January 23rd – January 28th

The Bunkhouse is down there somewhere. 

Getting all of the cows in our little dairy bred in a timely way has always been a bit of a challenge for us. The key to the process is the consistent detection of cows in standing heat, which usually means spending some time watching the cows around morning and evening chores to see how everyone is behaving. Cows come into heat about every twenty days, and we know they’re doing so when they start messing with the other cows. They become very interested in what everyone else’s back end smells like, and when a cow truly comes into heat, all the other cows will be fascinated by her back end, and the cow will stand still while other cows mount her. When we see a cow in standing heat, we know we have eight to twelve hours to get her bred. Bradley does most of our breeding here, and he is always on call and available when we see a cow in heat. A cow’s pregnancy lasts about 280 days, or close to ten months, so breeding this year determines the course of next year’s calving and milk production. We usually start breeding some

The lane on a misty morning

time in July, and breed through the summer, fall and most of the winter, depending on how we do. Our goal is to have a consistent supply of milk throughout the year, so we need spread the breeding out to a certain extent to make sure we have enough cows in milk in all seasons. A cow bred in July will deliver her calf the following April, just before our grazing season starts. A cow bred in January will deliver her calf in October, just at the end of our grazing season. We try to avoid having calves born in the really cold weather of winter, so we try to get all of the cows bred between July and January. Some cows have regular heats that we can predict pretty accurately every twenty days or so, demonstrate clear signs of being in heat, and breed back pretty easily. Some cows, on the other hand, seem to have irregular heats, or fail to exhibit clear signs that they are in heat, and we always have trouble getting these cows bred in a timely way.

We bought Daisy from Misty Brooke Farm six or seven years ago when we needed to restock and renew our dairy herd, and she has been a strong milker for us ever since. Despite being a great milk cow though, Daisy has always given us trouble when it came time to

Tom and King in the January mist

breed her. Her last calf was a heifer delivered in 2016, and she did not breed last year. I thought that we had her bred successfully, but when the vet came out and found that she was not bred, it was too late in the season to breed her. Between her erratic heat pattern and lack of standing heat exhibition, we could not seem to get her bred again this breeding season, and she went into the winter still open. Although we are pretty lax in terms of shipping off cows that don’t breed, we cannot justify keeping a cow on the farm that does not breed for two years. We consulted our vet, and worked with him to develop a program to give Daisy her best chance to breed here in January, with the recognition that this would be her last chance to breed. We looked back at her heat history, did our best to predict when we thought she should have been coming into heat, and used those dates to time our treatments. Two weeks ago she got a CIDR (intervaginal progresterone insert), and we

The greenhouse is empty between timber framing and seed starts, and it a great place for indoor fun.

followed that with two further hormone injections a few days apart, and finally a third and different injection, and breeding, about ten days ago. I am satisfied that we did just about everything that we could here to give Daisy her best chance to successfully breed, and now we’re just waiting a few more weeks until we can do an ultrasound to see if she’s pregnant.

This was a full week of firewood production out at this year’s firewood yard, and the work site and routine has been ironed out for efficient and safe production. The piles of split wood are growing, and the smoke of the burn piles is a constant reminder of the work of this winter season.


January 16th – January 22nd

A grey start to the week

The student farmers came back to the farm on Tuesday, and it has been wonderful to be at Maggie’s Farm with folks in the farmhouse and out at work. We had a short week, but got a lot done, and the students have gone off to attend the NOFA-NY Winter Conference in Saratoga Springs, New York for the weekend. This week included a fiber-arts introductory class, delayed a day for the traditional annual snowstorm that seems to arrive every year on fiber-arts day, our first class in the crop planning series, our first class in the garden planning series, and introduction to our huge winter firewood production project, and some time keeping all of livestock happy and comfortable in their winter quarters. The next few months will include a nice balance of indoor class time and outdoor work time, with the majority of the work focused on our yearly firewood production.

Beside for making firewood, winter is also the time of year when farmers can go to conferences and workshops, and dream of ways to integrate the new ideas and approaches that they’re learning into the work of their own farm. Farmers can spend some time learning about areas of the farm that they are most interested in and passionate about, areas that they would like to improve, things they would like to add to their group of farm enterprises, or things they are only dreaming about. This new

Our pigs are growing, despite the tough winter weather. 

learning is brought back to the farm, and is mixed into the yearly winter planning sessions that lay out the arc of the coming growing season. This mixture of learning and planning is a fertile brew, and given the breathing room of the slower winter season, it gives many farmers a chance to refresh themselves and the perspective for a fresh look at their operation. New ideas and new ways of doing things that feel like just another thing to add to the seemingly endless list of things to do in the growing season, seem much more reasonable and possible now, and commitments usually dismissed out of hand in the summer are confidently made. Small issues that have been ‘good enough to get by’ until now can finally rise to the top of the to-do list, and get fixed.

Hopefully we’ve bred all the cows in the dairy. 

I have always wanted to raise different breeds of meat birds in our pastured poultry system to see which would be the best fit for our approach and thrive most thriftily. In the heat of the summer and swirl of getting everything ordered and lined up for the year, this always just seemed like one more complication that we didn’t need to take on. This year we’ve changed hatcheries, and they carry both types of birds that I would like to include in our initial round of testing, so we have ordered fifty+ of each. We will have a couple houses of our usual Kosher Kings, and a couple houses of the also common Freedom Rangers. Both will be raised under the same conditions, and through their raising, and after processing, we’ll be able to evaluate which type did better for us. There is also the conventional Cornish Cross white meat bird that populates the massive indoor poultry farms supplying the chicken found in grocery stores and fast-food restaurants. Many, or most. small farmers raise this type of bird as well, but I am not sure they would be a good fit for us. These birds grow to market weight in only seven weeks, rather than the twelve that we raise ours for, and that rapid growth often leads to quite unpleasant health problems, immobility and high mortality. Our daily, and twice daily, moved pastured approach has proved a poor fit for this type of bird, and we’ve found that the slower growing birds, more dynamic, and mobile enough to keep up with their moving houses, works better for us. I look forward to keeping you informed as we go through this experiment, and to having the best product we possible can at the end!

January 9th – 15th

Our rain gauge got some winter work this week.  

We’ve just come to the end of a truly remarkable week in terms of our weather, and it has been a real test for our animals, farm systems, and land.

Dawn came last Sunday with our coldest temperatures of the winter, with the thermometer up at the dairy barn at thirteen degrees below zero. That was the culmination of an extremely cold stretch of weather reaching back to around Christmas, and by Sunday, the farm and farmers were well adapted to the cold, and the farm and livestock were comfortable and functioning well. We then experienced a moderation of temperatures through last week, with a sudden jump on Thursday and into Friday that brought us all the way up to fifty-seven degrees during the day on Friday. That jump, from thirteen below on Sunday, to fifty-seven on Friday, covered seventy degrees in five days, and felt extraordinary. Everything on the farm was wet as the warm moist air blowing in from the south condensed on every surface super cooled from the previous weeks of winter. The cement floor of the dairy barn was alternately wet and icy, as water condensed and froze on that huge thermal mass. Then it started to rain, and we got more than an inch and a half from Thursday night on, and lasting through the day on Friday. The ground had been so thoroughly frozen after several weeks of subzero nights, that the quick warm up did not thaw it out, and the falling rain and melting snow could not soak in at all. The rain and melt just pooled and moved right over the ground, sliding over the frozen ground and heading for low areas. Our farm was almost completely cleared of snow, the Miller’s River down in the valley flooded and pushed massive flows of ice over its banks, and the dirt roads along our ridge suffered significant washouts. Our animals all have shelters where they can get out of the weather, and I was confident that all of those shelters had been designed and built in such a way that the animals would stay dry inside, even with significant water moving over the frozen ground, but Friday and Saturday were a real test for our livestock. The swing in temperatures, paired with the intense rain, was a unique weather pattern that I have never experienced here at The Farm School, and it was another reminder that we need to be really committed to building flexibility and redundancy into our livestock systems. This fall we developed a roughly two hundred and fifty square foot, deep bedded wood-chip yard just behind the dairy barn to feed the dairy cows on if the weather and ground conditions got really bad. Our cows have a nice run-in in the back of the dairy barn, but we setup their round bale and feeder out on the new wood-chip pad Friday morning, and the cows were able to stay up above the flood happily eating all day Friday, and could go back and eat there Saturday and Sunday after all that water froze into a sheet of ice. That little project really gave us a nice chance to keep the cows comfortably eating and making milk, and it serves as a nice example of the kinds of adaptations we are going to need to build into all of our livestock plans if we are going to stay functional here in the changing New England climate.

Both farms have remained pretty quiet over the past week with both programs on a little

The barn pasture and pig house with the snow gone. No more Pig-loo. 

winter break. We have had a some great meetings over at Maggie’s to lay out the rest of the winter plan and lay the groundwork for our spring and summer work. We’ll be moving into heavy firewood production at Maggie’s when the students return Tuesday, and we’ll also have quite a few classes over the next few weeks while the weather is cold and nasty. Students will start their crop planning series of classes, their business planning series, garden planning, fiber arts intro, they’ll go to the NOFA-NY Winter conference, we’ll shear sheep and prune fruit trees, work on the tractors and equipment, do lots of reading and thinking, and dream and plan about the coming growing season. I’ll be sure to let you know how it all goes!

January 1st – 8th

Not quite ready for the growing season

We’re back with another update from The Farm School, and though it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve written, the farm has been really quiet and there is not too much to report on. The story of the end of December and beginning of January has been the incredible cold weather and snow that we’ve had here in central Massachusetts.  Starting Christmas week, and going strong through the seventh of January, we’ve had weather significantly colder than we’re used to around here. Our nightly cold temperatures have been well below zero almost every night, and our daily highs have been in the single digits and teens above zero just about every day. The cold has really tested our infrastructure and farm systems, and I’m sorry to say that some components did not perform as we’d hoped. We’ve had several water systems around the farms freeze, and we’ve had to add insulation and heat in several places to keep things working. Our

The winter pigs and their deep bedded pig-loo.

animals have come through this cold weather well, though they have spent quite a bit more time inside than we’d like. On Thursday, the 4th, we had about a foot of snow fall here at the farm, starting just before dawn and lasting through the day. The wind blew hard all day, driving the snow sideways into every crack and opening in every building, piling up huge drifts, and undoing shoveling and plowing work just about as quickly as we could get it done.

The super cold weather added some new challenges to our livestock care, and forced some changes in our systems to keep everyone comfortable and healthy. The cement floor of the cows run-in in the back of the dairy barn got so cold that the manure dropped by the cows froze within minutes of falling, and then developed into a surface that the cows were very uncomfortable walking over. We found that if we kept the cows in the main barn at night, their body heat kept the inside space warm enough to keep the manure gutter thawed out, and we could shovel it out in the morning before it froze when the cows went outside and the barn cooled. We have not kept our cows in the barn at night for several years after developing a nice little run-in area with deep bedded free-stall in the back, but this cold weather showed us a weakness in

The dairy herd has been inside a lot during the cold weather. 

our system that we luckily found a quick solution for. We also moved one of our layer feeders inside their house, giving up on forcing them to walk out to eat during this cold snap. We changed the water in one layer house from our usual red and white closed water dispenser to a big black rubber dish with a heater in it, and our the rams and the buck in our breeder’s pen needed their water changed to a heated bucket. Not surprisingly, water management became the biggest issue during this cold weather, but with a few changes, I think we were able to keep everyone well hydrated.

I think that all the cows we want to breed in the dairy are bred, except Daisy. She missed breeding last year, and with her less than consistent heats, we have been unable to breed her again this year. A cow in the dairy, unbred, is not doing much for our bottom line other than eating lots of hay and making some good manure, and there is always

The view out the back of the bunkhouse

pressure to move those unbred cows along. It is certainly quite tempting to process a cow that doesn’t breed for two years, and Daisy is moving closer to that status. A cow bred in January will have a calf some time in October or the beginning of November, and since we really try to avoid winter cold weather calving, January is the last month that I am willing to breed cows before we resume breeding again in the summer. So this feels like Daisy’s last chance to breed, and we are going to enlist our veterinarian to help give us the best shot of giving Daisy a productive future here. I’ll let you know how it goes!