Considering adding animal power to your farm? Many who seek sustainability in their fields love the idea of working with a living team that is not dependent on fuel and that can contribute to the fertility of the soil. Once you’ve weighed the pros and cons of draft animals in general, you are ready to consider what type of draft team will be most suited to your farm—oxen, horses, mules, or those all-too-often-overlooked donkeys. Over the next few weeks, we’ll delve into the pros and cons of each option.
An ox is a steer that has been specially trained for draft work. Oxen have been used as draft animals since the most ancient times, but they fell out of favor with the rise of mechanized agriculture. Fortunately, they have been enjoying renewed interest among small-scale farmers.
Most cattle breeds ideal for training as oxen fall into the dual-purpose category, although there are beef and dairy steers that are quite suitable. Examples of breeds that can be used as oxen include:
- Brown Swiss.
- Devon (American Milking type).
- Dutch Belted.
- English Longhorn.
- Hereford (horned).
- Shorthorn (Milking and Heritage types).
- Texas Longhorn.
Crosses of many of these breeds can also be used for draft work.
- Dependable temperament. In general (because individual animals vary widely), oxen are less flighty than horses and less willful than mules. Good oxen are calm, docile, and very trainable.
- Power. Oxen can pull some amazing loads! A well-conditioned team can pull up to 2-1/2 times its own weight for a short distance. Oxen tend to have a strong advantage when it comes to really heavy-duty work, such as clearing land.
- Stamina. Oxen are known for their ability to work all day.
- Low feed requirements. While oxen may face some stiff competition from donkeys in this regard, they definitely require less feed to work well than horses. They are far more forgiving when it comes to pasture quality, as well.
- Robust health. Oxen are far less prone to some of the ailments that can force a draft team to take some sick leave. When genetically sound and properly cared for, oxen are much less likely to go lame than horses and also are not prone to colic.
- Simple harnessing systems. Oxen typically require relatively simple yokes, rather than the elaborate harnesses used on horses. This is due to the structural differences between the two animals—an ox’s strength is in his head and neck, while a horse is stronger through the chest. A well-made neck yoke is quite comfortable for an ox, while it would tend to choke a horse. This translates to less expense, less confusion, less maintenance, and less time spent getting ready for work in the morning.
- Associated enterprises. If you decide to raise your own oxen, you can easily complement the draft team with other enterprises. For instance, the mothers of your draft steers could be milked, and any surplus calves could be finished for beef.
- Susceptibility to heat. In general, oxen like cooler climates than horses do. Working an ox team in very hot summer conditions can be detrimental to the health of the animals. (Using a Brahma or another zebu-influenced animal helps.)
- Susceptibility to ice injuries. The hoof structure of oxen is very different from that of horses. Oxen are more prone to ugly cuts when walking on icy surfaces.
- Horns. Most oxen have horns because horns can be necessary for holding a yoke in place, depending on the yoke design. However, horns can be dangerous to humans.
- Slow pace. Slow and steady describes the ox. While he may be able to outlast the horse, he will certainly move at a much slower pace. Besides the fact that fieldwork will take longer with oxen, some implements, such as no-till seed drills, may not operate properly at such low speeds.
- Lack of precision. Unlike draft horses, which are guided with bits and reins somewhat like saddle horses, oxen are trained to voice commands, and possibly to taps on the sides. Tight control cannot be attained with this system unless the teamster is on his toes and the team is very obedient. While this lack of precision won’t matter in many applications, such as pulling up stumps, it can be a problem when working in tight spaces, as when cultivating.
For truly heavy farm work, such as clearing land, the patient, hard-working ox is difficult to beat due to his impressive strength and great stamina. Keeping oxen is also a relatively low-cost way to enter the world of draft animals compared to some of the other options. Furthermore, if you are already keeping a family milk cow, you may be able to raise your own draft team!
However, not everyone will enjoy working with oxen. Some people simply prefer the speed and mettle of a good horse team, and they will likely be very dissatisfied with the plodding pace of oxen. Also, oxen can be cumbersome to handle in very small spaces or precise applications.
But for truly low-input systems, oxen are often a good fit.
Next week: Horses
Have you decided that oxen are right for you? Now it’s time to weigh the pros and cons of the different breeds!
Choosing a Breed of Cattle
Includes considerable information on making sure your breed of choice will meet your needs, along with profiles of most of the ox breeds listed above. Preview free sample pages.