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For draft work, what are the advantages and disadvantages of horses, mules, donkeys, and tractors?  RSS feed

 
Scott Fike
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Greetings,

      As a beginning farmer, recently I have been reading about draft animals. Right now, I’m trying to learn about draft oxen. Before that I was learning about horses, mules and donkeys.

      But, before that, I started out reading about classic tractors (“classic” by my definition meaning anything made before about 1960), because I don’t need or want anything big as I intend on starting small.

      This got me to thinking about the various different roles each of these plays on the crop farm.
Since I’m wanting to start no-till field crop farming, I was wondering which role each animal and tractor is good at, and which might be best suited to my overall purpose as a whole if I decide to go with just one.

     I primarily want something to pull a small crimper-roller for flatening cover crops, a small planter or seed-drill and also a small harvester.

    I also would need animal or tractor capable of taking me to town if I should ever give up my drivers license (which might come sooner rather than later).

    Recently I’ve been strongly leaning towards oxen, but I don’t think they would do well going into town as they tend to be slow. I also had donkeys on my second place list. But, really, mules and horses are just as good as well. Horses might be more acceptable going into town (similar to the way the Amish do). So this is where I could use some guidance and suggestions.

Thank you
 
Su Ba
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Since tractor quickly replaced draft animals on the farm, it's obvious to me that small farmers definitely saw that mobile tractor to be superior to draft animals. Since I wasn't living during that time period, I'm not sure of all the reasons for the switch over. But I've heard statements such as...
...you don't have to feed an idle tractor during the winter
...a tarp for the tractor is cheaper than a barn for horses
...a tractor is less apt to die than a horse
...tractors don't bite, kick, or runaway as often as a horse
...it's cheaper to run a tractor than a team of horses

Can't say that I've had enough experience to compare tractors to draft teams. But I have worked a draft pony, but not too seriously. Just moving firewood around. I can say that it would have been a lot easier to have used an ATV and a cart, but the pony had a big "fun factor". I enjoyed having a pony around. I enjoyed gazing out the kitchen window to watch the pony graze. It was pleasurable grooming her, smelling the musky pony aroma. By comparison, I get zero pleasure washing my ATV.
 
Burra Maluca
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How far is the trip to town?  How fast do you need to go?  How much stuff to carry or pull?  How smooth/steep is the road?  All these things are likely to influence the decision.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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If you intend to go No-Till, then you will find that none of the proper seed drills are suitable for draft animal use, the machines are too heavy for just 2 animals to pull at a proper speed for the machine to work correctly and it is really difficult to find a draft animal with a PTO shaft.

As for which to use; Horses are not as good for draft work as Mules, Donkeys are as good as mules but they are not as large or capable of pulling the heavy loads mules can pull.
Oxen (cattle) are great farm draft animals but like the others their forward progress is a walking pace and for no-till seed drills, that is too slow for proper working of the seed drill, and once again it is hard to find them with a PTO shaft.
I keep mentioning the PTO shaft because many of the no-till seed drills require a PTO shaft or three point hitch that can lift the drill for a turn around.

Now as to the tractor advantage. The first tractors were steam engine driven with large cast iron wheels these came to farms in the late 1800's.
It wasn't until the 1920's that tractors became "common place" on farms, they did the work of draft animals in far less time. It took a team of 2 mules all day (daylight to dark) to plow 40 acres, it took 6 hours for the tractor to do the same.
Farms started into the modern era of production quantity with the coming of age of the tractor. It does more jobs than draft teams can do, it does all jobs in less time, it doesn't require hay or grain or mucking of stalls.

For your farm something like a Ford 9N (1951 era) would be a good starting tractor and you might find you never need anything larger or more modern.
 
David Livingston
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I think that this is one of those discussions where we need to be careful about the word good .
As it all depends 👨‍🌾
All  of these animals and the tractor have differing strengths and weaknesses you make your choice and work to your chioces strengths .
For instance the tractor can do the most work but it costs .Can you justify that cost ? For a machine that sits in the yard a lot of the time .
Donkeys are ^free^ to feed if you have  enough land and can work small difficult to reach bits of land  ,but you have vets and farrier bills
There is no wrong choice to my way of thinking only making the best of what you decide
 
John C Daley
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I have looked at draft animals, but decided a Ford Dexta tractor circa 1961 is best for myself.
I have had it 30 years, and it lives in a small shed out of the weather most of the time.
Its never kicked me, failed to start or farted in my face, I think its ok.
It has a PTO which I can use for;
- cutting timber
- run a chipper
- cut grass
-operate a post hole digger
- split firewood
It has a 3 point linkage system, which I can use for;
- a carryall
- excavator bucket
- grader
- box grader
- tilling
- pulling a roller
- operating a lifting jig
- roll out fencing
- pull trailers etc around
- ditch spinner to create or clean drains
- rotary hoe
- seeding

My machine is diesel, did not cost much and so far has been very reliable, with any repairs being done by myself.
It works about 100 hours a year, I don't think there is a practical alternative.
I could set it to run on old vegetable oils if I choose to do so. But it uses such little volume of fuel I will not convert it .
I believe I was realistic in picking the tractor over animals.
Choose carefully.
 
Dan Grubbs
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Bryant makes some good (and kinda funny) comments, but take them to heart. If you have your heart set on both no-till farming and draft animals, I suggest finding a farmer to do "custom drilling" for you. You can have your draft animals (my choice would be oxen) and still practice no-till cover crop because you'll simply hire out that one job -- farmers call it "custom". Talk to a few people who have "no-till drills" -- not to be confused with "seed drills" which are not the same thing -- and ask them if they would consider custom work with their drill on your place. You may not want to do the outlay of cash each time, but a true no-till drill is expensive and requires pretty significant down force most small scale folks can't produce without adding lots of weight to the drill.

I laud your desire to practice no-till farming. I believe it's a vital tool in the agriculture tool box.

If you don't have your heart set on draft animals, then get a tractor and implements with sufficient ability to provide enough down force on both the roller crimper and the drill to be effective.  It doesn't sound as if you're working at large scale so the video link I'm sharing below won't totally apply to you, but it is helpful in understanding the challenges in making seed-to-soil contact when using a roller crimper and a no-till drill. The most common modification is to add a coulter wheel just in front of the disk openers to cut the mat as you'll see in the video.  Maybe you already know all this, but I wanted to share this.  Now, the tractor in this video is large and is a single-pass approach with the crimper front mounted and the drill rear mounted. Few small-scale folks are gonna be anywhere near that kind of machine. But, someone who custom plants may.


 
David Livingston
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One other issue that has not been mentioned is that animals are self replicating , tractors not so much  🦄
 
Peter VanDerWal
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Animals have the advantage that they can breed more animals. That's pretty much the only advantage I can think of. (lol, I just read the post above mine)

Animals have to be fed and watered even when they aren't working, tractors only need fuel when they are running. 
The cost of feeding and caring for animals is much higher on an annual basis than running a tractor.
Animals need much more space than tractors, in addition to feed, water and shelter, they need a bit of room to wander around when they're not working. 
Storing food for animals requires much more space than storing fuel.

True you can grow your own food for animals, but you can grow your own fuel as well.  For a small homestead, etc. a solar powered tractor is a possibility.
 
John C Daley
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I am biased towards tractors as stated earlier.
But I think one needs to be realistic about animals.
Many have pointed out the effort needed to keep them, and I think the comments about self replicating are disingenuous to the
discussion, since tractors really do not need replacement if you work them 100 hours a year which is my case.

If you love animals, fair enough, but maybe have the animals and still get a tractor for the heavy additional work you can do with them.
 
Jim Fry
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Since Scott doesn't appear to be active on these boards anymore (according to his profile), I'll answer his question more generally for other readers. Scott stated he was a beginning farmer, I'll start there. A "beginning farmer" doesn't have much (or any) experience. So they need to keep it simple. Lots of beginners have tried to do too much and have consequently failed. There really is a big difference between book reading, desire, sounds good, and what can I actually do. And there's a difference between what you can do and what you can do well. Generally as a beginner you have a thousand things to learn, do, buy, build, repair (and that's just on the house to keep your partner happy). You need to learn gardening, field work, harvesting, preservation, fence building, roof repair, tool use, predator control and on and on. The list is tremendous. Then (Scott) is considering adding animal husbandry and draft work on top of every thing else.

I wouldn't do it. I'd keep it simple. Buying the "draft animal" equipment can be expensive. Building/repairing a barn can be expensive and time consuming. Learning how to use and care for draft animals properly is a long term investment in itself. Instead, see what the locals are doing. Take their advice. Hire them to do some of your initial work (Scott's no till) if possible. It builds community and friendships and helps get things done in a timely way. Then as you grow into your farm and gain experience and knowledge and really knowing what you want to do, start to expand your operation to include more fun (and aggravating) things as you are able. Get a tractor once you know something practical about tractors. Get a draft animal when you know something about them. Reading books and getting advice on the internet is not the same as actually knowing.

...As for Scott's desire to drop his license, I wouldn't. Being a new farmer, you'll probably need to get to town frequently for stuff you didn't know you needed. You may also need I.D. to vote and in case the local constabulary stop you. But, ...since Scott posits he could drive his tractor or draft animal to town, keep in mind that while that used to be common, it no longer is in most places. Tractors and animals don't mix well with a general public who has no experience with animals/tractors. You're asking to get hurt or run over by an "ignorant" public who generally drive too fast and reckless. Ask the Amish, it happens all the time. Plus, if you drive an animal to town, that doesn't maintain infrastructure for them, you'll have a hard time finding a hitching post or water trough. You'd be better off with a car (better yet a pick-up for a farmer) or a bicycle.

--P.S. But, for the sake of argument, what draft would I recommend? Partly depends on your personality and knowledge. Do you like big and flashy, or slow and solid. Are you skilled enough not to get hurt? Do you know how to trim a hoof? Horse harness takes more care and is more complicated than oxen yoke and harness. Do you know the difference and which can you afford? For me, I like practical (and a bit showy). I've had oxen, and draft horses. The locals prefer Belgium horses. So do I. (That's a good thing to keep in mind, ...what do the locals prefer. As a new farmer, much of the advice and help you'll be getting is "over the fence". You may find it far more useful than book learning. And what the locals raise is what you can more conveniently buy. When it comes to certain things, it'll help to become part of the local agriculture instead of just doing the theoretical best, most perfect thing possible.)
 
David Livingston
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I was only being partly jokey about replacements but don't forget they are a crop in themselves and worth money,

David🦄
 
Travis Johnson
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Myself, I think this question is so tough to answer, I cannot contribute in any meaningful way. I love tractors, so that would be the choice for me, but there are others that prefer draft animals. In another lifetime perhaps I might have had oxen, but I actually prefer working on equipment more than operating it, so mechanical breakdowns neither intimidate me, nor upset me.

Now that being said, draft animals not having PTO's is only partly true. They are things called PTO Forecarts and the Amish use them all the time. You can get them all the way up to 72 HP and some even have 3 point hitch attachment points

webpage
 
John C Daley
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The link to Draft Horse supplies was interesting, but it would be strange pulling a deseil powered pto trailer behind a horse I think.
 
Katie Jarvis
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-horses: horses take years of specialized learning and training to be successful with. Because they are such extreme flight-based prey animals, they are much different to work with than any other domestic animals and will become dangerous very quickly if not handled exactly correctly. I am a trainer and I love horses, but I would not recommend them for what you've said of your situation.

Mules: perfectly half way between horses and donkeys. Probably still not really what you want as they tend to learn to bolt if not trained very well (bolt - run in a dead panic until exhausted. Through fences, through any terrain, offcliffs, into traffic, you name it). Mules are actually my all time favorte animal to work with, but, once again, not for your sitation.

Donkeys: could be a good option. They can easily jog a long way, so could take you to town. You can get any size, from mini (about 2.5' tall) to mammoth (5.5' tall). They are much more intuitive to work with, like most other livestock. If you are very slow and patient, and prove to them that they do not have to be afraid, they will work very hard for you. They cannot pull nearly as much weight as oxen, since they themselves weigh a fraction of the amount of oxen, but they could easily pull light implements or pull your cart to town. They are easy keepers, so feed does not have to be a huge concern. They are very nearly parasite-free, if you put their water over a big patch of gravel, you may never have to trim their hooves as they will chip off naturally on the gravel. And if their hooves do get out of whack, you can trim the excess off yourself as opposed to horses or mules. Even some oxen require regular farrier care. You do need to know that donkeys have one of the strongest senses of self-presevation. This is why people call them stubborn and think that they kick a lot. If you ask them to go somewhere they think is dangerous (which could be simply going through a puddle or passing by a tree if they are young), you will have to be VERY patient and not try to force them or they will kick or run away out of self defense. If they have learned to trust you and you have practiced many different things with them, this will become less and less of an issue, but just know that this is a factor. If you get well trained donkeys to begin with, that won't be much of an issue. As with any animal, but from a quality owner who can help you after you have completed the purchase. If possible, get a couple lessons in ground work or driving with horses or donkeys before purchasing your own.

Good luck!
 
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