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The most economical draft animal

 
Scott Fike
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  In general, which of these kind of draft animals are the most economical to initially purchase, keep and maintain over the life of the animal (this includes food, water, vet bills, etc., etc.):

1) draft oxen
2) draft donkey
3) draft mule
4) draft horse

Conversely; feel free to re-rank them from overall most economical at the top to least economical at the bottom of the list.

Thank you
 
Su Ba
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Just as with most permaculture discussions, I find it impossible to rank something from #1 thru #10. It all depends........which is what I need to say about most things.

Where I live, I could get a donkey for free, but a decent horse would cost me $3000-$4000. Nobody uses an ox here that I know of but I could purchase a nicely built bull calf wean-off for around $600, depending upon breed. Mules are almost impossible to find at any price.

Feed costs all depend upon whether you're buying or growing your own. A bag of haycubes cost $15-$20 here. A bale of decent hay goes for $35, give or take. But just about every livestock owner has pasture here, so they are not dependent upon a feed store. I use hay cubes just to keep my stock friendly and coming to a bucket. Almost all their food comes from pasturage, year around.

Around here there is no need to built expensive barns for winter housing,

So you see, locale makes a big difference in costs.

As for veterinary costs, that depends upon how much you are willing to invest into learning about it yourself. Same goes for farrier care. Some folks learn to do most of it themselves, while other opt to call in professionals.

I wouldn't consider any of these animals to be "cheap". Renting a tractor, backhoe, or hiring custom labor would be far cheaper in the long run. But of course, it wouldn't be as much fun. Then again, one sick dying animal makes hiring a plowman look a whole lot easier and cheaper.

Example: one year while living in NJ a neighbor down the street came and plowed my 1/2 acre future garden site for $50. He got it done in minutes. It would have taken me days using rototiller......and I would have had to buy or rent that rototiller. $50 was cheap! And fast! By the way, subsequent years I rototilled because I wanted to, but plowing the first year was a wise decision as far as labor, cost, and starting out was concerned.


 
Andy Moffatt
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You get out what you put in, a donkey eats less than an oxen but will have less power, the most economical draft animal is the tractor whether it is a walk behind tractor or a 40hp old massey it only eats when it's working and doesn't require training or keeping fit or a stable which needs cleaning out etc. You also haven't talked about what sort of scale you are planning? Have you got enough pasture to feed the animals and make hay for the winter? As well as ground for whatever cash crops you are planning? Are you full time on the land?
 
C. Hunter
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The most economical draft vehicle is the tractor belonging to a neighbor who can be paid in beer or barter.

As soon as you start having to buy hay- and you will have to buy hay for any of these unless you've got a very good pasture setup (and even then you'll have to if the weather doesn't cooperate someday)- that tractor starts looking very economical.

You *can* buy a draft horse team trained to work for a couple thousand dollars. Then you need harness and implements. Feet done every month or two (figure $60 a trim, varies hugely). And horses can need retirement from work well before the end of their lifespan for various injuries- will you just sell for slaughter? Put down yourself? (Heck, even just putting down a horse can be a grand, easy).

With oxen, if one gets hurt, you can eat it, so there is that. Might not be GOOD eating, but it's definitely an option. (I realize for some people horses are an option too. I don't have anything against this in theory but I seriously cannot imagine eating a horse I've spent time training and building a working partnership with.)

Donkeys don't have much capacity, generally, and both they and mules are kind of an acquired taste- either you love working with them or hate them, and training them can be an adventure. Mules are JUST enough different from horses to be kind of confusing. And donkeys are like, some sort of hellspawn horse/goat hybrid. (I love the little bastards, but I can't imagine training one for anything critical. I'm doing well to train neighbordonks to just not eat fingers when getting treats!)

If you want a draft team because you are interested in working animals, it's totally a SUPER COOL hobby and something you should learn more about. But none of them are really very economical compared to a tractor you can park and that doesn't require emergency vet calls. Worst case scenario with a broken tractor is it waits till you can afford to get it fixed- you can't do that with an animal! And once you get all the equipment and facilities and gear set up for any kind of draft team, you're going to be approaching the cost for a small bare bones tractor and probably more than that.


ETA: it's like pets. Our dogs and cats don't generally contribute as much to a permaculture farm as they get out of it, even if they provide some crittering and guarding and stuff. (There are absolutely exceptions. My useless furballs are not among them.) Sometimes the focus needs to be 'as sustainable as possible' not 'perfectly sustainable'.

Cait, who WILL be adding a draft horse team to her farm someday, after there is much money saved.
 
David Livingston
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I use a human being ie me . Costs well upkeep and food have to be maintained anyway . So I dont need to pay for extra feed or fuel plus there are no extra start up capital costs. I can get big jobs done by doing a little bit every day and I have not debt
David
 
Anne Miller
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To answer your question, someone would have to have owned and used draft animals or at least done a lot of research.  Which would be easiest to train?  Which is more economical buying a baby to train or buying one already trained?  Do you have a building to house the animal in bad weather?  How many years do you want to wait while you train? Do you have a trailer to carry the animal to the vet? Another consideration would be what you want to use the draft animal for?

Will you be hitching it to a wagon to go to town or to haul things?  Will you be using it to plant crops? Will you be using it to haul logs for a house you are building?

Also some animals are easier to care for: 
Horse must have shoes, are finicky about what they can eat and sometimes founder.
Oxen are big heavy animals and must be cared for with caution.
I've never had a donkey or mule, so I don't know if they need more than water, food and a fence.

Our pioneer forefathers used what the had.  They probably had one cow and one horse.  They used Bessie the milk cow to plow and their horse as a mode of transportation.  When they decided to move their worldly possesions across the country they bought a team of oxen.

A fun hobby might be having draft animals.

Here are some dual purpose ideas:
Horses usually come ready to put a saddle on them to be ridden and they are taught to stand still.
If you want milk you buy a milk cow.  You could use it as a draft animal if you have the knowledge to train it.  It is trained to stand still while being milked.
If you want to put meat in your freezer you could buy a calf, train it to use as a draft animal ... then put it in the freezer and buy another one.
If you have coyotes, get a donkey.

Also there are some other options you might conside. Goats, LGD, ATV, BCS

https://permies.com/t/59011/Planning-purchase-BCS-advice

https://bcsamerica.com/products/tractors#specialty

We have a tractor.   We have a mule, it has a engine.

When we plant our food plots, my husband uses the tractor's tiller to pull up the rocks.  Then we walk around throwing the rocks to one side. Then we use a broadcaster spreader.  We have two kind, one is hand held with a crank and the other is a walk behind spreader.  This year we bought a disk plow attachement for the tractor.  We use the disk plow to break the top of the ground to break up the grass then we use a rake to remove the grass before using the broadcast spreader.

The mule has an attachment that will spread corn.

A article in favor of donkey and mules:

http://www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/mules-and-donkeys-on-the-farm-zmaz02djzgoe

Here are some interesting threads about draft animals:

https://permies.com/t/3800/critters/Draft-animals

https://permies.com/t/6934/critters/Save-world-raise-Oxen

That said, here is my vote:

#1 Donkey
#2 Mule
#3 Steer    [because I don't know that there are any real ox/oxen in the US, please don't debate]
#4 Horse    [But I would prefer to put Goat here]

For me #3 would have to be a calf so I could train it and it would know me and I would know it.



 
David Livingston
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More seriously than my previous post I think the answer as ever is in the question; What is efficiency?
I will illustrate with three examples
I once visited what was described as the last working farm in the UK that used horses in Northumberland ; It only was kept going due to subsidy as the farmer explained he could not compete with other farms as he had to dedicate so much land to feed the horses and people time to manage them.
I have read about a little farm, 60acres in the Alps that uses Donkeys , no cars tractors etc allowed on the site . The farmer has five gites and grows veg that he sells in the local markets . He uses donkeys for transport ploughing the little of the land that is flat ,cutting and  harvesting hay , logging and taking produce to market plus transporting the visitors goods . He says they are very efficient and will graze land that would not support a horse
I visited a local show where you could see examples of ploughing donkeys ( six!) vs four huge oxen (f@@@@@@ massive not milk cows) vs two shire type horses. Horse were much faster .
So how do you calculate efficiency
 
Thekla McDaniels
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Keep in mind that donkeys are also used as guard animals, some of them are very aggressive, and kill dogs, and attack human strangers as well as animal.  Not all, but the creature has the potential.

Another thing to consider is what work you want to do and how long you are going to be doing it, how far you are from fuel sources and spare parts, and mechanical fix it ability. 

Tilling is a tool and it has its uses, but it is hard on the soil, and there is a strong trend among people interested in soil building, sustainability, diversity and carbon capture into the soil, to minimize tilling.  Rather than tilling a whole field, the land is put to perennials compatible with the other uses.  When an annual crop is to be grown, they seed right into the root mat, with some strategic support like mowing very low where they will sow, mulching and planting into the mulch... that kind of thing. 

What else will you be wanting to do with your beast, mechanical or living?

I think a draft animal is a very versatile addition to the farm.  They can do so many things, and as someone pointed out, in the end you can eat them.  Sausage if they are tough, or stew meat.  You can feed them to the dogs, pigs and chickens if you can't bear to eat them yourself.  The money you put into them whether to buy or feed stays on your place, their minerals go back into your soil.  You can even compost the parts no one eats.

Money is not the only measure of efficiency, there are a lot of unquantifiables that never get factored in.  If you are doing any kind of soil building, managed appropriately the grazer accelerates the process, especially a mixed species group.  They return manure and urine to the soil.  They assist in pressing seeds into the soil, when you don't drill the seeds.  There is controversy about the pollution factor, I am not in the group that thinks the methane from the digestive tract is as bad or worse than the fumes from internal combustion engines.  And when one factors in the mining and transportation of petroleum, whether tar sands or oil shale or "simple" oils wells, or fracking, which has been shown to cause earthquakes, and the mess it all creates, and that it is an industry that has world wide devastating effects, not to mention the kind of thing that is going on now in North Dakota with the Water Protectors, then  minimizing one's use of petroleum products seems important to consider. 

I use a BCS which burns gas not diesel.   I'm not a purist, not interested in blaming or identifying absolute evil anywhere, just mentioning what goes in to a decision when weighing a beast against a machine.   At 66, my knees are no longer capable of doing it all with woman power.  On two acres, my need is small, and I don't use the BCS much.  I don't have enough ground or soil adequate to support a beast of burden, but possibly one day I'll keep a large male goat kid, and train him to harness.  I think that would be fun, but is years away.   I could train the diverse group of milk goats to the team too.  That would be a sight in a local parade, no?  And think of the opportunity to educate others as they seek to talk with me about my novel "team".   It would be a quality of life kind of fun that the BCS will never provide me. 

Just look carefully at all the variables suggested here, and decide what suits you best.  The neighbor's tractor would have been my first choice in my situation, but it was not an option.


 
Krofter Young
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The animal I would rank first is not on your list - llamas.  Personally, I can't recommend using heavier animals for plowing due to the destruction that plows wreck on the soil (http://erdakroft.com/Erdakroftfarm/Blogs/Entries/2013/2/14_Mycelium_And_The_Plow.html).  But if you just need something to pull a two person cart or farm wagons - hands down - you won't find a more efficient draft animal to keep on the farm than llamas.  One llama can pull a one person cart or two can pull a two person cart or farm wagons.  They also produce a nice fleece (can't say that about most draft animals) and are good eating.  They also poop in one spot which makes it easy to collect for use.  They're herd animals so you'll need at least two.  Llamas already trained to carts or wagons fetch a very good price.  Might want to consider training them for that.
http://www.llamasofsocal.org/carting.html
http://www.jnkllamas.com/
http://www.pearsonpond.com/Carting.html
 
Burra Maluca
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I think a lot depends on what animals are readily available where you are, and also what harness and implements are available. 

I used to pick up young horses really cheap, bred to be show horse horses, specifically Welsh Cobs, but that had turned out too heavy and slow for the show ring.

Here's one I paid £50 for, with all his papers and a fantastic pedigree.  He had just turned three when this photo was taken and was busy learning his job, testing an old hay rake on some hay that had been rained on and wasn't fit to collect for use.  I sold him for rather a lot more than I paid for him, which made him pretty economical by my books!

 
William Bronson
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Su Ba wrote:Just as with most permaculture discussions, I find it impossible to rank something from #1 thru #10. It all depends........which is what I need to say about most things.

Where I live, I could get a donkey for free, but a decent horse would cost me $3000-$4000. Nobody uses an ox here that I know of but I could purchase a nicely built bull calf wean-off for around $600, depending upon breed. Mules are almost impossible to find at any price.



I simply must ask, what's up with free donkeys?  I am especially fascinated since I recently found out the that worlds most expensive cheeses are donkey milk cheeses!
 
Su Ba
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The "Hawaiian Nightengale" is considered to be a feral nuisance animal here. Some housing subdivisions maintain catch corrals and giveaway any donkeys that they capture. While the going rate for a reasonably tamed donkey is $400, there are plenty that are up for free adoption. My two I got for free, one of which is currently a permanent resident on my farm. She is a flock guardian protecting my sheep.....not that she likes sheep, but that she hates dogs. She's now killed two dogs and chased untold dozens out of the pastures, saving plenty of my sheep. I've never tried using this donkey for draft work because she's too valuable to remove from the sheep pasture.
 
Creighton Samuiels
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Scott Fike wrote:  In general, which of these kind of draft animals are the most economical to initially purchase, keep and maintain over the life of the animal (this includes food, water, vet bills, etc., etc.):

1) draft oxen
2) draft donkey
3) draft mule
4) draft horse

Conversely; feel free to re-rank them from overall most economical at the top to least economical at the bottom of the list.

Thank you


#1) Diesel tractor converted to bio-diesel or heated vegetable oil.
#2) Regular horse, because draft horses are expensive with regard to vet care, compared to more common breeds.  Also, it matters a great deal towards expenses if you have to go farther afield to find a vet with experience with your breed of working animal.  If there are Amish near where you live, find out what they use.

If there really aren't farm animal vets near your neck of the woods, then you might also consider a pair of miniature horses, in the place of a single working animal; for several reasons. First, all these animals are social creatures, and do better with some of their own kind to interact with.  Second, miniature horses are easier to feed & house in winter; a standard shed could serve as a respectable barn for a couple.  Third, miniature horses are less destructive if one should decide to revolt.  Forth, they can typically be 'handled' by much younger and/or smaller framed farm hands.  However, they are not the brightest animal, from what I've heard, so they may not be trainable as a working animal.  (I have no direct experience with miniature horse breeds, myself; but I have pondered the question about whether minis would make economical farm animals).
 
Thekla McDaniels
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Hi Scott,

There is so much to this discussion -as it applies to your place - that would make the discussion more meaningful.

How big a place to you have, and what kind of work are you wanting to accomplish with this "most efficient" solution?
 
tel jetson
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David Livingston wrote:I use a human being ie me . Costs well upkeep and food have to be maintained anyway . So I dont need to pay for extra feed or fuel plus there are no extra start up capital costs. I can get big jobs done by doing a little bit every day and I have not debt
David


I'll do you one better, David: a human on a bicycle.

from Energy and Equity:

Ivan Illich wrote:Man, unaided by any tool, gets around quite efficiently. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer in ten minutes by expending 0.75 calories. Man on his feet is thermodynamically more efficient than any motorized vehicle and most animals. For his weight, he performs more work in locomotion than rats or oxen, less than horses or sturgeon. At this rate of efficiency man settled the world and made its history. At this rate peasant societies spend less than 5 per cent and nomads less than 8 per cent of their respective social time budgets outside the home or the encampment.

Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer of flat road at an expense of only 0.15 calories. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well.


I don't know of a whole lot of implements apart from trailers built to be dragged behind a bicycle, but that's nothing a little tinkering can't solve.
 
Thekla McDaniels
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I thought there was a whole thread on how to utilize bicycle power, or attaching "power" tools like grinders and such to stationary bicycles modified to have a drive belt.  Searched and could not find, then remembered it was a discussion about utilization of modified treadle sewing machines and could not find that either.  I'm not much of a searcher I guess, still I am glad it has come up, people as their own power generators.

It depends once again on the job to be accomplished, HOW to utilize the efforts of humans or any other animal to accomplish the task, but we're great innovators, and have great potential to fit ourselves with many means to use mechanical advantage as the go between for our muscle power, and the jobs we want to do.  That is part of who we are, tool users with big brains. 
 
Mick Fisch
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This post will dispay my ignorance, but here goes.

Why doesn't anyone use pigs as draft animals?  I have quite a bit of respect for human ingenuity, long term, so I am sure there is a really good, really obvious reason no one uses pigs.  I know damned well someone, somewhere has tried it.

My thoughts are, they are highly intelligent, very powerful, low to the ground so their power would be more aligned for pulling.  They are common on farms.  Is it a matter of personality?  An animal that is going to be eaten in the fall wouldn't be worth training, but it seems to me that your breeding stock might be trainable.  Maybe it's the stockman's motto (don't trust anything with balls) coupled with hormonal issues with pregnant/nursing females. 

I've had no experience with pigs, but one visit to a relatives pigbarn with one amazingly huge, very aggressive momma pig with a bunch of piglets made a definite impression on my 10 year old mind.

I've seen and enjoyed humorous posts before about draft chickens, chihauhuas for pulling sleds, etc, guinea pigs for milk, but I am seriously wondering about this.
 
Thekla McDaniels
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Hey, Mick, that's a fun idea.  Here are my first thoughts:  pigs are used to root up ground then moved to another area to do the same. They are also used to find truffles, and who knows what else, but a pig is a kind of funny shape to try to put a harness on don't you think?  And they are not that athletic, especially the large breeding stock.  They like to lie around and rest a lot.  With that size carcass on short legs, it's a lot of work for them to hoist themselves around.

Now I'm curious to see what others say.
 
Kyrt Ryder
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I suspect the big thing about Pigs as Draft Animals is that pigs are incredibly...

...pigheaded.

What I mean by that is that although their intelligence is through the roof [right up there with dogs] they are incredibly self-centered and impulsive.

I'd need to know more about how Truffle Pigs are controlled before I thought of Draft Pigs.

On that note though, I've often thought one ought to be able to train a pig to serve as a living Jack for lifting heavy objects. Do the job, get the treat, get back to the all important task of 'being pig.'
 
David Livingston
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Although the great and much missed author , Terry Pratchet has some pigs hauling a sled in his book Hogfather I dont think it's a starter for three reasons firstly pigs have a low center of gravity and are just too fat on the whole no stamina ,, secondly they have few available handles to get hold of and thirdly they are just too clever .
 
Thekla McDaniels
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The truffle pigs wear some sort of muzzle that prevents them from eating the truffles they dig up.  I don't know how come they keep digging them.  Maybe they get a small percentage as finders' fee.   

Maybe there is a You tube
 
C. Hunter
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Suzanne Clothier's written a bit about training pigs in her book "Bones Would Rain From The Sky" (a book about dog training and philosophy) and a bit more on her blog. She mentioned specifically that while the pigs she worked with learned really fast and were very food motivated, it was very, very difficult to phase out food rewards like one would with a dog or a horse, especially in an environment in which the pig had any chance of finding a reward on their own (ie, outdoors where the pig could root or dig.) A friend has a 'mini pig' as a pet and she's reported similar things- her pig walks on leash okay as long as it's on the pig's terms! I think that other animals have been selected for much more compliance with humans- after all cattle are handled for milking (which means that handle-ability gets selected for in dairy breeds, at least); horses, obviously MUST be trainable or they are near worthless. Goats, back to the dairy traits. I won't even make a guess about sheep, as frankly, my opinion of their trainability is very low, LOL.

For sheer pulling power, dogs can be great, but the combination of distance and weight is proably hard to balance out. (Training one dog to pull many times his weight is very doable if you only need to pull something 20', but if you need to go miles, you're looking at a team, and that gets complicated very quickly- I suspect a human with a couple of dogs hitched in beside them might be the most workable setup, but it'd still be fairly complicated... But for things like moving bags of feed around, or dragging a pallet with some mulch stacked on it, a couple of good solid medium-sized dogs (by which I mean a nice solidly built 60-ish pound dog) are more than adequate, though!
 
Hans Quistorff
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The ranking should be how many uses does this animal have verses how much input is available for its needs in my circumstances. If you want surface cultivation chickens and pigs can do it, in watery conditions ducks can do it.
For pulling power as covered above it depends on the scale of the work verses the feed available.  Again if it doesn't have multiple uses it is less efficient than a machine that only has to be fed when it is working.
When I was growing up we had a Morgan/Percheron cross mare. She was an excellent riding horse but equally adept at cultivating and plowing. She was a good adopted mother to my mother expensive arabian stallion and when the sow trainer wanted to ride him in the fox hunt she went along as my mothers mount and excelled in all the jumps. She also did as good as any doky in protecting the sheep and goats from the packs of neighbor dogs that would rome at night. I also have many stories about how good she was with children. We had enough pasture plus the wast hay stalks the goats and sheep would not eat but she would.
Therefore in the 1950's on 11 acres she was a very efficient draft animal. Now on 10 acres half of whic I am trying to find a Permie to take over [see my signature line] I do not have those uses so I just use chickens and my own power or a riding lawnmower.
 
Peter Ellis
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I find myself asking not which animal on this list is most efficient, but what work is it that needs to be done?  For example, if the work to be done is tilling, then I would suggest not doing the tilling and the animals are not needed at all.
If the work to be done is crimping/rolling cover crops for no till planting after the cover crops are down, I might suggest following Colin Seiss' method and grazing the area intensively rather than rolling.  The mob knocks down the covers, fertilizes and harvests a portion of the cover crop converting it into a cash crop as well.

If you feel the need to till irresistably, pigs can root up an area for you pretty well.  Certainly size matters, pigs are not as fast as conventional tillage, but they are also a profit center, not an overhead expense.

Are you needing to haul wagons or carts? Pulling logs out of woods?  For those jobs you do need something that can pull the wagon, the cart, the logs.  But how far?  On what terrain? What size? Carts and wagons you can get sized to match your animals, but logs are what they are, depending on your timber stand. How frequently, over what time will you need to do these jobs? Again, efficiency relates to utilization.

While I really don't agree with the whole "Tractors are much more efficient" position (it totally ignores how tractors are made, maintained and fueled.  Even if your tractor runs on vegetable oil and you grow your own sunflowers for the oil, it's a whole process on top of growing the plants, harvesting them, etc. which the animals do for themselves. Manufacturing a tractor uses more resources than the draft animals can ever equal.) depending upon what your needs are, it might be that the best possible answer is a tractor shared among several farms to do a variety of jobs none of which independently justify the costs of any draft power, animal or mechanical.
 
Deb Rebel
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I grew up with working horses and draft teams. They were mostly kept for love, and the draft teams for hauling hay on a sledge with runners out to the cattle when it's -40 and a tractor didn't want to start. LOT of work. Making hay. Picking out a hoof took a week and a half or so it seemed.

I prefer 'tractor' for a working creature to haul stuff and plow with if you have to plow or till. I currently have two acres in town and a Kubota BX2200 with front end loader, 60" deck, and box blade. I have a few small carts/wagons/trailers that the Kubota can pull. It is the work tractor though it is small. It does eat diesel, the oil is expensive and moreso for the hydraulic fluids, and it needs regular servicing according to the hour meter. However it is a LOT less work than when I was riding horses, fixing fence, making hay, and delivering calves. I'll take the tractor.  We also have some small garden tractors for light putzing around and pulling small carts to move stuff, they have even been taken downtown to go for 'donuts' (aka coffee hour) or picking up drinking water or heavy stuff.

I have not had experience with donkeys or mules and draft teams, my paternal grandfather talked about a farm neighbor that had a team of oxen, and they mostly ATE a LOT.
 
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