Ox fan Kevin Cun­ning­ham, a farmer from Hum­boldt County in Cal­i­for­nia, re­veals how he uses three teams on his hold­ing for myr­iad tasks rang­ing from plough­ing and log­ging to gar­den­ing

Country Smallholding - - Feature -

I first got oxen al­most nine years ago just af­ter buy­ing the prop­erty that has be­come Shake­fork Com­mu­nity Farm. I was trained as a trac­tor farmer, but I never liked them. I loved turn­ing the soil and cul­ti­vat­ing crops, but I didn’t like the diesel, hy­draulic fluid and grease, so when my wife, Melanie, and I ar­rived at the farm I re­searched draft horses and dreamed. One day in town I came across Drew Con­roy’s book Oxen: A Team­sters Guide, one of the few books about the use and train­ing of oxen avail­able.

There is a strong and on­go­ing ox cul­ture in the North­east United States and Drew grew up rais­ing and show­ing oxen. I re­alised that start­ing with oxen was go­ing to be cheaper and eas­ier than start­ing with draft horses.

In the end we traded four frozen broiler chick­ens from a broiler busi­ness we ran for four young bull calves. The idea was that I was go­ing to raise the calves on our goats’ milk and work with them on hal­ters. I quickly fell in love with them. They wouldn’t earn the ti­tle of oxen for an­other four years un­til they were full grown, but my work­ing steers Tex and Joe learned quickly and so did I.

Af­ter a few months it was time to try them in a yoke, so I found a square piece of lum­ber and used my chain­saw to carve out a small train­ing yoke. This is one of the things I like most about oxen. I can make al­most all of the equip­ment I need. By the time I put the yoke on they were used to the ba­sic com­mands and were walk­ing well in hal­ters.

Af­ter Tex and Joe were used to the yoke, it was time to start pulling some­thing light. There is a hitch point in the mid­dle of the yoke to which you can at­tach a chain for pulling. Get­ting the team used to the chain’s sound took a while, but soon it didn’t bother them and I started to hook them to a small sled. This was it: I was us­ing draft an­i­mal power and I loved it. The thrill of us­ing an­i­mals to pull loads is what keeps me go­ing with oxen. It is the same gen­eral the­ory as driv­ing

a trac­tor, but much more con­nected, rhyth­mic and quiet. That first win­ter Tex and Joe hauled our Christ­mas tree.

Most of my ex­pe­ri­ence with oxen has been trial and er­ror. They are pa­tient teach­ers, be­ing calmer and more for­giv­ing than horses. I made many mis­takes with that first team and I have cor­rected as­pects of my train­ing since, but de­spite hav­ing no ex­pe­ri­ence I was able to raise and train a handy pair of steers. This is the beauty of start­ing with calves. As they will not be full sized un­til four years old, you have time to learn on the job. To­day we live in an age of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy and there is a wealth of ex­per­tise avail­able on­line. The Draft An­i­mal Power Net­work (DAPnet) is a re­source of ex­pe­ri­enced and be­gin­ner team­sters and drovers shar­ing ideas and prob­lems.

Oxen are a great choice for a be­gin­ner. In the US there is a strong cul­ture of kids rais­ing oxen, mostly based on the East Coast where the oxen cul­ture is still strong. They raise and show work­ing steers and oxen at fairs dur­ing the sum­mer. This stems from the older agri­cul­tural roots of farm kids hav­ing the time and en­ergy to train and work calves for the farm.

Most peo­ple who work with oxen keep them in the barn for part of the year. In the cold North­east this is im­por­tant for all farm an­i­mals dur­ing the win­ter. Here in Cal­i­for­nia, we find that the sum­mer dry sea­son is the most ap­pro­pri­ate time for us be­cause our pas­tures go dor­mant then. A sim­ple tie stall is best for them as it gives a place to rest away from the oth­ers and it keeps them the clean­est. The ox barn is my favourite place on the farm. It smells like saw­dust and hay, and the ox­ens’ quiet rest­ful en­ergy gives me a sense of peace and well-be­ing.

The oxen help us by pulling feed out to the an­i­mals in the field, in­clud­ing our chick­ens, pigs, sheep and cat­tle. Sim­ple sleds are all we need to move the feed. Dur­ing part of the win­ter we also feed hay to the sheep and cat­tle from those same sleds.

The oxen pull the var­i­ous move­able shel­ters in the pas­ture. One win­ter we had some se­ri­ous flood­ing that threat­ened our layer coop. A truck or trac­tor would have got stuck in the mud if we had tried to use them, but the oxen walked right through the flood­wa­ters and were able to pull the chicken coop to dry ground. Eight hooves are bet­ter than four-wheel drive.

In the gar­den dur­ing the grow­ing sea­son we use the oxen daily. They plough and prep the soil, plus they help to shape our vegetable beds. We even har­vest some crops with them, in­clud­ing pota­toes. We use them for log­ging, too, get­ting them to pull logs for lum­ber and fire­wood. I love log­ging with the oxen more than just about any­thing else and they seem to en­joy the process as well.

Our farm even hosts tours and school groups each year. See­ing the oxen is al­ways a high­light for the stu­dents. My oxen are traf­fic safe and quite used to crowds of peo­ple.

I cur­rently have three teams in the barn. My old­est, Tex and Joe, are now eight years old. They are Jersey x Hol­stein. Joe is my rock and will pull any­thing. We of­ten use him as a sin­gle ox for work­ing in­side the green­houses be­cause he has such a steady na­ture. Tex is big­ger and he suf­fers from con­fi­dence is­sues. Duke and Earl are the four-year-old team. Duke is flighty and can spook. Earl also is a great puller and I of­ten use him with Joe be­cause they work so well to­gether. The team of year­lings is called Thor and Odin.

Oxen have played a big part in form­ing and build­ing the United States. Of course there are fewer teams to­day than there once were, but I think that they are mak­ing a comeback and gain­ing in pop­u­lar­ity. With the ad­vent of the in­ter­net more peo­ple can learn about this an­cient form of draft power.

I am a firm be­liever that they can be a more ap­pro­pri­ate power source for a small farm than a trac­tor or ro­totiller. Oxen can fit into spa­ces that trac­tors can­not and they have more power and abil­ity than your stan­dard two-wheel ro­totiller. They are way cheaper than most new trac­tors as well, even if you do have to feed them ev­ery day, in­clud­ing when you aren’t work­ing them.

Shake­fork Com­mu­nity Farm where

I live is an 85-acre fam­ily farm on the Van Duzen River in Hum­boldt County, Cal­i­for­nia. I run it with Melanie, our young son Clyde and my par­ents, Earl and Geri. We raise pas­tured chicken, sheep, cat­tle and pigs. We prac­tice ro­ta­tional graz­ing and holis­tic man­age­ment. The heart of the farm is the gar­den where we have six acres of in­ten­sive vegetable pro­duc­tion. We strive to pro­duce the best, most nu­tri­ent dense food for our friends and fam­ily — and the oxen help with that.

The ‘quiet, rest­ful en­ergy’ of his oxen gives Kevin Cun­ning­ham a sense of peace

Kevin and his wife Melanie at Shake­fork Com­mu­nity Farm where the oxen work in their gar­den

Kevin Cun­ning­ham: ‘Eight hooves are bet­ter than four-wheel drive’

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