Work on a manor proceeded with a customary mixture of coercion and cooperation, affording miniscule scope for individual initiative. Plowing, sowing, and harvesting involved almost all village inhabitants.
Because a family’s strips of land were scattered in an open field system, work necessarily involved cooperation. Besides, plowing took a team of oxen, and peasants rarely owned more than 1 or 2. Harvesting was also done in common.
Depending upon region, livestock played various roles in medieval agrarian economies. Their crucial function was as draft animals. Oxen were found throughout Europe.
Other draft animals were also employed: horses in Russia and northwestern Europe from the 10th century on; donkeys and mules in Spain and southwestern France, and water buffalo in parts of Italy.
Oxen, unlike horses and mules, were docile, easy to raise, and ate mainly grass and hay; hence their prevalence.
Milk cows were necessary to breed oxen. Their dairy products provided a benefit. In the poorest areas, cows were also drafted.
In the Celtic region of Brittany, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, outside manorialism, where tillage was seldom practiced, semi-nomadic tribes lived almost exclusively off their cattle herds. In Scandinavia too, especially Sweden and Norway, livestock was more important than agriculture.
Manors had cattle, swine, and sheep for their meat (sheep also for their wool), and incidentally for the fertilizer they made; but stock raising was secondary to the harvest of the fields.
Northwestern Europe was different. More rainfall provided better pastures and the forests afforded forage for cattle, horses, and swine.
In southern Europe, with its Mediterranean climate, livestock were less important. Transhumance pasturing of goats and sheep was more the norm. Flocks wintered in the lowlands and were driven to mountain pastures for spring and summer.
Grazing was not without ecological and economic costs. Herded flocks damaged fields during their passage. Overgrazing in the mountains led to soil erosion and contributed to deforestation.
Horses were not employed for plowing before the 10th century. This partly owed to cost: horses were more expensive to breed and feed. They were also in demand for war and transport. There was another, technical reason. The first horse collars were badly designed: they cut across the throat, restricting breathing, particularly for drafting.
A new horse collar design was introduced from Asia which rested on the shoulders. The new collar let horses replace oxen when coupled with shoeing, which protected the more delicate hooves that horses had.
While a horse, stronger and faster, could do 3–4 times the work of an ox, it cost 3–4 times as much to employ. Thus, the benefit of drafting horses was a fine economic calculation.
Feeding horses requires a steady supply of oats. That ruled out the Mediterranean basin, with its 2-crop rotation.
To take advantage of horse productivity, the land worked had to be a relatively large field, and sufficiently productive. Draft-horse husbandry found a home in northern France, England, Flanders, and parts of Germany, but did not entirely replace oxen. Draft horses were employed in eastern Europe to a limited degree, especially Russia.