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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Praise for Small Oxen

Praise for Small Oxen

by John O’Meara of New Sweden, ME

Oxen are the ultimate emblem of thrift and good sense. Easily trained, adept at thriving on forage, and requiring equipment — the yoke — that can be made on the farm, oxen could be said to stand for a kind of quiet, unassuming hopefulness that crops up best on small farms.

Every day in the winter, and a fair number of days in the summer, I choose to work with a team of Dexter oxen, just about the smallest breed of cattle in North America. Harv and Mr. Whistling Sweets are three years old, were named on a half-forgotten whim by my young children, and stand 38” tall at the shoulder. They still have some growing to do, though they will never hit four feet, and will never approach the bulk and mass of teams common at ox pulls across New England. Sometimes, perched on top of a load of hay, moving feed for my herd of thirty cows, I look and feel comical — a drover of Dachshunds.

I have worked and owned larger teams — Linebacks and Ayrshires. Those teams walked with a certain flair and exuded a look that said “work.” Dexters, however, have always proved to be the best teams so far for my farm.

Praise for Small Oxen

One year, I had about a hundred round bales of hay that a kind neighbor had given me; the hay was over a year old and the neighbor figured he wouldn’t feed it to his Highlanders. He gave the bales to me rather than dumping them in a ditch. Stored outside, the rain had soaked into them more than a few inches by the time the weather turned cold and they soon became mired in the snow and ice. I yoked up my team of Linebacks, who stood well over five feet tall. They struggled and heaved and managed to loosen a bale or two.

I decided to try a team of Dexters, Bill and Red, who were about four years old at the time and weighed roughly 800 lbs each. That team often seemed to enjoy pulling especially heavy loads — I would see a certain sparkle in their eyes and the round bale would pop out of the ice and the team and bale would head off down the farm road. Sometimes, as they dug in for a particularly heavy pull, maybe I saw in their eyes a reflection of places far from my farm — reflections of some worn-out farm in the Midwest, an ancient New England hill-farm, or some hard-scrabble patch of rock in southwestern Ireland.

In fact, Dexters are not small because small bovines are a cute novelty, though they have certainly filled that niche. They come from a place that historically had few resources so they adapted to thrive with as few resources as possible. Thus, for the small farmer in North America today, animals like the Dexter are a gift from harder times. They have the genetics, the heart, and the glint in their eyes to go under the radar — to let the grain truck head down the road to another farm while they quietly get to work.

Clearly, it’s not just Dexter oxen that make sense for small farmers. If suddenly many farmers started working teams of Holsteins and Brown Swiss, the world would be a happier and healthier place. All oxen are adept at getting work done using the least amount of resources. With Holstein bull calves going for rock bottom prices, an untapped opportunity is bawling loudly out in the white plastic hutches of this nation — what could we save by using oxen and what gifts could we give to our children and grandchildren if even a few more yokes were being put to use every day?

Among other skills picked up from their association with oxen, my kids have learned a strange sort of slow surfing on the hay sled’s daily return trip to the barn. That slow surfing is a ritual that my kids look forward to and miss during our brief summer. On snow, Harv and Mr. Whistling Sweets readily pull the whole family across the farm. It’s not quick, but then there’s more time to admire the way small clouds of Snow Buntings make perfect patterns across the frozen northern sky.

Oxen are not as slow and pokey as people think, though. They walk along at a brisk enough pace. Importantly, they do not startle easily and are not prone to be runaways. They do well in conditions that would put some serious strain on a horse. They don’t like heat but compare favorably to horses in extreme cold. Dexters are heavily muscled for their size. Small oxen have the advantage of eating less during the inevitable down times for working animals. Although the goal is clearly to keep any working animal contributing to work that needs to be done, a small ox like a Dexter is easier to keep during idle times.

My farm is a mixed operation. I hay about sixty acres during the summer, using older tractors. The oxen harrow in the spring — they can get onto ground that would mire a tractor. They ted hay during haying season. I also use the oxen to cultivate modest amounts of row crops — a practice I hope to expand next season. Although I don’t rely entirely on oxen for power, they have become indispensible to the workings of the farm. They don’t break down; there are no costly repairs and few frustrating sessions with wrenches and arcane manuals when working with oxen.

I’ve found that smaller oxen perform better in the winter. Pulling a sled on snow seems to suit them. For field work, their lack of mass and weight seems to be a disadvantage — no matter how proportionately strong they are, if they only weigh 700 pounds, there are only so many turns they can go around the field with a side-delivery rake or with a mower. Sometimes, in the winter, they bog down in the especially deep snow. In deep snow and for field work, a taller, bigger team would have its advantages.

I’ve been training oxen for only about nine years. My first team, Bill and Red, inspired a little bit of trepidation in me those first few sessions but within a few weeks they were turning and stopping with voice commands and that first winter they were hauling small bits of wood for firewood and for training. Truly anyone with a moderate amount of patience could train a useful team in a moderate amount of time.

In fact, oxen teach patience while gleaning the bits of resources left on the ground by our society. A lot of the logging I’ve done with my small oxen has entailed following a traditional logging crew — the quick, big kind, who work with skidders. I had access to ten acres that had been logged in a matter of days by a skidder crew. With a team of Dexters, I pulled the remnants out for two or three winters, getting enough wood to provide heat for my farm plus quite a few small saw logs. I built a good portion of the barn on my farm in northern Maine using blowdowns hauled with Dexter oxen. It wasn’t quick but it was cheap and didn’t involve a lot of waste.

One of the advantages of logging with small oxen is that you rarely if ever need to make a road. A team of Dexters can squeeze in almost anywhere, extract a few blowdowns, then move on to another spot, disturbing the forest floor or young trees almost not at all.

Oxen are a safe bet in the best sense of that phrase. Although quicker ways of doing things may generate more income in the short term, those quick ways often also generate more debt for the long term.

Oxen are the opposite of debt. They get better the more you use them and make a pretty good meal at the end of their useful lives. Maybe more importantly, they force a cultivation of the working relationship between bovines and humans that has stood as an integral facet of our civilization for centuries. In a way, Harv and Mr. Whistling Sweets ask me questions every day when we work together in the cold and wind. How I respond to their faithfulness and their mischievousness defines me as a human being in a different sort of way than I’ll ever discover using one of my old tractors. When they make all the turns they’re supposed to, by memory, they’re saying something with their feet and brains about all the drovers and cattle that have come before us. They’re saying something about thrift and good sense.

Maybe, for many people in our society, the switch to the use of oxen would require a drastic shift in philosophy. Rather than looking for the maximum return in the quickest amount of time, the nature of working oxen requires a look towards conserving resources, a look with every step towards the long term. A team doesn’t really hit its stride until it is four or five years old and will work effectively until at least ten. Although I may be waiting a little while until large-scale farmers start knocking down my door looking for Dexter oxen, I do expect that our society will have to turn more towards the type of thinking that working with oxen encourages. Maybe your team of small oxen looks a lot like a good team of Belgians or just the most fuel-efficient tractor you could afford. Maybe it’s a rooster crowing in the suburbs or a well-designed cookstove. Maybe soon more people will start carving yokes and hauling bits of wood that would otherwise be left to rot unused.

After several years of working oxen, I’m confident that they pencil out for my small farm — they make money, though not an awful lot. If, when I was younger, I had decided to borrow the money to get a skidder, Harv and Mr. Whistling Sweets would have been veal or beef already.

There is an inherent beauty to thrift. Working each day in sometimes harsh conditions, never having to start an engine or worry what part of the tractor has frozen solid, Harv and Mr. Whistling Sweets can make even the words ‘manure sled’ sound as resilient and beautiful as the low-key chirping of Snow Buntings. The Snow Buntings come to my farm in the winter, looking for an easier place than the arctic, where they nest. They’re not big animals, but every year there’s something hopeful and enduring about them. As long as any animal is willing to come to northern Maine in winter for the easy climate, there’s hope in the world. When the winter is at its worst and the days are darkest—when the entire farm seems to be dying a slow, excruciating death — the Snow Buntings and the oxen are always there, almost quiet in the fields.

Spotlight On: Farming Systems & Approaches

A Short History of the Horse-Drawn Mower

A Short History of the Horse-Drawn Mower

Book Excerpt: The enclosed gear, late model John Deere, Case, Oliver, David Bradley, and McCormick Deering International mowers I (we) are so fond of had a zenith of popular manufacture and use that lasted just short of 25 years. Millions of farmers with millions of mowers, built to have a serviceable life of 100 plus years, all pushed into the fence rows. I say, it was far too short of a period.

Raised Bed Gardening

Raised Bed Gardening

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Raised beds may not be right for everyone, and our way is not the only way. I have seen raised beds made from rows of 5’ diameter kiddy pools, and heard of a fellow who collected junk refrigerators from the dump and lined them up on their backs into a rainbow of colored enameled steel raised beds. Even rows of five-gallon pails filled with plants count as raised beds in my estimation. Do it any way you care to, but do it if it’s right for you.

Biodynamic Meeting at Ruby and Amber’s Organic Farm

Biodynamic Meeting at Ruby and Amber’s Organic Farm

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One weekend I attended a Biodynamic meeting at Ruby and Amber’s Organic Farm in Dorena, Oregon, in the Row River Valley, just east of Cottage Grove. I always enjoy seeing other food growing operations, as this is such an infinitely broad subject, there is always much to learn from others’ experiences. At this farm, draft horses are used for much of the work.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 1

Our mild climate makes it too easy to overwinter cover crops. Then the typically wet springs (and, on our farm, wet soils) let the cover put on loads of topgrowth before getting on the soil. Buckwheat is the only crop that I can be certain will winterkill. Field peas, oats, annual rye and crimson clover have all overwintered here. Any suggestions?

LittleField Notes Fall 2011

LittleField Notes: Fall 2011

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There is a certain set of skills and knowledge that tend to fall through the cracks of your average farm how-to book. Books of a more specialized nature are also abundant but often seem to take a fairly simple subject and make it seem daunting in scope and detail. What follows are a few tidbits of knowledge that I have found useful over the years – the little things that will inevitably need to be learned at some point in the farmer education process.

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

The Best Kept Secret, Revisited

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At the same time that U.S. commercial beekeeping is circling down in a death spiral, hobby beekeeping is booming and almost every beekeeping club in the country has at least twice as many members as it did twenty years ago. What this means is that if you are fortunate enough to live in a place with relatively clean and varied sources of pollen and nectar, the potential for a successful family-sized commercial apiary is better now than it has been for many decades.

Week in the Life of D Acres

Week in the Life of D Acres

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D Acres of New Hampshire in Dorchester, a permaculture farm, sustainability center, and non-profit educational organization, is a bit of a challenge to describe. Join us for this week-in-the-life tour, a little of everything that really did unfold in this manner. Extraordinary, perhaps, only in that these few November days were entirely ordinary.

Fjordworks A History of Wrecks Part 2

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 2

It is always fascinating and at times a little disconcerting to watch how seamlessly the macro-economics of trying to make a living as a farmer in such an out-of-balance society can morph us into shapes we never would have dreamed of when we were getting started. This year we will be putting in a refrigerated walk-in cooler which will allow us to put up more storage-share vegetables.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 4

Assuming that you’ve found a farm you want to buy, next you’ll need to determine if you can buy it. If you have sold your property, and/or saved your money, and have the means to buy the farm you are sitting pretty. If you do not have the full price of a considered farm, in cash or any other form, you will likely have to look for financing.

Useful Birds

Useful Birds

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Whether a bird is beneficial or injurious depends almost entirely upon what it eats. Birds are often accused of eating this or that product of cultivation, when an examination of the stomachs shows the accusation to be unfounded. Accordingly, the Biological Survey has conducted for some years past a systematic investigation of the food of those species which are most common about the farm and garden.

Swallow

Rotation As A Means Of Blight Control

Every farmer knows that when a crop is grown on the same field year after year, it becomes inferior in quality and the yield steadily diminishes.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 3

What goes with the sale? What does not? Do not assume the irrigation pipe and portable hen houses are selling. Find out if they go with the deal, and in writing.

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

Cultivating Questions: Ridge-Till Revisited

Delay ridge building until early fall so that the cover crop on the ridge does not grow more than 12” tall before winter. The residues from a short cover crop will be much less challenging to cultivate than a tall stand of oats, especially if tangly field peas are mixed in. Waiting for the winterkilled cover crop residues to breakdown as long as possible before ridge-tilling in the spring will also make cultivation much easier until you gain familiarity with the system.

Organic To Be or Not To Be

Organic: To Be or Not To Be

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How do our customers know that we’re accurately representing our products? That’s the key, the reason that a third party verification system was created, right? I think this is the beauty of a smaller-scale, community-based direct market food system. During parts of the year, my customers drive past my sheep on their way to the farmers’ market. At all times of the year, we welcome visitors to our farm. In other words, our production practices are entirely open for our customers to see.

TMAHK Tripod Haymaking

The Milk and Human Kindness: What I’ve Learned of Tri-Pod Haymaking

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I have no doubt that when the time comes we are going to need to know how to make hay this way, whether it be this Proctor Tripod method, or the French rack method illustrated in André Voisin’s great book “Grass Productivity” or the Scandinavian “Swedish Rider” method of tightly strung wire “fences” for hay to dry on. Each method has its pros and cons, and it’s my belief that the “Swedish Riders” is the easiest to learn and the Proctor Method may be the most difficult.

Such a One Horse Outfit

Such a One Horse Outfit

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One day my stepfather brought over a magazine he had recently subscribed to. It was called Small Farmer’s Journal published by a guy named Lynn Miller. That issue had a short story about an old man that used a single small mule to garden and skid firewood with. I was totally fascinated with the prospect of having a horse and him earning his keep. It sorta seemed like having your cake and eating it too.

Barnyard Manure

Barnyard Manure

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The amount of manure produced must be considered in planning a cropping system for a farm. If one wishes to manure one-fifth of the land every year with 10 tons per acre, there would have to be provided two tons per year for each acre of the farm. This would require about one cow or horse, or equivalent, for each six acres of land.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT