hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues May 2022


In sign of spring, new life on farms

Area events provide close encounters with piglets, lambs and more


Piglets are among the new arrivals this spring at the annual Baby Animals festival at Hancock Shaker Village in the Berkshires. Susan Sabino photo.


Piglets are among the new arrivals this spring at the annual Baby Animals festival at Hancock Shaker Village in the Berkshires. Susan Sabino photo.


Contributing writer


The barn is different on a spring night. Calves lie in the hay like deer in the undergrowth. Lambs sleep on their mother’s backs, and sometimes a chicken will join them for the warmth.
“At night animals take on a whole different look,” said Bill Mangiardi, the farm manager at Hancock Shaker Village.

He will sit quietly in the Round Stone Barn in the small hours, bottle-feeding a lamb whose mother hasn’t had enough milk for twins, and listening to the stillness.

During the day, the village fills with sound — lambs and chicks, kid goats and calves and piglets, and hundreds of children who are here for the 20th annual Baby Animals Festival, a ritual of spring as the living history museum opens for a new year.

At farms throughout the region’s hills and mountains, spring means new life. Calves are out to pasture at Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown, around the corner from the farm shop with its cheeses, and at High Lawn Farm in Lee, beside the ice cream stand and farm store.

For woolcraft, the Sheep to Shawl festival is returning to Williamstown Rural Lands on May 7 after a two-year pause, with sheep herding and sheering, weaving and more. The festival will include spring babies: Luke McKay of McKay’s Family Farm and Mountain Top Zoo will bring farm animals and young ones -- lambs, baby bunnies, a calf and maybe more
Up at Hildene, the Lincoln family museum in Manchester, Vt., dairy goats are grazing at the Dene Farm along with alpacas, sheep, cattle, pigs, rabbits and chickens.

Some working farms welcome visitors who ask ahead. Dominic Palumbo at Moon in the Pond Farm in Sheffield invites people to walk on the paths through his farm ­— as long as they check in with him first — and see the Dorset sheep, ducks and geese, black Cornwall pigs, highland cattle and more. (For everyone’s safety and comfort, though, he asks visitors not to touch the creatures.)

And as spring warms into summer, Wing and a Prayer Farm in Shaftsbury, Vt., will welcome visitors to meet its sheep, goats and alpacas for hands-on experiences as the farm turns the animals’ fiber into naturally dyed yarns.


More animals ­— and people
At Hancock Shaker Village, a young lamb has soft, dense wool, still closely curled. Mangiardi holds her back feet cupped in one hand, supporting her, and she gently noses his sweater.
Under Mangiardi’s care, the village’s baby animal event has grown, Executive Director Jennifer Trainer Thompson said. When he started running the farm operation, the spring festival was a modest affair; now, she said, the village sees more than a quarter of its annual visitors in these few weeks between mud season and the full green of spring.

This year, the village has more babies than they have often had, Mangiardi said. As the festival opened in mid-April, he had 13 lambs, four kid goats and another one due, eight piglets, two bottle-fed calves with two more coming, and two miniature donkeys.

And after two years of pandemic restrictions, this spring young visitors can pat the babies again, carefully, under the eyes of volunteers.

In a straw-lined pen, a sow, a new mother, lies protectively beside eight piglets three weeks old. They are curled up together in a sleepy pile, all clean pink with dark splashes, and small as house cats.

They have already tripled or quadrupled in size, Mangiardi said. He and Christine McCue, the livestock manager at the Shaker village, were there when the piglets were born, and they were small enough to hold in one hand. She told him she had never seen something so small be born, especially from a sow larger than a Saint Bernard. The mother was born a year ago in April, he said, and she weighs more than 300 pounds now.

“Pigs are very clean if you let them be clean,” he said. “It was written in the Shaker journals that it was a pleasure to walk through a Shaker pig pen, and that’s how we keep them here.”
They are also, contrary to popular belief, one of the only animals that won’t overeat. They have small stomachs, and they eat frequently but lightly, he explained.

Mangiardi lifted one gently by the back feet.

“If you do this right, they won’t squeal,” he said, as the piglet promptly protested, and the sow and all the family scrambled up to see what was happening. Pigs are closely related to bears, Mangiardi said, and they are alertly protective of their young ones.

The sow settled down again, and the piglets took the chance to nurse. It takes an amazing amount of food, Mangiardi said, to keep a mother pig fed while she’s nursing.
“What you do is you feed the mother, and the mother feeds the babies,” he said.
The sow answered with low rhythmic sounds in her throat as her babies drank. She was talking to them, McCue said.

“When sheep and goats are nursing, the mothers make a chittering sound,” she said, “and that’s their communication with their babies. That’s what she’s doing, and she’ll do that the whole time when they nurse. Sometimes you can hear them do that before the babies are born, like they’re talking to their babies.”


Kids and chicks
McCue lifted up two new buck kid goats, and they rested against her, one on each hip, dun and grey and white.

“I just like calling the ones with big ears Yoda,” Mangiardi said. “They look like little Yodas.”
Mangiardi said he has a hatch program with local schools. Classrooms incubate the eggs and care for them. The first chicks hatched as he was preparing for the festival to open, and the students wanted to keep them in class for a few days longer. He expected some 30 chicks to arrive at the village in the festival’s early days.

Over the three weeks of the festival, more will hatch at the village. They have chickens in their coop now, and one who lives in the barn by her own choice. She lays her eggs in a hay feeder, Mangiardi said, and when he comes in the middle of the night to nurse some of the little ones, she will wake up in the quiet barn and fan his hair.

He comes in often at night, he said, and sometimes stays late. Baby animals, like baby humans, will wake up at night and need feeding. Young lambs need to nurse every three or four hours, and sometimes a mother has trouble and needs a hand.

In the dairy ell now, black and white lambs nuzzle curiously around their mother. She has a coat of thick white wool, and they have white feet and foreheads and noses, but black wool from their eyes and ears to their ankles.

The Shakers raised merino sheep for their fine wool, Mangiardi said, and he has some here. But merinos are not always good mothers. He has Finn sheep at his own farm who will happily care for triplets, but he has seen merino ewes reluctant to care for their babies.

He will sometimes take a young lamb or kid home to bottle-feed. Mangiardi runs his own farm in Lanesborough, and he used to bring home farm babies more often when his daughters were home. Now that his girls have grown, and he and his wife are running the family farm between them, with 50 sheep and 50 cows, he tries to come to these babies and their mothers here in the barn — in the evening, after the bright noisy day, when the animals have a chance to rest.