Working Oxen on the Farm Today
I never thought I would be learning to farm with oxen. I grew up in Chicago and I did not get to see the country all that often. The only “Bulls” I knew of were a professional basketball team. After high school, I chose to go to college out in Iowa. It is interesting how a new place can influence your ideas. Well that summer, I decided to work on a farm. I was curious, excited, and I felt free to explore my interests. But I had not gone so far as to think that I would want to become a farmer. That only came after I had worked on a few more farms. I make these statements today. But not too long ago, most people lived in the country, farmed the land, and had draft animals. If they heard me say this, they would probably look at me funny.
Today, using oxen primarily for farming is uncommon in the United States. The only other oxen I have encountered reside on historical interpretation farms like the Howell Living History Farm or Sturbridge Village. The truth is that oxen are an amazing asset to a farm and are as useful today as they were yesterday. Historians of early America say that if it were not for the cow and the ox, then none of us would be here today.
There is a farmer in Northern Pennsylvania, Millerton to be exact, who trains and utilizes oxen to make a living farming. He grows over 30 types of vegetables on about 1 acre, about another acre of various grains, and raises pastured chickens, pigs, and grass-fed cattle. He does not have a tractor to work the land. Instead, he has a Holstein team of oxen to plow, spread manure, haul stones, cart, cultivate, harrow, disc, skid logs, and pull you-name-it. He also has me. I am farmer Andy’s apprentice for this year.
In order to be of any help to Andy, I have to learn to teach or “train” the oxen. According to Andy, oxen are never finished with their schooling. They respond to voice commands and negative reinforcements of the whip that are both built on their prey animal instincts. So if we give the oxen a command, such as, “Come here!” the oxen move forward, because they associate the sound and a crack of the whip on their rumps if they do not move fast enough. For all we know, oxen are not rational thinking animals like us. We have to be always thinking about where we want to pull the stoneboat, giving the oxen the right commands, making sure the oxen respond with the right movements, and see if we have navigated the corner without any rocks falling off. Driving oxen is quite a skill!
My first few practices driving Burt and Marvin were not what I had expected. I thought, “Ok, ok, I just tell them ‘Come here!’ then I tell them ‘Whoa!’ and we stop right where Andy wants the stoneboat. How hard can that be?” Well anybody who has played a game of golf can probably sympathize that trying to put an object in a certain spot while using another tool can be challenging. In the case of the oxen, I am developing a “sixth sense” of where exactly that hitched stoneboat is in relation to where the oxen are.
A discussion of oxen would not be complete without mentioning the benefits. Why would anybody want to use oxen over a tractor or horses for that matter? I am attracted to oxen because they are economical when compared to tractors or horses. You can pick up a pair of calves from the local dairy for $20 a piece (that is honestly what one farmer was going to sell his calves to me for), train them individually in your spare time, cut out a yoke and bows out of a log, chain your team to a wagon, and are good to go! Maybe I left out a few details about how much time is involved in training a mature team or how feeding milk to your calves at an early age can make all the difference later on. The knowledge and skill required to use oxen will make you become a better farmer.
Andy tells me stories from time to time about his father. His father grew up around oxen and horses on the farm. At age 4, Andy’s father was making his own yoke for his team of oxen. By age 6, Andy’s father skidded all the firewood for the winter with his two year old team of oxen. At age 7, he was plowing up the wheat fields with the horses all by himself. The only thing that would slow this kid down was a lack of a safety feature on the hay tedder. One day, the kid’s foot slipped off the pedal that operated the hay tedder and went right into a gear. He left the horses hitched to the tedder and ran home crying with a cut foot.
2012 Field Days at Spring Meadows Farm
Spring Meadows Farm holds monthly Field Days on Saturdays from 10 am to 2 pm. Field Days end with a pot luck and are open to the public. A PASA special event: “Happy Animals Work For a Living” will take place on Oct. 11th at Spring Meadows Farm.
- Fermenting Zucchini and Other Vegetables, July 21st
- Potato Harvesting with Oxen, August 11th
- From Wheat to Breadmaking, September 8th
- Garlic Planting, October 6th
- Happy Animals Work for a Living, October 11th (10-4)
- Fall Plowing with Oxen, November 3rd
- Season Recap, November 17th
For more info, visit our website or call 570-537-2128.
I find that Andy’s stories tell a lot about farming and youth. Traditionally, the kids did a lot of the farm work. Sometimes they did all the farm work, especially when the father was drafted for the military or was working another job. I also think about Andy’s father and how young he was working with these animals that weighed 30 times his body weight. I tell Andy that his father was exceptional, some kind of prodigy farmer. Andy replies, “No, my dad always said with regret that he could not plow by himself till he was 7”. Apparently, there were some kids in the neighborhood that could plow by themselves when they were 6!
Now, I will be turning 23 this year and I am looking at making my first yoke. I may be several years behind Andy’s father, but I plan to keep up the tradition of working animals. Who knows, I might even get to a point when I can plow all by myself.
I’m looking for contacts of people in the northern-most parts of New York who raise / train oxen. I’m 54 and unemployed and ready now to bight the bullet and to take up raising my own livestock ( meat chickens & egg chickens, rabbits, beef, pigs … Joel Salatin style ) and hope to do most of the draft work with oxen. You can help this rookie out by letting me know where I can find any who raise / train oxen, especially if they sell them, once trained. ( email@example.com )
Thank you for sharing such a informative and interesting article with the community. Keep it up!
What do you do with a stubborn ox that has been well trained with voice command and the crack of a whip on its rear end that still refuses to plow and just takes the whip completely ignores you and would rather munch grass ?
I have been wanting a team of oxen for my farm for years. I tried a couple jerseys years ago but it just never worked out…Some day!
Very good festival relating g to farming. I know that the animals are happy!
we live in southern alberta (canada) have been driving horses for many years but would like to learn more about driving oxen. have also handled beef cattle a bunch. does anyone know of some one closer to our part of the world that drives oxen? we would love to talk to them.
Back in the 70’s I worked with a gentleman who had used oxen for dragging logs. He much preferred them to horses, said they pulled harder, longer, and just would not quit. This would have been in Georgia in the 1930’s. Eh joined the navy in 1941, at age 15.
I am writing a historical novel about life in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania during the Revolutionary War. I know that oxen were used on the farms and have several questions concerning them. 1. Approximately how fast could a team of mature oxen travel, pulling a wagon loaded with 4 tons of lumber? 2. How is a singletree hooked up to a team of oxen? 3. Were oxen ridden like a horse, or did the driver only walk beside the team? Does anyone know where there is a team of working oxen near Lancaster that I could observe?
Hi, I like your post really I have read first-time Thanks for sharing keep up the good work.
How can a young child plow? In Hungary I saw only men do that job because you needed strength to push the plowshare into the hard soil and keep it there as the oxen were pulling. I may even have tried it as a 12 year old girl on our estates, I am not sure. I could drive a pair of horses, though, with the coachman sitting next to me.
I’m interested in buying oxen to raise, and work in the field can any help me in finding Train ox, younger ones???
Tillers international has field days
Berrybrook farm trains oxen
We have 4month old Jersey team yoked