NEW DURHAM resident Clayton Randall demonstrates the use of a goad when driving a team of oxen. The yoke at his feet weighs approximately 100 pounds and indicates the size and strength of the cattle that wear it. Randall spoke on the Devon cattle he has raised and worked, at a recent meeting of the New Durham Historical Society.
Cathy Allyn. (click for larger version)
April 26, 2017NEW DURHAM — Sometimes the most interesting stories are in your own backyard; or, at least, the field down the street that you drive by on a regular basis.
New Durham has such a field, on Old Bay Road, dotted with ruby red, horned cattle with a background story. Owner Clayton Randall, with a family heritage that is a story of its own, was the recent guest speaker at the New Durham Historical Society on a topic close to his heart – Devon cattle.
Randall began his talk with a sketch of his family tree. A direct descendant of Civil War veteran Moses Randall, a member of one of the earlier New Durham families and giant landowner, Randall said he was proud of his Randall heritage.
"The Randalls were simple and had their own way of life," he said, adding with a laugh that one of those ways included drinking. "Most of them had a raft of sons."
Audience members were familiar with the family members, and several old stories at their expense were swapped.
Randall, as a young man once out on his own, said he always wanted to return to New Durham. "When I got out of Vietnam, I met a city girl who loved the country," he said, referring to his wife Susan. "It was a good thing she did, because I wanted to be a farmer."
In 1976, he came back to the town and built a barn because he wanted cattle. It wasn't until 1984 that he was in a position to begin what was to become a passion.
"I wanted a unique breed of cattle," Randall said.
Luckily, he was familiar with Louis (Doc) and Alice Ziegra, who owned Devon cattle. "Doc was my inspiration."
Devons, an ancient breed from the English county of Devon, are used for milk, meat, and work.
John Gilman, "an old farmer who did his hay with oxen," was a friend of the Ziegras. "John took me down to Strafford to look at a team," Randall recounted. "He told me, 'If you don't buy them, I will.' So they were my first team and I made all of my mistakes with them."
Slides Randall showed of Reuben and Red did not indicate any mistakes. Reuben eventually weighed a ton and was the biggest ox Randall has had.
When asked about training, Randall stated, "The first command you teach is 'whoa'."
He said working calves starts when they are 12 weeks old, and listed a series of handy directives he teaches his teams, including get ready and side step. "Believe me, they know more than some people I know."
Both males and females have horns, which continue to grow throughout their lives. Randall provided pictures that demonstrated the different ways the horns form, such as straight out or curved. They are generally white with a black tip.
A team is made up of males. Randall told the audience that a castrated male is called a steer until the animal turns four years old, when it is then referred to as an ox. "Ox is a title," Randall declared, "not a breed."
The size and weight of yokes change as the oxen grow. They are usually full grown by the age of six. They are able to pull or drag half of their combined weight.
"They love to work," Randall said. "And they like each other. Usually they stand together in the field."
The teamster drives them from the back with a long pole called a goad. "You have to decide which is on which side of the yoke," Randall said. "I like to be closest to the one who doesn't mind as well."
The American Milking Devon Cattle Association was formed to conserve the breed. When Randall first started, there were less than 200 in the United States.
"At one time my herd of 16 was the largest herd in New Hampshire," Randall said. Now there are well over 1,000 in the country.
Randall had a hand in that growing population. One of the Ziegras' cows was sent to Williamsburg, Va. and Randall took her sister. "Nellie had a calf every year until she was 20," he said. Many of those were shipped around the country by airplane.
The cattle became a true family venture. Because the cream "is like a Jersey's," Sue made cheese. Son Ben showed cattle every year at the Hopkinton Fair from the time he was five until he was 19.
"Ben joined 4-H when he was seven," Randall said. "We started the Yankee Teamsters and that group is still going." He had several newspaper articles on display that chronicled the family's adventures with Devons and driving oxen. Their teams have been sold to several New England museums.
The cattle are a familiar sight in New Durham, and not just in Randall's field. "I walk them down Old Bay Road every Sunday," Randall said.
He recalled one incident when he had 500 pounds in an ox cart with a young team. "They got spooked," he said, "and went up the road, heading for the transfer station."
A team of oxen on the highway is fairly noticeable, and Police Chief Shawn Bernier noticed them right away. Randall, laughing, said, "Shawn said, 'That's Clayton's team, but where's Clayton?'"
Randall had been knocked unconscious by the side of the road. He came to shortly afterward and flagged down a truck to go in search of his team. They came upon Bernier, who had turned the cattle around and was driving them home.
"Animals do have the right of way," Randall pointed out.
With a more somber tone, he said that driving oxen is "a dying art," although he is passing on his knowledge to another New Durham resident.
Currently he has four animals: a cow, a four-year-old team, and "half of a team."
His first team lived to be 21. "You get attached," he said. "It's like losing kids."
But overall, Randall said his family has had a good time with the cattle. "It's a fun, family project. It's my hope that this young team will take me to the cemetery."
He did emphasize the amount of work that went into it all. "You have to be dedicated," he said, citing a battle with the leukemia-like leucosis that forced the family to bottle-feed calves until they got a leucosis-free herd.
"It's rewarding. It's lots of work, but in the barn, you forget everything in the world."