Oxen: the ‘poor man’s power’ on display at Tioga County Fair

WHITNEYVILLE – Even though their predecessors couldn’t be at the Tioga County Fair this year because they are too old, according to their owner, Ralph Hartzell, Jake and Odie, 2-year-old Holsteins were there to put on a show in their place.

According to Hartzell, of Hartz-Hill Farms, most young bulls never make it to the age of his steers.

“Most young bulls are butchered by the time they are 2 years old,” Hartzell said. “The lucky ones come to us.”

Hartzell has been working with steers, training them to pull for 35 years, he said.

“Oxen have been in this country since its founding,” he said. “Their sheer strength used by early farmers to plow the hilly fields of the east earned them the nickname ‘poor man’s power.’ “

“They were and are more economical than horses or mules,” he said, adding that he can buy a young bull for $150 to $200, but a mule could cost him upwards of $500.

Hartzell uses his teams to pull logs out of the woods and to plow, but they have to be trained to respond to his commands before he can put them to work.

Basically, the commands are “gee” which means right and “ha” which means left, “whoa” for stop, and “back” when he wants them to back up.

By the time they become full grown oxen at about the age of 5 or 6, they can weigh up to 2,000 pounds or more.

Their predecessors, one a big Swiss ox that also once came to the fair every year, stood 6 feet high at the shoulder, he said.

Hartzell said the “back” command is the most difficult to teach.

“They are like children,” he said, “you have to back up your commands with reward and punishment, and you have to be consistent.”

He said coupling the commands with movement is the key to teaching them to obey.

“They don’t know the words alone,” he said, “but when I say ‘ha’ and couple it with a push or pull in the direction I want them to go, they understand.”

He said it is important not to work them too long in the hot sun during the summer, especially those that are all black, like his, because they will get heat exhaustion because they don’t sweat through their skin, but rather through their mouths.

The fair has experienced some nice weather this year, said secretary Jen York.

“We only had some rain this morning,” she said Thursday. Other than that it has been pleasant, and she said good weather brings out the crowds.

Though she could not estimate how many people had come through the gates as of Thursday, she did say both shows slated for that night, the Marty Stewart concert and a motorcycle stunt show, were sold out.