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Step by step, couple learns to train, care for oxen team

Darrin Wixo and Sheila Sutton Wixo ride behind their trained Highland cattle Gravy, left, and Biscuit. The two oxen are about half their full-grown weight. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service1 / 4
Darrin Wixo yokes Gravy, left, and Biscuit. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service2 / 4
Biscuit waits as Darrin Wixo gather gear to yoke the oxen. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service3 / 4
Darrin Wixo treats Gravy to an animal cracker. Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service4 / 4

DULUTH — The Wixos had a log problem. After two major storms, more than 350 trees had fallen on their 16 acres outside Duluth. That's when Darrin Wixo decided to take a tip from history and bring the muscle.

He purchased two Scottish Highland cattle, named Biscuit and Gravy, to help clear the way, and ever since they came home in May, "It's been more than a hobby — about all I do when I'm not working," Darrin said.

He has trained the steer to be oxen, a term for trained bovine. It was tricky finding information on training because there's not a single resource or someone to talk to, he said.

He came across a lot about the logging industry; he read "Farmer Boy" by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

"It's probably not the craziest thing he's ever done, and they're pretty sweet," said Sheila Sutton Wixo.

Training was hands-on, getting them acclimated to people, noises and trying to teach them how to lead individually. He also worked with Biscuit and Gravy to get them comfortable lying down, having their hooves and tails checked. Soon, Darrin was able to find a handmade yoke, a wooden frame used to join animals, from a New Hampshire seller.

On the Wixo land, Darrin adjusted the yoke, connecting the oxen before harnessing them onto a hay-filled cart. They have good peripheral vision, and they're agile. They can itch their rear end with their face. "They're like contortionists," Sheila said.

And, they kick — back, forward, sideways. Darrin has been kicked a couple of times, but not to the point where he's been hurt.

The oxen will give you a swipe to let you know to back off, he added. If there is aggression, Darrin is quick to correct it. "You can take a rope and wrap it around their body and around a leg. They'll be on three legs for a while, but it doesn't hurt them," he said. Corrections and early training are important because they'll grow to be 1,200 pounds.

General commands are few — "G" means right and "Ha" means left. For positive reinforcement, Darrin will rub them on the nose. They like to be petted on their head, Sheila said, and Darrin will give them a bear hug around the neck.

Biscuit and Gravy will wrestle and ram heads. Sometimes, it's like Gravy is pushing his little brother around, even though they're the same age, Sheila said. The oxen also sleep right next to each other.

"They're gentle giants," added Patricia Nolin, Sheila's mother.

The oxen are still young at a little over a year old. They weigh about 600 pounds each.

Darrin recalled going to the feed store and asking for oats, and a clerk suggesting he get corn. "I'm not butchering them; I don't need fat cows. I need Schwarzenegger cows," he said.

That's one tip from the logging industry that Darrin has taken to heart. "I've started eating more oats after watching them. It jacks their energy up."

The oxen are very food-driven, and rarely discriminating. Save for ferns, they eat everything: apples, leaves, trees, grass. They love clover, and for treats, they get animal crackers.

They'd each easily consume a bale of hay a day if they could, Sheila said.

The couple hasn't calculated the cost to keep the pair. They did get 500 hay bales at the family rate from an aunt and uncle. Their electricity bill was a little expensive during the winter when they were hauling and heating gallons of water. Darrin is building a water system to address that this year.

If having oxen doesn't work out, the Wixos would ship them back to their birthplace in Detroit Lakes. They wouldn't have the heart to eat them, they said.

Looking ahead, Darrin plans to hang onto their yokes as they grow out of them, just in case he wants to add another pair later.

Sitting on the Wixo wagon, Darrin directed Biscuit and Gravy with light taps of a driving whip. In old photos, a man would lead oxen from the front, he said. "Seeing them on the wagon is something I'm pretty proud of."

• More information can be found on the "Ox Rock" Facebook page:

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

(218) 723-5346