April 21st – April 28th

We also had three more baby goats this week. 

Our last ewe delivered the last big lamb of the year on Easter Sunday, so lambing season is officially over. The first lamb arrived on April 1st, and the last just three weeks later, making this a remarkably short and efficient season for us. Lambs were born at a steady pace starting on April 1st, the majority of births were quick and unassisted, and everyone seems to be doing really well. We ended up with twenty-six lambs in total, which is also a nice number for us. This lambing season was the result of the first breeding season, last fall, of our new pair of rams, and I am really happy to know that they are now proven to be effective breeders. These were two rams that we selected out of our own lamb group two years ago, so these good results are doubly reassuring in their affirmation of our genetics and the selection process. We picked, and utilize, two rams, with the understanding that if one is injured, ineffective or lost, we’ll have another who can hopefully get the job done on his own, and that finding ourselves without a viable ram would be something of a disaster. We have a dark ram, certainly the better of the two, and quite a handsome well mannered fellow, and a white one who is a bit less impressive or friendly. Both go in with the ewes on November first, and while they do a bit of arguing and rough-housing, and certainly distract each other from the task at hand from time to time, the evidence shows that they were effective. With the sheep pasture steadily growing more and more lush with spring grass, I plan to worm the sheep next week and start them transitioning

We’ve had plenty of rain. 

over from winter hay to grazing. We always engineer a gradual shift from the hay based winter diet to grazing out on pasture in the hope of avoiding excessive bloat, and I hope that we can begin that process for all of our ruminant grazers next week. If things go as planned, we should have the beef herd, dairy herd, and the sheep out grazing full time by next weekend. We have had plenty of rain over the past several weeks to get the grass up and growing, and now I would certainly vote for a stretch of warm sunny weather to make it all really pop.

The raised beds in Flat Field East and West are gradually coming into shape, and they’re being steadily planted with the early season crops that can tolerate the cooler and wetter conditions of spring. We had an enormous pile of compost delivered a couple of weeks ago, and farmers have been working steadily to cover the new raised beds with a generous layer of that rich black material before the veggie starts go in. The Flat Field project is predicated on the idea that smaller acreage, carefully and attentively planted and managed, can produce more and better crops, and this thick application of compost is part of that new approach. We’ve removed the rocks, we’ve dug and plumbed a well, we’ve laid out beautiful raised beds, we’ve added tons of compost, and we hope the results will justify all the effort. This shift in our planting plan should free up some of our other acreage for some fallow time, for transition to more tractor cultivated row crops, or even to grazing pasture. There are several areas in what has been veggie production acreage that have been quite difficult to consistently cultivate and plant, season after season, because they stay too wet, or are too rocky and poor to justify the effort. These areas seem like they might be better used as pasture, letting perennial grasses and clover do their best to soak up the moisture, cover the rocks, and hopefully to develop into a space that better serves our farming needs. We are always looking for more acreage for the beef herd and sheep flock to graze, hoping to extend the grazing rotation by as many days as is possible, and adding acreage to the rotation would be a great step. The longer we can let the pasture rest between grazings by the cows or sheep, the more and better forage we can expect to be there the next time for them to eat. In the heart of the grazing

season we are measuring this metric in days, looking at the days between when the cows graze a paddock and when they come back around the circle again to the same spot. In the early spring we try to make it around the whole rotation as quickly as we can, trying to keep up with the quickly growing grass. As pasture growth slows in the heat and dry of the summer, we try to slow the rotation down as much as possible to give the pasture the maximum time possible for regrowth. I expect the first rotation to last about thirty-five or forty days, and the rotations in the middle of summer to be closer to fifty or fifty-five days, with the ultimate goal somewhere down the line to have a rotation closer to sixty or seventy days long.

The new dairy fence system is almost done. 

The brooder is getting really full with those broiler chicks in there growing fast. They are just about fully feathered out by now, and I think that they are ready to go out in their mobile houses on the pasture. The weather next week is not looking very nice, but I think that they are big enough to handle it. We have a batch of layer chicks coming some time next week as well, so we really need to get that brooder empty and cleaned out in preparation for those new arrivals. So far, the broiler chicks have been growing really well, and we’ve only had one mortality. Though I expect growth will slow once those birds are out of the heated brooder and moved to the cooler wetter conditions outside, I am hopeful that they will do well for us, and that we’ll have another solid addition to next year’s meat CSA. There is some hope of running these birds over fallow veggie beds seeded to cover crops, but the cool wet spring weather we’ve had so far has slowed the growth of those cover crops enough that it is looking like the plants may not be ready for this plan.

April 14th – April 21st

We are weaning Purple Rain, so she’s longing to get out of the calf pen. 

With a stretch of warm rainy weather here to end the week, the worms have come out and are exploring the driveway, paths and games field. There are several explanations for why worms surface after a heavy rain, but one of my favorites (and one of the most likely) is that the wet conditions give them a chance to move safely over the top of the soil, so they take the opportunity to migrate more quickly and easily than they could in their usual underground world. Regardless of why they do it, the first warm wet day of the year, with worms under foot, is a sign that the the season has truly turned. As folks thinking about the health and function of our soil, we are happy to see a vigorous population of earth worms here at The Farm School, and we do our best to stay out of their way when they’re moving across the farm. We had some dry weather and some rainy weather this week, so there was a bit of a dance, as is usual this time of year, as Brad, Tyson, Carlen and Kristen did what they could to cultivate and prep veggie fields for spring planting. Peas went into the ground this week, and so did some hearty onion and greens starts, though the soil is still pretty cool and wet. Bed prep and compost application continued full speed in the new Flat Field acreage this week as well, with the BCS two wheel cultivator moving steadily over those fields forming the raised beds that will make up the back-bone of that growing system. We had heavy rain forecasted for the end of the week and over the weekend, so midweek Thursday and Friday were a real race to get as much acreage cultivated before tractor work had to stop again while the soil is too wet. When I hear the distant murmur of the tractor at dawn as I’m milking the cows, or again at dusk as the work day ends, I know that the veggie managers have seen rain the on the horizon and are squeezing every minute they can out the dry weather, trying to set the stage for rainy weather planting work while they still can.

We have only one more bred ewe undelivered in the sheep flock, and with twenty-five big healthy lambs on the ground already, and very few complications, this has been a great lambing season. I am a little shy of writing anything to qualify the season before it is truly over, but our last ewe is a seasoned veteran, so I am relatively confident that

A look inside the egg-mobile, after cleaning but before chickens move in. 

she’ll pull delivery off well. Our typical six or even eight week lambing season is one ewe away from completion at twenty-one days, and even with that quick pace, we were never overwhelmed by an over-fast sequence of births. We’ve seen quite a few pairs of twins, everyone has had the appropriate conformation and assembly, and the mothering has been diligent and nutritious. I had real trepidation going into the season, having employed our two new rams for the first time this past breeding season, but it seems from the results, and the timing of the event, that those two boys did a great job. Though there is not a direct and quantifiable (at least for us simple farmers) measurement to be made between the day of service and the day of delivery, it is always interesting to me to try to read the sequence of the past breeding season in the tea leaves of lambing or calving season. With the lambs coming quickly and at the very start of the potential lambing window, I can imagine the rams getting right after their work from the moment they were put in with the ewes, and keeping after it diligently until everyone was bred. A three week lambing season probably means that breeding was successful for everyone in the first heat cycle that the rams and ewes spent together, which is remarkable to me knowing that it was accomplished by inexperienced rams.

Work began this week on the pig’s summer infrastructure, and we’ve built the walled deck that will hold their feeder, milk trough and water system. This year’s deck is ridiculously high on a few sides since we could not find much level ground to put it on in the corner of the farm we’ve chosen for the pigs. I think that we did a  good job bracing up the posts that it sits on, and now we’ll have to do thorough work blocking the pig’s off from getting under there to root those posts and bracing up. I picked up the pigs on Saturday morning, and they have been moved into the piglet yard at Sentinel Elm Farm.

Gus resting, after a long week playing with the visiting students. 

Unfortunately they are another batch of those pink pigs with docked tails, I believe coming out of a conventional confinement pig operation. We have raised this type of pig in years past, and have found that while they grow quite well, they seem to have lost some of the intelligence and natural pigginess of the more traditional pig strains that we prefer. A confinement pig operation is interested in pigs that grow well, and not much else, while we would like pigs that can thrive in our forest and fields based system. Our approach gives the pigs the chance to dig and root, and to find natural food for themselves, and relies on their agency a bit in the process. Locating and securing piglets in the spring is a real challenge for me every year, and this year I found a source that could supply all thirty piglets at once, for a good price. I guess getting less than ideal pigs is the price we pay for that convenience, but I am hopeful that our good feed, fresh milk, and the forest lifestyle will result in big healthy pigs come fall regardless.

April 7th – April 14th

Some green grass, and some fencing materials. 

Our pastures turned from brown to green this week, marking a major turn toward spring and the coming growing season. This has been a remarkably slow and gradual change of seasons, but the greening of the fields, the peepers hollering in the swamp below the farm, and the lingering light at the end of the day have begun the inevitable march of warmer weather. There are farmers who put their grazing animals out onto pasture at the first sign of green grass, taking the sensible position that free green food is better for everyone than the expensive hay in the hayloft. We’ve found here at The Farm School that our pastures perform better, and for longer through the season, if we let them grow up nice and tall before grazing starts. Of course this approach can be taken too far, and we have sometimes found ourselves unable to keep up with the burgeoning grass putting up seed in ungrazed pastures. Our aim is to strike just the right balance in our timing and grazing rate to give the pasture plants time to grow big and strong, with energy stored for regrowth in their roots, but not to get so mature that they’ve gone to seed. We have a well established and moderately successful grazing pattern established for the beef herd, sheep and dairy cows, though weather, growth and demand keep us flexible and on our toes. The dairy herd will have an entirely new grazing system in place this year however, so I expect we’ll climb a pretty steep learning curve as the season progresses. We transitioned about an acre of our most level well drained pasture into veggie beds in the fall, and that change has, in my mind, tipped the balance on our grazing acreage so I do not think we’ll be making any of our own hay on dairy pastures this year. That means that fields that had been hay fields can now be fenced for grazing, and we need to establish a good system for weaving those added areas into our grazing pattern. Added to that consideration is the erosion and degradation that some of our cow roads went through last year with the heavy and constant rain washing them out. To address both of these areas of change, we have decided to flip our grazing pattern around, run the cow road in an east-west direction along the bottom of the fields, and run long paddocks north-south off that road. Every paddock will connect to the road that stretches along the lowest part of the pastures, and that will feed back to the barn. These paddocks will be pretty long, and will rise as they go away from the road, making me worry that the cows will be reluctant to graze the highest farthest areas. I am hoping that by moving a short section of fence up each paddock every few hours, we can entice the cows to graze the heights with that fresh grass. We’ll also make some changes in the old sheep pasture where the new veggie acre has been carved out, leaving the appropriate buffer between grazing and veggies for organic certification, and adapting the grazing pattern to fit a new entry point. The new veggie beds abut the old cow road, so we will now plan to send the cows into that field through a lower bar-way, accessed down a road headed east out of the back of the barn rather than the old westerly road, and the field will probably have just two big paddocks rather than the old eight. That old sheep pasture has always had a wonderful flat top area that grew our best grass, and a much less appealing sloping hillside below that. With the flat section now in veggies, the cows will have to settle for the hillside, and I hope that a little added grazing and manure deposition out there might get the grass on the hillside to thicken up a bit. Here in New England, with limited open space, and even more limited flat open space with good growing soil, it seems to be supremely logical to put the veggies in the flat places and the animals on the hillsides, if you’re farming both.

Lambs are coming fast and furious in the sheep herd, and our count by Sunday morning is close to twenty, with just over half the ewes already accounted for. We usually end up with between twenty and thirty lambs, and this year, with more twins so far that usual, I think we’re a bit ahead of what I expected. The season has been quite easy so far, with mostly daylight births and no significant complications. We’ve pulled a couple of lambs, helping the ewe deliver a baby that might have otherwise been really tough to get out, but nothing major. On Saturday we had a ewe, still pregnant, who got herself convinced that a pair of newborn lambs were hers, and it was all we could do to get her off them and out of the way. She spent the next few hours tragically calling and looking for them, though she eventually seemed to give up the hunt. It is not uncommon for ewes close to lambing to get a little confused about which baby belongs to which ewe, and to think that a newborn is their own, even if they haven’t had their baby yet. I have never seen a ewe as adamant as yesterday’s, and it was really sad to see her distress when we got her separated from what she thought was her own babies. The true mother needed some peace and quiet with her babies in the jug to solidify that vital connection that will keep those tiny lambs well fed and alive for the next six months, so we had to shut the door on the would be adoptive mother. Once she delivers her own lamb(s), I am hopeful that her strong mothering instinct will be brought to bear on her own offspring, and that will help erase the confusion and anguish she experienced over the weekend.
More cow barn art. 

Cultivation and bed prep continued in veggie world this week, though with a few rain events through the week, we were not able to get the machines out in the fields as much as we would have liked. April is one of the only months in the year when farmers here are hoping for no precipitation, eager for veggie acreage and pastures to dry enough for the planting and grazing seasons to really get started in May. Veggie growers are looking for soil to dry enough to hold cultivation and machine pressure, and livestock managers, with pastures already wet enough for the grass to grow, want those nice sunny days to supercharge pasture growth. Once the grass is tall and veggie acreage is tilled and formed into beds, we’d all like a bit over an inch of rain per week, and we’d like it to fall at night in a strong but gentle mist.

The Maggie’s Farm layers went out into their egg-mobile on Thursday night, and they are now happily digging, scratching and pecking through the huge composted manure piles at the Waslakse barn where the beef herd spends the winter. They seem happy to be out of their winter quarters, and now we’ll have to keep moving them, usually once or twice per week, through the growing season until frost comes again in November.

March 31st – April 7th

The new mechanical rock picker

Snow fell here at the farm Friday night, making this the second year in a row with snow in April, and deepening the cool slow character of this spring. Though the weather has been pretty cool, it has also been almost rain-free, so the soil has dried down quite nicely. We’ve done a tiny bit of cultivation out in the veggie acreage, and Tyson even ran the new rock extractor on Friday afternoon. The ground is thawed pretty deeply, though there is still a bit of ice down there, and some more hiding around the manure piles under the straw, so fencing has not started yet. This was a week for spring cleaning, and we made good progress buffing out the peaks and valleys left behind from mud season, seeding for fresh grass, and refreshing the driveway with gravel. This week also included the start of lambing season, with five delivered Monday and Tuesday, and all doing well so far. A baby goat was born

The indomitable Patty

down in the sheep yard a couple of weeks ago, and she has been tormenting the sheep and looking for someone to play with. Her peer group is growing quickly now, and I’m sure she’ll be leading a little group of lambs into all kinds of trouble throughout the spring. We also got our first batch of chicks in the mail this week, moving one hundred and twenty broilers into the brooder on Thursday evening. Like last year, we’ll be raising a split group of Kosher Kings and Freedom Rangers, and looking at the comparison between their performance in our system. Everyone was alive coming out of the box, and I think we’ve got the brooder setup just right after learning some hard lessons in there over the years. We shrink their space down by half to start, trying to ensure that everyone can find the heat, food and water, and we’ll expand the space again as they grow and need the room to spread their wings. Those little birds will be in the brooder for a couple of weeks, and then they’ll move out to pasture for a few months. I think that we might have the opportunity to run them over fallow veggie acreage this year, getting them some great feed and adding their strong manure to the veggie effort. We have developed the Flat Field acreage into what we hope will be some really productive growing space, reduced the number of CSA shares sold, and it seems like we might finally be able to try some of the cool fallow acreage ideas we’ve been dreaming of to boost the fertility and health of the soil all over the farm.

The greens are going strong in the hoop-house.

One of our Boer goat does delivered three babies on Friday, marking an important milestone for us as we work to develop our goat operation away from dairy and toward making a significant contribution to our meat production. Bunny had three bucks unfortunately, so the dream of building the goat herd up to five or six does will have to wait until another doe hopefully has a daughter or two, but all three little guys seem to be doing well. Bunny is having a little trouble with a retained placenta and a bit of what seems to be milk fever, but we’re trying to stay on top of treatment and hope that she’ll pull through. This was her first year kidding, so that inaugural experience can often be harrowing for the animal and the farmer as they break new ground on a challenging and remarkable process. Bunny’s third and final baby came out backwards, with just one leg poking out, so we brought a little assistance to bear on the situation to make sure that little one got his head out before trying to take his first breath.

Meat goats seem to be a really good fit for us here in New England, and especially at Sentinel Elm

The soil is drying in the Flat Field, and the rocks are gone…

Farm. With visiting students making their presence felt all over the farm, the goats seem to have a nice balance of a reasonable and unintimidating size, and a hearty tolerance of over-enthusiastic handling. We found that the sheep, though a similar accessible size to the goats, could not hold up to the kid’s energy and attention, and ended up stressed and scared too often. The cows are profoundly tolerant, though a bit large for some kids, while the goats seem to strike a really nice balance. Also, as written in these pages before, baby goats have been scientifically proven to be the cutest most irresistible of all baby animals. We also have a lot of what goats like to eat here at the farm, and we don’t need to seed it, weed it, cultivate it, or do much to support it. It feels like we are always battling back the encroaching brush and hedgerows, and the goats are happy to eat that material for us, keep it under control, and producing food for the program at the end. They feel like a great fit for the New England farm, and really appropriate part of our unique farm.