Cow Power

In addition to a source of cheap food and extra income, cows can provide cow power—the motive force small farmers need to plow a field, skid logs, or clear rocks and stumps.
By Betty Robinson
August/September 1998
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Buck and Bawl show off their parade cart. As long as you're not in a hurry, cow power will get you from point "A" to point "B."
PHOTO: PAT GORDON
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In most cases, the purchase of a farm, even a small one, is a big investment. You find little or no money left over for the purchase of other big-ticket items such as a tractor (new or used) and the implements to go with it. Yet anyone who has ever lived on a farm knows what a convenience an extra source of draft power is. For example, you need a way to get fencing supplies to the field, to clear rocks and stumps from the meadow, to bring in firewood for the winter, to move some downed trees in the north pasture: the list goes on and on. The answer to this dilemma is in our history. Pioneers didn't have tractors and they didn't have any trouble getting the job done. How did they do it? They used oxen.

Our early ancestors also grasped an important fact about oxen that small farmers of today sometimes forget. By definition, an ox is an adult male castrated bovine. But our forefathers understood that a cow can do the work of an ox just as well as a steer can. In addition, the cow can give you extra benefits such as milk, butter, cream, and cheese. A purist will say two steers make your best team, which may be true for pure pulling strength. However, when we look at economics and what is essential around the small farmstead, cow power may be a better choice.

The main complaint against working a cow as opposed to a steer is that if the cow is going to live up to her potential, she must have a calf once a year. Having a calf means a youngster to care for while the cow is working. It also means you must worry about the size of the cow's udder. You don't want the udder to be a hindrance, nor do you want it to be damaged while the cow is working. Once these two drawbacks have been considered, there are many good reasons to try cow power for your farm power.

Your investment is minimal when compared to the cost of a tractor or an average team of mules or horses. "Asking about the price of one ox or a pair of oxen is like asking how long a string is," Charles Oates said to me. "It depends on the age, breed, and the cattle market price." Charles Oates, a pharmacist in Russellville, Arkansas, retired to his farm five years ago. He started driving cattle in 1985 and since then has trained four teams. All of them were different breeds. He highly recommends Milking Shorthorns as a dual-purpose breed with a good disposition.

The harness required to work oxen is not as complex or as expensive as that used for horses. A usable leather horse or mule harness will cost in the neighborhood of $300. But you can fix an oxen harness for less than $50 if you are handy with tools.

Of course, the type of harness you need depends on what kind of work you plan to do and whether you plan to work a team or a single ox. For a team, a double yoke and the implement you plan to pull is all you need. If you plan to use just one ox, you will need straps (nylon, rope, leather, or chain) that go down each side of the animal from the yoke to the single-tree. The single-tree attaches the animal to the implement and keeps the chains or straps spread so they won't rub against the ox's legs when she pulls.

In the south, oxen teamsters generally ring the nose of the ox and use some form of a driving line to steer the team. In other parts of the country, the oxen drivers use a small stick or goad and voice commands to guide the animal. Either method works well. It is a matter of training and preference.

Yoke patterns can be found in The Oxen Handbook by Drew Conroy and Dwight Barney (Rural Heritage),and in the Foxfire books. Other equipment is easily adapted from the horse to the oxen. For example, work collars can be made serviceable by turning them upside down. The same walking plow that works for a horse will work for an ox. Wagons are adaptable as well.

The cost of preventive maintenance is minimum with cattle. Oxen are fairly disease-resistant. If you aren't hauling your cattle around to competitions or county fairs, you have little to worry about because your stock is not exposed to other animals that might be carrying disease. A consistent worming program along with yearly vaccinations will take care of preventive medicine for the bovine.

Recommended Cow Vaccinations:  

  • Blackleg 7-way vaccination $2.00
  • Lepto 5-WayNibrio vaccination $2.00
  • IBR PI3 BVD/Pasteurella K $5.00
  • Pour-On (cow) $1.50
  • Doramection/Dectomax injection $14.20

Estimated Total Cost: $24.70. Of course the cost of farm calls varies from region to region.

The more experience oxen get, the more money they are worth. As you know, this is not true for a tractor or other machinery. Most equipment of any kind begins to depreciate the moment it leaves the sales lot, but not so with well-cared-for oxen. The more you use oxen, the more consistent their response. The calmer the team's attitude and the better they respond, the more money they are worth. In this case, experience translates to value. The downside to this is that buying an oxen team with lots of experience will be expensive. It is much better to train your own team. The adaptable ox is a versatile partner on a small farm. When it comes to your expectations of a well-trained ox or team of oxen, you are limited only by your own imagination and your willingness to try. Oxen can be used for mowing pastures and hay crops. They can plow your garden, skid logs, and haul in winter firewood. Attached to a stone boat (a wooden sled for moving rocks), oxen can help you clear a field of unwanted rocks. These animals are great for pulling a cart, wagon, or four-wheeled trailer to bring in various crops from the field. Don't expect the speed you get with a tractor or team of equines.

Oxen are not fast, but they are steady and reliable as long as you don't ask the impossible of them. Characteristically, oxen are gentle, quiet, and dependable. All oxen require is an owner with patience who is willing to train with repetition. The friendly ox will gladly give you a day's work for the feed and care you provide. Don't be surprised if once you have your ox working well, neighbors come by and want to hire or barter for your services. Oxen work great in small logging operations.

In addition to a willing work partner, a cow used as an ox can also provide a source of food, pocket change, or currency for barter. To be able to give milk, a cow must have a calf. A healthy calf will bring a good price at the local livestock auction. The price, of course, will vary according to age, sex, and breed. If you choose not to sell, the calves can be raised into more oxen. Their training can start as early as the first week. The feeding and training of a young calf makes a great youth project. Teams can pull small training carts by the age of three or four months. Giving youth the responsibility to work with livestock in this way provides the opportunity for them to build character and self-confidence, which is a reward in itself. Of course, if none of the above appeals to you, the calf can simply be fattened for the freezer as an inexpensive source of meat.

A cow that has a calf must be milked twice a day. The amount of milk produced daily depends on the breed and the feed. The cream or fat content of the milk also varies according to the breed. Of course, the cows with average size udders will not give as much milk per day as the bigger cows. But then, everything has its trade-offs. The cow's food products can be sold to neighbors for pocket change or can provide additional food for your own table. Fresh butter, whole milk, or cream can make good chips for barter.

Cattle are a ready source of fertilizer. If you keep your animals penned-up at night, it is easier to gather the manure they have produced. Manure that is dried in the sun or seasoned can be mixed with other ingredients to add to a compost pile. Depending on the amount produced, it can be spread directly on fields, pastures, or gardens. Although it may sound strange, manure makes a good barter exchange. Many gardeners will stand in line to get fertilizer directly from the farm, especially when they know the cattle have not been administered any kind of additional hormones.

Oxen are environmentally friendly. When they work, they create neither noise nor air pollution. Working in logging woods or doing field work, your ears are not bombarded by the constant roar of heavy-equipment engines. The gentle sound of hooves on ground and the creak of the implements becomes a stress reliever, not a stress creator. You work in harmony with the environment. Not bound by roads, oxen log in hard-to-reach areas without the expense or damage caused by big machinery. Oxen do less damage to the terrain by not miring down so badly in boggy or excessively sandy soil. Since they don't have to use the same track each time, ruts don't contribute to soil erosion during hard rains. Oxen can be used to log or clean up in environmentally sensitive areas without destroying the landscape.

Oxen provide novelty, recreation, and a tether to our American history. Oxen are such a novelty that people drive miles to watch them work. Driving cattle draws applause and lots of admiring looks at parades and county fairs. Young children love to learn about history first-hand. Lots-A-Dots, a Brahma ox owned by Jerry Bradford of Morrilton, Arkansas, loves to visit elementary schools and show off for the children. Children love the opportunity to touch and sit on her. It is a great time of sharing between the animal and children.

The truth is, oxen do provide numerous benefits to a farmstead, probably far more than have been listed here. Oxen are hard working, eager to please, and less expensive than other forms of draft power. A working cow is an asset to a small farm. If you plan to make such a project successful, make a commitment to learn and to teach with patience.

The best way to get your own oxen is to buy the stock young and train your own. All you need is a basic knowledge of livestock, a desire to learn, a respect for animals, and the patience to put it all together. The biggest benefit of all may be for yourself, with the knowledge you are one link from modern society saving one small slice of our American heritage for future generations.


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