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James Madison Promotes Farming with Oxen

by Sam Moore

Tags: looking back, sam moore, farm life,

Back in the early days of our country, most folks were, to some degree, engaged in farming. The Founding Fathers and our early Presidents were no exception; most of them owned farms or plantations from which they earned the bulk of their incomes, as public service paid very little in those days and there were no pensions.

One of these worthies, James Madison, was the principal author of the Constitution, served in Congress and as Secretary of State under President Thomas Jefferson, and then was elected the fourth President of the United States, leading the nation during the War of 1812. Madison had inherited his father's estate, a 2750-acre tobacco plantation near Orange, Virginia, that was (and still is) called Montpelier.

After the end of his Presidency in 1817, Madison retired to Montpelier and took a keen interest in his crops and livestock as he tried to restore the long-neglected plantation to a profitable operation.

In 1818, Madison addressed the Albemarle Agricultural Society, of which he was then the president, on the subject of "Why Farmers Should Use Oxen Rather than Horses." He started out by saying, "I cannot but consider it as an error in our husbandry, that oxen are too little used in place of horses."

Farming with Oxen 
A span of Milking Shorthorn oxen named Herschel and Walker and owned by Tillers International of Scotts, Michigan, pull a plow at the 2013 Horse Progress Days in Clare, Michigan. (Photo by Sam Moore) 

The complete address is too wordy to quote in full, besides being written in the flowery, over-blown (at least to modern ears) style of the early 19th century, so I'll paraphrase the main points as follows:

  • If the expenses associated with using horses or oxen are compared, the ox is the clear winner. The ox can be fed only grass and hay, while the horse requires a lot of grain, usually corn, which requires much labor to grow and "greatly exhausts the land" as well.

  • My best estimate is that more than half the farm's corn crop is consumed by horses, and by getting free from this consumption, half of the labor and wear on the land would be saved, as the task of growing the pasturage and hay necessary for the oxen is much easier and less expensive.

  • But won't the ox at hard labor require as much grain as the horse? Certainly much less, if any. From my own observation, where the work of the ox is neither constant nor severe, I say that plenty of good grass or hay will suffice without grain. But, if the work is hard, I feel that two teams of oxen, each at work half the time and at rest the other half, might be kept in good condition on only plenty of grass and hay. But, as this double set of oxen would double the supply of beef, tallow, and leather, their double consumption of grass and hay is off-set.

  • Objections to the ox are: 1. That he is less tractable than the horse. 2. That he doesn't stand heat as well. 3. That he doesn't do well singly, as in cultivating between the rows of corn. 4. That he walks slower. 5. That he's not capable of road work, as carrying farm produce to market.

  • The first objection is mistaken; the ox is more docile than the horse. Any "intractability," where it exists, is caused by poor training and lack of use. The second objection, too, has little foundation. The ox is as adaptable to different climates as is the horse, and they are being used successfully in warm countries such as Greece, Italy, India, and the hottest parts of the West Indies. The third objection, also, is not a solid one. The ox can, when properly harnessed, be used singly between the corn rows as well as the horse. As to the fourth objection, it is true the ox walks slower than a horse, although not all that much. Oxen are well chosen for their form and are usually not worked after they are about 8 years old, when they are best for beef. Because of this, oxen may be kept to nearly as quick a step as the horse. May I say a step quicker than many of the horses we see at work, who, because of old age, or poor condition due to the costliness of the food they require, have lost the advantage of speed.

  • The last objection has the most weight. The short legs and cloven hoofs of the ox are a disadvantage in deep mud, or on frozen or hard paved roads. If the distance to market is short and when bad weather can be avoided, and when the amount of field work far outweighs the road work required, oxen are nearly as good as horses. When extensive road work is necessary, shoeing oxen may be considered, as the cost of shoeing oxen is nearly the same as horses and will help if the oxen are used in rough, frozen fields.

  • In some situations, the savings realized from using oxen instead of horses may balance the hiring of transportation of produce to market. The cost of such transportation plus the value of the grass and hay consumed by the oxen is balanced against the value of the corn, amounting to one half the crop, and of the grass and hay consumed by the horses. The value of the oxen when slaughtered for beef must also be considered.

After making his case for oxen over horses, Madison closed his address with the following: "The mule seems to be, in point of economy between the ox and the horse; preferable to the latter, inferior to the former; but so well adapted to particular services, that he may find a proper place on many farms. He is liable to the objection which weighs most against the ox. He is less fitted than the horse for road service."

I can't imagine why Madison felt the mule wasn't suited for "road service," but that's what he said.

8/5/2013 2:17:48 PM

Tillers International, whose oxen were featured in the photo accompanying the story, train many ox drovers from third world countries where oxen are used extensively for farm work. While there are a good many people in the U.S. who train and work with oxen, most of them are on living history farms or do it as a hobby. Amish farmers still use horses and mules for field work but very few use oxen. The poor ox has acquired the reputation of being slow and stubborn and modern farming, even that relying on animal power, requires speed. So, the ox is relegated to those countries where speed seems to be less important than in the Western Hemisphere, Europe, Australia and South Africa. Sam Moore

paul lewis
7/31/2013 4:50:24 AM

It's true! In most all circumstances oxen are far better than horses. Where I live in Indonesia oxen are used extensively in agriculture while horses only for transportation.