Sunday, March 2, 2008


The largest animals at Howell are the oxen -- Chris and Jake. I weighed them a few days ago. (By weigh I mean I worked the slider on the scale. Rob and Jeremy did the hard work of coaxing them onto a heavy platform in the barn.)

Chris, who is seven, weighs 2200 pounds. Jake, age 12, weighs 2140 pounds.

Rob is the primary ox handler around here. He is starting to teach me the basics of caring for these huge, powerful pullers. Slowly, I'm beginning to feel more comfortable around them, although I still scurry away like a frightened mouse when one of them make a sudden movement of hoof or horn I wasn't expecting. My new steel-toed boots came in on Wednesday, and that's helped my confidence some.

A little of what I've learned, starting with the basics:

- "Oxen" are trained cattle. Jake and Chris are both steers -- castrated males. If they weren't castrated, they would be bulls. I asked Rob if anyone ever uses bulls to pull loads, as I figured they might have some extra spunk. Apparently this is not something a smart farmer would attempt.

- Every morning and night Chris and Jake each receive half a coffee can of grain and a big hug of hay. Rob tells me that an oxen's stomach is different than a horse's, so they eat less than horses do but gain weight more easily.

- When you have two oxen together, as you do in a team of pullers, one will try to assert dominance over the other. This includes them trying to mount one another, and also using their horns against one another. But grooming also plays a part. Apparently, the dominant ox will lick the less dominant ox into submission. So when Rob and I groom Chris and Jake with brushes, we're keeping them clean and asserting our dominance.

- The biggest practical difference between oxen and draft horses in a work sense is that one rides behind draft horses, steering with verbal commands and by pulling on their lines. With the oxen, one walks in front, steering them with verbal commands and taps from an ox whip.

On Friday, I observed the ox team in action for the first time, pulling a heavy manure spreader through a field. This was also a first for the oxen, of a sort, because Rob switched Jake from his usual position on the right side of the team to the left. The reasons behind the switch exceed my knowledge to explain them, but you can read all about it here, where Rob writes in detail about the experiment:

The oxen pulled with more speed and vigor then I expected. I had to walk briskly to keep up, and run to get ahead. Several times I crouched down well in front of them to try to snap a photo, only to look up from my lens a moment later to find them bearing down upon me. I imagine they move even faster without hundreds of pounds of machinery holding them back.