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close this bookCERES No. 135 (FAO Ceres, 1992, 50 p.)
close this folderCentrepiece
View the documentThe ecology of the machine
View the documentAlive and pulling
View the documentTime to light some candles
View the documentMaximizing muscle power

Alive and pulling

by Paul Starkey

The internal combustion engine may dominate farming in Japan, Western Europe and North America, but animal power is still alive and pulling virtually everywhere else on the planet. By far more affordable and environmentally benign than gasoline or diesel, draft animals still provide most of the world's people with the vital power not only for producing crops and transporting them to market, but for water-raising, logging, milling, land-levelling, road-building and a host of other jobs.

Technology, however, rarely stands still, and animal traction is no exception. In most developing regions, patterns of draft animal use are evolving, offering new opportunities and presenting new problems to planners and farmers alike. Sub-Saharan Africa, especially, is taking a new look at animal power.

Unexpected changes

The kinds of changes taking place in animal power use aren't always what one would expect - even in regions like Asia, which have employed animal traction for thousands of years.

Throughout the East, draft animal use is so essential a part of smallholders' lives that there would seem little scope for further expansion. The domestic water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is everywhere. Yet there are still areas where animals are being introduced for the first time. In some transmigration schemes in Indonesia, for example, virgin land is being brought under cropping and animal traction is being introduced as a new technology. In rapidly-industrializing regions where many animal-powered operations have been taken over by motor power, the number of work animals has, paradoxically, not declined. Motor power and animal power have often proven complementary, and work animals released from pumping or tillage may be assigned alternative tasks.

Admittedly, when electric or diesel pumps replace animal-powered water-raising systems, the number of working animals may drop, just as the number of animals used for plowing has fallen with the rapid spread of motorized tillage systems in areas of intensive production like India's Punjab or the rice-producing regions of Southeast Asia. But in most of Asia, traditional systems persist. Yoking methods have hardly changed in recent years, and traditional wooden implements and wheels are still popular, though farmers are slowly turning to steel tillage implements and pneumatic tires for carts.

An interesting change is the increasing employment of female work animals. In Java, an estimated 80 per cent of draft animals are females, and the proportion of working cows is rising in Bangladesh. Cows and she-buffalo can provide seasonal power for tillage - and also produce calves and milk. Farmers consider multi-purpose female animals particularly suited to intensive smallholder systems where animals are closely monitored and often stall-fed. Oxen remain popular in areas where animals are plentiful and extensive grazing is still possible. Castrated males are generally preferred for more specialized full-time work such as commercial transport, contract plowing and forestry.

In the Americas

Animal traction has been part of smallholder farming in the Americas for mere centuries, rather than the millennia of Asia or North Africa, but those centuries have been long enough to develop original approaches. It's traditional in tropical Latin America, for example, to yoke oxen or bulls in pairs to pull long-beamed wooden arcs. Wooden-wheeled oxcarts are also common. As in Asia, there has been a slow move toward steel implements and carts with pneumatic tires, but traditional implements also persist because they are cheap and can be made in the villages.

In Argentina, Chile, Canada, the United States and other nations with more temperate climates, horses have been used for tillage as well as transport. Even though the animal power that was so widespread earlier this century has largely been replaced by motors on large-scale farms in North America, animal traction is still used in some farming systems in the United States and Canada. Because of their religious beliefs the Amish employ only animal traction, usually horses or mules, and still make a profit. Their animal-powered techniques are efficient, and they have little need for bank loans so their farming is both ecologically and economically sustainable. Oxen and horses are also used on many small farms in Canada and the United States for extracting timber, and ox-pulling competitions are big attractions at state fairs in Ontario, Quebec and New England.

Africa, a mixed bag

North Africa and the Nile Valley have a long history of using oxen, cows, bulls, donkeys, mules, horses, buffalo and camels for tillage and transport. In recent years, low fuel prices in North Africa have encouraged a switch to motorized systems for largescale plowing, irrigation and transport, but animal traction persists in smallholder systems. In Morocco, which is not an oil-producing state, more than one million draft animals are still employed, and animal and motor-power complement each other well.

There is also a long history of using work animals on the Horn of Africa. In Ethiopia, which has Africa's largest population of draft animals, traditional cropping systems almost invariably involve the use of the wooden "maresha" and plow, pulled by pairs of oxen. Pack donkeys and mules are also widely used in Ethiopia. Elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, animals have long been employed for transport by pastoralists and traders, but animal-drawn implements are not used in traditional shifting cultivation farming systems.

Animal traction for tillage and for wheeled transport was introduced into sub-Saharan Africa during the colonial period, when pairs of oxen were yoked to pull imported metal implements, but the practice was slow to spread during the first half of this century. The areas where it was adopted first were those with good crop marketing systems, particularly for cotton and groundnuts.

Animal traction is now used throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but is still new enough that the elders of many communities can vividly recall the day on which their village first tried work animals.

Failed expectations

During the 1960s and '70s, animal traction received relatively little attention from the governments of newly-independent African states. This was a period when African agriculture was expected to convert as rapidly to tractors as the farms of Europe and North America had done.

But by the late 1970s, higher oil prices, foreign exchange shortages and a number of failed tractor schemes proved rapid motorization was not, after all, practicable. Governments and donors alike began viewing animal traction as a serious development option.

During the 1970s and '80s, donor-assisted projects were established in Africa to introduce animal traction and study its use. The projects promoted "improved" implements, yokes and harnesses and sometimes "improved", i.e. exotic, animals as well. Though the projects published optimistic reports about their successes, farmers adopted few of the innovations. This was because the projects tended to ignore social and economic factors and the risks, variability and complexity of local farming systems. They also failed to consider that, while local animals need minimal management, exotic breeds require a lot of feeding and health care in order to thrive. While heavy implements made of high-quality steel work well on research stations, they are not convenient for the small, irregular fields of local farms.

These lessons have only recently come to light, assisted by the creation of animal traction networks. Through workshops and publications, the West Africa Animal Traction Network and the Animal Traction Network for Eastern and Southern Africa have promoted an exchange of information and liaison. Projects and practitioners are encouraged to report their failures as well as their successes, and patterns have emerged from the pooling of disappointing results.

It is now clear that despite much well-intentioned work by donor-assisted projects, few technological changes in animal traction have really taken hold in Africa in the past quarter century. Most implements and yoking systems currently in use are similar in design to those available a generation ago. The same is true of many other rural technologies, from hand-hoe to village water distribution systems.

The situation on small farms contrasts sharply with the rapid change in urban technologies and the technological developments on large-scale, commercial farms.

Animal power on the rise

Although donor-assisted development projects in Africa have had little discernable impact on the technology itself, they have often proved remarkably successful in transferring the general practice of animal traction. There have been some remarkable rates of adoption over the last 20 years. In Cote d'Ivoire, the number of oxen used in one area rose from 2 000 to 38 000 in just 15 years, stimulated by training services and a package of inputs made available by a cotton development company. Rapid rates of adoption were also reported recently in parts of Benin (from 3 000 to 35 000), Togo (from 2 000 to 12 000) and Sierra Leone (from 50 to 1 000), and the same thing is now happening in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and southern Mali.

Although projects helped by providing trainers, implements and credit, their effect was often simply to speed up the natural diffusion of animal traction. In many countries, it is farmers moving from one area to another who introduce animal traction technology. A recent survey of Zambia's Copperbelt showed the effect of farmer migration. While nearly all the traditional hoe-farmers were born in the province, most farmers who now use animal traction were born elsewhere. They, or their parents, came from areas where animal traction is used.

The areas where animals have never been used usually have low population densities so that farmers can use bush-fallow shifting cultivation. Animal powered tillage becomes attractive as land pressures increase and farmers clear land on a more permanent basis. Many of these areas have rainfall of more than 1 000 millimetres, and a combination of natural forest and disease had restricted growth of cattle populations. The shortage of work animals is often critical, and the process of "oxen-ization" depends on successful "cattle-ization".

"Improvements" ignored

In Zambia and elsewhere, extension services have had clear technical messages for those wishing to try animal traction for the first time, but advice has been less clear on how farmers already using draft oxen could improve their technology. What information was available on "improving" implements and harnessing systems was not taken up. For more than a generation, extension services have been telling farmers to adjust their plows "correctly", yet 95 per cent of farmers remove the adjuster from their plow.

Which, then, is correct: the extension advice or farmer practice? One suspects that 100 000 farmers cannot all be wrong. It is sometimes claimed that farmers ignore extension advice on "improved" technologies because of their alleged conservatism, but this seems unlikely because there are also plenty of examples of farmers rapidly adopting new animal traction technologies that they find truly helpful. The spread of donkey traction in West Africa is a good example.

Donkey work

Donor-assisted projects and government extension services promoted animal traction during the 1970s and '80s in the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and southern Mali. Farmers, who had never used work animals before, learned how to work with yoked pairs of oxen and relatively heavy implements. But, once trained in principles of animal traction, the farmers began using a completely different technology, based on donkeys.

With a single donkey and low-power implements like scarifying tines and seeders, farmers were able to cultivate their land quickly and with less effort. Donkeys were cheap, and because donkey meat is not eaten, the animals could be left to graze unguarded with little risk of theft. Children could easily work with donkeys, and in the flat terrain of West Africa, donkey carts proved ideal for carrying people around the farm and goods to market. This served the farmers' purpose so they rapidly adopted a new species and harnessing system, different implements and an alternative tillage system. The donkey technology is still being transferred from farmer to farmer in the Gambia, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, encouraged by close cultural and trading links with Senegal where donkeys have been in use for years.

African farmers have also started on their own to use cows for work, much to the surprise of official extension services. A quarter of the farmers m one region of Senegal now use draft cows. They find that with good management, work cows are more profitable because they also produce calves and some milk. Cows are in regular use in parts of southern Africa where this was almost unthinkable a generation ago. In Zimbabwe, the trend toward work cows came about as land pressures increased in the main areas of smallholder farming. In Zambia, the use of cows accelerated because a tick-borne disease had decimated ox herds, causing a shortage of work oxen.

Large-scale farming In several southern and east african countries, large-scale commercial farmers, who own several tractors, are also considering the technical and financial advantages of animal power. While most large-scale farmers continue to use tractors for rapid tillage, they are turning to animals for transport and for precise, specialized operations, such as tying tobacco ridges. One commercial farmer in Zambia uses 50 pairs of work oxen for on-farm transport and claims they are reliable and sustainable and require little management time. Furthermore, his computerized accounts show significant savings in capital and running costs compared to motorized alternatives.

Transport benefits The number of animal-drawn carts in use in Africa has increased dramatically in the past 20 years. Roughly 10 per cent of African farmers who own draft animals also have a cart, and the number is rising every year. The 600 000 animal-drawn carts currently in use in sub-Saharan Africa may well reach one million before long. Although there are far fewer carts than there are plows, carts are more important than their numbers indicate. Unlike soil-tillage implements, they are used year-round, and shared through systems of hire and loan that benefit many people.

Animal-drawn transport brings economic and social benefits, and the addition of carts can be a major stimulus to the local economy. Besides reducing the drudgery of personal transport, carts make it easier to market farm produce. Instead of a person carrying a head-load of produce to market, an ox cart or donkey cart can transport several sacks or baskets full of fruit, vegetables, grain or fodder. Carts also make it easier to collect and distribute harvests, water, building materials, timber, farm implements and other goods.

Once carts become available, farmers start to use them for activities no one had thought of before. Planners have sometimes overlooked the increase in transport and economic activities associated with animal-drawn carts, but some pre-introduction surveys now suggest one cart is not enough for a household. Two carts per large household are no longer unusual in many African villages where animal-drawn carts were almost unheard of just one generation ago.

Animal power is almost essential if farmers want to make full use of crop residues, composts and manures. In both West and southern Africa, farmers now use animal-drawn carts to stock crop residues they had previously left in the fields. Human energy alone cannot be expected to transport large quantities of animal manure, but with a cart it is a simple and straightforward operation. In Ethiopia and North Africa, donkeys with panniers or pack saddles play a similar role, carrying both fodder for animals and manure for the crops.

Most African carts are probably made by local artisans using axles from old vehicles, but the supply of axles seldom keeps pace with demand. In West Africa, purpose-built, steel-framed carts fitted with roller-bearings and pneumatic tires have proven popular. Despite their relatively high cost, tens of thousands of these have been purchased, showing that farmers are willing to spend money on higher-technology equipment if they find it profitable.

In southern and East Africa, farmers often use animal-drawn sleds to carry produce. These are cheap to make and can be converted into carts by adding simple wheels cut from tree trunks. Several organizations in southern and East Africa have promoted "appropriate technology" carts with larger wooden wheels and bearings, but farmers rarely consider these appropriate, and their acceptance has been minimal. In contrast, farmers have rapidly adopted carts with pneumatic tires and roller-bearings everywhere they are available.

The woman's place

Worldwide, it has usually been men who work with draft animals and operate animal-drawn implements. Children watched over grazing and helped with animal-control, and women carried food to stall-fed animals. Women might do the seeding behind the plow, but they rarely handled the plow themselves. Now this situation is slowly changing because of changing circumstances. Children are making use of increased educational opportunities and are no longer available to help the farmer tend work animals. In southern Africa in particular, the migration of men to urban areas has forced women to undertake field work previously performed by men, and it is no longer unusual to see women plowing with draft animals. Women are also taking control of animal transport, especially when donkeys are involved because donkeys have fewer associations with male dominance and are considered more manageable than work oxen.

The outlook

It is a safe bet that animal traction will remain a major power source in developing countries for the foreseeable future, especially for small-scale farmers in Asia, Latin America and North Africa where it has been used for centuries. Looking to the future, it is also possible to say that: . new implements and techniques will only spread rapidly when they have clear economic as well as technical advantages over more traditional technologies; animal-drawn carts will increasingly make use of automotive technology, and pneumatic tires will become more common; as farming systems intensify, female animals will increasingly be used for work; . animal traction is likely to continue spreading quite rapidly in sub-Saharan Africa and to be recognized as a vital power source for small holder farmers. Animals will receive better training, and the number of people working with each team will be reduced. "One person, one team" will eventually become as common in sub-Saharan Africa as it is in Ethiopia and Asia; although oxen will continue to be the main draft animals, donkeys will increasingly be used for light tillage and transport in semi-arid areas. Work cows will become common; the number of animal-drawn carts will increase noticeably, and their adoption will stimulate increased local trade and economic activity; . farmers will probably want to use work animals for secondary tillage and weeding, and this will stimulate implement manufacturers to improve the quality and availability of their cultivators and ridgers; national agencies and donor-assisted projects will increasingly recognize that the benefits of existing animal traction technology are well-proven and that many constraints to animal traction are of an economic, rather than technical nature. But it will also become clear that animal traction users can be helped to benefit from recent developments in materials, processes and technologies. Ways will be found to help farmers already using animal power to increase the utility and efficiency of their work animals.