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Does anyone here use oxen? working goats? tending dogs?  RSS feed

 
Marc Floram
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I've noticed, while perusing the critter section, that there is a lack of discussion regarding working animals.  There is not a "working animal" option as a new topic available.  The exceptions are the discussions of livestock guardian dogs and the horse, mule and donkey option.

Working animals provide biological solutions to many common management challenges.  Using critters for work requires far less fossil fuel energy input than mechanical or electronic "fixes". 

Here at TerraFlora, we have a working Brown Swiss ox named Hercules.  He is immense, very strong and very handsome.  Compared to our small tractor he is slower, quieter and smells better.  Hercules' food grows here.  The tractor's does not.

Some context.  We are working 65 acres of second and third growth coniferous forest in Northeastern Washington State.  The land is convoluted and hilly with a steep creek drainage through it.  Recently the USDA has changed our hardiness zone to 6b.  Unfortunately, much warmer winters mean that many of the native trees are dying.  Diseases and bugs are killing ALL the lodgepole pine in the area.  The larch is also suffering and will also be gone in 15 - 20 years according to the University of Idaho.   Our challenge as permaculturists is to take this crisis of rapid phyto-migration head-on and turn it to our advantage.  Besides the obvious solution of making some lumber from the dying and doomed trees, what are our other strategies for dealing with this enormous amount of bio-mass and the associated immediate fire risk?  How can we effectively store the carbon and increase fertility?  What the hell will grow here in 20 - 30 - 50 years?  And the list of questions goes on.  We refer to our design and management approach to this project as Sylvanculture.

This is where Hercules comes into the frame.  He is here to work in the woods.  He moves loads of firewood, logs, poles etc.  I would like to try him at small scale earthworks, but will probably have to make equipment- and there are only so many hours in the day.  Herk is my first ox and came to us fully trained.  When Hercules moved in we had been researching oxen.  I was about to buy a pair of Brown Swiss calves to raise and train.  For those who find the idea of a draft animal intimidating, I recommend oxen over horses.  A novice can train an ox.  Not so with a horse.  Hercules works singly because his partner died a few years ago.  His gear, therefore, is a tad more complex than a pair of oxen require.  A pair of oxen can pull damn near anything with just a yoke and a chain.

We also use Hercules grazing with the sheep to reduce fire risk in the woods.  He can reach far above the deer and sheep ( Herky tapes at 2,700 lbs. and is 6'4" at the top of his shoulders) to get brush which has grown too high for the smaller critters to eat.  Like the sheep, he takes down the lower brush as well.  Converting brush and fines into manure instead of fuel for wildfire, is part of the plan.

We have also used goats for this purpose in the past.  We used them to dramatically improve forage for wildlife and reduce fire risk on a ridge top in Montana. Our goats were not dairy animals, they were pack animals.  We took them hiking often.  They wore small crossbuck pack saddles.  After my wife was in a bad wreck we had to stop hiking and let the goats die off without replacing them.  This spring I am buying a couple of young bottle fed wethers which I will be packing when they are old enough.  We won't be hiking for recreation though.  Their job will be to pack my chainsaw, tools, gas and oil as we work thinning.  I'm old enough that using them to pack my tools will allow me to work longer.

We are also going to get a tending dog.  This seems like an obvious way to use intensive rotational grazing without the moving of fences or having numerous paddocks.  This is certainly true on our steep wooded ground.  The dog brings the sheep to the area being grazed, keeps them within the boundary markers, protects them and then at the end of the day brings them back to the pen.  Do any other permaculturists use tending dogs?  Herding, tending and driving dogs are the three categories of general herding dogs.  Tending dogs were used in Europe to keep the sheep from getting into crops without fences, protecting the sheep and moving them.     


I don't know if this topic of working animals is of interest to other permaculturists out there.  We'll see.



 
Su Ba
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All the animals on my homestead farm have a purpose. The cats provide rodent control without poisoning my land or the other animals here. The dogs protect the farm, preventing equipment and crop theft. The donkey protects the sheep and goats from loose dogs. And she provides manure for the food production. The sheep & goats control the vegetative growth to help reduce the danger from forest fire, plus they provide stock for sale and food. The chickens and ducks are a major source of fertilizer for the food production areas. Plus they produce eats and occasional meat.

Ok, they have purpose, but do they work? Until recently I had a border collie who moved the flock as needed. I'm currently in the market for another. The donkey occasionally is used to pull out a brush pile, but it's often easier and faster to use the ATV. She has the uncanny sense of knowing that today I want to harness her up and hides in the back acres where I can't see her. Won't even come out for a rattling grain bucket. Dang, I wish I still has a good border collie.

I'd love to be able to use a horse and wagon to go to town, but it's impossible. There's no safe route of any kind.
 
Travis Johnson
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It is funny you brought this up, I was just thinking about horse logging as I was logging today.

Myself, I am not a horse person as I had a pony once and named it "Glue Stick" which kind of shows my indifference to them. I do have two dependable, trustworthy, robust horses though...of course they are saw horses! In all seriousness though, IF I did have livestock power, it would be oxen. Few people realize this, but in Maine where I live, horses for pioneering families were rare, the ox was the stead that pulled the plow, pulled wood, and if need be; put meat on the table.

In another lifetime perhaps I would goad a pair of ox along in the woods, but I am pretty addicted to my equipment. I can however see the merit of using oxen to pull a forestry trailer or scoot loaded with wood. I would bet they would make for a great combination.
 
C. Hunter
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You know tha tending dogs generally worked in concert with a human shepherd, right? (Generally a kid.) THey're not a substiute for fencing.
 
Travis Johnson
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I cannot say that every animal I have has a farm purpose. We did have some rodents and wanted a cat to get rid of them, but he ended up being far too gentle. I have watched him literally watch a mole in the house and not make a move towards it. But the kids love him, and he is an easy keeper, and really good with young kids; so he has a home here. I hate cats, but tolerate him.

We also have a male duck that serves no good purpose. As a duckling he survived a dog attack, and so "Gimpy" as he is known due to the dogs bite; forever injuring his gait, also has a home here. The only one to survive, we figure we owe him a second chance at life.

Other livestock have just not proven their worth. We cannot have a dog that attacks livestock...period. A beef cow destroyed more sheep fence then he was worth, not to mention chasing the sheep and ultimately causing weight loss on them from all that running around. At 14 months old he went into the freezer none to soon. A Donkey attacked my sheep, and he too went the way of the doo-doo bird.

I can someday see us getting a Border Collie, or a Livestock Guard Dog, but for now I have found investing in coyote-resistant fences has really paid off, and a shake of the grain bucket will get sheep moving in my direction in very short order. That reduces the overhead of housing additional animals, and their associated needs and expenses...and while farm deductible, it still is a cost. I don't think companion animals to livestock are wrong, but I do think a lot of times people add them without much thought and quickly overwhelm themselves with duties that they could get by without.
 
Marc Floram
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Thanks for replying folks.  My apologies- my name is spelled incorrectly on my post.  It is Marc Flora

To Su BA  Indeed it is sometimes much easier and faster to start up a tractor or pickup.  Especially at my age.  However, we made a commitment a long time ago to try and keep our machine work at a scale that can be replicated by humans or animals.  This is to ensure that our designs and implementation will be useful as examples in a future with reduced fossil fuel availability.  For me, using the animals to accomplish work is much more satisfying than turning the key on an engine.  I also find the pace of work with animals allows one more ability to "observe and interact."

Trained Border collies can be wonderful additions to the working homestead.  We don't have many sheep, and we do not require the talents and energy level of a border collie. As tending dog the Border collies get bored.  They like a little more action.  Also, in this part of the world the predators can be large.  A smaller dog like the b.c. could not guard the flock by itself. Our livestock guardian dogs are bonded to the core area around the house, barn and outbuildings.  They do not patrol the entire 65 acres and would not stay with the sheep all day if they were pastured out of sight of the place.

To Travis Johnson  Maine - and New England in general have many oxen.  If you ever want to observe the different breeds and their characteristics, you could go to a county fair in your area.  Drew Conroy and Tim Huppe are the guys who wrote the book and made a video course about oxen.  They can make these big critters dance. They are both from New Hampshire.  A log scoot (they call them skids here) and a peavey are a great idea.  The ox can pull more weight and the logs stay much cleaner - which keeps your sawmill blade sharper longer.

Horses are wonderful creatures that are beautiful and immensely useful.  Our niece trains horses and has a domesticated mustang that is a great saddle horse that she is now training to pull.  My only issue with horses is that they try to kill me.  I've been kicked and bucked off and scraped off and generally mistreated by horses. I'm sure this was as a result of my own ignorance, but that only made it hurt worse.  I have worked (a million years ago) behind a Belgium logging in the woods.  I did the sawing and the horse and his owner did the skidding.  The horse was great.  If I could spend the years necessary to learn all there is to know about working horses I would certainly consider working with one.  Learning to speak ox is much easier.  By the way, for working in brush and slash it is worthwhile to note that horses get cut much easier than cattle and heal slower.

To C. Hunter  This was the first question I had for the experts I consulted about tending dogs.  There are some questions about which breed is best suited to work alone or in pairs.  Not surprisingly, most breeders will tell you that their breed is best but it depends on the pup.  That is a good reason to get pups - or a trained dog - from stock that is capable of working without a shepherd present.  Also, this is a good reason to personality test a pup. Tending dogs are indeed a substitute for fencing when used correctly.  That was their job. The breeds were not all used in precisely the same way in Europe.  Some worked alone often.  You are, of course, correct that most of the time there is a human shepherd present.  I've been told by a friend who trains herding dogs - border collies actually - that the length of out-of-sight training time can be expanded gradually with a little patience for any good working dog.  This has been corroborated by other trainers. The American Tending Breed Association is a good source of information.

Thanks again for the responses.  I need to go give Bernie the bummer lamb his bottle.
 
C. Hunter
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Marc = yeah, I'm pretty familiar with ATBA

Working BCs on out of site stuff means 'sending them over the next hill (or three hills) to lift the sheep. It's not really comparable to tending unsupervised- the jobs are really different. I've only worked a little with BCs, started out with one GSD (who we didn't take as far as we wanted for a variety of reasons, but did a LOT of studying and listening and learning from folks in the process), and most of my herding experience is with driving breeds who are mostly companion/show bred. They train REALLY DIFFRENTLY, especially on out of sight stuff.

I do think tending dogs are vastly underutelized, especially in large open range situations, but I think an awfully large amount of farmland is too close to roads/fields too small for tending dogs to be used to best advantage.
 
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