NO QUICK OATS:
Heavy horses return to Bonnie Doon
There are quicker ways to harvest oats, but there is no mistaking the pride felt by all involved at the recent harvest out of Bonnie Doon, which saw two teams of horses cut a hectare of oats in preparation for chaff. Pictured is Ash Swan gently driving his team.
THEY were waiting at the stable door, their soft ears pricked forward.
Outside, the sun was just beginning to rise – sunshine creeping beneath the shed door as the anxious horses began to shift and whinny.
Felisity, Doc, Baby Rain and Young Nick – all of them keen to get outside and do what they do best: work.
Hitched to an ancient Sunshine Reaper and Binder, the team methodically stripped a hectare of oats.
Coats gleaming, heads bent low as they braced into the collar – pulling slowly through the paddock.
Truth be told, it wasn’t quite as romantic as described.
There are no softly creaking stable doors, or
But what there most certainly was, was work – and lots of it.
Last month, two teams of heavy horses helped strip a paddock of oats planted near Bonnie Doon.
The property is owned by Vicki and Bill Higgins, and the oat harvest is an annual event.
Ash Swan travels up from Melbourne with his horses to lend a hand, and neighbours and friends all join in – helping when they can, watching when they can’t.
“We grow it purely so we can cut it with the horses,” Bill explained.
“We stook it, then when it’s dry gather it up and make chaff for them to eat.”
The job would take one man half a day in a tractor – but on the Higgins farm it takes four people, two teams of horses and the better part of two days. Which begs the question, why bother? “We’re all mad,” Bill laughed. “Why would you do it like us, when you can just go and buy the chaff down at the feed store?”
The reason is far more complex than liking horses.
As Bill tries to explain, it’s about taking pride in what you do, sweating under the sun alongside the teams and turning behind to see what you have achieved.
a better end product.
But if there’s no team work required – no horses, no friends, no hot cups of tea after – then Bill isn’t interested.
“Nowadays people just see the hard work – but this is an art, and it’s an art that will be lost.
“We can’t forget this is where we came from, and this is how we shaped our nation.”
Oats are the crop of choice for this type of work, as long stemmed varieties are still available – modern crops have been engineered to cut with a horse drawn implement.
A set of rotating paddles holds the crop against the cutters as the horses slowly make their way along the line, as the cut stems fall onto a section of canvas which conveys oats to the binding mechanism.
This mechanism bundles the stems of grain together and ties a piece of twine around the bundle, where it is then spat out the side.
During the harvest at least two people walk behind the horses, grabbing the sheaves and “shocking” them into stooks – small upright bundles.
These stooks are left for several weeks to dry, before they are collected and processed into chaff.
“I’ve been saying for a few years now that we wouldn’t do it again, it would be our last year,” Bill said.
“But each year we plant it, and each year we bring in the horses.”
At 70 years old, no one would blame Bill for giving in to modern technology.
But it is not about the power found underneath the hood that interests Bill, it’s all about the power found under the hoof.
With another season done and dusted, the horses are now put away; waiting to be called upon for a Sunday drive along the road. And will they be called in to harvest in 2020? Bill says no, he is too old now. But then, just before saying good bye, he adds, “oh, we might have one more go I suppose”.
“There’s no harm in that,” he said.
ON THE FARM: Each year, Vicki and Bill Higgins harvest their oats using horses and an old Sunshine Reaper and Binder. They are pictured with a helper, who came along last year to help out.