October 22 – 30

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Patty having a drink at dawn

Although the pace of work certainly begins to slow along with the dwindling daylight here at the end of the year, there are a couple of frantic moments built into this stage of our farm calendar. Most have to do with the livestock, moving those animals ready for processing through our loading chutes, into the waiting trailer, and off the farm. Our last big load of pigs went off on Wednesday of this week, we loaded six cows out of the beef herd Sunday morning, and we take twenty-five lambs and ewes in on Wednesday of next week. Cow loading Sunday morning went really well, but it is a nerve-racking event for me no matter what, and I am really relieved to have it behind us now. We raise a really docile strain of Red Devon cattle, but they are still pretty big animals, and convincing them to go through our chute and up into the trailer can be a little daunting. There is also the real pang of regret knowing the fate of these animals, and knowing that the good life we’ve worked so hard to give them here is coming to an end.

This year’s load of cows was an interesting one, and it was really tough to develop the list

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The dairy herd headed back out to pasture

to fill the six spots we need to satisfy all of our beef needs. We had two steers born in 2015 that were ready, and with their big racks of horns, we are really happy to see them off the farm. We’ve had a cow abandoning her calf within the first week after birth both of the past two years, and, through a process of elimination, we sent off two cows that may have been the culprit. Finally, we’ve been struck by an almost total failure of the ear tags that we were using in past years, and the last two spots on the trailer were filled with cows who’d lost their tags and had therefore fallen out of our record keeping. We have a whole bunch of cows with no ear tags at this point, and we either need to run everyone through the chute and retag them, or cull out all the unmarked cows.

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The beef herd and some winter round bales

After a summer that featured pretty consistent rain, we had been going through a very dry fall. However, we’ve had more than eight inches of rain this week, and the world of The Farm School has been transformed. We had two separate three-inch rain events in the first half of the week, and another two inches of rain Sunday night. Each storm was significant, with heavy rain falling for hours and hours, and Sunday night included strong wind that knocked our power out. Streams and ponds in the area quickly filled and flooded, cultivated fields turned to liquid mud, and our livestock took shelter as much as they possibly could. Radar maps online showed huge storm systems stretching from Florida through Maine, and patterns that I have never seen before. Wednesday’s storm showed an almost totally vertical north/south line of rain about three hundred miles wide, streaming from the south to the north, and barely inching incrementally from west to east. That river of moisture from the south poured on New England all day Wednesday, adding more than three inches of rain to the deluge we got earlier in the week. I am an avid consumer of weather information and maps, but I have never seen a storm system shaped like that!

Both the beef and the dairy herds are eating round wrapped bales by now, signifying the

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The plastic went on the winter-fresh hoop house Friday.

true end of the grazing season here at The Farm School. There is a little bit of grass out there in the pastures, but we’ve found that leaving a nice mat of green out there gives the whole system a nice foundation to start with in the spring. The grass on the surface mirrors the root structure in the soil, so letting our pasture plants shut down in the fall with a nice collection of roots should make them more ready to start vigorous growth when conditions are right in the spring. Now we have to start really collecting all the round bales that we made over the summer, and the ones that we’ve ordered from hay producers in the area. We’ll collect massive stacks of them at the beef winter barn and at the dairy, and dole them out as needed throughout the winter. We are working to retrofit our largest tractor to make it capable of operating a round bale grabber, and hoping that will allow us to unload, stack and deploy round bales without having to borrow a machine.

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A wet field, ready for cover crop seed

The greenhouse is empty and clean, and a new floor has been put down in preparation for its annual conversion into our winter timber-frame workshop. This week is the start of a three-week stretch of the Learn to Farm program that we call ‘the trifecta’ that includes a group learning to work with draft horses, a group learning to use a chainsaw and cut down a tree, and group learning how to timber-frame. Each group spends a week in each of the three areas, and they come out the other end with a whole new world of skills. I’ll keep you informed as it all goes down!

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October 15-22

At risk of sounding awfully repetitive, I’ve got to report that we have reached the end of another summery week here at The Farm School, with daytime temperatures well above normal and full powerful sun all week. The leaves are in their full fall colors however, and are falling quickly, and the air feels pretty chilly in the shade, belying the look of summer everywhere else. This mix of summer temperatures and a fall look is somewhat disconcerting, and I have had several people respond in surprise when I say that we’re about to stop grazing for the year. These shorter days have sent the message to plants

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A view over the fall garden

and animals alike that the growing season is over, and add to that the remarkable lack of rain we’ve experienced this fall, and the growth of our pastures has come to a definite stop. I will be setting up round wrapped bales of hay early next week, and both the dairy and beef herds will transition to those as their primary feed supply before the week ends. I don’t worry much about the change from pasture to stored hay, dry or wrapped, though we will take careful steps to manage the transition in the other direction come spring. Ruminants can get themselves into plenty of trouble gorging on fresh green grass after a winter of eating only hay, but with high quality stored hay, the inverse is not an issue.

I love to take a moment to go back through these posts from the last year, looking mostly

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Dairy cows and foliage

at the pictures and reading the first paragraph of each post. The scope of the year, the work and struggle, the successes and growth, all pass by in a moment, and I can feel the sweep of all of it again, though with a bit less sweat and worry this time. The arc of weather that passed over us here at the farm is always interesting to me, watching conditions that seem interminable in the moment change dramatically, and then change again. This spring I wrote again and again describing weeks of rain and no sun, soaked soil and challenges getting the veggie year started. Now we are firmly in the grip of a strong spell of dry weather, with heat and sun dominating the past weeks and even months. Between these two ends we’ve had runs of wet and dry weather, and each, to us here at the farm, has felt everlasting.

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These two moved to Sentinel Elm.

We took the first Maggie’s Farm batch of pigs in for processing on Thursday with eleven pigs heading off in the trailer. We loaded thirteen on Thursday morning, and the extra two were the two smallest pigs in the group. We will keep them down at the kid’s farm for another couple months of growth, where they’ll get all the milk, hickory nuts and apple drops they can eat. They’ll also be the objects of intense affection and curiosity for our visiting students, and Gus, and serve as placeholders until our batch of little winter piglets arrive on the scene at the end of November. The pig load itself went really well on Thursday, relieving a whole lot of worry on my part leading up to the event. Pig loading is one of my least favorite events of the year, and I work hard to develop a loading setup that I think is going to be workable and safe for farmers and pigs. Three of the pigs actually backed up the whole chute this time, and while that is not an outcome that I liked much, they actually got all the way up to the trailer and in, backwards the whole way, so I can’t complain much. On Wednesday we’ll have to get the rest of the pigs, so the pressure will be on to find and corral everyone in there for a run through the chute. I always sleep a bit better after the last pig has left the farm for the year, knowing that there is no more chance of the pigs escaping.

We have started taking down the grazing fences at the dairy, clearing the fields and pastures and getting everything in storage in the barn. The fencing does not age well out in the field over the winter, and our high-octane cross-country ski and sledding scene demands unimpeded open spaces to achieve maximum awesomeness. Once the fences come down we can spread manure and do other pasture work much more freely, and Brad can start doing some selective tree cutting on the hedgerows too. We are losing ash trees in this part of New England, and there are a few good firewood trees ready to come down every fall as these giants finally succumb to the forces arrayed against them. Ash is

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Carrots and spinach waiting for winter

a straight grained easy-splitting firewood that some say can even burn newly cut, and although we are sad to see these great trees disappear from our farm, we are happy to have them filling up the firewood yard and wood-stoves.

October 7th-15th

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Colder weather is trying 

With summer lingering here in the middle of Massachusetts, we haven’t really gotten much of that fall feeling here at The Farm School yet. Veggie harvest and the grazing rotation are still chugging along, and with more than an inch of rain falling during the day Monday, I’m optimistic about strong growth going forward. The ten day weather forecast does call for our fist night-time temperature truly below freezing on Monday, so that may start to really convince our resident plants and animals to shut down growth for the year.

This was a full week for our new student farmers in the Learn to Farm Program, with chore and harvest trainings, a full day of tractor safety training, more cooking classes, and a full day carpentry intro workshop as well. The beginning of the student’s year is really heavy with introductory training, as we work as quickly as we can to get vital skills into the hands of these new farmers. Although we try hard to intersperse physical work in with more information based sessions, and to not overwhelm folks with too much material, we definitely recognize that some students get maxed out, and we are diligent in revisiting all of this intro material repeatedly down the line, and in making sure that folks get a refresher before we ask them to use these new skills on their own.

We don’t have many big projects going right now as we focus almost all of our time and

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Beautiful, notorious, the boss, Daisy

attention on trying to give our new student farmers a strong introduction to Maggie’s Farm. We are starting to setup our chutes and systems for pig loading, hoping to have everything in place for our first batch of pigs headed off next Thursday. We will take ten pigs per week for the next three weeks, with everyone gone by the first week of November. Hopefully we won’t have too many freezing nights before then, since the pig’s water system seizes up when the hoses freeze, and the pigs don’t get any water. The system usually thaws out pretty quickly once the sun comes up, and we can always supplement with big water dishes, but ideally we’ll have all the pigs gone before the real cold weather sets in.

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Another misty morning

Alex has been busy most of the week finishing veggie beds for the year. He does a final cultivation to mix in all of the left-over vegetable matter still in the field, tills the mix down to a really nice smooth and fluffy surface, and then puts down a cover crop seed of winter rye and vetch. Our soil is nice and damp right now, and the beds of cover crop, put in place to keep the soil locked down all winter and give it a boost of organic material to eat in the spring, have been coming up tall and dense. These strong crops of green material will go dormant for the winter, but the winter rye will survive till spring, keep any early spring weeds under control, and will be tilled into the soil before spring planting to boost our organic material. Cover cropping gives us a whole bunch of really

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This week’s incredible shitake harvest

significant benefits, and it is a practice that more and more farmers are using to support their approach to soil management.

September 30 – October 7

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Some of the fall harvest

Our new student farmers are on the farm, and Maggie’s Farm is buzzing with a mix of excitement, nervousness, and the incredible volume of information that we are going to try to share with these great folks over the next days, weeks, and months. We went around the circle on Friday morning to give everyone the chance to share how they’d arrived at this place at this time, and, as usual, the stories were inspiring, funny, thoughtful, and gave me a sense of real excitement in helping all of these new farmers take a step forward that they’ve been contemplating for a long time.

We are passing through what I think will be the final grazing rotation of the year, visiting pastures and paddocks for the last time before fall and winter really set in. Most of our grazing acreage has performed really well this year, and despite the dry fall that we’re

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The pigs enjoying hickory nuts

going through right now, the grass out there still looks pretty good. I have begun taking down fences behind the dairy herd and beef herd where I can, and I’ve even spread a little manure too. I think we have a few more weeks of grass available out there, and that should take us pretty close to our November 1st goal for the end of the grazing season.

Last winter’s beef feeding system, with round wrapped bales setup out on the pasture in a large grid, and fencing moved to allow the cows to access fresh bales as needed, ended up turning the pasture into mud. Our cows were super dirty, mucking their way through some really unpleasant conditions when temperatures were not cold enough to keep the ground frozen solid. With the mild weather we had last winter, we ended up with just about six weeks of well frozen ground, and the rest of the winter saw various stages of muck and mire. This year we have worked to develop a small feeding yard on some ground that we hope will not turn into mud, and plan to use this space for feeding when mild winter weather keeps us from putting the cows out to eat at the pasture bale setup. We scraped as much topsoil off as we could, leaving some hard packed sand and clay behind, sloped the area so that it can drain a bit, and now we’ll build some fences to give us access with a tractor for setting bales and scraping the area clean. We are going to have to do something similar for feeding the dairy herd this winter as well, hoping to keep them high and dry through muddy weather as well as we can. We have put huge piles of wood chips to good use over the past couple of years to help keep the dairy herd out of the mud, and I expect we’ll try something similar this winter until we can develop a solid feeding yard at the dairy farm as well. The dairy herd can always stay inside if the conditions really preclude sending them out, but our preference is to have them out as much as we can. With body temperatures over 100 degrees, the cows are usually most comfortable out in the weather, and we really only start to worry about them when things get wet, or the ground is not safe for them.

Firewood season is sneaking up on us here at The Farm School, and Brad’s saw is a more and more common sound coming from the woods around the farmyard. Tom and King are pulling logs in for the sawmill, as well as for firewood production, and their earth-shaking walks through the farm are always a highlight for the farmers and visiting students. The Student Farmers at Maggie’s Farm will be trained up on the sawmill in the coming months, and then will mill the timbers for the next timber frame, using pine logs from our surrounding forests. Students will also have the chance, once they’ve completed a three-day draft horse intensive training at Fair Winds Farm, to help Bradley and the horses in pulling logs from the woods to the sawmill. Once the timbers are milled, they’ll get them over into the timber frame shop (the greenhouse emptied and setup with sawhorses, tools and louder music), and spend a couple months with Josh Buelle chiseling out a frame.

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We are making progress on the new goat house.