What are oxen?
Oxen (plural of ox) are cattle trained as draft animals. Often they are adult, castrated males. Usually an ox is more than four years old because it takes that long for them to learn their jobs and to grow to full size.
The museum currently has one pair of oxen. Tom and Mike are Ayrshires. The Ayrshire is a medium-sized animal frequently seen in New England and easily recognized by its long horns. This breed tends to be a little more active than many of the other breeds. Ayrshires carry a little more flesh and muscle than other dairy breeds, and their size makes them a good choice as an all-around farm or woods team. A mature Ayrshire ox weighs about 2,000 pounds. The average life expectancy is 20 years. Tom and Mike were born in the spring of 2003 and are from the same herd.
An ox is not a unique breed of bovine. An ox is simply a mature bovine with a four-year education. The animals learn to respond to their names and to obey commands, both individually and as a team. At Genesee Country Village & Museum, the driver uses the following commands:
Hitch up- stand in place to get yoked
Step up- move forward
Go gee- turn to the right
Come haw- turn to the left
Step gee side- step to the right
Step haw side- step to the left
Back -step backward
Step in-move closer to each other
Step out- move away from each other
Stand -stand still
Oxen are most often used in teams of two. At the museum, Tom and Mike are a team. They are always hitched in the same order, and the driver always walks on the left side. According to their driver, Tom is the “near ox” on the left, and Mike is the “off ox” on the right.
Oxen must be trained from a young age. Their driver must make or buy as many as a dozen yokes of different sizes as the animals grow. A wooden yoke is fastened about the neck of each pair so that the force of draft is distributed across their shoulders. Oxen must have horns because the horns hold the yoke in place when the oxen lower their heads, back up, or slow down.
Oxen can pull harder and longer than horses. Although they are not as fast as horses, they are less prone to injury because they are more sure-footed and do not try to jerk the load. Many people throughout the world use oxen today, and they are quite common in developing nations. Recently at the museum, we had our team hauling large logs for use in the village.
Oxen can be proud of their contributions to the history of the United States. They pulled out tree stumps to clear land, moved covered wagons across the prairies, and hauled cannons in battle.
Bull: A bovine male, usually denoting animals past puberty.
Bullock: A young bull, typically younger than 20 months of age.
Calf: A young male or female bovine animal younger than 1 year of age.
Dairy Steer: A neutered male of any of the dairy cattle breeds. The "dairy steers" are raised for meat production and usually managed like beef cattle.
Dam: A mother or female parent in a pedigree.
Heifer: A bovine female younger than three years of age that has not borne a calf. Young cows that have had their first calves are often called first-calf heifers.
Herd: A group of animals (especially cattle), collectively considered as a unit.
Polled: A breed that naturally does not grow horns. Cattle can damage each other with their horns.
Registered Cow (Purebred): A cow that has a pedigree and is registered in the herdbook of a breed association. Today, the six major dairy breeds are the Holstein, Jersey, Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Guernsey and Milking Shorthorn. Major beef breeds are the Angus (Black and Red), Charolais, Hereford (Horned and Polled), Limousin, and Simmental.
Steer: A male bovine that has been castrated (testicles removed) prior to puberty.