This is our future, hopefully, but we are still several years away from it. Our boys are just one month old at this point, just getting past that critical stage that weakened dairy bull calves come in- will they live or will they die? Yes, they got their colustrum and about one week of whole, raw milk at the dairy they were born at. After that it was our turn to care for them, trying to keep them alive and gaining on nutritionally-inferior powdered milk. At some point we hope to have a nurse cow if we are going to keep buying inexpensive dairy bull calves. But we sorta lept into getting this batch of 4 calves before we had everything perfect, knowing that it will take two years before they are ready to even use as oxen. This is a long-term process. If we get it right, these guys will be with us for 10, maybe 12 years.
Jerseys are a pretty light-bodied breed for oxen, but easy to come by and handle for new teamsters like ourselves. At full size, we will be lucky to have them weigh in at 1,500-1,600 pounds. On the other hand, a Milking Shorthorn steer, a sought after oxen breed, will get up to 2,300 pounds at full size. But you can see in the picture above that Jerseys can get plenty big enough to do some farmwork or logging, which are the things we hope to use them for.
Why oxen? If you are like me, you maybe thought that oxen were a special breed. In my head I had always pictured a much hairier, hardy-looking animal, more akin to a yak. But any cattle breed can be transformed into a work animal with the right amount of patience and training. Just make sure they will have horns- a polled cattle breed won't make a good oxen. The horns are necessary for keeping the yokes on. My husband and I have been enamored with the concept of draft animal power for some time now- it just didn't exist much in the part of California we farmed in so it was difficult to gain the necessary skills. During our travels in 2011, we made sure to visit a couple farms that used draft animals. The first was Green Gate Farms in Austin, Texas that used a pony for pulling a small cart and humans around. Next was Claddagh Farm in Montville, Maine that used draft horses for cultivation, haying, and logging. After that we sought out Tillers International in Kalamazoo, Michigan for some hands-on training, this time with oxen. At Tillers we took an oxen basics class for one week and stayed on the following week to volunteer with their hay harvest. We also got a chance to work a bit with their Belgian draft horses, providing me one of the most spiritual experiences of my life using a team to mow down a field of cover crops.
My hubbie making our oxen yoke at Tillers International class, Aug. 2011
There are many reasons to consider draft animals- directly they don't burn fossil fuels, they can be fed on home-grown forages, their waste products are fertilizer, they can reproduce themselves (if given the chance!), their maintenance costs are usually in the form of your time & patience, they have more personality than a tractor, they can bring fun to your farming experience, they can appreciate over time instead of depreciating like a tractor (a well-trained draft team can fetch a pretty penny), and they are very versatile around a farm/homestead. You can use them for soil tillage, weeding, harvesting certain crops, mowing, haying, moving materials, logging, cutting firewood, collecting maple syrup, setting fence, and more. Can a single tractor do that? Probably not.
We have decided to start with oxen because of their low costs of entry. You can buy dairy bull calves for $10-40 each. You can make your own yoke. Cattle don't suffer the inumerable maladies that equines do. The costs of exit are low too- if that ox doesn't work out for some reason, you can eat it! Of course you could do the same with equine, we just don't have much of a culture of eating horse-flesh in this country. The drawbacks of oxen over horses or mules is probably their speed. At this point, we aren't trying to farm hundreds of acres with them, so I don't really see slow speed as a problem. Their slowness also makes them easier to handle by children and we hope to engage our daughter in training and using these guys.
Here is what our "oxen-to-be" look like so far. Keep in mind they are only one month old! We keep them in a well bedded horse stall during the frigid nights and let them romp outside once the temp gets above 20 during the day. Feeding includes 3x day non-medicated 22% protein milk replacer, electrolytes, and probiotics. We are also giving them around .5lb/day of 18% protein textured feed ration made up of oats, mollasses, & vitamins. Starting this month we will let them out onto some grass for a couple hours a day to begin their grazing habit as their little rumens develop. As for training, we are just walking each of them with a halter every couple days, getting them used to it and spending time brushing and petting them. I have to admit, it's a lot of fun having these guys in our life. I call them "my boys".