chance to direct more energy to fewer peaches, and gives us larger juicier fruit when harvest comes.



A volunteer at the winter chicken coop

Summer has settled in here at The Farm School, and the hay is stacking up in the barn, the corn is inching taller in the field, and all of our eyes are turned to the weather forecast. So much of the success of the summer season depends on the rain, how much we get and when and how hard it falls, that it feels like the ten-day forecast becomes the major governor of everyone’s state of mind. Our pasture plants, mostly suited to cooler weather, become deeply reliant on regular rain to withstand the heat of the summer sun. Our veggie starts, with their shallow roots, also easily dry out, and rely on regular watering from above while they try to get their roots down deep enough to find moisture. Hay producers, in contrast, are looking for extended periods without rain to cut, dry and bale hay suitable for storage as winter feed, and our cultivators are looking for stretches of weather dry enough to allow them to safely drive tractors out over the veggie beds without churning the whole thing into mud. So everyone is invested in the weather forecast, and everyone is hoping for slightly different mixes of sun and rain, and everyone worries and frets a bit. The rains have been just about perfect for pasture growth so far this year, so I’m pretty happy.

We had another calf in the dairy herd on Wednesday, and the kids here for the week voted to name her Eclipse. Her mother Emily is one of our older cows, and was one of the

Eclipse, in the pasture

wonderful Evening’s last calves. I am eager to keep heifer calves from Emily since she fits the cow model that we are striving to develop here, and I am really glad to have Eclipse here at the farm. Emily is a smaller Jersey, makes lots of milk, and seems to do pretty well in our low-grain system. Eclipse is a beautiful little calf, with a unique ringed stripe pattern on her tail.

Monday and Wednesday are harvest days in the Learn to Farm Program, with a third of the students out in the fields harvesting, a third in the barn washing and packing, and the last third keeping everything else moving along. Last week’s harvest list included salad mix, cilantro, parsley, strawberries, garlic scapes, turnips and radishes. Looking down the veggie work list shows some direct seeding, including mesclun, carrots, beats, arugula, kale, beans and rutabaga, some hand weeding, and lots of tractor cultivation, mowing, and weeding. We go to markets on Tuesday and Thursday, and those end up being solid work days in the veggie fields for the folks who don’t go to market.

The layer chicks using their doors and ramp

Our calf count in the beef herd is up to nine, with seven in the herd, one down at the dairy farm living with the dairy herd, and one who died this week. The calf that we lost had been challenged from birth, never really seeming to catch a good hold of the world around him, and always needing lots of support from the farmers managing the herd. He was regularly separated from the group and showed very little initiative to nurse, find shade, or stay with his mother. We found him Wednesday laid out in the sun, breathing shallowly and erratically, twitching and rolling his eyes, and we immediately took him in a truck down to the cool dairy barn. His temperature was off the end of the thermometer (109deg +) and in consultation with our vet we started trying to cool him with water. We got him down to 105deg and he started vocalizing and looking around, but his breathing got weaker and weaker and finally stopped about an hour after we’d brought him in. We have had calves before that seemed unable to properly regulate their body temperatures, but with temps in the high seventies on Wednesday, it is unclear exactly what issue our lost calf was facing. The rest of the group seems to be doing really well, with just one other calf who seems a bit slow to grasp this world. He is scheduled to have a visit from the vet Monday, so hopefully we’ll get some guidance about his behavior then, and I’ll let you know.

We had some dramatic weather on Tuesday, with strong winds, heavy rain, hail, lightening, and a power outage to top it off. The storm rolled through here about 7:30pm,

Tom and King keeping out of the sun

bending trees over and whipping things around, and sending the dairy cows running for cover in the barn. The power was out until about 12:30, so we ran a generator to keep the heat on for the turkey poults, but everything else came through wonderfully.