Small Farmer's Journal

or Subscribe
Cultivating Questions A Horsedrawn Guidance System

Cultivating Questions: A Horsedrawn Guidance System

by Anne & Eric Nordell of Trout Run, PA

When Stephen Leslie asked us to put together a sidebar on cultivator setups for his upcoming book, The New Horse-Powered Farm (Chelsea Green, 2013), we realized it had been almost 15 years since we had cultivated this topic in the CQ column. We thought it was high time to reintroduce these essential tools for row cropped vegetables as well as the guidance system we developed for Horsedrawn cultivation. Hopefully the principles will be of value to the new wave of teamsters getting started in small-scale, organic vegetable production, even if the tools and attachments that we use are not available.

Market gardening became so much more relaxing for us and the horses after developing a Horsedrawn Guidance System. Instead of constantly steering the horses while trying to lay out straight rows or cultivate the vegetables, we could put the team on autopilot and focus our whole attention on these precision tasks. The guidance system has been so effective that we have trusted visiting chefs to cultivate the lettuce we planned on harvesting for them a few weeks later.

Although it took a couple of years to work out the details, developing this horsedrawn guidance system was simply a matter of recognizing the horses’ natural inclination to follow a pathway, and then realizing we could use the riding cultivator to create these horse-friendly pathways before planting the produce. We attached five large tractor sweeps in the flying geese formation shown in the first photo. When engaged in the soil, the three forward sweeps backfill each other creating a relatively level bedtop while the furrowing action of the outside sweeps define the width of the planting beds.

We found it was important to line up the cultivator wheels, single trees and outside sweeps so that the horses, cultivator and sweeps all tracked in the pathways. As we work our way across the field laying out beds, we simply put one horse and cultivator wheel in the new pathway made by the previous pass and use the pedal steering on this old Oliver cultivator to keep the outside sweep on the mark and straighten out the beds as necessary.

After sweeping the beds into place, we like to flatten and firm the bedtops with a cultipacker to draw moisture back up to the surface and make a smoother seedbed for planting and cultivation. You can see from the hoofprints in the photo how the horses like to follow the shallow furrows made by the outside sweeps on the cultivator just like their tendency to follow a harrow mark or their own paths out on pasture.

Laying out the beds as the final step of seedbed preparation provides several benefits. The overlapping sweeps do a good job of undercutting residual weeds or cover crop clumps before the vegetables go in the ground. This extra pass over the field also gives the horses an opportunity to get acquainted with the riding cultivator and following the furrow before using the same setup and system — minus the middle sweep — for the more delicate work of cultivating the produce. Training the team to follow the pathway rather than the crop row makes it so much easier to cultivate vegetables soon after planting. The horses know where to go before the row of produce is visible.

Forming the beds ahead of time also simplifies the task of marking the planting rows. Again, the horses and cultivator wheels track in the pathways. The only difference is we replace the sweeps on the riding cultivator with a single tooth mounted between the cultivator gangs to mark a planting furrow in the center of the beds.

One drawback to this planting system is the time required to change the attachments on the cultivator from bed-forming to planting mode and then back again to the sweeps for cultivating. We solved that problem by acquiring a second riding cultivator dedicated entirely to planting operations.

The second cultivator, a McCormick-Deering, had seen better days when we got it. The wheels were splayed and the gangs too bent for precision cultivation. However, it was more than adequate for planting operations like making a slit in the soil for hand-setting transplants or opening up a furrow for large seeded crops like potatoes and peas, and then backfilling the furrow with disc hillers.

Seeing the labor-saving advantage of having extra cultivators on hand for specialized purposes, we kept a lookout for more of these reasonably priced McCormicks. We now have a fleet of four riding cultivators: the Oliver permanently setup with sweeps for bed-forming and cultivation; two McCormicks available for different planting modes (mulch-till, ridge-till, strip-till, no-till, and clean seedbeds); and another rigged up with rolling Lillistons for high-residue zone cultivation.

The photos highlight some of these very specialized setups for accomplishing site-specific tasks on our unirrigated farm. They are definitely not necessary for horsepowered market gardening. In fact, we sometimes spend more time hitching and unhitching the team to different cultivators and adjusting the attachments than planting and cultivating. In this respect, the fleet has made our lives more complicated. By contrast, the horsedrawn guidance system makes the actual fieldwork very straightforward.

Cultivating Questions A Horsedrawn Guidance System

Oliver riding cultivator in bed-forming mode. The 12” sweeps, mounted 8 1/2” apart, define a 34” bed. We made the cross-bracket for the middle sweep from junked Allis Chalmers tractor cultivator parts. Only tool required – a hacksaw.

SmallFarmersJournal.com is a live, ever-changing subscription website. To gain access to all the content on this site, subscribe for just $5 per month. If you are not completely satisfied, cancel at any time. Here at your own convenience you can access past articles from Small Farmer's Journal's first forty years and all of the brand new content of new issues. You will also find posts of complete equipment manuals, a wide assortment of valuable ads, a vibrant events calendar, and up to the minute small farm news bulletins. The site features weather forecasts for your own area, moon phase calendaring for farm decisions, recipes, and loads of miscellaneous information.

Spotlight On: Farming Systems & Approaches

No Starving Children!

You’d never be able to harvest the broccoli or the hay or milk the cows or make the cheese if it were subject to government process. Not only are our industrial farms too big…

Such a One Horse Outfit

Such a One Horse Outfit

by:
from issue:

One day my stepfather brought over a magazine he had recently subscribed to. It was called Small Farmer’s Journal published by a guy named Lynn Miller. That issue had a short story about an old man that used a single small mule to garden and skid firewood with. I was totally fascinated with the prospect of having a horse and him earning his keep. It sorta seemed like having your cake and eating it too.

Cane Grinding

Cane Grinding: An Age-Old Georgia Tradition

by:
from issue:

Most sugar cane is processed in refineries to give us molasses, brown sugar, and various kinds of white sugar. However, some South Georgia farms that raise sugar cane still process it the old way to produce the special tasting sweetener for their own food. One such farm is the Rocking R Ranch in Kibbee, Georgia. It is owned by Charles and Patricia Roberts and their sons. The process they use has not changed in the past 100 years. This is how it is done.

New York Organic Grazing Dairy

New York Organic Grazing Dairy

by:
from issue:

Our farm, here in the center of New York State, consists of 101 acres, about 90 in grass, the rest some woods and swamp. It is inhabited by forty-six jersey cows, twelve breeding ace heifers, one bull, and because it is calving season — an increasing number of calves. Also, four Belgian mares and a couple of buggy horses. Last, and possibly least — the farmer, farmer’s wife, and five grown children.

Barnyard Manure

Barnyard Manure

by:
from issue:

The amount of manure produced must be considered in planning a cropping system for a farm. If one wishes to manure one-fifth of the land every year with 10 tons per acre, there would have to be provided two tons per year for each acre of the farm. This would require about one cow or horse, or equivalent, for each six acres of land.

Low Impact Ranching

Low Impact Ranching

by:
from issue:

This kind of low-impact management has yielded visible results for Rose who can display flourishing pasture grasses, healthy cattle, and firm banks in his riverside pasture. “I am just a detail oriented person and one of those farm boys who always likes to have a project,” Rose said. “I am trying to get the most out of my land and efforts and I really enjoy seeing the positive outcomes of a finished project.”

The Way To The Farm

Lise Hubbe stops mid-furrow at plowing demonstration for Evergreen State College students. She explains that the plow was going too deep…

The First Year

The First Year

by:
from issue:

Prior to last year, I had felt I knew the nuances of the land quite well and fancied myself as knowledgeable about the course of the natural world. Outdoors was where I felt the most comfortable. The fresh air and endless views of fields, hills and valleys renewed my spirit and refreshed my mind. I didn’t think there was much that could fluster me when it came to the land. Until I became an organic farmer.

Personal Food Production

Personal Food Production

by:
from issue:

We can argue about when, but someday within several decades, oil and the plentiful super-market food we take for granted will be in short supply and/or very expensive. We must all start immediately to grow as much of our own food as possible. This is the fun part and is the subject of a vast popular movement highlighted by innumerable books, magazines, and web sites. Square-foot gardening, raised beds, and permaculture are the new rage. We don’t need thirty-million acres of lawns. Flowers aren’t very filling either.

To Market, To Market, To Buy A Fat Pig

Within so-called alternative agriculture circles there are turf wars abrew

Birth of a Farm

Birth of a Farm

by:
from issue:

“Isn’t it nice?” I offer to my supper companions, “to see our beautiful horses right while we’re eating? I feel like I’m on a Kentucky horse farm, with rolling bluegrass vistas.” I sweep my arm dramatically towards the view, the rigged up electric fence, the lawn straggling down to the pond, the three horses, one of whom is relieving herself at the moment. “Oh, huh,” he answers. “I was thinking it was more like a cheesy bed and breakfast.”

Portrait of a Garden

Portrait of a Garden

As the seasons slip by at a centuries-old Dutch estate, an 85-year-old pruning master and the owner work on cultivating crops in the kitchen garden. To do this successfully requires a degree of obsessiveness, the old man explains in this calm, observational documentary. The pruning master still works every day. It would be easier if he were only 60 and young.

Week in the Life of D Acres

Week in the Life of D Acres

by:
from issue:

D Acres of New Hampshire in Dorchester, a permaculture farm, sustainability center, and non-profit educational organization, is a bit of a challenge to describe. Join us for this week-in-the-life tour, a little of everything that really did unfold in this manner. Extraordinary, perhaps, only in that these few November days were entirely ordinary.

LittleField Notes Prodigal Sun & Food Ethics

LittleField Notes: Prodigal Sun & Food Ethics

by:
from issue:

To my great delight a sizable portion of the general eating public has over the past few years decided to begin to care a great deal about where their food comes from. This is good for small farmers. It bodes well for the future of the planet and leaves me hopeful. People seem to be taking Wendell Berry’s words to heart that “eating is an agricultural act;” that with every forkful we are participating in the act of farming.

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

We own a 40 jersey cow herd and sell most of their milk to Cobb Hill Cheese, who makes farmstead cheeses. We have a four-acre market garden, which we cultivate with our team of Fjord horses and which supplies produce to a CSA program, farm stand and whole sale markets. Other members of the community add to the diversity of our farm by raising hay, sheep, chickens, pigs, bees, and berries, and tending the forest and the maple sugar-bush.

The Woodfired Bottom-heated Greenhouse Bench

Cultivating Questions: The Woodfired Bottom-heated Greenhouse Bench

It took several incarnations to come up with a satisfactory design for the bottom heated greenhouse bench. In the final version we used two 55 gallon drums welded end-to-end for the firebox and a salvaged piece of 12” stainless steel chimney for the horizontal flue. We learned the hard way that a large firebox and flue are necessary to dissipate the intense heat into the surrounding air chamber and to minimize heat stress on these components.

Wild Potatoes and Calcium

Wild potatoes bring increased calcium for better tubers.Have you ever cut into a potato to find a dark spot or hollow part? Early research shows that these defects are likely the result of calcium deficiencies in the potato — and that tuber calcium is genetically linked to tuber quality.

Journal Guide