Which Draft Animal is Right for You?: Horses

Which Draft Animal is Best for You?: HorsesThe horse has always been and still remains a great favorite with some who work with draft animals. It is widely in use among the Amish, and it has enjoyed the attentions of homesteaders and small farmers of all stripes in recent years.

While heavy horses are the ones commonly thought of as draft horses, these breeds are not the only option. A good, sturdy pony can be a suitable draft animal for a truly small farm.

Common horse breeds that can perform some type of farm draft work include:

Pros

  • Low cost of good animals. Compared to some of the other draft animal options, horses are relatively easy to come by, which makes them less expensive. If you are looking at starting with a team that is already trained, you will particularly notice the price difference between horses and mules.
  • Relative ease of finding supplies and information. Likewise, because horses are still comparatively commonly used for draft purposes, finding resources should be quite doable. Even if you live in an area where equipment and expertise are not locally common, the Internet has made draft horse resources widely available.
  • Sized for all purposes. Whatever you want to pull, there is likely a horse of the right size to tackle the job. For a very small farm that produces nothing but vegetables and firewood, a pony may be all you need. For field work and logging, there are the tried-and-true draft horses. And then there’s just about everything in between.
  • Docile temperament. Although not as easy to train as oxen, compared to mules and donkeys, horses are far more amenable and less independent-minded. This is particularly true of the large draft breeds. The horse can also tolerate more beginner mistakes than a mule can. A good draft horse may not be the fastest-learning animal on the planet, but it more than makes up for this in willingness.
  • Moderate heat tolerance. While the horse cannot match the heat tolerance of the mule (can anything?), it is far more suitable for summer work than oxen. Horses are a good fit for all but the hottest climates.
  • Speed. The horse is the fastest draft animal. If you are farmer who likes to hustle, this may be the best bet for you.
  • Dual-purpose transportation. Of course, this depends on the size of the horse and the size of the rider, but many draft horses can make surprisingly good saddle horses due to their kind, gentle dispositions.

Cons

  • Spookiness. Out of all the draft animal options, horses are the most prone to panic. Needless to say, this can present some very dangerous situations for both team and teamster. Breed choice (heavy breeds are the least skittish), careful selection of your new team, and proper training will all go a long way toward preventing mishaps.
  • Health issues. Ideally, you will evaluate the soundness of any draft animal you are considering purchasing before bringing it home. That said, there are problems that can turn up after years of work, and injuries do occur. Horses are probably the most delicate of all the draft animals. Lameness and hoof problems are things to watch out for. There are also a number of genetic defects rampant in heavy breeds that, while not necessarily always fatal, may have a negative effect on their working ability.
  • Short working lifespan. In keeping with their more delicate physique, horses often have shorter working lifespans than either mules or oxen.
  • Complex harness. If you are interested in horses, you will need quite a bit of gear to make it all work. This means a greater up-front cost to get started, and a longer time spent harnessing in the morning before you can actually start work. The harness will also require considerably more maintenance than an ox yoke.
  • Feed needs. Compared to the other draft animal species, horses require the most inputs to perform draft work. This means high-quality pasture for certain. Most working horses need supplemental feed, too (although not as much as you would expect given their size, and they can provide the power to grow their own grain).
  • Shoeing needs. Fortunately, many draft horses do not require shoes to work. Unfortunately, many do, primarily owing to soundness issues that have resulted from a heavy emphasis on breeding heavy horses for looks in recent years. If you happen to have a team that needs shoes to avoid hoof problems, be prepared for hefty farrier bills—shoeing such large horses costs considerably more than shoeing mules or even saddle horses due to the large, specialized shoes that have to be made for them. For safety, some farriers also insist that draft horses be shod in stocks, a special restraint system something like a milking stanchion.
  • Less stamina. Horses get tired more quickly than mules or oxen. If you expect to put in long, grueling days of work, you may want to consider another option.
  • Poor self-preservation instincts. Donkeys and mules are pretty good at looking out for themselves and will simply refuse to be overworked. Those who choose to keep draft horses must do the monitoring. Keep an eye out for exhaustion, overheating, colic, and founder from drinking too much water too quickly.

Conclusions

First off, it should be noted that some people keep draft horses because they love them. No mule, donkey, or ox will suffice in this case. This is not entirely due to the beauty of horses, but often largely due to their personality. The difference between a horse and a mule in loyalty, obedience, and trainability has been likened to the difference between a dog and a cat. Many people find the former of each pair easier to work with.

Second, there is a great deal to be said for horses if you have no prior experience with draft animals. There is the temperament factor as already mentioned, but there are many other considerations. Horses are often the easiest of the draft animals to come by, and there are more people out there who have experience with them who can mentor you. Harnesses for horses are also relatively easy to find.

But working horses require maintenance. They need high-quality pasture to carry out the demands of farm work, and they may require supplemental feed at least seasonally. Shoeing them, while not always necessary, is also quite expensive. Care must be taken to prevent them from being overworked or going lame. And they have less stamina and shorter working lifespans than other draft animals. All this adds up to make the horse a less-than-ideal fit into a truly low-input operation.

However, this is one of those cases where each individual teamster will have to weigh the pros and cons for himself. Are horses readily available to you? Are there the necessary resources, equipment, and knowledge in your area to make the project feasible? Would you benefit from working with a less independent-minded animal? Do you just love horses? Depending on your answers to these questions, the benefits of horses may more than compensate for the negatives.

Next week: Mules

Helpful Resource

Horse & Donkey BreedsHorse & Donkey Breeds
If you have decided that horses are right for you, it’s time to choose a breed! Our guide covers the history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons of America’s favorite horses.

Which Draft Animal is Right for You?: Oxen

Considering adding animal power to your farm? Many who seek sustainability in their fields love the idea of working with a living team that is not dependent on fuel and that can contribute to the fertility of the soil. Once you’ve weighed the pros and cons of draft animals in general, you are ready to consider what type of draft team will be most suited to your farm—oxen, horses, mules, or those all-too-often-overlooked donkeys. Over the next few weeks, we’ll delve into the pros and cons of each option.

Which Draft Animal is Right for You?: OxenAn ox is a steer that has been specially trained for draft work. Oxen have been used as draft animals since the most ancient times, but they fell out of favor with the rise of mechanized agriculture. Fortunately, they have been enjoying renewed interest among small-scale farmers.

Most cattle breeds ideal for training as oxen fall into the dual-purpose category, although there are beef and dairy steers that are quite suitable. Examples of breeds that can be used as oxen include:

Crosses of many of these breeds can also be used for draft work.

Pros

  • Dependable temperament. In general (because individual animals vary widely), oxen are less flighty than horses and less willful than mules. Good oxen are calm, docile, and very trainable.
  • Power. Oxen can pull some amazing loads! A well-conditioned team can pull up to 2-1/2 times its own weight for a short distance. Oxen tend to have a strong advantage when it comes to really heavy-duty work, such as clearing land.
  • Stamina. Oxen are known for their ability to work all day.
  • Low feed requirements. While oxen may face some stiff competition from donkeys in this regard, they definitely require less feed to work well than horses. They are far more forgiving when it comes to pasture quality, as well.
  • Robust health. Oxen are far less prone to some of the ailments that can force a draft team to take some sick leave. When genetically sound and properly cared for, oxen are much less likely to go lame than horses and also are not prone to colic.
  • Simple harnessing systems. Oxen typically require relatively simple yokes, rather than the elaborate harnesses used on horses. This is due to the structural differences between the two animals—an ox’s strength is in his head and neck, while a horse is stronger through the chest. A well-made neck yoke is quite comfortable for an ox, while it would tend to choke a horse. This translates to less expense, less confusion, less maintenance, and less time spent getting ready for work in the morning.
  • Associated enterprises. If you decide to raise your own oxen, you can easily complement the draft team with other enterprises. For instance, the mothers of your draft steers could be milked, and any surplus calves could be finished for beef.

Cons

  • Susceptibility to heat. In general, oxen like cooler climates than horses do. Working an ox team in very hot summer conditions can be detrimental to the health of the animals. (Using a Brahma or another zebu-influenced animal helps.)
  • Susceptibility to ice injuries. The hoof structure of oxen is very different from that of horses. Oxen are more prone to ugly cuts when walking on icy surfaces.
  • Horns. Most oxen have horns because horns can be necessary for holding a yoke in place, depending on the yoke design. However, horns can be dangerous to humans.
  • Slow pace. Slow and steady describes the ox. While he may be able to outlast the horse, he will certainly move at a much slower pace. Besides the fact that fieldwork will take longer with oxen, some implements, such as no-till seed drills, may not operate properly at such low speeds.
  • Lack of precision. Unlike draft horses, which are guided with bits and reins somewhat like saddle horses, oxen are trained to voice commands, and possibly to taps on the sides. Tight control cannot be attained with this system unless the teamster is on his toes and the team is very obedient. While this lack of precision won’t matter in many applications, such as pulling up stumps, it can be a problem when working in tight spaces, as when cultivating.

Conclusion

For truly heavy farm work, such as clearing land, the patient, hard-working ox is difficult to beat due to his impressive strength and great stamina. Keeping oxen is also a relatively low-cost way to enter the world of draft animals compared to some of the other options. Furthermore, if you are already keeping a family milk cow, you may be able to raise your own draft team!

However, not everyone will enjoy working with oxen. Some people simply prefer the speed and mettle of a good horse team, and they will likely be very dissatisfied with the plodding pace of oxen. Also, oxen can be cumbersome to handle in very small spaces or precise applications.

But for truly low-input systems, oxen are often a good fit.

Next week: Horses

Helpful Resources

Cattle Breeds
Have you decided that oxen are right for you? Now it’s time to weigh the pros and cons of the different breeds!

Choosing a Breed of CattleChoosing a Breed of Cattle
Includes considerable information on making sure your breed of choice will meet your needs, along with profiles of most of the ox breeds listed above. Preview free sample pages.

Cochin

CochinIf the American poultry keepers of today were to see the Cochin of the mid-1800s, they would hardly recognize the breed! The old Cochin was a tall, rangy bird with relatively sparse feathering on its gangling shanks. However, it had a beautiful ginger color that, combined with its impressive size and considerable laying ability, attracted considerable attention when it arrived in the United States and Great Britain in the 1840s.

There is a notion that the Cochin hails from Vietnam, where a French colony named Cochin-China boasted a breed of feather-footed fowl. Actually, the ancestor of the modern Cochin came from China proper, where it was known as the Shanghai (as was the fledgling Brahma, just to keep it confusing). Queen Victoria is credited with calling the chickens Cochin-China, evidently misguided by the fact that the breed was large, Asian, and feather-footed to some degree.

In any case, the royal approval combined with the striking looks of the Cochin guaranteed it a loyal following among the poultry-show crowd. Chickens were bought and sold for hundreds of dollars, while poultrymen devoted their careers to selecting and crossbreeding for more and more feathers. The Cochin slowly lost its usefulness as a layer, and its meat quality gradually declined, but it unquestionably became a lovable, fluffy fowl.

Today, the Cochin breed as a whole is extremely popular in America, although some of its many color varieties are rather rare, most notably blue and silver-laced.

The bantam Cochin is worth a separate mention, as it has a distinct geographical origin from the standard-sized type. The bantam hails from Peking rather than Shanghai, and is indeed still called the Pekin Bantam in England today. This little chicken is one of the most popular feather-footed bantam breeds.

CochinUses

The Cochin is considered an ornamental chicken and is largely kept for show or as a pet.

In small backyard flocks, however, the Cochin can play an extremely valuable role as a broody hen. Few other breeds even approach the considerable persistence of the Cochin when it comes to brooding. This hen will even sit on the eggs of other species of poultry!

Finally, the Cochin has some potential as a meat breed due to its large size.

Temperament

Few chickens are as calm and unruffled as the Cochin. It is amiable enough to put up with any amount of handling and attention, even from small children. It is submissive enough to tolerate the most domineering of flockmates. Even the roosters are mellow. In fact, if the Cochin has a vice, it is likely either laziness or gluttony. (All that said, note that the broody hen does have a well-developed protective instinct.)

The bantam variety has a little more spunk, although still being gentle on the whole. It loves people and if tame will often demand attention. The bantam rooster can be somewhat aggressive and territorial.

CochinHealth

There are several potential problems to watch out for in the Cochin breed. The first set of problems relates to its dense feathering. While being a decided advantage in cold weather (although you should keep an eye out for frostbitten combs in roosters), the thick insulation that the Cochin sports will be very detrimental in the summer, making this breed a less-than-ideal choice in warm climates. Also watch out for external parasites—lice and mites love to hide under all those feathers.

Next, be aware of the potential shortcomings of feathered feet. Cochins do best on well-drained soils with short grass. Coarse ground covers will damage the feathers on the legs, while mud balls can cause toe injuries and snow buildup can cause frostbite. When necessary, use warm water to loosen up mud for removal (always let the feathers dry completely before turning the chicken back out).

Also watch out for obesity. As previously mentioned, the vices of the Cochin are laziness and gluttony, which can cause heart ailments and metabolic problems, besides making the bird slow of movement and thus more vulnerable to predators. When possible, ration out the feed to prevent excess weight gain (this may be hard to do if you keep other breeds in the same flock).

The size and weight of the Cochin can cause leg injuries when the chicken is trying to jump up to or down from a perch. Keep the perches low to avoid accidents.

And then there are a few things that may look like health problems but are actually normal in the Cochin. Be aware that Cochin chicks often take 22 days to hatch rather than 21—there is no cause for alarm with this breed, as they usually make it out without difficulty and start thriving in short order. Also note that delayed feathering is common in young Cochins, but should cause only cosmetic woes.

CochinPros

  • Excellent disposition.
  • Low space requirements of bantams.
  • Tendency not to fly over fences.
  • Suitability for confinement-based production systems.
  • Excellent cold tolerance.
  • Good winter egg-laying ability.
  • Large eggs.
  • Broodiness.
  • Exceptional mothering abilities.
  • Carcass size.

Cons

  • Considerable space requirements of standard-sized Cochins.
  • Vulnerability to predators.
  • Low heat tolerance.
  • Hefty appetite.
  • Poor foraging instincts.
  • Short lifespan.
  • Low egg production, especially in summer.
  • Slow growth.
  • Excessively dark meat.
  • Coarse meat texture.
Complete Series

Chicken BreedsChicken Breeds

 

2020 Reading Challenge: Nature

2020 Reading Challenge: NatureLooking for something good to read this year, or maybe just through those cold winter months? How about a reading challenge?

The theme of this year’s reading challenge at Homestead on the Range is nature. One of the key tenets of sustainable agriculture is to work in sync with nature. Another, closely related rule of thumb is to mimic nature’s systems. A good way to start is to read up on the subject.

To complete the reading challenge, you must read 12 books by the end of the year, or an average of one book every month. Each book will be in a different category. This year’s categories are as follows:

  1. A book about plants.
  2. A book about animals.
  3. A nature-themed photo book.
  4. A book about a specific ecosystem.
  5. A book about weather or the atmosphere.
  6. A book about water.
  7. A book about habitat restoration or conservation.
  8. A book about how to observe nature.
  9. A book about agricultural practices that benefit nature.
  10. A book about outdoor recreation or skills.
  11. A book about an endangered species.
  12. A book about an extinct species.

A few rules:

  • Books in electronic formats count.
  • Both fiction and nonfiction books count.
  • You can work through the categories in any order.
  • Books cannot be counted twice, even if they fit into more than one category.

Need some help finding the books? Check out The Homestead Bookshelf to browse our favorite titles. Then sign up for On the Range, your free weekly country living update (learn more here). At the end of every month, we’ll suggest a book for one of the categories.

Let us know what you decide to read! We’d love to hear from you!