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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.

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Spotlight On: Livestock

Oxen Experiences

Oxen Experiences

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from issue:

Some things I have learned about working with oxen as with any other living thing is to treat them with some respect. Especially hump-backed cattle which I prefer. Be firm and gentle, but consistent, realizing you could be seriously injured if they chose. Be patient while teaching them what you want them to do, and then insisting every time that they do what you want them to do every time.

Ask A Teamster Horse Don't Won't Can't Turn

Ask A Teamster: Horse Don’t, Won’t, Can’t Turn

After moving the drop ring on the other side down we went out to the round pen for a test drive. The difference in how she ground drove and turned was amazing – not perfect, but real sweet. With the lines at that level a right turn cue on the line obviously meant go right to her, and a left turn cue meant left. After we drove around for a while with me smiling I couldn’t resist moving the drop rings back up to the line rings – Bam, back to the old confusion.

Work Horse Handbook

Work Horse Handbook

Horses are honest creatures. And, what I mean by honest is that a horse is almost always true to his motivations, his needs, his perceptions: if he wants to eat, if he needs water, if he perceives danger. He is incapable of temporarily setting aside or subverting his motivations to get to some distant goal. This is often mistaken as evidence for a lack of intelligence, a conclusion which says more of human nature than equine smarts. What it means for the horse is that he is almost never lazy, sneaky or deceptive. It is simply not in his nature.

Shoeing Stocks

An article from the out-of-print Winter 1982 Issue of SFJ.

A Gathering of Comtois in France

A Gathering of Comtois in France

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I was soon planning for a stop in the town of Pontelier, the main hub in one corner of the country I had never been to and was bent on exploring: the Franche-Compte. As luck would have it, this region has its very own breed of draft horse, the Comtois. It was to an “exhibition” of this horse that I was heading, although thanks to my lousy French, I was not sure exactly what kind of “exhibition” I was heading to.

Horseshoeing Part 1C

Horseshoeing Part 1C

The horn capsule or hoof is nothing more than a very thick epidermis that protects the horse’s foot, just as a well fitting shoe protects the human foot. The hoof of a sound foot is so firmly united with the underlying pododerm that only an extraordinary force can separate them. The hoof is divided into three principal parts, which are solidly united in the healthy foot – namely, the wall, the sole, and the frog.

Littlefield Notes Making Your Horses Work For You

LittleField Notes: Making Your Horses Work For You Part 1

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The practical everyday working of horses and mules in harness has always been at the heart of what the Small Farmer’s Journal is about. And like the Journal, a good horse powered farm keeps the horses at the center: the working nucleus of the farm. All the tractive effort for the pulling of machines, hauling in of crops, hauling out of manures, harvesting and planting is done as much as is practicable with the horses.

Icelandic Sheep

Icelandic Sheep

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from issue:

I came to sheep farming from a background in the arts – with a passion for spinning and weaving. When we were able to leave our house in town to buy our small farm, a former dairy operation, I had no idea that the desire to have a couple of fiber animals would turn into full time shepherding. I had discovered Icelandic sheep, and was completely enamored of their beauty, their hardiness and their intelligence.

Littlefield Notes Making Your Horses Work For You Part 2

LittleField Notes: Making Your Horses Work For You Part 2

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Every beginning horse farmer at some point will find himself in need of procuring that first team. After land, this is certainly one of the most critical purchasing decisions you will make in the development of the farm. The animals you choose can make your farming glow and hum with moments of blissful certainty, or contribute to frustration, bewilderment, loss of resolve, and God forbid, horses and people hurt and machines wrecked.

Work Bridle Styles

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Here are fourteen work bridle styles taken from a 1920’s era harness catalog. Regional variants came with different names and configurations, so much so that we have elected to identify these images by letter instead of name so you may reference these pictures directly when ordering harness or talking about repairs or fit concerns with trainers or harness makers. In one region some were know as pigeon wing and others referred to them as batwing or mule bridles.

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The Milk and Human Kindness: Making Friends with Your Wild Heifer

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So let’s just say this is your first experience with cows, you’ve gone to your local dairy farm, purchased a beautiful bred heifer who is very skittish, has never had a rope on her, or been handled or led, and you’re making arrangements to bring her home. It ought to be dawning on you at this point that you need to safely and securely convey this heifer to your farm and then you need to keep her confined until she begins to calm down enough that she knows she’s home, and she knows where she gets fed.

Boer Goats

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The introduction of the Boer Goat has stirred up a lot of interest in all sectors of agriculture. The demand for goat meat exceeds the supply; goat meat is the most consumed meat in the world. One of the main points about South African Boer Goats is that out of all meat goat breeds the Boer is the top meat producer whereas in the cattle business you have over 100 breeds of beef cattle that all compete for the beef dollar.

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

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Three different parcels of land were committed for a series of tests to directly compare the impact of tractors and horses on the land. One side of each parcel was worked only with horses and the other only with tractors. There were measurable differences between each side of the worked areas; the land’s capacity to hold water and greater aeration were up to 45cm higher in areas worked by horses as opposed to tractors.

Interpreting Your Horse's Body Language

Interpreting Your Horse’s Body Language

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from issue:

The person who works closely with horses usually develops an intuitive feel for their well-being, and is able to sense when one of them is sick, by picking up the subtle clues from the horse’s body language. A good rider can tell when his mount is having an off day, just by small differences in how the horse travels or carries himself, or responds to things happening around him. And when at rest, in stall or pasture, the horse can also give you clues as to his mental and physical state.

Ask A Teamster Ten Common Wrecks With Driving Horses

Ask A Teamster: Ten Common Wrecks with Driving Horses

One of the things I’ve learned over time is that the truly great teamsters rarely – if ever – have upset horses, close calls, mishaps or wrecks, while the less meticulous horsemen often do. Even though it may take a few minutes longer, the master teamsters constantly follow a series of seemingly minute, endlessly detailed, but always wise safety tips. Here are 10 of them:

Farmrun On the Anatomy of Thrift

On the Anatomy of Thrift: Side Butchery

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The Anatomy of Thrift: Harvest Day

On the Anatomy of Thrift Part 2: Harvest Day

On the Anatomy of Thrift is an instructional series Farmrun created with Farmstead Meatsmith. Their principal intention is instruction in the matters of traditional pork processing. In a broader and more honest context, OAT is a deeply philosophical manifesto on the subject of eating animals. Harvest Day is the second in the series, which explores the ‘cheer’ that is prepared on the day of slaughter, and dives deep into the philosophy and psychology of our relationship to animals.

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2

Fjordworks: Zen and the Art of Training the Novice Teamster Part 2

In the practice of Zen sitting meditation, a special emphasis is placed on maintaining a relaxed but upright sitting posture, in which the vertical and horizontal axis of the body meet at a center point. Finding this core of gravity within can restore a sense of well-being and ease to the practitioner. This balanced seat of ease is not all that different from the state of relaxed concentration we need to achieve to effectively ride or drive horses.

Journal Guide