Thursday, August 31, 2017

Wheeling a barrel?`

That contraption with two handles and a single wheel in the front?  It's called a wheelbarrow.  The "barrow" part comes from and Old English word that describes a device used to carry a load.  The "wheel" part. . . well, I guess that part's pretty obvious.  It's not a wheelbarrel or a wheelborrow.  Barrels would roll on their own, and if you lend out your wheelbarrow (thus, making it a wheelborrow), you might as well call it a wheelgift, since the only reason anyone borrows one is to mix concrete, and you won't want it back afterwards.

So now that we've had our etymology lesson, I didn't come here to talk about wheelbarrows. I came to talk about the oxen substitute for them:  slip scrapers.
Hauling compost.  And a shovel.
The angle of this photo makes the left handle look longer than it is,
but it doesn't stick out more than 18 inches from the back, I swear.

Traditionally used to move material by digging into it and dumping it at the destination (More on that at some other time, but you must pinky-swear here and now that if you get a slip scraper and you're going to put handles on it, you'll put short-enough-to-look-ridiculous handles on it.  Long handles will quickly turn a slip scraper into a slip catapult), slip scrapers are also useful for almost all of those wheelbarrow related tasks:  moving one bale of hay, hauling dirt or compost, and carrying loads like rocks or bricks.

Slip scrapers don't hold any more than a wheelbarrow and the advantage of loading down low is negligible, but you get the task done and you got one more chance to work your oxen, which is more fun that wheeling a barrel, whatever that is.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Stone Canoe

Trying to get the threads at a
consistent height.  Nobody will
care, but I like the look.
Ok, that sounds like a totally useless item, but hang in there. . .

I've got a stone boat.  A nice, big one.  A really nice, big, heavy one.

The head is cast iron, with a fresh coat of paint.  Southern yellow pine planks, outfitted with painted, chamfered and planed battens.  It's heavy.  And a little too nice to leave outside in the elements.  (I store it inside, but how I get it there may be the topic for another post down the road).
Sometimes, I find myself wishing for my old, beat-up stoneboat.  The head was a plate steel that was obviously farm-made many years ago.  I found it in the weeds at my farm when I moved there years ago.  Sturdy, but not too heavy.  I bolted a few scrap boards to it when Zeus and his partner Hermes were just calves.

2 minutes with a block
plane adds a gentle chamfer.
 It was hideous, but other than a terrible mishap when we first hooked to it years ago (again, probably another post someday), it worked well until the boards fell apart this spring.  If only I had some scrap wood. . .

In early summer, a friend of mine was discarding some very lightly used 16-foot 5/4 deck boards (my favorite price) so I cut them into 4 foot lengths, ripped one a little narrower to fit the width of the head - 32 inches - and bolted them together using new 1/2 inch carriage bolts and a little Phil Wood waterproof grease.
I try to grease every nut.  Cheap insurance.

Since I had the boards all ready, I gave them a coat of oil-based stain in my favorite shade of blue.  I think it was called "I-have-this-on-hand-from-another-project-maybe-the-ox-cart" blue.  It generally coordinates with the "Ink Blue" Rust-Oleum spray paint that was on sale for $3 at Meijer this week.

Finished up: Around $20, weatherproof, sturdy, lightweight, but smaller than a stoneboat.  It's a stone canoe.  Because stone dingy just sounds silly.

Too bad it turned out so nice.  Kind of a shame to leave it outside. Maybe I should be on the lookout for another stone boat head. . .
A little small for big Brutus, but he doesn't mind.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

In or Out?

We once had a student who struggled so much with "gee" and "haw" as a beginning teamster, that I jokingly suggested he write them on his hand.  

He did.

Not surprisingly, his driving didn't suddenly take a great leap forward.  The act of stopping, looking at his hand then translating the word into some movement made the task, if anything, more difficult.  

But I do feel his pain.  I have the occupational
hazard of often not knowing my right from my left.  As an American Government teacher for many years, I explain the political spectrum, maps, and several other things while facing my high schoolers, as if they were on an clear wall between us.  So I think in reverse with left and right at times.  But only when I stop and think about it.  Mid-lecture, I just know where socialism is in relation to mainstream conservatism.  

Watch a kid play a video game and you'll get the idea of how to drive.  Try out a couple of controls, then stop thinking about it.

But what if you're driving Zeus, who works 90% of the time as a single or a nigh ox, but he's working on the off side?  When the team needs to "step over haw," (a command, by the way, altogether different from "step haw."  "Step haw" means to come forward turning sharply left.  "Step over haw" means to sidestep to the left.)  Zeus needs to "put in" toward the chain, but you can't tell him that.  I know.  I tried.  If you tell him to "put in" in that position, he steps out, just like he's been taught.  

"In" and "out" to Zeus mean "left" and "right."  

How about your team?  Do they know that "in" and "out" are positional commands, rather that directional ones?  

Or does it matter?  If you're getting the work done with the kid-and-a-video-game-method, it's all good.  But if something changes, take a second and try to figure out where the confusion is.

Socialism is on the left, by the way.  Your left, my right.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Animals or People

"I'd rather work with the oxen than with people.  The oxen never seem to take it personally when you correct them."  - Dulcy Perkins, former Tillers International Farm Manager and a darn fine ox trainer.

Truth be told, many people who really enjoy animals find it a zero-sum game in relation to their enjoyment of people.  The more they like animals and working with them, the less they like people, and vice-versa.  Find someone who enjoys a Saturday morning in a duck blind with a Labrador, and they often aren't that comfortable in a crowd of people on Saturday night.

For myself, I stop dogs on the street to talk to them and give them a good scratching, but once the conversation with the owner moves beyond the obligatory questions of breed, age of the dog and why he's the best dog they've ever owned, we struggle to connect.

But, like in so many other ways, oxen folks are cut from a different cloth.  They're such nice, helpful people that it's easy to relate to both team and teamster.

Yesterday was the Ingham County Fair in Mason, MI.  It's the only county fair in MI to offer an ox competition, so it acts as a mini-MODA-Gathering.

All of the local MODA folks made the trip there and we were able to catch up a bit, enjoy each others' company and meet some new people.  All in all, an enjoyable day with friends.

It's nice not having to choose between animals and people.

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.