Saturday, December 30, 2017

Mr. HilgenWho?

Editors note:  Only a few tangential references to oxen are in this post.  You've been warned.

Mr. Hilgendorf usually marked his tools with his name. The cheap
Japanese saw on the right is mine, but it does work well.
I've been spending a fair bit of time this week with a man I never met, but I still think I know pretty well.

I needed a place to hang my drawknives to get them out of an open tote.  It's not that they want to slice you open, but they are more than willing to if you reach for them, or anything near them.  The hope is that a few pegs on a toolboard next to my tool cabinet will protect the knives and, more importantly, my hide.

This was a quick, little project, sandwiched between other, "real" projects, such as an end table, and a cabinet for oxen supplies (more on that at another time).  But, it gets me in the shop and it's there that I spend time with Mr. Hilgendorf.
Behind the octagonally- handled hammer
is a 5 ounce and a 6 ounce hammer, one with
the hardware store price still on it: $1.69! 

Three summers ago, I spotted an ad on Craigslist for "Tool Cabinet and some hand tools," and when I called, I was told that they were selling their dad's tool cabinet.  His surname was Hilgendorf.

When I arrived to look at it, I found it was a homemade plywood cabinet, pretty nondescript on the outside, but carefully arranged on the inside with hangers for dozens of hand tools and (oh, the joy!) it was still half full of meticulously maintained vintage tools.  When I asked how much they wanted, the couple said it was his dad's (they were in their 70's) and they wanted someone to use the tools, so . . . $65!

Mr. Hilgendorf bought good tools, and
maintained them carefully.
 Even years later, I love going down to the shop to open the cabinet and I marvel at the clever arrangement of the tools Mr. Hilgendorf created.  I've added tools and holders of my own over the years, but more than one spot has remained a mystery to me.  What tool would best fit in this open spot?  How small was his eggbeater drill, that my small one is too big for the holder?  Stuff like that.

But this week, one of his mysteries was solved.

I was hanging up a drawknife on my new rack and it hit me.  I took the knife over to the tool cabinet and it slipped perfectly into the holder Mr. Hilgendorf built into the door, as if it had been waiting for it. He'd even made a blade guard to protect HIS hide.
My drawknife, "back at home" in the
rack that's been waiting for it. (top

How does this relate to oxen?  We don't all have old-timers to lead us through the process of training and working cattle, but we do have access to their old tools, yokes, barns and other "material culture."   We just need to spend enough time examining the old tool marks, wear patterns, and other clues.  Eventually, the Mr. Hilgendorf's of another age start sharing their secrets.  Keep listening.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Santa Has it Easy

We all agree that Christmas gets extra "cool points" for featuring a bearded, draft-animal-using, wool bedecked patron.  So, now that we've gotten that out of the way, it's time to destroy a bit of the Santa Claus myth.

You see, my father-in-law is Santa.


He's also a retired farmer, naturalist, science teacher, and store owner, but now he spends most of the late fall as Father Christmas, and in this role, he speaks with some authority on matters relating to Christmas.

So when my wife says that she was told as a kid that at midnight on Christmas Eve, all the animals in the barn can speak, the word must have come from St. Nick himself.  I've pressed him on this claim myself and he's pretty steadfast.  Animals speak at Midnight on Christmas.

Which leads me to this conclusion:  Santa has it easy.  He simply gives commands to his reindeer in English (or German, or Polish, come to think of it), asks for some feedback from them (in the same language, of course) and they're off to the tops of porches and walls, dashing away and all that.

Some talent, eh?  No wonder he gets away with only getting the big hitch out once a year.

As for the rest of us, there's a little more to it than that.  Our animals don't speak verbally, but they do communicate, and understand, a great deal.  It's up to us to practice our skills at sending the right messages and interpreting the ones we get to get the work done most efficiently.

Either that or head down to the barn tonight at midnight.  Let me know what you find out.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

A bigger boat

In the movie Jaws, the first time Roy Schneider's character spots the shark, he utters the famous line: "we're gonna need a bigger boat," indicating that he feels outmatched by the giant beast.  I feel ya, Roy.

In the past month, Zeus has been hobbled by what is likely a soft tissue injury (sprained ankle or the like) which kept him sequestered from the other two boys.  Then, just when he was feeling good, Brutus had a return of his Colic, which plagues him once or twice a year (see: All's Well that Ends Well in the April / May 2014 Rural Heritage)
For Zeus, my vet was able to come out and examine him at the hitching post.  Zeus wasn't wild about it and wouldn't keep his foot up for much of a trimming, but he tolerated the experience.  
However, both boys required pills or other oral meds.  Having nice, calm animals is a real blessing, but a one-ton animal who'd rather not open up and say "ahhh" is still a handful.  Getting Brutus in his old box stall was easy, but once there, he all but filled it up.  And, he wasn't wild about the balling gun and the large thumb-sized pills.  

I managed to tie Brutus's head up high with two lead ropes and lift his head up to give him all six(!) pills, but it wasn't a smooth process by any stretch.  The first two were the worst.  After that he figured out the routine and went along grudgingly.  

Every time we have a medical issue, it reminds me that a bigger boat would be in order.  It feels like living on borrowed time to have no chute or stocks to put the boys in.  

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Carter Speaks Up

Editor's Note: Jim Whelan's oxen Chub and Jerry- and now Percy and Carter- have independently learned to type and occasionally send guest blog posts to the MODA blog. It seems as if Jim is unaware of this happening. Is the right thing to do to warn him, or should we simply enjoy hearing of their exploits? . . . I guess Jim can fend for himself!
Percy is still sleeping so this is Carter writing this time. Whenever we are at home and bored and not eating Chub gives us lessons on the keyboard. I think I am doing real well so I am trying out my skills this time. I am pretty good with my left toe but my right one does not work too good. Does that mean I am “left toed”?
This summer has been a very busy time. We went to Purdue University to have our feet trimmed early in June. Mr. Jim walked me into this corner and next thing I knew I was laying sideways on this steel table, strapped down and I couldn’t move. When I was finished I got to watch the doctors do the same thing to Percy.
The end of June we went to Tillers in Michigan. We talked about this in our last blog. Our first engagement was at a canal festival in July. They wouldn’t let us ride on the canal boat and Mr. Jim said we were not ready to try to pull the boat on the
canal. That would have been fun.
We were invited to two county fairs in July. We only had a couple of days off between these two fairs. There must have been over a thousand people come to see us at each of these fairs. We were in with a lot of other farm animals. At one fair there was this really mean draft horse housed next to us. He was so big he reached over the pen gate and tried to bite me on the a…. I let him know that I
had horns that could do some real damage. After hitting the side of the pen really hard the horse decided he had better move away. At the other fair we were housed in a brand new barn built specifically for us. We watched as a new calf was born in the barn. We didn’t know that was how we came into the world and never saw this before. Boy, our mothers must have been really sore.
August brought the state fair. Seventeen days is a very long time so Mr. Jim asked Chub and Jerry to come out of retirement for a few days so we
could have a break. They said they had a great time meeting a lot of old friends. A United States senator came to see them and even drove them a short distance. They said that he comes by to see them every year they were there. I think I remember him coming to see us in previous years.
After five days Chub and Jerry told Mr. Jim that the long 12 hour days with three demonstrations a day had wore them out and asked to come home. By this time we were rested so we finished the rest of the fair. We had fun and so many people came by to see us we lost count. We watched a cow get milked twice a day. We never were on our original farm long enough to see that. We worked with the draft horse before and are pretty good friends. Toward the end of the fair we actually did shows with the horse. In September we went to a French and Indian war. Everyone dresses real funny there, even Mr. Jim. Then we finished our year with a farm festival in Ohio. Mrs. Nancy went along and they explained the purpose of oxen twice a day to very interested groups of people.
So now we are back home, we have our own round bales to eat and
there is plenty of water for us. Our summer was lots of fun and we hope we have educated many people about the value of oxen in the history of our country.
To all our ox friends: we hope you and your drovers have a great holiday season.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

In the Dark

At least 150 days a year, I do morning chores in the dark.  To make it to school by 7:15, from
September to May, requires that I am on the road before the sun comes up.  Add in Saturday cross country meets and that means I'm stumbling around in the dark to feed the chickens and oxen. 

I'd been thinking of putting a light somewhere down near the barn to help things a bit.  I have a mercury light (now replaced with an LED) up by the house, but it doesn't shine that far and is on the opposite side of the old granary, so it isn't much help.

The other day, a few days before my birthday, I got home from school in the afternoon and noticed tire tracks leading to the big barn.  This isn't that unusual; My dad often comes over and does jobs around the house - everybody needs a hired man like him, with a salary of $0 and a willingness to be on call at all hours- so I didn't think much of it. 

Later, when getting hay out for the oxen and straw for bedding, I noticed a ladder had been moved, but that still didn't register.  A couple of tools in different spots made no impact either.

However, upon getting ready for bed and shutting the lights off in the house, I glanced out the back window and had a Genesis moment. . ."Let there be light," and there was light:  on the barn, on the oxen, on the ground all around.

"Happy Birthday," was the hired man's response when I made inquiries later. 

Three takeaways:  Get yourself a hired man like mine, use an LED barn light to make chores so much more enjoyable, and don't call on me to investigate your crime scene.  I obviously can't process the evidence.  I remain metaphorically, although thankfully now not physically, in the dark.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Holiday Gift Guide

Santa, with Jem and Scout in 2013.  Jem wasn't wild about those
flowing "Father Christmas" robes.
I've gone Black Friday shopping twice in my life.  The first time was 15 years ago, when Black Friday started on . . .Friday.  I bought a TV and lived to tell the tale, vowing to never go again.

In 2012, I was back at it, with better results.  On the day after Thanksgiving that year, I met Dulcy out at Tillers and we loaded up Brutus and Cassius, who were 6 months old at the time.  (Full disclosure:  we tried to get them loaded, but they'd been running with the herd their whole lives and in the wind wouldn't be persuaded to go into the barn, where they could be loaded.  Dulcy and John Sarge got them in the barn that night and Black Friday became Black Saturday.)
Cassius and Brutus, a month after Black Friday
2012, settled down well.

So if you're like me, shopping doesn't inspire you unless it involves oxen, or oxen 'stuff.'  In no particular order then, here are a few recommendations for stocking stuffers.

As always, the standard disclaimers apply:  I'm not employed by any of the companies mentioned here, don't make a dime from the recommendations, and if I haven't tried it I won't recommend it.  So here we go:

A rasp cuts bale strings like butter, but
leaves fingers alone.
1.  A large wood rasp, or hoof rasp.  The brand doesn't matter and you gain many bonus points for picking up a used one.  Leave it in your barn.  It makes the best string cutter for hay bales, particularly when you have cold fingers.

2.  Chairmaker's Notebook.  See this blog post for a full review, but here's the gist of it:  Yoke making is like making a Windsor chair- from splitting, to carving, to steam bending and finishing- and Peter Galbert is a master teacher.  It's not cheap, but few books on woodworking even come close.

3.  A membership to MODA.  $20 a year and our mission is: To promote the use of oxen to our American youth as well as to those in foreign lands, so that all may be shown their diversity and skills, even in this modern world. We do this to keep our American heritage alive and to educate those who can benefit from our experiences.​  Plus, we'll send you the newsletter.  

4.  Why Cows Need Names.  There are lots of good books on oxen, but you probably own those already.  Randy James' wrote this beautiful little book about being an ag extension agent working with small farmers in Plain communities in Ohio.  It's worth your time.  

5.  A Gift Certificate to Tillers International.  Tillers does as much to promote oxen as arguably anyone in the world, mainly to help small farmers lift themselves out of poverty.  Classes at the learning center in Scotts, MI help pay for some of that help.  And you can learn a new skill, such as blacksmithing, in the process.  

When you're composing your letter to Santa, drop me a line as well.  I'd love to hear what's on your list. . . as long as it's not a TV.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Shouldering a load

I tried the other day, while out at Tillers pulling firewood, to capture a photo of what a nice, tight bow looks like under load.

Often times, when the oxen are pulling a heavy load and they stop, they will simply hold it where it is.  Often times, that is, but not last Saturday.  Just as I got ready to snap the photo, Pollux stepped back a bit. 

What I was trying to capture was the way that the shoulder of the animal passes outside of the bow.  Seeing it once really drives home the point about a yoke that's too small being better than a yoke that's a little too large.  If the yoke is too large, the shoulder bone pushes against the bow and it can be painful for the animal, akin to walking across the floor on your elbows.

Anyway, this fine video by Tim Harrigan explains yoke fit better than I do.  Watch and learn.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Rip the Band-Aid

Too often, the hubris attached to a clever solution gets in the way of identifying the root of the problem itself.  We focus on a "Band Aid" solution to the problem when a better, long-term solution may be lurking.  (With apologies to Johnson and Johnson Corp. for the use of their product name in a pejorative sense.)

Such as it is with my pseudo-clever solution to this tongue-stop problem:  When I bought my forecart, used, from a local harness shop, it had an old tongue on it, which I replaced with a new Pioneer tongue from a local fabrication shop / Pioneer Equipment dealer. (I digress, but as much as I like the "why buy it when you can make it?" philosophy, a $60-odd dollar tongue made from hardwood, fitted with a tongue stop is a bargain.)

Anyway, replacing the old tongue was easy, but doing so made it clear that that maybe the old tongue wasn't so bad after all.  I kept it and used it on the "$100 Ox Cart"- which I still use all the time.  (Since we're forming a pattern here of parenthetical commentary at the end of each paragraph, I will say that the "$100 Ox Cart" is a bit small for my full-sized teams now.  I think that mounting the tongue forward on the cart a bit would fix the problem.  I have yet to do so.  See: this essay you're reading now.)

The real issue with the old tongue is that it came with a tongue stop which is small enough to slip through the big ring on my ox yoke.  None of my other tongues are small like this, and so to avoid the potentially dangerous situation of the cart sliding forward and bumping the team, I've used, for an embarrassingly lengthy period, a nylon dog collar as a safety strap.

It works well-enough and only takes a second or two to attach, but after years of using it, I'm starting to ask myself, "Wouldn't it have just been easier to size-up the tongue stop and be done with it at once?"

Maybe I need to rip off the "Band-Aid Fix" and set things right.  Maybe not.  Ask me again in a couple of years.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Beef Jerky

Last weekend I had Zeus and Cassius tied at the hitching post, waiting to be yoked up.  I generally take their bows out of the yoke and throw them onto their necks before bringing out the beam.  This means, though, that I have to place the pins and spacers on top of each hitching post while I go back in the barn.

The problem is that Zeus is a toddler.  An eight year-old toddler.  An eight year-old, 2000 pound toddler.  He loves to knock the pin and spacers off onto the ground.

Emerging from the barn carrying the beam, I noticed Zeus chewing intently and smacking his tongue.  I immediately scanned the ground and noticed the wooden spacer and, more importantly, the pin on the ground.  Thinking I had that base covered, I set about feeling around in his mouth for a foreign object- no easy task with the chewing going on.  

Two or three failed attempts later, I started to assume that he was in fact chewing his cud and things were fine.  Then I noticed he was clearly working on an object.  

Back into his mouth went my hand, only to return with a well-chewed leather spacer, looking for all the world like black beef jerky.

Either that or Zeus was acting as if he was a 'jerky" beef animal.  You choose.  Either way, keep your eyes on the toddlers and make sure they have a magnet in them.  You never know what they'll pick up.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Edward Scissorhands

In the 1990 film of the same name, Johnny Depp's title character is able to deftly use both hands to accomplish tasks with efficiency.
A pair of brushes atop the hitching post.

In working cattle, a critical-but-routine task is to brush the animals at the hitching post.  The animals are calmed by the act of brushing, they appreciate the routine, and they are much easier to catch and halter when they know the hitching post will have a pleasant activity to start.

Side note:  Animals that run off due to fear often run to the hitching post.  In the classical conditioning language of psychologists, the neutral stimulus of a hitching post has come to be associated with the pleasant unconditioned stimulus of brushing.  When animals are trailered to a location and yoked at the trailer, it takes on that same "magical" quality for the animals as a safe haven.

Anyway, to speed up the brushing, I often use a pair of brushes, one in each hand.  That way, I can cover twice as much coat at once.  With a full-grown ox, they seem to have about an acre of coat that needs brushing.  The animals like the extra attention and it speeds us along. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Not Exactly NASCAR

Without much time to work oxen these days, necessity has helped birth efficiency.  One of the time savers I tried the other day may just make its way into the "normal" work routine:  the pit-stop nigh ox swap.

Having three oxen means I try to get all three in a yoke whenever they are out so they all stay as sharp as I can keep them (see: the aforementioned lack of time).  Cassius is the best off-ox, so he usually works a shift with both Brutus and Zeus.

Making the switch used to involve unyoking Cassius in most cases.  But the last few times we've switched, I've just dropped the nigh side of the yoke on the ground while I swap Brutus and Zeus from the "other" hitching post (just a fence post where one animal is tied while waiting to work).  Then I just walk Brutus up and have him step under the yoke while I lift it.

Two or three times of this and he seems to have the routine down.  And I just saved a couple minutes, plus the effort of lifting the yoke twice.

It's not a NASCAR pit stop, but it'll do.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

How's your Team?

When I see folks in the fall, they often ask, "How's your team?"

It's important to remember how I know them so I can answer correctly based on the question they're asking.  If they're oxen people I have to, sheepishly, tell them that they're not getting much work these days.  If they're folks from the Centreville community, we talk cross country and I tell them about that team.

This fall is my 20th season coaching runners in the same school (Centreville High School in St. Joseph County, MI) and as happens every fall, the days aren't long enough to manage getting teaching, coaching, a little housework, homework, family time, church choir, AND oxen driving.

But that's the nice thing about oxen.  They remember.  They stay relatively calm without daily work.

All three of the boys get handled every day with feedings and in moving from pasture to dry lot, etc., so they stay pretty sharp, if not really ready for hard work.

Yesterday, on my first day without something scheduled in September (the 30th!), I managed to have the oxen out for about 3 hours.  We spent most of our time moving equipment around the yard to make lawn mowing easier.

Zeus and Cassius went first and they were well-behaved-if-not-exactly-willing.  Then I swapped out Zeus for Brutus in the nigh position and we worked for about 45 minutes without me having to say anything to them, with one exception, but that's a tale for another time.

How's your team?

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.

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.