Selecting the right animals is a big factor in the success of your oxen. Second perhaps, only to the amount of time and skill you put into training them. You have to give a great deal of thought about what your goals are for your oxen in order to decide what animals are best for you.
What work will you do with your oxen and what size and activity level will it require?
Do you plan to show your oxen? If so, then you may want historical looking or just unusual looking oxen. To some people, a Holstein is a Holstein but if you have something unusual you may get their attention.
Do you want horns or not? This is an odd question to most teamsters including myself but I have included it since there seems to be more interest in using polled or dehorned oxen lately. I feel an ox should have horns but they are not required if you have the proper equipment. Without horns a britchen is needed to back or hold back a load. I see no advantage to using oxen without horns. If you are the dominant team member and use common sense, horns will not be much of an issue. If not, then your cattle are a danger to yourself and others regardless of whether they have horns or not.
What Is your budget and how far are you willing to travel?
There are around fifty breeds of cattle in the United States, each with their own characteristics. No breed is the best for everyone. Research the characteristics of what breeds you are interested in but remember that individuals can and will vary within the breed. Take into consideration the breeds disposition, size, and appearance. The breeds disposition is the most critical and covers things like intelligence, temperament, excitability and willingness to work. Size is normally less critical other than in extreme cases. Unless your needs require miniature or very large cattle I would suggest a midsized breed as they are big enough to be useful but small enough to still be handy. Appearance has no bearing on the quality of the ox but you should be able to take pride in your oxen. Also appearance may be important if you want a particular look such as a historically correct look or just something unusual. Some colors are easier to clean up as well. Why not choose one of the breeds on the ALBC list? Many of these breeds are known to work well for oxen and some are the very best in my opinion. By purchasing them and possibly showing them to the public, you would help to support these endangered breeds.
It is wise to heed good advise but if you are strongly attracted to a particular breed then get what you want. Oxen require a great deal of time and effort; you will tend to be more committed and do a better job with a breed you love than one you settled for because someone told you it is what you should get.
Take into account the source of your research. An experienced teamster is the best source but find out if they have actually worked with the breed in question or if they are basing their opinion on something else. We all have our own experiences, favorites, and prejudices. Breeders can be a good source but remember they will tend to be bias. Also watch how they handle their cattle. If a breeder has range cattle that can’t be handled, then how can they tell you anything of value about the disposition of their cattle?
Do you want to break a bull, cow or a steer? More often than not the answer will be a steer but in some situations cows are a good choice. Steers will grow larger than cows or bulls of the same breed. Cows and bulls grow until they are sexually mature but steers, being castrated, never mature sexually. An old saying was that “an ox will grow until he is seven and then he will get big” meaning his frame will grow until he is seven and then he will just put on weight. Steers have a better temperament than bulls and require less maintenance than cows. Cows may not be as strong as steers but I doubt that the difference is significant to most teamsters needs today. Cows will provide you with calves but require some extra consideration as far as their udder and condition. I think a multipurpose or beef cow would work better than a modern dairy cow with an immense bag. Bulls can and have been broken for oxen but I see no advantage to it and wouldn’t recommend it. Historically, they were used for their brute strength and to agitate the rest of the team.
Do you want a team or a single? A team is capable of more work but there is nothing handier than a good single ox with the proper equipment. They can go places a team can’t. Some people say it is easier to train and work a team but I do not find this to be the case. A single seems to bond better and rely on the teamster a bit more. The only down side is that a single can run away on a whim but a team has to agree to run together. With proper training this is a small issue. Teams should be matched by disposition, size, and color in that order. Having a team of similar disposition and size is far more important than having a similar appearance. I recommend starting three calves that are as similar in disposition, size, and conformation as possible. Break them all single and, once you are familiar with them, build your team with the two that are the most similar in disposition.
When purchasing your calves I recommend buying them as young as you can. The sooner you start training the better off you will be. If possible, bottle calves will make better oxen because you will have a better bond with them than a calf reared by its mother. Obviously, you want to be sure to get healthy animals that are structurally sound. Look for a straight calf that stands on his toes, with proper legs and a deep wide chest. Calves that are calm, forward, and inquisitive are preferred. Avoid calves that are overly skittish or have been handled and spoiled.
Next time we will touch on the keys of training.