Muscle or Machine? Draft Animal Power vs. Biofuel Farming

Plowing with horses is more than a nostalgic farming method — it’s a time-tested way to complete heavy farm work that challenges tractors using biofuels.

  • Plowing With Horses
    Plowing with horses is still one of the most common methods used on farms around the world.
  • Meat A Benign Extravagance Cover
    In his groundbreaking book “Meat: A Benign Extravagance,” author Simon Fairlie explores whether the hypothesis that vegetarianism is better for human health and the environment holds true. Based on numbers from the UK, Fairlie’s well-founded scientific research explores the difficult environmental impact of eating meat along with the ethical and social issues surrounding the future of farming livestock across the globe.

  • Plowing With Horses
  • Meat A Benign Extravagance Cover

With research based in deep permacultural theory and a respect for natural systems that flourished long before corporate agriculture and animal factory farms, Meat: A Benign Extravagance by Simon Fairlie (Chelsea Green, 2010) delves into the ethical and environmental impact of eating meat and livestock farming. The following excerpt describes his findings on the efficiency of draft animal power and how it compares to modern biofuel farming. The text is adapted with permission from Chapter 12, “Animal Furlongs and Vegetable Miles.” 

In the census of horses conducted by the Board of Trade in 1920, there were 19,743 thoroughbreds in Britain, out of a total of 2,192,165 horses. More than two-thirds of all these were draught horses, of which 774, 934 were in active agricultural work, ploughing the bulk of the 4.5 million hectares under cultivation (about the same area as today). By 1939, the number of horses on British farms had declined to less than a million, and during the 1950s virtually all of them disappeared — displaced, some say, not so much by tractors as by tractors with front-loaders. Those of us brought up in the 1950s are the last to remember working Shires, horse-drawn coalmen and rag-and-bone men, not to mention details like the hessian feed bags attached ‘round the muzzles of horses during lunch break so that nothing spilled onto the clean suburban streets.

Britain, being at the forefront of civilization, yielded to petrol hegemony quicker than most nations. Western Europe has followed suit, but even in the 1980s you could still see, for example, a leathery French peasant guiding his yoke of oxen every morning along a certain stretch of the Route Nationale 9, not far from Rodez. I like to think they delayed the construction of the Autoroute 9 until the poor fellow was dead and buried, and in a broader sense they did. In Eastern European countries such as Poland and Romania, plowing with horses is still common practice, though under attack from EU modernizers. In the United States, horse cultivation is flourishing in the boondocks, inspired by the commercial success of the Amish communities, and aided by the fact that there is plenty of land to keep them on. In large parts of the Third World, draft animal power remains the only economic choice for small farmers.

It is at this stage in the evolution of farming technology that we are discovering that fossil fuels are causing more problems than they solve, and we are faced with need to find alternatives. “There are three horses in the race to replace petroleum – biofuels, electricity and hydrogen – and at various times you see the fortunes of these various horses ebb and flow,” a motor industry expert called Roland Hwang was quoted as saying in the New York Times. But however true that may be of the automobile industry, it will be some time before we see electric or hydrogen-powered tractors rivalling the use of diesel on the farm. The two main contenders are biofuels and the runner Hwang thought had been retired from the race – namely the horse.

These two sources of on-farm renewable energy are not incompatible, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t be carried out equally satisfactorily on adjacent farms. However, it is useful to compare their performance. The main problem is that one is faced with a superabundance of evolving data about the performance of biofuels, and a dearth of information about the performance of horses.

Draft Animal Power  

Much of the casual commentary on plowing with horses is coloured by allusions to the amount of land they take up. We are variously told that when horses tilled all our land they required a quarter or a third of it to feed them. Darlington suggests that 40 per cent of farmland is required to feed horses, but this is derived from a secondhand reference to a conference held in 1973 in Alberta, where yields of crops per acre are extremely low. The most extreme example of this approach comes from one of the Global Opponents of Organic Farming, Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute, who (citing Vaclav Smil) states:

6/19/2019 4:41:25 PM

plus ! u can ride a horse to & from assorted destinations in variable weather night & day & if u lose consciousness while riding it, it will take u safely somewhere. get your tractor to do that! Plus, u can eat it if times get tough - miss hardscrabble farm/rancher gnarly girl. ford - swim a ragging river on it. maybe. try that on a john deere! also a dependable heat source if kept fed in prolonged cold weather. And how could "john deere" ever approximate "starfire"! ! MORE animal use please - less polluting, toxic machinery.

Dawn Meier
6/19/2019 8:23:15 AM

I notice that most of your articles leaves out oxen as draft animals. They are excellent as a choice for doing farm work. Check out Tillers or MODA sites for more information on using ox power. A good alternative for a steer or 2 rather than going to freezer camp. My ox loves to work. We do festivals and fairs giving rides and just enjoying the attention. He is another one who will come running from anywhere in the pasture when I call and he sees his lead line and yoke. I don't consider putting an animal to work as slavery. We all have to work in order to pay for our food and homes, so why not animals? As long as they are not being abused it is a good healthy life for them. When you figure a beef steer lives about 2 years on average before butchering, and an ox lives to about 20 yrs of age how can that be a bad thing?

Rhonda Hettinger
7/19/2012 2:48:15 AM

Rather obvious that Paul has no experience with horses. Yes, they enjoy their pasture time--but horsew who have been well-treated and well-trained enjoy theor jobs, as much as (most) people do if they are in the right job. I'd love to know how Paul would explain the obvious enjoyment my gelding took from performing in front of a big crowd, or covering miles! Or why my mare will leave the others in the pasture, and come whinnying to the gate at my call, when she knows she's going to work! Additionally, I'll also mention the fact that the fertilizing value of manure on the land beats out what tractors produce (pollution)--and the fact that fuel is definitely required to produce the biofuel itself.

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