Draft Animals Offer Alternatives

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADraft animals are important around the world for getting in to places that mechanization can’t get to. A working draft animal is a valued transportation for carts as well as a means to move heavy loads. Cutting hay, plowing, powering a treadmill and packing are but a few tasks made easier without fuel with animal power.

While in the US we look at primarily the dog, mule, donkeys, draft horse and oxen these are just a few of the animals used for power. Camels, dogs, elephants, water buffalo and caribou all work for people also and as working animals there is a much different view.

Jobs the draft team can do include milling grains, hauling logs, lifting loads, plowing and farming, operating bellows and hauling loads.

The most powerful of draft animals and the longest lived is unquestionably the elephant. Normally it is the smaller Indian elephant used, valued in hilly terrain and serving as work animals since well before the birth of Christ. However, with mature males being aggressive and much larger as well as the elephant in general eating more than 500 pounds of forage per day, there is limited use for these amazing animals from a draft standpoint in the US.

For American uses equine and bovine are mentioned as draft animals. The draft horse, mules and oxen have their supporters and their critics. Both are threatened today. Modern agricultural practices of farming thousands of acres and sometimes tens of thousands of acres make the draft animals outdated. However, as indicated by the spike in fuel prices that can change quickly when grass becomes cheaper than diesel to get the fields tilled. Additionally draft animals are renewable.

The reasons for using draft animals are many. There is no foreign fuel required to power them. They can get into the fields earlier than heavy machinery. They cause less compaction of the soil and a draft mare can produce offspring for more power.

However, the critics have points also. They require care every day, whether you work them or not. They need time to learn how to do their jobs, and they are powerful enough there is a risk of injury. They are prone to injury themselves and if it happens when you need to get in the field then you can be stuck unless you keep extra animals. They take room and pasture.

Of course these arguments can be balanced by injuries happen with machinery also, and machinery is also prone to break down. Most owners don’t consider the daily care a bad thing but rather point towards it is time spent with animals they are truly partners with.

Draft horses have a long history in America. All have become more show than working but there are still many people who log and farm with horses. There are several main breeds. The Shire is a tall heavy breed originating in England and often called a Clydesdale. Shires often have more “feathering” on the lower legs. Clydesdales have become easily recognized due to their appearance on Budweiser advertising. Percherons and Belgians are actually more popular than the other two breeds. Suffolks are the only breed developed for farm work, and are always chestnut in color with minimal white. America’s only native draft horse, the American Cream, is critically endangered with just a few hundred remaining. Draft horses can weigh over a ton and a pair that are well trained are worth a great deal to someone who wants to work them.

Other heavy breeds not commonly seen as draft horses include Halflingers, Norwegian Fjord, spotted drafts, Gypsy horses and sometimes Friesians. These are all breeds suitable for light draft work on a farm.

Draft horse prices can vary from $1,000 to $4500 and more for show animals. For those serious about purchasing there is quite a few to pick from in the $2500-5,000 range in almost all breeds. Some examples in a recent advertising listing is a Belgian mare broke to ride and drive for $1900, a black Percheron mare for $3200, a Clydesdale gelding for $2,000 and a pair of Percheron mares for $6,000.

Donkeys and mules are another popular equine but unlike draft horses cannot reproduce themselves. Commonly they are the product of a large jack and a draft mare.

Oxen were often preferred over horses in early American farm life. Indeed 100 years ago there were several breeds that were viewed as triple purpose. These included Brown Swiss, Devon, Charolais, Simmental and Ayrshire. Today an overwhelming dominant breed in dairy and another in beef have all but eliminated some breeds but the Brown Swiss and Devon (now usually called Milking Devon) remain as favorites among oxen people with many shorthorns and other breeds also used.

The advantage to oxen they’re cheap. Oxen are often castrated bull calves from dairy operations so the price for a pair of baby bull calves is but a few hundred dollars. Typically oxen are not dehorned so many have horns. A pair of oxen, first called “working steers”, take a great deal of time to train and learn to handle.

Typical prices for an older started team recently advertised are a pair of Brown Swiss of about 1,000 pounds each for $1500; a pair of red shorthorns weighing 330 and 350 for $1200, a pair of Holsteins started on farm and logging chores for $1600 and a pair of 800 pound Chianina Holstein steers for $3500, the latter offered due to owner’s health. More finished teams include a pair of Brown Swiss tipping the scales at 2100 pounds each for $3200, a pair of Ayrshires the same size for $2750, and a massive pair of Holsteins for $3200. The latter were a 4-H project team and were 5’9″ each at the shoulder and weighed 2516 and 2688 pounds each large enough to learn to do some serious work!

The advantage to oxen is long standing that they could be used for beef if injured although many who handle them can get quite attached to their animals. The disadvantage is that they are a one time thing as castrated animals they cannot produce offspring. Like horses, oxen usually have names and are commonly purchased in pairs. Like other cattle they are creatures of habit so purchasing as a team is common. Single animals can be purchased but team animals are often yoked a particular way, with one steer always on the left and the other always on the right. For those who view cattle as being stupid animals working with oxen can be enlightening! Young steers are started very young, with basic training beginning at just a few hundred pounds, long before working on a load.

Draft power can do many chores around a farm from hauling logs, manure and hay to tilling fields and a wide range of other chores involving moving things from point A to point B. Some oxen are even taught to carry a rider.

Draft animals will need plenty of forage, feed, shelter and training. While many working at home can work barefoot some areas require shoes (yes for oxen and horses!). From a care standpoint they are low maintenance but some of that care is a part of normal working of the animal. This can include grooming before and after working, attention to health care and monitoring any cuts and scrapes they might pick up.

While they are a good alternative for many to a tractor they do require time. Many owners see this as a benefit, not a liability.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s