Back to Bull Power -On Small Farms, Hoof Power Returns
ON a sunny Sunday just before the vernal equinox, Rich Ciotola set out to clear a pasture strewn with fallen wood. The just-thawed field was spongy, with grass sprouting under tangled branches. Late March and early April are farm-prep time here in the Berkshires, time to gear up for the growing season. But while many farms were oiling and gassing up tractors, Mr. Ciotola was setting out to prepare a pasture using a tool so old it seems almost revolutionary: a team of oxen.
Standing just inside the paddock at Moon in the Pond Farm, where he works, he put a rope around Lucas and Larson, his pair of Brown Swiss steer. He led them to the 20-pound maple yoke he had bought secondhand from another ox farmer, hoisted it over their necks and led them trundling through the fence so they could begin hauling fallen logs.
Mr. Ciotola, 32, is one of a number of small farmers who are turning — or rather returning — to animal labor to help with farming. Before the humble ox was relegated to the role of historical re-enactor, driven by men in period garb for child-friendly festivals like pioneer days, it was a central beast of burden. After the Civil War, many farms switched from oxen to horses. Although Amish and Mennonite communities continue to use horses, by World War II most draft animals had been supplanted by machines that allowed for ever-faster production on bigger fields.
Now, as diesel prices skyrocket, some farmers who have rejected many of the past century’s advances in agriculture have found a renewed logic in draft power. Partisans argue that animals can be cheaper to board and feed than any tractor. They also run on the ultimate renewable resource: grass.
“Ox don’t need spare parts, and they don’t run on fossil fuels,” Mr. Ciotola said.
Animals are literally lighter on the land than machines.
“A tractor would have left ruts a foot deep in this road,” Mr. Ciotola noted.
In contrast, oxen or horses aerate the soil with their hooves as they go, preserving its fertile microbial layers. And as an added benefit, animals leave behind free fertilizer.
David Fisher, whose Natural Roots Community Supported Agriculture program in Conway, Mass., sells vegetables grown exclusively with horsepower, said he is getting record numbers of applicants for his apprentice program. “There’s an incredible hunger for this kind of education,” he said.
Mr. Fisher discovered farming with horses more than a decade ago as an intern on a farm in Blue Hill, Me. It stuck.
“Using animals is just really appealing to the senses,” he said, adding that he found it philosophically appealing as well. “There’s a deep environmental crisis right now, and live power is also about creating an alternative to petroleum. Grass is a solar powered resource — and you don’t need manufacturing plants or an engineering degree to make a horse go.”
Drew Conroy, a professor of applied animal science at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, who is known in draft-power circles as “the ox guru,” notes that horses and even mules are seeing a comeback. Each animal has its niche.
“Ox are cheap and easy to train but they’re essentially bovine, which is to say, smart but slow,” he said. Horses are faster, more spirited, trickier to train and more expensive to buy and to keep. Professor Conroy notes that mules are better suited to Southern weather. “In the heat, an ox will just stop,” he said.
Even their most ardent supporters concede that draft animals are likely to remain minor features of the rural landscape. For starters, they are cost effective only on small farms. They are also time intensive, performing well only when they can be worked every day, and becoming temperamental when neglected.
On Mr. Ciotola’s first day out with his oxen, he had to struggle with the fact that the long winter had left them rusty. At one point they pulled over and came to a full stop in the bushes. He walked in front of them and tapped them gently. “They’ve been cooped up all winter, so they get restless,” he said. Indeed, getting Lucas and Larson to go is a much more involved process than turning a key, and even at top speed they are far slower than a tractor. They plod, and Mr. Ciotola must plod along with them.
“You still have to walk nine miles for every planted acre,” said Dick Roosenberg, the founder of Tillers International, a 430-acre farm learning center in Scotts, Mich. A former Peace Corpsvolunteer, Mr. Roosenberg helped farmers who practiced hand cultivation in third world countries learn about oxen. Eventually, he also taught ox techniques to interpreters at historic communities like Plimouth Plantation.
But now Mr. Roosenberg’s plowing workshops fill with a new demographic: farmers from Wisconsin, Minnesota and even Alaska who hope to use animal power in their fields. Last year, about 320 signed up.
“It’s suddenly not just historic replication, it’s reinvention,” he said. “A new generation wants to do this again, now.”
Oxen are also cheap, at least compared to a tractor, and can work for 10 to 14 years. Since the dairy industry relies on keeping cows pregnant so they lactate, millions of baby bulls are born each year. A pair of calves start at $150 and range up to $1,500, depending on their breed and how much training they have.
Some dairies even give their young males away. Mr. Ciotola got Lucas and Larson, now 2 ½, as wobbly-kneed babies from a nearby raw-milk dairy, bartering for them with his own labor. “I just had to buy or make the yokes and cart,” he said.
Farmers who want to learn the old art of draft power sometimes find their education in odd places. Dominic Palumbo, Moon in the Pond’s owner and chief farmer, learned to plow with an oxen team by way of an intern from Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass., which replicates an 18th-century Shaker community. Mr. Ciotola first learned to work his team from Mr. Palumbo, then later refined his skills by studying a DVD called “Training Oxen,” made in 2003 by Dr. Conroy.
The film is something of a cult classic in the draft-power community, and in sections covering topics from “the yoke” to “stall etiquette,” the movie pictures Dr. Conroy and his partner, Tim Huppe, working with New Hampshire farmers who raise oxen from their cute baby phases through their slightly belligerent adolescence. It also features each of Mr. Huppe’s four daughters leading her own team around the farm.
Interest in ox-farming became so strong that in 2005 Dr. Conroy and Mr. Huppe began hosting three-day workshops at Sanborn Mills Farm in Loudon, N.H.. At first they were surprised to find themselves emerging as minor celebrities on the draft-power circuit. After all, they had learned ox-pulling as teenagers in 4-H clubs at a time when the activity was mostly seen in shows. “It used to be kind of a cultural thing, a county fair thing,” Dr. Conroy said.
But Mr. Huppe, who sells yokes, oxbows, carts, goads and other gear at his store, BerryBrook Ox Supply, in Farmington, N.H., said his clientele is changing.
“It used to be 15 percent small farmers,” he said. “Now the farmers are more like 60 percent.” About his workshops, Mr. Huppe said, “I feel like the Johnny Appleseed of oxen.”
As draft power spreads, a 7,000-year-old technology is being looked at in different ways.. Some young farmers are developing a hybrid practice, using oxen to supplement, rather than replace, tractors. Some use them just to log and plow, while others have their teams haul machines with engines. Even this can be energy efficient.
“If you use animals to pull a motorized hay-baler,” Mr. Roosenberg said, “you can bale hay pretty fast with about one-third the gas.”
Mr. Ciotola, who does not yet own his own land but who makes his living doing jobs at Moon in the Pond and other Berkshire farms, does have a lightweight tractor, a 1949 Farmall Cub that is particularly suited to small acreages. Some of its accessories — the manure spreader, stone rake and disc harrow — can also be fitted to the ox-drawn forecart he bought from Mr. Huppe’s store.
As the spring morning passed, he continued breaking his team into their third season, walking alongside Lucas’s left side, talking softly. About three hours in, after Lucas pulled into the bushes, Mr. Ciotola turned to head out for one more load, and Lucas pulled back toward the paddock. Mr. Ciotola decided to let him go.
“Lucas is always the troublemaker,” he noted, patting the blond steer. “He’s been restless all winter, but then he gets stubborn.”
For Mr. Ciotola, the most challenging aspect of working with his oxen is finding the time it takes to break them in.
“The best pairs need to get worked every day, and that’s hard for me because I have to do other work during the winters,” he said.
Even though Lucas and Larson now stand 5 feet tall and weigh 1,500 pounds each, they are not yet fully grown. Over the next two years, they will each gain 500 pounds and grow two feet. At that point, they will easily be able to pull 4,000 pounds. Mr. Ciotola wants to have them in prime shape for logging, plowing and haying.
After this season’s first expedition, they stood calmly in the dung-scented paddock, rolling their eyes and flicking their tails as Mr. Ciotola brushed them. Larson ambled off to eat some hay.
“Even when it’s tough with them, it’s better than spending a day with a tractor,” he said.
Then again, there was that time when he nearly took a horn to the groin.
“A tractor doesn’t do that either,” he said.