Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia

Report on draught animals under drought conditions
in Central, Eastern and Southern zones of Region 1 (Tigray)

 By Hans U. Spiess, UN-EUE Field Officer for Regions 1 and 3


The great famine of 1888-1892, which affected virtually all of Ethiopia but was most severe in the north, was largely caused by the exceptionally rapid spread of the disease Rinderpest. Whole herds were decimated almost overnight and the plough oxen of the north were particularly badly affected. Although drought and a caterpillar infestation (probably armyworms) further exacerbated the problem, it was the loss of oxen that triggered the famine and added to the very slow recovery.

Although today there are improved veterinary services, control measures for migratory pests and extensive relief systems, the ox still remains the backbone of agriculture in Tigray and any adverse conditions that affect the productive capacity of drought animals affect the whole region.

This short paper is based on a field visit made to Tigray by the author in June 1994 and attempts to show the continuing importance of draught animals to the rural economy, to give some general background information on the current condition and availability of plough oxen and to highlight the various coping mechanisms used by farmers to ensure the survival of their animals.


Most of the arable land in the north-eastern highlands is ploughed by draught animals, particularly oxen. Only small patches of land on inaccessible, steep slopes are prepared with hand tools. Since the land has to be tilled several times for a suitable seed-bed, it is essential that the draught oxen are kept in good condition.

Generally in Tigray, the farmers plough the land with teams of oxen. The one-ox ploughing technique has not been introduced yet and experts of the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) doubt if this system is feasible in Tigray due to the harsh soil conditions. In two weredas (Wukro and Korem) it was mentioned that some farmers who own only one ox make up a ploughing team with one ox and a mule or donkey.

Even in a normal year, not every farmer owns an ox. According to a survey carried out by the Save the Children Fund (UK) in November 1992, approximately 60 percent of farm households own at least one ox. Although this field visit was not a detailed survey, the information gathered revealed that currently less than 50 percent of the farmers own a plough ox.

Although in some weredas the existing number of plough oxen is sufficient to prepare all arable land, in others some land will remain fallow this year because of either a shortage of draught animals or because of their poor condition.

The training of draught oxen takes about one year and starts at the age of two. Once trained, the working life of an ox is between 4 and 5 years. The relatively short working life in relation to the long training period and high feeding costs if pasture land is not available, make an oxen a very significant and costly investment for the average peasant farmer.

Since land cultivation depends almost entirely on draught animals, any unfavourable conditions such as disease or drought resulting in the loss of grazing land not only affects the animal owner and his family but the food security of the population as a whole. Arable land is already scarce and any reduction in cultivation because of the lack of draught animals or their poor condition puts a further strain on already limited food resources.

At present it is difficult to obtain precise figures on the mortality rates and/or sales of draught oxen but the regional bureau of the MoA is currently conducting an assessment of animals losses in the entire region and more information may be available soon. Although little detailed information is available, it appears that many farmers have lost their oxen to diseases or have had to sell them in order to purchase food for their families as a result of the prevailing drought conditions. However, in spite of these losses information gathered from the weredas visited indicates that at least 80% of the arable land can be prepared by plough oxen teams.

Lack of feed and water are the main reasons for the poor health of oxen in the area closely followed by diseases. Veterinary services are available in all weredas but logistical problems and lack of drugs and equipment hamper the efforts of those in charge.

With a limited number of plough oxen, scarcity of grazing land and lack of water even in normal years, the farmers have developed different coping systems to keep their animals in good conditions. Some of these are described in the following sections.


The water problem, which became acute first in the Eastern and Southern zones at the end of last year, has now spread and is a major concern throughout the region. Rivers have dried up and existing microdams are empty. The water resources of many microdams connected to small irrigation schemes have been depleted even faster. Animals have to travel up to one day to reach a water source and may only get water every other day. This extensive travel in search of water and grazing land consumes the energy of productive animals and consequently reduces their performance.

Animals are fed with grass, hay, straw, crop residues, "tela" residues and cactus leaves ("beles"). Grass is available from the start of the rainy season up to the dry season, straw and crop residues after the harvest and beles is fed when there is no other alternative.

Storing straw and hay for the dry season is not as common in the lowland parts of the Southern zone as elsewhere in the Region. The farmers of the south-eastern lowlands traditionally take their animals to grazing land in Region 2 (Afar) during the dry season. This practice has been partially disrupted this year as the grazing areas of Region 2 as well as the Raya plain of North Welo have been affected by drought. Some farmers in the Central and Eastern zone have moved their animals to Eritrea and Western Tigray (Humera) for grazing.

For final land preparation, plough animals are brought back from the remote grazing areas and have to be fed with whatever feed is available. At the time of this field trip it was observed that most oxen were fed with beles mixed with hay or crop residues. Farmers without animals have stored their hay and straw and now sell it to animal owners. However, the poor harvest of last year also meant greatly reduced residues and, especially in Eastern Tigray, the price of hay is prohibitively high and it may cost a farmer 5-10 Birr per day to provide hay to feed a large animal.

Normally, small pastures located in the valley base areas serve as grazing grounds for all the animals in the surrounding villages. During the last seven months animals have been brought to these areas from much further away than normal and many of the valleys have been badly overgrazed. Unless there is sufficient rainfall this season, many of these grazing areas will be permanently damaged.

The MoA is trying to protect pasture land from overgrazing through a variety of management measures. They try to convince animal holders to separate their animals into three groups: oxen and cows, equines and "shoats" (sheep and goats). Also, the MoA have tried to introduce a rotation system whereby while one part of the pasture is used, another part is closed to grazing to allow the grass to recover. Attempts have also been made to introduce high yielding varieties of grass.

Another measure taken in the larger grazing area in Asefe Sebya wereda on the Eritrean border is the closure of the grazing land to all animals during the dry season but farmers are allowed to cut the grass and feed it to their animals at the homestead. In this way the roots are not damaged in the pasture and the grass will recover quickly after cutting.

According to the MoA, animal overpopulation is another pervasive problem in the region. Even in a normal year, available pasture land and feed are not able to accommodate all the animals.


Practically all the fields are ploughed by teams of oxen. In Wukro and Korem weredas, it was mentioned that some farmers use an ox together with a mule or donkey to serve as a ploughing team.

The number of times a field has to be ploughed depends on the condition of the soil as well as the crops to be sown. Teff needs a very fine seed-bed which requires ploughing four to six times whereas for pulses two to three rounds are sufficient.

A healthy oxen team can plough one hectare of land within six to eight hours. This year most of the draught animals have been weakened by diseases, lack of feed and exhaustion from the long walks from the grazing areas to water sources and will be able to prepare less land in a day. In the Belg rain dependent weredas of the Southern zone, land will be left fallow not just due to the lack of work animals but also due to lack of seed (particularly teff) which was used for planting of the failed Belg crop season.


Landowners without draught animals have to make arrangements with animal owners to assist them in land preparation.

In Tigray the following systems exist:

  • individually owned oxen are teamed together to plough land on a cooperative basis
  • farmers with one pair of oxen lend their plough team to a farmer without oxen after they have first prepared their own land; payment in kind ranges from one to two days of labour for a one day ploughing team or cash payment ranging from Birr 30-40 per day;
  • farmers pay back the owner of the oxen after the harvest with 25 to 30 percent of their harvest;
  • in Korem, some oxenless landowners give the land as well as half of the required seed to the landowner with oxen and in return the landowner collects half of the harvest from the land;
  • in Irob wereda, where there are only 740 hectares of arable land, a very unique system is practised: To avoid profiteering by ox owners of oxenless landowners, ox owners are obliged to first prepare the oxenless landowners' land and then his own. The oxenless landowners in return assist by supplying feed for the animals they use to plough the land.
  • Although various combinations of these systems exist throughout the region, according to the information collected from wereda officials and private individuals, most borrowing is based on informal agreements among families and neighbours. They basically help each other and ox owners do not make much "business" from their oxen.

    Except in Irob, one disadvantage of all oxenless landowners is that no matter whether they pay for services rendered or it is provided on the basis of family relationships, their land is always the last to be prepared. This results in the late sowing of crops or in the planting of short season crops.


    Veterinary services are available in all weredas and vaccinations are provided free of charge but individual treatment of animals has to be paid for. The regional veterinary department maintains that they have received many requests from farmers for free veterinary services in the face of the current drought. This information was not confirmed in the weredas visited. However, it can be ascertained that the problem of logistics as well as lack of drugs and equipment hampers the efforts of the veterinary staff. Insufficient stocks of antibiotics was also mentioned as a concern by all wereda veterinary staff.

    The most common diseases are Pasteurellosis, Anthrax, Rinderpest, Blackleg, East-African Horse Disease, Sheep-pox and internal and external parasites.

    Outbreaks of various diseases have already occurred this year and have also been more extensive than normal as animals from many different locations are travelling much further in search of pasture land or water. Transmission rates are higher and "new" diseases are also being transmitted from one herd to another. This problem is particularly acute in areas where animals have been sent to Region 2 for grazing. According to the regional MoA, veterinary services are not yet well established in Region 2 and the Eastern and Southern zones of Tigray are faced with an acute problem of animals returning from the Afar grazing areas infected by diseases.


    In the past seven months the livestock market, particularly for draught animals, has been very weak due to lack of demand. Recently, however, the market for oxen has improved with the organised purchase of oxen for rehabilitation programmes by NGOs (REST and World Vision), the RRC and the Ministry of Agriculture. The price for a good ploughing ox, which was between Birr 500 and 800 two months ago, has now increased to over Birr 1,000.

    In Northern Tigray, most farmers with oxen to sell travel to Eritrea. Although the prices for oxen are about the same in both countries, food prices in Eritrea are lower and with the money obtained from the sale the farmer can purchase more food before returning home.


    The following measures have been identified and will be implemented by the regional bureau of the MoA to improve the condition of animals:


    Due to the prevailing drought, it can be assumed the total number of livestock has declined over the last nine months. It is difficult to obtain very concise estimates, however, as mortality and sales are higher than normal and there has been a continual movement of herds to non-traditional grazing areas. The following information is based on estimates by wereda officials, MoA staff and local farmers (in almost all cases the estimates of MoA staff and the local farmers are the same, indicating that the MoA staff have established a good working relationship with the local farmers):


    Wemberta wereda: oxen ownership less than 50%
    Kilte Belessa wereda: oxen ownership 35 - 40%
    Irob wereda: oxen ownership 30 - 40%
    Bizet wereda: oxen ownership 62%
    Tsada Emba: oxen ownership 50%
    Wukro wereda: oxen ownership 45%


    Enticho wereda: oxen ownership 35 - 40%
    Igela wereda: figure not known


    Adi Gudom wereda: oxen ownership 75%
    Mehoni wereda: oxen ownership 40%
    Korem wereda: oxen ownership 51%
    Alamata wereda: oxen ownership 50%

    WESTERN ZONE: oxen ownership less than 50%

    The percentage of oxen ownership does not correspond with the area of arable land cultivated. In Bizet wereda (oxen ownership 62%), all arable land can be cultivated whereas in Adi Gudom wereda (oxen ownership 75%) some fields will be left fallow.


    The findings of this field trip cannot be considered a survey. The purpose was a general investigation of the condition of draught animals and the status of land preparation in the area.

    It is too early to establish how the reduction in the number and condition of draught animals will affect land preparation in Tigray.

    At present, the biggest problem is the feeding and watering of the animals. The purchase price of feed in most areas visited is extremely high and the feeding of a draught animal may cost a farmer up to Birr 10 per day. Water availability is also a cause for concern. In many places, the animals have to move up to a one day distance for watering which may further weaken them and reduce their work performance. This also results in longer land preparation periods.

    According to the gathered information, the number of farmers without an ox exceeds the number of oxen owners. The borrowing system is not as formal as in other parts of the country and many oxen owners are simply helping farmers without draught animals rather than "making business". But in such cases, oxenless farmers suffer the disadvantage of late land preparation.

    The Wemberta wereda administrator mentioned that timely emergency food distributions has had a positive effect for oxen owners. Without food distributions some oxen owners would have been forced to sell their productive animals in order to buy food for their families.



    The designations employed and the presentation of material in this document do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever of the UN concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.

    11 July 1994

    UN-EUE  Tel.: (251) (1) 51-10-28/29 
    PO Box : 5580  Fax: (251) (1) 51-12-92 
    Addis Ababa, Ethiopia  Email: undp-eue@telecom.net.et