Dr. Darwin Braund, the proud owner of a beautiful pair of Jersey oxen, created a fascinating demonstration at Ag Progress Days on why, after draft horses were imported to America, they quickly replaced oxen in use for heavy work.
The oxen were no match for the speed and strength of a team of Percheron draft horses owned by Dave Rohrbach of Bee Tree Percherons. The oxen had a top speed of 3 miles per hour, and considerably less pulling power. To add insult to injury, Dr. Braund had to walk beside his team of oxen while they hauled a log, while Rohrbach’s horses not only pulled the log, but also Rohrbach, who rode comfortably on a forecart behind them. Braun did point out, however, that all the walking tended to keep owners of oxen in better shape.
Draft horses arrived in the U.S. in the early 18th century, and had replaced oxen nearly everywhere by the Civil War by the 1860s. “Oxen made this country in the beginning, though,” Braund reminded his audience. “Oxen pulled the timber and hauled the covered wagons west. They plowed the ground. They moved the freight.”
Also, as the covered wagons moved west on the Oregon Trail, those pulled by oxen were more likely to reach their destinations than those pulled by horses. As the pioneers moved west, the forage became poorer, too poor for the horses, but still quite fine for the oxen. Also, many Native American tribes chose to steal horses, but oxen were generally left alone.
Oxen are a fascinating part of our history. Braund demonstrated an oxen dump truck, a new, Amish-made wagon attached to old antique running gear. Filled with sand or gravel, it could efficiently tip and dump its load on the ground. “This would have been Ag Progress Days 300 years ago,” commented Braund.
Oxen, (which are typically bovine bulls that have been castrated and trained to work) are still the main source of draft power in Asia, Africa and South America. They are easier to keep, and do well on poorer forage than horses. When an ox’s typical 14 to 16 year productive life is over, it can be eaten. Oxen are hitched to a wooden yoke and bow, attached with a single pin. If a part of this hitch breaks, a replacement can usually be crafted from wood quite quickly, a decided advantage in a poor country.
Braund fell in love with Jersey oxen at a fair in Fryeburg, Maine, where many fairs still feature oxen pulling contests. He named his two bull Jersey calves Frye and Burg, in honor of the town where he first saw the oxen at work.
Frye and Burg will be four years old in November. “An animal is not considered an ox until it is four years old,” explained Braund. “Before that, its bone structure is not developed enough to withstand heavy weight. Oxen get bigger and heavier than either cows or bulls. These two are just out of their teenage years, now young adults, so they still have ‘attitudes.’ I had a shoulder replaced last summer. Bull Jerseys have a well-deserved reputation for being the nastiest bulls of any dairy breed.”
But Braund has been training his Jersey team of oxen assiduously. “They know their names, and respond to a raised stick, which is their signal to move. They understand and respond to gee, haw and whoa, and know that whoa means to stop now, not two or three paces down the road! They can also move backward in parallel, which is very difficult for bovines. Notice that I’m not controlling them with the rope.”
Braund frequently admonished the young animals to, “wake up,” and “pay attention,” because they were easily distracted by the crowd of onlookers.
“A young person once asked me how I could paint the horns so nicely. Actually, the coloring is all natural. The horns are hollow, and grow from the head outward, just like fingernails grow outward from the base of the nail.”
Braun has had his eyebrows relocated twice by their horns. “But that was my fault. My head was in their space, and oxen shake their heads.” The oxen’s horns serve an important purpose, however. They keep the yoke from coming off the oxen’s heads, and they hold the yoke when the animals are going downhill.