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FARMING WITH WORK HORSES

by Tony McQuail

This article is a response to some questions I received recently in a letter. When I first started farming I had no plans to use horses and thought they were pretty old fashioned and unrealistic. However, in 1972 I helped build a log cabin where a Percheron mare was used to skid and hoist the logs. In 1975 my wife did a paper for a course at the University of Guelph comparing a team of work horses with a small tractor. Her work demonstrated that a team could do the work for our farm in an economic fashion. We also had Amish and non-Amish neighbours who were working or showing horses and reminded us that this technology still existed.

We bought a team of mares in 1976 and raised 24 colts in the intervening years. We currently have three horses, daughters and grand-daughters of one of our first mares. Horses won't work for every size of farm, or every temperament of farmer, but for a small to mid-sized farm some or all of the work can be done with living horse power.

There are a number of ecologic and economic advantages to using draft horses on a farm. They run on home grown fuels which encourage the inclusion of hay and pasture in the farm rotation. Their "exhaust" is recycled in the growing of next years fuel, which is not the case for the fossil-fuelled tractor--an ecological plus for those concerned about greenhouse gases. They also produce quantities of organic fertilizer. Replacements can be raised on the farm and surplus colts or teams can be sold so that the farm power source can also contribute to the livestock income. Horses don't create the same rutting and compaction problems that a tractor can, although you still shouldn't work land that is too wet.

They can be very handy in the woodlot and they start easily in the winter. And if you enjoy working with horses they can provide a satisfaction and sense of team work that you aren't likely to get from a tractor.

There are of course disadvantages to horses as well. They are more work. This may depend on how you measure work. Do you count the work required to pay for the tractor and to buy the fuel and pay for the repairs or just the time spent on the tractor seat vs the time spent harnessing, feeding, cleaning out and working the horses? Driving horses require skills which most people don't have in the automobile era. Inexperienced teamsters can get into serious trouble. They are slower at some jobs and faster in others. A good team can be difficult to find.

I used to joke that if we'd bought the tractor first we would never have been able to buy horses, but because we started working with horses we could afford a tractor some years later. When I sat down and did some figuring in 1990 it turned out to be true. We bought our team in 1976 and the net cash flow from our horses was a positive $10,000. We bought a used tractor in 1981 and traded it on a new tractor in 1985. The tractors had generated a negative net cash flow of $25,000. for purchase, fuel and repairs.

If you are thinking that work horses could have a place on your farm it might not be as crazy as corporate agribusiness would want you to believe. Fuel and tractor prices have skyrocketed since internal combustion engines replaced real horse power. Global warming and air pollution are concerns that weren't considered then. If you would like to get some experience working with horses there is a great opportunity coming up this summer. The Eastern Ontario Workhorse Workshop offers a week of intensive hands-on workshops and demonstrations of how to use work horses. It is run by experienced teamsters and teams including Lunn Miller, author of the Work Horse Handbook and editor of the Small Farmers Journal. The cost is $350 but Ontario farmers may qualify for substantial support by the Ontario Agricultural Training Institute. For some information contact Ruth Freeman, RR 1, Frankville, Ont. KOE lH0, (613) 275-2893.

While I follow with interest the developments around switch grass I think there may be simpler technologies for convening grass into farm power. Work horse technology keeps the production of the fuel and the production of the "engine" to use that fuel on the farm under the farmers control. As we look to develop an ecological agriculture for the future it is worth looking at systems that worked in the past.

Using renewable energy was an important consideration as we developed our farm. We've experimented with wind and solar power. In 1976 when we wanted renewable farm power work horses were a more proven and ready to use "off the shelf" technology than fuel ethanol, methane or wood gas. Our lives and our fields have been enriched by that choice.

Copyright 1993 Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.


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