Cultivating Questions The Cost of Working Horses

Portraits of Four Horse-Powered Produce Farms

by Anne & Eric Nordell of Trout Run, PA

Thanks to the many apprenticeship programs, field days, conferences, websites and publications available in the new millennium, it is relatively easy for new and transitioning farmers to learn the business of small-scale organic vegetable production. Economic models of horse-powered market gardens, however, are still few and far between. To fill that information hole, I asked three experienced farmers to join me in tracking work horse hours, expenses and labor over a two-year period and to share the results in the Small Farmer’s Journal.

When I initiated this horse accounting project in the winter of 2010, I had several goals in mind. First and foremost, I hoped that this survey would provide a pretty complete picture of market gardening with horses. The “horse hours” spreadsheets outline the different work horse tasks that take place on a small acreage produce operation. The tables at the end of the column give a good overview of what’s involved in work horse maintenance.

To round out the numbers, I asked each teamster to write up a self-portrait of their horse-powered market garden with an emphasis on how their farm layout, resources and goals affected the efficiency and costs of their work horse management. I also suggested that everyone mention what they learned from this record-keeping adventure and describe any changes planned for their farms as a result of the project.

A secondary goal for this number crunching exercise was to begin the process of establishing financial benchmarks for the horse-powered community. For example, out-of-pocket variable costs for the work horses on all four farms average 5 1/2% of total farm expenses. That may be a reasonable figure for horse-powered market gardeners to shoot for or to use when putting together a business plan for their farms.

The cost of working the horses ranged from $3 to $17 per horse hour. Growers could use the average of the four farms, $7.25/hour, for developing enterprise budgets, or select the cost per hour from the market garden that most resembles their own operations. Either way, these numbers fulfilled the third goal of the study: to develop a teamster-relevant method of determining the cost of working horses that was more accurate than the estimates used in the Winter 2010 Cultivating Questions (CQ) on “The Costs of Farming with Horses Vs. Tractors.”

Horsedrawn Produce Sprayer

Please keep in mind that a number of decisions influenced the financial outcomes of this project in ways that might not match the reality or expectations of other horse-powered market gardeners. For instance, the teamsters in this survey chose to focus the recording of horse maintenance labor and expenses on the working horses, excluding the care and upkeep of breeding animals, young stock, or retirees not used in harness.

For practical and philosophical reasons, this team of teamsters also decided not to put a dollar value on the labor for horse maintenance, the fertilizer content of the horse manure, or the amortized cost of major horse-related investments, such as the price of the team and harness or the land and buildings used for horse maintenance. The “capital expenses” and “horse-related person hours” tables at the back of this article may be helpful to anyone interested in figuring out a cash value for these important aspects of farm economics and adding these expenses to the hourly cost of working the horses.

Everyone on the horse accounting team agreed that it was important to go public with our modest farm incomes in order to document the for-profit status of our farms and calculate some of the benchmark ratios. We used our Schedule F forms from the years 2008-2010 to come up with a representative gross and net income.

This four-up of teamsters also decided that it would be more meaningful to track individual horse hours and teamster hours than team hours. By this reckoning, a farmer and three horses discing for two hours would be recorded as six horse hours and two teamster hours. We hoped that tracking individual horse hours would create a more comprehensive picture of horse work over the whole year as illustrated in the month-by-month “horse hours” spreadsheets put together for each farm.

Note that the horse hours recorded for this project covered farm work outside of the market garden including horse maintenance tasks like haymaking and clipping pasture. The work horse tachometer also registered so-called “non-productive” time such as commuting to and from the fields, hitching to the equipment, and loading the manure spreader, produce wagon or hayrack.

Two-Way Plow Plowing Under Green Manure

On the other hand, this teamsters union decided that it was an unfair practice to track harness time on the horse hours time clock. Instead, we voted that harnessing – including grooming, watering and washing down the work animals – should be designated a teamsters job only. Going back to the example of the two-hour discing session, if it took a half hour to harness and unharness the three horses, then total teamster hours would be recorded as 2 1/2 hours while horse time remained 6 hours.

Factors other than record-keeping decisions also influenced the results of this horse accounting study. An unusually wet spring and fall in 2011 compressed horse hours into the summer months more than normal. For one of the farms I chose to use the 2010 numbers for this final report due to a challenging labor and horse health situation in 2011. Although all four teamsters have experienced untimely horse loss and/or catastrophic veterinary costs, these major expenses did not show up in the results reported here.

Similarities between the four farms may have also skewed the financial picture. For example, the horses in this study did not generate farm income other than supporting vegetable production. Teamsters who use their work animals for giving hayrides, breeding, or custom logging in the off-season, may be able to offset most of their out-of-pocket horse expenses. Likewise, the cost per horse hour would be much lower on diversified farms where many more horse hours are clocked for working large acreages of hay and grain.

Another important economic similarity between the four produce farms is their location in the Northeast: Paul and Carol Hauser’s Maple Hill Farm in southeastern Pennsylvania; David Fisher and Anna Maclay’s Natural Roots Farm in western Massachusetts; Stephen Leslie and Kerry Gawalt’s Cedar Mountain Farm in central Vermont; and our Beech Grove Farm in north-central Pennsylvania. Teamsters in other regions may have to plug local prices for horse supplies and services into the budgets to come up with more meaningful numbers.

The fact that none of the teamsters in this horse accounting project grew up on farms or working with horses must have also affected the results. The same could be said for our philosophical attraction to horse-powered vegetable production. For all of us, farming with horses is a way of life, not a business decision. We may be the least likely candidates for a rigorous financial analysis. Our collective motivation for undertaking this recordkeeping adventure was not financial, but to paint a more complete portrait of horse-powered market gardening by the numbers. – Eric

Horsedrawn Mower Cutting Hay Crop

Maple Hill Farm

Our family has been on our 24 acre farm now since 1981. Farm income has been our family’s only income source for the past 18 years. During that time we raised two sons who are now off on their own. When we formulated our farm plan many years ago we had 3 objectives: 1. diversify production to ensure a stable income; 2. create a farm plan that my wife and I were capable of doing without outside labor; 3. create a sustainable farm by employing work horses.

For the most part, we’ve succeeded in meeting these objectives. We have five primary sources of farm income that have given us stability – vegetable production, tree fruit, greenhouse bedding plants, fresh egg sales, and fruit pie sales from our licensed kitchen. This diversity has helped spread out our workload throughout the year which has enabled us to do it without depending on apprentices or paid labor until this past year. As a concession to advancing age, this past year we had a young lady work 7 hours a week which made our life so much easier. Lastly, I believe that our work horses have made our farm sustainable. We are able to grow all their feed while they provide the fertility and power to work the farm. We believe it creates a sustainable circle.

Our three horses – 2 Suffolks and a Belgian – each spaced approximately 10 years apart in age, provide 100% of the power to till our farm. We grow 5 acres of vegetables, 3/4 of an acre of peaches, and 1/2 acre in brambles and berries. The horses also cut and rake hay off approximately 8 acres along with planting 2 acres of speltz and less than an acre of corn.

A small tractor is used to power the baler, spray the orchard and pull our small combine. We use a tractor to bale because of our limited labor. My wife can’t drive the horses but is willing to drive a tractor pulling the baler. This enables me to stack the wagon as we bale. To use a team would force me to bale, drop it on the ground and pick up later. Using the tractor for pulling the combine also acts as a labor saver. In these cases, for us it just makes sense to rely on a tractor. Otherwise, it’s a horse-powered farm.

From October to mid-May we stable our horses primarily in straight tie stalls. We have very limited pasture, approximately 1 acre, but we turn the horses out daily in a small board fenced paddock. During the summer months, the horses spend their time in this paddock as I simply don’t have the time to handle the manure that would collect in their stalls. They do come in to their stalls every morning and night for their daily grain.

We manage our pasture by limiting the time we allow the horses to graze it. Maybe 2 to 4 hours a day as long as it’s growing and not getting overgrazed. A gate leads directly from the paddock to the pasture so we don’t lead the horses anywhere. Our paddock is only maybe 20 feet from the barn door so we simply open that gate and the horses walk into their stalls at feeding time.

During the October through May stabling season we park our spreader outside a side door. It sits slightly lower than our stalls, so it’s a quick, easy task to fill the wheelbarrow and push it up the planks and dump it over into the spreader. Although we add straw daily to their stalls, we only clean them out once every week or two. We use probably 100 bales of straw a year and maybe 600 plus bales of hay. Hay is fed daily year round because of our limited pasture. We feed ear corn and speltz daily, all grown on our farm.

You may notice in the charts at the end of the article that we have no time expense for hoof care. Being honest – that’s because we don’t do any. The horses’ hooves seem to wear evenly and stay in good shape on their own. And as they say – if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

You may notice that we also have no time allocated for moving temporary fencing – we don’t use it. We live in a suburban area with housing developments sprouting all along our road. We have to have absolute escape-proof fencing to prevent potential liability. An animal getting loose in our neighborhood could cause untold amount of damage – if not causing a dreaded accident. So we have a woven wire fence around our pasture. This past spring we replaced the original we put up when we moved here, at a cost of approximately $1200. We also replaced our small paddock board fence at another cost of $600. These represent long term – 30 years plus – expenses that give us peace of mind.

With the age spacing between our horses we have both the benefit of the quiet, slow dependable character that an older horse gives while also benefiting from the strength and eagerness found in a younger animal. We employ both of these characteristics in the different jobs on the farm. However, not everything goes as planned when you suddenly lose a horse. Unfortunately, if you have horses for a length of time you will face that situation. For us, it most recently occurred two years ago when one of our Suffolk horses suddenly stopped eating. After visits from our local vet, we had to decide just how much money we wanted to spend looking for the cause. As uncaring as it may sound, we just weren’t in the position to empty the bank account investigating every potential cause. We had to draw a line as to how much money we could put into vet bills, give the horse every possible chance to recover, and then move on. That’s also part of horse farming.

As I alluded to earlier, one of our goals was to spread the workload as evenly as possible throughout the year. Keeping your horses working throughout the year will make a big difference in their attitude and temperament. Obviously, there are tasks that are seasonable but we’ve been able to find work for them even in winter except when snow is too deep or it’s simply bitter cold. For us, that’s spreading manure or compost. By winter the manure from our 350 bird laying flock and the cowpens is getting deep. Additionally, in our area we have access to free mushroom compost. As long as the weather is fit – we like to spread. We also like to plow in early winter for early spring vegetables. Keeping your horses working consistently makes for better horses and teamsters.

Unlike most produce farmers, we also grow hay and grain for our livestock. Obviously, this can result in quite a heavy workload in the summer. I do this mostly because I really enjoy growing hay and grain. Diversity is beautiful on the farm. To minimize the summer workload we do a couple of things. First, our growing and marketing season is long. We start selling our first bedding plants in late March and we’re still at market at Thanksgiving. By having such a long cash flow season we’re not compelled to push to make all our money in a relatively short time. We can space our vegetable growing over a longer period. Additionally, we grow mostly timothy and clover mix which only requires two cuttings versus the four or five cuttings neighbors are taking off their alfalfa. We also only cut maybe an acre of hay at one time. It’s an amount I can handle and work into our vegetable production. First cutting hay may take me six weeks depending on the weather. Now the downside is that not all my hay is quality. Some gets a little old before I get to it. But as long as it gets done before we start speltz harvest in July we’re satisfied. Corn doesn’t get picked until late fall which easily fits in.

In conclusion, by recording my time it brought into perspective the actual time I do spend with my horses. The actual hours I spent growing hay and grain for my horses reinforced my belief that it is financially viable. Cost containment for us has been as important as sales growth. My only disappointment coming from this venture had been the time I spent harnessing which proved to be greater than I originally would have thought and, unfortunately, is my least productive time.

I would strongly encourage all of you to do this exercise. It will create an awareness of just how much you’re using your horses and what it’s costing you. It will probably encourage you to look for more ways to integrate your horses into your farming system. You’ll find if you’re willing to commit to using your horses on a regular basis, you’ll see that they are capable of doing most all farm tasks. For me, I’ve come away with two lasting impressions:

First – I feel my horses are very efficient in the amount of work I accomplish with them in a relatively small amount of time.

Second – When you review my time spent caring for the horses versus the hours that my horses actually worked it looks very inefficient. We don’t feel this way at all. For this particular study we need to count the time spent feeding and caring for our horses which I understand. Yet to us, and most all teamsters, this does not constitute “work.” This makes life worth living. As I’m getting older now I dread the approaching time when I will no longer be out there feeding and caring for my horses. That’s how we enjoy life.

– Paul Hauser

Maple Hill Farm: Horse Hours – 2011

MonthSpread ManurePlowHarrowCultipack/Grain Drill/MiscPlant Row-MakingMowRakeCultivationTotal
Jan11  4    15
Feb8.5       8.5
Mar12713.520.5   35
Apr2148.5 6.5   31
May 8.52 2437.527
Jun11315.5 2.5199.57.568
Jul  5 1872.523.5
Aug13.514.52.5 6.5 129
Sep4 13.53 52.50.528.5
Oct2 96.5 54 26.5
Nov11.5 1.51.5   0.2514.75
Dec16111     28
Skidding Log Through Snow

Natural Roots Farm

We are David Fisher and Anna Maclay. With our children Leora, age eight, and Gabriel, age four, we farm here in Conway, Massachusetts. We are situated in the small valley of the South River, on the Eastern slope of the Berkshire Mountains, with sandy loam bottomland, hillside pasture rising up from the valley floor, and woodland on the upper slopes. We till about 7 acres of bottomland in a Nordell-inspired rotation. This means about 3 1/2 acres in mixed vegetables and 3 1/2 acres actively managed in cover crops and a bare fallow period. We manage a 40-acre woodlot and we also graze and/or hay about 22 acres of grass to feed our working herd of four Belgians and one Standard-bred X Percheron workhorses. We keep two hogs for compost-turning duty and raise another pair of piglets annually as replacements. Our farm is also home to an assortment of chickens, gardens, fruit trees, etc. for the home use. We generally employ two apprentices full time from March until Christmas, or longer, and have several local part-time helpers as well. In addition to those mentioned above, we have pursued many endeavors here over the 14 years we’ve been here. Among them are sheep, beef cattle, a dairy cow, farmers’ markets, and wholesale produce. Currently we are primarily a CSA serving about 200 families. Surplus produce is sold to our shareholders for preserving or storage, or to local grocers and restaurants. Anna also runs a small farm store, open to CSA customers, which primarily offers local products from neighboring farms.

We have chosen to run our farm exclusively with horsepower for several reasons. On a very basic and personal level, we really enjoy working with them. We find horses to be incredibly versatile. They are well suited for delicate cultivation, heavy tillage, digging, lifting, hauling, and traction in all seasons, terrain, and conditions. The capacity for us to raise the feed for our draft animals is also very appealing, both economically and philosophically. We feel that relying on live power will help to create a sustainable economy independent from petroleum dependence. In this way, we feel that horsepower can help to address many pressing environmental and political issues.

Our basic care and maintenance of the working herd is fairly labor intensive. We start each day by retrieving our five horses from their night pasture, which can be up to 1/2 mile away. To facilitate this, we ride “commuter” bikes to pasture and ride the horses back in to the barn. Usually two people can bring in the herd in one trip, though David will sometimes bring all five in one trip. Once in the barn, horses are fed and watered, and those who will work are hoof-picked, groomed, and harnessed. In the growing season this means four horses, five days a week, and often six or seven days during haymaking. In winter it can vary from zero to four horses in harness, depending on the day. We prefer to harness the horses during chores and have them in their tie stalls, ready for work whenever we need them. We feel that this helps with efficiency since horses are constantly coming and going off to work in various combinations throughout the day. Furthermore, the horses appreciate the shelter from flies that the barn provides (in summer) when they are not working. By keeping the animals stabled by day we can collect enough manure to provide adequate compost for our vegetable fields. We move our temporary fencing and solar charger around the farm to various pastures. This takes time, but leaves the pasture clear for clipping, post grazing, and pasture dragging, and it minimizes the amount of fencing we need to cover all of our pastures, not to mention the benefits of rotational grazing on pasture health and productivity.

In the vegetable fields, for primary tillage we use three or four horses abreast for discing winterkilled cover crops in our early fields. We do most of our plowing of live cover crops with a team. If we have a lot of secondary tillage to do, we’ll use four abreast on the springtooth harrow, usually with the cultipacker in tandem. We do a lot of work with a team on the riding cultivator such as forming beds, cultivating, and hilling certain crops. We use our homemade transplanter for planting all plugs spaced 12” or greater in the row. This tool is helpful for getting plants watered in with a nutrient boost and set at a uniform distance. We find that it is most efficient when there are few variety changes in the row. We try to foliar feed all vegetables weekly with our five-row boom sprayer, though we often only keep up with this until hay making derails us for a couple of months at mid summer. We also use the sprayer for applying organic pest and disease controls. Most of the work in the fields (mowing cover crops, spreading compost, and all hay making tasks) is done with teams with the exception of the larger hitches mentioned, and some amount of single horse cultivation and mowing in tight spaces. Since we must ford the South River to bring supplies onto the farm and our farm produce off the farm, we spend a good bit of time hauling.

Having two teams plus a spare has proven essential for making hay while keeping up with the demands of the vegetable production. While keeping a spare horse can seem like a drain on resources when it is idle for many weeks, it is a blessing when another horse must rest for illness or injury. We’d like to work that spare horse into more regular work, if only to rest some of the older horses. Some horses have turned out to be relatively easy keepers, subsisting on minimal grain and lighter hay rations, while others (like our best horse) can require much more in grain, vitamins, and supplements to maintain good condition and health.

Participating in this study has been a fantastic exercise for us as it has revealed where some of our inefficiencies lie. It has motivated us to plan for a new barn, which we hope will greatly reduce the time we spend on horse maintenance tasks. For example, we currently put up all of our hay loose, by hand, and, for lack of barn loft space, we make several outdoor haystacks, which need to be moved into the barn for feeding when space permits. We wheelbarrow the daily stall clean out to a separate composting shed, and we need to lead our horses out to turnout in a winter paddock daily for four to five months of the year. With a new barn, we plan to have mow space enough to hold all of our hay and bedding needs for a year under one roof and have space for a traditional track and trolley system for loading the mow with horse power rather than people power. We plan on locating our composting middens in immediate proximity to the horse stalls for easy clean out, and having an attached laneway from the barn to the paddock for hands-free turnout.

We look forward to making improvements towards a more efficient and economical future with horses.

– David Fisher

Natural Roots Farm: 2011 Horse Work Log

MonthHorse Maint. (# horses/man hours)Total Haymaking: Horse HoursTotal Haymaking: Man HoursTotal Farm Work: Horse HoursTotal Farm Work: Man HoursCombined Horse Hours (hay+farm work)
Jan56  848
Feb44  532553
Mar125  17876178
April101  233140233
May117  323160323
Oct95  138.7576.25138.75
Nov70  96.548.7596.5
Dec57  10652.75106
Notes: 5.5 # of horses on hand in 2011; 193 maintenance man hours per horse in 2011; 0.53 maintenance man hours per horse per day (over 365 days); 7 horse hours of work per day (over 365 days)
Forecart Pulling Spring Tooth Harrow, Raker Teeth, and Roller Packer

Beech Grove Farm

My introduction to farming with horses was a little unusual. I had the opportunity to work as a hired hand on Amish farms in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania for two summers before working my way across the country on farms of all types and sizes, many of them horse-powered operations. Even with all of this hands-on experience, a steep learning curve was inevitable when we started farming on our own and had to figure out for ourselves how to grow vegetables with live horsepower.

My initial attraction to animal traction was philosophical. Work horses fit my ideal of sustainable agriculture by supplying solar power and homegrown fertility for the fields. Through the influence of two special mentors, I developed a love of working horses that has sustained my interest in farming over the past thirty years. This love of working horses is one reason Anne and I designed the market garden to utilize our partners in harness as much as possible.

Our 89 acre farm is located in the mountains of north-central Pennsylvania and is comprised of approximately 45 acres of steep or poorly drained grassland, 6 acres of Class II silt-loam soil under dryland cultivation, and another half-acre of irrigated gardens where we grow herbs and hoophouse vegetables. The farm also includes 25-30 acres of woodland which has supplied most of the lumber for various outbuildings (packing shed, woodshed, machine shed and the wood-fired, bench-heated greenhouse). We use the original 30’ by 50’ dairy barn for stabling the horses, storing their purchased hay, bedding and grain, and hog composting their manure.

We plant half of the cultivated land to produce each year (about 3 1/4 acres), 85% of which is sold at one farmers market in nearby Williamsport. Other markets include two fine dining restaurants, a culinary school, bulk sales of root cellar crops to individuals, and a company that makes tinctures from medicinal herbs.

Anne hires a crew of friends to help her at the market stand on Saturdays. In recent years, we have also employed a young neighbor to help in the packing shed, typically 12 hours a week. Otherwise, it is just the two of us who grow and harvest the vegetables.

Our motley crew of crossbred horses is currently composed of a mismatched team of middle-aged geldings and a 32-year-old mare who has been farming this land since our first growing season in 1983. We are also caring for an elderly rescue mule whose only job is to produce manure.

I use the geldings as a team for the heavier fieldwork, and pair the slower, steadier of these horses with the semi-retired mare for precision work like laying out beds, marking planting furrows, and cultivating. However, due to the arthritic-like deterioration of one of the geldings, we used the other gelding alone for much of the heavy fieldwork in 2011.

Whenever possible, I take a hands-off approach to horse maintenance. The horses go out to pasture on their own where they do their own grooming and help themselves to water at a spring overflow. They can also water themselves from the bathtub in the stables during the harnessing process. This hands-off approach saves a few steps. The downside is the horses get very little practice on a lead line, lifting their feet, and other extra-agricultural handling.

In every other respect, our horse chores are pretty inefficient. During the winter I make four trips to the barn for three feedings of hay, rearranging the bedding in the stalls, and turning the horses out to pasture for 6-8 hours a day. I also spend 10 minutes each day sprouting their daily ration of oats and barley to improve the digestibility of these certified organic whole grains for the older horses.

Daily horse maintenance is less time consuming in the spring, summer and fall when the horses are stabled during the day and pastured overnight for 12-16 hours. However, this savings in labor is more than offset by the time required for moving fence and mowing our super-sized horse pasture. Depending on the growing conditions, we use 18-25 acres of the better grassland for year-round grazing. The payoff for pasture maintenance is a much reduced hay bill. We can get away with less than 250 bales a year for our four 1400-1800 pound animals.

On the other hand, we spend a lot of time and money on bedding the horses, going through 250-300 bales a year of oat straw and a bare minimum of 24 bales of peat moss. Our goal is to capture all of the manure and urine in the horses’ straight stalls and bulk up those precious nutrients for composting with heavy hogs. As a result, we have been able to maintain soil fertility in the market garden with the manure from four large animals plus small quantities of rock minerals and lots of cover crops. The extra attention to bedding also keeps the horses remarkably clean, eliminating the need for grooming.

The following are some of the insights I have gained from participating in this horse accounting project:

Judging from the other farms in the study, we could eliminate our hay bill altogether if we shifted the labor and fertilizer we invest in our extra-extensive pasture to putting up hay for the horses. We have been reluctant to close this gap in self-sufficiency because making horse hay in late June and early July could create a labor crunch when we are already super busy picking strawberries, lettuce, spinach and peas plus preparing the fields for planting fall vegetables. Pasture maintenance, by contrast, can be spread over the whole growing season as time permits.

Putting a stopwatch on horse maintenance also showed us that taking care of four animals versus just the three horses used for farm work only adds a couple of minutes to daily chores. From a labor perspective, keeping a fourth animal just for manure production turns out to be fairly economical.

However, tracking horse expenses made it clear that out-of-pocket costs for stabling a non-working member of the herd really adds to the expense of the compost. Consequently, we are trying out different manure management systems and compost application rates to see if we can maintain fertility in the market garden with the manure from the three work horses.

Another surprise was finding out that my teamster hours were remarkably similar over the two years of the study (455 hours in 2010, 457 in 2011) despite using a single horse for half of the heavy fieldwork this past year. I think this consistency in teamster hours suggests that 450 hours is about the maximum amount of time I can dedicate to working the horses during the growing season and that I can accomplish the fieldwork more efficiently when necessary. It also means I have the pleasure of spending a quarter of my farm hours with the horses.

One consequence of using a single horse in 2011 was a one-third reduction in horse hours compared to 2010, significantly increasing the cost per horse hour (from $2.91/hour to $5.76/hour) and the ratio of horse maintenance to horse work (35% vs. 54%). Ironically, what seemed like an improvement in work horse efficiency by going single makes live horsepower look more expensive and labor intensive on our farm. In this respect, teamster hours might provide a better measure for work horse efficiency and productivity than horse hours. Our horse costs per teamster hour were much more similar between the two years ($5.63/hour vs. $7.60/hour) despite an $800 increase in horse expenses in 2011, and the ratio of horse maintenance labor to teamster hours was virtually identical (69%).

Either way, the high number of teamster and horse hours on our farm was not a big surprise. Afterall, our original goal was to use the horses in the market garden as much as possible. The recordkeeping, however, gave me a much better picture of how all those hours were allocated. For example, I had no idea that I spent a quarter of my teamster time sitting on the riding cultivator, primarily for non-traditional purposes, like under-cutting cover crops, managing living mulches in the vegetables, minimum-till planting, and forming or renovating the single-row beds. Only a handful of those cultivator hours were devoted to weed control.

Tracking horse hours also underscored how much time I spend on preserving soil moisture, reducing weed pressure, and establishing/managing the cover crops as reflected in the large number of hours under the “secondary tillage” and “minimum tillage” categories in the “horse hours” spreadsheet. From a business standpoint, I am not sure whether these extra passes over the fields should be written off as recreational tillage or considered a boost to the bottom line in the savings of labor for weed control, irrigating, etc…

But the real surprise from this record-keeping exercise was finding out that 40% of our horse hours could be classified as non-productive work. In addition to harness time (averaging 20 minutes per work session) and a 5-10 minute commute to the fields, our work force spends a lot of time standing around on the job. I often hitch the team to two or three different implements during a work session, each one sometimes requiring setup or adjustment. After marking a furrow for transplanting or renovating a bed for direct seeding, the horses may stand for as long as an hour hitched to the cultivator while we do the planting by hand, greatly inflating the “plant vegetables” category. And then there is all the time the horses spend standing in harness while we load compost, fertilizer or field stones by hand, bulking up the “manure spreader” and “miscellaneous” columns with non-productive hours.

Our horse hours would be even higher if we used the team for the daily harvest of greens. We find it easier and more convenient to move these perishable crops from the fields to the packing shed using the wheelbarrow and pickup truck rather than bringing the horses in from pasture before daybreak and harnessing them up for yet another stand-around task. By the time we have finished the morning picking, the horses are usually waiting at the barn for their breakfast.

– Eric Nordell

Beech Grove Farm – 2011 Horse and Teamster Hours

MonthManure SpreaderMowPlowMinimum TillageSecondary TillagePlant VegetablesCultivateMiscTotal Horse HoursHarnessSingle HorseTeamTotal Teamster Hours
Jan       110.5 0.51
Feb 0.250.5
Mar       331 1.52.5
April8 4  3 6.521.52.75410.7517.5
June 116.7545.252515.52131155.512.753858.75109.5
July10.253.57.75629.523 5.585.51141.52274.5
Aug 11.25120.511.257.52114.5878.252033.561.75
Sept38.54.751415.5  4.550.255.7531.759.2546.75
Oct 6.5 6.574.50.55.530.54.7513.58.526.75
Nov88.25  1  1936.25517.259.531.75
Dec 0.5     1515.
Walking Plow

Cedar Mountain Farm

Our farm business comprises the dairy farm and the CSA market garden. As members of Cobb Hill co-housing, we are co-owners of 270 acres of forest and farmland. We have free-lease from the community to manage about 60 acres total of Cobb Hill land; 17 acres in hay (+20 acres in free-lease from a neighbor), 35 or so in pasture, and the balance in garden and green houses (two high tunnels and a propagation tunnel). We have a working team plus two younger Fjord horses. The horses are the source of traction power in the garden and also lend a hoof with mowing, raking and tedding. This year we intend to work with them skidding out firewood as well.

In addition to ourselves, our farm business has three employees — one who works year-round primarily at milking and barn chores, and two who are engaged seasonally in the full spectrum of cattle chores and garden. We offer our workers a starting pay of $8.00/hour—plus milk and meat and veggies. We have on-site housing for two workers. We also pay FICA, farm insurance, and workman’s compensation. We wish we could offer more, but as it is, we are often paying our employees more than we pay ourselves.

In 2010 we had a total of $91,000 in dairy sales. This figure is coupled with a total of $36,000 in produce sales through the CSA, farmer’s market, farm stand, and wholesale, and an additional $30,000 for catering, beef, and resale of retail produce at our farm stand. Our combined household income was $20,000 (we obviously have a lot of overhead expenses). Of course, income estimates for the farmers don’t include a tally of all the food we produced for our own household.

Currently we maintain four horses ranging in ages from four to seventeen. In actuality, we only require the work force of a team to execute the tasks in the market garden and the hay fields. During spring and fall field work it would be easier on our Fjords to fold in a third horse for bigger jobs of plowing, discing, and spreading. I am currently grooming our youngest horse to eventually play that role. I also like to imagine a time when we might be ambitious enough to purchase a motorized forecart (or one of the new 24HP ground driven models) and employ four horses to pull a hay baler, haybine, and perhaps a tow-behind combine. For the moment however, four horses on our farm must be accounted as symptomatic of our passion for horses and in abeyance of our Yankee pragmatism.

We purchased two mares as weanlings and our gelding as a two-year old. We chose to take on the lower initial price and incremental costs of raising and training young horses instead of the up-front costs of purchasing mature and trained horses. Also, young horses allowed us to acquire Fjords, which were enjoying a peak of popularity in the mid-nineties, with mature mares fetching anywhere from $10,000 to $16,000. Our third mare was born on this farm. We paid a total of $15,000 for the four horses (this includes $3,500 in costs to produce the foal born on the farm). We might add that the likelihood of finding mature and trained workhorses in our region is not a given.

We house our horses in a three-sided shed. The structure they occupy is the back side of a small barn. Their allotted space measures 12’ wide by 45’ long. Since our horses are limited to 2-5 hours grazing per day, they spend a lot of time in and around this shed year round. In the summer both ends can remain open to catch the breeze. We maintain the yard daily by raking up all the droppings. The droppings are also removed from inside the shed and an equivalent amount of wood shavings are added every day (about a wheelbarrow full). This task takes about twenty-five minutes. The horses are fed hay 3-4 times a day in winter and twice a day in summer. They are each fed (2 lbs total) of supplemental grain twice a day. They have a water tank which is re-filled daily and scrubbed out regularly. Moving fence for the horses during grazing season probably adds up to about 2 hours of work each week. Most of the time we are able to set up paddocks that allow the horses to go out and return without being led, but occasionally they must be taken out on leads. In sum, we probably have an average of one hour of daily horse maintenance chores.

I have plans to build two tie-stalls so that I can have a place to park the team for the lunch hour on days when they are required for a full days work. Right now, I end up having to harness and un-harness twice on such days. I have also been advised that if they work in the woods in the winter a tie-stall and blankets on their backs are a good way to allow them to cool down without catching a chill.

We trim our horse’s feet and have always kept them barefoot. The one exclusively barefoot trimmer we know of in our locale charges $45.00 per horse for a trim. With shorter intervals for barefoot maintenance, the horses are getting trimmed 7 or 8 times a year. Even though it takes me longer to trim than it would a professional I’d still have to be there to assist the farrier, so I figure we are saving a small bundle by taking on the trimming.

If each horse is trimmed 7x/year. One hour for each trimming. Four horses x 7 trims = 28 hours. 28 trims x $45.00/trim = $1260 saved each year in farrier costs.

Our horses see the veterinarian regularly for updates on rabies shots and for getting teeth floated. We do all immunization shots ourselves (under supervision of our vet). They are wormed in the spring and the fall.

I tracked all my time and functions with the horses for 2010 & 2011 in the same way I did for 2006 on the calendar in the barn. My hours have increased from 2006 to 2010—a happy result for me. My hours for 2011 were almost the same as the previous year—the only difference being that they were a little less mid-summer due to a labor shortage issue on the farm, but we made up the difference by doing field work late into the fall thanks to an especially mild season.

My recorded times don’t include grooming, harnessing, and hitching, or their reverse at the end of the session. I like to keep routines as consistent as possible with the horses, so I always brush them down and pick out their feet before doing anything else. I look at it as an important transition time for the horses to begin to put their heads into the work. I estimate that it takes me about 25 minutes to halter, pick feet, groom, harness, and hitch a team of horses—and about 15 minutes to do the reverse—for a total of 40 minutes. I would probably shave 10 minutes off this time for a single horse. I believe I could do this task more quickly but don’t for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I am getting a little pokey in my middle-age. Secondly, even when I am feeling the urgency of the task at hand, I like to try and maintain a calm measured routine with the horses.

Once at work in harness, our horses spend very little time idle. I take a very simple approach to field work. The horses are employed for very basic tasks of tillage and cultivation and we usually go out and complete a job and then come back and either run-hitch for the day or move right on to the next implement. For the most part, the only time the horses are standing is when waiting for me to load the spreader. We harvest into crates stacked in a garden-way cart or onto a small trailer pulled by the team off the forecart. For big actions like harvesting winter squash, we use a flat-bed wagon hitched to the tractor. This is an area where we could challenge ourselves to get the horses involved.

Mowing is another function in the market garden that we are still doing with a 5’ bush hog on a 30hp tractor. We use this mower to clip cover crops and to knock down residue of crops such as brassica or corn for easier incorporation (actually in 2011 I brought the dairy cows in to eat the corn stove and dealt with the brassica by discing it with the horses). I have seen mowers of this type with a self-mounted motor on top that can be towed behind a forecart and have this item on our new equipment wish list. It remains to be seen how our horses would adapt to pulling a motorized implement. I have tried knocking this kind of stuff down with scythe and machete but found it too human-labor intensive. This coming season I intend to use our recently restored No. 6 mowing machine with the shoes set high, but I will have to do a thorough job of rock picking this spring; it was such a labor of love to bring that mower into working condition that I still shudder at the thought of using it in the stony garden.

For a farm with multiple income streams like ours, the tracking picture can get a little murky. Most of the work the horses currently do is in the garden, but the hay-making that they are involved with also brings in forage for the cows. The flex harrow is used for seed bed preparation and for dragging pastures where cattle graze. The spreader is used in the garden and on the hay fields. In my tracking of hours I have not noted the distinctions.

I have also been recording training and exercise times for the horses. I see this as part of my work with them. I am currently training two younger horses, and I also take my settled team out driving in the off-months to help keep them in shape and in the mental mode of the work horse.

We envision offering a dignified retirement to our horses as they age. I know that in harder times people have probably had to make harsh choices between feeding kids and keeping a worn-out workhorse companion on the farm. And even now, other folks might simply take a more pragmatic view.

I think the “why” of using work horses is a great spring board for discussion. From an economics and time standpoint (issues of environmental footprint set aside), my assumption has been that our market garden would be more efficiently managed with a 30hp tractor for primary tillage and spreading, and a lightweight cultivating tractor—but I’d be happy if real numbers proved me wrong. We make our entire living from our farm income. We have made working with horses work for us, we love being able to work with them to get real jobs done on the farm, and we believe it is better for the planet that we work in this way. From the Holistic goal point of view; horses fit well into our larger vision of trying to farm sustainably and in a way that is humanly enjoyable. We are most certainly a hybrid horse and tractor powered farm, but each year we get a little better, saner, and more effective working with the team. With every passing season we have taken new strides in replacing the tractor by integrating horse power deeper into our farming system.

For me the value of this study is that it has shown me that our use of work horses to accomplish primary tillage, spreading, cultivation, etc. is actually quite time efficient. The work horse hours represent a very small fraction of the total human hours spent in the market garden and yet the “big actions” that require “horse power” are all accomplished in that relatively short time frame. It also underlines my instinct that moving the horses into haymaking and woodlot management will be good for the horses (keeping them fit and engaged) and good for our investment in having them on the farm (getting more for the cost of their upkeep and “fuel”). We also record our tractor hours and I learned that farm workers at Cedar Mountain use the tractor 2 1/2 times as much as we use the horses. This picture would look very different if we weren’t also a dairy farm, as most of these tractor hours are for pack barn maintenance and cleaning, and manure and compost management. Another piece of our operation that I gained insight into is that by tracking my hours and the implements I use with the horses I discovered that my essential horsedrawn tool list boiled down to a dozen or so implements to manage the market garden (I think it is not unusual for contemporary market gardens to have 30 or more implements). For me; this was another indicator of the efficiency of our approach; it is primitive farming but it is working.

– Stephen Leslie

Cedar Mountain Farm – 2010 Horse and Teamster Hours

MonthManure SpreaderDiscPlowSpring ToothFlex HarrowCultivatorMowerRake/TedderWorkhorse HoursTotal Teamster Hours: TrainingTotal Teamster Hours: SingleTotal Teamster Hours: Team
Jan         2.661.330.66
Feb         0.66 0.33
Mar         1.661.66 
April59131.331.660.75  30.751.12316.5
May1911.530.3393.25 5510.665.522
June 131.255.55  15.750.8494.5
Aug71612.661.5  190.665.57.5
Sept105.520.33 0.75  18.5247
Oct19.52.52 1   252.33313.5
Nov6 1.510.66   9.3314.5 
Dec1   1.5   252.3321.5