The Role of Oxen - Draft Animals in the Past, Present and Future Conference 2021

by Dale Stoltzfus
August – September 2021
Growing up on a working dairy farm gave me a keen appreciation for cattle, in my case dairy cows and heifers, of course. The cows we milked were at once part of the economic well-being of our family and, with their interestingly varied temperaments and habits, became either sanctified to us or vilified by us.
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A Haitian farmer uses four oxen to haul cargo. photo by Joe Mischka

I will always remember the feeling of a rough cow tongue licking me in appreciation as I stroked the underside of her throat with vigor. I have always been fascinated with the ability of cows to stick their tongues far up into their noses, a much more efficient way of cleaning their nostrils than having to carry about tissues to blow into.

Not all my interactions with cows have been pleasant. I clearly remember at the age of about 6 when the cow named Josie kicked me into the manure gutter behind her when I tried to wash off her udder and teats in preparation for my father attaching the milking machine to her. Josie had a reputation for being mean. But then there were cows like Sally and Ann, who seemed to always want to cooperate. And there were the boss cows like Ada and Minnie, who kept the rest in line, unless, or if, they themselves decided to be obstinate or obdurate.

There were years when my dad put up temporary electric fences to run the dairy herd out over some of our crop land to glean it in the fall or out over an early crop of rye in the spring to chew it down before he plowed it down for corn. It seemed there was always at least one cow that somehow discovered that the fence would ground out from wet foliage that bent onto it when it rained. She would break through and lead the whole herd into places where they were not supposed to be. "The cows are out!" would come the cry of a mother or sister, and all would go running to round them up. Invariably, it seemed, the herd would be headed in the right direction, but then one cow might swing her head around to survey her chances to run the opposite way. Up would go her tail and off she would gallop. Since cows love company, she would always hope that others would follow, and they did. We always got them back in, but it seemed to me that I saw a lot of satisfied looks emanating from them as they ran back into the barnyard. I believe they had ways of saying to each other, "Now wasn't that fun!"

So, I became a horseman instead of an ox drover, but I am fascinated with the thought of working with cattle. I suppose the closest I ever came to it was the romantic thoughts and images that came to me as a youngster when I read about Almanzo in the book Farmer Boy written by Laura Ingalls Wilder about her husband when he was a young boy growing up in the farming country of New York State. In the winter, he trained a pair of young oxen he named Star and Bright. This pair became an important part of the farm work as they matured.

The fact is, that even now in the 21st century there are millions more bovines providing power for farming than any other species, including equine. Overall, working animals outnumber tractors worldwide 30 to one, at least.

Several presenters at the Draft Animals in the Past, Present and Future Zoom conference held May 8 and 9, 2021, focused their time on this phenomenon. Claus Kropp, head of the Laurescham Open Air Laboratory at the museum in Bergstrasse-Oldenwald, Germany, was the convener of the conference. Mr. Kropp himself is an oxen enthusiast and user, with practical knowledge of the art of farming with oxen. Drew Conroy, Ph.D., Professor of Animal Science and Sustainable Agriculture from the University of New Hampshire, and enthusiastic promoter of oxen power, was one of the presenters. His experience with oxen spans 45 years and began by following around an elderly neighboring farmer. He has done oxen research in 10 countries and uses oxen on his own farm to this day.

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Rickey Thomas puts a pair of oxen through their paces at Sterling College. photo by Joe Mischka

Oxen cleared the way for agriculture in colonial America and then helped to settle the West by pulling heavy loads of people and their household and farming supplies over the plains and across the Rocky Mountains. In the U.S., Dr. Conroy's home region of New England has the largest concentration of oxen users. Up until the late 1800s, oxen were a common sight on farms across the country, especially the Midwest.

At about the start of what is called the industrial revolution, horses began to replace oxen in large numbers. Horses could perform the work at a faster clip. Life was speeding up. By 1890 Florida, Alabama and the Carolinas, places of small, poorer farms, were the only ones outside of New England with large concentrations of oxen still working. Many small New England farms "that didn't have a lot of money" used working oxen up to the 1940s.

While there are still a considerable number of oxen kept in New England, unlike in the many parts of the world that depend on them for living, they are kept for fun and competition at fairs. There were 159 teams of oxen exhibited at the Fryeburg Fair in Fryeburg, Maine, in 2017. This is the largest competition in the U.S. for oxen. A strong tradition that includes giving young children the opportunity of being the first exposure to humans that young animals get, lends stability to the culture of oxen in the region. From 2020-2021, Dr. Conroy took it upon himself to conduct a survey of oxen people across the U.S. He received responses from 423 teamsters in 39 states representing 1,791 owned oxen. Surprisingly enough, the majority reported that they are using their animals for farm work. This helps to prepare them for the once-a-year or so competitions, parades and exhibitions they take part in. Logging with oxen was third on the list of uses, next was having them just for fun, next was showing, next pulling competitions, next was living history farms (who can also provide a marketplace for those who train oxen) and a small percentage of survey responders reported using their animals in the making of movies. Milking Shorthorn proved to be the most popular breed of oxen followed by the Holstein Fresian, then the Chianina and then Brown Swiss, although there are many more breeds and crosses used. Survey respondents ranged in experience from one to 40 years, leading to the conclusion that the oxen culture in the U.S. is on a sustainable pathway.

Paul Starkey, visiting senior research fellow at the Museum of Rural Life at the University of Reading in England, has been working on the subject of Animal Traction for 40 years. Research seems to indicate that cattle were the first animals in ancient history to be used extensively for farming. As animals became domesticated and were more and more depended upon as working partners, methods of harnessing and things like harness decorations became part of the social fabric of various places.

In Europe, the cattle used through the millennia have been humpless. Humped oxen were commonly used throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. These days, since cattle have been exported to many places, there has been lots of interbreeding between humped and humpless cattle. In Asia, buffalo have been used extensively for rice production for a very long time. An ox to most people is a castrated male, but, in some areas, like Turkey, southern Europe, North Africa, Indonesia and Bolivia, it is not uncommon to see cows at work. The same rationale for working cows is embraced as for working mares. In fact, though, cows can provide even more economic value than mares. While both can provide offspring, cows are more commonly used for providing milk and meat for human diets. At any rate, the castrated males are usually a bit more tractable than male or female intact animals. There are many ways of harnessing oxen in various parts of the world, but the two basic choices of yokes are the withers yoke and the head yoke.

According to Mr. Starkey, in certain parts of the world farm power has shifted to animals at the same time tractors have replaced animals in other parts of the world. This is because there have been advances in the practical knowledge of animals and how they are able to replace human hand work. Also, the plain communities in the U.S. who farm with horses and mules have continued to expand throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. People will adopt the use of animal power or sustain it when it is profitable, ecologically appropriate, and socially acceptable; if any three of these characteristics are missing it will be untenable. For the last 70 years or so, mainstream media all over the world in wealthy and poor countries has characterized farming with animals as old-fashioned and associated with poverty and drudgery. Often, supporting the use of draft animals is considered "a U-turn back to the stone age." However, in the poorest places in the world, farmers cannot even afford to keep animals and must perform draft work via human labor.

In the last 40 years, Mr. Starkey has seen the academic and commercial investment in animal traction research education and training decline markedly. Universities, research institutions and cultural ministries have turned away. The notable exception is the work of some localized charitable animal welfare organizations. In order for animal traction cultures to work, there needs to be a supportive pool of labor to take care of the animals, health supplies for them and harness and equipment. Where the spiral of use is increasing, these things come to the fore. Where it is decreasing, it becomes increasingly difficult, making a "vicious downward spiral." So, it becomes increasingly important to inform, educate and influence existing policy makers, including media and the populations at hand. Some of this can be achieved by networking such as was potentially facilitated by this conference.

In the spring and summer of 2020, the entire northeast experienced extreme drought conditions (such mini-droughts are a symptom of the changing climate). Our pond and overhead irrigation system can deliver about 1 inch of “rain” to the garden each week. We found that even in the height of the drought, beneath the carpet of compost mulch, our sandy soil was beautifully aggregated and moist. In prior dry periods, under our tillage regime, the top 2 to 3 inches of soil would become dehydrated, reduced to dirt prone to erosion by wind, torrential rain (or the hard pounding overhead watering). In the end, we wound up creating 57 permanent no-till beds. We broke them up into five .-acre sections. The beds range in length from 120 to 160 feet. The final section had been tilled and planted in buckwheat mid-May. We used the horses to mow and incorporate the cover crop and form the new beds. We then used a broad fork to loosen up the hard pan formed from years of shallow plowing and discing. Half of these beds were planted to spinach and lettuce in late August, the remainder were planted to winter-kill cover crops of oats, field peas, and crimson clover. We hope to broad fork at least one section over the next several years, and that should be the last “tillage” the beds will receive.

An underlying hope/dream of this conference, referenced several times by presenters, is the thought of how working animals could or can fit into the goal outlined by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. The stated goal is to "By 2030 end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round." It is estimated that there are 130 million cattle, 33 million buffalo, 26 million horses, 22 million donkeys, 14 million camels and 5 million mules working in developing countries. Since these are numbers from the "developing " world, it is easy for those in the "developed" world to relegate the phenomenon of animal power for the production of food to something that shall take its place on a dusty shelf somewhere and be replaced with mechanical beasts. To do so will be to overlook what is probably the most promising resource available to meet the FAO goals. Can Westerners, who consider their ways of doing things to be the best or only ways, put aside their prideful positions and offer a humble hand of help that respectfully approaches the task with humility, and consider the possibility that in the process they may even learn some practices that could have positive and long-ranging effects on their own methods of food production? Now wouldn't that be something?!

Dale Stoltzfus can be reached at

This article appeared in the August/September 21 issue of Rural Heritage magazine.

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