Crop production: The benefits of animal traction

Animal traction can be used for ploughing, harrowing, planting, ridging, weeding, mowing, transporting and harvesting, but does it still have a place in our technology-driven society?

Loads of horsepower – that’s what you’ll need if you farm on such a large scale, but for a small-scale farmer with only 2 ha to 5 ha, it is practical and makes economic sense to use a live horse or other draught-animals.

Despite their benefits though, it may be difficult to convince farmers to make use of these traditional practices in our technology-driven society.

Farmers must decide which option will work best for them – machine or draught animal. They may even decide to use both to complement each other, and on marginal commercial farms this could prove highly effective.

Donkeys, oxen, horses or mules can be used, each with their own distinct benefits.


An investigation by the Animal Traction Centre in South Africa has shown that irrigated plots of 2 ha are large enough for agriculture to be a major source of income, provided farmers adopt farming systems suited to small-scale agriculture.

We visited Bandla Buti, a small-scale farmer of Ncera in the Eastern Cape, to see how animal power has helped his business. He uses 14 donkeys to plant his 5 ha of land, where he grows cabbage, beetroot, spinach, carrots, potatoes, maize and butternut.

Buti says he bought his own donkeys in 2001 when he saw his business was growing fast.


Conservation agriculture involves the planting of crops and vegetables without ploughing and disturbing the soil surface. Essentially, it involves maintaining a permanent cover of mulch over the soil, minimum soil disturbance and crop rotation.

The benefits of conservation agriculture are the conservation of soil moisture, the enhancement of crop and fodder production, significant reductions in soil erosion and maintaining of a healthy soil structure.

Conservation agriculture linked with the use of draught animal power could possibly serve as a new approach to low-cost crop production.


  • They are more expensive to buy and hire.
  • If you own one it can save you a lot of time, but if you want to hire one it is not
    so readily available.
  • They are generally used on hard soils and for cultivating large areas.
  • They are generally only economical on large-scale commercial farms.
  • Owning or hiring a second-hand tractor for a small farm will usually disempower the farmer.


  • Can be bought for much less and are readily available.
  • Are less risky, and owning draught animals on a small farm will usually empower the farmer.
  • Are easy to work with and can, in the case of donkeys, be used by women and children.


  • Providing smallholders with vital power for cultivation.
  • Providing employment and transport.
  • Improving fertility by ploughing manure from draught animals back into the soil.
  • Affordability and sustainable technology.
  • Lower capital requirements.

Also read the South African Department of Agriculture’s guidelines on animal traction.

  • This article was written by Malixole Gwatyu and first appeared in Farming SA.

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