I know, it's been quite awhile since my last post. While spring & summer are always busy times, it seems this year has been even more so. For the first time, neither Dan nor I have full-time jobs away from the farm, so we've been able to undertake more ambitious projects than in the past. One we are currently working on is training our first team of oxen!
Oxen are simply cattle trained as draft animals, used for pulling carts, farm equipment, or for logging. Traditionally, it refers to a castrated male (steer), but any cow can be trained to be an ox. We have decided to use a pair of girls for our team. It's hard to justify the care and feed for a pair of steers we would only use on occasion, but we had planned on keeping Maude and Belle anyways, expanding our herd of registered Dexter brood cows to five. Oxen can be any breed of cow as well, although few modern day breeds are really selecting for these traits (as opposed to selecting for maximum meat or milk production). It's one reason we really liked Dexters- they are versatile and one of the best homesteading cattle, because they are still considered to be “tri-purpose”- good for milk, meat and draft work.
The first step was to catch the two calves and put them into the barn. Weaning them will make them easier to handle. They weren't very happy or cooperative that night, but were so calm that by morning, Dan was able to touch and brush them without any problem! Our next step was to put halters and lead ropes on them and take them for a little walk. It took just one lesson before they seemed to understand what we were asking them to do. Dexters have a reputation for being pretty intelligent cows, and while this means they are quicker to figure out what you want them to do, it can also mean they can figure out ways to avoid what you want them to do. But so far, our girls have been willing and gentle. So willing and gentle, in fact, that my sister was able to lead Belle from the barn to the backyard while I led Maude in front of them. My sister has been around horses and dogs, but never cattle. Belle was such a good girl, Melanie remarked that it was easier than walking her dog, since Belle didn't want to stop and sniff everything! My sister's reaction to working with our girl was “I want a baby cow! Can you get me one that will stay this size?”
The next step is to introduce the yoke, so Dan carved one small enough to fit our 3 month old Dexters. The trick is getting both cows to walk at the same pace, in a straight line, and stop and go simultaneously. You need them to function as a team, not two separate animals. Again, they picked up on what they were asked to do in short time. We're still working on basic teamwork, and haven't started actually pulling anything around yet, but it won't be long. A good draft team takes years, literally to train to its full potential. Although Dan has trained many horses, working with cows as draft animals is entirely new, although a longtime dream. I know not every lesson is likely to go as smoothly as their first ones, but Maude & Belle are off to what we feel is a great start!
Belle, front & Maude, rear.