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.
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.