I've used steers as young as six months old in the woods, a few hours at a time, hauling small diameter 8' to 12' poles for firewood. Yearlings can work most of an 8-hour day, provided you give them appropriate breaks and plenty of feed and water. An more mature team can work a full 8- to 10-hour day, once they are used to the work. Since, like many teamsters, I log only part time, I have to keep my team's condition in mind when working them in the woods. Nothing is more disheartening than having a team become discouraged by being overworked.
The oxen aren't the only ones that can get discouraged. I've seen people become overwhelmed when they begin logging with draft animals. The work is physically demanding and requires knowledge that can't be learned overnight. A teamster can prepare for many dangerous variables, but can never completely be ready for unforeseen hazards that may arise.
Before you work oxen in the woods, be sure the woodlot is appropriate for animals. The layout and length of the skid roads are very critical. Slight downhill skids that are a few hundred feet long are best, especially for ground skidding. Longer skids or uphill trails wear the animals out faster, particularly if they are used only occasionally or are being worked in warm weather. Steep, rocky slopes are challenging, and so is wet swampy ground unless it's frozen.
The basic equipment for working the team in the woods, besides a team that's willing to work, is a yoke and a chain about 12' to 15' long with a slip hook on one end and a grab hook on the other. With this basic outfit in the ideal woodlot, you're ready to move logs.
Wrap the end with the slip hook around a log or group of logs and use the grab hook to attach the other end of the chain to the yoke, allowing adjustments for length. The chain should be short enough to keep the log close to the animals, but not so close it will catch their heels or roll onto their legs. Many teamsters cover part of the chain with plastic pipe or hose to protect the animals' legs from getting chaffed as they travel down a winding path with a load.
Check out the skid path ahead of time. If the forest floor or skid trail is covered with large roots, rocks, or stumps the team might get hung up. As they move forward and the log catches on an obstacle just passed, either the team will stop dead or the yoke or chain will break. If large obstacles are unavoidable, try to bevel the end of the log so it can bounce off or ride over the obstacle. Another option is to use a logging lizard [described in detail in "Logging Lizard," Autumn 1994.]
Ground skidding has its limitations, particularly if the animals tired because they must travel a long distance or are working in a particularly rough woodlot. Then, too, some sawmills won't accept lumber that has been skidded through the dirt, for fear of damaging the saw blade on grit or stones caught in the bark.
When ground skidding is inappropriate, you'll need an implement of some time, which means you'll need to make a greater investment and use winder skid trails. You may have to ground skid in conjunction with the implement, if you can't get the implement close enough to hitch the logs directly to it.
In winter you can use a bobsled to raise the front end of the logs to prevent hangups. A large scoot offers another option that lets you carry entire logs or loads of firewood. A bobsled or scoot works well over frozen ground and packed trails, provided your oxen are shod. If the animals are not shod working them in winter can be challenging. Their cloven hooves offer little traction on a packed and frozen trail.
Be particularly careful when going downhill. Make sure the bobsled or scoot has a pole (long wooden tongue), so the load doesn't creep up on the animals or overrun them. The team should be accustomed to holding back a load. Since oxen don't usually wear brichens, they must learn to use their head and horns to hold back a load when going downhill.
In warmer weather or southern climates, wheeled forecarts can be used to raise the front of the log off the ground. Some loggers use a small winch to raise the log, others have an axle that drops lower when backed up and is raises when pulled forward. Loggers in many areas historically used high wheeled carts with large wooden wheels to straddle the log and lift one or both ends in the air, easing the challenge of moving logs over great distances or soft ground. [See "Slow Pull," Autumn 1994.]
In warmer months I often use a simple but rugged cart, welded together from a truck axle, to haul firewood out of a woodlot to my farm. The cart holds about one-third of a cord of wood in 4' lengths. If I take a rough road or path I may use a chain and binder to hold the wood in place. Many teams have drawn that cart over rocks, stumps, and other obstacles I'll not mention.
If you build your logging cart, keep your woodlot and your oxen in mind. the cart should be able to withstand occasional collision with a tree, rock, or stump without falling apart. My 15-year-old cart is designed with a wooden pole that acts as the shear pin in rough situations. The pole is easily manufactured in the woodlot using a small straight tree.
Since some of this equipment is the same as that used with draft horses, you might be able to find second-hand implements around. The advantage of hitching to oxen instead of horses is that cattle don't need elaborate harnesssing. Any draft horse logging iplement can be adapted to oxen, provided your animals are large enough to use it. Many breeds grow to 3,000 pounds at maturity; others won't weigh as much as a draft horse. My Milking Devons, for example, are so much smaller than the average ox that I call them "pony" oxen. they weigh only 1,000 pounds each, yet can easily pull a sled loaded with one-quarter coard of greed hardwood over a skid trail in summer. In winter the load could probably be tripled.
Pound for pound horses and mules are stronger than oxen. They're also faster, particularly in warm weather. But when it comes to simple logging, with a minimum investment in money and in time spent training the animals, a team of oxen are hard to beat. For a part-time farmer or small woodlot owner needing to move some firewood, or selectively thin a small forest stand, logging with oxen can be appropriate, cost effective, and a great way to enjoy the mystique of logging with animals.