Working Cattle in Early America


A few years ago an ox was defined as any bovine animal trained to work. In modern terminology an ox is a steer that has been trained to work and has reached maturity. The accepted age seems to be 4-years-old. The ox was probably the first wild animal that was trained to serve man as a draft animal. A cow likely was used, due to the ease in handling her as opposed to handling a bull.

When the pilgrims came to America in 1620 the only draft animals they had were themselves and their families. In 1623 the pilgrims at Plymouth sent Edward Winslow back to England for supplies. When he returned to Plymouth in 1624 he brought with him three Devon heifers and a Devon bull. To this day the descendants of these cattle, called Milking Devons, still make the best all-around farm oxen.

A working cow is the most efficient working animal available to man. She will do her share of the work, furnish your family with milk and beef and then replace herself. She will grow to only about 75% the size of an ox of the same breeding.

Ezra Meeker, who traveled the Oregon Trail in 1852, stated “On the plains in 1852, fully half of the teams were cows.” The immigrants took many cows with them across and a high percentage of them were not herded behind the wagon but yoked to the front of it.

Shoes were not usually needed on the ox that pulled the immigrant wagon or worked the early farm, as those animals were light in weight. As the ox of later years became larger and worked harder, wearing shoes became more important.

In the middle 1800s the three major freight lines alone were buying in excess of 150,000 head of steers each year for oxen. They would buy only 4- and 5-year-old steers, hence a steer had to be 4-years-old to be an ox.

The main reason ox teams were so popular on the freight lines in the middle 19th century was that they could pull freight for about half the cost of horse or mule teams. The American Indian also had much less tendency to steal an ox than a horse.

The preferred team on the freight lines was a pair of Texas Longhorns for leaders because they were aggressive enough that they would go almost anywhere. The teamster then wanted a big pair of Durhams for wheelers to handle the wagon tongue and to help stop the Longhorns when they tried to run away. The three pairs in between the Longhorns and the Durhams could be just about any breed. Work in this position is where a great many of the freight oxen got any and all of the training they received.

When you are trying to decide what breed to raise for working cattle you must take into consideration a great number of things. The most important things are what you will use them for, size, and cost. If you are planning to try competitive pulling in the unlimited class you need a Chianina or Chianina cross. If you just want a pair of steers to play with, Dexters will probably suit your needs just fine. If you want an animal to work a garden, a couple of acres, you need a good working cow or a pair of working cows.

You have surely heard the term “dumb as an ox.” The only way an ox is dumb is that the animal can’t talk. The reason some people think an ox is dumb is because these people are not capable of communicating with the ox. My father always told me, “There are far and away more balky drivers than there are balky draft animals.” A properly handled ox will do his best to please his handler. A good, patient and communicative teamster can make a poor ox look better. Conversely, a poor teamster can make even the best ox look bad.

Howard VanOrd

Don’t Cut Corners




When I first start working calves, my gee and haw turns are all sharp 90 degree turns.  Also, I think it is beneficial to stop the calf immediately before and after the turn.  This makes it easier for them to distinguish the commands and understand what you want them to do.  Never let the calf influence your path by pulling or crowding you.  Pick a line and stay with it.  That is one of many ways that cattle try to train the teamster.  Set goals when you are working.  For instance don’t be happy to just wander the yard.  Pick a precise route and follow it.  Pick ahead of time the places you will turn and stop and keep to your plan.  Later, when skidding logs or using a dump cart, do the same thing.  Don’t be happy to just dump a load in a general area.  Pick a particular spot and strive to place it exactly where you want it.  The more precision you expect the more you will get.

As The Pasture Turns: Introducing Betty and Ann

A few weeks ago we purchased two new American Milking Devon heifers from Ray Clark of Lyndonville Vermont.  We chose to buy from Ray because we wanted good stock and Ray’s herd is closely related to the heifers that where originally used to start Ox Hill Devons years ago.  Ray is a great guy and a wealth of Devon knowledge and lore.  His herd was in good condition and very clean, especially since it was January.  The heifers were born in May.  They ran with their mothers through the summer and had been tied in the barn since the onset of winter but hadn’t been handled.  While I would prefer to be able to start training them at a much younger age this was still a great starting point.  At this point, the heifers are in great health and condition.  They know what it is to be tied and while they are used to some human interaction no one has taught them any bad habits.  Ray was kind enough to have the heifers vaccinated for shipping fever and they made the nearly 600 mile trip home without incident.

The first night they where given a large box stall to themselves to settle in.  For the following two days we shut them and the rest of the herd in the barnyard.  This allowed them to become familiar with the electric fence and the rest of the current herd including Pat a large ten-year old Devon ox, a young Lineback heifer, and two young Holstein steers.  The moment that Betty stepped into the barnyard she immediately singled out the largest of the young cattle and pushed him the length of the barnyard.  She tried to challenge the other two but neither stood up to her and she immediately became number two in the pecking order.  Ann has asserted herself into the number three position simply by riding on Betty’s coat tails.  Pat the large ox was sold just the other night so Betty is now Queen of the pasture.

Betty and Ann are brought in twice a day and given a small treat of grain while tied with a narrow twine neck collar.  They are brushed and introduced to such things as having their legs and udders handled, “put in” and “stand over” commands, our dogs, and my twenty month old daughter.  I also use this time to take them out one at a time.  I take them for a short walk and focus on teaching them “come along” and “whoa” but I do use “gee” and “haw” when it is appropriate.  I drive them from the very beginning and don’t worry about halter breaking since they will be driven for now on anyway.  They have a narrow twine collar and a heavy metal bow over their neck to get them used to a yoke.  I try to end the walk on a positive note and make absolutely positive that the walk doesn’t end with any shenanigans. 

Betty and Ann have very different personalities.  They are both very alert but Betty is a very type A personality.  She is very sure of herself, always holds her head high and is more active.  Ann is more submissive, hangs her head in disgust, acts out more and is less active.  They also learn very differently.  Betty shows clear improvement nearly every time I take her out.  Ann is more frustrating because she seems to show little signs of improvement for several outings but suddenly she will show that she has indeed been paying attention all along and has developed just as well as Betty.  They are both quality animals that are very teachable but they have very different personalities.

Tune in next time for more As the Pasture Turns.




The Ox Tamer

by Walt Whitman

In a faraway northern county, in the placid, pastoral region,
Lives my farmer friend, the theme of my recitative, a famous Tamer of
There they bring him the three-year-olds and the four-year-olds, to
break them;
He will take the wildest steer in the world, and break him and tame
He will go, fearless, without any whip, where the young bullock
chafes up and down the yard;
The bullock’s head tosses restless high in the air, with raging eyes;
Yet, see you! how soon his rage subsides–how soon this Tamer tames
See you! on the farms hereabout, a hundred oxen, young and old–and
he is the man who has tamed them;
They all know him–all are affectionate to him;
See you! some are such beautiful animals–so lofty looking!
Some are buff color’d–some mottled–one has a white line running
along his back–some are brindled,
Some have wide flaring horns (a good sign)–See you! the bright
See, the two with stars on their foreheads–See, the round bodies and
broad backs;
See, how straight and square they stand on their legs–See, what
fine, sagacious eyes;
See, how they watch their Tamer–they wish him near them–how they
turn to look after him!
What yearning expression! how uneasy they are when he moves away from
–Now I marvel what it can be he appears to them, (books, politics,
poems depart–all else departs;)
I confess I envy only his fascination–my silent, illiterate friend,
Whom a hundred oxen love, there in his life on farms,
In the northern county far, in the placid, pastoral region.