Small Farming With Oxen
On small farms, draft animals and farming with oxen might be practical and satisfying alternatives to the conventional tractor.
The farmer’s posture and verbal commands provide a well-trained team of oxen with direction.
Photo By Judy Richmond
The first time you see a team of oxen working in the field, you may think you’re looking back in time. The surprising agility of these gentle animals and the rhythm they develop with their drover offer an authentic look at our colonial roots. Let your mind wander back as far as ancient Egypt, where oxen were widely used, or to the China of 1900, where cattle farmed the rice patties. In any case, these beasts of burden are far from out of a job.
Globally, there are 300 to 400 million oxen being worked today because they can provide a capable, practical, economical alternative to the tractor on a small farm, even in the modern world.
Tillers International is an organization that teaches both domestic and international students how to incorporate practical draft animal power into a small-farm setting. The reality for many farms around the world is that a tractor is more of a burden than a luxury. The capital investment is high, replacement parts and implements are unavailable, and fuel costs exceed a farmer’s weekly income. A team of oxen, though, helps some farmers lift themselves out of poverty when compared with farming by hand labor alone.
For most of us in the United States, a comparison with the tractor is more realistic than hand labor.
Following is a series of considerations for the small farmer thinking of adding ox power to the farm.
What is an ox?
‘Ox’ is a job title. Just as humans can be teachers, or farmers, cattle can be oxen. An ox is just a bovine with an education; if it is trained to pull a load, it’s an ox.
Tillers suggests the New England style of driving on the left side of the team using a crop, goad stick or buggy whip in most situations. The stick operates like a conductor’s baton, and along with the other two cue systems — body position and voice control — serves to guide the team through the five basic commands that define a handy, or well-trained team: Come (or some other word for “go” — the word doesn’t really matter as oxen don’t speak English, but come, get up, and come up are traditional commands), Haw (turn left), Gee (turn right), Whoa (stop), and Back (for backing up).
Tractors vs. oxen
I’ll admit I’m biased, but for farming on a human scale, a team of oxen can compete favorably with a tractor — or provide an important supplement to a tractor as long as you adhere to a few sensible considerations.
Scale. If the dream is to grow a rotation of corn, soybeans and wheat on 1,000 acres, oxen probably aren’t for you. However, if a mixed crop homestead, small dairy, market garden, maple sugar bush, or grass-based livestock operation of three to 50 acres is more appealing, oxen can compete as a power source. For instance, for moving hay, either in round or square bales, a simple stoneboat (a wooden sled for dragging heavy loads) and a chain are all that are needed. Likewise, on my home farm, my single ox is more than capable of raking a few acres of hay and pulling a sled, wagon or cart loaded with hay to the barn. As the scale of operation gets smaller, the advantages of oxen get larger.
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