Friday, July 21, 2017

Professionalism- A Film Review

Tillers' founder Dick Roosenberg frequently refers "professionalism" in ox driving, referring to drivers who work cattle in a way that is efficient and effective.  That style of driving, while not flashy, is a great model for getting real work done with a team.

So yesterday, when I stopped in to Tillers and I noticed Zacarias, one of Tillers' staff members from Mozambique, working the calves we started in the Oxen Basics class, I grabbed my phone and headed out to capture a few seconds of driving.

What I immediately notice is that Zacarias doesn't waste time.  He moves from place to place without urgency, but with speed nonetheless.  When he stops the calves to praise them, he scratches them, then gets back to work.

This is effective for a couple of reasons:  First, it establishes a tone for the animals.  They are out to work, and shouldn't expect many unnecessary breaks.  Second, and maybe more importantly,  it keeps the animals engaged.   Particularly for flighty animals, breaks give them a chance to look around and notice scary things.  Even for calm animals like these, a break is a chance to look for grass, or companions, or other distractions.

I often tell students to take an animal that is misbehaving and "make their world smaller" by forcing them to focus on their driver (using techniques such as whispering or turning very sharply or some other task to bring them back to attention).  Zacarias, on the other hand, drives with that focus already built in.  The animals never mentally wander in the first place.  He isn't fixing problems, he's avoiding them.

And that's just one reason we should watch the professionals.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Psychological Barrier

Our minds impose many limits.  The 4 minute mile is one example.   Once Roger Bannister broke it, several runners made it past the arbitrary limit in short order.

As a coach, I've seen lots of other examples of athletes who were held back by doubt, fear, or faith.

Anyone who's ever seen an animal charge through an electric fence can speak to these psychological limits with practical experience.  However, they're not all bad.

This week, I took Cassius and Zeus to Berrien Springs, MI for a talk at the old Courthouse.  Zeus is unfazed by people approaching him.  Cassius?  Not so much.

Of course, Cassius needs more exposure to people and new situations, but the practical matter is that if he's scared in public, someone may get hurt.

So we put up a fence.  A single, wire with temporary posts and no electricity.  Cassius was fine with a crowd and the day went well.

Several people asked, "Does that fence really keep him in?"

I told them, "Of course not.  He knows he can get out anytime.  The fence is so that, in his mind, you can't get in."

For Cassius, the people had an arbitrary limit, not him, and that made all the difference.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Differently Imperfect

Something Tom Jenkins said back in January (to Kevin Cunningham and me) jumped out at me this week.

Cassius (off) and Brutus
We were talking about how to manage oxen in public and the problems you run into in doing so.  Tom said, "That’s one thing I’ve learned about oxen is they’re all imperfect in different ways. (emphasis added) Mine will have different problems than yours, different than Kevin’s. None of them are perfect."

Zeus with Cassius
I had been working under the assumption that Brutus, my "regular" nigh ox, was the better of my two. He's a real sweetheart and definitely the lowest ox in terms of dominance at my farm.

Lately, I've been working my single ox Zeus with Cassius, Brutus's partner, together in order to keep everyone working a bit and that combination performs quite well.

As a result, Brutus has been working alone. However, the problems of the team remain when Brutus is by himself: he's not as willing to hold a line as I'd like, he goes much faster than we need to, and he crowds me more than he should. None of these problems is terrible by itself and none can't be fixed with a little work, but I now know with a little more certainty where the problems actually lie.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Training Wheels

Brutus has worked for 5 years as a nigh ox, and although he can drive singly, he has only really pulled a load a couple of times by himself.  
Note to self: drop the trace carriers down a couple inches.

After the MODA Gathering where we tried to cultivate with him without success - he was unwilling to be hooked to a cultivator with a stranger behind him- I've had him out a couple of times to get him used to working alone.  

He's not comfortable yet with a load- and with a trace line-, or a tug, outside of his left legs.  The other side is fine, since he's had a chain on that side for years.  As a result, right hand turns are more of a challenge, with the outside trace line rubbing him.  Once he gets used to side-stepping a turn, he should be fine.

So, we've been picking up cow pies from the oxen paddock and hauling them in a slip scraper.  Working in the paddock is closed in and familiar.  He knows where he is and that takes off one layer of complexity.  

Eventually the training wheels need to be removed, but that can wait.  

Sunday, July 2, 2017

It Ain't Disney

It ain't Disney, but it's close.  

The Chapman team loads hay at the 2017 MODA Gathering
Make loose hay with your oxen.  Not exclusively, unless you choose to do so.  Here's why (and, full disclosure: I feed square and round bales more often than loose hay):

1.  The hay is better, although the oxen don't care much and will get fat regardless.

2.  The job is more pleasant than schlepping bales from field to barn.

3.  Round bales seem so post-industrial, and really only look nice on someone else's field, scattered like loaves of bread.
My Daughter and her friend, Abby, stomping hay in 2011.
Zeus and Hermes were 1.5 years old.

4.  Hayloaders are cool. 

Ben Chapman and I load hay at the 2016 MODA Gathering
5.  Track systems in barns are even cooler.

But all of these reasons pale next to the best reason:  Kids love to stomp loose hay.  On the wagon.  In the barn.  

I have a few regrets as a parent, and stopping my kids and their friends from jumping down from the haymow into a pile of loose hay is certainly among them.  

Get a wagon.  Get a kid.  You load, they stomp.  

It ain't Disney, but it's close.

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Secret Handshake

When I was cycling regularly, it seemed like bumping into other cyclists occured often.  Shaved legs and VERY distinct tanlines made spotting them laughably easy.  Throw in a "Tour de France" T-shirt, and it was a clue for striking up a conversation about routes, training plans, and such.

Ox drovers are a little harder to spot for lots of reasons.  We're as rare as hen's teeth for one, and for
 another, we don't offer any characteristic tells. Truth be told, most ox drovers I know are pretty humble.  They don't seek attention and don't expect to meet other drovers on the street, so they pass by unless fate intervenes.

The other day, my family and I went to Connor Prairie for a short vacation.  I knew they had oxen and was determined to see them because. . . well, if you need that sentence finished, I suggest you look at other blogs.
We walked up to the "animal encounter" barn and a man greeted us.  I asked of they had oxen on the property and he told me about them with only some cursory details.  I assumed he didn't know the oxen well.  We then left and headed for 1836 Prairietown.  I asked there and was told that because they were walking the turkeys, the oxen wouldn't be out today (only one animal can be out at a time).

We explored for a while, found the paddock for the oxen, admired them, and saw the sights, when my mother-in-law called to say they had met the oxen expert and we should come to the "animal encounter" barn to meet him.

Long story short, we went back and met our friend from earlier.  Once Kevin knew that I knew oxen, and I knew that he knew oxen, we had a nice visit.  He mentioned that if I had said something earlier, he would have gotten them out and that I should come back again in the future.

We drovers need a secret handshake.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Show a Little Class (2)- Percy

The MODA blog got this entry submitted by Jim Whelan's nigh ox, Percy, who spent a week at Tillers last week.  It seems as if Carter is not the only one who can type:
Greetings – this is Percy writing this time…..we just returned from a great week at Tillers International in Michigan where we were up close and personal with a whole bunch of oxen.

What a great week – Mr. Collins, the President of MODA, really is a great ox drover. Carter said to tell Mr. Collins he was sorry about misbehaving in the woods one day. I didn’t know what to do but I just followed Carter’s lead and boy was that a mess. (Jim's note: the team was attempting to get hooked to a log when we think Carter got stung by a nettles plant and Carter got really excited because of the pain). Boy I somehow got wrapped around a sapling and didn’t know where to go. Both saplings broke and we managed to get safely out of the woods. Mr. Collins was also the main instructor for the Oxen Basics course. He taught us a lot about our capabilities and Mr. Jim learned a little bit also.
I am sure we will forget some of the students we met, but we really got to know Stephan from Georgia who spent a lot of time driving us around Tillers. Stephan’s dad helped us a lot also. We want to apologize to a man named Cameron for our misbehavior on Sunday when we were supposed to knock all those balls off the cones. It had been a long week and we were both tired and wanted to go back to the pasture by that time. Besides, what the heck was the use of knocking balls off a cone---now if they would have given us more logs to pull like we did the day before we would have done that. A young man named Kesi really gave us a workout the first few days. And a brave woman from California came all the way to Michigan just to see us. At least that is what Barb told us when she was driving us. We were really glad to show all these humans who may never have seen an ox before what we were all about. We hope all the class will continue their membership in MODA to learn more about oxen of all breeds and sizes. Oh we forgot to give our sympathy to the training calves that the students started. They got worked hard every day -twice a day- but soon caught on that the humans were the alphas.
We have to thank the Tillers staff who made us feel welcome in a really green pasture and checked on
us every day to make sure we were comfortable. Ivy, Else and Domenico you are the greatest. We hope each of you will find success in your later life as you learn more and more about the types of agriculture you perform at Tillers.
Chub and Jerry welcomed us home with a lot of laughs about the times they had at Tillers. They got to go to a new green pasture while we were gone and we are finishing up the old one. Mr. Jim tells us that we have a lot of work to do this summer and we will take the time to tell you about all the places we will be and the people we met. Until the next time, happy trails and stay out of the nettles.