Gene Logsdon and Friends

Oxen Power For Family Farms

In Garden Farm Skills, Gene Logsdon Blog on August 19, 2008 at 7:51 am

From Gene Logsdon
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.
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From Storey Publishing


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Amish Oxen Plowing

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Tillers International – Farming with Far Fewer Fossil Fuels

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  1. Maybe you will write a book about this subject similiar to Small-Scale Grain Raising?

  2. Ah, but oxen aren’t the best source of labor here in Alaska. Having to house them for at least six months and then feed them all that time reduces their effectiveness. That’s not to say horses are any better; they’re even more expensive to keep.

    Now, if somebody can show me how to train a team of goats to do the work, then I’ll be paying very close attention. If not goats, I’d entertain alternatives even, so suggestions would be welcome.

    Kerri in AK

  3. Robert Haugland: I don’t kmow enough to write a first hand book about oxen. I know a lot about cows, but not about turning them into “beasts of burden.”
    Kerri in AK: I have a hunch, from this and other comments you have made to my posts, that if we were to meet in person we would have a hilarious time giggling about the madness of humanity. I have argued, in other books and articles, exactly the point you are making here. Even n Ohio, this survivor of two runaways and two bucking riding horses, namely me, have bullheadedly and consistently argued in favor of old tractors that I have purchased for a whole lot less than horses, and kept running now for many many years. I admire and defend my friends who have opted for horses or oxen, but unfortunately, they are not for me in modern times. Gene Logsdon

  4. Kerri,

    Goats can be trained as a team. They have often been used as cart animals. A mature Swiss breed goat can pull about 400 lbs. Teaming them can increase that. Hoegger Goat Supply Company has the basic equipment, books, and can offer a bit of guidance. We will be starting to train one of our goats this fall. We’ll post to our blog as things progress. If it works they should be the best option for most small garden/farms for everything except the heaviest work.

  5. Alan,

    How do I find your blog? I’d be thrilled to follow your experience with training. Could an adult be trained or is this something that’s done with young ones? The goats here are Cashmeres and a couple of the wethers are quite large (the buck is enormous). All the kids this year were does and I don’t think they’ll be all that big when they mature. The primary purpose for this herd is clearing underbrush although there could be a nice side business selling the cashmere wool.

    But to have goats that can be trained to pull will help a lot with clearing part of the land. It’s 80 acres with a 1 acre clearing and 79 acres of mostly birch with some spruce, alder, willow and cottonwood mixed in. Getting a four wheeler or tractor back in there is practically impossible without cutting a huge pathway first. Even horses would be a little large through some spots.

    Thanks for the info!

    Kerri in AK

  6. Another possibility for Kerri:
    Reindeer were likely domesticated before the horse. They are still recognized for being the ONE draft animal, besides the dog, best suited to some very cold parts of the world. They may be unequal to other domesticated draft animals in some ways … but they can handle cold, forage for themselves at least part of their diet, have already been introduced to Alaska and bred there for some time, and have an long established tradition of being draft animals. Perhaps the Alaskan-bred population of domestic reindeer would need minimal housing, and certainly their feeding and vetrinary care have been well worked out these past several decades.

  7. Neggin,

    A good idea except that as a non-Alaska Native, I would have to import reindeer from outside Alaska to own them. Only Alaska Native peoples are able to own Alaska reindeer. In addition, reindeer do best with large grazing areas and in large numbers. Having to import reindeer from somewhere else would be a hefty expense to begin with. That the problem is finding a way to clear a forested area off a road without having to first clear a trail for heavy equipment won’t help any reindeer brought it.

    That’s why I was toying with the idea of using goats. At least goats already live on that land.

    Kerri in AK

  8. Oh… I did not know that non-Alaska Natives could not own the reindeer from the established herds. And there it is right in the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. Otherwise, I saw the reindeer as an under-appreciated trainable work animal that gets made into sausages and leather, and seldom gets to show its real talents. So it just won’t work but thankyou for entertaining my idea. Best of luck with putting the goats to work.

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