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.


| August/September 1998



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Young longhorns learning to share next time.


PHOTO: PAT GORDON

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.





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