e60. The Oxen Advantage with Kevin Cunningham

In this episode, Kevin Cunningham of Shakefork Community Farm shares his experiences in sustainable farming, from managing grass-fed cattle, dairy cows, and pasture-raised poultry to using draft animal power with oxen. Kevin discusses his approach to farm fencing, pasture management, and the challenges posed by the local Roosevelt elk population. He also talks about his apprenticeship program, which offers hands-on experience in both vegetable and animal production. He also provides valuable insights into sustainable farming practices and the benefits of training oxen.

Books/Resources Mentioned:

  • Holistic Management Handbook by Alan Savory (Amazon) (Bookshop)
  • Grass-fed Cattle by Julius Ruechel (Amazon) (Bookshop)


These transcriptions are automatically generated. Please excuse any errors in the text.

0:00:00 – Cal Hardage
Welcome to the grazing grass podcast, episode 60.

Kevin Cunningham
There is almost nothing besides my family that gives me any more pleasure than feeding grass to cows

Cal Hardage
on today’s episode We have Kevin Cunningham who, with his wife Melanie and son Clyde run shake fork Community farm. On there They do grass-fed bee. I have a couple dairy cows for personal use, layers and turkeys. We dive into it. We mainly talk about his cattle and mani genes them, and then we get into oxen. Yes, he uses oxen on his farm. Very interesting and I think you’ll enjoy it, even if you don’t plan on having a pair of oxen in the future.

However, before we talk to Kevin, ten seconds about my farm. The weather’s been Decent. We got a little bit rain, but never enough. But I think a lot of people echo that same thing. We did get our hay wrapped up a little late to getting it wrapped up, but we have a custom baler come in and that always runs later than we would like. Our hay only produced about 65% of what it’s been producing, so we will be fine going into winter. We are actively working to feed it less hay than we have in the past, but we still like to have that insurance policy in the barn. Enough about my farm. Let’s talk about reviews. If you’ve left a review for us, we appreciate it. If you haven’t, we encourage you to. Now.

I did receive an email the other day from Spotify that we had a question from J E N I N A Z And they said the episode was great. However, you always say we can find the links in the show notes for your guests, but there are no links to Christina Traeger site or social media in the notes. When I say our show notes, i’m thinking of our show notes at grazing grass dot com, and you can get to any of those by going to grazing grass dot com. Slash episodes, slash the episode number. So for Christina’s episode that’d be Slash 58.

I thought in our notes that we push forth. It was a little bit clearer. I pulled it up on Spotify and it was not, so we will be fixing that. We will have the links, social links and websites for each of our guests, not only at thegrazinggrasscom show notes, but we will also push it out in a different place on our episode show notes. So it should show up for whatever app you’re using. I appreciate the feedback and we’ll get that where it works better for you. Enough about this, let’s talk to Kevin. Kevin, we want to welcome you to the Grazinggrass podcast. We’re excited you’re here today. Thank you, glad to be here. Kevin, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your operation?

0:03:06 – Kevin Cunningham
Certainly Yeah. So my name is Kevin Cunningham and me and my wife Melanie, my young son Clyde, who is nine We run ShakeFork Community Farm here in Humboldt County, california, basically as almost as far north in California as you can go honestly, probably closer to Oregon than most of California But we’re on up here in Humboldt County on the north coast, we’re on the Van Duzan River, part of the Eel River watershed And, yeah, we run ShakeFork Community Farm. The farm is 85 acres and we’ve got about 40 in river and riparian area right on the Van Duzan And then about 45 open acres and about five acres of that or so in mixed vegetable production that we do for our CSA as well as local farmers markets, and then the remainder of our farm 40 some odd acres. We do in kind of a intensively managed grass-based production. So we have grass-fed beef, i have a small herd of beef cattle, We have a couple of dairy cows and then we also run pastured poultry. We have egg layers to egg-laying flocks. We also run probably about 1,500 or so meat birds per season in chicken tractors And we also run a seasonal round of Thanksgiving turkeys all out on grass during this season. I think probably one of the most unique aspects of our particular operation is the fact that we, while we’re mixed-powered, we use a lot of draft animal power.

So in addition to the cattle herd, i also have my teams of oxen, and I actually have currently five oxen. They’re not in the barn right now, they’re grazing in the field, and so I have a team of about five-year-olds. They’re kind of my main daily use team. And then Thorin Oden is that team. And then I have one of my original oxen. He’s still kind of semi-retired, but Joseph Joseph the Ox. He’s probably about 13 or so at this point. And then I have a young pair of about year and a half, almost two-year-old oxen that are kind of young and training coming up. That’s kind of the overlay of our farm. I’ve been farming here in Humboldt County for 22 years, working on other farms. I was kind of trained as a straight-ahead tractor-based organic vegetable production on farms up here in Humboldt County. I kind of cut my teeth on growing organic produce mostly potatoes, winter squash, storage crops And so we’ve been here on this particular property for 14 years.

0:06:01 – Cal Hardage
So you have a lot of things going on there. We have a lot of balls in the air.

0:06:06 – Kevin Cunningham
Melanie, my wife. She manages more of the vegetable side of the operation And then I manage more of the pasture-based side of the operation And that kind of helps balance our workload. I still use the oxen in the garden, so I’m involved in the garden And then she is very involved in management of the poultry processing. So when we slaughter our chickens and all those things, so we do overlap, but in general we’ve got kind of our separate domains. It’s necessary because there’s so many different things happening on this very kind of small piece of property that we have here. And are you both full-time on the farm? We’ve been full-time on the farm for almost the entirety of our time here. I started the farm on least ground prior to us moving to this particular place here in Carlotta, and at that time Melanie was finishing up school, and so now it became almost necessary to have both of us here full-time because we have so many things going on.

0:07:08 – Cal Hardage
And I think you said you’ve been there 14 years.

0:07:11 – Kevin Cunningham
This will be our 14th growing season here. We’re obviously doing something right, because we’re still here.

0:07:16 – Cal Hardage
Yeah, that is a very long time And doing all this. let’s get into some of these things and find out how long you’ve been doing it and what you’re doing there. What did you start with when you all moved there, Or what were you doing on the least land when you got ready to move there?

0:07:32 – Kevin Cunningham
I was trained as a kind of tractor-based row crop farmer And one of the things that my previous mentor, paul Gentoli, allowed me to do is I had an interest in growing small grains. So I actually started the farm and we were growing barley rye, oats and wheat kind of on least ground and running a grain CSA at the very outset of our farm. And so we actually ran a grain CSA for about the first five years of our operation And even when we first moved to this particular place, that’s what we started with And I was kind of the base of our farm And it was great And it was something that I could do pretty much on my own. I was extensively managing about 15 acres of grain crops And then when we moved to this property, we quickly realized that it’s good soil, like I said, but not all of it is tillable. When we isolated that we only had about five acres of good tillable ground, we decided to start transitioning.

It took a couple of years of transition and we noticed, okay, five acres isn’t enough ground to do the small grains, especially in a decent rotation, but we were able to get a higher value for the vegetable crops And so we made that transition early on, and then my experience with livestock actually only happened since being here, And it took us several years of deciding how to you know and learning how to manage you know the grass here in a way that was going to be productive for the grass as well as profitable for us, and so I kind of put myself through a crash course in graving and livestock management and everything to get to the point where we’re at today. In hindsight, i actually I’m really grateful that we kind of have had to make that pivot because it’s allowed me to experience probably my main passion in life, which is feeding grass to cows. There is almost nothing besides my family that gives me any more pleasure than feeding grass to cows.

0:09:53 – Cal Hardage
So what I hear is, if Melannie can’t find you and the work’s kind of caught up, you may be setting out there listening to the cows’ grays. Probably true.

0:10:03 – Kevin Cunningham
Yeah, during the main season right now we’re very intensively managing it. I’m moving my cows about every 12 hours right now, and so most of the summer I’m out there morning and night. You can usually find me out in the pastures.

0:10:16 – Cal Hardage
So let’s just talk a little bit about your infrastructure so that you can do the intensive management and moving them every 12 hours. I’m assuming you’re using polywire, poly braid energizer.

0:10:28 – Kevin Cunningham
I kind of set up our farm in a couple of different quadrants with basically alleyways, and I actually, you know, we started almost entirely with net fences because there was a couple of dilapidated barbed wire fences on the property. But one of the features of this particular landscape is that we have a kind of seasonal herd of Roosevelt elk. All of a sudden, overnight, a herd of Roosevelt elk show up onto the farm And you know, the neighboring ranches and whatnot are also a part of their kind of generalized territory. And the thing about elk they’re beautiful, you know, majestic creatures. They eat a lot of grass and they’re really hard on fences, they’re lazy jumpers. And then all of a sudden you know you have five strands of barbed wire on the ground And it didn’t make sense to kind of continue the kind of status quo of the area which is kind of, you know, standard for five strand barbed wire. You know a couple of cross fences. So Mellie and I had we started with dairy goats Before we moved here. We had, we had raised dairy goats And then when we moved here we kind of realized that the goats weren’t going to work within the system And so we transitioned into sheep And so we ran a flock of kind of romney mutt sheep for a while, and so we were using net fences to control the sheep And that was kind of the main thing that we started with. And then I moved those net fences daily and we were just doing management of these net fences. And then, when we started getting into poultry, we are also using the net fences to control the poultry. And we kind of realized that most of these net fences were around 100 foot wide And so I started kind of blocking out our pastures into the 100 foot wide alley alleyways. And that’s the kind of the system that we continue today, even though we’ve actually transitioned entirely away from net fences And my cattle are still only using I use a single line, single hotline to move all of the cattle.

And I have kind of a semi permanent metal wire set up on T-posts. I use this really great insulator lock jaws insulator. They’re I don’t know if you’re familiar with them, but they’re made in America. They’re like these kind of hook see insulators And what it allows me to do is kind of go on the end of a T-post, i weld on a dynamic angle brace to this T-post And so it creates, you know, i can create basically like a 1200 foot long single line of metal hot wire And then I have 100 feet out, i have another one and then I’m doing polylines in between. It’s kind of a nice system because what I’ve done is we’re flat, fairly flat, you know. We’re all on the river bar, so it’s basically, you know, not a lot of aspect to our farm And it allows me to put my T-posts every 50 feet. So I have 100 foot alleyways and then I have my T-posts at 50 feet And so I can kind of block out on a 100 foot block And so it varies on the time of the year and the size of the herd.

But you know, our standard kind of grazing block is that 100 by 100 foot block. And what’s kind of nice generally about that is that you know it’s 10,000 square feet, right, so it’s 100 by 100. An acre is what? 43,560. So it’s about a quarter acre And I can kind of gauge how many animals I have per space of ground. And then we can expand that during the winter and contract it and move that regularly And there’s times when I’ll be moving every third day And then there’ll be times where I’m moving, like now, every 12 hours And it kind of gives this nice kind of metric blocking thing that I can have to kind of move the animals around the landscape in a kind of an orderly fashion.

And we also have, because one of the factors that we do is we have kind of an apprenticeship program on the farm, so we have three to four full-time farm apprentices who come and live and work with us here on the farm And so they get a varied education in the vegetable production as well as in the animal production And so what that allows us to do. If I have a nice easy, well-defined parameters of how to move, i can have somebody else go and do a cattle move. It’s something that people can easily understand And it’s been a pretty good system. I mean, we are pretty proud of the fact that it’s about as low-cost as we could manage and still have fencing for animals on the farm.

0:15:21 – Cal Hardage
I love that way you’ve set it up, with those alleys about a hundred feet apart and the posts that set intervals so that you can easily calculate how much your paddock size. I know on some lease land I have I’ve got a fence running down it and then I’ve got my pastro pro post set every 60 feet and I know how many acres I’m giving them if I were to run perpendicular to the perimeter fence. The bad part is I’m not always very straight about that, but of course I’m going an eighth of a mile, so it’s a little bit further, and if you’re out there and you, you lose your direction or something. Sometimes those fences look interesting but I love that you have it down so that you can easily tell how much area you’re giving them. And, like you said, this area is a little light. We give them a little bit more. It’s pretty easy to explain to someone else. Now one thing that causes myself limitations. I know it causes other people limitations how do you get water to each paddock?

0:16:26 – Kevin Cunningham
We have a well that’s got about a 12 inch casing and we’ve got two pumps down in that and that we’ve got one that runs irrigation, and then we have one that quote-unquote ones, our domestic system, which originally was truly going to be our domestic system. It was going to run our house, but the reality is that what we’ve tied into that domestic system all of the drip irrigation that we use in our garden as well as all of the livestock water, as well as our house and then a communal kind of kitchen processing building that we have here on the farm and so much more demand We’ve had to upgrade that system quite a bit because it just was under capacity for what we were demanding of it. So basically, the way we run the water is I have poly tube out that I run basically off the corner of our house. So I’m just running it off the corner of our house and it runs out into the field and every other line I have I’ve got other you know poly pipes and then every 200 feet on that line we have just a little you know spigot. So if I’m running you know 100 foot blocks and I’m moving every you know every other move we have to move just a hose and fill our water trough.

The benefit of having it on the tach to the side of our house is that I can usually cure the water running. We haven’t put anything underground as far as our water system out in the pastures and there are pros and cons to to the water setup that we have. I would love to get it a little more efficient as far as getting water, because not only do we have, you know, the cattle trough, but I also have waters that I have to get to every chicken flock. So I’ve got two different chicken flocks and I’ve got chicken tractors and I’ve got a thing of turkeys and, you know, sometimes we’ve had pigs and we’ve got all this stuff and we’re like, okay, i’ve got all these points. It gets to be a little bit complicated but it works pretty good so far.

0:18:23 – Cal Hardage
It’s working for you and that’s the important part.

0:18:26 – Kevin Cunningham
The thing that we often will run up against is if we lose power, which does happen quite a bit out here. I mean, i live in California and wildfire country, and so there have been times in the heat of the summer, you know in August, where they’ve shut our power off for three days, and so what we do in the event of that is I pump out of the river into the kind of the 300 gallon you know water tote, i pull those around on a wagon with the oxen and I just kind of constantly rotating and making sure everybody is watered. Eventually. It would be lovely to have a gravity powered or backup generator or some kind of something that could run the water system.

0:19:11 – Cal Hardage
If we do lose power. Oh, that would be nice, and I would imagine the watering during those days in August was a full-time job by itself. So you mentioned earlier you’ve got your beef cattle and you have a few dairy cows. Are these all in one herd that you’re moving?

0:19:29 – Kevin Cunningham
We’ve got three dairy cows kind of jersey and jersey crosses and they kind of are just fully integrated within our beef herd. We got kind of more traditional dexters. They’re not like the super mini dexters but yeah, they are all integrated. I do keep my oxen separated out in a separate kind of herd. I pull them into the barn during the winter time. So it’s kind of a way I kind of help de-stock, because some of my oxen are fairly large and integrating the oxen with the cow herd is just not a good idea because they’re much larger than a lot of our cows and so they could cause damage and the bull doesn’t like them.

During the summertime, you know, when we’ve got the grass, i’m grazing the oxen all summer and the winter time I bring them in, and here in California we’re pretty lucky. It’s a mild climate, mild coastal climate, so I get their grazed grass 365 days a year So I could graze the oxen during the winter time. But I opts to pull them into the barn. They’re larger so it gets them off the pastures when it’s wet, so they’re not pugging up the pastures, they’re not like physically impacting too hard. One of the other benefits is that it allows us to train them and then we also collect all the manure.

So the oxen manure is actually a really integral part of the fertility program for our vegetable operation and so all winter long we put them into stalls, bring them in and out. They get to work. Every day We’re training them, but then we’re also mucking those stalls and collecting all of the manure, composting that and then that gets put back into the garden the following spring and summer. So I do keep them as their own unit, but then everybody else. It’s just easier for us to just kind of keep one single herd and I’ve got, i think, in total 35 to 40 animals, including a bull and all the yearlings and calves and everybody else. So it’s still fairly small, but we process four to six animals a year and then that is sold mainly at our farm bush markets, in addition to some of it sold to our shareholders themselves?

0:21:39 – Cal Hardage
What animals are you processing? Are you keeping steers multiple seasons to process or are you using another class of animal?

0:21:48 – Kevin Cunningham
Yeah, so we keep our steers. I like to get them at least to two years. We also do rotate and pull out col-cows and other animals that we kind of just find not suitable for the program. We’re fairly closed loop. I keep a bull, i keep everybody kind of together and they seasonally breed and we kind of have a cycle that they work through and I rotate that bull through and then it’s kind of grown from there and I don’t buy in other animals or have anything like that. It’s just kind of been building over the years and then we finally got to the point where we had enough beef excess that we were able to start selling that. And since we do the farmers markets for the vegetables anyways, it was an easy thing to kind of add in the direct marketed grass-fed beef, since we’re going to the farmers market anyway. So it made sense for our particular operation.

0:22:45 – Cal Hardage
One question there. You mentioned about your bull. Do you keep the bull with your herd year-round or are you pulling him off at any point?

0:22:53 – Kevin Cunningham
I actually had intentions of trying to pull him out so I can control the timing of the breeding. I’ve always had my calves kind of in the early spring, february through March, and then they breed back after a little while. We don’t wean any of our calves and so we just allow the moms to naturally wean and then breed back. And it’s been a little bit hands-off, mainly because I didn’t have any facilities. I didn’t have any way to pull that bull out, keep him actually tried to.

At one point I was like, okay, let’s try to pull this bull out and put him with the oxen, but he just ran right back, you know, he just busted through the fences and boom back in with the cows and it was like that obviously isn’t going to work, at least not on the size property that we have. If I had a place where I could ship him off to and then bring him back maybe. But it’s been an interesting thing and I hope to refine it over the years. But, oddly enough, keeping the bull and we’ve cycled the bull through, we’ve replaced our bull, we’ve raised our own bulls and we haven’t, knock on wood, had that many issues. It’s amazing how much they just kind of fit their breeding cycles and their nutritional needs into the cycle of the grass that we have here.

0:24:12 – Cal Hardage
And that’s wonderful. That’s always a question for small producers is what to do with your bull. It’s kind of difficult to justify having a bull in its own pen. Anytime you have an animal, by itself it causes some issues. It’s so farm dependent upon what you’re doing, what facilities you have available, so you find a system that works for you.

0:24:37 – Kevin Cunningham
And we did, you know, because we originally started with just the dairy cows and we just kind of had okay, let’s, you know, we transition from the dairy goats into the dairy cows, and we bought some, you know, bought a jersey and we did AI, interestingly like we just found that was harder to manage, trying to time the calf so that they didn’t have a calf in August, which is probably our driest, worst grass time of the year, and I can keep a good amount of our ground, not all of it, but I can keep a good amount of our pastures irrigated during the summer. That’s one of the things that I do that allows us to graze, you know, year round, because really the way our climate goes, we would have basically summer dormancy. Like everything gets too dry to graze during the summer. So even a lot of times ranches around here you’ll see people they’re feeding hay in August. I don’t want to have the bulk of my herd having calves in August.

0:25:33 – Cal Hardage
For your dairy cows. How are you managing their calves and how often are you milking The beef cows they just raise their calves.

0:25:42 – Kevin Cunningham
They’re great at it. But we have found that what we do with the dairy calves is we separate them and then we just start milking and then we do bottles. We bottle feed the calves. We’ve just found that we have healthier moms and healthier calves that way. The dairy calf when it comes out, it’s just not quite ready for the world, so they spend about three months. We keep little separate pens in the barn, so it’s kind of like little calf hutches but they’re fully inside the barn And so they spend about three months in there And then we take them out into a group and then we eventually integrate them into the herd.

I originally started and I used to milk twice a day And then eventually, once the production started wearing down, then switched to once a day. You were obviously not a commercial dairy, it’s just for our use, and so I’m doing solely on grass. They get an organic alfalfa pellet when they’re on the stand getting milked, and so I’m not going for high production, and so it allowed me to just be like okay, i milk in the morning And then, and that’s it. I do kind of a mobile milking. So that’s one of the things that’s kind of cool that we’ve set up. You know, i basically have this mobile milking parlor the little bit heavy, it’s all made out of wood So I’d love to redesign at some point. But we basically pull that behind the cattle herd And I use the oxen to pull that forward. So every day you know the cattle move, i just move my milk house forward with the oxen And then I go out and I milk and then I bring the milk back to be processed and they in the farm kitchen. The milking is kind of a labor of love for me because I really love working with the cattle And it allows us to have, you know, milk for for my family and for our crew, and I use the excess milk to raise calves that I train for the oxen.

I work with a great local dairy here, alexander Eco Dairy, and they’re one of the larger organic dairy producers here in the California. They raise great calves And so I get to go up there and choose 20 or so calves that they think are really good bull calves from there. They also pick some of their own bulls and whatnot. Until they pick out 20 or so And then I go okay, i get out and I get to pick four to six calves out of that group And then I usually raise those four calves And then out of that group of four I pick the best two. Then we bottle feed the calves and that kind of starts the process of training the oxen. And so by the time they get to be, you know, our full grown oxen team, they’re kind of like the ones that have made the cut and gone through all of the testing And you know they’ve got the physical and mental fortitude to do the physical work that it takes to do on the farm.

0:28:31 – Cal Hardage
So, kevin, we kind of transitioned into, but let’s just go ahead and dive deeper into your oxen for the overgrazing section, where we take a deeper dive into one of your practices And this is a very unique practice that you don’t see too many farmers doing. You were just discussing where you get your bull calves to start the process and you narrow them down. What breeding are your oxen?

0:28:56 – Kevin Cunningham
They can be any breed And I often like to talk about, like you know, the term ox is less of a category of animal and more of like a occupation. You know, just like I’m a farmer, they’re an oxen. They do tend to be the dairy breeds, mainly because of availability, but then also beef breeds also tend to put on more weight. They’re designed to get bigger faster, at least most of the you know conventional beef breeds. So you see less beef beef breeds as oxen and they’re more tend to be the dairy breeds. So one of the reasons I like working with the Alexander Eco Dairy is that they’re breeding in kind of some older style breeds for their A2, a2 milk line And so things like Fleck V and Normandy and you know my current main team is the Fleck V breed. So it’s kind of an older German multi-purpose breed, really great temperament, really good physical confirmation and hardiness on grass, which is something that we value. And you know, a lot of times back in the day you didn’t have specialties, you just had, you know, had your cow and then eventually you know you could, you know well, you maybe need to put a yolk on the cow and plow the fields.

Like I said, oxen is more of a job title And the kind of the standard definition for oxen, at least in North America, is a mature, castrated male bovine that’s trained to work. So you know the age of about four to five when cattle kind of reach actual maturity they’re considered working steers And then after they’ve kind of matured into that, they kind of graduate into the term oxen, the European breeds, that they tend to be castrated. Temperament is one And then the other kind of lesser known reason for castrating is an ox will actually be larger than the bull of the same breed. The influence of the testosterone increases growth to a point but then limits it. So without you know influence of that testosterone they will continue to get bigger And they are less temperamental to you.

I’ve worked Jersey whole thing crosses. I’ve worked milking short horns. I really like these Fleck V’s. They’re probably my best team yet. And then we’re actually kind of excited. I have a set of bull calves which would be our first ones that we actually are pulling off our own herd. They’re just about a year old at this point So they’re actually still out with the main herd This winter time. I’ll bring them in and start working with them on their training, but they came from our dairy cows.

So they would be Dexter, jersey Cross basically, Yeah, and I have some American milking Devon crossed into my dairy cows as well. We used to do AI and I bought some milking Devon semen and crossed some of that into my cattle. I’m the oddity out here in California. You can go to the Northeast and they still do oxen poles and they have 4-H programs for working steers and that kind of thing. The steers that will be training for us are kind of a Jersey milking Devon Dexter, but basically.

0:32:16 – Cal Hardage
So they’re not going to be as big as your Fleck V oxen.

0:32:21 – Kevin Cunningham
Yeah and then even my Jersey Holstein Cross is a fairly large ox, the Holstein being a really, you know, rather large boned. You know animal And Holstein make great, great oxen because they are fairly easy to find and they’re fairly, you know, mellow and they get big.

0:32:38 – Cal Hardage
What got you interested in having oxen?

0:32:41 – Kevin Cunningham
Dumb luck, i don’t know how else to put it. So when the internet commerce Titans basically took out all of the bookstores locally. So we had a Barnes and Noble up in Eureka that shut down. At one point They had a clearance on books. I was like I like books, i’m going to go up to check out the sale on books. And I go up there and one of the books that they happened to have there was by Drew Conroy and it was oxen, a teamsters manual.

Like I said, i was a trained tractor farmer. You know I had always entertained romantic notions of doing draft at some point, but I always, you know, you just assumed it would be draft horses. So I came across Drew’s book Reddit I was like, wow, i never even thought about oxen. So we went up and we got a couple of. You know. We got four dairy calves and, you know, drop calves. The funny thing is is that at the time those dairy calves were going for, you know, a drop calf was going for $20 to $30. At the time We were started raising our pastured poultry and a whole broiler at that time was going for around $20 to $30. So I literally traded with a farmer four frozen chickens for four. You know drop bull calves And you know we raised those calves and carved a little mini training yoke and I put them on it.

I’d still remember the day that I yoked up my first little set of calves and I put a sled on there and I put a little rock on the sled and I asked them to step up and I mean, by golly they pulled the thing, you know, and it worked. It was a way to get into doing draft. I didn’t have to spend thousands of dollars on a draft horse and thousands of dollars on pack and thousands of dollars on training and all this stuff. I mean, i get to work with these little calves and if in the end it didn’t work, well, we had well-behaved beef, you know, and so it was amazing the way it just kind of kept working. I realized how much I really enjoyed working with cattle at that point And that’s what kind of fueled the interest in doing the other aspects of the grass-based stuff.

0:34:52 – Cal Hardage
So I see I was looking at your Instagram page. I see your contribution to the chicken wars on Instagram and TikTok, leading your ox and followed by chickens The chicken coop.

0:35:03 – Kevin Cunningham
So we get moved daily with the ox and it’s how we integrate that aspect into our pastured operation. We move all of our mobile infrastructure using the oxen. It’s been a really great way to integrate that aspect into our pastured production.

0:35:19 – Cal Hardage
Oxen are one of those things that if I ever just had lots of time, i would find it so interesting to do. I just don’t have that kind of time right now, and my first step going towards stuff that I really don’t need to do is have a couple milk cows.

0:35:36 – Kevin Cunningham
That’s enough to keep you super busy. I always tell people, if you don’t like cows, you’re not gonna probably like oxen And you have to like walking. Training oxen is actually fairly easy. You know, i’m not a horse person, i don’t know how it is to train a horse, but I find it fairly intuitive and easy. It just takes a long time. I work with them for four years. They train me, i train them And then, hopefully, if I’ve done it for that long, i kind of know what I’m doing at that point. It’s one of those things that kind of the old saying is the you know, the ox is slow, but the earth is patient.

0:36:13 – Cal Hardage
Oh, very good, Kevin. Kevin, it’s time for us to transition into our famous four questions. Same four questions we ask of all of our guests. And our very first question what’s your favorite grazing grass related book or resource?

0:36:29 – Kevin Cunningham
This was given to me by a friend, holistic Resource Management, so this is the original Alan Savry. I think this was published in the 80s And we actually have some of the more up to date versions of his books And those are probably, you know, some of the most influential in me. There was also a book, i believe, by a Canadian author off the top of my head, but it’s called Grass-fed Cattle. Holistic Resource Management and Grass-fed Cattle are probably the prime drivers in me learning how to do the pasture, pasture-based farming that I do.

0:37:06 – Cal Hardage
Wonderful, wonderful. Our second question what tool could you not live without on your farm? I want to say the oxen.

0:37:14 – Kevin Cunningham
But I think, related to that, one of the things that we realized really early on is that wheels are complex and they break all the time And so I use probably the most is a simple sled. You know, sometimes it’s called a stone boat or different things like that And I make mine very crude, but it’s a wooden sled that I use to hitch to my oxen and I pull stuff around the farm. I’ve got complex tools that I use with them in the garden and I’ve got wagons and carts and stuff that I can pull with the oxen, But the simple, basic stone boat sled is probably the most basic and simplest tool And I mean I use it every single day. We’re hitching to that, we’re pulling something around, we’re moving bales of hay, I’m moving rocks, buckets of milk, put a log on it and pull a log. I mean there’s so many things that I use that particular tool with the oxen themselves.

0:38:14 – Cal Hardage
Very good, and I did not have that on my bingo card. Unexpected answer, but a great answer, yes. Our third question what do you wish you knew when you were getting started, or what would you tell someone who’s just now getting started?

0:38:31 – Kevin Cunningham
I think one of the things that we often tell a lot of the young folks that come through here is, in the grass farming world, to invest your money in livestock and not in machinery. I would say, early on in our farming adventure I spent, i think and it wasn’t a huge amount and I was buying used equipment in antique but I spent about $30,000 on big ol’ hunks of steel. Most all of that steel is either rusted or sold off And I think if I had invested some of that that original capital, into the portable fencing and livestock and done that in that smart way where you minimize your infrastructure investment and maximize investment on things that will have return that come back, i think that’s one of the things to really think about when you’re starting an operation. Now, do I regret buying my first tractor? Not really, because that tractor did allow me to start the farm and get to the point where I am today.

If I was to maybe do it over again, i might have invested more into portable infrastructure and livestock instead of machinery, could have set ourselves up better if we had spent more time getting our systems in place first and then investing in the property. So keeping things fairly simple in that way It’s kind of a I know it’s a common thing You’re not doing the heavy metal disease. You know where you get by a bunch of iron that depreciates in value.

0:40:10 – Cal Hardage
Yeah, very good advice. And, Kevin, where can others find out more about you?

0:40:15 – Kevin Cunningham
I’ve got a pretty good presence on Instagram at ShakeFork Oxon. My wife runs at ShakeFork Community Farm and I’m posting pretty regularly on that. We also have a Facebook presence which you can just search for ShakeFork Community Farm. We’ve got a webpage. You can find me at our local Humboldt County Farmers’ Markets on Tuesdays in Fortuna and Saturdays in Arcata, if you happen to be up here on the North Coast on Saturday in Arcata, year round Tuesdays in Fortuna during the summertime. So the social media has been a really great way for us to not everybody gets to come to the farm, but we get to bring the farm to them And it’s been a really great way to connect with our customers And honestly, i’ve connected with people all over the world, which is really cool. Overall, being able to connect with people and talk about cows and oxen and grass and all of the things that I like to talk about has been a really benefit. So at ShakeFork Oxon is probably the best way to see what we do Very good.

0:41:20 – Cal Hardage
We will have those links in our show notes And, kevin, we wanna thank you for coming on and sharing with us today. We’ve enjoyed it. This has been real fun. Thank you so much. You’re listening to the Grazing Grass podcast, helping grass farmers, learn from grass farmers, and every episode features a grass farmer in their operation. If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode and want to keep the conversation going, visit our community at communitygrazinggrasscom. Don’t forget to follow and subscribe to the Grazing Grass podcast on Facebook, twitter, instagram and YouTube for past and future episodes. We also welcome guests to share about their own grass farming journey. So if you’re interested, felt the form on grazinggrasscom under the be our guest link. Until next time, keep on grazinggrass.

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