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Oxen on the farm

Oxen can do just about anything that a tractor can do and the equipment is less expensive
Photo courtesy of Cornell University

Oxen have been the beasts of burden for centuries. Their ability to work the land and plod their way across the countryside helped build our nation. Despite all the machinery and technology we have today, there are those who still choose to work their farms with oxen.

Rob Collins is the president of the Midwest Ox Drovers Association. He says an ox is a steer that has been trained to pull equipment. Any breed of cattle can be trained as oxen, although traditionally, they’re made out of the dairy breeds.

"People have selected for calmness," says Collins. "In an animal you’re going to handle daily, like a milk cow, you look for something that’s going to be pretty easy to handle, less flighty. Those characteristics work really well when you’re transferring it into a work animal. So, the milking Devon and the milking Shorthorn have always historically been the most favored breeds. Holsteins make a really good ox, there’s a lot of people that work Jerseys."

The animal should be alert, and show intelligence. However he says the more intelligent animals are sometimes harder to work with because they have some spirit, but when the work needs to be done that spirit is advantageous. Most of the time.

Good oxen won’t have an immediate flight response; Collins says unlike horses, they’ll think about it awhile before they run off.

Training oxen can take time and patience, especially if the animals are already several years old. He recommends someone starting out to get bottle calves.

"Bottle calves are much easier," says Collins. "You can definitely make a lot of progress in even just a few weeks. The first team I ever trained, within three-weeks they would wear a yoke and pull a light load – and that was three-weeks of birth. So you can start right in and they’re very quick learners."

Collins says oxen can do anything that a tractor can do – tilling, logging, raking hay, even plowing snow.

Learn more about training and working with oxen

Oxen have specific characteristics that make them a good work animal

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