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 for energy and land use efficiency.

| July 6, 2012

Plowing With Horses

Plowing with horses is still one of the most common methods used on farms around the world.


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:

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.

christine scott
7/18/2012 10:44:36 PM

also consider the natural organic fertilizer the horse adds to the land as opposed to the problems we are seeing over time to the chemical/fuel based fertilizers which I didn't see mentioned other than the methane production comment

paul figueiras
7/18/2012 4:58:30 PM

One very important factor that was left out of the various comparisons in the article is that a horse, unlike a tractor, is a living, sentient being who if given the choice, would prefer to live free with others of his or her kind, rather than being enslaved by humans. I know in our current societal mindset this is still a foreign concept for most, but consider for a moment if the "Draft Animal Power" discussed and considered in the article, were not 'horsepower' but 'human power' instead. If we remove the dark veil of speciesism, wouldn't we find that a horse values her or his liberty just as much as a human and, when living free, actively avoids and resists capture and subsequent enslavement (think 'breaking a horse')? It doesn't always easy finding alternatives to animal use but, as we saw with the abolition of human slavery in the southern U.S., it is not only eminently possible, it is morally imperative.

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