Midwest Ox Drover’s Association
MODA Roundtable Discussion 2019
by Rob Collins of Centreville, MI
Twenty four years ago, the students in Tillers International’s Oxen Basics class, enjoying their time together, decided to return the following year as a reunion of sorts, and so the Midwest Ox Drovers Association (MODA) was born, along with its Annual Gathering. The Gathering is held the weekend after Father’s Day at Tillers International in Scotts, MI. A weekend devoted to making new friends and greeting old friends while interacting with working cattle, the Gathering is always a great time.
This year, among the usual events such as obstacle courses, fieldwork, demonstrations, meals, and raffles, MODA invited Kevin Cunningham from Shakefork Community Farm in Carlotta, California as a guest presenter. He spent the weekend working with oxen, talking with MODA members, and giving a wonderful presentation about his family’s oxen-powered market garden and CSA.
On Saturday night of the Gathering, after dinner, a number of us sat down for a moderated roundtable discussion. I had jotted down a few questions on the proverbial “back of an envelope,” powered-up my recorder, and we were off to the races.
Our “dramatis personae” for the discussion, in order of entering the conversation were:
Rob Collins: MODA president from 2013- 2019, I teach Oxen Basics and other oxen classes at Tillers International as a volunteer and work three of my own oxen.
Bob McCann: The MODA VP, Bob currently has a single Milking Shorthorn and owns a you-pick strawberry farm in Illinois.
Abby Johnson: Abby started with oxen as a young kid in her 4-H club, became a really great trainer and driver and now works a team of Brown Swiss on her family homestead in Northern Michigan.
Brenda Grettenberger: Dr. Brenda is a veterinarian in Mid-Michigan and she works with a single and a team of Lineback crosses raised from her parent’s rotationally-grazed dairy.
Kevin Cunningham: Kevin has three teams of oxen which help power his CSA and Market Garden in Northern California (see above).
Dale Parsons: The current president of MODA, Dale grew up in New England and has a head-yoked team of Shorthorn-Hereford crosses.
Rob Burdick: Rob is the Executive director at Tillers International and has worked with farmers extensively overseas since joining Tillers in 2003.
Judy Richmond: Judy has the distinction of being one of the few 4-H leaders in the Midwest to start an oxen program, which she did when her children, including Abby Johnson, were younger.
Mary and Maurice Collisi: The Collisis have, over the years, been active in MODA with their own teams and have practiced veterinary medicine as well.
Anneka Baird: Anneka came to Tillers the week of the MODA Gathering for Oxen Basics, and even as a beginner, shows a natural aptitude for driving cattle, probably due to growing up on a dairy farm, where she intends to start her own team.
Ben Parry: Ben has lived overseas, particularly in Papua New Guinea, and has driven oxen at Tillers on a number of occasions in farming and logging situations.
Jimmy Chapman: Jimmy started in Oxen after taking a Tillers class a number of years ago and his son, Ben Chapman, has trained several oxen teams and singles since then.
Rob Collins: Who’s the best driver you ever saw? For me, it was Dulcy (Perkins, Tillers’ former farm manager). She would just read the movements of the oxen better than anybody I ever saw. She clearly was of that Temple Grandin school . . . she empathized with the oxen and was seeing the world the way they were seeing it, more so than other people.
Bob McCann: I’d say Ray Ludwig. Well, you saw him when he was here a couple of times…
RC: I never did; I never saw him drive.
BM: Oh, I was at his place because we bought a couple of teams off him for (The) Garfield (Farm). He would raise and train a team until they were three years old and then he’d sell them. He’d always have . . . he would get four or five calves. The two best would become “Buck and Beaver” and the runners-up would be “Jesse” and whatever it was. So he always had an “A” team and then a “B” team.
He was phenomenal. I know he would start a team in (Tillers’) Oxen Basics Class and within a day he’d have those guys doing things that anybody else would spend a month (doing).
Abby Johnson: I remember working with Ray at an oxen class at Tillers’ old site and his approach was very calm and methodical. He was very consistent in everything he did and the cattle respected him very much for his approach. He would say, “If my calves run away, I don’t chase them. I don’t yell at them. I don’t “punish” them for what they’ve done. I go to them and we start again.” That was his basic philosophy with training. He always did everything consistently and very methodically.
RC: Dick (Roosenberg, Tillers’ founder, former director) always says that he (Ray) would create a bubble around the animals using the lash and would almost never touch them, but he would define those boundaries and I wonder if you saw that?
AJ: Yes, his communication; He liked to use a lash and he was very accurate with that lash. You know, he could reach out and just tap his off-steer at the tip of the ear and catch his attention. He was very accurate with all his direction to the animals.
BM: Who was the young lady that was here?
Brenda Grettenberger: Kaleigh Hamel.
BM: When she drove from their backs? That was impressive.
BG: But I aspire to drive like Rob (Collins). When you see Rob’s steers do stuff, even when somebody else has got them, they know where he is. They’ve got one eye on him like, “Maybe he’ll give us a different direction and we won’t have to listen to this crazy person trying to drive us!” (Laughs all around.)
But other people, like Chad and Heidi Nichols. Them driving their animals impresses me. Just how they use them and work them and how well the cattle respond to them. I don’t know if they could do that with other teams.
Or watching Dick go across the grounds here with Hershel and Walker. You could airbrush the yoke in, but there was nothing there. I don’t even think he had a goad. It was just him and the two steers and they’re doing everything he’s asking them to. In a whisper. Half the county knows what I’m doing with mine.
Kevin Cunningham: I haven’t had the personal opportunity to see too many drivers, so the first driver I got to see that was not myself was Tom Jenkins and he’s very skilled in a very laid-back way that is disarming and I really respected his style of driving quite a bit when I got to see him in Massachusetts. That was the first person I got to see driving oxen other than myself, and I felt lucky about that.
RC: Who’s the best ox you ever saw? Since I’ve had more time to think about it than all of y’all because it’s my question: For me it was Marco. Marco would make you look good. You would give him half of the commands and he would put forth the effort and say, “I know what this person wants… I’ll give it to him this time.” He didn’t seem to misbehave the way others do.
Dale Parsons: He was always easy. That’s it.
Rob Burdick: Polo made up for that. (Lots of laughter)
DP: Marco kinda anchored Polo.
RC: Ray Ludwig started them in Oxen Basics class.
Judy Richmond: Wasn’t it Marco and Polo who walked away from Drew Conroy? He was talking and driving them and then he wasn’t paying any attention to them and they just went back to the barn… “going back guys. You’ve talked enough now!”
BM: Ray Ludwig’s grandson, I think, had a young team of Devons: Duke and Doc. When we were visiting him, Ray took them out. Maybe they were six months old and he did things with them that I would not expect an experienced team to do. They were just phenomenal. They were the ones that I’d say impressed me more than any others.
RB: What are your criteria for “Best Ox?” Kaleigh Hamel’s team would let her ride upon their backs – and it was really impressive – but I never saw them do any farm work. Marco and Polo, or some of the teams in Mozambique that are not necessarily really crisp or really responsive but will work all day training 25 people who are going to go out and train 25 other people might be competitors for that (title) even though they’re not the greatest specimens individually. Tolerant and adaptive are useful traits; Or it might be Marco again. We were putting hay into the barn over at the Clapp Farm. He stepped on a thin patch and went through the floor and just kind of looked at me: “You got me into this.”
AJ: I may be biased, but I could probably look to (Tillers iconic team of) Lewis and Clark. You know, they were so patient with so many drivers. They were the first team I ever drove: My first oxen experience and they were such great…
AJ: Yeah, they represented oxen well. And they gave people very good first experiences. I could go out and plow with them and represent at different events.
DP: They could make you look good. Yeah, they did work.
Judy Richmond: I think it was the Kalamazoo Fair, the first time you drove them. I paid Dulcy five dollars to let you drive an ox. And then… it was an “ALL DAY drive an ox.” (laughs from the group)
AJ: That was before Dulcy. It was Susan.
JR: Yep, Abby was 12 years-old. It was supposed to be “drive an ox once around the ring,” and then it was “drive an ox all day.” We had come specifically to do that, then to come here for her yoke. I was trying to decide if that was five dollars well-spent…
RC: Think of all the money and time you’d have saved if you had not paid that five dollars!
What’s the role of a mentor in learning to do this. I had Dulcy and Dick. Every time I was out here early on or I would have my team here… as Tim Harrigan says, “Dick and Dulcy don’t self-promote, but they drive better than anyone.” I really think that that has been a very helpful thing. Neither one of them ever overtly “coached” me.
DP: They steered you in the right direction.
RC: Yeah, like Ray Ludwig, they carved out that space and let me know where I should and shouldn’t be…
KC: I had no “in-person” mentor for a long time and now I feel like I have a couple of in-person mentors; I just don’t see them very often. But at the same time, with the beauty of the internet, I was able to get mentored by a large spectrum of people in a lot of ways. It’s a good question. I think in mentorship, in general, the best you can do is to set a good example. If somebody comes and tells you, “This is what you should be doing. You should do this, you should do that.” That’s never the one you remember. It’s the ones who might tell you something, but it’s the way that they carry themselves. You learn more from their example, looking at what they’re actually doing.
AJ: I think a successful mentor is anyone that makes you successful or can help you bridge a gap to success, recognize a deficiency or something that you’re not seeing and that makes all the difference to getting you closer to your goal. Sometimes it’s not all the way, just closer.
I don’t know if it’s going to work out or not, but I’ve been communicating with a lady up in Keweenaw. She has no one and has never driven an ox before; never really had cattle before. She read the book (Drew Conroy’s Oxen) and we’ve been messaging back and forth, giving some basic guidance. She was explaining how she was having trouble. Things were going very good and then she couldn’t get the steers to move forward anymore. In my reading of her description of what was happening – as someone who has experience with cattle – I said, “It sounds like you’re standing in front of them. Why don’t you try standing next to them? Find the tipping point.” She had never thought about that. I’m hopeful that that got her over a hump and to continue her journey forward vs. sitting in a frustrating place.
RC: Everybody’s got a trick, a tip, or something that they do. Not the really good one that you’re saving and taking to the grave with you. For me: it’s every time I get them out or put them away I put a halter on and drive them singly. I don’t use a leadrope or anything. It’s my insurance policy against the “what if” one of my team suddenly flops over dead. Everybody, every time they come out gets a little bit of single driving. That’s all I’ve got, really.
DP: There’s no trick to being consistent. Consistency will get you everywhere. Even if it’s not good, it will still get you there. (laughs)
Mary Collisi: Picking the right calves in the first place. Reading the mind of that calf. Is this animal really going to work out and going to be trainable. You can tell.
KC: I can’t remember who brought it to my attention, but it was “breaking down complex actions into parts.” It’s one thing to watch a team and a skilled teamster walk in and sweep through, step that off-steer over the tongue, back it up, lift up the tongue, and hitch it. It all seems like one fluid movement, but being able to take that and break that down. Ok, step up. Approach the tongue. Step over one foot. Turn slightly. Then step over… breaking something that seems complex into small, manageable pieces. It seems like, to me, that’s how you get that “ox standing on a box.” That’s where you get tricks, but you also get what might seem ordinary and mundane, but is actually a fairly complex set of communications and movements that an experienced teamster might just take for granted.
RB: Being able to communicate each of those steps to the animal consistently and accurately is the next step. A lot of people, early on, will be moving too far forward or back, not really thinking; along with the team, we like to think of them as the third one in the yoke. Start with that point of departure. Maybe you need to be a little ahead, maybe you need to be a little behind. Each animal’s a little different, but then don’t fidget and fuss. Or, get your animals used to the idea: “Boy, he’s just fidgety.” But, getting the confidence of the animals that you are communicating with and being consistent with that communication. Along with breaking it down into each piece, don’t tell the animal to repaint the Mona Lisa. Tell them to paint a speck of red right there.
AJ: I think, along those same lines, it’s not so much the trick. It’s looking at those parts and then being able to stop and tackle each part at a time vs. saying “today, I am going to hitch on to the cart.” Instead, you need to say, “Nope, today we’re going to walk up to the tongue. Today, we’re going to step over the tongue.” We see this goal, but going directly there can just frustrate everyone involved, by not taking the time to do the steps in between.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to think about that too, you know, like “today I’m going to get this task done. I’m going to go out and this is what we’re going to get done.” Instead of saying, “let’s have a successful time” of taking that first step. Instead of judging my success by what I’ve accomplished as far as the overall task, judge by the progress we’ve made towards it.
BG: It’s like Howie VanOrd’s comment: “Just take them to the mailbox every day.” I bet that’s one of the biggest challenges. Even though yesterday they went, today might be a totally different story. Yesterday they went and came back and today…
DP: They didn’t. (Laughs all around)
BG: Or they came back a whole lot faster than you wanted them to. They constantly surprise me in what they’ll put up with. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. One spring when I came here. It was right after I lost one from my oldest team, so we had come in March for the Ox Driving class and I brought Zeiter, the single I had left from my team. When you had just put the stalls in the Abbey Barn and, for whatever reason, Zeiter decided he was going to jump out and leave. This was a great plan. He got his front legs over the stall and couldn’t get his back legs over. It’s seven in the morning and I’m here by myself. I have this huge steer hanging on the wall; I’m just beside myself. The steer’s not having a fit. He’s been there for a while.
So I found a cement block. I could see he just needed (gestures) this much more. We did it eventually. He stepped up on the block and got himself over. He doesn’t like going in that barn anymore. I’m like, “It’s not the barn’s fault.”
I guess it’s the Macgyver side of me to try to figure out how to get him out of that situation when there wasn’t anybody to help. Ok, nothing’s on fire, nothing’s bleeding to death, now think.
DP: And he’d already done it once, so he knows he’s not getting out. He needs some help. He’s not nuts about it anymore. He’s just hanging out… literally.
BG: We did some stuff with the film crew once. They just made some changes, no prep time. Kind of a, “Let’s strap a shark fin on his back with a bungee cord and see what happens.” It sounds like a train wreck, but he did beautifully. I’m like, “I don’t want to think about this until after they’re gone but I am so proud of my little child right now.”
RC: Would you drive single animals for a long time and then yoke them together or would you teach them the basics and yoke them at that point, doing the rest of the training together? Or do you have a third position?
I like to get them in a yoke sooner rather than later.
Maurice Collisi: Agreed!
DP: Once they learn whoa, come up, gee, and haw, they might as well be in the yoke. It’s easier, for us, to train two animals. It might not necessarily be easier for them to figure it out, but for us it’s easier.
RB: I think both Dulcy, and to some degree, Ray Ludwig like to work the animals more individually so they’re a bit more responsive and you’ve got more options later on. There’s a lot to be said for that, either to switch their partners from time to time or to switch their positions in the yoke so that you can talk to that animal and he does this rather than relying on that “skidsteer,” but it is much easier to throw a yoke on them.
DP: Yeah, pairs are just simpler, but I think probably doing it more individually is better for them.
MC: Howie (VanOrd) always said that he started them as singles.
KC: I kinda do what you were talking about: making sure that each animal gets single work. Maybe not in a yoke, but he has that time where I’m asking something of him and he’s giving me this requirement because that really is important for reinforcing the teamwork, ultimately.
At the same time, I think there’s a lot of benefit to putting a yoke onto them and seeing how they . . . when choosing calves, the two times I’ve done it I’ve gotten four calves and yoked, and yoked, and yoked and yoked until, “That’s the one; That’s the two best.” So, the sooner I can get to that point, rather than training four of them, or six of them. I mean, if I had all the time in the world and I could just pick the best two… wow, that would be amazing, but I want to get to the “A team,” the two best before it’s too late so that I can expedite the training.
RC: What do you do with the “B-team?” You’ve mentioned that you’ve paired up two adult animals that are the best on your farm, so what do the other two do?
KC: Well, right now, “B” is for “backup.” A “just-in-case.” I mean, for us, we arrange our farm systems such that we’re depending upon having a team of animals. I’m pretty confident that if I had a member or two (of the “A team”) drop dead, I could have somebody to step in. That’s what they’re doing right now. During the wintertime, I’ll do a little bit more with them. I’ll actually try to put them in. I’ve got one of these (picks up a Tillers vertical evener) from Ed Nelson. I’ve done a drop chain, but I’d love to try. . . I’ve got big enough timber that I could pull with two teams. It’d be fun.
RB: The other thought on single versus yoked is: we did quite a bit of single work with Marco, particularly cultivating. Marco would do that very well and was very compliant. . . Polo would turn left (Laughs). It didn’t matter what you were trying to do, he didn’t want to work single. Dick and Dulcy and a few others could get him to do it – and I could kind of get him to do it, begrudgingly – where Marco would very cheerfully walk alongside of you and perform those tasks. It may as much be a matter of the temperament of the particular animals that you’re working with as to whether you can work effectively singly, where they are concerned about being the only ox out there.
KC: My Joseph is the same way. He’s just got the temperament for being a single. It doesn’t matter, whereas the other one, you know, I can work him as a single if I need to.
DP: But it’s more work for you.
KC: Yeah, there are certain animals that have whatever “that” is. They have the mental fortitude that they can be a single.
RC: If you could only have one piece of equipment, what would that be. Either because it’s the most useful or, you know, some people say, “I just like plowing,” so what would it be?
DP: A stoneboat is so versatile. There are so many things you can do with a stoneboat. You can’t plow with it, but you can move things, pile things on it: barrels, rocks; You can chain a log to it if you had to. For me, it’s the most versatile.
KC: Yeah, stoneboat.
RB: A between the row cultivator. With the right sweeps on it you can fit a field, you can weed with it, there are a number of things you can do with it when you’re trying to get a crop in. A stoneboat would be a close second.
DP: Yes, for what you do, for what (Kevin) does, a field cultivator is a great thing. It makes your work, physically, less.
KC: I remember when we did our first pass with mechanical cultivation with the oxen. It was like bells were going off, because I physically knew how many hours of hoeing that was going to take and it just went “whoosh.” It was amazing.
RC: I’ve been getting a lot of use out of a slip scraper lately. It’s like a wheelbarrow. I’m using it like one, with no wheels, for forking manure out of their pen. It’s easier to back it in to position where you want, because you’ve got that one handle and the back is sloped so you can swing it around. If I could get a reliable dumping mechanism where they don’t take 15 steps. If you can get that one gentle flop over, it’s great. You can dump it in the garden or whatever. And I might pick a cart as the most useful tool because carts are fun.
BM: (Carts are) most satisfying, I think.
KC: I didn’t have a two-wheeled cart for most of my time; I just got one this year. Yeah, a two wheeled cart? The amount of maneuverability and what you can do with it.
RC: Yep, I’ve gotta get me an “OxBox.”
(referring to Kevin’s farm-made large cart made from a Jeep axle) That’s pretty cool.
(To the group:) Do you like driving a single? I must admit, I don’t enjoy it. One good single is probably more useful than a team. . .
DP: But it’s just not two.
BG: It’s more work to get them ready. That’s part of it for me. I can yoke the two of you together in three seconds and if I’ve got to stop and put everything on the single. Putz around, Putz around, Ok, now we’re ready to go.
DP: Per pound, you’re going to get more work out of a single. If you have the work for one, I suppose it’s great.
RB: It depends on the animal, again. If you get the one that wants to work as a single, it’s a lovely afternoon. You get the one that doesn’t want to work as a single and it’s a fight. If you’ve got a team they can fight it out between each other.
KC: I think I just like pulling big things. If I’ve got a single that can pull something big, that’s exciting, but I can usually get a team to pull something big. That gets me fired up.
RC: Wait until you get that four ox evener.
KC: I can’t wait.
RB: Did you guys do any single work in the class (Tillers’ Oxen Basics runs the week before MODA each year) this week? What did you guys think?
Anneka Baird: I like single and I like double; They’re just different.
Ben Parry: The single for cultivating was much easier. You just had to keep one going straight instead of two. We used Blue.
AP: I worked with Zeus quite a bit, but not doing work, just working on commands.
RC: That’s how Zeus likes it.
Jimmy Chapman: There are pros to the single, I guess. Especially when you have one dummy and one not-so-dummy. You don’t have to deal with the dummy. At all. Ben’s getting along pretty well with a single.
Ben Chapman: I don’t know. I find it’s hard to gee. That’s really my problem.
DP: I think you almost have to step in front a little bit to get (singles) to gee, because there’s no off-ox to tap.
RC: One last question for everyone: What was your best day driving oxen? For me, Dulcy and I plowed two community gardens on the same day. We did one at Western Michigan (University). We took Hershel and Walker and they were in their prime and doing well. We spent the morning. One of those spring days when it was 80 degrees all of the sudden. That was okay and then we went to the north side of Kalamazoo on this narrow street where we had to parallel park on the street, yoke up, and walk them down the street to this garden. People were literally stopping their cars in the street, leaving them running and walking up to “Get a picture with them bulls!” Hands down: best day.
KC: I had a day fairly recently, last fall, where I had one of those good days where everything just fell into place and the kicker for it for me was that – and I can’t even remember what it was that we were doing – but what I do remember being remarkable was that I had three teams yoked up and doing work during the course of the day. For me that was a moment of pride like, “Wow, I just yoked three teams. I worked all day. We did a bunch of stuff.” Each team stepped up and did their thing. It’s not always like that and that it was three different sets of animals that I yoked. I just remember that vividly as being a moment that was cool.
RB: You may need a second evener…
BM: My first day of Oxen Basics, at the old (Tillers) site. Lewis and Clark were three years old. I came late because there was some problem, so the class had already started and at the end of the day, Dick said, “Here, take Lewis and Clark…” and you know how you could go from the one farm over to the other. “Just take them through there.” Now, I’m all by myself. I’ve known oxen up close for about two, three hours and dammit, we did it. I’m sure it wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty good. I remember that day. That was a great team.
MC: I remember a day over at the other Tillers (site) also. I arrived with my team and they weren’t all that well-trained. I certainly didn’t think so compared to some of the others. They were standing while I had to go do something. I don’t remember what it was, but two vanloads of special needs children came up and I’m like, “Ahhhh!” And they stood there like they could. I was just so amazed.
Mary Collisi: That was great… because they might not have. (laughs)
DP: I think they know. I really think they know.
BM: I was out in the blueberries and I see this car come in. A woman gets out and says, “My husband made me stop because we drove by and he saw that ‘bull’ out there and he just wanted to come in and see that bull.” I think he was handicapped; he couldn’t get out of the car. I said, “Why don’t you drive back there and get up close and see him.” They thought that was great, so of course, I got to tell them everything I knew about oxen! (laughs)
BG: The first year we took Zeiter and Emmitt to the fair. I stuck them over in the corner because they don’t see anybody at Mom and Dad’s. I had only driven from October and we’re doing the fair at the first part of August and my folks don’t see me driving them much because they (the oxen) spend the summer with me up north. When we were milking cows, Mom and Dad didn’t come to my house very much.
So I stuck them kind of, yoked up, over in a corner and I kept checking on them and my folks said, “I didn’t know you could make them do that.” I guess I didn’t know I could either, but maybe that’s how I approach all of it: This is what I want to have happen. Like going across the tarp: Mom’s like, “Have you ever done that before? I can’t believe that.” It’s like asking your children if they want to eat broccoli. You don’t ask them.
The first time I brought them here. We were here three or four days and Mom and Dad came down special to make sure we could get them loaded so we could bring them back home. Dad’s behind them with the gate and I said, “Let me try to see if they can do it by themselves.” And they did. There are all the times they do something you don’t expect them to do, but it’s always nice when you ask them once and it’s like, “ok.” Like you say it’s going to be fine.
DP: And it is.
BG: Be cool and act like this is supposed to be happening… and then bug your eyes out later, when they can’t see you!
KC: There’s so much of farming that’s like that. I don’t know how to do half the stuff that I do. The other day I had to rebuild a carburetor on a BCS. I’ve never done this before. I guess we’ll figure it out. Whatever it might be, you have to fake it ‘til you make it.
RC: Every time we teach Oxen Basics, I think that this will be the time when everything will fall apart with the calves and they won’t get it, but they always do. They manage to get trained, but I start in thinking, “Please, oh, please…”