On our farm we are trying to minimize our dependency on fossil fuels and mechanical equipment. There are lots of good reasons to do so; carbon emissions, expense, and the fact that oil will probably become increasingly expensive and dirty as we run out of it in the near future. Our house is not off the grid at all- so we have a lot of changes we would like to make there. We don’t till our gardens, so the need for a tractor is diminished, but we do still need to move a lot of materials around (manure, mulch, wood, logs, soil, etc.) and we end up using our truck for this work- abusing it over stumps and pig turned humps. So- our attention turned to the idea of getting a draft animal to do some of what our truck does for us. We debated about the type of animal, the cost/benefit analysis, and if we really have enough grazing land, and we probably would have put it off for a year or two- but then Lucky arrived. Our friend had a single Holstein ox that she had raised for four years from a calf and she was no longer able to keep him on her rented land. The sense of urgency and a good deal helped push us toward choosing a single ox to work with.
Neither of us have had any real experience working with draft animals, though we have family and friends that do and have helped give us some advice. Lucky was trained, but had not done a lot of regular work. So between the three of us we have had some learning to do together about how to communicate. At first we took it slow and would take Lucky for walks and practice directional commands- that he followed pretty well though stopping to graze was a perennial problem.
We then moved into trying to do a little work. The areas where the pigs pasture get incredibly humpy as they turn over the soil and make wallows. We try to smooth these out with shovel and rake sometimes- but often the grass grows back faster than we get to it. So we tried harrowing the pig areas by having Lucky pull a log (which rolled, go figure) so we nailed a bunch of logs together, which busted apart in about 20 seconds. We determined that we needed to borrow a real harrow or make something a little heftier.
We also got Lucky to pull some logs for his winter structure. We had had pretty good success with that, until one day on about the 5th log he got spooked and took off with a 15-foot log attached to him heading down hill towards the main road. Fortunately he got snagged on another tree before getting to the road. Needless to say both Lucky and the two of us were a little shaken up and we had a wake up call as to his power and potentially dangerous possibilities. So- we unhitched him and put him back in his pasture. That was apparently the wrong thing to do! Now we know that Lucky was training us to let him stop working when he freaks out. We continued to work with him in the following weeks, with a bit of trepidation, until we hitched him to the mobile chicken house (with no current residents thankfully). The chicken house was light and on wheels which probably startled him and he took of f running over hill and dale- and very close to running through the pigs’ electric fence, continuing until the front of the structure pulled off.
That was several months ago and we have not hitched him to anything since. We decided it is time to start over again establishing our relationship, learning more about training and developing Lucky’s respect for us before he is attached to heavy objects. We have a lot to learn together- and about once a month we toss around the idea that maybe we are crazy and should start over with a calf, but for now we have hope that we will find more time to work with Lucky and that he’ll be an everyday useful part of the farm in years to come. Meanwhile, he is helping us to create more compost on the farm, and eliminating our need to scythe the field.