Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Single Ox

I have been intending to post this for quite some time and keep forgetting. I wrote this in response to a question on oxen for micro farms.

The single ox may be the most economically sound answer for the person working five acres or so. There are a number of advantages to the single, the biggest is simplicity. When we have had a single, I have always been pleased with the fact that I could hitch it to a cart in seconds. Put the animal between the shafts, put the yoke on the ox, hook the shafts to the yoke, slide the bow in place and pin it, and walk away. Next, the single oxen I have known have bonded far more quickly and strongly to the driver. This makes for a much more tractable animal. Small breeds, Dexter/Kerry, Devon, Jersey, or Guernsey are easy keepers; eating a fraction of the feed and forage of a horse or mule. A small ox does fine for the plowing, harrowing, cultivating, carrying, and wood hauling that is common on small acreage. My former ox, Chip, did not have to be driven, he would just follow me on command as I worked, with a cartload of tools, chainsaw, etc. A final advantage is the maneuverability. A single ox can get places no other animal but a donkey can and has a turning radius with a cart that is only the length of the shafts. I hearken back to the book Cattle Behavior and Welfare, an ox is a large specialized goat. I have bogged horses down in deep snow, a ox actually swam through the drifts with the load.

There are three good harness methods for a single ox. The traditional single yoke works well, a variation is to have a back strap take the weight of the shafts and cart off the animal‘s neck.. We make our single yokes from a bent tree branch. A breast harness with a simple back strap is easy to make, and quick to put on. The third is to use a harness similar to a horse or mule harness. This is effective and provides the best protection to the animal, but takes longer to put on and is more expensive.

There are more people interested in sustainable living today. As energy depletion and environmental issues have more effect on our lives, we are going to have to couple older skills with modern science. I do not want to see us return to the callous abuse of animals that existed two hundred years ago. We know much more about them now. There were good animal handlers then and we all should be good animal handlers now. I love oxen. I would hate to influence people to go out and get an ox and have the animal starved or beaten. A single ox is a member of the family. They are intelligent and extremely loyal. They learn what their jobs are and will be glad to perform them if treated considerately. This morning, my boys complained because I did not yoke them up for work. That is because they have come to expect work to be rewarding. I know George is working for the attention. He will pass food for a good scratching. Chip would too. If you want to try a single ox, you can get the same reaction.

I want to say one more thing about responsibility. An ox will kill himself for you. Be careful what you ask them to do.

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