Trimming the Yard with Oxen and Hand Scythes

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Today was my day to take out the lawn mower. Sort of. Here at D Acres, our team of oxen — Henri and August – takes the place of large machinery. No pedals, gears, nor spinning blades, just a goad, plenty of practice, and time-earned respect.   

Fact of the matter is that a neighbor’s threat of a real lawn mower (the dandelion has been getting away from us, granted) has imbued the task with urgency. You see, what “lawn” we have here at the farm is kept up, not by gas-powered gadgets, but by hungry oxen and by the careful use of a hand scythe. Allow me to explain myself, please.  Each morning, the oxen are walked about the property, trimming the edges of liminal areas, munching the clover, plantain, dandelion, and assorted grasses into temporary submission (these are their favorites of the daily selection, however, they’ll mischievously snatch at apple trees or a paw-paw leaf if you’re not careful…). The sides of paths and walkways, the edges of gardens, the field space we use for tents…each of these grow quickly. The oxen provide a check and balance to the system. Not only do August and Henri keep things looking presentable for us, they glean significant calories from the land. This daily hour-or-two walk provides a lush and reliable source of food for these large work animals during the summer months. For us, it’s about using all the available biomass that presents itself. The sun’s energy and the soil’s nutrients regularly produce a wealth of rogue weeds and persistent grasses. Our temperaments are much better off if we see this cornucopia of growth as free fodder, rather than troublesome invasives attempting to ruin our gardens’ growth.   

That being said, there are certainly nooks and crannies on the property into which the oxen can’t reach their sizeable frames. They are also picky, and obstinately turn their broad shoulders on patches of barbed grass and milkweed. The pigs and chickens, though, are not so discerning. Therefore, for these lower-grade weeds and hard to reach places, we make use of a hand scythe. 

A hand scythe is an excellent tool for edging. With a sharp, curved blade, a hand scythe is like a weed-whacker specializing in accuracy and precision. Using this tool to cut grass and weeds is part of our daily summertime chores, enabling us to feed significant quantities of biomass to our numerous pigs and many chickens. Not only are we converting the sun’s energy into “free” food, we’re also utilizing it in such a way that accelerates it’s conversion to a nutritive soil additive. As the animals eat through such “weeds,” they are actively transforming this biomass into a nutrient-rich compost. Thanks to this animal-powered conversion, we can then spread such compost back to our garden beds. By cutting these vigorous grasses and weeds, we are encouraging a healthy albeit controlled growth of these plants, ensuring that we will continue to have nutrient-packed fodder for our many animals while also guaranteeing that nothing goes to seed. (While that still leaves us to fight wily against the ever-expanding root system, it does, at least, prevent an all-out re-seeding of this not-to-be-cultivated flora in our garden beds).  Farmer’s tactics, if you will.   

We are striving, as in most of our endeavors, to employ the resources we have at hand for as many uses as possible in a holistic, cyclical system. Thanks to our animals, we are able to turn less-than-useful lawn space into an integral component of our edible permaculture landscape.  

Originally published in North Country News.