Livestock Research for Rural Development 7 (1) 1995

Citation of this paper

The use of draft animals in the southern hills of Mexico City

H Losada, M Neale(1), D Grande, J Vieyra, J Cortés and H González

Animal Production Systems Area, Department of Biology of Reproduction. Division of Biological and Health Sciences, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Av. Michoacán y La Purísima. Col. Vicentina. Iztapalapa. México, DF CP 09340.
(1)British Researcher sponsored by the Program of Interchange CONACYT-British Council


By means of a survey procedure the use of animal traction in the region of Xochimilco was characterized. The results show that the principal species were horses, donkeys and mules. The main activity was focused on agriculture. Animal housing was closely related to the owner's home. Local grasses, forages and agricultural wastes were the principal ingredients of the diet. The relevance of animal power in relation to the topographic conditions and the role draught animals play in connection to sustainability factors are discussed.

KEY WORDS: animal traction, horses, mules, donkeys, local resources, Mexico


In many countries of the world draught animals constitute the principal means of energy for the cultivation of soil, collection and transport of products for storage and to markets, work with other animals and human transport (Nestel 1984; Odend'hal 1993). However, for some researchers the presence of draught animals in the system of production is considered symptomatic of retarded economic growth. This sentiment is not necessarily true since their utilization in productive processes is a phenomenon that is closely associated with the characteristics of the environment of a region and to cultural factors to which animal power, as a concept, is often observed differently by those considering purely economics (Sitjar and Osorio 1985). In the region of Xochimilco, located in the southern hills of Mexico City (INEGI 1992), these factors are particularly important due to the existence of traditional agriculture and a topography that includes the presence of small valleys, hills and mountainous areas between 2300 to 2800 m above sea level. In this system of production, draught animals have occupied an important historical place in agriculture, though information concerning the subject has been scarce.

The objective of the research was to characterize and understand the role that draught animals play in the region of Xochimilco linked as an important resource to sustainable systems of agriculture.

Material and methods

Information about the main features of the region of Xochimilco was given by Losada et al (1995). The characterization of the role that draught animals occupy within the local agricultural systems was undertaken by the conventional procedure of questionnaires directed to the producers who work with the animals. To this end they were designed to understand the conditions surrounding the social, technological and economic aspects of animal power. The questionnaires were tested extensively in field conditions before their final application. The area of study comprised six important towns in the area which were randomly selected. In total 49 questionnaires were applied and the values obtained were expressed as percentages and means in accordance with conventional procedures (Daniel 1992).


The social features of animal power in the area of study

In 79% of the cases, the number of reported families living in a single house was between one and two. Services in the home in- cluded: drinking water (90%), electricity (89%), street pavement (63%) and drainage (43%). Access to the media was largely via radio and television. Most of the producers reported to be literate (64%) whilst 28% reported to be illiterate. The level of education was mainly primary (54%) but a significant proportion reported having had none (43%). As was expected none of the owners reported to belong to any society of producers.

Technological aspects of draught animal maintenance species, number and type of animals

The types of draught animals utilized in the region of study are present in table 1.

As can be seen the predominant species are those related to the Equus genus including horses, donkeys and mules whereas the presence of oxen was minimal. The number of animals per producer was mainly one, though there was a significant proportion of producers who owned a greater number. In all cases the type of animals utilized were local breeding "criollos". According to the data the dominant work function was related to power for agriculture and taking loads from the fields to the house or vice- versa (96%). The time devoted to human transport represented only 4%. The harnessing of the animals was made by the yoke, singly or in pairs.

Table 1: Species of animals used in the region of Xochimilc
BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)
Specie Percentage
BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)
Horse 57
Donkey 26
Mule 15
Ox 2
BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)


Housing of draught animals

A minority of producers (21%) were reported to tether their animals in the farm yard, however, the majority have constructed a specific place. The system of housing conformed to a single stable where animals are kept permanently during the night and days of rest either individually (43%) or with others (36%). Materials used to build the pens are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Type and frequency (proportion of families) of use of building materials allocated to draught animals in Xochimilco
BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)
Roof Wall Door Floor Feeder Drinker*
BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)
Plywood 46.1 6.3
Cardboard, 28.8 3.1 5.5
Asbestos, 7.7
Galvanized iron 7.7
Wood 3.8 34.4 16.2 4.0 77.8 3.6
Iron 3.8 3.1
Concrete 1.9 3.1 64.0 14.8
Brick 31.2
Concrete block 9.3
Wire 3.1
Wooden poles, 3.1
Polypropylene sacks 5.5
Earth 32.0
Trough 7.4 3.6
Bucket 67.8
Drinking trough 25.0
BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)


*Drinking trough


Similar to the system reported for dairy cattle producers in the area, the presence of buckets for supplying water to the animals tended to be in wide use. With respect to manure management, all owners reported returning excreta for agricultural use as a source of nitrogen and organic matter.

The system of feeding

The components of the feed offered to draught animals and the ways of giving it are presented in Table 3. As can be seen, the main components of the feeds are native vegetation grown in the area (grasses), or crops linked to agriculture, for example forages (lucerne), or maize and oats. The exception was tortilla (Mexican bread made of maize) which is offered to the animals when stale and not fit for human consumption. The amounts given were mainly related to live weight, whereas the ways that feeds were adminis- tered included a broad list of local customs as identified in the table. As expected, a high percentage of producers (97%) do not give the animals mineral salts or common salt.

Table 3: Resources used by producers to feed draught animals in the region of Xochimilco
BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)
Component Proportion of
Families, % Method of feeding
BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)
Maize stover 39.4 1,2,3,4,5,6
Native grasses* 29.5 7
Lucerne 18.0 2,3
Maize grain 4.9 8
Tortilla 4.9 8
Maize cobs 1.6 8
Oats 1.6 9
BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)


By a: 1. Weigh scale, 2. whole sheaf, 3. half sheaf, 4. bunch, 5. small sack, 6. bale, 7. grazing, 8. two gallon container, 9. 1 kg
* Muhlenbergia spp; Festuca spp; Sporobolus spp; Heteropogon spp; Agrostis spp and Bouteloua spp.


Reproduction and lactation

In the case of mares and female donkeys most producers reported that oestrus was detected by means of the animals placidness (86%), however, a minority detected heat by the swollen vulva (14%). In all cases studied, the owners reported natural mating as the prevailing method by using their own studs (30%) or by others in the vicinity. Liveweight at birth reported for horses was in the range of 25 to 35 kg, whilst the mean for lactation was 12 months.

Criteria for selection and rejection of draught animals

The criteria used by the owners to select and/or reject draught animals for work are presented in Table 4. Most owners select their future draught animals by means of body conformation and docility whereas causes for rejection were related to age and economic emergencies.

Table 4: Criteria to select and reject draught animals in the region of Xochimilco
BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)
Criteria Proportion of families, %
BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)
Body conformation 51
Docility 47
Beauty 2
Age 35
Economic needs 35
Difficult behaviour 22
Illness 8
BLGIF.GIF (44 bytes)


Sanitary management

Owners reported the presence of defined illnesses in their draught animals as rare. Most farmers instead reported the incidence of symptoms including cough (86%), catarrh (7%) and digestive problems (7%). Treatment is undertaken using specific animal medicines after consulting with a technician (81%) although a significant percentage of owners reported treating their animals using home remedies (12%) and human medicines (6%). Thirty five percent reported vaccinating their animals against encephalitis whereas a high proportion confirmed combatting internal parasites (70%). Preventative management included the cleaning of the stable in a higher preference (64%) than cleaning the animal itself (36%) whereas most reported cutting the animals' hooves (93%).

Animal identification and training

Identification of draught animals, when done, is carried out in two ways: iron fittings (71%) and brands (28%). In most cases the owners assigned the animal a name. Animal management (Table 5) is carried out by all members of the family but each having different functions. For those farmers who rear their own animals, breaking in is initiated at birth to accustom the beast early. An adequate time for training is considered to be between 2-3 years although a great deal of farmers reported that their animals were bought already trained for work. As expected the highest activity of draught animals was associated with the agricultural cycles from April to October (57%) whereas 36% reported working them all year round. In times of least activities animals are utilised for any extra work.

Some economic features of draught animals

A small proportion of farmers raise their own draught animals (7%), the rest acquire them nearby in the same region. Mean working life is ten years (82%) and only 18% reported higher values. Selling of animals is carried out directly at the owner's house using the guessing method to calculate the live weight and therefore the price according to local demand. Most animals sold for slaughter are bought by intermediate vendors (37%) or buyers from the Mexico City Zoos (62%). Some of the retail prices reported by the farmers were in the order of 800-1500 new pesos per animal whereas the price obtained from selling to Zoos was lower (600-800).


Research literature has shown the enormous importance that draught animals represent within the energy balance to the level of popu- lation in some countries of the world such as India and China (Pandya and Pedhadiya 1993; Oden'hal 1993) and the important role the beast of burden plays in traditional systems. The results obtained in the present study confirmed the potential of draught animals in Xochimilco constituting a resource to be suggested as a sustainable mode of production whilst being so close to the highly polluted city of Mexico. Some important aspects to discuss in this paper are those related to the role that draught animals play in the local agricultural systems together with the needs of the producer, which appears to favour their presence within a defined family model of production.

A particular characteristic in the studied zone was the absence of cattle for agricultural work and/or for transport of products. This phenomenon is interesting in view of the fact that cattle are used in most of the regions of the country to do heavy work that other species find difficult (Bastida and Arriaga 1992). The explanation for the absence of bovines in the area is not easy since there exists an availability of yearling bulls following weaning which is different from other areas surrounding Mexico City where male calves are slaughtered (Cortes et al 1993), whereas in Xochimilco they are usually raised for fattening (Losada et al 1992). A possible causal factor may be related to the topography of the region and the type of animals required for heavy work in the small and narrow plots and terraces. According to our research, referring to the general agricultural productive models in the zone (Soriano et al 1993), the use of draught animals in the lowlands of the Mexico city basin is minimal whereas in the highland terrace systems, surrounding the metropolis they are greatly utilised. In view of the irregular topography of the terraces with large stones and compact soils it is feasible to suggest that horses and mules would predominate with their characteristic small hoofs in contrast to the bull with soft hoofs of greater surface area (Smith 1981), therefore making the Equs genus more suitable for this region.

In contrast to dairy cattle in the region, which are fed a wide range of components (Losada et al 1992), the feeding regime for draught animals in Xochimilco is composed mainly of native grass, forages and agricultural by-products such as maize stover. The feeding of draught animals in the area is closely associated with natural resources and environmental conditions which affect the availability of feeds during the annual cycle. In this respect, the producer through time has made possible an integrated model of feeding corresponding to the agricultural cycles. Fresh forages and native grasses are offered to the animals during the rainy season and maize stover throughout the winter, supplementing the diet with concentrates in critical times. Possible differences related to the nutritional requirements of animals may introduce a factor of error in performance of the beasts, however, according to the results substantial activity is concentrated during the rainy season which coincides with a high availability of forages and grasses with greater quality (Whiteman 1980), that is able to satisfy their nutritional demands.

In general terms, the use of draught animals in the country is fo- cused on those areas with poor economic resources or for replacing machinery when is not possible to carry out particular works as is often seen in the humid tropics (McDowell 1972). The presence of traditional agriculture employing draught animals in the terrace systems of Xochimilco is noticeable in terms of the proximity of the area to high input systems where machinery is often made available via governmental plans (Sánchez 1984) or rented to poor farmers to increase their efficiency. Clearly the size of plots and the topography of the terraces makes difficult the use of machinery. Thus draught animals play an important role in the agriculture of the region which has nothing to do with the concept of modern technology based on the number of tractors often propagated by economists as the main criteria to evaluate agriculture. Given this situation, animal power in Xochimilco may be placed within the concept of sustainable agriculture, thus it is appropriate to propose their continued use at a high scale in substitution for machinery based on the use of non-renewable resources (Edens 1976; Villalobos and Mendoza 1994). This last suggestion is stressed in terms of the closeness of the area to Mexico City which is considered one of the most polluted cities in the world.

The traditional characteristics that maintain draught animals in Xochimilco are the use of native breeds, local sources of feed, simple management including accommodation and home remedies to deal with sickness (Jacome 1993). As the system has been scarcely studied and understood to date, it is difficult to know where draught animals function within the family economy. However, the results reported for the reasons to reject animals show clearly economic urgency as the principal cause of the sale of animals. This undoubtedly places draught animals at the same level as backyard pig and poultry production where they are frequently sold or slaughtered in times of financial difficulty to obtain economic resources (Grande et al 1992).

The proposal to suggest draught animals in the region as being a sustainable resource of agricultural production led us to the new concept of animal welfare (Fraser and Broom 1990). Although in terms of the present study it is difficult to be certain that the welfare of draught animals in Xochimilco fulfills this criteria, the mean number of draught animals in the zone (one per producer) together with adequate animal management would seem to satisfy the requirements. The main limitation may be the feeding regime of the animals which depends on the extensive use of local products (mainly grass and forages) whose availability and quality are affected by seasonal changes thus affecting animal performance. Though the feeding regime has been structured by the producer according to the main activities of agriculture permitting a reasonable diet, it may be helpful to study this aspect further to clarify the issue.


The authors wish to acknowledge the collaboration of the producers in the region of Xochimilco for their information about draught animals; and to the authorities of UAM for the facilities given for the present study.


Bastida H A and Arriaga C 1992 Estudio de los sistemas de producción de ganado bovino de carne en cuatro comunidades del Municipio de Amatepec, México. Memorias. II Seminario Nacional sobre Sistemas de Producción Animal en México. Chapingo, México. pp 183-198

Cortés J, Losada H, Rivera J and Arias L 1993 La producción animal en Iztapalapa. III. Algunas características productivas de los establos en Iztapalapa. Memorias. Congreso Nacional de Investigación en Sistemas de Producción Agropecuarios. UAM-I. CICA-UAEM. México. pp 133-140

Daniels W W 1992 Bioestadística. Limusa. México

Edens T C 1976 Cassandra and the Horn of Plenty: Ecological and thermodynamic constraints and economic goals. Urban Biology. 2, 15-31

Fraser A F and Broom D M 1990 Farm animal behaviour and welfare. Bailliery Tindall, London United Kingdom

Grande D, Sanginés L, Suárez B and Pérez-Gil F 1992 Caracterización general del sistema de producción porcino de traspatio en la zona agropecuaria del D.F. Memorias. II Seminario Nacional sobre Sistemas de Producción Animal en México. Chapingo, México. pp 252

INEGI 1992 Cuadernos de Información Básica Delegacional. Milpa Alta, Tláhuac y Xochimilco. Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática. México

Jácome A G 1993 Management of land, water and vegetation in traditional agroecosystems in Central Mexico. Landscape and Urban Planning Netherlands. 27 2-4. pp 141-150

Losada H, Cortés J and Grande D 1992 Sistemas tradicionales de producción de leche en el sureste de la ciudad. I. Región de Xochimilco. Memorias. Segundo Seminario Nacional sobre Siste- mas de Producción Animal en México. UACh. México. 223 p

Losada H, Neale M, Vieyra J, Soriano R, Rivera J, Cortés J and Grande D 1995 The potential of traditional systems of pig production as sustainable models of agriculture in the temperate region of Xochimilco, at the southern edge of Mexico City. Livestock Research for Rural Development. Volume 7, Number 1

McDowell R E 1972 Bases biológicas de la producción animal en zonas tropicales. Acribia. Zaragoza, España

Nestel B 1984 Some factors influencing the nature of the system. IN: Development of Animal Production Systems. B. Nestel Ed. World Animal Science, A2. Elsevier. 3 p

Oden'hal S 1993 Intermediary agricultural energetics: A case study of solar energy linkage with Chinese working cattle. Agri- culture Ecosystems and Environment. 43: 217-233

Pandya S D and Pedhadiya M D 1993 Energy analysis of an Indian village semi-arid ecosystem. Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment. 45: 157-175

Sánchez J A 1984 Memorias. Comisión Coordinadora para el Desarrollo Agropecuario del Distrito Federal. Departamento del Distrito Federal. México

Sitjar G and Osorio S 1985 Una aproximación al enfoque de sistemas en la ganadería. Economía Mexicana. Serie Temática-Sector Agropecuario. CIDE, México. pp 25-54

Smith A J 1981 Investigaciones sobre animales de tiro, un tema desatendido. Revista Mundial de Zootecnia. 40:43

Soriano R, Losada H, Cortés J, Rivera J, Zavaleta P and Rámos G 1993 Modelos de producción agropecuaria en la región de Xochimilco. I. Procesos productivos de la zona chinampera y de terraza. Memorias. Primer Seminario Internacional de Investigadores de Xochimilco. pp 28-35

Villalobos J and Mendoza Y 1994 Precio del diesel para uso agrícola. EN: El agua y la energía en la cadena alimentaria: granos básicos. Bauer, M y col. Comps. Coordinación de la Investigación Científica e Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas. UNAM. México

Whiteman P C 1980 Tropical Pasture Science. Oxford University Press. G.B. 392 p


(Received 15 June 1995)