Small Farming With Oxen

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Photo By Judy Richmond
The farmer’s posture and verbal commands provide a well-trained team of oxen with direction.

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.

Tasks. When deciding whether to use tractors only, mixed power (combining tractor power and ox power), or animal-only power, the tasks you plan to do should be a primary consideration. A well-conditioned team can plow an acre in a day using two people — one to run the plow and one to drive the team — so if you farm 10 acres, plowing might take some time. But, if you plow a half-acre garden, the tractor starts to look like overkill.

For skidding logs in a commercial operation, oxen can’t compete, but for pulling firewood out of the home woodlot, oxen can be both enjoyable and practical.

Environmental concern. The reality of tractors is that they typically burn fossil fuels, compact the soil, and require a wide berth in a woodlot. Oxen exist on marginal hay or other forage, leave hoofprints without much soil compaction, and can snake logs from dense woods.

Cost. Making a straight cost comparison between tractors and oxen can be problematic. A new compact tractor can easily set someone back $15,000, and with a basic set of implements, the cost continues to grow from there. Obviously, used tractors are an option on a small farm, but the initial investment in a pair of calves may be as low as $100 to $200.

However, a pair of calves is not really analogous to a tractor; there are many hours of training to complete. For this reason, purchasing a grown team is a favorable option in some parts of the United States. The 4-H Working Steer Program produces many quality teams trained by youngsters, and has for nearly a century. Expect to pay around $1,000 to $2,500 for a well-trained team. (One way to look at it is price of beef plus training.)

Time. In our international work, particularly in Africa, we find that many folks starting with oxen want to plow next week. In that case, a pair of 3-year-old bulls are rounded up and restrained, then dominated into submission. Finally, they are yoked together and hitched to a plow. Clearly this approach has its drawbacks.

We teach farmers that by starting with a pair of calves and building a relationship, the team is already useful by the time they can plow — usually 3 years of age — but the element of danger for all involved is greatly diminished. While they’re growing, many other useful farm tasks can be accomplished. My own team was more than able to operate a hay rake and could pull a 12-foot hay wagon when they were just a year old.

Enjoyment. My father especially enjoys driving tractors. Me? Oxen. In most things, drudgery is inversely proportional to the enjoyment of a task. So it goes with oxen. If the steady rhythm, the connection with the animals, the challenge, and the quiet time outdoors hold some appeal, oxen are a richly rewarding way to work.

Public relations. I’ll wager that few farmers have ever seen people stopping to watch a tractor work, but oxen just seem to draw a crowd. If your small farm plan includes public events, a team of oxen may generate enough additional interest to justify their effort.

Getting started farming with oxen

Once you choose ox power, a new series of decisions presents itself: Train raw calves or buy a started team? What breed should you choose? How will the team be housed and fed? What type of equipment needs made or bought? Obviously, the full range of options cannot be discussed here in full, but a brief overview of a common approach can serve as a general guide. Following is a typical starting plan for buying a new team of calves.

Begin researching a breed of oxen you like, about six months in advance. Typically, oxen are selected from among the dairy breeds of cattle. This is because they tend to carry less weight — no small consideration when you think that many oxen tip the scales at over a ton — and dairy cattle have been handled more closely, making them less skittish than beef breeds. So a team of untrained oxen might be as close as your local dairy farm.

Once you’ve chosen a breed based on availability, price and preference, contact farmers who may have calves for sale. Ideally, they’d have a well-matched pair, in size and temperament, when you call — but calling a few months in advance allows for a realistic timeline.

My standard joke is that the oxen are the experts because they’ve been oxen their whole lives, while I didn’t start driving them until later, which illustrates an important point about training: An earlier start is easier than a later start. For instance, a week-old, bottle-fed team can learn to follow the five basic commands and pull a small load before they’re a month old, while year-old, 800-pound steers might require an entire month just to gentle them into a halter.

The next step is teaching the five basic commands. A full description of training is beyond our scope here, but it relies on consistency and an understanding of the natural behavior of cattle. Further, oxen are prey animals by nature and respond to body position. Using their natural instincts to flee, oxen are trained to start walking with a gentle tap on their backs and a slight shift in the trainer’s body position. Similarly, the other commands are introduced as extensions of behaviors cattle would be expected to normally exhibit, and then reinforced until they are learned behaviors.

Yoking a team

Oxen are most often and, we believe, most comfortably worked in a yoke — a solid beam of wood with bows to secure the animals together. The yoke is sized to fit the team and is traditionally measured as the distance between the sides of the bow. A small team of calves usually starts out in a small 5-inch yoke, while a 2-ton team may wear an 11-inch or larger yoke.

Once the calves understand the five commands in the halter, the next step is to carefully and slowly — maybe over several sessions — acclimate them to the yoke. Oxen adapt easily to new things, as long as the initial experience with those new things is positive. The major change in the yoke is that turning becomes a group activity. The animal on the outside of a turn speeds up, and the inside animal must slow or stop to complete the turn.

Pulling a load

The final critical piece in getting started is to complete the pulling of a load. Here, the positive experience is even more critical because, as prey animals, cattle will perceive the load behind them as chasing them. If they run, it runs after them, and a runaway team is a real and dangerous possibility. To overcome this fear, make sure the team can see and sniff a new item before they’re hitched to it, and if possible, watch and follow as it is pulled away from them so they can see it as being non-threatening.

Finally, remember that the goal in hitching the first time to anything is to hitch without incident. A step forward and unhitching the load should be interpreted as success. A note about carts and wheeled vehicles: Since they “push” a team as they are stopping, extra care should be taken the first few times you hitch to them. Tillers finds great success in pulling only wheeled loads up a gentle slope until a team is fully acclimated to them.

Time is the critical element. Training a team won’t happen overnight, at least not over one night, but it will happen with a good plan and persistence. There is no substitute for working a team regularly.  

Read more: Explore the responsibility and fun of an at home dairy in Bottle-Feeding Dairy Calves from the GRIT blog BIGGERS FARM.

Rob Collins teaches high school social studies, is a volunteer for Tillers International, and is a board member of the Midwest Ox Drovers Association. He has a Dutch Belted ox and a pair of Milking Shorthorns.