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Oxen power for family farms

Garden Farm Skills

Any cow can be trained as a draft ox, although to be precise, an ox is a steer four years old or older. Bovines have some advantages over horses as draft animals. But rather than praise oxen in my own words, I shall bow in favor of that feisty old gadfly William Cobbett, who flourished (and I do mean flourished) from 1763 to 1835. Here is, briefly, his argument in favor of oxen (Cobbett’s Country Book: An Anthology of William Cobbett’s Writings on Country Matters, 1975):

Harness, if harness be used and not yokes, is much less expensive and requires less strength than that which is to stand the jerking and the starting of a horse. (Yoking is cheaper, today, than horse harness.)

Food upon which a horse will not be able to work at all is quite sufficient for an ox.

One of the great plagues of the horse is the blacksmith… and loose shoes… With oxen you have none of these plagues.

[With horses] there is the grease and the pole-evil and the glanders and the strangles and the fret and the coughs and the staggers and the botts and various other nasty and troublesome diseases. The ox knows none of these.

The first cost of the ox or steer, three years old is… less than half the sum for a horse the same age. (Quite true today, too.)

If from age, it be desirable to fat the ox, he may bring you one-third more than his first cost, if not double the amount… [whereas a horse in this regard] is a mere drug if it be old or out of condition. The ox is something to be eaten and has an intrinsic value. (And, I might add, cows trained as draft animals give milk as well as meat.)

We read in the Bible of war-horses; of horses drawing chariots. But we never find an allusion to horses employed in the tillage of the land; for which by their gentleness, by the nature of the food which they require, by their great docility, oxen seem to have been formed by nature.

And upon that, I will rest my case. Thank you, Mr. Cobbett.

That oxen were harnessed and not necessarily yoked in Cobbetts time is interesting in view of the fact that today yoking is the prevalent custom where oxen are used. My neighbor, Glen Kieffer (who has since passed away), uses both a yoke and harness on his oxen, and his method, it seems to me, gives better results than either one or the other. He puts bridle and bit on his animals and guides them from the rear with reins, as with horses. But there is no other harness. Just the big wooden yoke over the animals’ necks, to which the tongue of the implement being pulled is secured. Although oxen can be trained by voice and prod from a driver walking beside them, for precise work, as in pulling a binder down a row of corn, the direct control from reins and bit seems far more prudent. I was impressed by the ease with which Kieffer handled his young Holstein steers, and the calm and placid way they worked. Should I switch to animal power on my farm, there’s no doubt in my mind what I would choose oxen, not horses.

Kieffer has several yokes of different sizes. He begins training when the oxen are calves, so that from an early age they grow accustomed to the work. His homemade yokes are flat on the sides, cut from a beam, not carved round from a piece of wood with grain curving to the shape of the yoke. His yokes are therefore not the strongest, and might break with very heavy loads and huge oxen. But for the lighter work he does, such yokes are fine and easier to make.

A yoke can in fact be cut out with a chain saw, and the edges then rounded off with a drawknife. The bows are hickory or ash, steambent to shape. The implement tongue fits through a steel ring and is fastened to it. That is all the hitching that is needed. For working in the woods, oxen are handier than horses, since there are no trace chains or whiffletree—just the chain going to the yoke.

Training the ox to gee and haw (go right and left), whoa and come up (stop and go), takes much time and patience. The first step is training the animal to lead as one would a cow or horse, then using ropes to back up the voice commands, over and over again until the ropes aren’t needed. With rein and bit, the training goes faster. But to be able to guide only by voice is what makes ox driving so pleasant and handy, especially when dragging logs or loading a wagon, since your hands are thus free for working.

You can hitch up just one cow or ox alone. In years past, many a cow carted her milk to market. That is the kind of efficiency no modern technology can hope to match.

From Storey Publishing


Amish Oxen Plowing

Editorial Notes:

Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Excerpted from Gene Logsdon’s Practical Skills: A Revival of forgotten Crafts, Techniques, and Traditions, 1985

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