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?

Friday, July 13, 2018

Prisons of our Own Making

We all intuitively understand the rules. Posts about engagements and babies will receive ravenous applause. News about a grandparent passing away will elicit virtual hugs. But fears about not making rent, marital tensions, hesitations about becoming a parent? Those are verboten. - Shankar Vedantem, Hidden Brain Podcast

We're not officially in a drought, the weather people tell us, but we're getting along the path to one.  With the forecast saying it might rain early next week, it seemed a good time to make hay.  

Tuesday, my dad cut the pasture with his John Deere B and No. 5 sickle bar mower.  By Wednesday night, the leaves were already falling off the alfalfa due to the dryness.  Baling it would probably make it worse, so Thursday afternoon, I got Zeus and Cassius out to bring it in loose on a wagon.

Lately, they've been developing a bad habit of trying to graze in the yoke.  So I made the decision to put their nose baskets on.  

Wait a minute. . .nose baskets??  

Aren't I supposed to be some kind of expert?  Don't well-trained teams not need nose-baskets?  Isn't it all about training. Haven't I written before about not needing nose baskets? Am I just some poser?

Well, maybe.  Sure. Again, sure. Yes.  And, of course I am.

The social media age has encouraged all of us to compare our lives with everyone else's.  Posting carefully curated images (like the ones accompanying this post!) helps us keep up with the virtual Joneses and their well-trained animals, clean equipment, and idyllic farms.  It's given us all the ability to live under our own bridge and wait for the next victim to come clip-clopping over, if we'd like.

If we can really provide any service with this blog, hopefully, it's to show that a million little failures are needed along the way.  Oxen are great, but the road can be bumpy.

So, yeah, I'm a poser.  The boys needed nose baskets.  I'll try to get their manners straightened out.

But for the time being, the hay is in the barn, and we had a nice afternoon.  Honest.  

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Kerf's Up!

"I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. ”
- Michelangelo

Having previously established that carving large yokes is not fun, we next move on to Michelangelo.  Of course, we should agree that his quote is a bit fudged- using English idioms to make a point- but carving a yoke is largely similar to carving a pieta: get rid of what doesn't belong.

I favor band-sawing yokes when practical.  Although hardly traditional, the band saw gets you closer to a finished yoke faster than any other method.  Last fall, Kesi-Mardana Dasa and I worked on a 7-inch yoke and went from a blank to a nearly-finished yoke in just a few hours.

But that was a 7-inch yoke.

The current project is an 11-inch elm yoke.  Tillers' 18-inch Powermatic band saw has the power to cut the workpiece without much struggle, but maneuvering a 100 lb. timber up onto the saw and then guiding it compares to bringing the mountain to Mohammad.

John Sarge describes the process as being straightforward as long as you have one or two helpers:  One person acts as the sawyer- guiding the cut- while the other(s) supports the piece and moves with it, but doesn't steer it.  If they do, it's easy to pinch, then break, the saw blade.

How then to remove a lot of material quickly, once we've gotten the general shape for the neck seats chopped out with chainsaw, adze and broadax (see link above)?

A circular saw, set to varying depths along the length of the belly of the yoke, will waste out a lot of material in a relative hurry.  If you're careful to make the saw kerfs closely spaced (about a half-inch apart), much of the material can be broken out with a mallet, with the rest needing some chisel work.
Apply equal parts club and chisel.
The surface isn't terribly smooth once this step is done, resembling the surface of the Death Star, but we're that much closer to "freeing the angel," and are ready to move onto the next tool in the process.
That's no moon.  It's a space station. . .

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Dirty Secret of Big Yokes

Pssst, here's a little secret about yoke building:  It's a necessary evil.  Oh sure, you can buy yokes, but for the most part, a teamster needs to make some yokes.  Yet, making them is no fun.

Carving one yoke isn't bad.  I'm jealous of the students in Oxen Basics each year.  As beginners, they get to build a 5" or 6" yoke.  Once, an intern at Tillers even made a 3.5" yoke for her Dexter heifers (It looked like a yoke for the wall of a doll house.)  Those can be fun to make- at least once.

Training yokes are small.  They can be carved with hand tools in a few hours, but more importantly, you can pick up the blank as you work and turn it around to get a better angle on things.

Plus, that first yoke feels like a project.  You start. . . you finish.  After that, though, each yoke just feels like "the next one."  And as they get bigger, moving and turning yoke blanks resembles helping your college friends move a couch up a flight of stairs.

Carving a big yoke- say, a 10" or 11"- requires removing a lot of material.  If it doesn't look like a yoke, it's got to go.

I have an 11" Elm blank I'm working on.  I started it last year (2017) in Oxen Basics with drilling the bow holes.  Using a timber boring machine, Tom Nehil and I each drilled 2 holes.  My shoulders were plenty sore from that, and helping with 6 students building yokes that week, that was as far as I got.

Tom Nehil making the Elm chips fly.
This year, I used a chainsaw to cut relief cuts in the blank with the idea of eventually bandsawing it out.

Ed Nelson changed this process when he brought out a few hand adzes he'd made.  Tom and I then spent some time chopping away with the various adzes.  Then, Tom brought in a small broadaxe he rehandled and we chopped a little more.

By the end of the week, the blank had a decidedly "yoke-like" shape and I took it home to continue the process.  Stay tuned for more chip-making, along with a suggestion or two for speeding up the drudgery.