Farming with Drafts Horses

This article discusses the benefits and drawbacks of farming with horses, including comments from farmers with real-world experience, different varieties of draft horses, and ideal size farms for draft horses.

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by Kenneth Garrett Woodfin Camp & Assoc.
These horses are one way of getting back to an old idea. It's called "independence".

Farm Practicalities: The benefits–and drawbacks–of farming with horses vs farming with equipment.

Let’s pull back from Jason Rutledge and consider the significance of this hillside scene. After all, as the saying goes, nostalgia and scenery make thin soup. Are Rutledge and his Suffolks an isolated agricultural anachronism? Or does farming with horses–the draft horse–have a practical place on the farm today?

Bill Gibbons, 300 acres, Ontario: “I’ve got a small dairy–15 to 20 cows. I use two teams of Belgians to spread manure, haul maple syrup sap, do all the planting and rake, ted and haul my hay. I use a tractor to load the manure, bale the hay and do heavy field work like plowing and disking.”

Pat Miller, 160 acres, Montana: “I raise horses and cattle, restore wagons and work an outside job at a lumberyard. I use Percherons whenever possible, most often to feed and harrow. If I didn’t have an outside job, I could do it all with horses. In winter, I don’t hardly start a tractor, but do all my stock feeding with horses.”

Paul Birdsell, seven-acre market garden, 55 acres in pasture and hay, Maine: “I use four, sometimes five, Belgians for all my farm work–plowing, cultivating and haying. In the winter, I log with them; I’ve got a 50-cord contract with Champion. Draft horses have held on well in this area. They’re good for our poor soil, long winters and mud season. This farm has never been tractor-worked.”

Robin Reading, 1,500 acres, Alberta: “I’m a cattle farmer, raise 120 head and 120 calves every year. This farm’s been in my family for generations. We were pretty much out of horses in the ’60s, but then we got a lot of snow and couldn’t feed the animals with tractors. Now I have 10 Belgians and use them for about a fifth of my farm work. I cultivate, seed and cut, shock and load hay with them.”

Chris Haugsten, 30 acres of grapes, California: “I use my Percherons a lot in the vineyard for spraying, sulfuring, cultivating, hauling boxes and harvesting. They don’t get stuck in wet weather and can work hillsides that are too steep for a tractor. They’re cheaper, too. I also do some logging with the horses, handle a lot of my hay work with them and make a little extra money giving hayrides. I use a tractor for heavy plowing and baling hay.”

Gary Eagle, 100 acres, Washington: “I have 65 acres in hay, about 12 in oats and five in vegetables. I’ve been farming here about 15 years and use my horses for all the work: four Belgians when I’m plowing and doing other field work and two on the vegetables. I also have a stallion and six mares to breed stock for sale.”

Clearly Jason Rutledge is not alone. But how many people are farming with horses? Good question. The editor of one prominent draft horse journal says, “Who knows? It’s a mystery.” The editor of the other confidently estimates “at least 100,000 people in North America.”

Interestingly, a large number of these farmers use both horse power and horsepower: draft animals and tractors. (Rutledge himself fits in this group. “I’ve got a 60-horse-power diesel tractor. I chisel plow all my crop ground with it, then I disk and harrow the ground with horses. Hey, I’m a modern farmer–I owe the bank, the landlord, everybody. But there’s still a place on every farm for a team. I believe in appropriate technology. When it’s appropriate to use draft horses, use ‘cm. When it’s not, get them the hell off the field.”)

Most of these “mixed-power” farmers see the two pulling sources as complementary. They claim that a tractor is best for the heavy work, for work you have to do over long distances or if you’re in a hurry. But a team does a cleaner job. And it costs a lot less to purchase, own and maintain. “If I didn’t have a team, I’d have to have a second tractor,” is a frequent claim.

However, a number of farmers, such as Gary Eagle and Paul Birdsell, demonstrate that you can farm only with horse power. The two journal editors embody this contrast. Maurice Telleen, editor of Draft Horse Journal, says, “I was out this morning working up eight acres of oats. The hired man plowed ahead on the tractor. I harrowed behind with three horses.” Lynn Miller, of Small Farmer’s Journal, declares, “We plow up to 40 acres, cut hay on 80 and log off of 50 acres of timber. We use six Belgians to do all that. Well, actually, there was a borrowed tractor on my property today–to help me get a dead heifer out of a field.”

Then there are the thousands of Amish farmers farming with horses, using only draft power in their fields. The Amish are certainly a draft horse success story. They have kept their farms and communities thriving–indeed, they’ve almost doubled their numbers during the last two decades–in a time when the demise of the family farm is taken for granted. To a large extent, the Amish themselves credit the horse with keeping their farms intact. Wendell Berry (author, essayist, poet and draft horse farmer in Kentucky) once heard a Mennonite farmer say to an Amish one, “I wish I could persuade you people to use pneumatic tires on your equipment. It would be such a savings to the equipment and the horses, too.” The Amish farmer replied, “If we do that, we’ll make our machinery able to be pulled by a tractor, to go straighter in the fields and so forth. The first thing you know, we’ll be using tractors. And I want my children to farm.” His point, Berry explains, was that if the offspring were to hope to farm, they would have to farm with horses.

That statement hints at one of the most fascinating aspects of using draft horses: They work best on, and therefore help create, small, diversified, sustainable farms–exactly the kind that seem so rare yet desirable today. Here’s why:

  • Draft horses are efficient only close to home. You can’t work rented “widow 40s” miles away with horses; it takes too long for them to walk there. So the farm must be relatively small (most horse-powered farms are under 200 acres) and compact. Horses are also, in general, slower than tractors–another limit on farm size.
  • Draft horses are most economically efficient if you take advantage of the side benefits they offer. One of these is the fact that you can grow their feed. This promotes a diversified farm that includes pasture, hay and grain. Not only does this dramatically lower a farmer’s expenses and raise his or her independence (no bill for tractor fuel), but it promotes soil-conserving diversity and crop rotation. As Maurice Telleen puts it, “Using draft horses flies in the face of monoculture.”
  • Once you’re using land to produce horse feed, the easy and logical next step is to raise some other livestock. Most draft horse farmers do, indeed, raise cattle, sheep or some other stock as well as their work animals. Two species will usually do a more efficient job of grazing a pasture than horses alone.
  • Draft horses supply nine to 15 tons of manure a year, each. Manure’s so valuable for soil fertility that farmers like Chris Haugsten claim, “You can’t have an organic farm without having animals.”
  • Draft horses do a better job. They compact the soil less, cultivate it more cleanly, plow the right depth more often and log with less damage than internal combustion machinery. As Wendell Berry remarked after examining horse-and tractor-worked fields, “I can say unhesitatingly that, although the tractors do faster work, they do not do it better.”

Overall then, draft horse farmers can’t farm as much land, but they make up for that on the debit side of the ledger: no fuel bills and fewer fertilizer bills. The initial cost is also less: You can get a team of good horses for around $1,800, while a small tractor runs $12,000 to $15,000. Repairs are cheaper. (“I never had a $600 clutch job on a horse,” notes Chris Haugsten.)

The bottom line: less income, but less expense. Most businesses expand in good times, but draw back and cut costs in bad. In these bad times for farming, running a tighter, more economical farm makes sense for some people.

Of course, working with horses does have some drawbacks of its own. As mentioned earlier, the work goes more slowly, so you can’t cover as much ground. Working horses is more physically demanding than driving a tractor. Most important, horses demand extra commitment. You can take the key out of a tractor and leave it alone for two weeks, but horses demand daily attention whether they’re working or not. Maurice Telleen: “Today at lunchtime, the hired man turned off the tractor switch and went home. I took the horses to the barn, watered them. After I grabbed a bite for myself, I watered and fed them again. Tonight I’ll have to unharness, cool and feed them again.”

Horse farming takes more skill. John Cookson (horse logger, Maine) says, “Buying a horse is the easiest thing in the world. They don’t cost diddly! It’s after that, that things get really crucial.” You need to know how to properly feed a horse, work it, deliver its offspring, care for its health problems. Tractors don’t die from being misfed. They don’t get spooked by mishandling and become runaways. Paul Birdsell: “When you’re working with a horse, you always have to know what to expect and anticipate any possible trouble. If you don’t, the results can be tragic.”

How do you gain such skills? Well, for a start there are two very good magazines and two instructional books. Lynn Miller edits the quarterly Small Farmer’s Journal and is the author of the Work Horse Handbook. Maurice Telleen edits the quarterly Draft Horse Journal  and wrote The Draft Horse Primer. Both books and magazines are good; Miller’s magazine is solely farming oriented; Telleen’s covers the show and sales trade, as well.

But while books and articles are helpful, they are far from enough. Both Telleen and Miller readily admit that the only good way to learn is from an experienced teamster. Search for one in your community, enroll in one of the instructional schools listed in the draft horse magazines, apprentice for a season on a horse-powered farm. If you don’t get such hands-on education, at the very least buy a well-broken team. That way, the horses can be your instructors.

Such hands-on experience will also help you make up your own mind concerning the factor that many farmers consider either the main advantage or disadvantage of farming with horses. Jack Carver (Belgians, 60 acres, New Hampshire) puts it this way: “Oh, I can tell people all the ‘good’ reasons why I farm this way, but the truth is I like to use horses. I love this way of life.” Ken Demers (Percherons, 150 acres, Massachusetts): “When I drive a tractor, it’s just a job. But when I pick up the lines and drive a pair of horses, I’m about eight feet tall. And I enjoy every minute of it.”

Horses are quiet, tractors are loud. Horses are temperamental, personal, attention-demanding … company. And there’s the rub. If you find that you don’t enjoy working with horses, you absolutely should not do it. All the extra care and attention they demand will soon become a burden. If, on the other hand, you take pleasure in their company and the quality work they do, then even the caretaking chores become pleasures of their own.

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