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.