Choosing a Breed of Ox

Which ox breed is best?

Many breeds have arisen over time to suit vastly different purposes and working conditions. Therefore, the best breed of ox for you will be the one best adapted to your unique circumstances.

Our book Choosing a Breed of Cattle describes the five needs of all cattle owners:

  • Purpose.
  • Scale.
  • Environment.
  • Marketing plan.
  • Personal preference.

Let’s take a closer look at how these five needs will affect your choice of a draft breed.

Purpose

Obviously, you have already decided that you want a draft ox, or perhaps a team of draft oxen. However, that does not necessarily imply that draft work is your sole objective.

A common starting point for many small farmers is to purchase a dairy cow for home production, and keep one of her steer calves for draft purposes. Others farmers keep a draft team for a few years and then use the cattle for beef. If this is your plan, a breed that can finish well on grass is what you will want to seek.

There are other, less common purposes, as well. Many low-input breeds can manage the pasture in their spare time. Another option is to raise heritage cattle to sell to others, and keep a few steers to work your farm on the side. If you keep Highland oxen, you can even sell cattle fiber to hand spinners.

Scale

In the case of draft oxen, scale is one of the less important factors, but it should still be taken into consideration for two primary reasons:

  • If you have a smaller farm, the very largest draft breeds (e.g., the Chianina) may not be the best choice.
  • If you have many acres to work, you might want to consider a faster breed, such as the American Milking Devon.

Also, if dairy production will be involved in your project, you will want to consider how much milk you will need annually. Most homesteaders keeping a cow for home production require about 5,000 to 8,000 pounds of milk per year, making a dual-purpose breed a better choice than a specialized dairy breed.

Environment

Your environment is a significant factor when it comes to choosing a cattle breed for any purpose, and draft work is no exception. In particular, you will want to consider the following factors:

  • Temperature.
  • Humidity.
  • Terrain.
  • Altitude.
  • Forage quality.
  • Parasite pressure.
  • Locally prevalent diseases.

One of the most significant factors you will have to consider is your climate. Draft oxen have few sweat glands, which makes them less ideal for hot, humid climates than horses or mules to begin with. Furthermore, many cattle breeds suitable for draft work come from the New England region, where the temperatures are moderate even in the summer. If you plan to work your draft team year-round, you will want to ensure that you choose a breed with some degree of heat tolerance. The Jersey is a sound option for work in areas with warmer summers, while the Brahman is the breed of choice for the most extreme tropical conditions.

As for the other environment-related considerations, heritage cattle breeds are typically well equipped to deal with forage and parasite issues, and they typically have good immune systems.

And then there is the simple fact that some breeds are more readily available in some areas than in others. You can have cattle shipped across the country if you wish, but buying cattle from your own region has multiple advantages:

  • You can more easily visit the breeder before purchase.
  • The cattle will be better adapted to your climate and forage conditions.
  • Shipping the cattle will likely be easier and less expensive in most cases.
  • The cattle will subjected to less shipping stress.
  • The breeder may be able to mentor you.

Marketing Plan

Many homesteaders will not need to consider marketing when selecting their draft oxen. However, if you plan to raise and sell draft oxen, you will want to have a good idea of your customers’ needs before choosing a breed.

Also, if your draft team will be in the public eye, perhaps for promotional purposes or in an agritourism operation, you will want to give this category some thought. A breed with ties to your local heritage could be beneficial. Appearance and disposition will also be important.

Personal Preference

Trainability and disposition are the most important factors to consider when it comes to personal preference. Some people prefer a smarter, faster breed and don’t mind a bit of a challenge. Others are happier with more mellow, easygoing oxen that will not constantly push the limits and test their authority. Either option is perfectly valid, but it is best to be aware of these differences from the beginning.

In addition, it is best to select a breed that you can be enthusiastic about, whether you love its appearance or its history. Do not overlook these seemingly small considerations, as they will greatly influence your satisfaction.

Helpful Resources

Draft Animals

Draft Animals
Lists the pros and cons of common ox breeds, plus provides information on training and caring for a team using a concise Q&A format. Free sample pages are available.

Choosing a Breed of Cattle

Choosing a Breed of Cattle
More information on the five needs of every cattle owner. Also includes profiles of 40 favorite breeds. Free sample pages are available.

Cattle Breeds
Our free online guide to popular and rare cattle breeds, including the history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons of each breed.