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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: Equipment & Facilities

Geiss New-Made Hay Loader

Gies’ New-Made Hayloader

by:
from issue:

I was sitting on a 5 gallon bucket staring at the hayloader. I had a significant amount of time and money invested. My wife, the great motivating influence in my life, walked up and asked what I was thinking. I was thinking about dropping the whole project and I told her so. She told me that it had better work since I had spent so much money and time on it already. She doesn’t talk that way very often so I figured I had better come up with a solution.

Farm Drum 25 Two-Way Plow

Farm Drum #25: Two-Way Plow

by:

Lynn Miller and Ed Joseph discuss the merits of the two-way plow, what to look for when considering purchase, and a little bit of the history of this unique IH / P&O model.

New Idea Mower

New Idea Mower

from issue:

For proper operation the outer end of the cutter bar should lead the inner end when the machine is not in operation. After long use the cutter bar may lag back and if this happens it can be corrected by making adjustments on the cutter bar eccentric bushing as follows: First making sure that the pin and bolt in the hinge casting “A” Fig. 5 are tight and in good condition.

Barn Raising

Barn Raising

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from issue:

Here it was like a beehive with too many fuzzy cheeked teen-agers who couldn’t possibly be experienced enough to be of much help. But work was being accomplished; bents, end walls and partitions were being assembled like magic and raised into place with well-coordinated, effortless ease and precision. No tempers were flaring, no egomaniacs were trying to steal the show, and there was not the usual ten percent doing ninety percent of the work.

Eighteen Dollar Harrow

Eighteen Dollar Harrow

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This is the story of a harrow on a budget. I saw plans on the Tillers International website for building an adjustable spike tooth harrow. I modified the plans somewhat to suit the materials I had available and built a functional farm tool for eighteen dollars. The manufactured equivalent would have cost at least $300.

New Idea Manure Spreaders

New Idea Manure Spreaders

from issue:

There is no fixed method of loading. The best results are usually obtained by starting to load at the front end, especially in long straw manure. To get good results do not pile any manure into the cylinders. The height of the load depends upon the condition of the manure, the condition and nature of the field. Do not put on extra side boards. Be satisfied with the capacity of the machine and do not abuse it. Overloading will be the cause of loss of time sooner or later.

Snow Trail Groomer

Snow Trail Groomer

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from issue:

Want to groom sled trails, freeze skid trails, or set cross-country ski trails? Here is a relatively inexpensive device that has numerous advantages over the conventional chain link fence, bedspring, log, tractor tire, etc. It is easy to construct, manhandle, and store. One of the major advantages over some other methods is that it allows the snow to stay on the trail rather than pushing it to the side. This action allows it to cover rough surfaces such as roots, rocks, and ruts.

Shed and Barn Plans

Below is a short piece from Starting Your Farm, by SFJ editor and publisher Lynn R. Miller. Click the links below to see Chapter One of Starting Your Farm and to view the book in our online bookstore. “You may have purchased a farm with a fantastic set of old barns and sheds. You, on […]

Box Jaw Tongs & the Cow Poop Theory of Blacksmithing

Box Jaw Tongs & the Cow Poop Theory of Blacksmithing

by:
from issue:

Making a pair of tongs was a milestone for a lot of blacksmiths. In times gone past a Journeyman Smith meant just that, a smith that went upon a journey to learn more skills before taking a masters test. When the smith appeared at the door of a prospective employer, he/she would be required to demonstrate their skills. A yard stick for this was to make a pair of tongs.

Fjordworks Horse Powered Potatoes Part 2

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes Part Two

These types of team implements for digging potatoes were the first big innovation in horse powered potato harvesting in the mid-19th century. Prior to the horse drawn digger the limitation on how many potatoes a farmer could plant was how many the farm crew could dig by hand. The basic design of these early diggers works so well that new models of this type of digger are once again being manufactured by contemporary horse drawn equipment suppliers.

The Milk and Human Kindness A Look At Butter Churns

The Milk and Human Kindness: A Look at Butter Churns

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from issue:

Finding an old butter churn at a flea market, one that is still usable can be a lot of fun, and because there are so many types, it’s good to know a few tips to help you find one that works well for you. For one thing, the size of your butter churn must match your cream supply so that your valuable cream gets transformed into golden butter while it’s fresh and sweet, and that your valuable time is not eaten up by churning batch after batch because your churn is too small.

McCormick-Deering Potato Digger

McCormick-Deering Potato Digger

from issue:

McCormick Deering (eventually International Harvestor) made what many believe to be one of the outstanding potato digger models. This post features the text and illustrations from the original manufacturer’s setup and operation literature, handed to the new owners upon purchase. This implement, pulled by two horses or a small suitable tractor, dug up the taters and conveyed them up an inclined, rattling chain which shook off most of the dirt and laid the crop on top of the ground for collection

Hay Making with a Single Horse Part 1

Hay Making with a Single Horse Part 1

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For the last ten years, I have made hay mostly with a single horse. This has not necessarily been out of choice, as at one time I had hoped to be farming on a larger scale with more horses. Anyway, it does little good to dwell on ‘what if ’. The reality is that I am able to make hay, and through making and modifying machinery, I probably have a better understanding of hay making and the mechanics of draught.

Walsh No Buckle Harness

from issue:

When first you become familiar with North American working harness you might come to the erroneous conclusion that, except for minor style variations, all harnesses are much the same. While quality and material issues are accounting for substantive differences in the modern harness, there were also interesting and important variations back in the early twentieth century which many of us today either have forgotten or never knew about. Perhaps the most significant example is the Walsh No Buckle Harness.

Timber Wagon

Timber Wagon: The ÖSTERBY SMEDJA SV5 Forwarder

New equipment for draft horse use in silviculture (growing trees) is commercialized in Sweden at present by five companies, mainly specialized in forwarders and logging arches. This equipment is primarily adapted to the needs of forest enterprises in Scandinavia. Thus the forwarders are designed for short and small wood, for loading via hydraulic crane or an electric winch, or for manual loading without tools. This equipment is also adapted to the local topographical conditions. The rocky forests require strong off-road capabilities.

New Horsedrawn Minimum Till Seed Drill

New Horsedrawn Minimum Till Seed Drill

The physico-chemical degradation of the soils world-wide by so-called “conventional” farming methods is considered as one of the major problems for the world’s food supply in the coming decades. Organic farming systems, refraining from the use of genetic engineering and chemically-synthesized sprays and fertilizers, can help resolve this situation. However, a better protection of the soil is also closely linked to agricultural engineering. By that, minimum tillage or no-till seeding is gaining popularity among tractor farmers around the world.

400 Hen Laying House

400-Hen Laying House

by: ,
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One of the hardest problems in successful poultry keeping is to maintain the vigor and health of the flock. Housing has particular bearing on this problem. If the laying-house is poorly lighted, has insufficient ventilation, or is overcrowded, the health of the fowls will be affected. The purpose of housing is to increase productiveness. In order to accomplish this the fowls must be comfortable.

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