‘I USE DRAFT ANIMAL POWER AND I LOVE IT’
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
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’