Those who are considering draft animals generally find themselves comparing oxen, horses, and mules. Donkeys do not receive nearly as much attention in the draft world, but that is not to say they can’t pull their own weight around the farm!
The donkey breed best suited to farm work is the American Mammoth Jackstock. Larger burros can do a surprising amount of draft work, as well.
- Low purchase cost. Donkeys are typically very inexpensive, sometimes even free. A trained team may be a little more expensive (when locally available), but not by all that much.
- Hardiness. While perhaps donkeys are not quite as hardy as mules, they are certainly extremely hardy. Parasites should not present any great difficulties, and neither should overeating. Hoof and leg problems are also rare in donkeys.
- Low feed costs. Donkeys can thrive with very little feed (probably less than any other draft animal). They require supplemental feed if working hard on a regular basis, but less than a draft horse would. If they work only sporadically, they may not require any feed at all. Either way, donkeys do not require the same level of pasture quality that horses do.
- Minimal hoof care. Out of all the draft animals, donkeys require the least attention to their hooves. As long as they have room to walk around and access to some rougher ground that will wear down their hooves a bit, they should not require trimming. But even if your circumstances make trimming a necessity, shoes are not necessary for donkeys.
- Simple harnesses. Draft harnesses for donkeys and burros are typically quite simple, involving little more than a padded collar. This reduces the amount of time spent getting the donkey ready for work and then maintaining the harness.
- Sure footing. Donkeys are well suited to working on uneven fields or smaller properties with hard-to-reach corners.
- Versatility. A male work donkey could potentially be kept for breeding mules, as well. As an additional bonus, donkeys make good guard animals for sheep and goats. Some bigger donkeys can be ridden, although there aren’t too many donkeys with the size and back strength for this purpose (another point in favor of the American Mammoth Jackstock).
- Small size. Most donkeys are too small for heavy draft work, and even a good-sized donkey cannot pull loads as heavy as an ox or mule can (although it might be able to outperform a horse of the same size). Nearly any donkey can pull a small cart loaded with firewood, but for heavier farm work you will want to consider a large donkey. You may also want to plan on two donkeys for every one horse that the job in question would require due to the donkey’s smaller size.
- Variable availability. While donkeys in general are rather common, draft donkeys are not. Your ability to find a sturdy draft donkey will depend on where you live.
- Independent nature. Donkeys can be difficult to train and work. They are more like cats than dogs when it comes to obedience, and they can be extremely wary, especially when young. Be prepared to earn their trust and to exercise a great deal of patience when dealing with potentially frightening situations. Also keep in mind that they will never allow themselves to be overworked or placed in danger. For most beginners, starting with a trained team is probably the best bet.
Donkeys are well suited to work on smaller farms. Even a miniature donkey can pull a small cart of vegetables or firewood. And donkeys also have the advantages of being versatile and quite economical to keep.
That said, most donkeys are not big or sturdy enough for heavier draft work. For this purpose, you will likely want an American Mammoth Jackstock, which may or may not be readily available in your area. But if you are considering serious logging or other very heavy work, you may be happier with something with more pulling power, such as an ox or a heavy-breed horse.
Also, not everyone gets along well with donkeys. Those who prefer a more docile animal will likely prefer oxen or horses. Donkeys are more focused on self-preservation—like a mule, but ever so much more so. But some people truly appreciate the intelligence of donkeys. It’s largely a matter of personal preference.