Brattleboro’s Retreat Farm responds to concerns about animals

Brattleboro Retreat Farm

Retreat Farm plans to keep Carlos, a Brahma-Red Holstein steer. Photo provided by Retreat Farm Ltd.

(Editor’s note: This article by Chris Mays was first published in the Brattleboro Reformer on Dec. 30, 2016.)

BRATTLEBORO — With renovations underway at Retreat Farm, animals from the petting program were moved to a different space on site.

Retreat Farm plans to keep Carlos, a Brahma-Red Holstein steer. Photo provided by Retreat Farm Ltd.

Members of the public worried about the animals’ living conditions and whether a Brahma/Red Holstein named Carlos would continue to be part of the farm after a nonprofit took over ownership of the property in August.

There is a plan to keep Carlos, Retreat Farm director Leslie Cox said Tuesday.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep him,” Cox said. “We’re building a pen for him. He’s kind of the signature animal here.”

Cox, who takes care of the animals and farming operations at Retreat Farm, has 40 years of experience with managing farms and livestock.

According to a biography provided by Retreat Farm LTD, Cox previously served as a farm manager at Hampshire College Farm and grew up on a dairy farm in upstate New York. He received an associate’s degree in animal husbandry from Cobleskill College and a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education and farm management from Cornell University.

In the past, Cox said, animals at Retreat Farm had been kept inside a barn and had an open space to walk out into. On Tuesday, Carlos was joined outside by the farm’s four miniature donkeys and two miniature horses.

“Now, he has what is called a pole shed and he’s on a bedded pack,” Cox said. “He gets regular grain and occasional doughnuts.”

About a foot or a foot and a half of wood chips are placed below the bedded pack, Cox said, referring to a feature which helps keep the base dry as waters drain through the hay. The animals’ drinking water is heated to keep it from freezing.

The farm also has a peacock, a peahen, four chickens and one rooster.

Carlos is “an animal that’s used to an adoring public,” Cox said. In the cold months, when the petting farm is closed to the public, there’s not as much interaction.

“He’s [Carlos] used to it being quiet in the winter but he’s used to everyone working here socializing with him in the winter,” said Retreat Farm program director Lu Neuse. “We’re trying to make sure he gets as much attention as he was when he was in the square.”

Carlos and the other animals average about four visits a day between the facilities crew and Cox, according to Neuse.

Cox said he tries to feed the animals hay in a manner that’s not wasteful, leaving enough hay and water before he heads home for the night. On weekends, other caretakers check on Carlos.

Cox is planning to put up a wall to protect the animals from wind on the side of the pole shed facing a large hill. Clear plastic attached to the plywood will allow for sunlight to pour in and Carlos will still be able to see out that side. A calf barn on the other side, where animals will eventually be relocated, also blocks the wind. The smaller animals can be brought indoors if temperatures were to drastically drop.

Neuse said renovations on the calf barn are set to begin soon. The project will give animals more indoor space and more “green area” too. Carlos will be moved to a pen in front of the calf barn.

A fenced-in pasture will be managed on three acres of the property that had previously been a piggery. Shelters will allow animals to spend the night there, Neuse said.

As infrastructure improvements were set to begin in “the square” — an area between the farmhouse and barns, where events are set to take place in the future — staff members said they sought to keep Carlos in the most comfortable and quiet space.

“It would have been really loud outside of the wall,” Neuse said, referring to the barn where Carlos had been living prior to November. “We spent six months figuring out what the best place would be for him.”

A temporary move offsite during construction was not an option given Carlos’ age and size, staff at Retreat Farm said. He is 11 years old and over 7 feet tall.

Neuse described Carlos as “huge and majestic.” She said everyone who works at the farm genuinely loves Carlos.

The small space was not an issue for her team.

“They’re older animals,” Neuse said. “They don’t run around a lot. I think they’re really happy with the warm ground and happy not having to navigate ice.”

Cox said he has seen hundreds of similar arrangements for farm animals.

“I think it’s normal and pretty good,” he added.

The shelter was designed by “people who raised Carlos and have loved Carlos for 11 years,” Neuse said.

Wendy Harrison, director of community and partner relations at Retreat Farm LTD, said an open barn event will be held during Brattleboro Winter Carnival in February. More plans are expected to be revealed then.

The nonprofit is currently working on a master plan application for an Act 250 permit from the state of Vermont.

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