March 12th – March 18th

Onion starts in the greenhouse

The Farm School was hit with another pretty significant snowstorm Monday night and Tuesday, with almost another foot of snow added on top of last week’s total. We’ve had to change our plans and delay projects to accommodate the snow, pushing back blueberry pruning and the start of electric fence season, and making access to our various yards and roads much more difficult. A month ago there seemed to be a regular chorus of stories in print and on the radio describing how spring is now measurably and consistently about two weeks earlier that the historical average, and while I am 100% sure that that is true for most of the world, here in the middle of Massachusetts, we seem to have slipped back into the middle of winter. The ground had almost fully thawed before we resumed our winter a couple of weeks ago, so the farm has been particularly sloppy after all of this snow on top of the muddy ground. Walking through fields and pastures is a strange sensation with soft ground beneath the soft snow above, and it seems like quite a bit of damage could be done to our pastures, paths and driveways if we’re not careful. Snow plowing is really difficult when the ground under the snow is not frozen, and the plow truck is rattled almost to pieces as the plow digs into the soft mud under the snow. We have another snowstorm forecasted for the middle of the coming week, which would be our fourth in the past three weeks, and another for the weekend, even further deepening this springs strange weather.

This early spring season seems to be the last chance to finish up projects before the real rush of the growing season starts, but the list of things that we would like to get done still seems to grow longer and longer, rather than shorter. We finished adapting the automatic doors on one of our pasture egg-mobiles to meet AWA standards this week, and will turn our attention to the other two egg-mobiles next week. We also finally

Sentinel Elm collects all the old layers, but they look good, and keep laying eggs!

installed a gate between our new brooder house and the side of the Maggie’s barn, giving farmers a much shorter route from the barn hayloft down to the sheep’s hay feeder. Alex had various pieces of cultivating and seeding equipment down in the garage for fine-tuning before they have to go into use in the coming weeks, though the snowy landscape gives this work just the tiniest feeling of absurdity. Alex’s record show that a few years ago, he began cultivating his first fields by next week’s time. This also feels like our last chance to get together to talk about big plans and ideas before the cascading work of the production season shifts our focus so directly to the many tasks immediately at hand. The dreams we share of ways to adapt and enhance this collective endeavor are the fuel that keep the work humming along at the fevered clip that we’ve grown accustomed to, and it feels really important to make as much time and space as we possibly can for dreaming, while we still can.

We have plans to grow this year’s tomatoes in our hoop-house over the summer, and we are working to get that space ready for the effort. This week’s work has been focused on harvesting and clearing the rest of the winter’s spinach from the beds in the hoop-house,

The hoop house, before clearing the beds

and we have been researching and developing a design and plan for the trellis structures that will support the tomatoes as they grow. There a many different ways to support growing tomatoes, and we are hoping to develop a high-tensile trellis system that will allow us to prune and tie up our plants for optimum air flow, health and fruit production. Our plan calls for five long trellis structures running east to west, each with a row of tomato plants on each side. We plan to build the first prototype this week, and I will be sure to let you know how it goes.


March 5th – March 12th

A mixing of the seasons

As the same milestones in the farm year come around again and again, I sometimes start to worry that these weekly updates from the farm have become a bit repetitive in describing these events year after year. Imagining the year on the farm like the face of a clock, with a pointer slowly revolving around, it is clear that we pass over the same ground again and again. The cycle is broken into the four seasons, and further into months, but there are other distinctions, linked directly to the conditions of the natural world, that control much of the work we do. Hours of daylight, freeze and thaw, wet and dry; all these dynamics divide our time into tangible pieces, they all fluctuate, they rise and fall moment by moment, making every day fresh, despite the repetitions of the year.

Farmers here at The Farm School got back into the greenhouse this week, starting with mostly trays of onions. This marks a significant turning in the production year and adds the first

The sugar shack and our gear

load onto the wagon of enterprises that we will try to navigate through the coming growing season. The opening of the greenhouse season is also another important step up on the ladder of responsibility for our student farmers, and one that we have worked hard to leverage in their development as farmers. The responsibilities of the firewood quotas and livestock chores have laid a foundation of accountability and management, but the delicate greenhouse, and its thousands of dollars of potential produce, offers a deeper and more acute charge. The awoken greenhouse is also a marker for the start of the growing season, the end of the idle dreams of the dark winter months, and an alarm sounding that all those little projects and distractions begun when the span of winter seemed to stretch on ahead of us unendingly must be buttoned up and resolved before the trees bud out, the pastures green up, and headlong rush into summer sweeps us all away.

We have had to move along two great cows in our little dairy this week, opening up two spots in the milking lineup that have now been filled by Eclipse and Pepper. Both of these heifers were born last summer; Eclipse from Emily, and Pepper from the

Eclipse is settling into her new spot in the barn. 

indomitable Patty. Emily, who tested positive for Staph Aureus Mastitis last year, tested positive again this spring, and our veterinarian advised us that she would carry the bacteria for the rest of her life, and that we should cull her from the barn. This strain of mastitis, although not particularly dangerous to the cow’s health, is markedly contagious, and will degrade milk production and quality. In an effort to avoid the pathogen spreading throughout our herd, we aimed to eliminate the source. We also culled the wonderful Daisy this week, removing the ornery boss of the herd and breaking all of our hearts here at the farm. Daisy, with unpredictable and subtle heats, has always been a bit of challenge to breed, and after some serious efforts to get her bred this winter, we got word a couple of weeks ago that she was still open. Unfortunately, a dairy cow that doesn’t breed, doesn’t make milk, and can’t be a part of the milking lineup. Daisy was one of the two cows we bought six or seven years ago as we renewed our dairy operation, and she has made tons and tons of milk for us over the years, some great calves, and occupied a unique and powerful place in the experience of thousands of visiting students and student farmers.

February 26th – March 4th

The sugaring wagon, in all its splendor

February has turned into March, we’ve tapped the sugar maples, and smoke is rising from the sugar-shack chimney. Though is has seemed to be mud season just about all winter long here in Massachusetts, we are now really in the part of the year when thawing and mud are fully in control. The roads and driveways, paths and parking lots, are all pretty soft, with the road between Sentinel Elm Farm and Maggie’s Farm being a particularly bumpy and sloppy treat. Our livestock yards and pathways are pretty unpleasant, and we have an order in for a few more dump trucks worth of wood chips to try to improve the situation. This is our second winter in a row with more days of soft muddy thaw than deep hard freeze, and it is forcing me to reconsider how we house our livestock in the winter. Our systems are currently based on an expectation of frozen ground to keep the animals relatively high and dry, but it seems that that expectation no longer holds. All the animals have nice dry deep bedded shelter to go into, but their yards and paths are

Shearing under Fred’s watchful eye

in bad shape. I hope to spend some solid time this spring, summer and fall researching alternative ways to comfortably house livestock in the winter, and ideally have the chance to take a look at some other approaches on farms around New England. I’m pretty confident that there are quite a few other farmers facing the same challenges that we are facing, and I’m sure this will be a pertinent issue around our area. Maybe I’ll even be able to find a workshop or two in the summer conference season addressing this situation.

We sheared the sheep this week, cutting off a year’s worth of wool growth in just a few

The sugaring season record, so far

minutes, and shrinking the volume of our little twenty sheep flock almost in half. The sheep also get their hoofs trimmed at shearing time, as well as getting their annual vaccination booster. We make our sheep walk quite a bit, so in general, their hoofs are in great shape. However, with the mucky conditions they’ve been wading through most of the winter, I was a little concerned that we’d tip them over and find some foot rot or other issue with their wet feet. I am happy to report that everyone’s hoofs were found to be in great shape, and they’ve been well trimmed and cleaned up for another year of high stepping. We changed vaccines this year, moving up to a seven strain version that should give us some protection from most of the Clostridium based illnesses, like black leg and over-eating disease. Shearing time is also fruit tree pruning time, and we had students scrambling up pruning ladders all over the ridge this week. We have little orchards in several locations at both farms, and in back-yards all around the neighborhood, and the pruners had a busy week trying to get it all done.

Quite a powerful storm blasted through New England between Thursday night and Saturday morning, though we were spared most of the trouble out here at The Farm

The greenhouse opens for business Monday morning.

School. We got about an inch of rain through the day on Friday, with strong wind, and even a spit of snow once in a while too. Further north, the storm dropped more than a foot of snow, and further east the flooding and storm surge did considerable damage, but we missed most of it. Our livestock yards, roads, paths and driveways certainly didn’t need any more moisture, but things seem to be drying out pretty well now.

With the ground quickly thawing and turning soft, we had to make a sudden end to our firewood production out in the Runway pasture. Josh, Brad, Tyson and the student farmers put together a valiant final effort to get out the logs they could, burn off the slash, and clean the yard before things turned to soup and real damage could be done to the pasture. We hadn’t quite met our yearly quota for fire wood, so the loggers poked around in a couple other less

Some of this year’s maple goodness

delicate locations to find enough logs to fill out the last nooks and crannies of the firewood pile.

Next week I’ll give you an update on changes in the dairy hard. Thanks!


February 6th – February 11th

The buck and a ram in the bachelor pen

This was another week that fit our usual winter pattern, with our student farmers splitting their time between classes inside, and time out at the firewood landing. Business planning, garden planning, and crop planning continued, we looked at the livestock budgets for the last few years, and on Friday afternoon, the students presented their work on an electric fencing assignment. The work at the landing transitioned from producing short wood stove length firewood to the longer wood boiler material, which mostly means that hand splitting is over, and the hydraulic splitters are now the most critical component of the work. We have found that the longer boiler length pieces are just too long to split effectively by hand, but with two splitters going full time, we can get through the work. We had a nice little snow storm during the day Wednesday, and the visiting seventh and eighth graders from the Mission Hill School got on the bus early Wednesday morning to head back into Boston before the roads got really bad. Their classmates were scheduled to come out to spend the rest of the week with us, but they canceled, and the farm was quiet to end the week. These were the first students back on the farm since early December, and it was really wonderful to see and hear them re-enliven the place, fill the bunkhouse, and get some wonderful work done on the farm. The seventh and eighth graders from Mission Hill have been coming out to the farm

The sheep shed has worked well in these tough conditions. 

every school year since kindergarten, they know this place intimately, and their return is like having family for a visit. Theirs was a fantastic group to restart this year of programming at The Farm School.

On Monday, our student farmers met with the veterinarian, Dr. Mark Ledoux, and castrated last summer’s bull calves in the beef herd. This is an annual course of action here at the farm, and we wait until the ground is frozen and the weather is cold to make sure that our animals will not face any mud or insect pressure after the procedure. Dr. Ledoux teaches the students three different approaches to castration, usually starting with a surgical technique that gives everyone the chance to see the internal workings of the organ so that they have a clear understanding of how the other two techniques will work. We move on to banding, the application of a strong rubber band around the top of the scrotum to stop blood flow and kill the testicles below, and then try the Burdizzo, a device similar to a pair of pliers which, when used properly, breaks the blood vessels to the testicles without cutting the skin. There were ten calves to treat from last year’s calving season, though two were heifers and did not need castration, so there was plenty of work to go around. Every calf also got their two vaccine injections, protection against most respiratory infections and another to prevent most clostridium based infections. All of the castration work was done under general sedation, and the calf that was surgically castrated also got a local anesthesia. This makes the work environment much safer for our students, makes the work a bit easier for everyone, and prevents the calves from feeling the brunt of their discomfort. Despite the sedation, Dr. Ledoux also teaches our students several useful rope restraint techniques to immobilize the animal and make the work safer and easier. These calves are three hundred pounds or more by this point, and quite powerful, and it is vital that we do everything that we can to keep the animals and the farmers safe. One drawback of using sedation is that we cannot do this work with temperatures below ten degrees for

The ground in every animal enclosure has turned to ice.

fear that the sedated animals will lie out still and immobilized for too long on the cold ground. Sedation also requires that we position and support the calves properly after their procedure since a ruminant animal needs the ability to almost constantly burp and release the digestive gasses being generated in their rumens. The gas can end up trapped at the top of their stomachs if they lie out flat, and the pressure that builds up can dangerously impede their breathing. We make sure that they end up lying on their briskets with their heads up as much as is possible, and check them regularly to make sure everyone stays upright and is back on their feet as soon as they can be. The whole operation went very smoothly this year, the calves are recovering quite well, and I don’t think that the students were too shocked by the work.

January 29th – February 5th

New front doors on the greenhouse

This winter’s firewood yard cranked up into full production this week, and with our whole community on the sight for a few hours on Wednesday morning, wagonloads of split firewood have started rolling out for delivery all over the ridge. We usually start the season making the shorter fourteen or sixteen-inch home wood stove length cords, before moving on to the longer thirty-six inch pieces for the outdoor wood burning furnaces. The shorter fire wood is easily hand split with a maul, so we had an impressive army of farmers swinging mauls Wednesday, turning large rounds into fine split firewood ready to stack and dry until next winter. This year’s cut has been marked out along the eastern edge of the long thin beef pasture that we call the Runway, and the student farmers have been able to drop the trees into the open space of the pasture. We’ve found, after several years of training new loggers, that our students, and the whole process, really benefit from the simplicity of dropping and processing trees in more open space than inside the forest would allow. This location is also giving us the added benefit of expanding the pasture a bit, and since we have had to remove the high-tensile fence at the edge of the pasture to cut the trees, we’re planning to move the fence deeper into the woods to give the cows an expanded space for shade. We have also stepped up our scheduling and tracking for the tree felling and bucking part of the program this year, trying to make sure that every student gets multiple

No more ducks, so we’re dismantling their fortress. 

opportunities to cut down trees with one-on-one instructor guidance, and to follow that up with extended work bucking up their trees with staff support. We have found, over the years, that students can begin to self-select away from the more nerve-racking work of dropping trees and bucking them up, and we want to ensure that everyone gets a good hold on these skills.

The student farmers had more great classes this week as well, continuing their crop planning series of workshops, their business planning classes, more fiber arts work, and another in the garden planning series. As usual, we do our best to mix plenty of work out on the farm in between all of these classes to give everyone the chance to stay in shape, and to have some time to digest all that they’ve learned.

A look down the milking line, with everyone relaxing inside

The Program for Visiting Schools starts again on the 5th, so we spent this past week meeting, planning and getting everything ready for kids to be back on the farm. We did our annual review of the daily schedule, going through the details of every part, making sure each one is serving the kids and their experience as well as it possibly can, and adapting things accordingly. This has been a really fruitful and valuable process for us over the years, keeping the program vital and fresh, renewing its connection to our mission, and giving every farmer a voice in crafting the environment they’re working in. We didn’t make any huge changes this year, but did develop a new alternative schedule to use when the kids end up arriving late. We also spent time this week preparing our four major work areas, getting the bunkhouse all setup for kids to move back in, and whipping the whole place into shape in general.

January 23rd – January 28th

The Bunkhouse is down there somewhere. 

Getting all of the cows in our little dairy bred in a timely way has always been a bit of a challenge for us. The key to the process is the consistent detection of cows in standing heat, which usually means spending some time watching the cows around morning and evening chores to see how everyone is behaving. Cows come into heat about every twenty days, and we know they’re doing so when they start messing with the other cows. They become very interested in what everyone else’s back end smells like, and when a cow truly comes into heat, all the other cows will be fascinated by her back end, and the cow will stand still while other cows mount her. When we see a cow in standing heat, we know we have eight to twelve hours to get her bred. Bradley does most of our breeding here, and he is always on call and available when we see a cow in heat. A cow’s pregnancy lasts about 280 days, or close to ten months, so breeding this year determines the course of next year’s calving and milk production. We usually start breeding some

The lane on a misty morning

time in July, and breed through the summer, fall and most of the winter, depending on how we do. Our goal is to have a consistent supply of milk throughout the year, so we need spread the breeding out to a certain extent to make sure we have enough cows in milk in all seasons. A cow bred in July will deliver her calf the following April, just before our grazing season starts. A cow bred in January will deliver her calf in October, just at the end of our grazing season. We try to avoid having calves born in the really cold weather of winter, so we try to get all of the cows bred between July and January. Some cows have regular heats that we can predict pretty accurately every twenty days or so, demonstrate clear signs of being in heat, and breed back pretty easily. Some cows, on the other hand, seem to have irregular heats, or fail to exhibit clear signs that they are in heat, and we always have trouble getting these cows bred in a timely way.

We bought Daisy from Misty Brooke Farm six or seven years ago when we needed to restock and renew our dairy herd, and she has been a strong milker for us ever since. Despite being a great milk cow though, Daisy has always given us trouble when it came time to

Tom and King in the January mist

breed her. Her last calf was a heifer delivered in 2016, and she did not breed last year. I thought that we had her bred successfully, but when the vet came out and found that she was not bred, it was too late in the season to breed her. Between her erratic heat pattern and lack of standing heat exhibition, we could not seem to get her bred again this breeding season, and she went into the winter still open. Although we are pretty lax in terms of shipping off cows that don’t breed, we cannot justify keeping a cow on the farm that does not breed for two years. We consulted our vet, and worked with him to develop a program to give Daisy her best chance to breed here in January, with the recognition that this would be her last chance to breed. We looked back at her heat history, did our best to predict when we thought she should have been coming into heat, and used those dates to time our treatments. Two weeks ago she got a CIDR (intervaginal progresterone insert), and we

The greenhouse is empty between timber framing and seed starts, and it a great place for indoor fun.

followed that with two further hormone injections a few days apart, and finally a third and different injection, and breeding, about ten days ago. I am satisfied that we did just about everything that we could here to give Daisy her best chance to successfully breed, and now we’re just waiting a few more weeks until we can do an ultrasound to see if she’s pregnant.

This was a full week of firewood production out at this year’s firewood yard, and the work site and routine has been ironed out for efficient and safe production. The piles of split wood are growing, and the smoke of the burn piles is a constant reminder of the work of this winter season.

January 16th – January 22nd

A grey start to the week

The student farmers came back to the farm on Tuesday, and it has been wonderful to be at Maggie’s Farm with folks in the farmhouse and out at work. We had a short week, but got a lot done, and the students have gone off to attend the NOFA-NY Winter Conference in Saratoga Springs, New York for the weekend. This week included a fiber-arts introductory class, delayed a day for the traditional annual snowstorm that seems to arrive every year on fiber-arts day, our first class in the crop planning series, our first class in the garden planning series, and introduction to our huge winter firewood production project, and some time keeping all of livestock happy and comfortable in their winter quarters. The next few months will include a nice balance of indoor class time and outdoor work time, with the majority of the work focused on our yearly firewood production.

Beside for making firewood, winter is also the time of year when farmers can go to conferences and workshops, and dream of ways to integrate the new ideas and approaches that they’re learning into the work of their own farm. Farmers can spend some time learning about areas of the farm that they are most interested in and passionate about, areas that they would like to improve, things they would like to add to their group of farm enterprises, or things they are only dreaming about. This new

Our pigs are growing, despite the tough winter weather. 

learning is brought back to the farm, and is mixed into the yearly winter planning sessions that lay out the arc of the coming growing season. This mixture of learning and planning is a fertile brew, and given the breathing room of the slower winter season, it gives many farmers a chance to refresh themselves and the perspective for a fresh look at their operation. New ideas and new ways of doing things that feel like just another thing to add to the seemingly endless list of things to do in the growing season, seem much more reasonable and possible now, and commitments usually dismissed out of hand in the summer are confidently made. Small issues that have been ‘good enough to get by’ until now can finally rise to the top of the to-do list, and get fixed.

Hopefully we’ve bred all the cows in the dairy. 

I have always wanted to raise different breeds of meat birds in our pastured poultry system to see which would be the best fit for our approach and thrive most thriftily. In the heat of the summer and swirl of getting everything ordered and lined up for the year, this always just seemed like one more complication that we didn’t need to take on. This year we’ve changed hatcheries, and they carry both types of birds that I would like to include in our initial round of testing, so we have ordered fifty+ of each. We will have a couple houses of our usual Kosher Kings, and a couple houses of the also common Freedom Rangers. Both will be raised under the same conditions, and through their raising, and after processing, we’ll be able to evaluate which type did better for us. There is also the conventional Cornish Cross white meat bird that populates the massive indoor poultry farms supplying the chicken found in grocery stores and fast-food restaurants. Many, or most. small farmers raise this type of bird as well, but I am not sure they would be a good fit for us. These birds grow to market weight in only seven weeks, rather than the twelve that we raise ours for, and that rapid growth often leads to quite unpleasant health problems, immobility and high mortality. Our daily, and twice daily, moved pastured approach has proved a poor fit for this type of bird, and we’ve found that the slower growing birds, more dynamic, and mobile enough to keep up with their moving houses, works better for us. I look forward to keeping you informed as we go through this experiment, and to having the best product we possible can at the end!

January 9th – 15th

Our rain gauge got some winter work this week.  

We’ve just come to the end of a truly remarkable week in terms of our weather, and it has been a real test for our animals, farm systems, and land.

Dawn came last Sunday with our coldest temperatures of the winter, with the thermometer up at the dairy barn at thirteen degrees below zero. That was the culmination of an extremely cold stretch of weather reaching back to around Christmas, and by Sunday, the farm and farmers were well adapted to the cold, and the farm and livestock were comfortable and functioning well. We then experienced a moderation of temperatures through last week, with a sudden jump on Thursday and into Friday that brought us all the way up to fifty-seven degrees during the day on Friday. That jump, from thirteen below on Sunday, to fifty-seven on Friday, covered seventy degrees in five days, and felt extraordinary. Everything on the farm was wet as the warm moist air blowing in from the south condensed on every surface super cooled from the previous weeks of winter. The cement floor of the dairy barn was alternately wet and icy, as water condensed and froze on that huge thermal mass. Then it started to rain, and we got more than an inch and a half from Thursday night on, and lasting through the day on Friday. The ground had been so thoroughly frozen after several weeks of subzero nights, that the quick warm up did not thaw it out, and the falling rain and melting snow could not soak in at all. The rain and melt just pooled and moved right over the ground, sliding over the frozen ground and heading for low areas. Our farm was almost completely cleared of snow, the Miller’s River down in the valley flooded and pushed massive flows of ice over its banks, and the dirt roads along our ridge suffered significant washouts. Our animals all have shelters where they can get out of the weather, and I was confident that all of those shelters had been designed and built in such a way that the animals would stay dry inside, even with significant water moving over the frozen ground, but Friday and Saturday were a real test for our livestock. The swing in temperatures, paired with the intense rain, was a unique weather pattern that I have never experienced here at The Farm School, and it was another reminder that we need to be really committed to building flexibility and redundancy into our livestock systems. This fall we developed a roughly two hundred and fifty square foot, deep bedded wood-chip yard just behind the dairy barn to feed the dairy cows on if the weather and ground conditions got really bad. Our cows have a nice run-in in the back of the dairy barn, but we setup their round bale and feeder out on the new wood-chip pad Friday morning, and the cows were able to stay up above the flood happily eating all day Friday, and could go back and eat there Saturday and Sunday after all that water froze into a sheet of ice. That little project really gave us a nice chance to keep the cows comfortably eating and making milk, and it serves as a nice example of the kinds of adaptations we are going to need to build into all of our livestock plans if we are going to stay functional here in the changing New England climate.

Both farms have remained pretty quiet over the past week with both programs on a little

The barn pasture and pig house with the snow gone. No more Pig-loo. 

winter break. We have had a some great meetings over at Maggie’s to lay out the rest of the winter plan and lay the groundwork for our spring and summer work. We’ll be moving into heavy firewood production at Maggie’s when the students return Tuesday, and we’ll also have quite a few classes over the next few weeks while the weather is cold and nasty. Students will start their crop planning series of classes, their business planning series, garden planning, fiber arts intro, they’ll go to the NOFA-NY Winter conference, we’ll shear sheep and prune fruit trees, work on the tractors and equipment, do lots of reading and thinking, and dream and plan about the coming growing season. I’ll be sure to let you know how it all goes!

January 1st – 8th

Not quite ready for the growing season

We’re back with another update from The Farm School, and though it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve written, the farm has been really quiet and there is not too much to report on. The story of the end of December and beginning of January has been the incredible cold weather and snow that we’ve had here in central Massachusetts.  Starting Christmas week, and going strong through the seventh of January, we’ve had weather significantly colder than we’re used to around here. Our nightly cold temperatures have been well below zero almost every night, and our daily highs have been in the single digits and teens above zero just about every day. The cold has really tested our infrastructure and farm systems, and I’m sorry to say that some components did not perform as we’d hoped. We’ve had several water systems around the farms freeze, and we’ve had to add insulation and heat in several places to keep things working. Our

The winter pigs and their deep bedded pig-loo.

animals have come through this cold weather well, though they have spent quite a bit more time inside than we’d like. On Thursday, the 4th, we had about a foot of snow fall here at the farm, starting just before dawn and lasting through the day. The wind blew hard all day, driving the snow sideways into every crack and opening in every building, piling up huge drifts, and undoing shoveling and plowing work just about as quickly as we could get it done.

The super cold weather added some new challenges to our livestock care, and forced some changes in our systems to keep everyone comfortable and healthy. The cement floor of the cows run-in in the back of the dairy barn got so cold that the manure dropped by the cows froze within minutes of falling, and then developed into a surface that the cows were very uncomfortable walking over. We found that if we kept the cows in the main barn at night, their body heat kept the inside space warm enough to keep the manure gutter thawed out, and we could shovel it out in the morning before it froze when the cows went outside and the barn cooled. We have not kept our cows in the barn at night for several years after developing a nice little run-in area with deep bedded free-stall in the back, but this cold weather showed us a weakness in

The dairy herd has been inside a lot during the cold weather. 

our system that we luckily found a quick solution for. We also moved one of our layer feeders inside their house, giving up on forcing them to walk out to eat during this cold snap. We changed the water in one layer house from our usual red and white closed water dispenser to a big black rubber dish with a heater in it, and our the rams and the buck in our breeder’s pen needed their water changed to a heated bucket. Not surprisingly, water management became the biggest issue during this cold weather, but with a few changes, I think we were able to keep everyone well hydrated.

I think that all the cows we want to breed in the dairy are bred, except Daisy. She missed breeding last year, and with her less than consistent heats, we have been unable to breed her again this year. A cow in the dairy, unbred, is not doing much for our bottom line other than eating lots of hay and making some good manure, and there is always

The view out the back of the bunkhouse

pressure to move those unbred cows along. It is certainly quite tempting to process a cow that doesn’t breed for two years, and Daisy is moving closer to that status. A cow bred in January will have a calf some time in October or the beginning of November, and since we really try to avoid winter cold weather calving, January is the last month that I am willing to breed cows before we resume breeding again in the summer. So this feels like Daisy’s last chance to breed, and we are going to enlist our veterinarian to help give us the best shot of giving Daisy a productive future here. I’ll let you know how it goes!

December 10th – 18th

Last week was another busy one at The Farm School, and with some really cold weather, we made an early entrance into some deep winter work. The Learn to Farm Program included the final Monday morning session with Dr. Major of Green Mt. Bovine Clinic, with a focus on our dairy cows, and a trip to a large local dairy, a Wednesday afternoon butchering demonstration with Chef Barry from Future Chefs, a Thursday morning trip up to visit Adam’s Farm slaughter house, and a push to get our final students through the chainsaw/draft-horse/tractor refresher. This was our first week of quiet winter break time at the Program for Visiting Schools, and the work at Sentinel Elm Farm was mostly directed at some deep cleaning and renewal in the bunkhouse. The super fancy round bales for the dairy herd’s winter feed finally came in this week, so we had huge trailer loads arriving in the yard through the week, and we now have a mountain of enormous marshmallows stacked up and ready to keep the milkers happy and well fed.

Pig butchering workshop

Dr. Major has been coming out to The Farm School for many years to teach a series of classes on livestock health, anatomy, diet and lifecycle. He typically does a sequence of three workshops over three weeks, with one dedicated to small ruminants, like sheep and goats, one dedicated to larger animals like horses and beef cows, and the finale focused on dairy cows. These in-depth examinations of each type of animal includes a discussion of how their bodies work, how they get up and down, their walking and running, and the subsequent issue of how they eat, process their food, and pass waste, and the functioning of their reproductive systems. These issues naturally lead into a discussion of how the farmer manages the environment and diet to suit these specific traits, some of the most common issues that arise, and their treatment. Dr. Major is able to draw from his deep store of experience gathered from years of traveling around the farms in our area, and to share his insights developed from seeing things that work and don’t work on the farms that he visits. His visits always raise important issues and lead to great discussions among our Learn to Farm students as they wrestle with the many and often conflicting factors that go into raising animals humanely and profitably. This week’s final session at a large commercial dairy, paired with the visit to the slaughterhouse later in the week, and the butchering workshop, really got people thinking about all that goes into raising livestock on a large scale, what it means to eat meat, and how their ideals fit into all of it.

I placed our orders for next year’s chicks this week, and we have changed hatcheries for both our layers and our meat birds. We have also pushed our arrival dates up a full month from this year, in the hopes that we can avoid the three week drought in eggs that we experienced this fall as our older layers just about stopped laying and our pullets had not started yet. Next year our meat birds will come to the farm first, with fifty five Kosher Kings (the same type we’ve raised the last few years) and fifty five Freedom Rangers coming from Freedom Ranger Hatchery the first week of April. They’ll be followed a month later by one hundred and fifteen New Hampshire Red laying chicks coming from Cackle Hatchery. I am really excited to raise the Kosher Kings and Freedom Rangers side by side here on our farm, and to see how they compare in performance in our system. I am also really excited to try chicks from a new hatchery, and I hope that we can avoid some of the challenges that we faced with chick mortality last season. I also made our processing dates at Adams for next year, and although this is the earliest that I have ever made those dates, their calendar is already filling up way out into next fall. It seems that more and more folks are raising a few animals out on their back forty, and the pressure to get the spots we want for processing is only increasing year after year. Our schedule for next year will be very similar to this year, with most animals going in for processing in October and November.

The Learn to Farm Program is shut down from December 15th through January 15th, though chores keep going through that time, and the outdoor furnace has to be kept stocked too. The staff will be meeting a bit through that time to iron out the details of the winter and spring schedule, map out the large components of the program, and make sure that we are ready for the growing season that is coming.