Andy Mayberry with his Holstein oxen, Fluffy (left) and Cuddles.
Andy Mayberry is a gentleman farmer, a sixth-generation Arizonan and a well-established family practice physician in Benson. But it's his 2,200-pound oxen that garner the most attention — and do most of the work.
© John Burcham
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By Kelly Vaughn Kramer
When a 2,200-pound Holstein ox stands up, you pay attention. Not for fear of being squashed, but because of the heft of it all — the way the muscles tense and the legs stabilize and the great, big block of a head turns to shake away dust.
When a 2,200-pound Holstein ox named Cuddles stands up, you really pay attention. Because an ox named Cuddles is a bit of an attention-grabber.
Andy Mayberry is used to the movement of oxen. When he purchased two Holstein calves for his daughter seven years ago, he knew what they’d ultimately become — gentle, working, Volkswagen-sized members of the family. But he couldn’t foresee just how much he’d come to appreciate their sweet nature, the way they take to the yoke or their gentle, steady plodding.
“My dad was a cowboy, and he always wanted me to cowboy,” Mayberry says. “I became a doctor instead, but I was always intrigued by horse-drawn vehicles — to the point that I took a girlfriend to the prom with a horse and buggy.”
When Mayberry was 8 or 9 years old, his father charged him with the care of a bull calf named Calvin. He bottle-fed the bull — which he remembers as a “big puppy” — and when the animal grew to 1,400 pounds, Mayberry saddled it, put a ring in its nose and rode it in parades in Tucson, Bisbee and Benson. By the time Mayberry sold it four years later, the bull weighed 1,800 pounds.
Decades later, the majority of his children had chosen sports hobbies, but when Mayberry’s then-15-year-old daughter Mariah didn’t, he encouraged her to look into raising livestock. Together, they decided on oxen.
“I thought, If I can train a bull to ride with a saddle, we can teach oxen how to plow a field,” he says.
It’s unseasonably warm in St. David on a late-February day when Mayberry opens the gate that leads to Cuddles’ pen. The ox lives there with his counterpart, Fluffy, and two Norwegian Fjord horses that look as though they belong in Frozen. As Cuddles stands, Fluffy turns his head, completely uninterested in interaction with Mayberry or his visitors. Indeed, Mayberry confirms, Cuddles is the more social of the bovines.
At 6-foot-3, Mayberry is sinewy but strong, far more American Gothic than Green Acres. A gentleman farmer, he’s a sixth-generation Arizonan — a descendant of St. David’s original settlers — the patriarch of a family of seven and a well-established family practice physician in neighboring Benson. When he speaks to humans, it’s in the measured, genteel tone of someone who’s earned letters after his name.
When he speaks to oxen, it’s with the authority of a drill sergeant barking at his troops.
The animals take easily to the bow yoke, and when Mayberry demonstrates how he moves more than 4,000 pounds of beef, it’s with an impressive efficiency.
“Up,” he says. “Ha. Ha. Up. Whoa.”
The commands are simple, accompanied by the flick of a switch, and very, very effective. The animals go, turn and stop without pause or even a hint of aggravation.
Now that his daughter is away at college, Mayberry is solely responsible for the care of Cuddles and Fluffy, and they know it.
“The animals are OK with the hierarchy,” Mayberry says. “They know that I’m in charge, and they don’t have the attitude or the will that horses have, so that actually makes them easier to train. I’ve trained dogs, horses and these two. The oxen are the easiest.”
Given that the oxen wear a 75-pound yoke made of birch and work a plow that enables them to pull 10 to 15 percent of their body weight for 10 hours a day, their strength is apparent. They’re so strong, in fact, they can pull twice their weight for 6 feet and take a break, then do it again. Perhaps that’s why, worldwide, oxen are used in farming four times as frequently as horses, according to Mayberry.
For Mayberry and his Stonehaven Farm, though, it’s enough that the animals help plow the soil for crops of wheat and squash. Enough, too, that they’re a main attraction in Benson’s Fourth of July and Tucson’s rodeo parades. Enough that they’ve given him a bit of mental release from the pressures of his day job.
“This is my downtime,” he says. “Training the oxen allows me to use a different part of my brain. Cutting through the soil, using the oxen to plow, it’s very personal. I come home and smell the dirt, and everything in the world is good.”
For more information about Andy Mayberry's Stonehaven Farm, visit www.facebook.com/stonehavenaz.
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