Recently, I have been asked this question: Why oxen?
This past summer I added Mike and Jake, a team of Durham oxen to the lineup of draft animals that help power the Sterling College farm and timber production systems. Having thought deeply about this, I’ve decided that perhaps a better question is: why not oxen?
From the perspective of a traditional New England farm, oxen were the logical power source for settlers to meet the demands of a challenging landscape. In Ann Greene’s book, Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America, she writes, “In 1819, the draft animal of the future was the ox, not the horse.” Her statement is based on the proceedings from U.S. President James Madison’s speech, as it appeared later in American Farmer, to the Albemarle County Agriculture Society where he asserted that, “…(it is) an error in our husbandry that oxen are too little used in favor of horses.” Madison built his argument from both an economical and practical viewpoint stating “…oxen do not require high feed such as corn and oats which require the most labour and greatly exhaust the land, by using oxen, farmers can reduce their expenses while releasing acreage to concentrate on more profitable and productive crops.” Madison further stated that oxen “produced not only power for the farmer but also beef, tallow, and leather.” William Cobbett, a journalist and farm reformer who was instrumental in publicizing the notion that continual tillage of highly erodible lands may be “the greatest agricultural sin” took up Madison’s support of the ox by penning an article for the same edition of American Farmer where he brought attention to the advantages of the ox stating:
Horses, if they are strong enough, are not so steady as oxen, which are more patient also…without any of the fretting and unequal pulling, or jerking that you have to encounter with horses. And as to the slow pace of the ox, it is the old story of the tortoise and the hare.
Cobbett highlighted something for which I am continually intrigued and that is the simplicity of rigging equipment required to work oxen versus horses. The carpentry and blacksmith tools from Madison and Cobbett’s time period (and certainly much earlier) were well suited to construct a well-fit neck yoke and strong chain, bows were easily bent to shape by simple steam boxes and jigs.
Cobbett firmly concluded, “…an ox goes steadier than a horse…and he wants neither harness-makers nor groom…all the food and manual labour required by such horses, ought to be considered as so much taken from the clear profits of the farm…I want no horses.”
From my perspective, I am not willing to abandon horses but instead, combine the strengths of both horses and oxen and develop a power system that is highly adapted to the specific need of any farm-related or timber harvesting operation. For example, in timber harvest operations oxen are ideal for the short pulls from where a tree is felled out a skid road to the skid way where a team of horses can forward, at speed, to the landing. I find the maneuverability of a yoke of oxen suits this format well since there is often very little room to turn around to gain the hitch point for skidding; likewise, oxen seem to care little about tramping through the debris of limbs and course wood at the felling site where some horses take great offense at this demand. The simple hitch system of a chain, a grab hook and a hitch point on the yoke make the process of choking logs simple and efficient.
I can hear Cobbett’s argument clearly as I work in the woods with a pair of oxen, the beautiful rhythm of the system makes perfect sense to me. This power system moves easily from the forest to the garden where the oxen can lean to the bows and pull a plow slowly but steadily through tough ground—if a rock is encountered, and that is often the case—the oxen are moving slowly enough to respond accordingly and allow the teamster time to react and stop the team to address the problem. The horses are well suited to come behind the plow and fit the land back together with disc and harrow.
Madison and Cobbett were part of a generation focused on improvement of farming practices for a new nation. Greene writes, “they (Madison and Cobbett) were men with a vision of destiny and the belief that every decision was of utmost significance, their focus to increasing the use of animal power for production and mobility fitted the kind of development they wanted for an agrarian and commercial republic.” There is a growing interest among farmers and loggers to evaluate the power systems used on today’s farms and timber harvest enterprises; really, though probably unbeknownst to them, using the same thinking as Madison and Cobbett—that power systems should be economically and practically matched to the exact demands of a specific farming or forestry enterprise. Now, at Sterling College, we have the opportunity to learn both how to use horses and oxen and when one or the other is better matched for any given farm or timber harvesting task.
Want to learn more about our Draft Animal curriculum here at Sterling College?