Farmers Ditch Tractors for….Oxen?

Front Porch Republic

[See also: Gene Logsdon — Oxen Power for Family Farms]

A New York Times piece, describes the renewed interest in animal power among some small farmers. Mind you, these are not quaint Pa Ingalls actors demonstrating out-dated farming techniques to giggling groups of school children. There is a logic to this shift, one that we are all encountering when we fill up the gas tanks of our cars.

As diesel prices skyrocket, some farmers who have rejected many of the past century’s advances in agriculture have found a renewed logic in draft power. Partisans argue that animals can be cheaper to board and feed than any tractor. They also run on the ultimate renewable resource: grass.

Of course, a yoke of oxen are not suited to farming huge tracts of land, so questions of scale immediately present themselves. Nevertheless, for some farmers, the benefits are numerous:

“Ox don’t need spare parts, and they don’t run on fossil fuels,” Mr. Ciotola said.

Animals are literally lighter on the land than machines.

“A tractor would have left ruts a foot deep in this road,” Mr. Ciotola noted.

In contrast, oxen or horses aerate the soil with their hooves as they go, preserving its fertile microbial layers. And as an added benefit, animals leave behind free fertilizer.

For some, there is a deep satisfaction in working with draft animals, a satisfaction that a tractor simply wouldn’t provide, yet there are drawbacks:

“Even when it’s tough with them, it’s better than spending a day with a tractor,” he said.

Then again, there was that time when he nearly took a horn to the groin.

“A tractor doesn’t do that either,” he said.

Surely, this is a small niche in the agricultural community. It will be interesting to see if it grows.


I don’t know that this needs to necessarily be an either-or debate. A small farm could have *both* an old tractor and a team of draft animals. There are optimum uses for both, depending on the type of farm and farmer.

I agree with Beth. It’s not just the diesel to run the tractor it’s also the spare parts and where they have to come from to get to you. I’m in Australia and no tractors or spare parts are made here. As transport costs rise so will the cost of those spare parts. Peak (cheap to get at) oil is already here. We will start to feel the effects when the economy tries to grow again and demand outstrips supply. Then… its’s not then end of the world but a reshuffle. More people back on smaller manageable plots of land and much less chemical fertilizer and pesticide (it takes oil and gas to make these as well). So I feel positive about it all. We have looked into mules as a possibilty. Lots of people with donkeys and horses in our area.

I agree with Jan; the time is coming in the not too distant future when we aren’t going to have much choice but to go back to horses and oxen, at least in much greater numbers than today. There will be pluses and minuses to that; one major minus is that from everything I’m reading, it’s likely to happen fairly suddenly when it does happen. Oil supplies are going to peak–if they haven’t already–and then fall off a cliff in terms of availability. It’s not going to be a question of how much it costs but of whether there is any available, period. I’ve got a good Quarter Horse stud and I’m looking for some mares, since I think the multipurpose animals like Quarter Horses and Morgans are going to be the most useful. But the big problem I see in our area (Northern California) is the lack of people who know how to drive, make harness–it’s really hard to find out here–wagons or horse-drawn equipment. My husband has worked with draft teams so we’re planning to teach the grandkids–we think they will need these skills. But maybe one of the pluses is that most farms will be smaller and more people will be living on the land.

As best my crystal ball will tell me, it’s not a matter of “if,” but a matter of “when.”

Someday, we’re going to forcibly retire from our energy-profligate ways, and we’ll all be living within our budget again — the amount of sunlight harvested by photosynthesis. Horses and oxen have had a few million years to adapt to such an environment, tractors will have considerably less time to adapt to the coming energy crunch.

Eric B, I don’t think I want to be 30 years old again. It sure was fun but can you guarantee me things would turn out as happily a second time, horses or no horses? To answer your question, I do not like horses. I had a runaway as a kid. I’ve been thrown from horses twice. I do like cows, so oxen could well have been better than tractors for me had I been exposed to that alternative. Here is my real problem: I do not like piston engines either. I am happiest with a hoe, rake and hand planter and let the sheep do the mowing. I would have a hard time giving up my chainsaw however. But to answer your question more directly, I would probably always have a tractor for the same reason I like having a car around even if I hate them both. Gas prices would not affect my decision since I would use either only a little in any event. I hate road trips. I hate long hours on a tractor. To answer another way: I can see me alone having no tractor or car because of my philosphy of life, but Carol would not willingly go along with it. Nor would our children growing up since they have had to live in the “normal” society. I think my savng grace is that I have never been able to remain overly fervent about anything. Except maybe softball and baseball when I was 30. Gene

I’ll add that I’m 35 years old, farming for a living on a scale that draft animals might have managed (about 12 acres of permanent pasture, ~3 acres of garden crops, ~2 acres of field crops, ~1 acre of tilled forage crops, ~1 acre orchard, and ~20 acres of woods), and as much as I like the idea, I can’t see draft animals being more practical than old tractors short of $20-30/gallon gas (apart from all the other huge problems such a shift in gas prices would affect in the world.)

Gene, may I ask you a hypothetical question just for fun and insight: if you and your wife had just swallowed pills that made you 30 years old again (for better or worse), what price would gas have to climb to (without hope of declining again) before you would consider it *more practical* to completely replace your tractors with draft animals?

Haven’t lived there for 30 years but in the 80’s in Washington County, Iowa you didn’t have to look too hard to find Amish and Mennonites working fields with draft horses – Mostly Belgians and Percherons as I recall. Rock-bottom commodity prices had the “normal” farm economy in the dumps back then (lots of “sell everything” farm auctions) but the Amish and Mennonites seemed to weather that storm handily. I don’t know for a fact, but I always assumed it was partly due to avoiding the huge overhead of tractors, planters, and combines.

I will note that there is [at least] one CSA in our area that uses teams of draft horses in their fields.

I just posted about this very topic recently:

It’s crazy how we not only don’t take advantage of simple ways to save energy, we spend energy doing things that actually generate bankable energy!

It’s more than time to consider alternative energy sources, including human and animal power.

The part about draft animals not being applicable to larger farms misses the point and is off base anyway. While not many, there were some very large farms in the early 20th century. More ground to cover just means more animals and teamsters. More importantly draft animal usage would probably break that big farm up into several smaller scale operations. A benefit by my way of thinking. Draft animal power is not a novelty, or a quaint idea. It’s a viable option for many, if not all. Now and in the future.

You forgot one major benefit of working with animals instead of tractors…tractors don’t make little tractors that will grow up to continue doing the work.

karl francis kohler May 9, 2011 at 9:14 am

Ive looked at this a lot and although initially it seems like a good idea – oxen, horses, require feed all year, vet bills and way before they are ready to work the field – a lot of training and a professional handler. They work when you need them, sure – but they eat every day – and a bale of hay @ $4-15 a bale, water and a stable, cleaning up (well that manure needs to be moved and piled and fresh straw…) You need someone just to look after the animals. A tractor you park and turn it off – it stops costing right there. Turn back the clock and get realistic tractors – I have a 1946 Farmall “A” 4 cylinder gas – cheap to run, easy to maintain – that IS what International Harvester designed – and still works perfectly and cheap parts available 65 years after production! At the size of farm that oxen could be used – a family farm – a Farmall or similar sized tractor is much more economical. With time, training, a shared responcibilty amongst a number of farmers, and professional animal handlers that know their animals and training to plow, seed, harvest.. In Cuba that is what they have been doing – Castro refused the Soviet tractors, gasoline dependancy, macine breakdowns etc and went with oxen… Hmmm maybe he has it right.

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