Singing the praises of the Devon ox!

The following is taken from Cattle: Their Breeds, Management, and Diseases, By William Youatt, 1834

There is a peculiarity in driving the ox team, which is very pleasing to the stranger, and the remembrance of which, connected with his early days, the native does not soon lose. A man and a boy attend each team; the boy chants that which can scarcely be regarded as any distinct tune, but which is a very pleasing succession of sounds, resembling the countertenor in the service of the cathedral. He sings away with unwearied lungs, as he trudges along almost from morning to night, while every now and then the ploughman, as he directs the movement of the team, puts in his lower notes, but in perfect concord. When the traveler stops in one of the Devonshire valleys, and hears this simple music from the drivers of the ploughs on the slope of the hill on either side, he experiences a pleasure which this operation of husbandry could scarcely be supposed to be capable of affording. This chanting is said to animate the oxen somewhat in the same way as the musical bells that are so prevalent in the same county. Certainly the oxen move along with an agility that would be scarcely expected from cattle; and the team may be watched a long while without one harsh word being heard, or the goad or the whip applied. The opponents of ox husbandry should visit the valleys of north or south Devon, to see what this animal is capable of performing, and how he performs it.

Breaking down while trucking livestock!

Today we were on our way to a show with six head of cattle when the fitting at the bottom of the radiator completely separated. It instantly drained the radiator and overheated the engine dashing any chance of making it to the show.

Missing the show and the truck repairs will prove quite costly and yet in hindsight I feel very lucky!

We were not terribly far from home and I was able to call a buddy to haul the trailer and cattle home. It was a nice cool morning and the wait was reasonable so the cattle could safely and comfortably stay on the trailer. AAA quickly towed the truck to the garage of my choice. (A worth while service by the way.) Everyone made it home safe and I don’t think my daughter even picked up any new vulgar vocabulary! So in hindsight I believe things could have been much worse!

As we sorted things out and waited for help I couldn’t help but wounder what if…. What if we where out of our home territory? How are you going to find some one to help with a trailer full of livestock? How long would it take? On a hot day how long can you let the livestock bake in a hot trailer and what could you do about it? The older heifers where tied and we had four small calves loose in the trailer but I did have a halter and rope for each one. All the cattle were either able to be driven or lead so if I had really had to I could have unloaded them and tied them to nearby trees. However, we have traveled many miles of highway where this would not have been possible. The truck won’t be fixed for three days. Since the cattle are happy as clams in their home pasture that is no big deal but if this had happened several hundred miles from home or friends it would be a very different story.

So how does one best prepare for such things? Obviously having well maintained equipment would be number one, but life happens! I have found a cell phone to be worth its weight in gold. I had a little peace of mind in that we did have a rope and halter for everyone if absolutely necessary and that I had a bit of cash in my pocket. The only other thing I can think of is to hit the dirt and pray for a kind stranger to come to the rescue.  We did have one person kindly stop and offer help but I hate to be at the mercy of strangers or happenstance.

So what do you do to prepare for such a situation?

Rundell’s Improved Ox Bow

Taken from Scientific American Aug 13, 1887


The invention herewith illustrated provides an ox bow which will not bear upon the windpipe or the veins or arteries of the neck and has been patented by Mr Luman Rundell, of Grapeville NY. The bow as represented is formed partly of wood and partly metal, the metal portion being made tubular and forming an enlarged lower part of the bow, which is of sufficient size to relieve the lower part of the throat of ox from any pressure of the bow. It may, however, be made entirely of wood bent into the form shown, even of a piece of gas pipe bent into suitable form.

The actual patent is linked below.


Book Overview: Oxen a Teamster’s Guide 2nd edition

This is the first of several book overviews I plan to do on ox related books.  I am in no way a literary critic, but I thought people might benefit from a brief description so as to know what to expect from a particular book.

Oxen..A Teamster’s Guide is the latest book on oxen by Drew Conroy.  I suspect very few people, if anyone, has spent as much time studying oxen, their history, and their use as Drew.  I am certain that no one else has written so much on the subject.  What’s more, he  is, himself, a Devon man.  I have heard this book frequently referred to as the “ox bible”.   If such a thing exists, then this is it.  It’s just shy of three hundred pages broken up into no less than nineteen chapters covering such subjects as history, health, hoof care, training, housing, equipment, working, and international development to name a few.  Its pages are full of informative pictures and illustrations. It also includes three appendices covering breeds, yoke and bow sizes, and nutrition.  I thought I had heard just about every ox term at one point or another, but the glossary had a number of them that proved me wrong.  A great touch to the book is the “On The Farm” pages where Drew gives a personal account  of particular teamsters that he has met in his extensive travels.  It doesn’t hurt that page seventy-seven is committed to my father!  On the back cover the book is labeled in big bold letters, “OPERATING MANUAL FOR THE MIGHTY OX” and that is just what it is.  If you are interested in oxen then this is a must read.

How to measure and fit an ox yoke.

  1. Yokes are typically made in sizes 4″ thru 12″.  The size refers to the width of the bow as measured from inside to inside of the bow holes.
  2. To measure your animal, place a stick on either side of the animal’s neck where the yoke would sit at rest.  While keeping them parallel, have a helper measure the distance between the sticks. If you have two framing squares you can rubber band them together to create a big set of calipers and take the same measurement.
  3. Most yoke makers will use the bow width to calculate the distance between the oxen in a double yoke but if you feel it necessary, you can measure the widest part of the animal’s belly the same way you measured the neck.
  4. One quick way to check for a properly fitting yoke is to slide your hand flat between the bow and the animal’s neck.  On a small yoke, the tips of your fingers should fit.  On a medium yoke, the base of your fingers should fit and on a large yoke,              the palm of your hand should readily fit between the neck and bow.
  5. More importantly, you should watch how the yoke fits while working your cattle.  In a hard pull, the bow should slip between the animal’s shoulder and neck.
  6. If the bow hits the point on the front of the shoulder, the bow is too wide and will cause damage and discomfort to the animal.
  7. The bow’s height should be adjusted so that when at rest the bow is slightly pulling up on the dewlap but not pressing into the meat of the neck.
  8. The esophagus is protected by muscle in the neck but between the neck and brisket it is exposed.  Using a bow that is adjusted too low will cause damage and discomfort to the animal.
  9. Inexperienced teamsters have a great tendency to use yokes that are too big and bows that are adjusted too low.  It is better to error on the side of having the yoke too small or the bows too high.
  10. Don’t be tempted to skip a size.  You can’t expect an animal to give their all with ill-fitting equipment.

Selecting Calves for Oxen

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.