Baby animals return to the Shaker farm

Bill Mangiardi holds a lamb a few days old. She has a twin brother, and their mother has not been feeding them equally, so Mangiardi offers her a bottle of warm milk from a generous nanny goat.

He will keep an eye on her through the day and come in at night to feed her again. Like many babies, she needs to nurse often. The barn feels different at 3 a.m., he said. The swallows are quiet and the animals are asleep, babies lying warm on their mothers’ backs. It’s a busy time of year for him, caring for some 31 babies in the round stone barn and the dairy ell.

Baby animals have returned to Hancock Shaker Village. The annual festival is known as a rare place where people can get close to young creatures, under the careful eyes of volunteers — where you can feel a calf’s rough tongue or a chick’s light feet on your baseball cap. And even in Covid the Shaker farm is finding ways to welcome people in. The festival runs through May 9, Tuesday to Sunday (and Mondays for members).

In the round stone barn, the swallows are singing — barn swallows, cliff swallows and tree swallows — and lambs and kid goats are exploring, safely spread out in their own areas with their mothers close by. One tries to stand on a ledge an inch or two wide, a handspan off the floor.

The goats are a mix, Mangiardi said, long-eared short-haired Nubians, smaller nimble alpine and Kiko with their curved horns.

The sheep are mostly merino for their soft wool and some crosses, Finn and Rambouillet with dark markings, and many of the lambs have had a few weeks to get to know the world. The lambing season begins in January and February, Mangiardi said.

He knows it well. Some of these come from his farmland. He is the third generation to run his family farm in Lanesborough, the Mangiardi farm now merged with Seekum Brook Farm.

In his hands it has expanded and transformed from a dairy farm, and he now raises sheep and beef cattle, angus and cherolet crosses. He has always raised pigs too, he said, and he began bringing both pigs and cattle here to the Shaker farm when he began working here. He has been here 18 years now.

In the dairy ell here, the dark brown calves curled together here on the straw come from Hawthorne Valley Farm, an organic farm in Ghent, N.Y.

They are crosses too, brown Swiss, Jersey and shorthorn, Mangiardi said. A dairy farm breeds their milking cows every year, to keep their milk coming, and the farm can’t keep all of the bull calves. So he takes some in.

Beside them, a heftier fellow shows his breadth. He is a black-and-white a working steer about two and a half years old with a thick winter coat. A steer is a gelded bull, Mangiardi explains, and he will be a steer until he reaches six years old. He is still growing from his current 1200 pounds to 2500.

Some steers become beef cattle, he said, or at full size and strength, a steer can become an ox — oxen are gelded bulls trained to work. Mangiardi has trained an ox team in the past, and he says it can be a full-time job to work with them, to teach them and train them and work with them. Like draft horses, they need work to do. He has raised draft horses too. He recalled a half percheron and half wild mustang, huge and gentle to handle and ride.

“I had him 20 years,” he said.

Across the aisle, another mother is nursing seven piglets. They are a week old and no larger than guinea pigs. They have already doubled in size, he said, since they were born. And he has two more sows waiting.

“It takes three months, three weeks and three days for a sow to have her piglets,” he said.

He has seen as many as 16 born at one time, a challenge for the mother to nurse.

“There’s 14 feeding stations,” he said

This one keeps an eye on him as he stands by the pen. She will protect her babies intently, he said, watching her put herself between them and the doorway.

“She knows my voice,” he said. “I was here when they were born.”

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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