Oxen no has-beens when it comes to hard pulling main edition lancasterfarming.com static electricity definition science


An ox is actually nothing more than a specially trained dairy or beef steer that has reached the age of 5. Depending on age, sex and breed, these beasts can weigh 1,500 to 3,000 pounds and pull an amount equal to or greater than their own weight.

Lest you think oxen are “has-beens” in the modern era of heavy equipment, Ralph Hartzell of East Nassau, N.Y., begs to differ. Hartzell, a retired New York state employee, and his wife, Judy, a teacher’s aide, acquired their first pair of oxen more than 30 years ago shortly after building a home on their 40-acre spread, known as Hartz-Hill Farm.

At the time, they had a wood-burning stove installed and needed a way to drag logs out of the nearby forest to cut into firewood. As former equestrians, they first considered draft horses, but found them too pricey at more than $1,500 apiece.

While an auction barn might seem like the best place to shop for suitable oxen material, Hartzell shuns that approach. He prefers to get his calves right from the farm, selecting them when they’re about 3 days old and then leaving them with the farmer to raise until they reach the age of 1 month.

He starts working them as soon as they arrive at Hartz-Hill, teaching them by leading them singly, then in pairs before fitting them with a small calf yoke. After about six to 12 months, they’ll be broken to “gee” (turn right) and “haw” (turn left), and from then on, repetition in twice-daily trainings will develop the skills and reliability needed to become oxen.

These powerful beasts can out-pull a big team of horses. In fact, while a team of oxen can pull its own body weight at a walking pace, for short bursts of six to eight feet, a well-trained team of oxen can pull up to 2!-W times their body weight — or as much as 12,000 to 13,000 pounds.

Although Hartzell and his Hartz-Hill teams once competed in pulling events, which are especially popular in New England, these days Ralph and Judy use their oxen mostly for pulling around their farm and take their teams on the road to a variety of venues during the summer months, including five fairs like the Tioga County Fair in north-central Pennsylvania and two or three festivals, mostly in Pennsylvania, though they have displayed their animals as far away as Quebec, Canada.

Part of the Hartzell’s informative presentations include highlighting the role played by oxen in American history. When Americans heading west arrived at portal cities like St. Louis with their horse-drawn covered wagons, they were advised by the wagon masters to trade their horses in for more practical oxen.

Oxen were superior at moving through mud and snow because they were actually able to “swim” through these impediments. One final practicality was that, if an ox fell and broke a leg, it could still be butchered and used to provide meat on the journey.

Meanwhile, although oxen had proved to be perfect for cultivating the small 10- to 15-acre farms in New England and thrived there for that reason, farmers breaking sod out west with its vast acreages and shorter growing season, phased out the use of oxen for faster paced horseflesh.

The Hartzells of Hartz-Hill Farm are dedicated to showing the public their oxen not only to teach the history of these animals, but also to show how farmers value their animals and have every incentive to take good care of them and use them in ways that are not cruel or abusive, but rather assure their ongoing value.