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Oxen

What is an ox? An ox is a steer (a castrated male belonging to a domestic cattle family) that is at least four years old, has been trained to pull equipment, and when it can no longer work, may be used for meat. Any breed of cattle can be trained to be oxen, although horned and larger breeds are generally preferred. Milking Shorthorns were one of the most sought-after breeds in New England during the last century, because of their medium size and the ease in training them. Devons, an old English breed considered to be outstanding work animals, are also popular. To a lesser extent, Holsteins and several other more modern European beef breeds are used as oxen as well.

Cutting wood on Mt. Tom, Billings Farm, circa 1898.

Oxen have a long and important tradition in New England – perhaps more so than in other regions of the country. They were a significant source of power on Vermont farms prior to the Industrial Revolution and remained so into the 20th century. In many other states, horses replaced oxen well before 1900, but oxen continued to dominate the Vermont landscape.

Historically, Billings Farm used numerous ox teams to carry out the work of the farm prior to the tractor era. Census records reveal a fluctuating number of oxen working in the fields and forest – ranging from eight in 1870 to 14 in 1890.

George & Marsh, steers in training

Since 1993, Billings Farm has trained several teams of oxen, including three teams of Jerseys, born here on the farm. Currently, we're training a pair of young steers born in late spring of 2012. Although Jerseys are not typically used as oxen because of their smaller stature, they are intelligent and learn quickly. This team will be featured in demonstrations and programs which will discuss the importance of oxen on the Billings Farm, as well as on many early farms in the region.

Oxen played a significant role in the agricultural heritage of our state, the region, and the country. Billings Farm continues to keep and work an ox team as well as draft horses as a reflection of that heritage.

For more information: American Livestock Breeds Conservancy: Milking Shorthorn - Native Cattle; Rural Heritage - Breeds of Oxen.

For a personal account of a teamster working with ox teams at Colonial Williamsburg: Smart as an Ox: The Colonial Williamsburg Official History Site.