April 23rd – April 29th

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The hardening-off house has plastic, and plants. 

We planted this year’s onions on Friday, marking the first transplant of the season, and officially getting the fields season started. The onions are the largest volume crop that we transplant in the year, and the student-farmers spent most of the day getting the fifteen thousand starts tucked into their black plastic covered beds, and ready for a strong growing season. This planting opened up plenty of space in the hardening-off house and greenhouse, giving us room to keep the seeding moving ahead on schedule. The peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants have all been started in the greenhouse, and are ready to be moved into larger pots for a bit more growing before heading over to the hardening-off house, and then finally out into the fields.

Our broiler chicks were moved out into their summer pasture houses on Thursday, and

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The layers have moved into their egg mobile, and into the Barn Pasture. 

we cleaned the brooder house and got it all ready for the next batch of chicks coming in next week. This next batch will be layers, and we have ordered one hundred and fifteen New Hampshire Reds. This is a breed that we have not tried before, but I am really hoping to get us raising only the more traditional brown-egg laying chickens after the disappointing performance of the Red Stars we raised two years ago. We raised Barred Rocks last year, and they have been really wonderful layers so far. We put the broilers into three houses out on the pasture, with each house holding about thirty-five birds. We are raising two types of meat-chickens this year, Kosher Kings and Freedom Rangers, so we did a house of each type, and a house that is mixed. We will add more houses as the chickens grow, ensuring that everyone has enough space to be as comfortable as is possible, and has plenty of access to the all important feeder. I am hoping that we can observe their growth, feed conversion and general success in our system, and raise the better of the two strains in the future. We are raising these birds a month earlier this year than we usually do, and we certainly had some challenging weather for them this week once they had moved out of the warm brooder. The cool wind from the north and west, blowing at almost twenty miles per hour on Thursday, prompted us to use hay bales as a quick sheltering wall on the north and west sides of the pasture houses, and we’ve left those bales in place through the weekend with cold wet weather forecasted Sunday and Monday.

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Grass and clover, getting bigger every day. 

We have had some ideal grass growing weather this week, and our pastures are really getting nice and tall. This is a difficult moment in the year as we watch the beautiful fresh grass coming up, and know that our grazing animals are desperate to get grazing after a long winter of eating hay. However, the longer that we can give the new grass of spring to grow tall, and dig nice deep roots, the stronger each plant, and the whole pasture, will be for the long grazing season ahead. If the weather continues nicely, as it was this week, I estimate that we are about ten days from starting grazing. We always transition into grazing gradually, giving our ruminants time to gently transition their digestions from hay to the rich fresh grass, so I bet we’ll be fully grazing in more like two weeks. We still have quite a bit of fence to setup, especially in the dairy acreage, so this looks to be a busy stretch of work getting everything in order. The laying hens at Sentinel Elm Farm are already out on pasture, but the egg-mobile at Maggie’s is still idled. We’re hoping to run the layers through the home orchard to help break up the development cycle of the apple tree parasitic insect Plum Curculio, so the bud production date is really dictating our layer launch this spring. These little bugs lay eggs in the newly formed fruit, and their maggots eat their way through the growing apple, causing spots, holes, and for the fruit to often fall off early. We hope that the chickens will be able to eat the bugs as they arrive on the scene, preventing them from laying eggs, and saving the apple crop. We’ll see how it goes, and I’ll be sure to let you know all about it.

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April 16th – April 22nd

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This year’s piglets are checking out their new area. 

I took our two winter pigs up to the slaughterhouse on Wednesday, and the visit there renewed for me the question of our place in the meat production industry. Every visit to every slaughterhouse that I’ve been to has been a powerful reminder to me of the contrast between our animal’s experience here at the farm, and their experience at the slaughterhouse. I don’t think that there is any nice way to provide the service that slaughterhouses provide, and I am confident that the ones that we take our business to are doing the work as well as it can be done, but the nature of the work is certainly unpleasant. I think that the collection and short-term housing of livestock for processing will inherently involve a strong dose of indignity if it is going to be done in a way that the facility can afford. I can imagine an idealized facility that pampers every animal and gently ushers them onto the kill-floor, but that level of care would bankrupt any business attempting it, and would slow production to unacceptable levels. Because of the shortage of facilities in New England, there is a good deal of pressure on slaughterhouses in our area to process animals quickly and efficiently, and to work through the high level of animals being delivered to them every day. That pressure demands that their systems be efficient, in both time and staffing, and under that pressure there is not a lot of space left to consider the animal’s experience.

That stands in contrast to the attention that we pay here at the farm to the experience of every animal that we raise, where growth, health and comfort are really the three principal issues that we consider for all of our livestock. We invest a lot of time and effort into the day to day care of all of our animals, as well as thought in the design and implementation of the systems in which we raise those animals. We are committed to giving every animal as much opportunity as is possible to live out the character and

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We’ve got some new chicks in the Sentinel Elm brooder. 

design inherent to them, letting pigs root in the soil, chickens peck through the grass, and cows graze out on the pastures. Slaughtering and butchering these animals on the farm, completing the final step in the cycle that takes them from birth to our freezer, would be the approach that would best honor the effort that we have put into their upbringing, as well as the innate virtue in each animal. Processing our animals on-farm would mean that they never left the farm, that they stayed in our care throughout their entire lives, including until their very last moment, that they could avoid the stress of travel and of spending time at the slaughterhouse. However, there is currently no practical way to achieve this on-farm processing within the USDA inspection system which allows us to sell our meat commercially.

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The onion starts got their annual haircut. 

Our extended winter weather held on a bit longer this week, with several days of off-and-on snow, plenty of cold, wind and rain, and limited sun. The ten day forecast seems to imply that the pattern will change a bit next week, with ample sunshine and temperatures heading up into the sixties. The pastures have been inching slowly up over the past few weeks, but I think a dose of warm spring sun might get things really going out there as we head toward grazing season starting in early May. I hope to move our broiler chicks out into their pasture houses next week to make room for the layer chicks coming in the mail the following week, and I think they are ready to get out there and to start scratching through the grass and hunting bugs. Twenty piglets arrived at the farm on Thursday evening, and they have moved into our piglet training pen across the yard from the greenhouse at Sentinel Elm Farm. They came from the same farm as last year’s, born from the same sows, but

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The old milk room has been gutted, and the floor has been jack-hammered out. We will pour a new floor and drain, put up some new walls and doors, and get things moving forward next week. 

with a different boar. They look great, and we have started work on their summer area in the hope of moving them out there before the end of May. Work has also started on our milk room renovation, with most of the demolition completed this weekend, in hopes that new cement, plumbing, walls and electrical can start this coming week. We have our first cow of the spring due May 8th, so we are eager to get the milk room back in as close to working order as is possible before the milk starts flowing again.

Alex has been roaring around the ridge, getting veggie acreage tilled up and cultivated as fast as it dries down, and with more rain in the forecast for Wednesday, this spell of dry sunny weather has him moving in top gear.
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The hardening off house is put back together, and now we need the plastic to arrive so we can cover the frame and start moving in onions. 

April 9th – April 15th

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Despite the spring feel to the week, we did have some frosty mornings.

This week really felt like spring here at The Farm School, with some bright sun, temperatures pushing seventy degrees, and the grass in the pastures really making solid progress toward the coming grazing season. We even had the windows in the brooder house open for a few days this week, letting in some nice fresh air and giving those not-so-little chicks their first taste of the great outdoors. The chicks need a bit more time in the brooder, warm and safe under the heat lamps, before they can move out into their pasture houses, and I expect we’ll give them ten or twelve more days before clearing them out. We have a big batch of laying chicks coming in the first week of May, so we’ll need to get the broiler chicks out, and the house cleaned, before the new arrivals can

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The repair of the hardening-off house in progress

move in. I plan to run our broiler chicks in the Sheep Pasture this year, just north of the Maggie’s Farm complex, in the same area that we have run them the past few years. The sheep pasture has barely been keeping up with the grazing demands of our little sheep flock over the past few years, and the manure put down by the broilers has done a lot to keep that grass growing well. The broilers are delicious, they are a great addition to our meat CSA, and as an added bonus, their manure is one of our most effective pasture growth stimulators, if we manage them well and keep them moving.

Alex and the student farmers got out onto several parts of our veggie acreage this week to do the initial

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Some of that soil, drying out in the sun

cultivation of the driest fields in preparation for the first round of spring planting. Alex keeps a really close eye on the weather during this period of cultivation, looking for the soil to dry out enough to support the tractor and to turn over well, and for the impending rain to stop his work. This stretch of the season is always a race between field prep and the veggie starts growing in the greenhouse, as Alex, Kate and the student farmers wait for stretches of dry weather and the chance to prepare bed space for the plants ready to leave the greenhouse. Some areas of soil in our driest fields was just starting to dry nicely by ThursdayFriday and Saturday of this week, but with a return to winter cold on Sunday, and more than an inch of rain forecasted to fall here on Monday and Tuesday, it seems likely that cultivation with have to stop for while again. Now the race is on to get the damaged hardening off house rebuilt in time to move starts in there, make room for new trays in the greenhouse, and buy ourselves a bit more time while we wait for the soil to dry.

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The horse-draw implements and carts are back in the yard and ready for the growing season.

We seem to go through an extended and stressful search for feeder piglets to purchase every spring, looking for about thirty to fill the needs of both programs and our meat CSA. We have developed nice relationships with several wonderful pig farmers around the area, but we still cannot find someone to supply thirty pigs consistently every spring. This was another challenging spring, since the great farmer we got pigs from last year has decided to get out of the business. I have been searching for a while, and finally heard this week that the farmer we bought piglets from last year has sold his operation to another local farmer, and he’ll have twenty pigs ready for us next week. So we went from zero to twenty piglets coming next week in the span of a single phone call, and now the race is on to get the piglet training area setup, and to start getting the larger summer piglet system in shape. I have dreams of running the pigs over the North West Pasture this summer, hoping that they will be able to destroy the bed-straw that has taken over about seventy-five percent of that pasture. This would be a new area to run pigs in for us, and while there certainly are some significant challenges inherent in the idea, I think the benefits might make the effort worth it. The bed-staw has to be dealt with in some way, and the pigs offer us an intriguing alternative to tractor cultivation. We’ll start working on the pig setup next week, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

April 2nd – April 8th

Now it feels like the weather is just messing with us, swinging from what feels like spring,

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Seems to still be winter, but the view is pretty nice. 

back into deep winter conditions in a matter of hours. We had a couple of days of sun, the pastures started looking a little green, and now we’re back under a couple of inches of snow and the thermometer fell below twenty several nights this week. These conditions have been tough for our new arrivals on the farm, but the lambs and chicks have been holding up so far. We have added about as much heat as I think we can in the brooder house, and the tiny chicks in there have found the warm spots and are staying pretty comfortable. The lambs have also found cozy hiding spots to keep out of the wind and snow, and as long as they keep well fed, they can withstand these difficult conditions. We have been paying some extra attention to getting newborn lambs dried off as quickly as is possible, trying to cut down on the time that they are out in the wind while they are still wet. The mother ewe usually does a great job licking them off, but we have providing a little extra drying, and we’ve hustled them inside the jugs and out of the weather.

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The wind Wednesday night was strong enough to do some damage, smashing one of our shop doors. 

We started setting up seasonal electric fences for the beef herd this week, even though conditions and the weather gave no indication that the grazing season might be only weeks away. We have been working to shift the balance of fencing from seasonal temporary fences to permanent high-tensile fences, cutting down on the amount of fencing that has to be put up every spring and taken down every fall. This lightens the spring work load a bit, at a time when there are so many other projects to complete that we are always looking for extra time and workers just to keep up with all of it. However, those permanent high-tensile fences are a big investment, and stay in place for many many years, and we need to be sure that we know exactly how we want them setup before we build them. This often means that we are going to invest quite a bit of time and effort into a fence location before building the high-tensile fence, clearing brush, grading and leveling, and trying to get everything in a condition that can last for the next ten or fifteen years.

All of our tomato and pepper seeds for the coming growing season have been started in

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We’re keeping the brooder house warm and cozy for the new chicks. 

the greenhouse, and now we are just waiting for the magic of germination to happen. Alex converted two old refrigerators into germination chambers this winter, and we have been using those to encourage more robust germination whenever possible. The greenhouse is filling up, and with snow still on the ground, it seems like we may run into a little bind getting veggie beds tilled and prepped in time to get our beautiful starts in the ground in a timely manner. We had some pretty intense wind here at the farm on Wednesday night, and the plastic cover on the hardening-off house next to the greenhouse was mostly torn off. Our veggie starts typically move to the hardening-off house for a bit before planting in the fields, so the repair of that building is another project that we are hoping to get taken care of as quickly as we can. The work continues next week, and I’ll be sure to let you know how it all goes.

March 26th – April 2nd

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Back to winter

The weather around here seemed to change pretty quickly just after I wrote about our prolonged winter conditions last update, and we ended up with a stretch of really nice spring weather through most of the week. The snow had just about all melted, and with nice sunny days, the ground dried out a bit, roads and yards firmed up, and the pastures even began to take on just the faintest tint of green. However, as I am writing this Monday morning, snow is falling heavily here in central Massachusetts, and the pastures, roads, stonewalls, and everything else, is white again. The forecast calls for temperatures to approach fifty degrees under sunny skies by this afternoon, so it seems that we’ve really entered that crazy time in the spring when the seasons don’t really seem to know what they want to do.

There are buds developing on the trees up and down the ridge, but still no hint of any

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Onion starts

color in the trees at all. We pulled most of the sugar maple taps this week since since the trees were starting to make yellow cloudy sap, though we still have some taps in trees on cool, sheltered northern slopes. My thoughts have been consumed with reseeding our winter feeding yards, how the pasture is regrowing after winter dormancy, and different patterns we could try when it comes time to restart grazing.

Our weekend chore team discovered two pairs of lambs at chore time Saturday morning, so our lambing season has officially started. Both sets of lambs are in jugs with their mothers, and doing great. I think we’ll let the more experienced ewe and her babies back out with the group either Monday or Tuesday. That means lambs running around the sheep yard, getting into all kinds of trouble, and being super cute. We have 18 ewes total, with a few that I bet are not bred, so we are expecting more than a dozen more ewes to deliver their lambs before we’re done. Many ewes will have twin lambs, and with enough good quality feed, they can make plenty of milk for both, and raise nice big healthy youngsters by the fall. Some will have only a single lamb, and while this cuts into our production numbers a bit, the single lamb does end up growing larger than a twin since it gets more milk and attention from the ewe.
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Greenhouse work

We’ve dried off our last milk cow, and we won’t be milking for the next five weeks. This is a strange break for us, but we’re hoping to take the opportunity to renovate the milk room, and to also really get everything setup nicely for the coming calves. We are going to try to feed our dry cows an alternate diet this year for the first time, trying to avoid the challenges that we faced with milk fever last spring. The heart of the issue is a cow’s

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Frank and Ethel are growing up, but they’re still pretty cute. 

ability to meet the extreme demand for calcium that her first big bag of milk requires after her calf is born. Calcium is vital to the milk, but also vital to muscle and nerve function, and when it quickly exits the cow’s blood stream to enter the udder, the cow can lose strength, collapse, and ultimately die.  Manipulating her diet in the weeks before calving can better position her to find the required calcium she needs without putting herself in danger, and we have been working with our local veterinarian to develop a feeding plan to try here at our farm.

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Soil block creation

We have our first batch of chicks scheduled

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Ready to grow

to come in the mail this week, and the brooder is almost ready to receive them. With a nice wood shavings floor, some heat lamps and heat plates, organic chick starter mash and fresh water, we are eager to get those little tinies out of their shipping box and to get them warm and fed. This first batch will be the birds that we raise for meat, and we are raising both Kosher Kings and Freedom Rangers this year. I have always wanted to raise both types of pastured chickens side by side to see which type does better in our system, and I am really excited to have the opportunity to try it out this year. I think we will try some houses full of a mix of the two types, as well as houses specific to each type too. This will give us a chance to compare feed consumption between the two, as well as having some raised in exactly the same conditions to compare. I am excited to see how they grow, and to let you know all about it.