Homesteading with draft animals.
Old McDonald passed away when I was only eight years old. I didn't realize it then but it would be many years before I had any more contact with oxen. Over the next 11 years while on the farm I would help raise, milk and care for a total of over 600 head of cattle. For eight years after that I would give up on farming all together to enter the industrial world. A better life, or so I thought: Farming must be in my blood, for just a few years ago I was feeling that urge again, the same feeling that my ancestors had felt for at least the last seven generations. The urge to make a living through the art of husbandry.
Finally at the age of 27, my wife and I decided to purchase a small farm that is nestled in the foothills where the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Adirondacks meet. We were going into farming again, part time at least. I had purchased a book on training oxen and read it cover-to-cover several times before we even moved to our farm. Shortly after moving I started on my quest to purchase our first animals, a couple of bull calves to train as oxen. When I found "Bert and Ernie" two Red Dutch Belted bull calves I just had to have them. After all they were half-brothers that were born one day apart, a unique color phase for the breed and they matched almost perfectly in size, color and conformation. They would indeed make fine oxen.
We don't consider ourselves "homesteaders" rather part time farmers whose main source of income comes from jobs we both have on the "outside." We raise registered Black Angus beef cattle, pigs, Cornish cross chickens for meat as well as Rhode Island Red crosses for egg production. We farm on 26 acres of mostly hay ground that we cut and bale ourselves for cattle feed for our own animals. We sell the excess hay to other area farmers.
I don't use my oxen as much as I'd like to because time doesn't always permit. But its much more enjoyable working in a quiet field or wood lot with draft power than it is sitting behind the wheel of one of our diesel tractors which you have to wear hearing protection to operate.
I have used my oxen to rake and ted hay, skid logs, haul firewood, plow, disc and drag our large garden. I haul manure from the barn to the field and sand our half-mile long driveway in the winter. We also gave rides to countless people at our county fair last year, hauling them from the parking lot to the main entrance on a large wagon designed for that purpose.
The most enjoyable thing that I do with my team is to exhibit them at our local fairs and festivals. I really enjoy introducing them to the public as well as educating the people that attend these events on the use of oxen as draft animals. Sadly most people know little or nothing about "the animals that built this Great Nation."
The definition of an ox is a trained mature steer that is at least five years old. Anything under five years old and trained is referred to as a "working steer." In my area you can purchase day old bull calves from dairy farms for little or nothing. Most of these dairy breeds will make fine oxen for the small farmer or homesteader. Some of the more "desirable" or "traditional" breeds here in New England are the Milking Devon and the Milking Shorthorns. These once prevalent tri-purpose breeds are becoming a rarity in most areas and they can get pretty pricey and hard to find, especially when you're trying to find two that are close in age and that match. You will want to start with two young bull calves of the same age and breed (preferably) in hopes that as they mature they will stay the same size. The better the animals match, the more valuable they will be if you ever choose to sell them. The bull calves should be castrated when they are around six months old.
Oxen do require some open space. I pasture mine with my beef cows at the rate of one animal per acre (we rotational graze) spring through fall plus they each get a modest amount of cornmeal each day. In the winter we feed our three year olds half a bale of good quality hay each per day. This seems to keep our animals in good working condition. They get wormed twice each year, vaccinated once per year, and always have access to fresh clean water and a mineral lick.
The only special equipment needed to work oxen is a long stick called a "goad," and a yoke. The goad is used to refocus their attention (always in a controlled and positive manner) when needed. The primary function of the yoke is to keep the animals working and pulling together evenly, and also provides a hitch point for whatever implement you're pulling. You need different sizes of yokes as your animals grow. I started my first team with a six-inch yoke (The six inches is the width of the bows) that I borrowed from another teamster in my area. I have since made new yokes as my animals have grown in one inch increments. I'm now working on a 10 inch yoke. Bert and Ernie will probably need an 11 or 12 inch yoke when they're mature.
There are several good yoke makers here in New England and prices for new yokes can range from $100 on up depending on size and quality of the yoke. But don't get discouraged if you're not a woodworker or don't want to tie up a lot of cash in yokes to start out with. Around here it is common practice for experienced teamsters to lease yokes to beginners or those who don't want a dozen yokes hanging around. Lease prices are extremely reasonable, usually amounting to only pennies per day depending again on the size of the yoke.
This is the procedure that I've used to train the few teams that I have and it's worked well for me. First I train them to lead individually with a halter, then to obey my five basic commands. "Gee," turn right; "haw," turn left; "get up," move forward; "back," back up; and the most important command, "whoa," stop. Only after they understand these commands do I put them together in a yoke. I still leave the halters on them for quite awhile when they start out in the yoke. You don't want them to learn that they can run away from you so keep those halters in your hands for a while. When they learn to do these commands together I'll teach them to pull together by hooking them to their first implement--an old tire. As they progress I can add weight to the tire by adding rocks inside the tire. A word of caution here, don't ask your animals to draw more than they can. Oxen are very powerful animals capable of moving tremendous loads. But nothing discourages them quicker than making them do work that they're not conditioned to do. A rule of thumb for how much dead weight calves can safely draw in their first year is no more than 10% of their combined body weight, even though this won't seem like much weight to even your weakest calves. At this stage it is usually safe to remove the halters from your calves.
There should be a mutual level of trust between you and your team by this point. I work the team for about an hour a day, still refining the basic five commands. Then I'll hitch them to a two-wheeled cart for the first time. Put the halters back on for this one, as they will try for a few minutes to get away from the cart. Once they figure out the cart is not trying to "get" them you can remove the halter once again. (I learned this lesson the hard way.) If your animals never learn that they can get away from you, they'll never know that they can get away from you. I then teach them some more advanced commands and try to get them accustomed to different noises and distractions. Chainsaws, tractors, cars, horns blowing, dogs, children or anything else that you think they'll someday encounter.
Trust me, every time you hitch your team up it'll be a learning experience for all involved. Bovines are creatures of habit and contrary to what most people believe they are quite smart. I've seen more well trained oxen in my life than I have dogs. One of the comments I receive from people when I have my oxen in public is "Your oxen are better trained than my kids are."
I used these basic methods to train Bert and Ernie for seven months and after impressing friends and family, it was time to see how well they were actually trained. I entered them in our county fair's Draft Animal Versatility Day. This was only the second time they were ever off our property. The first event we entered we took fourth place out of 13 teams. I was so excited. Some of the teamsters that we were competing against were very experienced. The next event we took second. The next another red ribbon and then on the last competition of the fair, the "cart obstacle class" the one that we'd trained for the most, we won--the coveted "blue rosette." I was congratulated by the judge as well as by my fellow teamsters and I was on cloud nine. I could almost see Old McDonald looking down from above proud of the little eight year old "farmer wanna be" that grew up to be a fine teamster.
Bert and Ernie's combined weight at the fair that first year was 800 pounds. That was three years ago. They now weigh over 3,000 pounds combined and have over 20 ribbons hanging over their stalls.
If you're interested in learning more about oxen there are a few good links on the web as well as a few good books that have been written. I would suggest before purchasing a team of your own you visit your local agricultural fair or a few living history museums and talk with some teamsters there. Most are more than willing to share "all they know" with you. Feel free to e-mail me at cpetteys @telescopecasual.com with any questions about oxen or for a list of book titles or web links I know of.
I have recently started another team named "Fire and Ice," they're both Milking Shorthorns, just like the ones Old McDonald had when I was a boy. They sure bring back a lot of old memories for me. Maybe someday when I'm long gone and the kids in my current neighborhood are grown up they will tell a story about an old farmer they once knew who had this team of oxen on his farm because he still liked to do some of his chores "The Old Way," preferring the ox's slow steady pace. They'd have called him "Old McDonald," too.
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|Title Annotation:||Question of the month|
|Publication:||Countryside & Small Stock Journal|
|Date:||May 1, 2004|
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