The Work: Draft horses can do nearly all the tasks of a tractor, including preparing seed beds; planting and cultivating row crops; cutting; raking; and baling or loose-stacking hay. Plus, horses can work in muddy situations and steeper slopes that tractors can’t handle as well.
The Costs: The initial costs are in favor of the draft horse. According to farmer Stephen Leslie, who is the author of The New Horse-Powered Farm and Horse-Powered Farming for the 21st Century, you will often see a team of trained grade, or even purebred, draft horses being sold in the range of $2,000 to $3,000. The average price for newer used four-wheel drive tractors, ranging from 40 to 99 horsepower on tractorhouse.com, was $28,506.
Although it’s not an easy side-by-side comparison to make, the per-hour cost also seems to be in favor of the horse. According to the Small Farmer’s Journal, a small, diversified farm in Conway, Massachusetts – which relies solely on five draft horses to manage its three-and-a-half acres of mixed vegetables, three-and-a-half acres of actively managed cover crops, and 22 acres used for hay – averaged a cost of $3.39 per horse hour. This includes food, medical care, bedding, repairing equipment, and other related expenses. Horse hours were broken down by farm work plus horse maintenance tasks like haymaking and clipping pasture, commuting to and from the fields, hitching to the equipment, and loading the manure spreader, produce wagon, or hayrack. Compare this with a 65 horsepower take-off tractor, which costs about $33.57 per hour. Even if you subtract the depreciation value and interest, it still comes to $21.21 per hour.
The Speed: The tractor wins in the speed category. Horses are generally slower than machines, which is one possible reason why farms using draft power tend to be less than 200 acres.
It’s not always a question of is one better than the other, but about how horses can play an important role on a diversified farm. The less you use a tractor, the more you’ll save in gas and repairs. Even some hardcore draft-horse advocates use tractors for limited purposes.
Leslie, his wife, Kerry Gawalt, and daughter Maeve, have a four-acre market garden CSA and Jersey cow dairy, Cedar Mountain Farm, located at Cobb Hill Co-Housing in Hartland, Vermont. They’ve been farming with draft horses for more than 20 years. They started out using both horses and a tractor, but the goal was always to transition fully to horse power. The market garden is now 100-percent draft-horse powered, but the dairy still relies on tractors, supplemented with help from the horses to spread compost, drag-harrow pastures, as well as tedding and raking hay. It wasn’t an easy transition at the market farm. It took them 12 years to fully implement their plan, which included a steep learning curve since Leslie was new to using draft horses, and the young Fjord horses they purchased were new to farming.
“We are a hybrid horse- and tractor-powered operation, but each year we get a little better, saner, and more effective working with our teams. With every passing season we have taken new strides in replacing the tractor by integrating horse power further into our farming system,” says Leslie.
Learning to work with the animals takes patience, a new skill set, and lots of practice. A tractor isn’t going to tire out or get moody, but it won’t provide you with a closed-loop farming system or make you a better person, assertions made by the farmers we spoke to for this story, and for our cover story.
“My thing is that [horses] are a wonderful, sustainable tool – they’re grass-powered for the most part – but if you want to transition it’s not just about switching the technology, it’s switching your mindset,” says Erika Marczak, a farmer at We-Li-Kit Farm in Abington, Connecticut. “Learning how to develop proper communication skills between you and your animals, developing good husbandry skills, looking for signs of discomfort. I’m not an advocate for everyone doing it, but I am an advocate for anyone who wants to do it, to give it a try.”
Marczak still uses tractors for specific jobs, like seeding straight lines with her little planting tractor that’s smaller than any of her draft animals, or if the job at hand is small enough that it wouldn’t make sense to hitch of the horses and walk back and forth to the farm to get it done.
Using draft horses for farm work, says Donn Hewes, the president of the Draft Animal Power Network, is more than just about the costs, but rather about a sustainable farming approach and the deep connection you build with your work animals.
“Farming with horses provides a farmer with it’s own special benefits and rewards. Everything from beauty and grace to the health and wellness of the land we work. On a small-scale farm that doesn’t rely on much hired labor, horses and oxen can be part of a simple, effective, versatile power source for almost any task. This can be a low input system that requires more of your time than money,” says Hewes. He and his wife, Maryrose Livingston, own and operate Northland Sheep Dairy in Marathon, New York.
Leslie believes farming with draft animals can create a “truly regenerative agriculture” that can help humans reclaim their place in the fabric of life. “Those who farm this way are engaged in relationship. At its best, this relational quality can further enhance the qualities that have made us most human; qualities such as trust, loyalty, and empathy. A relationship with a horse, even a practical working relationship, can change your way of seeing and relating to the world,” he says.
Special thanks to Reva Seybolt and the Draft Animal Power Network for assistance with this article.