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The importance of work animals in rural China

Current situation of utilization
Harness design

Wang Mengjie and Ding Yi
Wang Mengjie is Director, China Centre for Rural Energy Research and Training, and Deputy Director, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Engineering Research and Planning, where Ding Yi is the Engineer. They can be contacted at 11 Nong Zhan Nan Li Road, 100026 Beijing, China.


In China, cattle have been domesticated and used for draught purposes for 6 000 years and horses for 5 000 years. They were mainly used for war, transportation and agricultural purposes, and, by the Tang Dynasty, about l 000 years ago, the techniques for training draught animals had already reached a high level, as had the development of harnesses. Rural areas in China still use these traditional techniques for feeding, rearing and using horses. These include selective breeding (castration) as well as breaking-in and training techniques. Similarly, China has also accumulated a great deal of experience in exploiting cattle as work animals. For example, the Main review on cattle judgement, published in the Qing Dynasty, is a book of 12 000 characters in which such key issues as judging and feeding are described. Many other technical books on these subjects have been published, including those by Qin Lu and Tang Liu Dian.


Draught power resources are plentiful in China, with almost every kind of work animal in the world being available. Horses, cattle, buffaloes, mules, donkeys, camels and yaks are all important, with horses and cattle being the most widely used. These large animals were very important for economic development in ancient times and have remained so to the present day.

According to statistics published at the end of 1993, there were almost 140 million large animals in China, of which about 80 million were used for work purposes.

Comparative contribution of different power sources - Comparaison entre les différentes sources d'énergie - Contribución comparativa de distintas fuentes de energía


Total work (% 108 hp)

Power sources (%)


Draught animals












2000 (projected)





Despite increasing trends towards mechanization, the contribution of work animals in rural development cannot be ignored. One-third of the total agricultural output achieved in the 1980s and 1990s was produced using draught animals. The average daily work output of individual large animals, such as horses, cattle and buffaloes, is approximately 0.6 to 0.7 hp. In northern China, work animals are used for an average of 270 days per year, working six hours per day. Total annual work output per animal can be estimated to be 972 hp/h. In the Table, energy resources contributed by machines, draught animals and humans are compared. When compared with the mechanized work output, which reached 36 x 108 hp in the 1980s, draught animal power was very important, having contributed a significant 17 x 108 hp. and this is expected to increase to 24 x 108 hp in the year 2000.

Current situation of utilization

Agricultural cultivation (ploughing, planting and harvesting), off-field activities (crop processing, electricity generation, etc.) and transportation (fertilizers, materials and final products) still depend heavily on draught animal power, especially in remote rural areas.

In Heilongjiang Province, for example, where the level of mechanization is comparatively high, work performed using energy from oil and electricity was only 4 percent more than that realized when energy provided by draught animals was used. In other rural areas where mechanization is not as advanced, the work done by draught animals was 54 percent greater than that provided using oil and electricity. Because supplies of oil and electricity cannot meet demand, it is essential that alternative energy sources such as human and animal power are fully exploited. Supplies of oil and electricity are not expected to increase dramatically in the coming years, and therefore draught animals will continue to play a vital role in rural areas. From the farmer's point of view, draught animals not only provide power-but also fertilizer and other services of economic value. They are efficient and economically viable for on-farm and short-distance transportation. Under specific conditions, such as on hills, mountains, very rough rocky land, very small plots and also in paddy fields, it is often an advantage to use draught power. It is obvious, however, that mechanization will gradually replace draught animal power.

Farm animals represent a biological source of renewable energy and provide manure as organic fertilizer. They also provide products such as milk, beef and hides. In some provinces, including Sichuan, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, new kinds of dual-purpose farm animals obtained through cross-breeding, are becoming very popular. These animals are used as work animals and for milk production.

A negative aspect is that work animals are normally not used throughout the whole year and farmers do not look after idle animals as carefully as they do those providing a daily work output. During idle periods, not only is work potential wasted, but the animals may often be malnourished and neglected as well.

Harness design

New harness designs, such as the Nanjing cattle harness, have improved the transfer of power from the animal to the plough and have increased traction force and power by 24 and 48 percent, respectively. This is the result of the contact area between the harness and the animal having been enlarged from 120 to 870 cm², giving a subsequent increased traction force of 33.2 percent and improved power of 44.9 percent. Furthermore, because of greater efficiency and comfort, cattle are less prone to fatigue. The pulling point is changed, the traction force is increased, power is improved and cattle do not suffer from skin sores.

This new harness is based on a U-shaped steel frame with the open end facing downwards and its extremities curved forward. a 30-cm belt ties both sides of the collar around the neck. The metal frame is padded with a cloth wrapping, bound with canvas and protected by waterproof material.

It is important to take into consideration the body shape of the animal when designing a harness. The shape of the neck of oxen is different from that of cows and this requires a specific modification in shape for each type of animal.


China has along history of using draught animals, achieving many good results and accumulating much practical experience. Although influenced by the development of agricultural mechanization, utilization of work animals should not be ignored. Great attention should continue to be paid to plans that will encourage the full and efficient use of work animals. It is noteworthy that the development of draught animals has been included in rural energy development plans In this context the following suggestions have been made:

· diversify and intensify the annual use of work animal resources and ensure adequate and constant management levels;

· increase the use of practical feeding techniques and provide adequate nutrition levels for work animals throughout the year;

· encourage research and develop and improve devices and equipment that are suitable for work animals, appropriate for local manufacture and affordable to peasants;

· study ways in which work animals may contribute to the generation and storage of electricity in light of the serious shortage of electricity in most rural areas in China.

China is a large agricultural country with a wealth of work animals Through international cooperation, the country is willing to strengthen applied research and development activities towards defining better strategies for the use of work animals in agriculture.

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