Monday, February 27, 2017

In That Moment

Dulcy Perkins and Rob Collins talking oxen.
Both in interviewing drovers and teaching students, Dulcy Perkins' name comes up often. Dulcy taught me to drive oxen and -truth be told- the first time I ever remember seeing a team working in the field, Dulcy was driving them. (see Wading Out. . .) I knew at that moment that I would own a team.

Here's a brief excerpt of an interview I did with Dulcy in 2015. The complete interview appeared in Rural Heritage magazine.

RC:  What’s the best team you ever drove? Well, your “favorite team” to drive, because I’m guessing that your favorite team wasn’t the best behaved or the best trained or anything like that. (note:  Dulcy is somewhat legendary among ox drovers for her ability to make progress with especially difficult teams or to apply incredible empathy for oxen and in so doing, achieve a positive outcome in challenging situations)

DP: Traveller and Grant -a team of Dutch Belteds that Tillers used a few years ago -were really nice, but they didn’t like to be micromanaged.  You could do anything with them.  So, they were a nice team.  And Lewis and Clark (Tillers first team of Milking Shorthorns) were really good because they kind of drove themselves.  I don’t know, they all. . . probably the only team I really didn’t like driving were the little Brown Swiss team (note: a pair of calves that were trained in the Oxen Basics class at Tillers. They were a little stubborn about moving if memory serves correctly)   

Especially the calves are always fun to drive.  But in terms of just being able to drive animals and not say anything and just be able to do your work. . . I guess not all oxen are always in that moment.

RC:  If someone wants to learn to drive cattle, what’s the best “non-traditional” source of help?  I mean, everybody says to get the Drew Conroy Book, get the Ray Ludwig book (respectively, Oxen: a Teamsters Guide and The Pride and Joy of Working Cattle), take a Tillers class. . .

DP: Temple Grandin I would say, because of her cattle handling.   There are a few others in that same vein that talk about handing groups of cattle, or wild cattle, or something like that.  (pauses)  There’s not a lot of formal things written.

RC:  What was your best day of driving oxen?

DP:  Umm. . . So, I’m a little worried about getting struck by lightning, probably because of where I’m from.  We were up at the spring house by the Spring Hill Barn doing a stone masonry class and we had Tug and Suni up there which - I don’t think they were a team you met- they were a team I trained and I trained them to ride and stuff.  And, we were hauling rocks with the stoneboat and pretty soon here comes this storm almost right on top of us.

So I undo the stoneboat - and I had also trained them to run- and we, I jogged, and they galloped all the way down here. (Note:  The distance is somewhere between a quarter and a half mile between the Spring Hill Barn and the hitching post)   And when I stopped, they stopped and we walked to the hitching post.  That was kind of nice to be able to do that.

RC:  What job that the oxen do here do you think is the best suited for oxen?  Is there an implement they pull, or is there a task where that seems like the perfect match?

DP:  The slip scraper is nice.  We don’t use it that often, but digging into a heavy load, no pun intended, then all of the sudden that load is gone.  They seem to do really well with that and they can turn tightly.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Wading Out vs. Falling In

Some folks grow up around oxen, never knowing anything but.  The rest of us had that moment: we saw oxen working and just knew.

Like walking out into deep water at a beach, lots of drovers slowly immersed themselves into oxen over time, gradually.  A few of us toppled in like tripping off the deck of a ship.  That's me.  

Years ago, I took a National Endowment for the Humanities summer class for teachers:  The American Farm in U.S. History, which was hosted at Tillers International.  On the third afternoon, we broke out into sessions, one of which was grain harvesting.  After using the sickle, scythe, cradle scythe -and before the horses pulled the binder (the video here is later, but does show Duane Westrate pulling Tillers' binder)- Dulcy drove Marco and Polo, pulling a McCormick-Deering reaper.  

I was fortunate enough to have my camera going at that exact moment.  The video at the top captures it.  

The power, the docility, the connection to a huge, horned animal, oxen had it all.  Before I left from the week, I bought a copy of Ray Ludwig's Pride and Joy of Working Cattle, and I started thinking about getting a team.  

What's your moment?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Reality TV Worth Watching

A few weeks ago, I interviewed New England ox logger and professional forester Tom Jenkins (and California farmer Kevin Cunningham also) using a video chat.  While it was great to see them and talk oxen, actually working next to them would be an ideal way to glimpse into their worlds.
Well, the next best thing may be this program, produced by Sudbury TV and shot at the Sterling Land Trust.  (follow the link to watch the whole  22-minute program.)
The Old Fasioned Way: Beasts and Boards is well-shot and doesn't feel rushed, giving time to see both Tom's Shorthorn-Holstein cross oxen and a steady team of horses working in a variety of settings in the woods.
The video may not be the same as logging next to an expert like Tom, but it's close, helpfully showing how easily and readily a team can maneuver over a log before hitching to it.
Tom also shows how using logging tongs in combination with his arch makes for a secure way to hoist a log, with each tool needing the other to operate efficiently.
Watch it for enjoyment, watch it for a learning opportunity, watch it to support ox-related content in the media:  whatever the reason, you'll be glad to invest the 22 minutes in this program.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Feb: T-shirt and sunscreen

Ryan DeRamus from Tillers drives Castor and Pollux.
A year ago this weekend, I helped out with Draft Animal Logging Class at Tillers and the temperature never got to 5 degrees (F).  In the woods with no wind, it wasn't unpleasant, but that's still pretty cold.

This weekend, my school took Friday off for mid-winter break.  The weather forecast called for 50's and 60's!  A little ox work seemed in order.

Friday, I headed out to Tillers to give Blue, Castor, and Pollux a tune-up ahead of next weekend's logging class.  All three were perfect gentlemen and willing, if not exactly eager, to pull a slipscraper and a log.
Zeus insisted on a selfie.

Then it was home to do a little work with my own oxen.  By mid-afternoon, the temperature was above 60 and Brutus was panting just getting yoked, so we did little more than driving practice.

Saturday AM saw us out spreading compost on the hayfield.  Our spreader is a bit large for out-of-shape oxen in the "heat of February," so Zeus made a few trips with a slip scraper and Brutus and Cassius used a cart; We were delivering compost to the field corners that the spreader will miss, so the inefficiency in our delivery wasn't too worrisome.

Cart work for manure.  Having the removable
back on the cart is handy for raking it clean.
With more and frequent extreme fluctuations in our seasons, I may have to keep the sunscreen handy in February.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Vertical Evener

Horse eveners are designed to balance a load among multiple animals.  With oxen, the yoke acts in the same way:  an animal walking more forward of his teammate has more of the load and they generally, although not always, work to balance the load.  However, if more than one yoke of oxen is hitched to the same load using one long chain, all bets are off.  If the team in front is pulling more than its share of the load, the back team's yoke is pulled forward, the fit is compromised and any potential advantage goes away.

With that in mind, Tillers International designed a vertical evener for hitching multiple yokes together.  Hard to explain, but easy to see in application, the video here shows the evener in use.  (stop the video about 0:14 into it and advance it slowly and you'll see what I mean)  The front team (Hershel and Walker) have more load to begin with and then the back team (Castor and Pollux) begins sharing the load.  To see which team has more load, just look for which way the evener is "leaning."  

Truth be told, this post is more to make sure that I have a reference for hitching using the vertical evener.  Having hooked it in the wrong orientation once, having a handy place to see it done correctly is useful.  It if helps someone else, too?  Well, that's just gravy.  

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Living History with Oxen

Talking Oxen on the Porch
Lisa Carpenter, former Ox Drover at Colonial Williamsburg and now at Historic Brattonsville in SC sat down with me last summer on the porch of the Blacksmith's shop at Tillers International in Scotts, MI to talk oxen. A brief excerpt of our conversation is below:

RC:  What is written that acts as the History of Oxen in America or what are your main sources at Williamsburg to know how people worked cattle?

LC:  The history of oxen in America hasn’t been written.  You know, the only book that comes to mind is Drew Conroy’s book.  (Note:  Oxen, A Teamster’s Guide)  He has some historical stuff in there, but a lot of the history is oral tradition.  At Williamsburg, we would look a lot at probate inventories.  And those tell you numbers. I mean, how many oxen were on a particular farm. . . equipment.  And they can tell a lot of the story.  There’s some ‘documentary references’ to oxen in diaries or letters.  I think it’s just waiting for the right person finding the time to pull all of that information together.  

At Williamsburg, we would look at images a lot, drawings, paintings.  That’s part of how we know what we know.  But again, a lot of this is oral tradition and little bits you get from here and there that you try to synthesize.  

RC:  Is there some documentary source for- Drew Conroy’s book is kind of like the “Oxen for Dummies” in modern America, but is there some historic primary source that would explain how a child would have trained a team of oxen?
Lisa works her Devon steers at Brattonsville. (photo by Kendy Sawyer)

LC:  Nothing really comes to mind specifically, but some of the guys in New England who mentored me would point to things like Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder because it was written by someone who had some firsthand knowledge of working steers and oxen.

Are you familiar with - The Bullock Driver’s Handbook written by an Australian, Arthur Cannon is his name?  I just think that book is so interesting because it was written by someone who worked cattle for a living so it’s just a completely different perspective.  Not from the show world, but from a working perspective.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Facebook users: check out the group "All Things Oxen."  With 4,200 members from all over the country and the world, it's a great place to find answers to questions, connect with drovers, and see lots of sharp teams.  Of course, also check out the Facebook page for MODA as well (Midwest Ox Drovers Association), and as long as you're logged in, be sure to follow Tillers International.  

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Half your Hay. . .

There's a proverb that says, "Half your wood and half your hay, you should still have on Candlemas Day."  While many variations of this saying exist, the basic truth remains:  Early February marks the midpoint of hay feeding season in much of the upper Midwest.  200 days without grazing makes for a long stretch.  For myself, having three adult oxen on the farm means the hay doesn't last long.  Zeus is a 7 year-old Dutch Belted (his mate, Hermes, died suddenly when they were 3) and Brutus and Cassius are 4 year-old Shorthorns.  Each weighs around a ton, so they eat about 50 lbs. of hay per day.  They'd eat more, but I feed twice daily- mainly because I like the routine of regular interaction for all of us.    Sometimes I feed square bales, sometimes round bales, although if I feed rounds, then I store them in the barn and peel them and feed them each day.  It wastes less hay, and keeps them at a semi-portly state rather than a morbidly obese one.