Wednesday, January 16, 2019

1 Spacesuit Needed

I try to consistently uphold my position on making yokes:  It's a necessary evil.  Somewhere, someone must enjoy doing it.  Some sick, demented soul, deprived of conventional entertainment (i.e.- sunsets, lemonade, root canals) could come to love the process, but I never have. 

If it wasn't for pride and vanity, along with a small helping of frugality, I'd just buy yokes.  As it is, I've made all of my own -with the exceptions being an 8" yoke I purchased used when it came across my radar and a "new" 6" one that was given to me.  

The bigger they get, though, the less fun they are.  Shaping a timber the size of a Buick requires a bit of a self-pep talk.  So it was that last Saturday the weather was just nice enough that it seemed like a good idea to carve away on the 11" elm beam that is my current nemesis.  

I had a nice, sharp Lancelot blade in "Ye Olde Angle Grinder," a face shield, earmuffs, coveralls, boots tucked inside the coveralls, a hat and gloves.

The result inside my coveralls.
So what.

The best, smoothest cut with the Lancelot wheel is a skimming, shearing cut.  Done right, it is a rip cut (along, rather than across the grain).  This makes for long, fluffy shavings that eject straight up into the still January air.  They float gently down and - guided by thermodynamics and a dose of Murphy's law- come to rest just inside the collar of said coveralls.  

Long story short: The yoke is finally roughed out and I had shavings INSIDE my socks when it was done.  Maybe there's a used spacesuit for sale on Ebay. . .

Monday, September 17, 2018

Bueller? Bueller?

8, 7, and 5 inch yokes hanging on pegs on a
"yoke tree" made from 2 by 3 cherry.
Oxen people aren't unhelpful by nature.  Quite the contrary, most I know are beyond helpful.  They share knowledge, equipment, and advice.  There's almost nothing they won't share.  Almost.

Got a feed question?  They'll happily help.

Yoke fit?  They'll come on over and get ya set.

Cattle health concern?  They've got three stories about a homemade cure and one about their trusty vet's advice.

Bulls hauling out?  They've got three things to try, one that worked for grandpa, one they tried, and one
9" double yoke out of the way, with the bow doing
service in the 10" single yoke.
that isn't likely to work, but it still makes for a good story.

Mower not adjusted right?  They've got an extra copy of the manual tucked away for you, a checklist they used when they rebuilt one last season and the links to the three best Youtube videos to consult.

Need an old picture identified?  Oh, please.  Not only do they know the grand-niece of the guy in the photo, she won a blue ribbon two summers ago in the fair in the next town.

The 10" yoke rack.  I'm not sure it must be
a 2-year-old bale of hay, but that's what I use.
Can't find your copy of "Oxen: a Teamster's Guide?"  They picked up an extra last year, knowing someone would want it someday.

Broken bow?  They'll drop it off tonight, so you can get back to the woods tomorrow.

However. . .

Ask about yoke storage?  Crickets.

Kesi mardana-Dasa fell into that trap a few weeks
Pegs in the yoke tree.
ago on Facebook.  The silence was deafening.

A couple of years ago, I asked MODA folks, looking for content for the newsletter, about how they house their animals. . .   Nothing.  Bueller?  Bueller? 

I have a couple of hypotheses about this.  Either:

Halters on the left, lead ropes on the right.
Hooks from a garage sale. . .I think.

1. We oxen people are a bit embarrassed that the barn is messier than we'd like.


2.  The barn is pretty nice and oxen people don't want to seem braggadocious.

No matter, I'd be glad to start the group therapy session right here.  Sprinkled throughout are photos of the barn. No clean up, cropping, or special lighting.  Not too impressive, but I'm ok with that.  Perfection is a hobby I don't plan to pursue.
Rakes on pegs, near pegs, and within
spitting distance of pegs.

We'd love to see your yokes and housing.  We won't judge.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Sweet Job

After our cross country meet yesterday, I drove out to Tillers for their fall Harvest Fest.  They had the farm and shops open to meet guests and show folks the great work they're doing both in Michigan and Internationally.

The weather was a bit warm for the oxen, 84 degrees and sunny.  The job at hand was pressing sorghum.  A single ox, Blue and then Pollux, pulls the sweep around an old Chattanooga press while someone feeds the stalks into it.  A bucket catches the juice, usually several times more concentrated than maple sap, which is then poured into a boiler to cook down to a thick, sweet, molasses-like syrup. 

Thomas Philbrick was driving the ox, Ivy was answering questions and hauling the buckets of juice, and Jarrah was feeding stalks.  After a bit I took a turn at driving.  It took a lap or so to get the feel of where to position myself to keep Pollux out far enough to remove the distraction of stepping over those sweet stalks, but then all was good. 

All in all, a great afternoon watching a traditional autumn job. 

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Fill a Thimble

I'm ignorant of many things.  French literature.  Welding.  The secret to making a great Pasta Carbonara, though on that front I've tried often.

Specific to draft animals, horses baffle me.  I ask Duane Westrate lots of pretty basic questions and I drove Tillers horses once, pulling a log.  I lived to tell the tale, so I figure I'm done.

Headyokes for oxen are like that.  I know the idea and I can see the appeal, but you could probably fill a thimble half-full with my expertise in that area.

So, I make no commentary on this video.  I just stood over Dale's shoulder and filmed him re-adjusting his off-ox's straps, while he chatted with Thomas Philbrick at the Ingham County Fair this week.


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

When The Time Comes

Note:  Today's entry comes from longtime MODA member and oxen ambassador Jim Whelan.

Most of you have read or written a story of an ox having to be put down due to age or an illness causing the writer to think and write of the times the drover and the ox had together.  And I can assume that most of the readers are assuming that this is the reason for this blog. Percy and Carter have made a few contributions to the MODA blog but this time the blog is being written by and about their owner Jim Whelan.
No, this blog is not about the demise of Chub, Jerry. Percy or Carter (whew!!!).  It is a few thoughts about me, the ox drover. No, I am not writing this from the hereafter (another whew).  It is about my feelings as I determined that it was my time to retire from ox droving.
I am 76 and my wife is a little younger.  I wanted to think that I was still 36 and attempted to keep a lifestyle that reflected that age.  Unfortunately, my real body looked at it in reality and as time progressed my doctor and specialists visits reflected my real age.  My medicine cabinet kept filling up with drugs I could not pronounce or did not understand what ailment they were supposed to cure or lessen the effects on my body.
As I have most of my life I tried to accomplish tasks that seemed hard or impossible for most.  This was my attitude toward my oxen. It wasn’t long before my brain started catching up with me and kept telling my body “what are you trying to do”.  And I suppose I will always remember the ox drover who told me “it just didn’t seem right for my wife to have to go out in the freezing cold to tend to the ox since I didn’t feel up to doing it”  Some of you will remember the drover I quoted in that sentence, I know I will because the reality of this sentence came back to me.
I should have recognized this two, maybe four years ago but my mind was in denial.  It started slowly but looking back I can see where it became hard to keep up with Percy and Carter and I had to whoa them while my body rested.  The stops kept getting more frequent as time went on. As I look back I honestly believe that Percy and Carter recognized this and took advantage of this weakness whenever possible.  When others would drive them they moved and responded to commands like they used to for me.
I honestly believe God sent me this young man who would be the new owner of all four oxen. He sent him to me at one of our demonstrations.  The young man demonstrated a real interest in oxen and we maintained contact through time. I had visited his farm, met his family and was really impressed by his interest in oxen.
When the time came I asked him if he would be willing to take all four oxen and his immediate answer was “yes”.  He has worked wonders with them and I have watched their performance at one of their festival appearances. I am certain his farm was the place for the oxen.
As I look back I should have recognized my limitations many, many years ago.  It would have been better for the oxen and for me. My advice to all drovers be prepared for “when the time comes” and don’t maintain a tough attitude. This time will inevitably come without any reservations.   I certainly experienced many good times these past years but I regret that Percy and Carter did not have the option of having a capable drover to work them on a regular basis.
DO I MISS THEM??  Hell yes. Almost every morning when I wake up I look out to their pasture and remember them.  Nancy and have sold the farm and are moving to the city in Northwest Indiana closer to family. So starts another phase in our lives.


Saturday, July 28, 2018

Two scoops

Perhaps it's the cynic in me, but I forever question the marketing of Kellogg's Raisin Bran as having "two scoops" of raisins.  Setting aside the idea that these longshoremen are basically quitting their job for an oceanside meal of cereal, the "scoop" is not a defined unit of measurement.  Even as a kid, I figured Kelloggs would downwardly adjust the scoop size when raisin prices rose. 

The slogan popped into my head yesterday when we were cleaning ox pies from the yard and the dry lot where the boys spend much of their time.  I run a hotwire around certain parts of the yard and graze the boys (see: "Cutting the Grass: Part 1").  Although my yard will never be confused with a golf course, oxen-sized droppings are a bit much. 
Waiting patiently for unloading. . .and photos.

Often, I pull a slip scraper to haul dirt or manure.  Very useful as a digging tool, slip scrapers are equally handy being used like a wheelbarrow without the lifitng.  The curved sides hold a load and they "slip" across the grass without digging in.  That's scoop one.

The second scoop is an aluminum scoop shovel.  Why it never occured to me before baffles me, but for years I've picked up pies with a spade or a fork.  But no more.  Scoop #2 works like a charm. 

After the work is done, the boys relax.
When we get to the compost pile to unload, the scoop shovel really shines.  (Metaphorically, of course.  By that point it's well-covered in ox poop!)  It rides the curve of the slip scraper and 7 or 8 scoops later- eat your heart out Kellogs- we're ready for another load. 

Happy scooping. 

Friday, July 20, 2018


"Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." - Lou Gehrig

Yes, it’s a funny little potion, Felix Felicis,” said Slughorn. “Desperately tricky to make, and disastrous to get wrong. However, if brewed correctly, as this has been, you will find that all your endeavors tend to succeed… at least until the effects wear off.”
“Why don’t people drink it all the time, sir?” said Terry Boot eagerly.
“Because if taken in excess, it causes giddiness, recklessness, and dangerous overconfidence,” said Slughorn. “Too much of a good thing, you know… highly toxic in large quantities. But taken sparingly, and very occasionally…”
“Have you ever taken it, sir?” asked Michael Corner with great interest.
“Twice in my life,” said Slughorn. “Once when I was twenty-four, once when I was fifty-seven. Two tablespoonfuls taken with breakfast. Two perfect days.”
He gazed dreamily into the distance. Whether he was playacting or not, thought Harry, the effect was good.  - JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Johnny Carson used to have a a dream that he was flying over Los Angeles after particularly good shows.   As far as I know, my health is fine, so quoting Lou Gehrig's retirement speech might appear strange.  But, it's one of those quotes that swims to the surface when I'm having a good day.   My girls' cross country team qualified for the state finals last fall:  There was Lou.  My son and I climbed the bell towers of Notre Dame and photographed the gargoyles up close: Lou.  

The world of oxen also produces "Lou worthy" days for me, with surprising frequency.  I am (slowly) collecting interviews with teamsters for a book project, and they always make me think of Lou.  A dozen master teamsters or more have gifted me with their time and expertise.  Each time, I feel like I've gotten to witness something special and nothing but dumb luck made it happen.

This week, I fell into yet another Lou day.  Tillers International was hosting the Farming with Horses and Oxen class and I was helping out for a day, mid-week.  While it hasn't rained yet this week, the oppressive heat of Monday shifted to an 80 degree day with blue skies, wispy clouds and low humidity.  A scone and a good cup of coffee (possibly unwittingly spiked with Felix Felicis?) on the way and I arrived before 9:00 AM.  

At this point, I'll just list the Lou moments.  Narrating fully would just be bragging.

- A nice chat with various Tillers' staff as I went looking for the class.

- A visit in the Draft Animal Barn while the horses were harnessed.

- An hour spent Yoking Blue and cultivating the corn while the horses clipped a pasture across the lane.

- A visit with the Wengerd kids, Brian and James, who had ridden up from Pioneer Equipment in Ohio for the day, and were on their way to go fishing in the stream.

- An introduction to Claude, who was there from Cameroon, in Central Africa, to see animal-powered farming with the hope of returning with new ideas for crop production.

- A fencerow visit with Duane Westrate, Elise and Domenico Musumeci while watching the horses work.  

- A smashed hand when the wrench slipped while trying to remove a broken seat from the mower (this is included because the list is starting to sound like an overblown travel brochure and to prove that I didn't take Felix Felicis- an illegal potion in the magical world)

- Lunch

- A couple of hours spent trying out a new set of finger weeders on the Pioneer Homesteader.

- A chance to see Richard Roosenberg driving the oxen while cultivating, always a clinic in an effective, minimalist approach.

- A walk up to the Spring Hill barn with Chris- a student in the class who practices living history near Dayton, Ohio- driving the yearling steers.

- An interview with Elise and Domenico about the Jourdant, a French, vineyard plow they are testing. 

Lucky.  Where have you been lucky with oxen?