Sustainable Logging With Draft Animals

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Draft animals allow for more sustainable logging practices as they make it possible to log selectively instead of clearcutting an area.
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Due mostly to differences in terrain, climate and cultural development, various parts of the country favor different draft animals. Sustainable Loggers in the northeast prefer oxen.
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Loggers in the south favor mules.
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On level ground, a horse, mule or ox can consistently pull a load of its own weight (though some pull twice that for short stances).
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Buying a team doesn't require pledging your soul to a banker, as does mechanized equipment.
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Draft animals are cheaper than machinery, and easier to maintain.

Sustainable logging with horses, mules, or oxen is an idea whose time has come again. Draft animals are once again becoming popular sources of power in today’s woodlots, because they are environmentally friendly and make good economic sense. Draft animals are particularly well suited to the 57% of commercial timberlands consisting of privately owned small woodlots, since they allow selective timbering as opposed to clearcutting. Why? There are three main reasons.

1. Compared to mechanical means of harvesting, draft animals cost less to purchase and maintain, and they don’t need constant repair. They don’t compact the soil, they do less damage to young trees, and they make it economically feasible to harvest timber on tracts containing too few trees to warrant mechanized logging.

2. Draft animals need not be confined to areas accessible by road and, because they vary their routes according to the locations of felled trees, they don’t leave trails that erode into ruts and washouts. They can work in steep or damp terrain that defies machinery and they don’t produce noise pollution. Best of all, a draft animal can be handled by one person of any size–I’m willing to bet you’ll find more women logging with horses than with mechanical skidders.

3. While any piece of machinery loses value the moment it leaves the sales yard and continues rapidly depreciating thereafter, a well-trained draft animal increases in value as it gains experience. Draft animals also offer an excellent opportunity for additional outside income, besides the sale of firewood or sawlogs. Experienced loggers are increasingly being sought out by woodlot owners who wish to minimize environmental damage and operating costs.

When we purchased the woodlot adjoining our farm, we used a horse to log the salable timber. Today, seven years later, you cannot tell the land was recently logged unless you take a good close look at the healthy stand of young trees. Our low overhead gave us the flexibility to maximize our profits by skidding out not only large sawlogs and midsize pallet logs, but also the smaller diameter firewood most mechanized loggers leave behind, and even the thinner poles we use to boil down our annual supply of maple syrup. In just one year, besides supplying our household with several season’s worth of firewood, we recouped the purchase price of the land.

Drew Conroy of Berwick, Maine, went us one better. Needing a barn, but not having the money to build one, he trained a team of oxen to log his property. He then sold the experienced team for enough money to pay most of the expenses of raising the barn, including having the logs sawed at a local mill.

In various parts of the country, differences in terrain, climate, and cultural development have resulted in different preferences in draft animals. Horses are favored in the West and Midwest, mules in the South, and oxen in the Northeast.

Among horses, popular heavy breeds are Belgian, Percheron, Clydesdale, Shire, and Suffolk. Most heavy horses stand 16 hands high or taller (one hand being 4 inches) and weigh 1,600 pounds or more. These heavy breeds are best suited for the large, relatively level parcels of the Midwest. Smaller, more agile draft breeds such as Haflinger and Norwegian Fjord are more suitable for hilly terrain. Some horse loggers prefer nondraft breeds or crossbreeds. Even a saddle horse, properly trained, can be used to skid wood.

Horses have an advantage over mules, oxen, and mechanical skidders in their ability to produce little horses, which can be trained to log or sold for additional income. Horse loggers are fond of wondering outloud whether a mechanized logger ever goes out in the morning to find that his skidder has produced little skidders.

In southern states, mules are more popular than horses because they can better withstand the South’s hot, humid weather. A good logging mule measures 52 to 56 inches from ground to withers, weighs 1,000 pounds, and results from crossing a heavy-breed mare (female horse) with a large breed of donkey called “Mammoth Jack:’ Because mules are hybrid, they cannot reproduce.

A mule is more agile than a horse and lighter on its feet. Its smaller hooves do less damage in hill country and don’t get hung up as easily in tight spots. Compared to a horse, a mule has better peripheral vision, and won’t spook as readily. It also has a stronger sense of self-preservation. A mule won’t overheat or do any other foolish or dangerous thing–a characteristic that mule lovers attribute to brains, and frustrated novice owners write off to stubbornness.

A mule requires less care than a horse and is more resistant to disease. It thrives on coarser and cheaper feed and less of it. And a mule will never eat so much it founders (goes lame). Mules live longer than horses and are more useful in their senior years–a mule can be productive to the age of 35, while a horse is considered over the hill at 20.

New Englanders have historically opted for oxen, an economical choice for the small tracts typical of the Northeast. Worldwide, most of the 400 million animals trained for draft are of the bovine persuasion, according to Richard Roosenberg, head of Kalamazoo-based Tillers International, an organization that promotes the use of ox power.

Although the productive life span of an ox is little more than 10 years, any ox drover will point out that when this animal’s working years are over, it still makes good eating. Disposing of a horse or mule when it reaches the end of the line may require paying a hauler to take it to the dogfood cannery. When an ox passes its prime, it’s still worth its weight in the prevailing price of beef.

That’s because an ox is nothing more than a mature steer (castrated bull) of any breed, with alertness, tractability, strong bones and muscles for power, and straight, strong legs for traveling. No one breed is best suited for training. Breeds and crossbreeds vary in popularity according to local custom. New Englanders generally prefer dairy breeds such as Milking Devon, Holstein, and dairy Shorthorn. Their neighbors to the north in Nova Scotia prefer beef breeds such as Hereford, Ayrshire, and beef Shorthorn. Although beef breeds are more muscular, dairy breeds are cheaper, an excess bull being persona non grata on a dairy farm.

Oxen of any breed are less expensive to purchase than either horses or mules–a pair of young oxen cost about as much as one good horse or mule of similar age, and don’t require an expensive and complex set of harness and driving lines (reins). Where horses and mules are harnessed and operated by lines, in combination with voice commands, oxen require only a wooden yoke (rudimentary collar) to attach the load to and a goad (stick) to occasionally tap the animal and thus reinforce a voice command.

Oxen are similar to mules in having a strong sense of self-preservation, being resistant to disease, and being able to handle rough terrain. But they are unlike mules in becoming somewhat lethargic in hot weather. While horses and mules are designed for speed, oxen can be counted on for steadiness and patience. Drew Conroy has trained all three–horses, mules, and oxen–and feels that mules are smartest and oxen are least likely to run away in an uncontrolled fit due to fright or frustration.

On level ground a horse, mule, or ox can consistently pull a load of its own weight (although in contests or “pulls,” winners may pull two or three times their weight for short distances). In cool weather, a well-conditioned team of two can skid up to 3,000 board feet, or one logging-truck load, in a day. A well-trained team can learn to travel between the cutting area and the deck (landing or staging site) on its own. Chains or cables are usually used for skidding lighter logs. Heavier logs can be made more manageable by resting one end on a logging cart or sled.

Whether your preference is for horse logging, mule skinning, or bull whacking, editor of “Horse Logger’s International Newsletter” Gregg Caudell suggests that you’ll have to work at developing the necessary disposition for logging with draft animals, which operate at a much slower pace than we modern humans are accustomed to. The upside of this slower pace, besides giving you a whole new philosophical outlook, is that you’re less likely to get hurt in the woods than you would be working around noisy, high-speed equipment.

If you’re thinking of logging with draft animals, start out by reading everything you can get your hands on, including Caudell’s newsletter, the membership newsletter put out by The North American Horse and Mule Loggers Association, and Rural Heritage (formerly The Evener), a bi-monthly magazine devoted to horse, mule, and ox power.

In addition, join a local organization that promotes the use of draft animals and arrange to spend a few days working with an experienced logger. You might also sign up for a course on handling draft animals. Clinics are sponsored by, among others, the Draft Horse & Mule Association of America and Tillers International, both of which supply the necessary animals and equipment to let you get a good feel for how things work.

Even if your primary intent is to log your own tract, you’ll likely find yourself pressed into service logging for others. By the same token, if you’re thinking of logging your place, but don’t have the time or inclination to train a team, these days you’ll find it easier to locate local operations offering an alternative to mechanized logging.

Expect to pay up to 15% more for draft power than the prevailing rate for mechanical power. If your woodlot is very small or is tucked away in some corner, the cost of logging with draft animals may be considerably less than for mechanical logging, since you won’t incur an additional equipment setup fee.

“Horse loggers offer an inspired alternative to a beleaguered timber industry;” says Caudell, who with his wife Deb owns and operates Tree Ring Horse Logging service in Keller, Washington. “A citizen in a rural community can do quite well logging with draft animals and, with a little ambition and imagination, can even thrive.”

Five years ago, Dan Marquardt of Muncy Valley, Pennsylvania, converted from mechanical logging to horse logging. Now, says Dan, “we have two year’s work under contract. Ask most skidder operators and they have six month’s work if they’re lucky. The public is speaking.”

Nevertheless, there’s still some resistance in the logging industry to the use of draft animals, mainly because commercial loggers are unfamiliar with the concept. But things are gradually turning around. For one thing, buying a good team doesn’t require pledging your soul to a banker, as does the purchase of mechanized equipment. You can therefore work at your own pace, not at the breakneck speed needed to meet the banker’s demands. Total capital outlay for a draft-animal operation tops out at $6,000, some 12 to 15 times less than the cost of a mechanized setup. Without the heavy debt load, a horse logger can handily make ends meet and still take a day off when it’s hot or rainy.

But the main reason industry is starting to take draft animals more seriously is due to environmental concerns. Even the timber giant Weyerhauser uses horses to log environmentally sensitive areas, according to company spokesman Frank Mendizabal. Although horse logging constitutes only a small percentage of Weyerhauser’s total volume, horses are indispensable for the selective removal of individual high-value trees in sensitive areas such as watersheds, where clearcutting is forbidden by law.

Environmental groups caused problems for Harry Morgan and his son Ray of Orbisonia, Pennsylvania, in 1991 while the pair were logging with mechanized equipment. “The county inspectors would visit the job site and say everything was okay,” says Ray. “Then the next day I’d get a court order to stop work:” Harry and Ray have since converted to horse logging, an enterprise that drew the attention of the trade magazine Timber Harvest. Not only has the slower pace allowed 74-year-old Harry to remain on the job, but the duo are able to continue in their chosen line of work while keeping the environmentalists happy. Says Ray, pointing to a two-feet-wide trail winding down the hill, “That’s the only logging trail in the woods. Small trees and brush that could be damaged by mechanical logging equipment are left untouched, which is good for the wildlife that need these places for food and nesting:”

Logging with draft animals even has the blessing of Audubon magazine, which recently featured an article on mule logger Bob Taber of Mountain View, Missouri. Says Bob of mechanical skidders, “They ride all over the little stuff three and four inches thick, and that’s our future timber. Why, log skidders will ride down trees big as a stovepipe. I wouldn’t trade a pair of mules for a skidder:”

The Audubon article went on to cite a test at the University of Idaho Experimental Forest, where a tract was logged with both a tractor and horses; 91% of the damage to standing trees was caused by the tractor. Says retired U.S. Forest Service researcher and Montana horse logger James Lotan: “It is not just something quaint that makes interesting photos. It is the coming thing because it is the environmental way.”

Besides all that, draft animals can be smarter than their handlers. I once watched our neighbor’s logging horse have a hard time negotiating the route its owner had chosen. In disgust the fellow threw down his driving lines, whereupon the horse chose a different route and easily brought the log to the deck on his own. Try doing that with a balky mechanical skidder.


Draft Horse Journal
North American Horse & Mule Loggers Association
Rural Heritage
Tillers International

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