At Home in Nature

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Oxen alternative to beef

The use of cattle for beef and dairy is not unusual in Colorado, but the training of oxen for draft and pleasure is.  Oxen are typically employed on the Eastern seaboard, while mules have been popular a long time in the South.  Here in the west and on the Pacific seaboard, horses and oxen are used.  This regionalization of animals is not for any climatic adaptations, but because of the expenses of transporting animals and the native experience of the human inhabitants who trained them.

People keep using the animals they are used to as a rule, but breaking in an oxen market in Colorado is not difficult.  Besides being superior in nearly every way to draft horses, which are not as strong, gentle, intelligent or courageous as their cattle counterparts, oxen are hardy in more weather and sure footed in the typically dastardly Colorado mud.

Inexperience with oxen abounds.  Oxen are not a special breed of cow.  Any breed can be used, but only because of their cheapness, Holsteins are typical in the United States.  Bulls are more popular than steers, and steers are more popular than cows.  Bulls are so popular because people like to breed good oxen, and it is rather difficult to breed a steer (though with the miracles of modern veterinary medicine, it might be possible soon!).

Training a cow into an ox begins early, and it is best if they begin training before they are off milk.  Train them as you would a horse, and don’t be surprised when you don’t have to “despook” them.  Cows just don’t spook.  Also don’t be surprised if they learn how to do all their work before they are 6 months old: cows are much smarter than horses. 

Horses have the advantage of being faster than oxen, able to travel faster and further, plow more per hour and otherwise outperform the ox under ideal conditions, but the ox is better for more conditions and can pull heavier weight.

An ox is not driven from behind like a horse, but is led from in front.  Reigns are not used, but a wand (not a hard stick, but a gentle tapping device) is used to communicate left, right, faster and slower.  Oxen are very tactile creatures!  If you are going to use voice commands, they must be very clear and different from each other.

Sale prices of oxen in Colorado are typically twice that as on the East Coast.  A survey of oxen prices found that $5000 for a 3 year old team was not outrageous.  Asking $1000 for greenbroke 6 month old calves is not out of line.  Considering beef prices these days, it makes better sense to not castrate and train them up for the yoke!

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