Farming with horses?

For Christmas my sister got me a subscription to Small Farmer’s Journal, which is charmingly written by a character in Oregon name of Lynn Miller.  The quarterly magazine (large format, mostly black and white) contains tons of information about small farming, reprints of old articles on how to grow certain crops, and narratives from people who went back to the land and stayed there.  It took me a little while to realize that the editors have a serious soft spot for draft animals (the older issues carry the subtitle “featuring Practical Horse-farming”); in fact it seems to be a large part of the purpose.  The pages are peppered with photos of large hitches of beautiful horses plowing and harrowing soil, with a few oxen thrown in.  Now I have nothing against draft animals.  My uncle always has a team of oxen up in Mt. Vernon, and I freely admit that to a person given to romantic tendencies there is something fantastically stirring about these images of draft power.  And I am hardly one to throw stones, as a person who not so many years ago spent most of my spare time for over a year building a seventeen foot traditional wooden dory, which now sees the water once or twice a year.  And it means a lot to me that most of the wood in that boat was cut sustainably off of North End land by my father and mother, and that since we used copper rivets instead of iron nails the dory may well outlast me, given care.

All of that is by way of establishing my credentials as a person with tendencies toward picturesque anachronism. But little alarm bells go off in my brain when folks like me start promoting some anachronistic activity on grounds of practicality – to the extent of making claims that horse farming is cheaper or more practical than tractor farming – and when it begins to take on the dubious contortions of religion.  For instance, the Amish have a charming tradition of using draft animals and shunning power, but they also have a strong instinct for economic survival.  For a long time (until less than 100 years ago), it was reasonable to farm with horses and ground-driven implements – where the rotary power to run the mower or manure spreader or other implement came from the livestock, but via a rigid shaft attached to the wheels of the implement.  But as farms got bigger, horsepower could not provide enough power to drive the larger implements, and a curious contraption known as the power forecart has come into existence – a horse-drawn 2-wheel wagon with a seat and a gas or diesel engine, with the engine driving a PTO shaft and a 3 point hitch (and probably hydraulics for good measure).

Now, I have nothing against the Amish or power forecarts.  I just want us to be honest with ourselves, and say “We love working with horses and this chimerical horseflesh/motorized contraption allows us to get our farming done at a sufficient scale to be profitable while allowing us to work with the animals we love.”  Or maybe “This forecart system lets us strike a balance between economy and tradition that allows us to keep our children in farming and our social institutions intact.”  Or follow our not-so-conservative conservative rabbi friend, who might say “We use this forecart system not because it is practical, but precisely because its impracticality embodies and demonstrates our devotion to god.”  Those seem like honest, self-aware answers.  Similarly, I freely admit that my cider orchard is little more than an overgrown hobby, that I will never produce cider apples at less cost in time and money than I could buy cider, and that it would be a lot less work and more straightforward to hook my pedal-powered apple grinder up to a nice, quiet quarter-horse induction motor (hell, the flywheel already has a v-belt groove machined right in!)

So, no complaints here about anachronism, acknowledged honestly and with good humor.  But switching over to my engineering hat, my interest this morning is to try to understand whether draft livestock on small farms can and should be a part of a localized intensive agriculture future.  Out of familiarity, I’ll take the land the nascent orchard is planted on as an example – this is about 30 acres of land, but only 5-6 are cleared, and of that less than 1 acre is in any kind of active production.  By way of background, in earlier posts, I did a rough calculation suggesting that intensive agriculture would require at least one half acre per person to provide a well-balanced vegan diet.  This paper (which seems to be written by an intelligent, practical person) indicates that an average horse consumes about 4 tons of hay per year.  Most of the people in Small Farmer’s Journal seem to be using workhorses, and typically in teams of 2 or more.  A percheron being at least 50% heavier than a mill-run sporting horse (and putatively working much harder), we’d need to provide at least 6 tons of hay per year.  Yield for hay nationally appears to be around 2.5T/acre, and Maine being colder and less sunny than many places, probably 2T would be as much as you would want to assume.  So 3 acres of ground would need to be set aside to keep just one workhorse going – and it’s common to put several in a hitch to perform common farm tasks.  That’s not too surprising since even a small cat1 tractor is ~25 hp.  More than half the available land would need to be used to feed the workhorse, even though we would only need to use it every once in a while – and this is on a much bigger piece of property than many people doing local intensive agriculture will ever work.  (Eliot Coleman’s rule of thumb is that one person can tend around 2 acres maximum.)

So, it seems that the basic problem is that the quantity of land required to keep even one workhorse dwarfs the scale of a typical cottage farm.  Further, a family doing small-scale farming won’t need a horse all the time (I imagine most use is concentrated in spring and fall), but the horse will eat all that time. In contrast, a tractor only eats when you use it.  I’ve never worked with draft animals, but based on my experience doing small farm tasks with (and maintenance on) a 30-year old used diesel tractor, it is hard for me to see how draft power will be truly practical until fuel is well over an order of magnitude more expensive than it is now.  More than economics, though, the main issue is practicality.  I read somewhere that small farms taken as a whole have a -30% profit margin; that is small farmers farm out of love, and subsidize their farming with work off the farm.  Now, people who farm out of love are welcome to use whatever form of power they want, and god bless them, but my interest here is to understand whether on-farm horse power would make sense in a hypothetical future where people were operating small farms as a significant (though perhaps minority) share of family net revenue.  For many, maintaining a source of off-farm income is likely to conflict with optimal care, and a only a limited number of people will be willing to sign up for the twice-daily-without-fail routine of keeping livestock.  Even my parents (who once kept pigs, sheep, and goats) have whittled down to chickens, as the one type of livestock neighbors can be consistently found to tend (so that they can take a vacation).

One effect of the high baseline feed requirement of draft animals is that the economics improves substantially as utilization increases – that is, if you are going to have draft animals, it makes sense for them to be working much of the time.  So (again in a hypothetical future world where there were a lot more small farms), perhaps a more workable system would be to have a few teamsters in any given region, who hire out to a number of local farmers on a daily or hourly basis, perhaps partially in trade for hay and feed.  (The same thing could theoretically be arranged in cooperative hippie communes, should a scalable model ever arise for how to form and maintain them.)  But in a thought experiment comparing [guy plus two workhorses and tack] with [guy plus 20hp tractor], it’s hard seeing how the guy with the horses wins, again excepting the situation where fuel costs $100/gallon.

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One Response to “Farming with horses?”

  1. Brandon Says:

    For the sake of those residing in the Greater Internet Metropolitan Area, I feel it my duty to point out to those readers not personally familiar with Ben, the author of this fine blog, that while he may view horse-farming as impractical, he was once heard to vow that when the Dow next crosses the 5000 mark, he will be buying a team of Clydesdales.

    On the other hand, perhaps it is this pledge, coupled with the Dow’s recent performance, that inspired the post.

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