December 9th – December 16th

The student farmers went up to the Adams slaughterhouse for a tour this week, getting a look at that vital component in our meat production cycle. This field-trip raises important questions and concerns in every group of students, and it gives us all an opportunity to think more deeply and to discuss our own views on the issue of meat production. The Adams facility is really well run, and was built and designed to reflect our most up to date understanding of livestock welfare and processing, but there is no

Last summer we worked to rehab the hay-loft in the old Waslaske barn, where the beef herd spends the winter. This week we put some straw bales (on the left) and some hay bales (further along) up there, and we’ll see how they keep.

nice way to accomplish that work of slaughtering and butchering livestock. Though the staff at Adams works hard to make the process safe and low-stress, the contrast between the life that we provide for our animals, and their experience in the slaughter facility, is stark. This contrast often makes our students question the structure of the meat production system that has this type of animal experience built into it, despite the efforts of the farmer to treat their animals well. This naturally leads to the desire to process animals on the farm, in the place that they were raised, cared for and know, to avoid the trip the slaughter facility, the time spent in the pens, the walk onto the kill floor, and all that goes into these activities. In Massachusetts, and the country at large, meat sold to the public must have a USDA stamp on it, must have been processed under the supervision of a USDA inspector, and the processing must meet standards developed and laid out by the USDA. That precludes on farm processing, unless the on farm component really just means a USDA inspected slaughter house on your own farm. The cost of building a facility that meets USDA standards, that the USDA will staff with an inspector, puts this out of reach for almost all farmers. So if a farmer wants to legally sell meat to the public, they have to bring their livestock to a USDA approved facility, and therefor subject their animals to the difficult environment inherent in that process. An alternative to this approach would be raising animals for only your own consumption. This would require processing the animals yourself, or finding one of the last few remaining roving on-farm processors who will come to your farm and take your animals through processing for you there.

This week also included our first Livestock Health class with Dr. Beltaire of UMass. The Maggies’s students will have several sessions with Dr. Beltaire, going through the major health and management issues that face the livestock that we manage. The first class was focused on beef cows and ruminant digestion. We have had a great working relationship with UMass on the veggie side of our program, directed mostly at improving and implementing our insect pest detection and management program, and these classes will hopefully help us to develop this relationship on the livestock side as well.
There is no program running at Sentinel Elm Farm these days, but there were a few farmers on the farm never the less, cleaning, organizing, and re-imagining the spaces

We have been building this large hay feeder for the past few weeks, and we finally deployed it this week, filled it with hay, and the cows, and students, gave it a try. It seems to be working well. 

and systems that make the Program for Visiting Schools work so well. The art-brary has been gutted and restored better than ever, we’ve filled a dumpster with metal scrap for recycling, we’ve cleaned and organized the barn fencing area, and the dairy cows now have a second winter yard closer to the barn to use if conditions get too bad for their main yard.

We made some great progress with the livestock at Maggie’s farm this week too with the breeding bull picked up Thursday, the dairy heifer we had with the beef herd for breeding returned to the dairy, and another one-hundred and forty bales of straw loaded into the beef barn. We also finally got all of the temporary beef fencing taken out of the pastures for the winter, and continued to stockpile round wrapped hay bales for winter feeding.

December 2nd – December 9th

Round bales stacked at the dairy barn

Large round wrapped bales of hay have started arriving on the farm as we stock up on winter feed for the dairy and beef herds. We make almost forty of our own bales here as a first cutting of our own pastures in June or July, but we’ll need more than one hundred for the beef herd and another seventy or so for the dairy herd to get us through to grazing again in early May of next year. The dairy herd gets the premium stuff in the hope that they can stay on a highly nutritious diet and keep making that good milk through the cold weather. The beef herd is happy with first cut since they’re just keeping fed and growing the first stages of next spring’s calves, with much lower demand than the dairy cows in milk. These wrapped bales, full of slightly pickled hay that the cows love, can be stored

The beef herd in their winter quarters

outside, and stay fresh for months and months. Their use does require a tractor, since they’re so heavy, and they are wrapped in plastic and twine that can really become an eyesore and a nuisance on the farm if they’re not managed carefully, but they have been a wonderful innovation for feeding large ruminants. Each round bale is the equivalent of twenty-five to forty square bales, depending on weights and quality, so they are a really efficient way for us to keep our cows well fed through winter.

We bought two little piglets this week, and installed them in the pig yard near the greenhouse. They’ll get the extra milk from the dairy all winter, and grow up to be big beautiful fat pigs by spring, ready for the BPG or the freezer. They have a deeply bedded house to burrow into, and they spend most of their time nestled under the straw during the cold weather. I would love to include a picture of them here, but they are quite elusive in their warm hide-out,

We’ve been building a new dry hay feeder for the beef herd.

and I hate to roust them out of there when they’re so happy snuggled up with each other.

This was a cold week here on the farm, and we didn’t really have any precipitation, which is the first time that I can write that in quite a while. By my reckoning, and this is another instance when I really wish that I kept a weather journal, we have had measurable precipitation here every week since the Fourth of July. The dry weather did wonders for the animal yards, roads, pastures and driveways, and the coming week looks dry until Friday as well. Dry cold weather firms up the ground so we can drive out on it again, turns the mud of the cow yard into cement, and generally gives us all firmer footing in everything that we’re doing. One interesting issue that I am dreading somewhat is that the ground has frozen solid while totally saturated. Of course the ground freezes every winter with a certain degree of moisture in it, hence the freezing part, but this year temperatures got cold with what I must assume is almost 100% water-logged soil. This seems to me to indicate that the ground will be particularly hard frozen, and that when it thaws, it is going to be an ever-loving mess. We have started having multiple mud seasons throughout the winter in these parts with less consistent cold temperatures, and I expect that we are in for some really sloppy conditions at several points this winter.
The cold weather means meeting season has begun here at The Farm School, and the veggie team has been huddled a bunch this week as they re-hash last season’s experience, look for lessons for the coming year, and make their plans for next year. They look at

The wood furnace is going full tilt in this cold weather. 

which crops and varieties grew the best for us, which of them our customers were most excited about, new varieties that might be able to address production and sales issues that we faced, and when and where to put it all as the season unfolds. The coming season will mark two shifts for us in veggie production as we integrate our newly enhanced Flat Field acreage into the mix, and also as we change from the traditional ‘Head Grower’ management model to a more collaborative approach. We will try to use the power of spread-sheets and digitization to maintain a framework for folks to work within, and we’ve downsized our veggie CSA membership to lighten the pressure a bit in this inaugural production year. Both changes seem really exciting from where I stand over here with the livestock, and I think that we are all really looking forward to seeing how it all works out. I’ll let you know!

November 18th – December 2nd

All the photos this week are from our greenhouse, converted, as we do every year about this time, into a timber frame workshop. There are pictures of some of the many tools that students are taught to use in their work, turning the timbers into the many components of timber frame structure, there are pictures of the timbers and finished pieces, and at the bottom is an image of the book that we use as our reference throughout the work. Enjoy! 

The turkeys have gone to the holiday table, the last two pigs are ready to be picked up at the slaughterhouse for Monday’s butchering class, and Friday marked the end of our fall season of programing with visiting school groups at Sentinel Elm Farm. It all adds up to a true changing of the seasons here at The Farm School. The Learn to IMG_7107Farm program rolls on for a few more weeks before our winter break, with a focus on more chainsaw, tractor and horse training, and some intensive livestock class time with a UMASS animal health professor. The big greenhouse has made its annual transition into a timber frame workshop, and we have begun the slow work of turning large timbers into posts, braces, beams and joists. The skills that students develop with the chainsaw, tractor and horses will be put straight to use in our annual cord wood production project, making the firewood to power our outdoor furnace, and enough to share with some neighbors too. The students have already had more intensive introductions to working with horses, chainsaws and tractors in their first month on the farm, so these weeks are a chance to remind them of that introduction and to try to add some more experience and comfort.

The student farmer started their week with Dr. Major, the large animal vet from Green Mt. Bovine Clinic, who works with our dairy, focusing on cow health, diet and reproduction . He gave the students an in-depth look at the major health issues that face dairy cattle, a summary of the a typical year in the life of a dairy cow, and then some hands on time with the cows, checking pregnancies and looking at other issues in our herd. He also helped theIMG_7111 students get a feel for the vet/farmer relationship, how to keep it strong and effective for both parties, and what information and supplies to have on hand when the vet is coming to your farm. The more time I spend working in our dairy the more I see the vital roll that the vet plays in that enterprise, especially with a novice dairy manager like myself, and the more significant place I see for the working relationship that we try to maintain with Dr. Major. We have spent many hours together, on the phone or in the barn, looking over cows, reading health records, inspecting facilities, discussing health issues and treatments, and looking for ways to improve the health and production in the unique dairy environment of this teaching farm. This time the students spent with Dr. Major was a great opportunity to introduce them to that relationship, and to give them a chance to see the enterprise from Dr. Major’s experienced vantage.
IMG_7109We’ve had a few brief tastes of winter weather on the farm already here in November, and now with the livestock down to winter levels and in winter quarters, the fields and orchards dormant until spring, we can turn to the quick period of trying to get everything put away and cleaned up before true winter sets in. We still have a few hoses out there on the farm, some water troughs and other equipment around that we’ll need to drain, clean and get under cover before everything freezes and gets lost under the snow. We’ve had an extremely extended stretch of wet grey weather here, really since about the fourth of July, and now with the pastures brown and the leaves off the trees, this landscape, under clouds and mist, is nearly colorless. There are bright red Winterberries for an occasional splash of color here and there, but everything else seems to be within a narrow spectrum between brown and grey. A nice white blanket of snow would certainly make those browns and greys stand out clearly, and as always, we are looking forward to snow and ski season.