Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Things I Like

This is Marco the ox in the blacksmith shop at Tillers International in Scotts, Michigan.

There's just something right about anvils and oxen being in the same room. They are both symbols of things that have ultimate utility, yet there are very few people that understand them and their place in the modern world. After spending 25 years around anvils, I feel I understand blacksmithing pretty well. I only began studying draft animal power 4-5 years ago when I started to consider options for working larger and larger gardens for more food production.

I wondered how much land would need to be cultivated to feed a family or a small group of neighbors. An acre is essentially the size of an American football field, and I thought I would choose that as an approximation of my needs. Working by hand is slow and brutally labor intensive. Often there is a week of soil work to do, and just 2 days of good weather, so something has to be added to the equation to make it work.

Of course, the first thought goes to tractors. Common 21st century thinking offers that nothing can make things go more smoothly than the addition of petro-energy to a project. The energy density in tractor fuel provides more work per pound than anything this side of a nuclear reactor, and it's no wonder that the ox has pretty much been swept into the dustbin of farming artifacts.

Part of the attraction I found in oxen was the fact that they were around long before the use of petro-energy came onto the scene. There was a lot of work done with draft animals prior to the availability of tractors, and they still can work today. Oxen were everywhere 150 years ago, and now there are only a relative handful of people that have ever seen a working team; far fewer have actually worked with draft cattle.

The ox is not a separate breed or species of cattle; it is simply a castrated bull that has been trained to work. Training begins as soon as possible, but the young team must develop their bodies before any real work can be done with them. This young team below is only a couple of months old, and with a week of training by a beginning class at Tillers International, they were already responding well enough with commands that they were able to complete the obstacle course pulling a light wheeled wagon at the Midwest Ox Drovers Association (MODA) meeting last weekend at Tillers in Michigan. Each year, a pair of calves is trained by the Tillers Oxen Basics class the week prior to the MODA meeting, and the trained calves are raffled into the oxen community as a fundraiser for MODA. This year's team are named Thomas and Jefferson, or Tom and Jeff. They were the nicest team of calves I have seen in my 3 year association with the event, and they will find their new home in North Carolina.

A solo ox can be used for lighter tasks, or for more delicate jobs like pulling a weeding cultivator through corn rows. A single yoke is attached to the implement by way of chains on either side of the ox. This is Will, a Dutch Belted ox about 10 years old weighing in at about a ton. Will's partner, Abe, couldn't make it to the event due to a leg injury, but Will seemed to enjoy himself pulling the weeding cultivator through the corn and sorghum fields.
This team is being led by a Tillers intern from Mozambique. Zacharias is learning the draft oxen techniques from Tillers so he can go home and teach new ways of making agriculture more efficient. He is driving Herschel and Walker and pulling a disc cultivator through a freshly plowed field. A pair of oxen can pull a tremendous load and do a lot of field work in a day. The heavy double yoke is attached to a chain that pulls the implement as Zacharias leads the team with verbal commands and taps from the goad. This team has been working the fields at Tillers for a long time, and seem to know what is expected of them. Watching them cooperate through the universal language of the ox drover is magic. 'Gee' and 'haw' are 'right' and 'left' around the world, and the oxen know their names, regardless of the accent the drover might have. I hope Herschel and Walker enjoyed working with Zacharias as much as I did. His enthusiasm was contagious, and his love and understanding of the animals was strong.
My wife and I had a great time at Tillers last week, and hope to be adding a couple of young calves to the yard next month. If you're interested in finding out more about oxen, here are the links to Tillers and MODA.

As we reach a place in time when we must all begin to be more mindful of the delicacy of our balance in the availability and consumption of petro-energy, we should consider options to the sources of power and energy we have taken advantage of for so long now. The broadfork business has introduced me to so many people that see the writing on the wall that the days of cheap and easy petro-energy are in their twilight times. If you believe in the broadfork, you believe in a very old concept that still works as well today as it ever did before. Oxen fall into the same category, and I believe it was my attraction to them at first.

This is a link to some more photos from our time at Tillers last week. Click here. All photos by Karen Stack.

"The ox is slow, but the Earth is patient."

Good soil to you,



  1. Great post. I love the pictures. Maybe I can get Steve to think about getting oxen instead of an old tractor.

  2. Oxen and Anvils -- I like that!

    Here in Northwestern Minnesota it's difficult to imagine a gathering of ox drovers; there's two of us that I know of. Thanks for reporting on the MODA event.

    Hope you'll stop by my Ox and Dog Blog sometime --- and say hello!