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Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm
Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Photo from Drew Conroy of Berwick, ME.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

by Tim Huppe of Farmington, NH

The number of teams of working steers and oxen being trained and used in some fashion in North America is on the rise. The present number may be the greatest in over forty years. There are several factors contributing to this increase.

For centuries, the skills of training steers for work and the craft of building yokes and related equipment was passed down from generation to generation. It was common for a young boy or girl to be responsible for the care and training of a team from calves to the age of working capability. Many farms trained a team each year, either for sale or for future replacement in their own draft program. The older, accomplished teamsters will say that no one ever taught them to train cattle; they just did it! Very little information was available in print until Dr. Drew Conroy put pen to paper. He has spent many hundreds of hours researching and writing. His books The Oxen Handbook and Oxen, A Teamsters Guide are the most definitive sources of information to date. His many articles in farm magazines go into greater depth on a variety of subjects. A complete novice can follow Conroy’s teamster guide and produce a good pair of working cattle.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Photo from Tillers International of Kalamazoo, MI.

Magazines such as Small Farmer’s Journal, Rural Heritage, Mother Earth News, Draft Horse Journal, and others provide us with articles telling stories of cattle working on farms, in the woods, and on exhibition, etc.

Organizations provide support at regional levels. The New England Ox Teamsters Association, the Maine Draft Horse and Ox Association, the Midwest Ox Drovers Association, the Mid-South Ox Drovers Association, the Prairie Drovers Association, and many more offer expertise and opportunity for those interested in working cattle. 4-H clubs around the country offer working steer programs and the opportunity for youth and their families to participate in their project.

Tillers International in Michigan has for many years offered workshops and internships for those seeking to learn the craft of working steers and building related equipment.

Museums and living history farms such as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Howell Farm in New Jersey, Sauder Village in Ohio, Remick Farm in New Hampshire, The Farm School in Massachusetts, and the Ross Farm in Nova Scotia, just to name a few, are working cattle on a regular basis and offer opportunities for others to learn on their respective sites.

Well-organized workshops focusing on farming and logging with working cattle are now available regionally.

Equipment such as yokes, bows, logging equipment, and farm equipment is now more easily available through magazine and internet sources.

Fairs and exhibitions conduct pulling contests, log scoot classes, plowing matches, precision obstacle courses, etc. for youth and adults. These gatherings are an excellent place to learn new techniques, exchange information, and purchase equipment and cattle. These competitions are one reason the working cattle numbers are on the increase.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Photo from Drew Conroy.


Training cattle for draft on the farm is a work in progress. Start slow. Engaging a single animal or a pair in meaningful work is the best method for training.

An eight month old pair of calves can easily pull small diameter firewood, a small cart, or a light stoneboat. As the team grows, slowly increase the load volume while never asking them to exceed their reasonable capabilities.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Art Scruton with team of Chianinas at Belknap Fair.

There are a variety of jobs that cattle can be used for: pulling a two-wheeled cart, hauling manure to the fields or storage pile. Back them into the barn, turn-out shed or paddock. Either hand load or bucket the manure on while they wait patiently. It may take a few sessions with a helper standing by, but they will soon learn to stand in place during the loading. A good practice while training them to stand is to drive them up to and face a wall or fence. As you move along the gutter or change location in shed or paddock, simply lift your goad stick or whip and call them to you. If you have a ground driven manure spreader, all the better. The older generation of seasoned teamsters who once worked their farms with cattle will speak of spreading manure as a ‘courage builder’. “The further you go, the lighter the load. If you want to handle a pair of cattle, spread a load of manure each day.”

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Wendy Huppe with Bo & Luke logging at Berrybrook Farm.

If you have a good pair of helping hands on the farm, teach your cattle to plow ground. Purchase a good land plow with strong handles. Seek the advice of an experienced teamster and learn the proper techniques. Attend a few plowing competitions. Take pictures, ask questions, and do a lot of listening. Most plow matches are geared toward horse teams. The basics are the same.

After the ground has been plowed, hook to a set of harrows. Install a stout pole on the draw of the harrow. Run the pole through the ring up to the stop on the pole. Fasten a chain onto the yoke ring and run it back to the hitch point on the harrow. You will be pulling the harrow by the chain and the pole will serve useful in steering, stopping, and backing. If you have a steer that has a tendency to be nervous and back chain, the pole will help overcome this problem. The likelihood of the animal backing around and stepping on the sharp discs is uncommon when a pole is in use. If you have a double gang set of harrows, unhook the rear set and work your team on the front set until they are ‘hard’ and in condition for a greater pull. If your harrows don’t have stone boxes on top, build them and pick stones while your cattle are taking a breather. This task should be like any other you perform with your cattle. Maintain a high level of performance. Be sure the equipment is in good condition. Make sure the yoke is fitting properly. Make every pull count. Keep the rows straight. Command the cattle to do what you want and see to it that they do so. Do not use old equipment that can fail. Breakdowns can cause serious trouble and injury.

Working Steers and Oxen on the Small Farm

Katy Huppe and Tim Huppe logging with Star and Lion.

You can fashion ground smoothing equipment with material from your farm. Car or truck tires cut in half and bolted together make a good drag. Chain link fence or a screen discarded from a loam or gravel processor only needs a pipe or hardwood 2 x 4 bolted across one end to keep them rigid. You will have a good piece of equipment to smooth fields, driveways, and woods roads. Don’t forget the easy to build and low cost stoneboat and mudboat. They are a must around the farm.

A single steer or ox is good draft power for cultivating row crops. Even a young steer in a single yoke can pull a cultivator for long periods of time. Begin the training by having someone halter lead the steer while another tends the handles of the cultivator. As the steer becomes accustomed to walking between the crop rows, attach a long lead to the halter and have the helper walk either well ahead of the animal or a few rows to the left of the animal. It won’t be long before the steer will be cultivating by the command of the implement tender. It would be advisable to put a nose basket on the steer or ox while performing garden work. It will be much easier to keep his attention and minimize crop damage. is a live, ever-changing subscription website. To gain access to all the content on this site, subscribe for just $5 per month. If you are not completely satisfied, cancel at any time. Here at your own convenience you can access past articles from Small Farmer's Journal's first forty years and all of the brand new content of new issues. You will also find posts of complete equipment manuals, a wide assortment of valuable ads, a vibrant events calendar, and up to the minute small farm news bulletins. The site features weather forecasts for your own area, moon phase calendaring for farm decisions, recipes, and loads of miscellaneous information.

Spotlight On: Book Reviews

Dont Eat the Seed Corn

Don’t Eat the Seed Corn: Strategies & Prospects for Human Survival

from issue:

Gary Paul Nabhan’s book “WHERE OUR FOOD COMES FROM: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine” (Island Press, 2009) is a weighty tome, freighted with implications. But as befits its subject it is also portable and travels well, a deft exploration of two trips around the world, that of the author following in the footsteps of a long-gone mentor he never met, the Russian pioneer botanist and geneticist Nikolay Vavilov (1887-1943).

Timing the Bounce

Timing the Bounce: Resilient Agriculture Meets Climate Change

from issue:

In her new book, Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, Laura Lengnick assumes a dispassionate, businesslike tone and sets about exploring the farming strategies of twenty-seven award-winning farmers in six regions of the continental United States. Her approach gets well past denial and business-as-usual, to see what can be done, which strategies are being tried, and how well they are working.

Woodstove Cookery at Home on the Range

An Illustrated Guide To The Wood Fired Cookstove

Illustrated guide to the wood stove and it’s accoutrements.

Build Your Own Earth Oven

An Introduction To Cob

Mixed with sand, water, and straw, a clayey-subsoil will dry into a very hard and durable material; indeed, it was the first, natural “concrete”. In the Americas, we call it “adobe”, which is originally from the Arabic “al-toba”, meaning “the brick.” Invading Moors brought the word to Spain from North Africa, where an ancient mud building tradition continues today.

Art of Working Horses

Lynn Miller’s New Book: Art of Working Horses

Art of Working Horses, by Lynn R. Miller, follows on the heels of his other eight Work Horse Library titles. This book tells the inside story of how people today find success working horses and mules in harness, whether it be on farm fields, in the woods, or on the road. Over 500 photos and illustrations accompany an anecdote-rich text which makes a case for the future of true horsepower.

Wheel Hoe

The Wheel Hoe: A Tool For Shallow Tillage

When we bought this little farm I soon realized I needed a wheel hoe. The size of the horse and tractor dictated space wasting wide rows in crop production and, to some degree, so does my two wheeled tractor.

Basic Blacksmithing Techniques

Illustrated guide to basic blacksmithing techniques, an excerpt from Blacksmithing: Basics For The Homestead.

Old Man Farming

Spinning Ladders

You die off by passing away. You live on by passing on. I want to pass the culture of my life on slowly, over the ripening time of my best years.

McCormick Deering/International No 7 vs no 9

McCormick Deering/International: No. 7 versus No. 9

McCormick Deering/International’s first enclosed gear model was the No. 7, an extremely successful and highly popular mower of excellent design.

Art of Working Horses Hunter Review

Art of Working Horses – A Review

from issue:

Over 40 years Lynn Miller has written a whole library of valuable and indispensable books about the craft of working horses. He has helped beginners acquire the basics of harnessing and working around horses, and has led those further along to focus on the specific demands of plowing, mowing, haying and related subjects. But, in a fitting culmination, his latest book, The Art of Working Horses, raises its sights and openly ponders secrets at the heart of the work that may over time elevate it to an art.

Apples of North America

Freedom has been called the ugly duckling of disease-resistant apple varieties. But that shouldn’t detract from its many merits. These include the freedom from apple-scab infection for which it was named, a high rate of productivity, and an ability to serve as a good pollinator for its more attractive sibling, Liberty.

Art of Working Horses Another Review

Art of Working Horses – Another Review

from issue:

One could loosely say this is a “how-to” book but it is more of an “existential” how-to: how to get yourself into a way of thinking about the world of working horses. Maybe we need to explain what a working horse is. A working horse is one, in harness, given to a specific task. So, in that context, the book illustrates the many ways Miller has worked with his equine partners over the years – helping them understand what he wants them to do, as both work together to create relationships that help achieve desired goals.

Audels Gardeners and Growers Guide

How to Store Vegetables

Potatoes may be safely stored in bits on a well drained spot. Spread a layer of straw for the floor. Pile the potatoes in a long, rather than a round pile. Cover the pile with straw or hay a foot deep.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 2

How do you learn the true status of that farm with the “for sale” sign? Here are some important pieces of information for you to learn about a given selling farm. The answers will most probably tell you how serious the seller is.


Rotation As A Means Of Blight Control

Every farmer knows that when a crop is grown on the same field year after year, it becomes inferior in quality and the yield steadily diminishes.

Livestock Guardians

Introducing Your Guard Dog To New Livestock And Other Dogs

When you introduce new animals to an established herd or flock, you should observe your dog’s reactions and behavior for a few days. Since he will be curious anyway, it is a good idea to introduce him to the new animals while he is leashed or to place the new animals in a nearby area.

Haying With Horses

Haying With Horses

If the reader is considering the construction of a barn we encourage you to give more than passing thought to allowing the structure of the gable to be open enough to accommodate the hanging of a trolley track. It is difficult or impossible to retrofit a truss-built barn, which may have many supports crisscrossing the inside gable, to receive hay jags. At least allowing for the option in a new construction design will leave the option for loose hay systems in the future.

Chicken Guano: Top-Notch Fertilizer

Whoever thought I’d be singing the praises of chicken poop? I am, and I’m not the only one. Chickens are walking nitrogen-rich manure bins.

Journal Guide