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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 PST

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: Livestock

Lineback Cattle

Lineback Cattle

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Cattle with lineback color patterns have occurred throughout the world in many breeds. In some cases this is a matter of random selection. In others, the markings are a distinct characteristic of the breed; while in some it is one of a number of patterns common to a local type. Considering that livestock of all classes have been imported to the United States, it is not surprising that we have our own Lineback breed.

Feeding Elk Winter Work for the Belgians

Feeding Elk: Winter Work for the Belgians

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Doug Strike of rural Sublette County is spending his second winter feeding wild elk in nearby Bondurant, Wyoming. Strike is supplementing his logging income as well as helping his team of Belgian draft horses to keep in shape for the coming season. From May to the end of November he uses his horses to skid logs out of the mountains of western Wyoming. I found the use of Doug’s beautiful Belgian team an exciting example of appropriate technology.

The Brabants Farm

The Brabants’ Farm

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The Brabants’ Farm is a multi purpose farming operation whose main goal is to promote “horsefarming.” Our philosophy is to support the transformation of regional conventional agriculture and forestry into a sustainable, socially responsible, and less petroleum dependent based agriculture, by utilizing animal drawn technology (“horsefarming”), and by meeting key challenges in 21st century small scale agriculture and forestry in Colombia and throughout South America.

Hay Making with a Single Horse Part 3

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In parallel with making hay on the ground, nearly every year I have also made some hay on tripods. The attraction of this method is that it only needs one day of good weather to dry the grass sufficiently before it is put on the tripods, and then the hay takes very little harm no matter what the weather, usually coming out green, dry and smelling of hay two weeks later when it can be baled or stacked.

Work Horse Handbook

Work Horse Handbook

Horses are honest creatures. And, what I mean by honest is that a horse is almost always true to his motivations, his needs, his perceptions: if he wants to eat, if he needs water, if he perceives danger. He is incapable of temporarily setting aside or subverting his motivations to get to some distant goal. This is often mistaken as evidence for a lack of intelligence, a conclusion which says more of human nature than equine smarts. What it means for the horse is that he is almost never lazy, sneaky or deceptive. It is simply not in his nature.

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.

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2

In the practice of Zen sitting meditation, a special emphasis is placed on maintaining a relaxed but upright sitting posture, in which the vertical and horizontal axis of the body meet at a center point. Finding this core of gravity within can restore a sense of well-being and ease to the practitioner. This balanced seat of ease is not all that different from the state of relaxed concentration we need to achieve to effectively ride or drive horses.

Livestock Guardians

Introducing Your Guard Dog To New Livestock And Other Dogs

When you introduce new animals to an established herd or flock, you should observe your dog’s reactions and behavior for a few days. Since he will be curious anyway, it is a good idea to introduce him to the new animals while he is leashed or to place the new animals in a nearby area.

Living With Dairy Goats

Living With Dairy Goats

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Dairy goats are different than other types of livestock, even Angora goats. They are independent, unimpressed by efforts to thwart their supremacy of the barnyard (or your garden), and like to survey the world from an elevated perch. Though creatures of habit, they will usually pull off some quite unexpected performance the minute you “expect” them to do their usual routine. For the herdsperson who can keep one step ahead of them, they are one of the most enjoyable species of livestock to raise and ideal to small farms.

A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses

A Greenhorn Tries Draft Horses

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We have tried a workhorse, and for our needs he has proven quite satisfactory as well as satisfying to use. Thus we feel it is possible for someone with little or no experience to learn to care for and use a horse or a team for farm and woods work, although, obviously, this is not a process to be undertaken lightly. One of the basic aims of the farm operation for us is self-sufficiency, and we thought that the horse would be more efficient than a tractor in achieving this aim.

Sheep A Logical Choice

Sheep: A Logical Choice

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Sheep have numerous uses on a smallholding. They are excellent grazers and are ideal at revitalizing old pastures as well as an excellent follower of the cows in a rotational grazing system. Cropping the grass at 2-3 inches that the cows have left at 8 inches encourages new growth in the spring. Their manure is usually in pellet form and is spread throughout a pasture as they graze. A sheep shares a ton a year of fertilizer with the earth.

Black Pigs and Speckled Beans

Black Pigs & Speckled Beans

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As country pigs go the Large Blacks are superb. They are true grazing pigs, thriving on grass and respectful of fences. Protected from sunburn by their dark skin and hair they are tolerant of heat and cold and do well even in rugged conditions. Having retained valuable instincts, the sows are naturally careful, dedicated, and able mothers. The boars I’ve seen are friendly and docile.

Horseshoeing Part 4A

Horseshoeing Part 4A

According to the size of the horse and his hoofs the nails should be driven from five-eighths to an inch and five-eighths high, and as even as possible. As soon as a nail is driven its point should be immediately bent down towards the shoe in order to prevent injuries. The heads of all the nails should then be gone over with a hammer and driven down solidly into the nail-holes, the hoof being meanwhile supported in the left hand.

Work Bridle Styles

Work Bridle Styles

Here are fourteen work bridle styles taken from a 1920’s era harness catalog. Regional variants came with different names and configurations, so much so that we have elected to identify these images by letter instead of name so you may reference these pictures directly when ordering harness or talking about repairs or fit concerns with trainers or harness makers. In one region some were know as pigeon wing and others referred to them as batwing or mule bridles.

Expanding the Use of the Heavy Draught Horse in Europe

Expanding the Use of the Heavy Draught Horse in Europe

“La Route du Poisson”, or “The Fish Run,” is a 24 hour long relay which starts from Boulogne on the coast at 9 am on Saturday and runs through the night to the outskirts of Paris with relays of heavy horse pairs until 9 am Sunday with associated events on the way. The relay “baton” is an approved cross country competition vehicle carrying a set amount of fresh fish.

Mule Powered Wrecker Service

Mule Drawn Wrecker Service

This will only add fuel to those late night discoursians about the relative merits of horses over mules or viciversy. Is the horse the smarter one for hitching a ride or is the mule the smarter one for recognizing the political opportunity which this all represents? In any event these boys know what they are doing, or should, so don’t try this at home without horse tranquilizers. Remember that politics is a luke warm bowl of thin soup.

A Year of Contract Grazing

A Year of Contract Grazing

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Contract grazing involves the use of livestock to control specific undesirable plants, primarily for ecological restoration and wildfire prevention purposes. The landowners we worked for saw grazing as an ecologically friendly alternative to mowing, mechanical brush removal, and herbicide application.

Big Logs at Tarn Hows

Big Logs at Tarn Hows

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Simon and his elder sons Simon, Keith, and Ian, with their Belgian Ardennes horses, work good timber in bad places. The felling and extraction operation at the Lake District beauty spot of Tarn Hows was done in often appalling weather, and in the full glare of publicity. It must rank as one of the most spectacular pieces of horse logging, or indeed of commercial horse work done in these islands in recent years.

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