July 22nd – July 30th

IMG_6706This was another remarkably rainy week here at The Farm School, with heavy rain almost every day. Our new rain gauge was busy keeping score, and we ended the week having gotten somewhere more than three inches of additional rain. That is on top of the over two inches of rain that fell on the last two Wednesdays in row, so now things are truly saturated. We typically don’t see rainfall like this in July, and these wet conditions are in contrast to the expected dry season we are accustomed to in the summer. The moisture is going to setup a strong second cutting of hay in this area to compliment the healthy first cutting that is already in the barn. All of this rain was the product of a large circulating weather system, spinning counter clockwise with its center south and west of us. The system was quite large and powerful, and stalled in just the right spot to draw a river of warm wet tropical air up from the south, out over the ocean to get well and truly saturated, and then over New England. Areas of rain and thunderstorms moved almost perfectly south to north over us, and seemed to come in a nearly continuous stream. The storm system wavered east and west a bit each day, moving the stream of rain accordingly, almost like a farmer watering trays in the greenhouse, and by Friday it finally started moving east and away from us for good.

We have been working over the past couple of months to renovate and rehabilitate the barn that the beef herd winters in, and we finally got all of last winter’s manure and bedding out this week. The cows generated a really amazing depth of bedding and manure this past winter, more than I have ever seen in there by far, and this year’s dig out was a serious undertaking. We had some big days of digging in there, and some smaller ones, but I am happy to report that it is finally finished. We now have a large beautiful pile of composting manure out in the yard to turn and age before spreading next fall. Most of our attention has been paid to the hay loft of the barn, cleaning it out and repairing it so that we can start storing hay in there with the confidence that it is weather proof. With that area completed, we need to turn our focus to the downstairs area where the cows take shelter, and that required that the bedding be removed. Now we can really see the space, and can envision how we are going to expand and improve the cow’s area. They have done some damage to the walls over the years that they have been occupying the space, and we are eager to give them more room to stretch out, so we are now investigating how to maximize their area and to build in a way that can withstand their pressure. We have dreams of developing the barn that they winter in into a real headquarters for our livestock operations, with the capacity to hold all of our various livestock equipment and supplies, so this renovation is part of a larger dream to develop the entire facility. We hope to improve the barn space for the cows, improve the round-bale feeding system, build a poll barn to hold equipment, renovate the loading the chute, and establish a large functioning composting yard. We anticipate this being a multi year project, and we are trying to bite off pieces that we can bring to full completion each year, until it’s all done.

Squash harvest is winding down, tomato harvest is ramping up, the peas are just aboutIMG_6700 finished, and the cucumbers are at their peak. The rain of the past week will change everything though, loading vegetables with water, and giving every plant all the moisture they need for some really vigorous growth. The hoop-house tomatoes, out of the weather and supplied consistently with irrigation, are immune to these changes, and are coming along beautifully. The grape vines are absolutely loaded with fruit, there are no apples or peaches, and we have been busily harvesting raspberries and blueberries whenever the rain lets up. We usually face two truly hot months of summer, with a varying tastes of summery conditions before and after, and here at the end of July we are at the halfway point of this hot stetch. July was a remarkable month, with the hottest weather that I have ever seen here in the twelve years I’ve been farming this land, and now the rainiest stretch I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to see what August brings.

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July 15th – July 22nd

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The pullets are out on pasture. 

We use our broiler chickens and laying hens to improve and renovate pastures here at The Farm School, trying to take advantage of the wonderful food that they provide, and also their strong manure and scratching behavior. We have seen some really positive results from both types of birds, and we continue to look for ways to do even more.

The broilers, or meat birds, are run on the pasture in eight by ten foot movable houses. Each house has a hanging feeder and a waterer in it, and sits on wooden skids so that we can slide the whole thing along over the grass. There is no floor, so the birds are right on the ground, and have access to the grass, bugs and other treasures that they can find. The birds go in there after about a month in the heated brooder, or when they have just about fully transitioned from baby down to real feathers. The full feathering makes them almost water proof, and although they are under cover and out of the weather in their houses, we’ve found that that extra bit of protection really helps to keep them comfortable and growing well. We start with fifty birds in each pasture house when they are small, and divide them into more and more houses as they grow, reducing the number of birds in each house and giving everyone a bit more room and time at the feeder. The houses are moved ahead one full length per day to start, and we step up to one move per chore when they grow larger. This model ensures that the birds deposit an eight by ten foot rectangle of manure every day, or twice per day, as they move across the pastures, blanketing any area that we can run the houses over with a very powerful dose of fertilizer. Chicken manure has the highest NPK content of any livestock manure, and we have found it to have a very positive effect on the pasture. The birds do eat and trample the grass a bit, but the benefits of the manure seem to far outweigh their impact on the grass.

We run our laying hens in large egg-mobiles out on the pastures during the summer.

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The beef herd was in the orchard, cleaning up. 

Each egg-mobile is a converted hay wagon, keeping the nice metal running gear and tires, and building a house on top of that. These egg-mobiles provide the hens with shelter, food and water, laying boxes, and the electricity to power the fences that enclose the whole setup. We try to move these houses to fresh pasture once per week, though we have found that a second week can give the birds the added time that they need to really denude a section of pasture, if that’s what we’re trying to accomplish. We have about one hundred layers in each house, with a couple of roosters in there to keep a watch out for hawks. With their larger area to roam, the layers do not deposit manure as consistently as the broilers do, though they leave quite a bit right where the egg-mobile is parked. The layers do scratch through the pasture, eating and pecking through everything that they find. This process opens the thatch of older mismanaged pastures, giving seed and other plants a chance to grow. If we combine this action of the layers, and their strong manure, with some seeding behind them, we have been able to get some great results in converting older pastures into something more palatable for our cows and sheep.

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A look at our new rain gauge, in use! 

We had more than two inches of rain on Tuesday, renewing the soil moisture and setting the farm up for another good period of growth heading into the second half of July. Rain events like that really help to make up for the shortage of rain that we have had this spring and summer, though we certainly would like to see that much rain spread over a longer period rather than falling all at once. We have quite a bit of rain forecasted for next week too, so I am hopeful that we’ll have a strong period of growth moving forward.

July 8th – July 15th

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The dairy herd is grazing above the bunkhouse. 

We are coming close to the end of our second time through the beef grazing rotation, passing through paddocks and pastures that we’re grazed once earlier in the growing season. On the first pass over these pastures, the grass was super tall and growing fast, and we tried to get the cows to pass over all of it as quickly as possible to keep the grass from getting too mature and going to seed. Now things have slowed down a bit, and with the shortage of rain that we’ve had around here so far this summer, there is a real difference in the pastures this time through. Visually, the pasture is dominated by a rich green bottom layer where shorter grasses and clover are growing well after the first rotation, interspersed with isolated patches of tall golden dry grass topped with big seed heads where the cows didn’t graze the first time through. Mixed into all of this are some tall weeds like thistles and lambs quarter that we’ll have to mow in the next couple of weeks. We are still growing some incredible clover this year, and there are large areas of it, even in some of our poorer pastures, covering significant portions of our acreage and making up the bulk of our grazers intake. Clover does not grow super tall and put up a high seed head like grass does, but rather flowers in multiple spots on the plant, spreads horizontally across the soil, and grows back quickly after grazing. Clover can also be a bit more resilient in dry weather since it stays closer to the ground and can thrive in that lower region where soil moisture and the morning dew can keep things from drying out too much. We are happy to see the clover beginning to exert itself out in our pastures and to spread in a meaningful way because it also has the highest sugar content of our pasture plants, giving the cows the most energy, vigor and growth as they consume it. We are in the business of turning pasture forage into beef, so we are always eager to get more clover into our pastures, and cows. Clover also fixes nitrogen from the air in small nodules in its root system, and releases that nitrogen into the soil when its roots die at grazing or mowing. That nitrogen, essential in plant growth, helps promote vigor and production in all the other pasture plants.

We had two calves this week, one in the dairy, and one in the beef herd. That is our seventh calf in the beef herd this year, and I expect that we are getting close to our total for the summer. The bull comes in about a month, and I hope that we are finished

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Tiny Purple Rain meeting her cohort.

calving before he arrives. Our dairy calf, a tiny little heifer that the kids named Purple Rain, was delivered by Pip, another of the many daughters of the incredible Patty. This is Pip’s first calf, and although she has been a bit of a challenge to milk, we are making progress at every try. Modern dairy cows are bred to have smaller teats than the old style cows of fifty years ago because there is no more need for large teats sized for milking by hand. With mechanical milking, a smaller teat is easier, and safer for the cow, and most cows now have teats shorter than two inches. An old style cow could have teats close to four inches long, giving the milker enough space to get a hand on and give a good squeeze. Pip has really tiny teats which have been difficult to get the milking claw to latch onto, and that difficulty has been exacerbated by the typical swelling that her udder is going through as it gets used for the first time. Things will settle down a bit and come into better shape over the next couple weeks, but there is always a bit of a learning curve when we add a new heifer to the milking lineup. Gladys, another first time heifer, is due is a couple of weeks, so we’ll be going through all of this again soon. We let our heifers get to about two years old before breeding, which is a little longer than the industry standard, so Pip is now just about three years old and has started her first lactation. She has been a very attentive mother so far, and I hope to put her and little Purple Rain out with the herd on pasture Monday morning.

Our hoop house tomatoes required a little emergency trellis support this week as the weight of the large plants, filling with plump tomatoes, pulled the wires down enough that some of the wooden posts began to split and tilt. We installed a second level of ground anchors to pull the posts back up, repaired where they had begun to crack, and

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These tomato plants have been pruned for harvest. 

installed additional supports along the lengths of wire to help hold the whole thing up. Those plants are doing really well with their regular irrigation, lots of sun, and shelter from strong wind and rain. They are putting on some really impressive fruit, and we are looking forward to adding those tomatoes to the CSA in the coming weeks. This week should include some leaf removal and pruning down around the lower region of the plants, opening them up for easier harvest and hopefully lightening the strain on the trellis system enough that they can make it deep into the fall. We have all learned a lot about trellising tomatoes in a hoop house this summer, and we’re looking forward to perfecting the system for next year’s planting.

The pullets moved out of the brooder house at Maggie’s this week, and the turkey poults moved out of the brooder at Sentinel Elm, so we have all of animals out on pasture. The pullets moved into an egg-mobile in the same pasture as the mature laying hens to make that chore as easy as possible, and they have their own fence, feeder, water and fence charger. They will move around the farm just like the layers, scratching up pasture and soil that we want to renovate, and leaving behind their powerful manure. The turkeys moved into a small moveable pasture house, and we’ll add more houses as the birds grow before finally letting them out into a large fenced yard when they’re big enough to stay safe. With all of animals out on pasture, the work of livestock care for the rest of the growing season is taken up almost entirely with maintaining the systems that support the animals out there. We’ll be keeping the water and feed flowing, weed-whacking fences, clipping pastures, moving animals across the landscape, and supporting calving, but the major work of setting up the season is done.

July 1st – July 8th

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The beef herd in some tall grass

This was an extremely hot week here at The Farm School, with the temperature Monday and Wednesday up over one hundred degrees and close to that every other day, bright sun, and pretty uncomfortable humidity. The weather put a significant strain on our livestock, and we worked all week to do what we could to keep everyone as comfortable as was possible. Most of our animals come from English or European origins, and are most comfortable in cooler, and even wet weather. Our Devon beef cows prefer temperatures below seventy degrees, and will seek shade any time the thermometer goes above that point. Our Border Leicester sheep also would prefer cool English weather, and the pigs, with a very limited ability to sweat, can overheat quite easily. We made sure that all the livestock had access to cool fresh water throughout the week, managed our beef grazing pattern to make sure that the herd had constant access to deep shade, and parked an extra water tank up at the pigs for soaking them periodically and for maintaining a nice muddy wallow. Everyone came through the week remarkably well, and we had a nice rainy Friday morning as a cold front finally pushed in and squeezed the tropical air out to sea. We had a great soaking rain in the middle of last week, so while the hot weather did make everything seem a bit droopy and baked, our veggies and pastures held up nicely and are enjoying a cooler end to the week. There is some hot weather in the forecast for next week, (and no rain), but nothing as extended and hot as we just suffered through.

We are up to six calves in the beef herd so far this summer, matching our yearly

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The laying flock moved to a new pasture Sunday morning. 

processing demand. We had twelve last year, so I expect that we may have a few more before the season is over. We have had a nice mix of bulls and heifers, giving us the opportunity for some great steers in two years, and some replacement cows as well. The whole herd is looking great, sleek and fat out there on the pastures, and an amazing contrast to the rough look everyone has coming out of the winter and mud season.

This year’s Thanksgiving turkeys are in the brooder in the back of the dairy barn, and we would like to get them out on pasture some time in the coming week. They grow amazingly quickly, and fill the brooder in a matter of two or three weeks, so we are eager to get them more room to stretch out in, and get them outside on the grass. We transitioned the turkeys from our usual daily move small house

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Turkey poults in the brooder

model to a day-range fenced model last year, and I think we’ll do that again this year. We start the birds in small houses, moved once or twice per day to fresh ground. Once they’ve grown big enough that we are not worried about hawks carrying them off, we setup a large perimeter fence, and open the doors to their houses and let them wander. We setup a few feeders and waterers throughout their fenced yard, and move the whole setup periodically to get them on fresh ground. The turkeys herd very easily, so the moves have been really easy and our visiting students really enjoy that part of the work. Last year we lost one turkey to predators out of our group of fifty birds, so the system seemed to work for us, and it certainly gives the birds more freedom and space.

We have some fences up around veggie beds these days, trying to deter the local deer population which seems to have gotten a taste for some our lettuce and peas. Carlen has also been battling a family of woodchucks that has been dining on our veggie starts in the LongMowing area of the farm. She has been humanely trapping for a few weeks, and we have setup a low electric fence in their area as well. Some years these issues never seem to arise, but on the years that they do, we have found it difficult to dissuade an

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The next generation of layers is growing well in the Maggie’s brooder house. 

animal from eating our produce once they’ve gotten in the habit of doing it. The deer follow a regular path through their habitat every evening, stopping to eat at locations that they’ve found and prefer all over the area. Once they establish comfort with a spot, especially if it’s full of delicious lettuce, peas and other organic veggies, there is not a lot that can stop them from coming back. They are extremely agile and can jump remarkably high, are determined browsers, and are relentless in their efforts. Our approach has been to setup a strong electric fence, and to hang scented baits on it to encourage the deer (unfortunately) to touch the fence and feel the shock. Our hope is that one strong experience with the fence will make a memory powerful enough to keep them away in the future. I’ll let you know how it goes.