Sunday, March 26, 2017

Rites of Spring: 2

It's been a week since the Ox Driving Class at Tillers with nary a follow-up post about how it went, so here's a short video showing the Sunday afternoon portion of the class.  The skies cleared, the wind died down and Castor and Pollux were more than willing to walk the furrow.  All in all, a good day.  Tom Nehil, a Tillers Board member, is refining his driving quite well, and he spent a number of rounds bringing the field closer and closer to arrow-straight.  It was fun to see the progress of everyone.

Carter Learns to Type


Hi – my name is Carter and I am the off ox of the team of Percy and Carter. That is our picture pulling the hay machine at the top of the blog. I believe that is your editor Rob working us and that is our owner Mr. Jim on the forecart holding on for dear life. (Editor's note: It's Tim Harrigan driving the boys) We live on Promised Land Farm in Central Indiana along with two other retired oxen, named Chub and Jerry. Oh yes, we allow our owners Jim and Nancy Whelan to share the farm with us. I am the only one of the two of us that has mastered how to use this keyboard. Chub and Jerry have their own Facebook page (Chub and Jerry Oxen) so they are really good at it. Jerry said it was our time to learn how to do it.

This is Chub and Jerry, our mentors and previous ambassadors. They have been retired for almost three years now. They have been to events in at least three states. They have met at least three Indiana Governors (including our current U.S. Vice President) and a U.S. Senator who comes back every year and asks to see the oxen. Two former Indiana First Ladies came by to see them and they took pictures with them. We got to meet the Senator this year as part of our presentation. They have been part of the Indiana State Fair in the Pioneer Village, demonstrating the value of oxen to early pioneers and farmers so long that children and families came back year after year to see them. Thousands of pictures have been taken of them with families and these will be passed on for generations. One picture of them in yoke with Mr. Jim driving was voted the picture of the week by the Indianapolis Star.

Now it is up to us. Last year we took their part and we realized it is a big responsibility to follow. We went to all of the events they participated in, including two county fairs, a French and Indian war reenactment, an Ohio Farm Fest and a special appearance at an Indianapolis museum on a western day. Heck, we were more popular than the Wells Fargo stagecoach pulled by four BIG horses. This picture is when we met the U.S. Senator the first time (our debut at the State Fair). Mr. Wade Johnson has been driving us at the fair. (Jim's Note: Percy and Carter it appears you are more interested in the lovely young lady than the senator. I have some training to do). In our future blogs we hope to tell you all about our adventures both at home and on the road. We thought we would talk about our escape habits but Miss Nancy edited that part (even though it was so much fun).  Thanks for reading and happy trails to you.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Rites of Spring

Domenico wants to tend a vineyard with oxen.   
Nearly every March for the last 10 years, I've been a part of the Ox Driving class at Tillers International.

First, I took the class with Dulcy Perkins and Rob Burdick teaching it.  Next, I helped out a little bit while my daughter, Justice, took it for her 10th birthday, just prior to getting our first team.  Over time, I've taken on more of a teaching role, but I still believe that I learn more than I impart in the class.

Yesterday, after getting acquainted with everybody, we headed out into the cool, damp air to spend the morning driving oxen without a load.  All of the students did quite well and made great progress, particularly Elise and Domenico, Tillers' interns for the season.  Nancy, from Wisconsin, learned a lot about body position with Castor and Pollux, while Ivy worked with Susan, Mary-Margaret, and Tom Nehil using Buck and Charlie, Tillers' youngest team, getting them to perform the basic commands well with just a few turns at the crop.

After a wonderful lunch and a quick discussion of yoke dynamics to wait out the drizzle, we pulled carts and stoneboats and even managed to weave through some stakes in the ground with great success.  Generally, by the end of the first day, people are overloaded with new skills and they need a break.  A good night's sleep consolidates the new learning and they start the 2nd day with better skills than they left with on day 1.

And what did I learn?  A couple of things:  1.  I really love pondering the craft and looking for a better way to describe what the animals need.  2. I really love teaching new people.  That moment where they can't being replaced by the one where they can is magic.  3.  Oxen are cool (ok, I knew that already)  4.  Walking a straight line may be a secret to success.  More on that later.

We'll be back at it at 9:00 today.  Stay tuned.

Friday, March 17, 2017

West Coast Oxen

The story here, published in the North Coast Journal, briefly biographies of our fellow drover Kevin Cunningham and his Jersey / Holstein-cross oxen.  Kevin had never seen a living team of oxen before he started, trained, and used his team on his organic CSA and vegetable farm in Northern California.

A couple of months ago, I interviewed Kevin.  A portion of that interview will run here sometime when life slows down and I complete the transcription.  Until then, enjoy this photo and the link to the article.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Epizootic 1872

The story in the Indianapolis Star here defines the term "epizootic," basically a pandemic or epidemic outside of the human species, and explains how, in 1872, Indianapolis had to return to using mostly oxen to pull wagons due to an outbreak of a horse flu.  

Also, the story here  in an Illinois newspaper details how oxen were used in large teams to break the prairie.

In both cases, the writers compare when oxen were used vs. when horses were used.  As in most things, one is not always superior, but oxen prove useful in contexts where steady power and disease resistance matter.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Oxen Vs. Horses

Recently, the Record-Bee Newspaper in California published this story comparing Oxen and Horses as they were used in heading to Lake County California in the 1800's.  A companion article here fills in more of the tale.  Taken together, they give a look at Oxen on the westward trail from the primary source perspective.
An excerpt from the article, and the books it's taken from,  is below:
Photo from Ed Nelson's Postcard Collection

“The natures of horses and oxen were entirely different from one another. Unlike horses, if a load did not move easily, oxen did not buck, balk, plunge, rear up or panic.
“I’ve met some bulls and cows I suspect were as smart as some horses. I’d like to think oxen do not panic or buck when it came to being between a rock and a hard place, because they have seen more of the vicissitudes and hardships of life. The nature of their work and the demands made upon them may have given them a better outlook and a calmer outlook.”

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Keep Looking

In talking with John Sarge at Tillers the other day, he remarked that there still isn't a lot of oxen footage available online.  While he was speaking particularly about instructional footage, the sentiment also applies more generally.  When we started this blog, one of the goals was to help aggregate some of the footage that does exist in order to foster easier access to it.

This short PBS film features Dave Schrupp, a former MODA member at work in Wisconsin, hauling logs.  His boys seem willing and able to skid the logs.  While not an instructional film in any sense, it's often helpful to see lots of different drovers at work to internalize some of what they are doing, such as his technique of driving from the front.  

Monday, March 6, 2017

A Fun Winter Walk with the Oxen

 While visiting my daughter Abby we hitched the oxen up for a walk in the woods. Bjorn watches from the warmth of the shed while his mom hitches 18 month old Brown Swiss Felix and Max.

Will Rogers once said: "The best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse." I think the same holds true for oxen.
 Starting out we had to battle the wind and blowing snow
 The scenery was beautiful and the woods blocked the wind making it quite comfortable.
 Bjorn hitched a ride, sitting safely on the back with his feet to the outside.

Felix and Max are the perfect team to have around children. They are quiet and willing.  
 Abby and her team.
 The calves can resist knocking the snow off the close branches.
 The calves don't mind a passenger.

On the home stretch. 
You don't need to do anything fancy to keep your team in shape. Going for a walk and getting them out is good exercise for everyone.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Ride Lots

The greatest cyclist of all time, Belgian Eddy Merckx, reportedly once quipped to a reporter who asked how to be a great cyclist: "ride lots."  The advice applies to driving oxen as well.  

I don't ride oxen, but when I start stringing days of driving together, good things happen.  The animals settle down and work.  This video shows Brutus and Cassius dragging a railroad tie last week.  After 4 straight days of driving in the warm, February weather, they were walking slowly, generally together, and at a voice command.  

Day 1 wasn't that good, Day 2 was better, Day 3 was not exactly automatic, but pretty close, and Day 4 was like butter.  We were on a roll.

The idea is empowering when you think about it.  Mistakes in a team can all be remedied by more driving.  If more driving doesn't fix it, add more driving.  And so on.  Happy driving.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

One at a Time

Given that the average oxen enthusiast is a relatively peaceful person, don't automatically assume we won't throw down over the best way to do something.
How To Yoke Oxen from Hundred Year Films on Vimeo.

Discussing proper yoking methods may lead to -shall we say- "spirited discussion."  Within that area, most of us have one way to do it: the best way.

Seriously though, having a regular yoking procedure makes a lot of sense.  The animals like predictability and keeping a routine comforts them.

In this well-shot video, Rob Flory of Howell Farm in NJ show how he uses one tie rope and a short chain to yoke without as much heavy lifting.  This isn't how I do it, but it's clever and useful nonetheless.  He even acknowledges that he doesn't yoke all teams this way, but for these boys it works.  Turns out "the best way" varies by operator.  Go figure.

Trailering and Traveling

I’d like to admonish us all to be careful and responsible when transporting our cattle to the Gathering, fairs, and events.  Much of the advice below comes from real authority--meaning I learned it the hard way!
 Vaccinations, Health Certificates Any cattle that are shipped and that are going to be around other cattle should be vaccinated for BVR (shipping fever) and other diseases common to your region.  Consult your veterinarian.  Vaccinate far enough in advance so immunity is established before your trip.  I’m in Ohio and I use Elite 9 or Triangle 9 and my oxen get annual boosters.  Most states require rabies vaccination.  Get a health certificate from your vet if you are taking them to any event with other cattle.  Do not cross state lines without proper required documentation., including ID on the animal such as ear tag or tattoo. Clear up any ringworm (which is a fungus), lice, mange, other parasites before taking cattle off the farm.  Take them off grass and feed hay for a couple days before transporting to avoid sloppy manure.

Truck and Trailer Be sure your truck’s transmission is heavy duty enough to haul your trailer and team.  One new oxen owner, now newsletter editor, learned this the hard  and expensive way on her first trip to a MODA Gathering!  A truck transmission was my burnt offering tothe  ox events gods.
Check your truck and trailer before heading out.  Check tire air pressure--remember to check the spare too-- and fluid levels. Test trailer brakes at start of each trip.  Pack those trailer axles with grease annually (another lesson burned into my memory on a later trip to a MODA Gathering!) Check trailer lights before leaving home.  Have a spare tire. Bring some emergency items such as a knife, first aid supplies, have a bucket and water. Have an extra lead or rope halter.

Always check that trailer doors are securely closed, before departure.  Check your hitch and safety chains.

Insurance   Take insurance info with you, for truck, trailer, and cattle.

Cattle Comfort If you need to tie cattle in the trailer to prevent fights,  learn to tie a safety (quick release) knot.  Don’t leave the tether so long they can get a leg hung up over it, or so short they can’t get up if they slip.  Kendy Sawyer uses a system of slipping a lead through an eye bolt and weighting the end with a weight, such as a half gallon jug of water, so the cattle and stand up or lie down without slack in the lead.  Many cattle prefer to ride facing backwards.  I put one of mine facing forward and the other backward so they aren’t clacking horns.  Take them off grass and feed hay for a couple days before transporting to avoid sloppy manure.   Check trailer interior for bolt ends, sharp protrusions, or loose flapping wires or ropes, or unsecured cargo, that could injure cattle.  Be sure there are no weak or rotten floorboards or rotten floor supports.  As member Rick Lunceford said, he doesn’t want any “oxidents” on a trip, so he reinforced the floor with plywood which also helps to distribute the weight more evenly.   I’ve heard that trailer floors with boards running from front to back are “better” than boards running side to side, because an animal standing inside will likely have both front and/or both rear legs upon one side-to-side board, which is a lot of stress.  My trailer is side-to-side but I check it often, and I put rubber mats over when using it to spread the weight a bit.  Manure and urine-wet floors can be quite slick, so grit or sand or enough bedding to give hooves a grip is advised.

I always stop at a safe turnoff after about twenty minutes, to check that the cattle are OK, that trailers hubs are not hot, that brakes aren't smoking, etc.  Last year we did a safety check 45 minutes into the trip and found a trailer tire just ready to blow out.  Thank God we were at a rest area and could get a new tire put on.

Biosecurity You may want to take measures to minimize your cattle’s exposure to diseases from other cattle at events and to prevent bringing home diseases on your tires or boots.  If you have other cattle, quarantine your oxen for a time after returning home.

These points probably seem obvious to experienced folks, but may be entirely new to someone just starting.  I remember my first year, when, as if learning to keep and train calves wasn’t challenging enough, I had to find out about all these issues, too. Think ahead, think through, prepare, and have a checklist so you can enjoy your trip with your oxen and be safe.      —Vicki Solomon