Did you know there are YACs at Conner Prairie? No, not yaks, YACs: Youth Agriculture Captains. These are hand-picked leaders within the Youth Volunteer Program who are given extra agriculture, or “ag” responsibilities. I sat down with two of our YACs (14yo Grace and 17yo Dorian) for a youth’s-eye view of what it’s like to work with the animals.
Describe a typical day as a YAC.
Dorian and Grace:
If we’re working in Animal Encounters
, we like to get here early to help with morning chores. We make sure all the animals have water and hay, we sweep the barn, make up milk bottles for the babies and wash the dishes, pick the pens (which means throwing out the poo), and drop shavings and straw into the pens. We do this again in the afternoon. During the day, we talk to guests and help them interact with the animals. In 1836 Prairietown
we do many of the same things while in costume.
Doesn’t it scare you that an ox is so much bigger than you are?
Yeah, when a calf is born it weighs 60-90 pounds, and within a few years can weigh tons! I was a little cautious of Red and Blue (two of our oxen) my first year, but not anymore. As Kevyn (the ag manager) puts it, “We can control them because we have thumbs,” meaning we are smarter.
How did you learn what you need to know to be a YAC?
Dorian and Grace:
From the great ag staff! We attended several extra training sessions over the winter. We also took a fieldtrip to Trader’s Point Creamery and compared methods of milking. They use machines there. Here we use a combination of machine and hand-milking, depending on the temperament of the cow. In fact, we now have a fresh (milkable) cow again! Sarah the Jersey cow just delivered a bull calf on August 22nd. Guests should come out to see him. We also milk at the barn by the Golden Eagle in the afternoon whenever we have a fresh cow with the temperament to successfully be hand-milked.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve gotten to do with the animals?
Working with the big cattle. Not a lot of kids get to halter oxen. Some YACs have helped with birthing. I was down in a pen with Polly, a Nubian goat, when she delivered. I held the newborn and helped it start milking.
I love Nubians! They are all ears and legs!
What are the most common challenges with interpreting the animals to our guests?
Well-meaning people don’t always understand the boundaries around animals because they aren’t exposed to them. Noise can frighten them. Elizabeth our new English Longhorn doesn’t like to be touched on the face. Cattle can’t see in front of them as their eyes are on the sides of their head. We YACs have to really be watching the animals to see if they are stressed and need to relax in the pasture.
Our goats are adventurous and we are always wrangling them. They love to investigate the backs of strollers because that’s where moms hide snacks.
Yeah, and remember when we had those turkeys who figured out how to open the doors to the Welcome Center using the automatic sensor?
Why should our guests care about animals?
Often city kids will call a calf a llama. I patiently explain to them which animals are which, because they need to understand animals are such an essential part of the lives of people in the past.
Don’t we have some rare breeds here?
Actually they’re so rare they’re technically extinct!
Conner Prairie owns three out of the 24 English Longhorns in the U.S. These are the only ones on public display. Our new calf Elizabeth is important because she’s not inbred - her dad is from England. In the 1800s this breed was really common, but then other breeds like shorthorns become more popular.
Aren’t Randall Linebacks also very rare?
Yup, Red and Blue, Conner Prairie’s oxen, are a rare breed.
What is your favorite weird animal fact?
Goats, cattle, and sheep have no top teeth except back molars. They can’t really bite you unless you have your hand way back in their mouths. And that’s just too personal anyway!
A big draw for our guests, especially in Prairietown, is when our team of oxen comes out to play. Red and Blue have been around for six years now and I’d say they’ve definitely earned their keep around here. What a lot of people don’t know, though, is that Red and Blue weren’t born as oxen. That is actually a title that they have to work for by learning the different calls and commands and working together to pull carts, plows, and wagons. It takes them about 3 to 4 years to accomplish all that! It’s kind of like going to a University and earning a degree, Red and Blue went to “Ox”-ford (I know, that was terrible, I couldn’t help myself!).
But just because they are fully trained now doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels! We still have to work the team, even though there are no guests around to visit us right now. Just like anything, if you want to stay good at it, you have to practice. The same goes for oxen. It’s not only good for Red and Blue, but it’s good for us Ag Staffers to get out and spend some quality time with them. Half of driving oxen is having a respectable relationship between the driver and the team. If Red and Blue don’t know me and trust me, then how can I expect them to listen to me when I want them to do something? Every time we take our oxen out to work, we are building on that trust and that relationship.
Our task for this winter though, has not only been to work with Red and Blue, but we have a newer team that we have been working with for about a year and a half now. Their names are Louis and Clark. Now I know what you’re thinking, why would you start training a new team when you already have a perfectly good one on hand? Good question! Just like farmers and drovers of the past, we have to look to the future.
Red and Blue won’t always be six years old. They will eventually become too old to pull and work the same way that they do now, so by the time that happens Louis and Clark will be six years old themselves! That way, as long as you are planning ahead, you will always have a team of oxen in their prime.
Since coming to Conner Prairie and learning how to work with the oxen, I can certainly see why people are drawn to them. Aside from the fact that I find Red and Blue to be completely adorable and hilarious, seeing oxen work in yoke is a big visual connection to our past for many of our guests. Oxen played a significant role in our country’s history. In Indiana in 1836 they outnumbered horses 4 to 1! They hauled our goods, helped clear our roads, and plowed our fields. So the next time you come to visit Conner Prairie, be sure to say hello to our oxen, not just because of Red’s cute crooked nose, but because of work they do in helping to preserve our past.
Last month I blogged (is that really a verb?) about figuring out what you really like at cultural places you visit – not waiting for an “expert” to tell you what’s great. And, I asked readers to tell me what they really like at Conner Prairie.
I’m pleased that a few readers wrote in to express their thoughts. Now it’s my turn to say what I really like at Conner Prairie. Here goes.
• As someone who grew up around New York City, the only animal I knew well was George our standard poodle. Working here, I’ve been amazed by our farm animals. I never expected them to have personalities, no less communicate their needs so clearly. Our enormous oxen Red and Blue lift their chins to be scratched when someone approaches; I’m always happy to comply.
• Doctor Campbell and his mysterious and ghastly assortment of cures continues to surprise and amuse me. Someday I’m going to see if blood letting with leeches actually improves a headache.
• I like handcraft – always have, and am riveted by the spark of hammer on anvil in the blacksmith’s shop and the rhythm of the shuttle on the loom.
Toddlers are my favorite age because they express delight with every muscle. In the past month I’ve seen one tiny boy dash madly after a baby goat and another yell “train” with glee when the tram rounded the corner. Can you tell I’ve just become an empty nester and am ready to adopt grandchildren?
I could listen to Mike in the Lenape Village wind tales for hours, and I always tear up when former slave Albert Cheatham escapes from Morgan’s Raiders in 1863 Civil War Journey
• Finally, I am most at peace when I round the dusty path south of Prairietown and can view the White River snaking around the bend. I can just imagine canoes loaded with furs headed further north up to William Conner’s trading post.
How wonderful it is to stop and name the things I like best. Like counting blessings instead of worries.