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.