There are few things as nostalgic as a well-trained team of draft horses plowing a field. Some homesteaders thoroughly enjoy living out this bit of history on a regular basis. On the other hand, others are equally attached to their tractors!
So which option is best: the tractor or the draft team? The answer varies. Take a look at the pros and cons of using animal power below and see what you think.
- Nostalgia. For some, that’s reason enough!
- Relaxed pace. If you have a small acreage and are just farming because you love it, why rush? The slower pace of draft animals can give you a good excuse to go outside and enjoy nature. (You may be able to save money even further by making your own yokes, carts, and the like.)
- Less initial cost. Depending on the type of animal you buy and where you buy it, you can probably pick up a good draft team for less money than you could a good tractor.
- Fuel savings. Diesel and gasoline are not always cheap!
- Maneuverability on difficult terrain. Draft animals can work on slopes and in dense woodlots where no tractor, truck, or other machine can go. Furthermore, they are pretty good at off-roading, even in wet conditions.
- Low impact on the land. Draft animals do not compact the soil as badly as machinery does. In forestry applications, they allow selective harvest rather than clear-cutting, and they also do less damage to young trees.
- Fertilizer. Unlike a tractor, a draft animal can make a huge contribution to the farm’s soil fertility.
- Self-sustainability. If you decide to take up breeding draft horses, you can easily raise your own replacements for your team. Plus, selling the surplus foals can help cover your expenses.
- A use for surplus bull calves. Do you keep a dairy cow? Castrate her bull calf and put him to work!
- Agritourism opportunities. If you are interested in agritourism, you can find a wide variety of work for your draft team, from offering hay rides to giving plowing demonstrations.
- Limited availability. Draft animals are not as common as tractors, so you may have to look longer and farther to find what you need. Good harnesses and other paraphernalia can be a little trickier to find, too.
- Zoning requirements. If your local laws do not allow you to keep large animals, you’re out of luck.
- Knowledge requirements. It takes skill to train and handle a draft team.
- Temperament. Animals have personalities; tractors don’t. This can be either good or bad depending on how you look at it.
- Reduced horsepower. A tractor can work faster and pull a heavier load than a draft team.
- Additional labor. It has been estimated that working with horses adds an additional 20% labor time, assuming the teamster is experienced. Learning as you go adds even more time, as does working with horses that are not trained or worked with on a regular basis. How well this aspect turns out for you depends on how much your time costs and how many acres you have to work.
- Daily maintenance time. Of course, if you already raise animals, a few more won’t increase your chore time significantly. Replacing a tractor with a draft team on a small grain farm will increase the workload, however. Training your own draft animals will take time, as well.
- Feed costs. There are ways to reduce feed costs, such as relying on forage or growing your own feed. However, hard-working animals have higher energy requirements than pasture potatoes. And unlike a tractor, a horse, mule, or ox must be fed even when not in use.
There are several reasons why you might use draft animals on your farm instead of a tractor:
- For the love of it.
- To reduce startup costs in small operations.
- To reduce the negative impact of agriculture and forestry on the land.
- To complement other farm enterprises.
- To enhance public relations and draw new visitors to your farm.
- To create a self-sustaining closed-loop system.
If your draft animals will be a complementary part of your business, put a pencil to the idea. Look for ways you can keep feed and care expenses down, but also look for new streams of income that your team can provide. Your creativity is the only limit here.
So are draft animals right for you? Only you can decide….
This book from Homestead on the Range answers common questions about working with all species of draft animals, including less conventional draft animals like dogs and goats, helping you decide if draft animals are right for your farm, then bring home a team. Free sample pages are available.
Draft Animal Power for Farming
8-page PDF examining the pros and cons of draft animals, along with a comparison of horses, mules, and oxen. Also includes resources for further research.
Which Draft Animal is Right for You?
Once you have decided that you want to work with draft animals, your next step is to determine which species will best fit your needs. This four-part series covers the pros and cons of oxen, horses, mules, and donkeys.
Choosing a Breed of Cattle
Have you decided on an ox team? Now it’s time to choose a breed! This book will walk you through the selection process, and will introduce you to several common cattle breeds used for draft purposes. Free sample pages are available here.
Our online guide to cattle breeds offers important information on temperament, health, and other management considerations.
Horse & Donkey Breeds
We have also created a guide to help you choose a horse breed (information on mules is included).