September 23rd – September 30th

One of our rams, and the buck, out on pasture. 

The rain kept up this week, the pastures stayed soft and muddy, farm roads were a mess, and I think that frogs were the only animals around happy with the weather. We’ve had the beef herd grazing rotation stopped for about two weeks, trying to let soaked pastures dry out and firm up so the herd doesn’t churn up the soil too much as they graze. After going through ten round bales of hay, it felt like the time had come to get back into grazing, so despite the rain, the cows started moving again Thursday afternoon. They were really excited to get some fresh grass, but the pastures that they are moving through now certainly did not dry out nearly as much as I had hoped they would before the cows went on them.

We have been having real trouble getting Penguin bred this summer and fall, and after

Penguin has mixed in nicely with the beef herd. 

five attempts and an exam from the vet, we have moved her down the road to join the beef herd and their bull. The Jersey cows can gain weight really quickly if they are not growing a calf or making milk, and Penguin, at two years old and open, has been showing signs of weight gain over the past few months. We discovered that her reproductive anatomy was already pretty small when Brad tried to breed her, so our concern was that the addition of internal body fat would only make breeding her get more and more difficult. The vet came out to examine Penguin and her mother Patty, who has also been having a little trouble breeding, and recommended getting Penguin bred as soon as possible. He said that everything seemed to be in place and proper, but that weight gain was going to become an issue very soon. She had been in a good standing heat the day before the vet’s visit, and he said she could even be bred right then and there. We hustled her into the livestock trailer, somehow got the truck and trailer through the submerged fields roads out to the beef herd, and inside the fence. The bull was immediately interested in Penguin, and I am hoping that he got her bred that afternoon or evening. We’ll leave her in with the beef herd for about a month more, giving her at least one more cycle for breeding in case the connection was not made this week. I was worried about the potential for Penguin, bred by the beef bull, to grow a baby too big to birth next spring, but the vet is confident that the match should work out. We have been letting our heifers grow to two years old before their first breeding, but the vet has advised us to advance our first breeding to fifteen or sixteen months or age to help avoid the weight issues we’ve been having. The next challenge will be to get Penguin out of the beef herd and back into the dairy in a month’s time.

Penguin’s mother Patty, the star of our milking and breeding programs, had a calf in May, but has not been cycling at all since then. Obviously a cow that doesn’t come into heat cannot be bred, so we have been watching Patty carefully and waiting for a heat cycle. The vet came out to check her this week, and, using a small ultrasound probe, was able to detect a cyst on one of her ovaries. This cyst, something quite common in older dairy cows, has been secreting hormones and confusing the function of her reproductive system, and was keeping her from cycling properly. We administered a hormone injection while the vet was cow-side that will begin a heat cycle, we’ll give her another type of treatment in ten days to bring the cycle to fruition and cause Patty to shed the cyst, and then hopefully she will able to begin her own regular cycling and we can breed her for a late summer calf next year. Patty has delivered and raised the vast majority of the cows in our herd, she makes by far the most milk of any of our cows, she has the gentlest manner at milking, and will let any hungry calf nurse from her. She also has the smaller size and expansive rumen that we want in our pastured herd, so we are eager to keep her healthy and productive here for as long as is possible. Her daughters in our barn include Pearl, Pip, Penguin and Pepper, and little Purple Rain and Pumpkin from this year are her grand daughters.
The leaves on the hilltops have taken on the first tints of brown, red and yellow, and our thermometers here on the farm were down in the forties last night. Veggie harvest is still going strong, but I think the end is drawing into sight. The pumpkins have been harvested and sent into Cambridge to be converted into beer, more and more veggie acreage is going under cover crop, and my thoughts have turned to preparing winter quarters for our livestock. The beef herd’s winter barn got a huge make-over this summer, and I am eager to get it setup and ready, and to see if our changes work the way we hope. The laying hen’s winter house needs a full clean out, but our two rams and the stinky buck have spent the summer in the chicken’s winter yard keeping it neatly trimmed. The pigs will be gone by winter, though we did buy in two piglets this week to raise up over the winter. They’ll need a nice deep nest of straw to root and burrow into to stay warm this winter, and we’re hoping to get them a bit bigger and fatter before the cold weather really sets in. They’ll get a steady diet of extra milk from the dairy, and should do quite well.

September 16th – September 23rd

The sheep are enjoying some good fall grass. 

With the Learn to Farm graduation last weekend and the departure of the wonderful student farmers, Maggie’s Farm was certainly a different place this week. The bunkhouse wing of the farm house has gone quiet, there are no delicious baking projects to sample on a pass through the kitchen, and all of those smiling faces we have grown to love are missing. Although the students are gone, harvest and chores continued, and we started sprucing the campus up in preparation for the new class coming in a couple of weeks. The kitchen is getting its annual make-over, with an inventory of equipment and a refinishing of the floor, the parlor is getting rehabbed as well, and all the bunk-rooms will be repainted. We have also started our annual round of program and planning meetings, digging through the whole Learn to Farm Program to scrutinize each part, to make sure that the purpose and effectiveness is clear for each component of the program, and to find ways to improve what were doing across the board. There are parts of the program that we seem to wrestle with each year as we continue to seek a structure that works for everyone, and this fall we’ll be working on the independent project section of the program, our assigned reading curriculum, and our advisor work. Each of these are significant aspects of the Learn to Farm year, but we still have work to do the refine them into their most positive and effective forms.

We had the beef herd grazing rotation stopped all of this week with standing water and

This week’s rain

mud is many of our pastures. I had hoped that a week of drying would make these pastures a bit firmer and more ready to graze, but with three and a half inches of rain on Monday and Tuesday, things only got wetter rather than drying out. We’ll keep the beef herd stopped through at least the middle of next week, eating wrapped round bales in Circle Pasture, and hope that we can get some good drying weather for the next few days. The grass in the better drained pastures is growing really nicely, so I am really looking forward to getting the herd back out for some good fall grazing. Fall’s chillier weather is usually really good for our cool season grasses, and October can be one of our better grazing months as we fatten up those steers for November slaughter. The weather patterns around here were pretty scrambled this summer though, and I am trying not to count on anything playing out the way that it usually does.

Indigo is getting to know her new herd. 

We purchased a six month old Normande heifer calf this week, hoping to add a new genetic line and a bit of diversity to our little dairy herd. Indigo came from Chase Hill Farm just down the road, and we are really looking forward to seeing her grow up to be a big part of our dairy in the future. Chase Hill has Indigo’s grandmother and mother in their milking lineup, and we are always happy to gave cows that come from good stock like that in our barn. She is old enough to be weaned at this point, and we have just put her in with the herd to find her own way. She may find a mother cow who is willing to let her nurse, or she may just give up nursing, but we’ll keep a close eye on her and support her nutrition if needed.

September 9th – September 16th

Harvest’s bounty

The Learn to Farm class of 2018 graduated on Saturday, marking the end of a remarkable year of work, learning and community building. This class was a powerful and productive whole, but was also made up of spectacular individuals. Each and every student poured their hearts, plenty of sweat and maybe even a little blood into the work of this farm, and our community is full of thanks and amazement for their time here. The farm is a better place for their contributions, the work of The Farm School has been carried forward for another year, and our community is a better place with them in it.

Saturday’s graduation program included a section that the students called ‘telling the

We’re converting the hoop house from tomato production to winter greens and carrots. 

seasons’ in which they recounted the year on the farm that they are now completing, while acting out many of the most significant parts of each season. This review of the year was an amazing snapshot of the length of their commitment to our farm, to the breadth of work that they have completed, and to the variety of tasks in which we have immersed ourselves through this year on the farm. It was striking to be reminded of the places in the year where certain pieces of work take on seemingly mythological proportions, the focus of nearly our whole organization is brought to bear on one area or project, and it feels like the whole world exists in that work. I am thinking mostly of the cord wood production period of the program in the winter, and the veggie production period running through spring, summer and early fall. The immensity of these projects, the repetitive nature of the work, and the exhaustion that came with each day cast these endeavors indelibly in the memories of our students, and they figured prominently in their reenactment of the seasons. Fell, buck, split, stack, fell, buck split, stack was the cadence of the winter, repeated at graduation to recall the work of cordwood.

Summer’s end on the farm 

We got another inch of rain this week, and although we have had a nice period of drier weather since the deluge of July and August, this last rain seems to have had nowhere to soak into. Several of our beef pastures are again under standing water, and we have had to adapt the beef grazing rotation to keep the cows off  some of the swampier fields. We have parked the cows in the Circle Pasture, and I have setup five round bales in there to feed out over the coming week. I hope that a week’s time will let the pastures dry a bit and allow us to graze them the following week, but we do have another inch of rain forecasted for Tuesday. We are creeping up on the end of our grazing season, which usually runs through the end of October, so I am beginning to consider the condition that we leave pastures after grazing since we may not have the cows back over the same ground again this year. The grass above ground is a good indicator of the root system below, and our goal is to leave strong roots to ride out the winter with enough vigor for spring, so we try to leave as much residue on the soil surface as we can. Some of our pastures are growing extremely well with all of the rain we had this summer, but some of the lower and flatter areas seem to have just gotten too soaked, and to have stopped growing.

The pigs are growing well up on the hill at Sentinel Elm Farm, and turkeys have begun to

The turkeys are growing for Thanksgiving! 

really put on weight now too. Our lambs are starting to approach a good market weight with five or six more weeks of grazing ahead of them before heading off to slaughter, and this year’s steers look incredible in the beef herd. These weeks are the last breath of the flush of summer, and the gentle slope down into fall is just becoming visible over the horizon. The hornets in the orchards are nearly panicked, sensing their own imminent demise, and we too are working hard to squeeze everything we can from the season before it ends.

September 2nd – September 9th

The pigs moved to a new paddock Friday. 

This was the opening week of the fall session at the Program for Visiting Schools at Sentinel Elm Farm, and we hosted a large and wonderful group of seventh and eighth graders from The Charles River School for three days of work on the farm. We endured another stretch of astonishingly hot weather while the kids were on the farm, but they held up great and got a lot done. The thermometer went up over ninety-five degrees Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, and with high humidity it was difficult to work outside for any stretch of time. We had undertaken so many big projects in August that the farm still needed a little polishing to get into tip-top shape, and the visiting students helped get it all done, while taking regular water breaks. The kitchen was a really busy, and hot, place through the week, and we ate some amazing meals, as usual. Despite the heat, we are moving towards the end of the growing season, so work around the farm has begun to turn toward cold season preparations. The hoop-house tomatoes came out of the ground this week, and beds were prepped for our usual spinach and carrot planting. Students worked to clean and rehab the winter chicken coop in anticipation of moving the laying flock in there when the weather turns really cold.

We finished a bar-way in the northwest corner of our sheep pasture this week, giving us

The beef herd on a hazy day. 

the opportunity to get into that field with the manure spreader, and to get the sheep out of there and across the street into a neighbor’s field. I have been dreaming about making this bar-way for years, and I am really excited to put it to use. Unfortunately the new sheep field has grown tall and weedy this year without regular mowing, so I am not sure we’ll get the sheep in there this fall. We’ll get it mowed as soon as possible, and see if there is time for anything to grown up through the mowed mulch for some late fall grazing. If there isn’t enough time for regrowth, we’ll just have to wait until next year and try to keep ahead of the mowing to keep the grass green. We will definitely get the manure spreader onto the sheep field this fall, using the new bar-way, and spread manure for the first time on a field that really needs it. That pasture has barely been keeping up with the sheep, and I am really excited to increase fertility in there with a healthy dose of composted manure from the dairy.

The new bull, and the rest of the herd. 

The bull went in with the beef herd on Monday, a couple weeks later than we usually like, but still on time for calves to arrive in the middle of the next grazing season. We rent a bull every year from the original Rotokawa Devon herd imported from New Zealand years ago, usually hosting a different bull every time. This year’s bull is a very handsome youngster, just the right size and shape for us, and I am really looking forward to seeing his calves next summer. We always want a reasonably sized bull, hoping for easy birthing calves, and we aim for getting shorter and stockier as we develop a herd best suited to thriving on a 100% grass diet.

August 25th – September 2nd

Pearl giving Pumpkin her morning bath. 

There are so many forces at play on the farm that it must be just about impossible to say for certain that one thing caused another, or to really know for sure why something happened, or the season has unfolded the way that it has. Despite that, there are patterns to be seen all around us here, and I think that we are sometimes lucky enough to trip over the threads that tie them together. This year our farm has grown incredible clover, both red and white, thick, lush and abundant like I have never seen before, and sweet enough that even my jaded human tongue can taste the sugar. This year we have grown perfect melons, beautiful to the eye, bursting with flavor and sugar, bright, with the ideal consistency. This year we grew the most perfect cucumbers, firm, juicy and full of flavor, and so many of them that we could barely keep up with their ripening. This year we have grown not a single apple. This spring we had more ticks than any of us could remember, pulling dozens off of ourselves and the farm dogs every day, and now, at the start of September, I have not seen a tick in at least six weeks. This year the

The other pumpkins, still growing. 

cauliflower and broccoli were just about drowned by all the rain, the tomatoes in the field were squashed and rotted by the same, and the hoop-house tomatoes ended up saving the day, thriving under their shelter.

The melons and cucumbers are both Cucurbits, so I can see a connection there to explain why both would thrive in the same growing season, under the same conditions. Both produce large fruit full of water, so it may be that the inundation that we experienced here from the beginning of July through most of August just gave these crops enough water to really reach their full potential, and the extreme heat cooked them to just the right sweetness. I’m sure that there are quite a few reasons that could be floated out to explain this year’s character, in its minutia and in its whole shape, but it feels to me, trying to keep up with the work, that it just passes by so fast that all I can do is notice these patterns as they go wheeling by, and let them go. Then

There are some peaches out there, and they are looking good. 

the years stack up, this one on top of the last one, and the things we’ve seen and learned, the things that seemed so vital and important, start to slip away. Every year I try to commit myself to keeping a farm journal, a place to record the weather, the events, the mistakes and successes, all of these lessons. Every year my initiative comes up short of my intentions, but every year we try to teach our student farmers that the most important thing to learn at The Farm School is to be an observant farmer. There are thousands and thousands of right and wrong ways to do every task on the farm, so we cannot teach anyone ‘the right way’ to do anything, but we can, and try, to teach everyone how to observe.

From “Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer” by Wendell Berry


Don’t worry and fret about the crops. After you have done all you 
can for them, let them stand in the weather on their own.

If the crop of any one year was all, a man would have to cut his 
throat every time it hailed.

But the real products of any year’s work are the farmer’s mind
and the cropland itself.

If he raises a good crop at the cost of belittling himself and
diminishing the ground, he has gained nothing. He will have to
begin over again the next spring, worse off than before.

Let him receive the season’s increment into his mind. Let him 
work it into the soil.

The grapes are almost ripe.