An Intro To Working Cattle
It is a common misconception that oxen are a separate species of animal from common bovines. In fact oxen are simply any castrated, mature, male bovine that has been trained to work. He is generally considered mature at four or five years of age. Before maturity, he is considered a “working steer”.
Oxen are typically preferred due to their size and even temperament but cows and bulls have often been used as draft animals as well. A study by the German government in 1930 cited that of 7.1 million dairy cows of various dual purpose breeds 2.3 million were also being used as working cows. For farms up 17 acres, it was more economical to work the cows rather than use dedicated oxen or horses. “I once saw a small cow yoked beside a large ox, and driven about six hundred miles attached to a loaded wagon, and she performed her part equally well with the ox. It has been by no means an unusual thing for emigrant travelers to work cows in their teams.” Capt. Randolph B. Marcy 1859
Any breed of bovine can be used for draft. Each breed has its own inherent characteristics and so some breeds are better suited to the yoke than others. An ox of a particular breed will grow bigger than a cow or bull of the same breed because they continue growing to an older age due to being castrated.
Oxen are neither extinct nor rare. While working cattle are little more than a hobby in the United States they outnumber horses used for draft approximately four to one worldwide.
Historically, working cattle enjoyed many benefits over horses. They were cheaper to buy, keep and outfit. They were less likely to spook, be injured or stolen. They were hardier and could thrive on grass, straw or turnips. They increased in value throughout their working years and could be eaten at the end. Speed was one important benefit the horse had over working cattle and when economics allowed it was normally the most important.
The saying “Dumb as an ox!” is absurd. Cattle can be extremely intelligent but a line of communication has to be established to train them. “Cattle are like most other animals, the creatures of education and circumstances. We educate them to give us milk, and to acquire flesh and fat. There is not much intelligence required for these purposes…. But when we press him into our immediate service, when he draws our cart and ploughs our land, he rapidly improves upon us; he is, in fact, altogether a different animal; when he receives a kind of culture at our hands, he seems to be enlightened with a ray of human reason, and warmed with a degree of human affection. The Lancashire and the Devonshire ox seem not to belong to the same genus. The one has just wit enough to find his way to and from his pasture; the other rivals the horse in activity and docility, and often fairly beats him out of the field in stoutness and honesty in work, He is as easily broken in, and he equals him in attachment and gratitude to his feeder.” William Youatt 1834
Cattle can be worked as a single, as a pair referred to as a “yoke”, or as a “team” made up of several “yokes”. Freight teams in the American west typically consisted of six or more yokes of oxen.
Working cattle can be controlled many different ways. Some are simply led. Many are directed from behind with lines and either a bit in their mouth or septum. Most working cattle in North America are driven from either the front or left side using simple voice commands. Working cattle respond to a minimum of five commands and typically many more. When necessary they are also directed with a whip or goad stick. These may range in size from just a few feet long to as big as a seven foot shaft with up to a sixteen foot lash as a freight teamster or “Bullwhacker” would have used to control a team of six yokes or more. They may be as simple as a natural branch or sapling cut from a hedge or a well-crafted “Yankee” twisted whip with a plaited lash of woodchuck hide.
Cattle have been harnessed by many different means including neck yokes, head yokes, withers yokes, forehead yokes, various collars and others means. Most have pros and cons in their use and typically the style of harness or yoke used is influenced by the traditions and resources of the region. Here in the northeast United States a neck yoke would normally be used. Some mistakenly think that the neck yoke is crude or archaic but when it is properly designed, constructed and fit it is comfortable and very effective.
The beam of the neck yoke rests on the animals’ necks and can be constructed from various hard woods. Some traditional species used are Elm, Black or Yellow Birch, Maple, Sassafras, and Cucumber. The bows are used to hold the beam in place. They are split, steamed and bent to shape. Because of this, they are almost always made of Hickory. The bow pin holds the bow in place. They are made of iron or wood in numerous designs. The washers are used to adjust the depth of the bow and are constructed from wood or leather. The hardware allows the beam to be hitched to the object to be moved. Traditional hardware consisted of a staple and some configuration of a single ring, two rings or a ring and a chain harp.
Cattle’s hooves can be fitted with iron shoes to protect their feet and provide traction. “Oxen if used upon snowy or icy roads, must be well shod, and kept sharp” The American Agriculturist, Volume 29, 1870. Because cattle have cloven hooves, a shoe is required for each claw and a total of eight shoes are needed per animal. Ox shoes were a critical item on the trails of the westward migration.
Oxen may have brass “horn knobs” or “ox balls” fitted to the tips of their horns. These are simply a decorative way to stop the oxen from instinctively, sharpening their horns.
Working cattle have been instrumental in the development of the world. They have been used to clear the land, by logging, pulling stumps, and hauling fieldstone away. They plowed, and harrowed the fields, and then planted, cultivated and harvested the crops. They quarried stone, leveled the land and built and maintained the roads. They transported goods, supplies and people. The ox helped to build countries that have largely cast him aside for the sake of more speed. However many developing countries still rely on ox power today.