Back to the Future

Ten teams of rather small oxen from 1914 driving timber loaded wagons.

by Bo Falk

Happy he who far from business, like the primitive are of mortals, cultivates with his own oxen the fields of his fathers, free from all anxieties of gain.  

‪In Sweden, cows and oxen are part of our whole culture’s foundation. The first letter of our alphabet, A, is an upturned symbol of a yoked oxen’s head. In contrast to the limited number of draft horses in Sweden, we have close to 1.6 million cattle. ‪Most are dairy breeds, but we have meat breeds that were once also developed as draft animals. ‪The use of oxen as draft animals was originally necessary when the cows were too small and friskier; only those who could not afford the oxen had to make do with cows or with hand tillage without draft help. ‪With only 300 million draft animals in the world, hand tillage is extensive. ‪Agriculture on several continents is mostly unmechanized.

‪Two recent changes have caused expansion of mechanization to slow, even in our country. ‪Right now, the greatest credit bubble ever is bursting, which affects investments, jobs and paying ability. ‪We and the world should focus our attention on the idea that economic growth is a passing stage.

The author Gunnar Lindstedt  has said that we must have a million farmers in Sweden in ten years, which would be a little more than 1 out of 9 of our population. He argues that waning oil extraction necessitates less mechanization and more farmers. ‪In addition, the decline of world exports of fossil fuels is even faster than the decline of extraction. ‪Already now the world exports less than a third of all extracted fossil fuels (Energy Export Databrowser).  Also, in this system, our net energy is getting too low so that it becomes difficult to keep our complex society running. ‪In addition, the ability to borrow money for further energy production and the necessary maintenance of necessary infrastructure in the fossil fuel system is largely disappearing. ‪This transition may be almost complete in a few years and make it necessary to mobilize what we can in renewable resources.

Oxen move at about 10 km in two hours during fully occupied driving (time passes fast). These are Jersey oxen; the one on the right side is 170 cm high and weighs about 1100 kg! The young cow attached to the right side of the cart now weighs about 1000 kg!

Over the past century, the cattle and oxen of the western world have become larger. ‪A hundred years ago an ox was considered to be big enough for ploughing if it weighed about 600 kg. ‪Now, the standard weight of an ox is easily double that. ‪My biggest cow, a Hereford, weighs  about 1000 kg. ‪I recently heard of a Holstein cow that weighed 1190 kg. before slaughtering. ‪Thus, it is possible to get better efficiency by using our larger cows as draft animals rather than historically-sized oxen, and still get an acceptable tensile strength for ploughing.

Dairy Breeds and Herefords have a quiet temperament. ‪Their large udders, however, can be injured in work. ‪Using the cows during their dry period for ploughing work is advantageous. ‪ It trains the animals, reduces their fat cover and make them easier to breed. ‪Combining dairy breeds with Herefords would yield smaller udders, and the most basic taming and training to drive could be done in one day. The book Oxen: A Teamster’s Guide (Drew Conroy, 1999) is a rather good handbook on the topic of training. But I use the scandinavian traditional way of steering each animal by an ear with the reins attached to the horns.

For me the point in using strong cows instead of oxen is that they can be multipurpose and thus outcompete the oxen in terms of efficiency. They are strong, can provide meat and also provide milk and calves, which oxen cannot do. Therefore they are cheaper to keep. Then we can replace the oxen in Horace’s poem above with cows.

Test of the same oxen in hay raking with Amish equipment.

Bo Falk
‪Agricultural Ecologist & Laboratory
‪Hovmantorp, Sweden

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Hovmantorp, Sweden @ 56.8 degrees latitude

2 thoughts on “Back to the Future”

  1. Bo, you live at ~57 degrees latitude; I live at 61 North. I know it is very challenging to keep large animals at these latitudes during long winters. I found this discussion linked below by Kander and Warde (2009) discussing energy consumption in draft animals in Europe. It appears that the type of animal used was selected for based on latitude, wealth of owners, etc., with evolution over time as society to larger sizes for all of the animals? Table B3 at the end of the paper shows a significant increase in size of the animals, almost doubling over the course of a century? An emergy analysis would be interesting here?

    Uganda Cattle System Diagram

  2. Bo, your post reminded me of my longtime favorite band and a song, an ode to the ‘heavy horses’ by Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull. Not ox power of course, but something quite similar. As Anderson writes,

    And one day when the oil barons have all dripped dry
    and the nights are seen to draw colder
    they’ll beg for your strength, your gentle power
    your noble grace and your bearing.
    And you’ll strain once again to the sound of the gulls
    in the wake of the deep plough, sharing.

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