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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

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm
Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Photo from Drew Conroy of Berwick, ME.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

by Tim Huppe of Farmington, NH

The number of teams of working steers and oxen being trained and used in some fashion in North America is on the rise. The present number may be the greatest in over forty years. There are several factors contributing to this increase.

For centuries, the skills of training steers for work and the craft of building yokes and related equipment was passed down from generation to generation. It was common for a young boy or girl to be responsible for the care and training of a team from calves to the age of working capability. Many farms trained a team each year, either for sale or for future replacement in their own draft program. The older, accomplished teamsters will say that no one ever taught them to train cattle; they just did it! Very little information was available in print until Dr. Drew Conroy put pen to paper. He has spent many hundreds of hours researching and writing. His books The Oxen Handbook and Oxen, A Teamsters Guide are the most definitive sources of information to date. His many articles in farm magazines go into greater depth on a variety of subjects. A complete novice can follow Conroy’s teamster guide and produce a good pair of working cattle.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Photo from Tillers International of Kalamazoo, MI.

Magazines such as Small Farmer’s Journal, Rural Heritage, Mother Earth News, Draft Horse Journal, and others provide us with articles telling stories of cattle working on farms, in the woods, and on exhibition, etc.

Organizations provide support at regional levels. The New England Ox Teamsters Association, the Maine Draft Horse and Ox Association, the Midwest Ox Drovers Association, the Mid-South Ox Drovers Association, the Prairie Drovers Association, and many more offer expertise and opportunity for those interested in working cattle. 4-H clubs around the country offer working steer programs and the opportunity for youth and their families to participate in their project.

Tillers International in Michigan has for many years offered workshops and internships for those seeking to learn the craft of working steers and building related equipment.

Museums and living history farms such as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Howell Farm in New Jersey, Sauder Village in Ohio, Remick Farm in New Hampshire, The Farm School in Massachusetts, and the Ross Farm in Nova Scotia, just to name a few, are working cattle on a regular basis and offer opportunities for others to learn on their respective sites.

Well-organized workshops focusing on farming and logging with working cattle are now available regionally.

Equipment such as yokes, bows, logging equipment, and farm equipment is now more easily available through magazine and internet sources.

Fairs and exhibitions conduct pulling contests, log scoot classes, plowing matches, precision obstacle courses, etc. for youth and adults. These gatherings are an excellent place to learn new techniques, exchange information, and purchase equipment and cattle. These competitions are one reason the working cattle numbers are on the increase.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Photo from Drew Conroy.

ON THE FARM

Training cattle for draft on the farm is a work in progress. Start slow. Engaging a single animal or a pair in meaningful work is the best method for training.

An eight month old pair of calves can easily pull small diameter firewood, a small cart, or a light stoneboat. As the team grows, slowly increase the load volume while never asking them to exceed their reasonable capabilities.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Art Scruton with team of Chianinas at Belknap Fair.

There are a variety of jobs that cattle can be used for: pulling a two-wheeled cart, hauling manure to the fields or storage pile. Back them into the barn, turn-out shed or paddock. Either hand load or bucket the manure on while they wait patiently. It may take a few sessions with a helper standing by, but they will soon learn to stand in place during the loading. A good practice while training them to stand is to drive them up to and face a wall or fence. As you move along the gutter or change location in shed or paddock, simply lift your goad stick or whip and call them to you. If you have a ground driven manure spreader, all the better. The older generation of seasoned teamsters who once worked their farms with cattle will speak of spreading manure as a ‘courage builder’. “The further you go, the lighter the load. If you want to handle a pair of cattle, spread a load of manure each day.”

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Wendy Huppe with Bo & Luke logging at Berrybrook Farm.

If you have a good pair of helping hands on the farm, teach your cattle to plow ground. Purchase a good land plow with strong handles. Seek the advice of an experienced teamster and learn the proper techniques. Attend a few plowing competitions. Take pictures, ask questions, and do a lot of listening. Most plow matches are geared toward horse teams. The basics are the same.

After the ground has been plowed, hook to a set of harrows. Install a stout pole on the draw of the harrow. Run the pole through the ring up to the stop on the pole. Fasten a chain onto the yoke ring and run it back to the hitch point on the harrow. You will be pulling the harrow by the chain and the pole will serve useful in steering, stopping, and backing. If you have a steer that has a tendency to be nervous and back chain, the pole will help overcome this problem. The likelihood of the animal backing around and stepping on the sharp discs is uncommon when a pole is in use. If you have a double gang set of harrows, unhook the rear set and work your team on the front set until they are ‘hard’ and in condition for a greater pull. If your harrows don’t have stone boxes on top, build them and pick stones while your cattle are taking a breather. This task should be like any other you perform with your cattle. Maintain a high level of performance. Be sure the equipment is in good condition. Make sure the yoke is fitting properly. Make every pull count. Keep the rows straight. Command the cattle to do what you want and see to it that they do so. Do not use old equipment that can fail. Breakdowns can cause serious trouble and injury.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Katy Huppe and Tim Huppe logging with Star and Lion.

You can fashion ground smoothing equipment with material from your farm. Car or truck tires cut in half and bolted together make a good drag. Chain link fence or a screen discarded from a loam or gravel processor only needs a pipe or hardwood 2 x 4 bolted across one end to keep them rigid. You will have a good piece of equipment to smooth fields, driveways, and woods roads. Don’t forget the easy to build and low cost stoneboat and mudboat. They are a must around the farm.

A single steer or ox is good draft power for cultivating row crops. Even a young steer in a single yoke can pull a cultivator for long periods of time. Begin the training by having someone halter lead the steer while another tends the handles of the cultivator. As the steer becomes accustomed to walking between the crop rows, attach a long lead to the halter and have the helper walk either well ahead of the animal or a few rows to the left of the animal. It won’t be long before the steer will be cultivating by the command of the implement tender. It would be advisable to put a nose basket on the steer or ox while performing garden work. It will be much easier to keep his attention and minimize crop damage.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Drew Conroy, ME.

Haying with cattle can be an enjoyable job. Most horse drawn mowers are, or can be geared to work efficiently at the walking speed of a pair of cattle. Ground driven hay tedders and rakes can either be drawn directly using a pole or if they are fitted with tractor draw bars, they can be pulled behind a light weight forecart. The hay can either be rolled into a windrow using a side delivery rake and picked up with a ground driven hay loader or can be gathered with a dump rake and hand loaded onto a wagon. Picking up loose hay and loading it onto a wagon drawn by a pair of cattle is a pleasure. As you walk to the next pile to be loaded, you can call them forward into place. Again, be sure to use nose baskets during this task.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Ice harvesting at Remick Farm Museum, Tamworth, NH 1998.

Once you have gotten the loaded wagon to the barn, back the wagon to the mow. If the team hesitates to back the wagon because of an incline or the weight of the load, unhook them from the pole. Turn them around facing the load, hooking them to the pole, and push the load into the barn. You may want to practice this technique in an open area before performing the actual task.

The use of breechings while hauling wheeled vehicles offers advantages. There is less tongue slap when the cattle are tight within the rigging and the cattle will back great loads with ease and confidence.

For those making the large round bales, there are now large round bale movers available for use with oxen or horses.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Leia Farnham at the Remick Farm, 1998.

IN THE WOODS

It may well be the value of working steers and oxen in the North American forests that has kept the craft alive until this day. The slow steady pace of these strong animals makes them well-suited for hauling logs and firewood. Their cloven hooves give them the ability to work in rough terrain. Shoeing cattle is an option but most often is not necessary.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Leia Farnham at the Remick Farm, 1998.

Harvesting wood with cattle can be very simple and low in cost. A stout ox chain and choker is all the equipment that is needed to pull logs and firewood. A properly swamped (cleared of brush and debris) woods trail allows the team to draw the load out easily and minimizes hang-ups and chance of injury. If the saw logs are being harvested, a logging scoot is often employed. Rolling the logs up onto the bunks of a two runner scoot keeps them free of dirt. A clean log is worth more to a sawmill, particularly those sawmills that do not have debarking capabilities. Another feature of the scoot is the large capacity for cut-to-length logs. The scoot has clearance to pass over rocks and stumps. It has a built-in flexibility making it more maneuverable and stronger than rigid runner sleds. Great loads can be hauled with a scoot, particularly on snowy trails. A rack can be bolted to the top of the bunks for hauling 4’ firewood. A planed deck with sides can be fastened to the bunks for hauling stove length wood.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Many designs of two-wheeled forecarts are available. The forecart is great for hauling tree length saw logs and firewood. Some forecarts have mechanisms for lifting the butt end of the log off the ground, making the log easier to haul.

Other forecarts are built arch style. The arch is backed over the log. The choker chain is fastened to a fixed hook on the cart. As the team moves forward the butt end of the log is lifted several inches from the ground. Both methods work fine and keep the log much cleaner than if it had been twitched out.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Go devils, tongs, and double runner bob sleds can also be used very effectively in hauling wood.

Begin when your calves are still young, conditioning them to the noise of a chainsaw, the sound of falling trees, and the sound of heavy motorized equipment. Even if you are not working them that day, bring them into the woods and tie them unyoked to a tree. Give them a little hay and let them relax while listening to the noises of the woods operation.

Again, it is meaningful work that best trains the team to be good working cattle.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Howard Van Ord with Devon Cow in Single Yoke ,Tillers International, Kalamazoo, MI.

For those of you who are fortunate enough to own or have access to a sugar bush, you will find great satisfaction in hauling maple sap with your cattle. Sap hauling equipment can be as simple as a food grade plastic barrel mounted on a stoneboat to the traditional galvanized sap hauling tub fixed to a scoot or sled. The cattle handle themselves very well through water and mud holes. Their v-plow shaped front end and quiet temperament make them well suited for traveling through deep snow. And again, they do not need to be shod to do this work efficiently. The sliding yoke was developed for just this type of work. The action of a sliding yoke was designed to allow the cattle to move laterally so they could walk in the tracks of the scoot or sled runners. The mechanism of the yoke demands that the cattle’s neck pieces move in or out at the same time and the same distance. This assures that one ox did not get advantage over the other. This style of yoke also proves valuable while maneuvering the team through densely wooded areas.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

It is a source of great pride and satisfaction to work a well-trained pair of cattle in the sugar bush. Walk to the next maple tree and call your team up. They will stand patiently while you pour the sap in the tank and then onto the next tree. After they get to know the sled road, you may be able to point them to the sap house, hop on the sled and let them go.

There are uses for steers and oxen that can add cash income for the farm. Hauling Christmas trees from plantation to parking lots is one example. Families enjoy the experience of searching for the right tree. The cattle make the event and the memory even better.

Contact your local utilities and let them know you have well-trained oxen for hire. It is not uncommon for electric power and telephone companies to hire draft animals to pull cable through remote areas and on islands.

I have touched upon many of the uses for working cattle and there are many more. If you have put the time into training a pair of working cattle, make time to use them for meaningful work and enjoyment. Remember, every farm needs a team!

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Logging at Les Bardens with Star and Lion.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Alyson Huppe with Jack and Jerry. Logging with 4H club, 2000.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Alyson Huppe with her team, Bo & Luke, hauling ice from a pond at the Remick Museum in Tamworth, NH, 1998.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Tim Huppe with Star and Lion.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Alyson Huppe with Buck & Brod at the Remick Farm, Tamworth, NH, 1998.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Katy Huppe with team of milking Shorthorns at Tillers International, Kalamazoo, MI.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Picture from Drew Conroy.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Alyson Huppe logging at Berrybrook Farm with Bo & Luke.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Drew Conroy photo from ME.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Plowing at Tillers International in Kalamazoo, MI.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Spotlight On: How-To & Plans

Sack Sewing with Wayne Ryan

Sack Sewing with Wayne Ryan

by:
from issue:

Watching Wayne’s sure hands it was easy for me to forget that this is a 91 year old man. There was strength, economy, elegance and thrift in his every stroke.

Building a Community, Building a Barn

Building a Community, Building a Barn

by:
from issue:

One of the most striking aspects of this development is the strength and confidence that comes from this communal way of living. While it is impressive to build a barn in a day it seems even more impressive to imagine building four barns or six, and all the rest of the needs of a community. For these young Amish families the vision of a shared agricultural community is strong, and clear.

How To Prune a Formal Hedge

How To Prune A Formal Hedge

This guide to hedge-trimming comes from The Pruning Answer Book by Lewis Hill and Penelope O’Sullivan. Q: What’s the correct way to shear a formal hedge? A: The amount of shearing depends upon the specific plant and whether the hedge is formal or informal. You’ll need to trim an informal hedge only once or twice a year, although more vigorous growers, such as privet and ninebark, may need additional clippings.

Forging Rings in the Farm Blacksmith Shop

Forging Rings in the Farm Blacksmith Shop

by:
from issue:

Fabricating steel rings is a common task in my small farm blacksmith shop. They are often used on tie-rings for my customer’s barns, chain latches on gates, neck yoke rings, etc. It’s simple enough to create a ring over the horn of the anvil or with the use of a bending fork, however, if you want to create multiple rings of the same diameter it’s worthwhile to build a hardy bending jig.

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.

Blacksmithing with Pete Cecil Building a Fire

Farm Drum #29: Blacksmithing with Pete Cecil – Building a Fire

Lynn Miller & Pete Cecil talk about Blacksmithing basics, and Pete demonstrates building a fire in the forge.

Barn Door Plans

Barn Door Plans

Good barn doors, ones that will last a lifetime of opening, sliding and swinging in the wind, require careful design and construction. In 1946 the Starline Co., a barn building firm from the midwestern US, compiled a book of barn plans. These two diagrams were in that book and presented excellent information.

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.

Multiple Hitching with One Set of Lines

Multiple Hitching with One Set of Lines

by:
from issue:

A great deal of interest has been shown the last several years in using multiple hitches in horse farming, especially in spring fieldwork. The question often asked is how to keep it simple and easy in driving and assembling the hitch as far as lines are concerned. We demonstrated our method at the Horse Progress Days at Mt. Hope, Ohio in 2003 and have been asked numerous times how we drove four, six and eight-horse hitches using only two lines.

Horseshoeing Part 3A

Horseshoeing Part 3A

An examination should be made while the animal is at rest, and afterwards while in motion. The object of the examination is to gain accurate knowledge of the direction and movements of the limbs, of the form and character of the feet and hoofs, of the manner in which the foot reaches and leaves the ground, of the form, length, position, and wear of the shoe, and distribution of the nail-holes, in order that at the next and subsequent shoeings all ascertained peculiarities of hoof-form may be kept in mind and all discovered faults of shoeing corrected.

Posts

Driving Fence Posts By Hand

Where the soil is soft, loose, and free from stone, posts may be driven more easily and firmly than if set in holes dug for the purpose.

McCormick Deering/International No 7 vs no 9

McCormick Deering/International: No. 7 versus No. 9

McCormick Deering/International’s first enclosed gear model was the No. 7, an extremely successful and highly popular mower of excellent design.

Fencing for Horses

Fencing for Horses

by:
from issue:

The first wire we tried was a small gauge steel wire which was not terribly satisfactory with horses. Half the time they wouldn’t see it and would charge on through. And the other half of the time they would remember getting shocked by something they hadn’t seen there and would refuse to come through when we were standing there with gate wide open. We realized that visibility was an important consideration when working with horses.

Blacksmithing

Blacksmithing

from issue:

Modern farm machinery is largely of iron and steel construction, making an equipment of metal working tools necessary if satisfactory repairs are to be made. Forging operations consist of bending, upsetting, drawing out, welding, punching, drilling, riveting, thread-cutting, hardening, tempering, and annealing. Heat makes iron soft and ductile. Practically all forging operations on iron can be done more rapidly when it is at a high heat. Steel will not stand as high a temperature.

To Market, To Market, To Buy A Fat Pig

Within so-called alternative agriculture circles there are turf wars abrew

Collar Hames and Harness Fitting

Collars, Hames and Harness Fitting

Farmers who are good horsemen know everything that is presented here: yet even they will welcome this leaflet because it will refresh their memories and make easier their task when they have to show hired men or boys how to adjust equipment properly. Good horsemen know from long experience that sore necks or sore shoulders on work stock are due to ignorance or carelessness of men in charge, and are inexcusable.

English Sheaf Knots

English Sheaf Knots

Long ago when grain was handled mostly by hand, the crop was cut slightly green so seed did not shatter or shake loose too easily. That crop was then gathered into ‘bundles’ or ‘sheafs’ and tied sometimes using a handful of the same grain for the cording. These sheafs were then gathered together, heads up, and leaned upon one another to form drying shocks inviting warm breezes to pass through. In old England, the field workers took great pride in their work and distinctive sheaf knots were designed and employed.

How To Get Into Farming With No Money

How To Get Into Farming With No Money

by:
from issue:

Let’s assume the beginning ‘farmer’ has absolutely nothing. Nothing but a will to farm and a reasonably normal body. The very first thing you must do is search out a farmer, preferably a farmer who farms close to the way that you want to farm. You must watch him, ask questions, do as you are told and learn everything you can. Very shortly you will be on your own and you will find that the more you learn now, the better you will be when you have only yourself to rely on.

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