For the beginning farmer, getting started with draft animals can seem rather daunting due to the cost. True, it may cost far less than a new tractor, but nevertheless the cost is something to be reckoned with.
Here are tips for getting off to a solid start with draft animals, but without breaking the bank.
The first cost you will have to consider is that of the animals. The most cost-effective solution will depend on the kind of work you plan to do.
For situations where the draft team will be required to perform heavy work, such as logging or plowing, oxen are often the way to go if you need to keep prices down. Holstein and Holstein-cross steer calves are readily available across the country for low prices, and they are typically good-natured and trainable. If you already raise dairy cattle, you can lower your costs even further by keeping a calf for draft work.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, for very small or hobby farms, where the draft animals will only have to pull a cart of firewood or tools on occasion, a goat, small donkey, or large dog might be quite sufficient. If you already have a suitably strong, healthy, and trainable animal, no further expense will be required. But any of these three animals should be very inexpensive to obtain.
Somewhere in between, such as market garden cultivation, a more expensive solution may be required. Equines are usually needed when it comes to precise work and no-till, which uses implements that must be operated at a reasonably fast pace. Draft horses can be expensive to purchase and maintain, but are typically a better choice for beginners than mules due to their docile temperaments. The cost can be offset by selecting a sound but less flashy horse. If you have only 20 acres to work, you can even make do with just one horse.
Feed costs must be considered, as working draft animals sometimes expend more energy than can be replaced by pasture alone. That said, keeping your animals on pasture does go a long way toward keeping feed costs down. Working with oxen instead of horses, where feasible, helps, as well. Donkeys are even more feed-efficient than oxen and may not require any supplemental feed at all if worked only sporadically. If you do need a horse, consider a heavy breed. Ironically, the giants of the horse world often require proportionately less feed than their smaller counterparts due to their slower metabolisms.
The housing for your draft team does not have to be elaborate, so don’t rush out to build a barn. A simple three-sided field shelter will do for most species, and it is something you should be able to build affordably in a short amount of time.
As for hoof care, most draft animals, regardless of species, will require routine hoof trimming, which you can learn to do yourself. But most draft animals will not need shoes, so save yourself the cost if it is not necessary. There are three cases where shoes are required:
- Working on slippery surfaces such as ice or packed snow.
- Working on rough surfaces that are wearing to hooves, such as pavement.
- Correcting a hoof defect (most likely to occur in horses).
In these three cases, the proper shoes for the job may protect your animal from serious injury. However, you may be able to eliminate the farrier cost by learning how to shoe your animals yourself.
Yokes & Harnesses
When it comes to yokes and harnesses, it is usually best not to cut corners, but to select sturdy materials that properly fit your animals. The secret to getting the most out of your harness is to care for it properly so that it lasts for the lifetime of your draft animal, or possibly even longer.
That said, there are some things you can make at home. A basic neck yoke for oxen is often not difficult to construct, provided you have access to the right materials. Making harnesses for horses is a little more complicated, but it is an art that can be mastered with time, patience, and practice. A good way to start might be to restore an old harness.
Implements & Vehicles
Implements and vehicles often provide excellent best cost-saving opportunities. For one thing, you can probably find used but functional equipment for reasonable prices at auctions. You may even be able to retrofit equipment designed for tractors or ATVs.
For another thing, you can probably make at least part of the necessary equipment yourself, particularly if your draft needs are simple. Carts, for instance, are items that many handy homesteaders can manufacture.
A Final Caveat
While keeping costs associated with draft animals down to a minimum is often essential, it is important not to fall into the error of cutting corners. Pitfalls abound in this regard. For instance, a free mule from a neighbor might sound like a good entry point, but a draft prospect must have a mannerly disposition and proper training, both unfortunately rare qualities in free mules. Likewise, it may sound simple to hitch a goat to a cart with a dog collar, but pulling a load with a collar can cause fatal injury to the goat.
The key is to invest wisely in quality. A flashy matched team and brand-new harness with all the trimmings are an unnecessary expense for most farms, but sound animals with good dispositions and well-constructed tools suitable for the task at hand are always money well spent.
Which Draft Animal is Right for You?
More on selecting between oxen, horses, mules, and donkeys.