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Our wee wee coos with their new yoke

Our wee wee coos with their new yoke

Many times I have been struggling with some annoying task — like digging up the garden, moving something heavy or pulling my car out of the snow — and have scratched my head and thought, “This would be a crapload easier if I had a tractor.” But of course we cannot do that because it’s not environmentally excusable and certainly not sustainable when we look at predictions about the end of oil.

Some of my farmer friends are absolutely convinced that farming will continue exactly the way it is done now, but with solar- or nuclear-powered tractors. I haven’t seen any yet and I predict that I will not be able to afford one of those even if they are developed. Maybe they’re right – but then only corporate, industrial farms will be able to afford them (and the rest of us will be stuck with whatever they decide to grow — uck).

My go-to strategy when confronted with one of these conundrums is to go back into history. Of course, people used oxen and horses to do all the heavy lifting and pulling, which is why we still describe engine power in horse power. There seemed to be no limit to what you could do with oxen, in particular.

Oxen, hard at work

There are still lots of people using oxen to do things, and the current advice is to use steers (castrated males) because they are calm. But I couldn’t see the cost benefit in feeding a steer all winter when all we really need is snow removal, potato hilling and a few logs moved. I decided that cows could do the job, if a bit more temperamentally, and then we could get labour, and meat and milk. The common sense of my plan was confirmed in an episode of Victorian Farm – they used cows, not steers, and for the same reasons.

But I had never dealt with cows before. I know my way around a horse, and had even trained a horse to pull. Why not use horses? Well, because they can be pretty forgetful: you have to work with them every week or they’ll freak out. I don’t have time for that, and I have witnessed horses freaking out while pulling heavy objects. Not good. Not safe. Opposite of fun. I had heard that cattle are a lot calmer, and don’t forget their job quite so quickly.

After a lot of research, I decided to get Dexter cattle. They are small, they are dual purpose (boy calves can be raised for meat, while most dairy breeds aren’t great for that), they thrive on crappy forage, they are docile and forgiving. And they are about as cute as cute can be.

The girls taking a breather

The girls taking a breather

And so the adventure began. Lessons learned in the past three years:

  • Cows who don’t grow up on your farm seek to leave your farm as quickly and as often as possible
  • Cows will return home as long as you have a pail of oats and agree to walk at least two miles with them, in the rain
  • Cows who grow up on your farm never want to leave it (which is excellent)
  • Barbed wire is cheaper, easier and more effective than any other fencing material
  • Cows respond incredibly well to clicker training. One of the older cows we got was a wild girl straight off the range who would do anything for a cookie – anything!
  • Calves older than one week are 5000 per cent harder to train to lead than calves that are less than one week old
  • Get basic cattle handling equipment: a loading alley and a milking stand that can also be used as a squeeze before you get your cattle
  • Make sure your handling equipment is near to where your vet needs to park (like, within 20 feet at least)
  • Cows never, ever forget a lesson (which is great except when you teach them the wrong thing)
  • It takes less than two minutes to hitch up a team of cows to a yoke (which is a heck of a lot less time than it takes to warm up a tractor in winter)
  • You can use horse tames modified with sweat pads – but that takes longer to hitch up
  • It is not easy to find correct ox harness
  • You can drive cows way more precisely than you can drive a motor vehicle (this was a surprise – check out oxen training video: really incredible)
  • Different breeds have totally different personalities and capacities for learning – do your research!
  • The best way to learn to train oxen is to get a DVD (I love this one) and just practice
  • Cows are sweet and there is no reason to be hard on them
  • If you want to try to build your own pulling equipment, Tillers International has a great resource (we gave the info to a handy neighbour and he did a great job)