Preparing the Farm and Garden for Spring at Polyface Farm

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Photo by Flickr/Brian Johnson and Dane Kantner
After the cows go out to graze in spring, Polyface Farm’s “pigaerators” move in to turn the deep bedding into compost.

Each spring, our farm requires a flurry of preparation as we transition from cold weather to warm. Here in Swoope, Virginia, smack-dab in the middle of the Shenandoah Valley, our frost dates are May 15 and September 15. But plenty of plant growth occurs, both in the garden and in the field, far before and after these official season-changing dates.

Several years ago, our farm hosted a local student for an externship. Her official report following the experience addressed what had been her biggest takeaway, and her response shocked me. She said that on her family’s conventional livestock farm, winter is always seen as a downtime during which nothing is prepared for spring. “Farm work,” to them, simply means marking time awaiting the change in weather. In contrast, at Polyface Farm, the entire winter is seen as a prologue to spring. Every project anticipates the seasonal change and leverages winter’s singularities to capitalize on spring’s opportunities.

We begin preparing our farm and garden for each spring the previous fall. How we leave the pastures after their final grazing speaks volumes about what they’ll look like two weeks into the first days of spring. Leaving pastures debilitated and pounded into the ground stunts spring growth by a couple of weeks and reduces the first month’s growth exponentially.

As we enter the dormant season, then, we rotate through the pastures daily, remaining highly cognizant of north and south aspect, fertility, and tendency to wetness. At some point, every pasture receives its final graze of the season. Grazing too hard after dormancy means the pasture won’t have cover through winter. Grazing too early can mean that the pasture will grow back in those waning days of fall and will then freeze prior to replacing the energy expended by roots in sending out those new shoots. This weakens the plant and exacerbates energy deficiency throughout winter.

Planning the grazing schedule is part of spring growth’s robustness — or lack thereof. Generally, we try to get through low ground earlier, knowing that at any time heavy winter rain or snow could make these pastures too soft to handle livestock. The north slopes stop growing first; south slopes continue to grow the longest. Beyond those considerations, we also shift our grazing pattern from year to year so that we don’t graze off the same paddock at the same seasonal time each year. This management fluctuation encourages sward diversity and ensures that if we weaken one field one year, we won’t weaken it the following year. Nothing is perfect; yearly change-up prevents the same imperfection from happening on the same field two years in a row.

After we’ve finished with stockpiled pasture (often as late as early February), we begin feeding hay in the shed, where we use a deep-bedding concept — a “carbonaceous diaper.” This is our spring fertilizer. The grazing plan minimizes pasture damage during the dormant season; the hay-feeding plan leverages this activity to produce the compost fertilizer, which we’ll apply after spring green-up. By bringing the animals into sheds on up to 4 feet of deep bedding during the late-winter mud season, we protect the pastures from hoof damage.

The dual benefit of protecting pastures and leveraging hay feeding means that we typically begin grazing a month before conventional farmers in our area. When farmers feed hay out on the same fields that livestock graze all year, the forage never gets a rest. The constant hammering and energy deficit weakens the plants and causes them to grow lethargically after the temperature rises.

All of our planning, infrastructure, and composting are geared toward reducing hay feeding. In our area, average time on stored feed is 120 days per winter; on our farm, we average 40 days, even though we average three times as many pounds of live weight per acre. I’m not boasting, I’m just paying homage to a system that respects both the limitations and opportunities of nature.

Of course, with spring’s first green shoots of forage, we move into what we call the two-week transition frenzy. It starts with fencing maintenance. We can’t move livestock into the fields without good control. During winter, tree limbs fall, fence posts give up the ghost, and startled deer occasionally break a wire. Few things are as enjoyable as completing that initial maintenance checklist in spring.

Watching the farm wake up is the most profound spiritual and physical rite of spring. But like all of us after waking up in the morning, some of the joints are stiff — we need some water, and we need to dress. Fortunately, the ground is damp at this time, enabling us to efficiently pound in fence posts that we’ve split, sharpened, and stockpiled during winter.

As important as fencing is for spring preparations, water is the most critical maintenance issue. On our farm, we have 8 miles of water line bringing gravity-based water from high-landscape, permaculture-style ponds around the farm. Although most of it’s buried, some pieces aren’t. With many in-line valves as part of the installation process, we can turn on one leg at a time to check for leaks and malfunctioning valves.

All winter, we watch our many ponds gradually fill with water. By spring, creeks and springs run robustly, and the ponds are full and overflowing. This water abundance meshes perfectly with getting the water system up and running — if we have a major leak, we won’t impair our water stockpile by losing some water. A major leak in late summer hurts because these ponds are low and not replenishing. But in spring, water isn’t rare like it will be in a couple of months.

Along with fences and water, portable infrastructure must be readied for the season. During the big winter-to-spring transition, thousands of laying hens must move from their protective hoop houses into portable pasture infrastructure. Those modular structures need a going-over — maybe there’s a flapping piece of roof on a front corner, or a broken brace in the back. We also power-wash, clean, and replace nest box material. After the infrastructure is occupied, maintenance is much harder. We want to work it while it’s empty.

As we finish each item, we begin the animal transition from indoors to outdoors. With thousands of critters to move, the entire farm undergoes a dramatic shift over just a few days. The cows begin grazing again, and we retrofit their quarters to accommodate the pigs. We try to get the “pigaerators” into that deep bedding the same day the cattle vacate so we don’t lose any time turning that aerobic nutrient pile into beautiful compost.

As chickens, pigs, and rabbits exit the hoop houses, we set the nest boxes, feeders, and waterers aside and clean out the deep bedding, spreading it on the hungry fields. Ideally, first-fed fields are the ones grazed most imperfectly the previous fall. Within a day or two, those hoop houses fill up with vegetables and early spring greens. The mountains of composted bedding going onto the fields find ready appetites among the hungry soil bacteria and fungi, which express their own frenzy as they awaken to a new season.

Some of this compost, of course, goes to the garden beds to prepare the gardens for spring. We watch with giddy anticipation for the first shoots of rhubarb and asparagus, knowing that a couple of months later, as spring gives way to summer, the first hay mowing will signal the time to quit picking both of those perennial garden plants. The rhythm of the seasons is a beautiful heartbeat on the farmstead; I can’t imagine running a factory farm where seasons don’t offer sabbaths and sprints.

People who visit during this transitional frenzy of spring preparations often can’t imagine how we keep it all straight. Two things are important: first, winter planning. During winter, we all spend days planning the calendar, the grazing pattern, where we’ll make hay — the entire season. That’s all done well before the first green grass shoot signals the frenzy.

Second, many aspects are simply givens. The Eggmobiles follow the cows. The broilers go on high ground. Low fields can only be grazed when they’re dry enough. Pigs go into the hay sheds after the cows exit. While to a novice this may seem like a crazy gyration of activity, it’s actually the pasture’s careful choreography.