Bring back the ox and plough….Are you serious?

This morning I read the announcement by the Director General of Rural Development and Land Reform, Thozi Gwanya, that small and rural farmers should revert to the proven method of ploughing with oxen. My first response was “oh, come on! This is 2010!!!”. While making coffee to recover from my initial shock I started to doubt my own response.

Why my initial shock? Well, it seems like going backwards to return to such an age-old method. But then, I have also

Indonesian farmer with ox and plough

visited several rural farms where land transfers are taking place, where farmers were sitting on un-used lands because they were waiting for a ‘tractor’ contractor. The same happens with small farmers supported by several municipalities. So in these cases, using oxen to plough would already be a step in the right direction. However, then the Director General motivates this advice on the basis that using a tractor to till a small piece of land will emit to many gases. I am not so sure that many poor farmers would just give up farming with a tractor on this argument alone….

Furthermore, the news article makes reference is made to India. Well, I have seen farmers ploughing with oxen in Thailand and Indonesia as well. As long as they can keep their production costs below market prices, I guess it is worth pursuing. A huge visible difference between Southern Africa and Asia is that farmers in Asia seem to get by with extremely little government support, agricultural extension and modern farming equipment.

OK, so now that I have my cup of coffee in my hands I am willing to reconsider my initial response. Perhaps the Director General should have said “instead of waiting on someone else, use oxen!”.

Can any of the readers of this blog with more experience in rural development perhaps comment or contribute on this issue?

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Shawn Cunningham

I am passionate about how organisations and institutions change in developing and transitioning countries. I essentially work between organisations, communities, industries and experts.

8 thoughts on “Bring back the ox and plough….Are you serious?”

  1. It makes sense to me, actually. Leaving the land idle waiting for tractors is a bad idea when other methods are available. Sure, the oxen is an ancient technology. But it still works and is not nearly as capital intensive. Maybe even hitch the plough to a bakkie or something?

  2. Hi Michael,
    I also think that generally one should use the land if you have it, and not wait for someone else. But then the DG commented that small farmers using tractors are contributing to CO2 emissions. Now that is a really silly argument from a contribution perspective! But the original argument I agree with.

  3. Hi Shawn,

    I think on some scales the Ox and plough is highly appropriate. It is better for the soil in that you don’t get a clay pan forming through repetitive ploughing at the same depth as you would with a hand tractor; the hoof of the ox also aerates the soil and plunges organic matter and manure deep into the soil (a process that expensive modern machinery is trying to replicate); and most importantly an ox is self replicating (provided there is an available partner), and can be eaten or sold when its ploughing days are over. Now, I’m not advocating for the abolition of petro-input farming, but I do respect that there are horses for courses – so to speak.

  4. Hi Shawn, I am interested in this, do you know of any courses, where to find equipment etc.

  5. Shawn, I think you are absolutely right. No farmer is going to “go back to” oxen for draught power when they already have access to tractor power and certainly not just to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However the emphasis has to be on access and that is the other point you make. If the tractor in question is not easily accessible, ie belongs to someone else or an oversubscribed private or government service then resorting to the ox plough in order to get moving just makes common sense …………. to a smallholder. But there are only so many hectares you can plough with oxen before they and the handler get too tired.

  6. Good day Dr. Cunningham
    Thank you for an informative blog that highlights the importance and place animal traction implements have in small scale and rural farming.
    In answer to Johan’s question and to many others who are looking for animal traction implements, we would like to introduce to you our Organization called Afritrac based in Gauteng.
    We are distributors of a range of animal traction implements that cover activities like ploughing, harrowing, planting, cultivating and hand milling. We have retailers through out RSA and would be glad to assist any farmers looking for these implements.
    Our website is

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