Draft animals may seem outdated these days, but actually they can have a valuable place on smaller operations with a focus on sustainability. They do less damage to the soil and may even be cheaper in some cases than heavy equipment. They can also grow their own feed and produce nitrogen-rich fertilizer.
Unfortunately, information on getting started can be relatively scarce these days. The art of working with draft animals has been lost for several generations across most of the United States.
The good news? You’ve come to the right place. Read on to find the answers you are seeking.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Started with Draft Animals
Step 1: Decide if Draft Animals are Right for You
In many cases, draft animals are much less expensive than machinery, and they offer many stewardship benefits, such as reduced soil compaction and a source of manure for use in fields and market gardens.
One of the main reasons that machinery has replaced animal power in farming is that it reduces labor time and the associated costs considerably. Some experts estimate that performing any given task with a horse adds about 20% to the time it will take, assuming both horse and teamster are experienced. Obviously, the more acres you have to work, the bigger this concern becomes; also, it will be especially critical for a business rather than a hobby farm.
You will want to put a pencil to the costs of operating, and be sure to factor in the value of your time. For some jobs, buying or renting a machine may make the most sense. But if you have steady year-round work that a draft animal can perform, coupled with the desire to work with animals, it may be worth the learning curve.
Read more: Pros and Cons of Draft Animals »
Step 2: Choose a Species
Once you are sure that draft animals are a good fit for your farm, decide what type of draft animal you want. Oxen, horses, and mules are the traditional draft animals in the United States, although donkeys are also common. Unconventional draft animals include goats, sheep, llamas, alpacas, and dogs. Each species has its own pros and cons. For instance, oxen have a great deal of endurance, but move slowly and do not tolerate heat and humidity well. Horses are faster but more delicate. Mules excel at taking care of themselves—which is both an advantage and a disadvantage!
Read more: Which Draft Animal is Right for You? »
Step 3: Choose a Breed
Different breeds fit different environments and production systems. Whatever species you choose, you will want to select a breed that can thrive in your climate and that has a temperament that you will find enjoyable to work with. You may also want to select something that is readily available in your area and that can stay healthy in a low-input system. Most oxen are of dual-purpose breeds, although quite a few dairy and some beef breeds are also sound enough and smart enough for the purpose. Heavy horse breeds are typically chosen for hard draft work such as plowing and logging, although light horses and ponies can haul carts. Draft mules are bred from heavy horses and American Mammoth Jackstock donkeys. With goats and dogs, larger breeds are preferred.
Read more: Choosing a Breed of Cattle »
Step 4: Build Fences and Housing
Keeping draft animals of all species healthy involves providing access to fresh pasture (or a yard in which to exercise in the case of dogs). This means that some type of fencing is in order. For most animals, electric fencing of a type appropriate to the species is among the safest and most effective options, provided the animals are taught to respect the fence when introduced to the farm.
Equines (especially donkeys), goats, camelids, and dogs all require a basic shelter to allow them to get out of the sun, wind, and rain. This does not have to be elaborate. Three-sided sheds will work quite well for hooved animals. Keeping animals in a barn is usually detrimental to their health, and is only done for ease of management (for example, in places where blizzards are common enough to make caring for the animals difficult).
You will also need to set up a way to give animals fresh, cool water daily.
Read more: Free LSU Building Plans »
Step 5: Build or Purchase Some Basic Equipment
To work with draft animals, you will need something for them to pull, whether that is a cart, a cultivator, or a log chain. Ideally, you will collect some of your supplies before you bring home your team so that you can start work as soon as possible. You can purchase carts and implements at farm auctions or from Amish communities. You may also have success online with carriage manufacturers and antique farm equipment dealers. Some equipment can be built at home, as well, either from scratch or by adapting implements made for ATVs and compact tractors.
Read more: Draft Animals »
Step 6: Purchase Your Team
Once your pastures and animal housing are ready to receive animals, you can buy and bring home some draft animals. Many small farms (20 acres or less) can make do with a single draft animal, although most animals will require herdmates for companionship. Look for a sound animal with a good disposition; you may want to have a trusted veterinarian examine your prospective purchase before you make a commitment. Purchasing from a reputable source is also a good way to make sure you are satisfied with your new draft animals (check the relevant breed association to start).
Read more: Breeds of Livestock »
Step 7: Introduce Your Team to Your Farm
Once you have bought your new team, keep them in a small enclosure with sturdy fencing for about a week so that you can spend time with them, adjust their feed as necessary, and monitor them for health concerns. Worm them, either with a conventional wormer or a natural solution. If they will normally be enclosed with electric fencing, put up a short length of temporary fencing at nose height and electrify it so that they learn to respect it in a safe and controlled way. Once you have verified that your draft team is healthy and has learned to respect fencing, you can put them out on pasture.
Read more: Veterinary Guide for Animal Owners »
Step 8: Purchase Yokes or Harnesses
You will not be able to measure animals for harness until you have them on your property (although some sellers might include collars and harnesses with the team). The best way to make sure you achieve a proper fit is to follow the manufacturer’s directions for measuring animals. Measure horses diagonally along the line where the neck meets the shoulder. This number in inches corresponds to the collar size, as measured on the inside from top to bottom. To measure oxen for a yoke, have a helper hold two sticks parallel to each other on either side of the ox’s neck, where the bows will sit, and measure the distance between them on the insides. This number in inches corresponds to the distance between the insides of the bow holes, which in turn is the size of the yoke.
Read more: Ox Yokes and Collars »
Step 9: Learn How to Handle Your Team
It is best to have something simple for your team to do as soon as possible, as it will help you and the animals develop a rapport when you bring them home. One of the best tasks to try with a new draft team is ground skidding firewood, as there is minimal danger and very little equipment to set up. Another option is to work with your animals in a round pen, having them drag a tire or a light log. Just practice the basic commands and get used to reading their body language. You are mostly trying to build a positive working relationship at this point.
Read more: 5 Unconventional Draft Animals »
Step 10: Start Work
Once you are comfortable handling your draft team, and once they are working with you in a relaxed manner, you are ready for real work! Start simple and work your way up to increasingly difficult tasks. This will give you time to build confidence and them time to build muscle. As you work, pay attention to the comfort of your animals. Groom them before harnessing to prevent debris caught in the hair from causing discomfort. Check the fit of harnesses, collars, and yokes regularly to make sure rubbing and galling does not occur. Monitor their body condition to make sure their nutritional needs are met, and provide a salt lick to compensate for heavy sweating. Proper care will go a long way toward ensuring that you have sound, willing workers for years to come.
Read more: 3 Promising Niches for Draft Animals »
Draft Animals: 100 Answers for Harnessing Animal Power
by Michelle Lindsey
Acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to choose and purchase a draft team, and then learn to work them in the field, woodlot, or market garden. Draft Animals: 100 Answers for Harnessing Animal Power uses a unique Q&A format to deliver concise answers to your most pressing questions. Learn more »
Choosing a Breed of Cattle: 5 Needs and 40 Breeds for Selecting Cattle That Fit Your Purpose
by Michelle Lindsey
Ready to take the confusion out of selecting the right cattle breed for your family? This book will walk you through the process of defining your expectations and then arm you with key information on 40 common cattle breeds. Learn more »
When choosing a breed of cattle, there are many factors to consider. Each breed has its own advantages and disadvantages, and what works well for one family probably won’t suit another. With this in mind, it is wise to learn about the history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons of each breed before making a selection. This guide will answer your questions. Read more »
Horse & Donkey Breeds
If you are looking for the right horse or donkey breed for your needs, take some time to read through the options listed in this guide. We have provided information on each breed’s history, uses, temperament, and health issues, as well as the pros and cons to consider before making your final decision. Read more »
Peruse our guide to goat breeds to learn more about the uses, temperament, and health of each type of goat, as well as a summary of its pros and cons. A section on breed history is also provided for additional insight on each goat’s genetic background and purpose, as well as the path that modern breeders are currently forging. Read more »
While we appreciate the value of dogs as companions, in this guide we will focus strictly on breeds that can find work on a homestead, farm, or ranch. Read on to learn more about the history, uses, temperament, health, and pros and cons of your favorite dog breed. Read more »
- What are the advantages of oxen over draft horses?
Oxen are much more low-maintenance than horses overall, being far less prone to soundness issues and requiring much less feed even when working. They also have greater stamina and are less prone to spooking. As an added bonus, an ox’s yoke is easier to use and maintain than a horse’s harness.
- Can dairy bulls work?
Dairy breeds are sometimes used as oxen due to their intelligence and athleticism. However, a bull would not be recommended for this purpose, as dairy bulls are notoriously dangerous. A steer would be a much better choice.
- Are Rottweilers good farm dogs?
A well-bred and well-trained Rottweiler can be an excellent addition to a family farm, as he can help out by serving as a watchdog, pulling a cart, and herding, particularly tough livestock like cattle. Keep in mind, however, that Rottweilers are not suitable for homes with other dogs, and not all of them are equally trustworthy with cats and small livestock. For best results, introduce Rottweilers to the other animals at a very young age.
- What type of wood is used to make ox yokes?
Many different woods are suitable for making yokes. Traditionally, the sturdiest wood available locally was the wood of choice for the beam, or the horizontal part of the yoke. Common choices included ash, cherry, elm, maple, and oak. The bows, or the part that goes underneath the neck of the ox, are typically make of something extra durable, usually hickory.
- When can I put a yoke on oxen?
Ox training begins at 6 to 12 months of age with teaching the basic commands (get up, gee, haw, and whoa). Once the ox team is completely reliable, they can be fitted with a calf yoke and taught to respond to the commands while wearing it.
- Will a pony and donkey breed?
Yes. If the pony is a mare and the donkey is a jack, the result will be a mule. If the pony is a stallion and the donkey is a jenny, the result will be a hinny. The mule or hinny will likely be rather small. However, a pony mule can still be useful for light carting and packing, as well as being ridden by young children.
- Which Draft Animal is Right for You?
- 5 Unconventional Draft Animals
- What is the Difference Between a Llama and an Alpaca?
Breeds (All Species)
- Breeds of Livestock
- Heritage Livestock Breeds Comparison Charts
- Pros and Cons of Dual-Purpose Livestock
- What are Heritage Livestock Breeds?
Working with Draft Animals (All Species)
- Cattle Quick Start
- Choosing a Breed of Cattle
- Top 10 Reader-Favorite Cattle Breeds
- Ox Yokes and Collars
- Heavy Horses
- Storey’s Illustrated Guide to 96 Horse Breeds of North America
- Top 10 Reader-Favorite Horse & Donkey Breeds
- Fitting the Collar
- Body Condition Scoring: Horses