Small Farming With Oxen

On small farms, draft animals and farming with oxen might be practical and satisfying alternatives to the conventional tractor.

| March/April 2013

  • two oxen attached to a yoke pull a load of hay
    The farmer’s posture and verbal commands provide a well-trained team of oxen with direction.
    Photo By Judy Richmond
  • Gritty plows with his ox
    Gritty plowing with oxen.
    Illustration By Brad Anderson

  • two oxen attached to a yoke pull a load of hay
  • Gritty plows with his ox

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.

4/4/2014 3:50:48 PM

The article mentions the "five basic commands" a couple of times, but doesn't say what they are. What are the "five commands"?

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