Draught animals are well-suited to working in marginal rural areas where only low investments are usually feasible, according to the authors of a just-published review.
Daniel Mota-Rojas and his fellow researchers, in their review in the journal Animals, set out to explore the use of horses, donkeys, mules, buffalo and cattle as draught animals in rural settings.
They said that although mechanisation has markedly reduced animal labour demand in agriculture, draught animals are still used in small production units, often in terrain that does not favour agriculture mechanisation.
In Africa, Latin America, and Asia, they represent one of the main sources of sustenance for thousands of families who use animal labour in many agricultural tasks, such as ploughing and harvesting, as well as transport and hauling.
The review team, which examined peer-reviewed papers published since 1980, said draught animals proved to be sustainable in terms of global warming and the use of non-renewable energy when compared with agricultural machinery.
However, over time, the use of animals for farm work and transport has diminished in rural environments, especially in flat areas where intensive agriculture has developed, or where farming systems that require other energy sources and huge inputs are used.
“These industrialised systems based on intensive livestock and forest exploitation have a marked impact on the environment in terms of greenhouse gas emission and land occupation,” they said.
Under these circumstances, interest in draught animals is increasing in mountainous areas and small-scale production units for such use in farm work or transport.
In certain areas, the use of working animals should be encouraged, they said, amid energy shortages, the lack of resources and, in some cases, the tendency to adopt production models to reduce the impact of agricultural practices on the environment.
“This would allow owners to obtain profits from otherwise non-usable lands in a sustainable manner, as the amount of non-renewable fuels used in agriculture would be reduced along with the emissions of greenhouse gases.”
In some cases, the energy of the animals can be obtained at a low cost by feeding them harvest residues and by-products.
However, the review team cautioned that the labour these animals perform for humans is not in balance with their quality of life.
High incidences of skin lesions, diseases, and injuries have been documented, which results in poor welfare and reduced working efficiency. Working animals can also suffer fatigue and malnutrition.
“The welfare of working animals has a central role in promoting human welfare, given the multiple economic and social functions they play, particularly in less advantaged areas.
“Appropriate handling procedures, adequate, well-maintained equipment, and improved veterinary care will all play a fundamental role in reducing the incidence of injuries and increasing the welfare of draught animals and their performance.”
Long period of intense work can also harm the welfare of the animals both directly, due to exhaustion, and indirectly, due to reduced frequency of feed ingestion with consequent loss of weight and performance.
The authors said welfare issues can also arise toward the end of their working life, with many going to slaughter, which carries its own set of welfare risks.
Working animals, they said, should be included in public policies and specific regulations, from which specific health campaigns, animal censuses, and genetic conservation programmes could be developed.
The review team comprised Mota-Rojas, Ada Braghieri, Adolfo Álvarez-Macías, Francesco Serrapica, Efrén Ramírez-Bribiesca, Rosy Cruz-Monterrosa, Felicia Masucci, Patricia Mora-Medina and Fabio Napolitano, affilated with a institutions in Mexico and Italy, including the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City and the Università degli Studi della Basilicata in Potenza.
Mota-Rojas, D.; Braghieri, A.; Álvarez-Macías, A.; Serrapica, F.; Ramírez-Bribiesca, E.; Cruz-Monterrosa, R.; Masucci, F.; Mora-Medina, P.; Napolitano, F. The Use of Draught Animals in Rural Labour. Animals 2021, 11, 2683. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11092683