Rural Missouri Magazine

Carl's guys
Former horseman is yoked by a team of oxen

by Bob McEowen
Carl Heth guides his team of six Milking Shorthorn cattle through a pasture at a horse farming event near Gerald. The Rolla-area home remodeling contractor is teaching the steers to work as a draft animals. At age 4 they can properly be called oxen.

There’s a leisurely air of familarity as draft horse enthusiasts and day-trippers from the city mill around a small park on the outskirts of Festus for a weekend old-time farm festival. Tourists enjoy horse-drawn wagon rides around the grounds and snack on chuckwagon apple cobbler while exhibitors tend to their livestock.

A sudden surge of excitement builds, however, as Carl Heth begins readying his team of six Milking Shorthorn cattle for a demonstration. A crowd gathers around a makeshift corral to watch Carl, a home remodeling contractor from Rolla, place yokes across the necks of his cattle.

“Most people have never seen anything like this before,” Carl says of the steers he’s trained to pull a wagon, plow fields and haul firewood, among other chores. “They can’t believe I can do what I do with them. Once they see it, it blows their mind.”

Although Carl’s 2-year-old cows average 1,000 pounds each, they can’t correctly be called oxen until they’re 4 years old. By then, Carl says they’ll weigh over a ton a piece. Already, though, they’re impressive.

For his afternoon “working steer seminar” Carl hitches his team to a walking plow and begins to turn a furrow in the event’s demonstration field. Halfway through the second pass one of the steers refuses to stay in the furrow. Carl coaxes him back on track but, eventually, the team balks and determines to plow no more.

Carl removes a yoke from a pair of cattle following a workout at his farm near Rolla. The finish carpenter and home remodeling contractor has made four sets of yokes to accomodate his ever-growing team.

Despite the abbreviated show, the crowd of onlookers is satisfied.

“At events like this people aren’t interested in seeing how long they can work. They just want to see them do stuff,” Carl says. “If it’s only for a short period of time, that’s OK.”

After all, these six steers are relatively new at farm chores. And, despite four decades of experience with draft horses, Carl is still learning to work cattle.

“These guys here, I consider them to be green broke,” he says. “They’re broke enough to do what I want to with them, but they’ve got a lot of learning ahead. And so do I.”

Carl, 59, has driven draft horses all of his adult life. He farmed with horses in his native Iowa and later earned his living building horse-drawn vehicles for the likes of beer magnate Auggie Busch. For a number of years the Intercountry Electric Cooperative member organized draft horse events for Rolla-area fairs. As a draft horse hobbyist he has owned teams of six and eight horses and once helped drive a 40-horse hitch.

Verlene Vaughn of Hillsboro pets one of Carl’s steers prior to a demonstration at the Festus event. Vaughn says she attended the event specifically to see Carl’s cattle work.

An elbow injury several years ago made it difficult to reach up and harness his draft horses, which all stood more than 18 hands. Carl sold his team and, for the first time in 45 years, owned no horses. He wasn’t through driving a team, however.

While visiting a daughter in Pennsylvania, Carl watched oxen being used for fieldwork. He re-searched the practice and learned draft cattle are common in New England and that raising and showing oxen is a popular 4-H project for children there.

Technically, an ox is a mature steer trained for farm work. Almost any cow can be used but Holsteins, Brown Swiss and Durham, otherwise known as Milking Shorthorns, are the most popular draft breeds.

Oxen were likely the first animals used for farm labor. During America’s pioneer days they were popular because they cost less than horses to buy, were simpler to harness and would eat food that horses and mules wouldn’t. Also, unlike horses or mules, oxen would often be butchered at the end of their useful life.

For Carl, though, the allure of a team of oxen was largely novelty. While there are other working cattle in Missouri, Carl’s not aware of many other large teams. “There’s nothing like this in this whole part of the country,” he says.

Carl decided to develop a hitch of six Milking Shorthorns and, two years ago, located a dairy farmer near Houston, Mo., with calves for sale. Equipped with his horse experience and a copy of Drew Conroy’s definitive “Oxen: A Teamster’s Guide,” Carl brought the 2-month-old calves home and set about to teach himself and them to work as a team.

Carl brushes his cattle to keep them used to human contact. The team of six steers live in an octagonal-shaped barn Carl built.

“I got them broke to where they’d lead good, one at a time, and started their gee and their haw and their back,” he says. “Gee is going to the right, haw is going to the left — the same commands you use with horses.”

Carl worked with each animal individually until they learned to recognize voice commands and then began leading them by halter around his pasture in pairs. Like horses that learn their master’s touch by constant attention, the cattle came to know human contact by Carl’s handling.

Soon, Carl made a tiny yoke from red cedar and tried hitching two calves together. “I put it on them and they just walked off like they didn’t even know the difference,” he says.

At 4 months old, two pairs worked together. Three months later the third team joined the hitch. “When it came time for haying, we put all six of them on the hay rake and raked a little bit of hay with them,” he says.

Carl has built a unique octagon-shaped barn to house his cattle and continues to develop his team. Some-times their workouts involve hauling firewood or pulling a manure spreader. Other times, he’ll teach them to re-main idle in the yoke by having them stand in place for an hour at a time. Whether pulling concrete blocks on a sled or driving a sorghum press at a farm show near Gerald, his team has adapted and taken to the task at hand.

Carl leads a pair of his steers around a sorghum press at a old-fashioned farm field days near Gerald. It was the first time the team had ever worked a sorghum press but they adapted easily.

“Everybody says cattle are dumb. Cattle are not dumb. Cattle are smart,” Carl says. “You don’t think they’re listening, but they’re watching what I do and picking up on different stuff. They may be chewing their cud, but their eyes are still on me.”

Much of Carl’s teaching has been aimed toward preparing for public demonstrations. Carl bangs on pots and rattles cans to accustom the animals to noise. He tugs at their tails and horns and brushes against their hooves with a rake to teach the cattle to be calm, even when disturbed.

With each appearance Carl’s team becomes more comfortable performing in public and Carl is increasingly confident in their abilities. Now he’s turning his attention to sharing what he’s learned with others.

“My goal is to get more people interested in oxen,” he says. “I want to see more people doing this and have something that we can go to with the cattle, just like they do with the horse shows.”

In the meantime, Carl attends horse-farming events where his “guys” are regular crowd pleasers.

“People are just delighted and entranced by it,” says Gail Cross, who hosts the Mid-Missouri Horse and Mule Farming and Historical Crafts Days at her farm near Gerald. “Part of the fascination is that people don’t realize that cattle will work. The fact that he has six that work together is even more interesting.”

A group of volunteers helps Carl demonstrate plowing with his team of six Milking Shorthorn cattle at a horse farming field day near Festus. The 2-year-old steers weigh 1,000 pounds each. At age 4 they will tip the scales at more than a ton apiece.

That fascination will only increase as Carl’s team grows. Already Carl has made four sets of yokes to accommodate his steers’ ever-increasing size. They’re not much bigger than cattle ready for market now, but give them another couple of years and they will be a sight to behold.

“They’re growing up to be oxen,” Carl says. “They mature out at 4 years old, but they don’t stop growing until they’re 7 years old.”

Carl expects each of his steers to weigh 2,000 pounds in two years. By then, they should easily pull half their body weight. Already, they stand chest-high to Carl but he looks forward to a day when he can barely see over them.

“When people walk up to them I want them to say, ‘Oh my gosh, look at that big steer!’ When they come out of the trailer: ‘Wow!’ That’s what I want.”

For more information, write Carl Heth at 11570 County Road 5160, Rolla, MO 65401; or call Carl at (573) 364-6425. 

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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