Cultivating Questions The Costs of Farming with Horses vs Tractors

Cultivating Questions

Concerning the Bio-Extensive Market Garden

by Anne and Eric Nordell of Trout Run, PA

The Costs of Farming With Horses vs. Tractors

A couple of questions at this year’s small group tour[1] made us realize that we had not thoroughly cultivated the topic of work horse costs in this column. Tom Padua, recently hired to manage a CSA in New Jersey and convert it to the bio-extensive system, wanted to know how much hay, grain and minerals we feed our work horses. Miriam Gieske, a research intern at the Rodale Institute, took Tom’s questions to the next level. After browsing through the SFJ handouts at the end of the day, she wanted to know which costs more, farming with horses or tractors? Not satisfied with my it-depends-how-you-go-about-doing-it answer, she pointed to Stephen Leslie and Kerry Gawalt’s “Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont” in the Spring ’09 issue, and asked if their comparison between the economics of horse-powered and tractor-powered farming was accurate.

Cultivating Questions The Costs of Farming with Horses vs Tractors

First, let us say that Kerry and Stephen’s description of the Jersey dairy and Fjord-powered CSA at Cob Hill Co-housing is one of our favorite SFJ articles. Their inspirational words and photos capture so completely the ideal development of a whole farm system.

Stephen and Kerry’s economic comparison of farming with horses and tractors is also a real gift to the SFJ family because there is so little firsthand information on this topic, especially regarding small-scale vegetable production. We particularly appreciated that they noted the wide range in prices for both horses and equipment. We would only add that the spectrum of costs may also apply to other work horse expenses, such as feed, pasture and labor. As well as the wide range in prices for new and used tractors.

Cultivating Questions The Costs of Farming with Horses vs Tractors

For example, our 1400-1800 lb. crossbred horses receive the same amount of grain as the 800-900 lb. Cob Hill Fjords, just over one pound per head per day. However, for many years our annual grain bill for four horses averaged $150 for the oats purchased direct from neighboring dairy farmers. In recent years, our feed costs have increased from 20% of the Fjords, on a per horse basis, to 200% as we have tried to improve the digestibility of the whole oats for our aging work partners. As explained in the following article on “Social Security and Sprouted Horse Feed,” we now sprout a diverse mix of certified organic seed for the work team and retirees.

Cultivating Questions The Costs of Farming with Horses vs Tractors

For hay, both farms pay the same price per bale, but we feed only 300 bales a year for our four large animals, proving Kerry and Stephen’s assertion that access to pasture can reduce the hay bill by 35%, or, in our case, as much as 60-70%. This significant savings is due to having almost 25 acres of underutilized grassland available for the horses, much of it stockpiled each year just for winter pasture. (See details on year round grazing in the Winter 2006 CQ.)

Keep in mind that the pasture is not exactly free forage. In addition to land costs and taxes, there is the price of the fertilizer and lime (we budget about $50/acre for rock minerals and trace elements, and ten hours to spread it), plus the labor for mowing, fence moving and maintenance (which could add up to another 30-35 hours a year). At times we have been able to offset these substantial expenses by boarding our neighbor’s dairy heifers and sharecropping some of the grassland for hay, resulting in the relatively low work horse costs shown in the Summer 2003 “Grace and Beans” column.

Twenty-five acres of horse pasture is certainly a luxury, a luxury that should make it possible to eliminate all of the hay and grain for our market garden work force. We continue to buy in hay because we think the horses are more comfortable working if they have a little dry matter in their diet. Feeding hay in the stables everyday also plays an important role in our whole farm fertility program as we need a simple way to collect a good portion of the horses’ manure for composting.

Stabling the four horses half of each day to capture enough nutrients for 3 ¼ acres of vegetables, plus potting soil, explains our high horse costs for bedding. Each year we typically go through 300 bales of oat straw, averaging $3/bale, and 18 small bales of $12.40 peat moss. That comes to over $1,100/ year in out-of-pocket expenses for bedding materials just to create the right carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, moisture content and porosity for hog composting the horse manure. (For more information on how we compost with pigs, see the Weed the Soil booklet.)[2]

Cultivating Questions The Costs of Farming with Horses vs Tractors

Our daily stabling system for compost making is also very labor intensive. We probably average 20 minutes a day year round for feeding the horses and bedding their stalls plus another 10 minutes for sprouting their grain. We also spend an hour roughly every five days on cleaning out the horse stalls into the adjacent composting pigpens. Don’t forget the 5-10 minutes a day required for feeding and watering the work hogs or the half hour a week we estimate for miscellaneous horse, harness and barn maintenance. Altogether, that’s in the neighborhood of 335 hours a year for horse chores and composting. Add in the labor for pasture management and horsedrawn equipment maintenance and we are talking close to 390 hours! The annual hours would be even greater if we were more diligent about hoof care and grooming or dedicated time to training horses and interns.

It is not clear from the Fjord vs. Kubota comparison how much labor is devoted to horse care at Cob Hill Co-housing. We suspect that their horse-related labor is a small fraction of ours if feeding, pasture maintenance and compost making are integrated into the management of the 40-cow dairy. The same would probably apply to the cost of the bedding necessary for aerobically composting the Fjord manure, a cost which we think makes more sense to put under the fertilizer budget than itemize as a work horse expenditure.

Further complicating the comparison between horse-powered and tractor-powered farming is the cost of tractors can vary as much as, if not more than, work animals. In addition, most vegetable operations utilize two or more different tractors for specialized tasks, such as cultivating and heavy tillage.

Cultivating Questions The Costs of Farming with Horses vs Tractors

For example, the majority of the enterprise budgets in Vern Grubinger’s Sustainable Vegetable Production from Start-up to Market,[3] published in 1999 by NRAES, use $20/hour for tractor and machinery costs, significantly higher than the $12/hour rate of the new Cob Hill Kubota. At the other extreme, the tractor worksheet in the Organic Farmers Business Handbook,[4] published this fall by Chelsea Green, indicates that the average hourly costs of the author, Richard Wiswall’s, three used tractors is just $5/hour. In a follow-up phone conversation for this column, Richard made a point of noting that his hourly tractor expenses do not include the externalized costs to society of using tractors, like the pollution resulting from burning gasoline and diesel or the military infrastructure required to maintain the flow of oil. He has minimized his fossil fuel footprint by converting his tractors to run on biodiesel and electric. Even so, he feels that these alternative fuels are not as environmentally benign as solar powered work animals. One reason he sticks with the tractors is that he has the mechanical talent for maintaining and repairing them inexpensively. To be honest, one of the reasons we were attracted to farming with horses is that neither of us is a shade tree mechanic.

Cultivating Questions The Costs of Farming with Horses vs Tractors

Richard also wanted to emphasize that the number of hours a tractor is used has a huge impact on the hourly rate. His $5/hour average for the three tractors is based on 560 hours of annual use for the 22 acres under cultivation at Cate Farm – one third in vegetables and the rest in annual grains and cover crops. Likewise, we figured $12/hour for the Kubota by dividing the total annual tractor costs of $7188 by the 600 hours of assumed use for the 4-acre CSA and 40-cow dairy. If the Kubota was cut back to 150 hours, its hourly costs could easily double, more in line with the $20/ hour rate used for the smaller operations in Vern’s enterprise budgets, despite the 75% reduction in fuel and maintenance expenses.

The number of work hours has an even bigger impact on the cost of farming with horses because most, if not all, of their “fuel” is a fixed cost which does not change appreciably whether they are worked regularly or standing idle. For example, if we used our horses 600 hours per year, comparable to the Cob Hill and Cate Farm tractors, our work horse rate would be $6.68/hour based on our 2008 budget for out-of-pocket expenses. Add on labor at $10/hour for the 390 hours/year of horse related maintenance, and our hourly work horse rate would be closer to $13/hour, still within the $5-20/hour range of the tractors.

In reality, we doubt that the total horse time for the 6 ½ acres under cultivation in the bio-extensive market garden exceeds 150 hours. Using that low number on the work horse odometer, our cash costs for animal traction increase by 400% to a hobby horse rate of $27/hour ($52/hour including labor for horse-related maintenance) since our expenses for feed and pasture remain the same regardless of the total work hours.

Contrary to expectations, this number crunching exercise suggests that horses may actually be less economical than tractors for small acreage operations. At our scale of vegetable production, we would need to cut back to two horses to stay competitive with the hourly rate of the tractors. On the flip side, we would like to make an equally surprising contention: the difference in the speed of fieldwork between horses and tractors is not a significant economic factor for high-value, labor-intensive produce because fieldwork represents such a small proportion of the overall labor to grow, harvest and market these crops.

Cultivating Questions The Costs of Farming with Horses vs Tractors
Cultivating carrots with a single horse at Cedar Mountain Farm, part of the Cob Hill Co-housing community in Hartford Four Corners, VT.

To illustrate what we mean, we put together the accompanying labor budgets for carrots. They are based on our field notes for the 2008 season and the sample crop journal on page 25 of Richard’s excellent Business Handbook. The budgets show an almost identical number of live vs. iron horsepower hours to grow one-quarter acre of carrots even though Richard’s tractors cover the ground two to three times faster than our horses.

Cultivating Questions The Costs of Farming with Horses vs Tractors

Be aware that these budgets are not exactly a fair comparison because they represent two very different farm systems. First of all, due to planting in single rows to conserve soil moisture and facilitate horsedrawn cultivation with traditional implements, we grow one-third fewer rows of carrots in a quarter acre than the multiple-row beds at Cate Farm. To grow the same number of rows, we would need to plant three-eighths of an acre of carrots, incurring 50% more work horse hours.

Cultivating Questions The Costs of Farming with Horses vs Tractors

Second, our bio-extensive system reduces the amount of compost and cultivation needed to grow most vegetables. We would have to add at least a few more hours of compost spreading and cultivating to our carrot budget if we eliminated the soil building, weed depleting benefits of the fallow year cover crops and tillage. Also, almost 40% of Richard’s tractor time goes to irrigating. We don’t irrigate and have no idea how long it would take to pump water on a quarter-acre using live horsepower.

Cultivating Questions The Costs of Farming with Horses vs Tractors
Three-row beds of carrots and two-row beds of celeriac cultivated with tractor-powered flamer, rolling basket weeders, and sweeps at Cate Farm in Plainfield, VT. Photo courtesy of Richard Wiswall and Chelsea Green Publishing, from The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook.

Finally, we did not include the time for harnessing the horses in the carrot budget. It takes us a minimum of 25 minutes to harness and water the team, commute to the vegetable fields on top of the hill, hitch to an implement, and reverse the whole process – longer if we need to attach fly netting, apply a natural fly repellent, or make adjustments to the harness and equipment. Since we rarely remove the harness when returning to the barn midday, total “harness” time for the 6-8 hour day in the fields probably runs closer to 40 than 50 minutes. In reality, there are many days when we only get in 2-3 hours of fieldwork. Sometimes we need to harness the team for a 5-10 minute job like marking a couple of rows for transplanting. The inefficiency of doing isolated, short term tasks with the horses lowers the average ratio of harness time to fieldwork to 1 in 6 hours or less.

Cultivating Questions The Costs of Farming with Horses vs Tractors
Carrots and leeks interseeded with hairy vetch at Beech Grove Farm, Trout Run, PA.

Compensating for all of these differences between the two farm systems might double, or even triple, the work horse hours for growing the same row feet of carrots. Even so, the 20 plus hours of fieldwork with the team still represents a fraction of the overall labor requirement, most of it, in our case, devoted to hand digging and washing the crop. The carrot comparison clearly indicates that it would be a better business decision for us to speed up the harvest by investing in a root lifter and washer like Cate Farm than to speed up the fieldwork by trading in our four horses for three tractors.

Cultivating Questions The Costs of Farming with Horses vs Tractors
Using disc-hillers on a traditional, two-horse riding cultivator to trim vetch vines in carrots.

In summary, we hope this wide ranging discussion on the costs of farming with horses vs. tractors shows that both power sources can be economical for market gardening. Whether tractors or horses cost more to operate will depend on the design of the farm system, how you value your time, how much the power source is used and how well it matches your talents and on-farm resources. No less important to making the comparison, if more difficult to quantify, is weighing the externalized costs to society of using engine-driven traction versus the internalized costs to the farm of growing your own fuel for the work animals and making your own compost from their manure.


[1] We started the Columbus Day informal, small group tours ten years ago to give farmers and interns who have studied our farm system through this column, and the Weed the Soil DVD and booklet, the opportunity to walk the fields, check out the equipment, the hog composting setup and anything else of interest. There is no charge for the tour, but we expect everyone to bring their own lunch and plenty of questions. Limited to 20 participants, please send us a letter by the end of the summer if you are interested in attending: 3410 Route 184, Trout Run, PA 17771.

[2] We have received a number of inquiries about bulk discount prices for the booklets for resale or handouts in classes and workshops. Here is what we came up with (although we are open to any workable suggestions): 1 booklet @ $10 plus $3 s&h; 3 or more booklets @ $10 but no charge for shipping; 10 plus booklets @ $8, no shipping charge; 20 plus booklets @ $5, no shipping charge.

[3] We have recommended this book before and will recommend it again. Sustainable Vegetable Production is the most comprehensive book we know of on how to get started in market gardening. Particularly helpful are the grower profiles that illustrate each topic from goal setting and business planning to planting, cultivating and fertility management. It is available from ACRES-USA, 1-800- 355-5313,

[4] The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook – A Complete Guide to Managing Finances, Crops, and Staff…and Making a Profit is the perfect complement to Sustainable Vegetable Production for the new grower who wants to get a headstart on developing a profitable business and efficient crop management. For experienced farmers like ourselves, who somehow missed out on Business 101, Richard Wiswall’s farmer-friendly, step-by-step explanation for the whole financial picture is just the ticket for finally coming to terms with straight forward record keeping, office management, payroll, even retirement planning. We thought the worksheets on farmer’s market sales, labor and greenhouse production, plus detailed enterprise budgets for 24 different crops, were alone worth the price of this excellent manual. It is also available from ACRES as well as Growing for Market, 1-800-307-8949, and FEDCO, 207-873-7333,