This was another week that fit our usual winter pattern, with our student farmers splitting their time between classes inside, and time out at the firewood landing. Business planning, garden planning, and crop planning continued, we looked at the livestock budgets for the last few years, and on Friday afternoon, the students presented their work on an electric fencing assignment. The work at the landing transitioned from producing short wood stove length firewood to the longer wood boiler material, which mostly means that hand splitting is over, and the hydraulic splitters are now the most critical component of the work. We have found that the longer boiler length pieces are just too long to split effectively by hand, but with two splitters going full time, we can get through the work. We had a nice little snow storm during the day Wednesday, and the visiting seventh and eighth graders from the Mission Hill School got on the bus early Wednesday morning to head back into Boston before the roads got really bad. Their classmates were scheduled to come out to spend the rest of the week with us, but they canceled, and the farm was quiet to end the week. These were the first students back on the farm since early December, and it was really wonderful to see and hear them re-enliven the place, fill the bunkhouse, and get some wonderful work done on the farm. The seventh and eighth graders from Mission Hill have been coming out to the farm
every school year since kindergarten, they know this place intimately, and their return is like having family for a visit. Theirs was a fantastic group to restart this year of programming at The Farm School.
On Monday, our student farmers met with the veterinarian, Dr. Mark Ledoux, and castrated last summer’s bull calves in the beef herd. This is an annual course of action here at the farm, and we wait until the ground is frozen and the weather is cold to make sure that our animals will not face any mud or insect pressure after the procedure. Dr. Ledoux teaches the students three different approaches to castration, usually starting with a surgical technique that gives everyone the chance to see the internal workings of the organ so that they have a clear understanding of how the other two techniques will work. We move on to banding, the application of a strong rubber band around the top of the scrotum to stop blood flow and kill the testicles below, and then try the Burdizzo, a device similar to a pair of pliers which, when used properly, breaks the blood vessels to the testicles without cutting the skin. There were ten calves to treat from last year’s calving season, though two were heifers and did not need castration, so there was plenty of work to go around. Every calf also got their two vaccine injections, protection against most respiratory infections and another to prevent most clostridium based infections. All of the castration work was done under general sedation, and the calf that was surgically castrated also got a local anesthesia. This makes the work environment much safer for our students, makes the work a bit easier for everyone, and prevents the calves from feeling the brunt of their discomfort. Despite the sedation, Dr. Ledoux also teaches our students several useful rope restraint techniques to immobilize the animal and make the work safer and easier. These calves are three hundred pounds or more by this point, and quite powerful, and it is vital that we do everything that we can to keep the animals and the farmers safe. One drawback of using sedation is that we cannot do this work with temperatures below ten degrees for
fear that the sedated animals will lie out still and immobilized for too long on the cold ground. Sedation also requires that we position and support the calves properly after their procedure since a ruminant animal needs the ability to almost constantly burp and release the digestive gasses being generated in their rumens. The gas can end up trapped at the top of their stomachs if they lie out flat, and the pressure that builds up can dangerously impede their breathing. We make sure that they end up lying on their briskets with their heads up as much as is possible, and check them regularly to make sure everyone stays upright and is back on their feet as soon as they can be. The whole operation went very smoothly this year, the calves are recovering quite well, and I don’t think that the students were too shocked by the work.