ROCK SPRINGS, Pa. — The red halters on two matching Randall steers stood out nicely against the distinct black and white hides of the breed. Their owner-trainer, petite Heather Howard, of Donegal, appeared small and slight next to 1,546-pound Smokey and 1,582-pound Bandit. But, Howard is bonded with and in control of these two huge animals at all times, evident by her hands-free leading them through their paces during a demonstration at Ag Progress Days on Tuesday, Aug. 13.
The trio participated in the popular display of the 1905 Panama O.K. Hay Press, an antique piece of agricultural equipment recently donated to the Pasto Agricultural Museum on the Penn State research farm near State College.
The Cowan family was on hand to help operate the hay press, which was once used on their grandfather’s farm, with horses instead of oxen.
At the demo, with a pile of loose hay being forked into the main bin, a metal device pressed the hay tightly into bale forms. People tossed the hay in, but the power required to move the power shaft and heavy spring of the equipment came from 6-year-olds Smokey and Bandit.
The oxen pulled the shaft in a constant circle, stepping over the machine each cycle. Lumbering along in unison, the yoked oxen appeared to work by themselves, but in actuality were following the guidance of Howard, who walked next to them the entire time, giving subtle signals as to what they should do. Like two giant puppies, Smokey and Bandit pulled, and later followed, Howard across the lane and the field to their pen.
Howard had no lead attached to the oxen, just quiet verbal commands and a stick to guide movement as they walked.
“It’s my hobby,” laughed Howard, 37, about her training of oxen.
But, Howard has a lot of experience, having trained and sold eight oxen pairs already in the past six years. She said she also “married in” to the Howard family of B&J Farms, in Acme, who buy and sell draft horses. Howard works with her in-laws’ draft-horse business, but wanted to do something of her own — hence the oxen training.
She has trained a variety of cattle breeds to work as oxen, including Holsteins, Swiss, Shorthorns and Randalls.
“Whatever I can find that matches,” she said about starting calves to pull together with a yoke. “They should have the same age and body frame.”
She starts their training as calves, having learned many of her oxen-training skills in Maine, where “every kid has them,” she said.
Her family buys and sells draft horses for weight pulling and other work uses. They travel out West often, buying draft horses and selling about 1,500 animals a year, some at New Holland Sales Stables in Lancaster County, especially in the spring and fall sales.