Fjordworks: Cultivating the Market Garden With a Single Horse at Cedar Mountain Farm
by Stephen Leslie with technical assistance and generally sound advice from Kerry Gawalt — both of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, VT
A farm is never a static entity, a healthy farming system is something that grows and learns and builds upon itself with experience and time. Any successful farming system is ultimately the summation of an intelligent response of the farmers, eked out through years of trial and error, to the unique characteristics of their particular piece of ground. The farm cannot exist as a fixed point in time but only as the cumulative result of cyclical effort, exhaustion, and rejuvenation. For the farmer, the daily attention given to the land, in turn informs and shapes her heart and mind, body and voice. The new farmer starts out believing that she is farming the land, but if she is meant for this work and sticks with it through all the grueling challenges and ineffable reward, with the ripening of age she will come to the realization that the land is working upon her. First we “do” farming and then we “become” farmers. As we cultivate the earth — if we approach the work with our eyes and our ears and our hearts open — so are we slowly cultivated into an evermore authentic expression of our own humanity.
At Cedar Mountain Farm a major component of our operation is a 4 acre market garden. We grow 26 varieties of vegetables in a sequenced crop rotation. Green manure/cover-cropping is an integral piece of this rotation. The principal consumers of our produce are our 85 CSA customers, with the balance of the produce being sold wholesale to 2 local restaurants, a food coop, and direct sales at our own on-site farm stand. Managing the garden primarily for a CSA allows us to plant a wider variety of produce than if we were selling only through more conventional retail and wholesale venues because the latter tend to circumscribe the sowing of lesser known and less immediately popular vegetables (think; kohlrabi or celeriac). As a result of this variety, our CSA market garden looks less like a traditional “truck farm” and more like a very large home garden. We feel that this diversity creates a healthier ecosystem, enhancing the opportunities above and below the ground for organisms to flourish and for a balance to be established between desirable and undesirable species of insects.
Our cover-cropping system is inspired by the work of Eric and Ann Nordell. We have adapted their bio-extensive market garden ideas to our particular climate and markets. The size of our garden is in accordance with our irrigation capacity. We are on an extremely well-drained (Hinckley) soil that has a gravel base. In most years dryland farming would only be possible here if we only planted full-season crops, and even then it would be a perilous enterprise on such droughty soils. Our traditional Vermont neighbors tend to plant the whole home garden on Memorial Day and harvest on Labor Day. Between the high-tunnel greenhouses, the propagation greenhouse, and the succession planting in the field, it seems like we are seeding something almost year round. In order to keep our CSA customer’s baskets filled we plant a succession of crops, for instance; fall-planted garlic is harvested in mid-July and then the ground is spread with compost, worked up and planted to mesclun, spinach and Asian greens. In other sections, once a spring or mid-summer crop is harvested, we will work up the ground and establish a cover crop for the rest of the season (buckwheat, oats, or rye — depending on the date of sowing). We try to go into winter with as little bare dirt as possible.
For us the garden planting season begins in late winter in the heated propagation greenhouse and continues on into high summer (we also seed in our two high tunnels to extend the season on either end) some of this is direct seeding in the field and some as transplants from the heated greenhouse, but in either case these new seedlings need to be watered in and then require the minimum equivalent of one inch of rain a week in order to thrive. Our garden site has no surface water source so we irrigate from an artesian well that is 400’ deep and yields about 5.5 gallons per minute. We began gardening on this site in 2000 and had 6 acres in market garden but then after a couple of droughty summers in 2003 and 2004 we scaled back to 4 acres because we found that in the driest years that was how much acreage we could keep in production with our available water supply.
The upside of all of this is that in a wet year our garden tends to fare better than our neighbors who are on silt or clay soils, and we’ll see less disease, pests, slugs, etc. And even in a normal year, because we do the primary tillage with horses we can get out on the land quite early to work it up without much worry about creating the clods and cinders of a heavier soil.
The year before we established the market garden in its present site in 2000 we did soil testing of the entire field (we have conducted soil tests since then on about an every third year basis). The field had been in alfalfa for the previous five years and the tests indicated low potassium levels, but quite adequate phosphorous and nitrogen levels (these are the 3 essential macro-nutrients). In the fall of 1999 we had wood ash (a source of potash) and lime spread over the garden site. In the fall of 2001 we hired a neighboring dairy farmer to spread the field with cow manure from his farm, because our fledgling herd of cows was not yet producing enough manure to meet all the fertility needs of the land.
The results of our first soil test also indicated that the organic matter content was roughly 3%, which is considered minimally adequate for vegetable production. The last time we tested in 2007, the soil in the market garden had increased potassium levels to the sufficient range and we had an organic matter content of over 6%, which these days is considered an excellent level by soil scientists — virgin prairie stands at about 10% — and all the micro-nutrients were sufficient as well. The market garden has been receiving regular applications of compost and the crops are in a sequenced rotation with a variety of cover crops (oats, rye, clover, field peas, buckwheat), each of which draws up a different profile of minerals from the subsoil and the legumes fix their own nitrogen from the air in symbiosis with the soil fungus rhyzobia.
With all these successions of crops over an extended season, weed management is a major concern. About two-thirds of our garden is devoted to the bio-extensive model of row crops planted at 32” spacing. Our principal tool for cultivating in between the rows of crops is a vintage single horse drawn cultivator. When we first started using the horse drawn cultivator we planted the rows at 36” spacing and stuck with that width for several years. Once our skill level and confidence, and that of our horse, had matured we were able to scale down to the 32” width, gaining back a lot of ground to plant in the process. We tried working the team on the riding cultivator, but found that our garden setup — with rows that are only 200’ long — was not ideally suited to that scale. At this time we have two riding cultivators, one with shovels and one with spring-tines, and we use them as tillage tools, rather than for cultivation.
We also discovered that of all the horse drawn tools, the riding cultivator requires the most turn-around space because of the need to get clear of the crop in the row just finished and then to get cleanly back on the next row. With the single horse cultivator we can literally turn on a dime and so get away with less space devoted to garden lane. Every other tool that we pull with the team is involved with primary tillage (spreader, plow, disc, flex or tine harrows) and at that stage of work an immaculate turn around off a row is not required, in fact, all the primary tillage happens within the garden and not on the peripheral lane.
Although on occasion, I will work the horse by myself and she is quite comfortable with that arrangement, most of the time we choose to make a two-person job of cultivating. We find that having one person on the lines and the second person concentrating on steering the implement, allows us to do precision work. We can get in quite early even on delicate onion starts or new carrots without fear of burying a portion of the crop. Another factor for us is that our soil is quite stony and all those rocks can really make the cultivator jump, which in turn requires even more concentration and quick reaction time for the person steering the cultivator. For these reasons we usually only work the single horse cultivator with a single human when cultivating crops that are already quite mature.
Over the years we have accumulated a substantial library of books about old-time farming practices, and it is striking that in many instances photographs of farmers working horses and mules in the first half of the twentieth century often show two people involved in working both single horses and teams in plowing and row crop cultivation — either one person leading the horse, or as we do with our cultivator, one person on the lines and one person with hands on the handles.
When we lived out West we had a cultivator on loan that had spikes (similar to those found on a spike-tooth harrow) instead of sweeps and we found that model of cultivator to be even more useful for getting in for an early cultivation, but we haven’t been able to find one like that since moving back East. Depending on the weed pressure in a given year, I sometimes have to go in with the Swiss wheel hoe with a 14” stirrup blade as a first line of defense to knock out the first bloom of weeds, because the horse drawn cultivator would throw too much dirt and bury portions of the crop. With the wheel hoe I can get in very close to even newly sprouted seedlings, the downside of course, is that 16 rows of sweet corn (for instance) makes for a lot of wheel hoeing — the upside is that I don’t need to buy any expensive exercise equipment or a membership at the fitness center.
Illustrations of the earliest single horse cultivators used in Europe appear more like miniature harrows. They had no handles and were simply pulled straight behind the horse (or ox) to work the ground between planted rows. We acquired the cultivator we currently use back in 1995 when we were working at Hawthorne Valley farm in upstate New York. It had been purchased by the previous farm manager, Christoph Meyer, at auction, and then been hung in the rafters of the equipment shed. Christoph was normally tight-fisted as a manager, but he loved to farm and he loved equipment. Since starting up the farm in 1972, he had purchased every kind of machinery, from balers to combines, and he never hesitated to pick up a vintage piece of horse drawn equipment at a bargain, keeping the thought in the back of his mind that a day might come when the fossil fuel spigot would run dry. We had started buying horses at that time and after Christoph retired, the new farm manager we were working for let us have the cultivator for free. We also had our eye on an antique walking plow, but then a farm worker left his gloves and boots to dry on the woodstove in the machine shop and the shop and the equipment shed burned to the ground. Days later we dragged out the old plow but the steel of the share had lost its temper and would have fractured at the first encounter with a stone.
We do not know the make or age of our cultivator. It weighs about 85 lbs. It has six sweeps, the two back outside sweeps can pivot to either draw dirt in or cast it out as it makes a pass. It is equipped with a lever to adjust the width, which ranges from 15” minimum to 25” maximum. The depth of the front wheel must be adjusted by moving a bolt up or down through a span of four holes on the plate that also houses the hub assembly of the wheel. There is a high and low position for the wooden handles, which is also set by setting the bolts at the desired height. The central structural bar of the frame ends by curving up in position above the wheel and at that point it houses a tow hook. The hook pivots up and down and it too, has a high and low slot for the bolt which holds it. We attach a section of light chain to this hook which is in turn, looped around the center section of the single tree. The length of the chain is an important element in establishing a correct draft for the implement. The single tree is then hooked to the traces of the harness of the horse.
There are a lot of these types of cultivators around — many being used as lawn ornaments — but we were lucky to come across one that had very little wear and seemed to have been stored under cover for most of its existence. We replaced the original wheel which was worn at the hub, and we found new shovels for the sweeps by bringing a sample into a local tractor dealership and thumbing through parts catalogs until we found comparable ones designed for tractor mounted cultivators. We ordered new handles from the Lehman’s catalog, and such handles are available from numerous sources as they are currently manufactured for wheel hoes, seeders, walking plows, etc.
We have a reprint of a Peter Henderson & Co. catalog which was originally published out of New York in 1898. Therein are pictured two full pages of Planet, JR. single horse drawn cultivators, all made of quality steel, and featuring a wide array of options and applications for cultivating everything from beets and strawberries to orange groves and vineyards, and having all manner of teeth, sweeps and shovels to choose from. A cultivator very similar to the one we use is pictured, except that it has the added bonus of a second lever to quickly adjust the front wheel depth — even while in transit.
The action of our antique single horse drawn cultivator is simple and elegant. Similar to a walking plow, when the line of draft is correct, the implement requires no effort to keep it in the ground, but rather only needs to be lightly guided to steer it straight down the row path. When working with one person, the driving lines are looped over one shoulder and tied behind the back in such a way as to maintain light contact with the horse’s mouth. If for some reason, the horse should speed up, restraint can be applied by leaning back as needed onto the lines. An occasional quick but light grab with a hand up from handle to line can be done to keep the horse from straying out of the row path, though a seasoned horse will recognize the crop and hold the course on her own. To steer the implement, one simply tilts the handles in the direction opposite to the desired direction, for instance, if you need to veer slightly to the left, you tip the handles lightly to the right to effect the shift. Only with larger more established weeds that survived a previous cultivation is it necessary to bear down with a little weight on the handles in order to effectively root it out.
In order to avoid wear and tear on the cultivator, for transport to the field we built a simple 30” X 7’ sled. The sled has oak runners and light planks and a section of chain spanning the front of the runners that hooks easily onto the single-tree.
Of course, no cultivator tool can replace the need for hand-hoeing and hand-weeding in the majority of vegetable crops. Depending on how the weather conditions affect the speed of crop germination and weed growth, we can sometimes get away with cultivation alone in certain crops like green beans or beets, and some transplants like lettuce or broccoli only require one or two times through with a collineal hoe, but then other crops like carrots and onions inevitably bring us to our knees for some down and dirty hand weeding with a claw or hand hoe at the ready. It seems that no matter what the prevailing weather conditions of any given season, there is always a weed species ready to step up to the plate. Every once in a while I have to remind myself that the weeds appear in the garden to heal bare ground and that the composition of species present of these “wild herbs” can teach the observant farmer much about the profile of nutrients in the garden soil.
The balance of our garden that is not planted on 32” or 1’ spacing or cover crop, is comprised of transplants set out on black Ag plastic with soaker hose set beneath and hay or straw mulch laid out between the rows of plastic mulch. This kind of set up requires a lot of up front cost in materials and labor, but then it is good to go for the rest of the season, and has the added advantage of conserving water. We prefer to use the soaker hose over other types of “drip” irrigation. The drip irrigation has the advantage of being spot specific with emitters at regular spacing, but it doesn’t hold up well for reuse and many growers just buy a new system each year. The soaker hose is less efficient in that it emits water all along its length in a band from 1’ to 3’ wide depending on soil type, but it lasts ten years or more, and is made of 70% recycled tires.
On our farm, the first cultivation of the season usually starts in the last week of May with cultivation of the potatoes and the spring brassica and garlic. From that point on we cultivate the garden once every week to ten days until the end of August, at which point we would be doing a final cultivation of fall brassica and carrots. Even at the height of the season, when we have the maximum number of crops in the ground needing cultivation, we can get the job done in a single morning session. For the sake of the horse we try to get as early a start as possible to beat the heat. A welcome side-benefit of the weekly cultivation is the creation of the “crumbly mulch” effect which effectively reduces the transpiration of moisture out of the garden soil.
We have not yet tried to find hilling attachments for our cultivator, but we are intrigued by the idea and will follow it up one of these days. We did try swiveling the moveable back outside sweeps of the cultivator to throw dirt, but in our experience, this made the implement too unstable to steer well — maybe we just need to find an old-timer to show us how it is done. We commit a 50’ by 200’ section of the garden to potatoes each year with the 32” spacing between the rows. We find that hilling this many potatoes by hand with large garden hoes and a crew of four is not an unreasonable task, but we are on the watch in the local Ag papers for a single-horse drawn hiller. We had one on loan for awhile, which was constructed like two opposing plow shares joined at the tip to create a large goosefoot. We found this to be an exceptional tool for cultivating and hilling the spuds. We have heard that some farmers also used this type hiller to harvest potatoes, but we didn’t find that practical — too many missed or damaged — and we also begin to harvest potatoes from mid-July on to keep the CSA baskets full, rather than in one big Fall harvest, so digging with a fork by weekly increments is quite manageable. Many farm museums have fine examples of similar single horse tools for digging spuds in which the double share rides behind a truck and is trailed by long tines for catching the lifted spuds and depositing them on the surface free of dirt, but I don’t know if anyone is currently manufacturing such an implement.
We rely principally on our 15 year old mare, Cassima, to do the cultivating. She has been doing this job now for ten years and works like an old pro. When we first started using Cassima to cultivate back in 2000 she would need to rest every few rows to catch her wind and blow. Now we will work for 2 hours or more and she is so used to the work that she barely breaks a sweat. We figure that in the course of some of the longer work sessions she actually drags the cultivator through the soil for more than a mile. The mare seems to enjoy the work, and to take pride in her mastery of the task. She is the kind of horse who hates to be corrected, and if she has a flaw, it is only that on occasion she is over zealous to anticipate the next action.
For anyone interested in working with a single horse cultivator, if a serviceable antique can’t be found, then I&J Manufacturers of Gap, PA is a good source for a new one. They even offer a single horse drawn riding cultivator — though I’m not sure how well that would work on our stony ground.
When we started working horses back in 1994 we were complete greenhorns. Around the same time that we bought the 4 month old Fjord weanling named Cassima, we also purchased a team of 11 year old Haflinger geldings. The gentleman we bought them from was a down-to-earth hardworking fellow who drove a truck for a living, but tended land and a menagerie of animals on the side. Under his care the Haflingers had a steep rocky pasture to play in, and enormous quantities of hay and grain to eat. When we brought them back to the farm they were punched out and pumped up. We did not give them a test drive before purchasing them because we did not yet know how to drive a team of horses. The fellow who sold them to us recommended that we set them to pulling a disc for an hour or two and that would sort them out. Their names on the registration papers were “Abriel” and “Abrisa”. We don’t know how many times they changed hands before we bought them, but the man we bought them from had taken one look at those papers and than looked to the horses and said; “Dan” and “Bill”.
Dan and Bill were three-quarter brothers and yet as different in confirmation and temperament from each other as two Halflingers could be. The Halflinger breed was developed at the end of the 19th century by breeding up an Austrian mountain horse to an Arabian stallion. Our horse Bill was refined and flighty and seemed to reflect the Arabian heritage, whereas Bill was short and stolid as one might expect of the mountain horse. A friend of ours who had considerable experience with draft horses reckoned that they had probably been used as competition pulling ponies, because every time we tried to start them out as a team they hurled themselves into the collar as if anticipating that they would have to start out a massive load. We had better success working with them singly.
That year, among other things, we were growing three acres of corn, squash, and potatoes for the wholesale market. We built a stone boat and purchased some nylon harness from an Amish outfit and started driving Dan and Bill singly. We managed to do some bed preparation with a section of spike tooth harrow and once the crops were up, we started cultivating in between the rows by having Kerry walk at the head of the horse with a lead on the halter, while I worked the implement with the lines tied behind my back. In this manner, we did get both horses to work reasonably well, and we also got them onto a single horse potato hiller with the same set up. That early relative success inspired us to persist in our dream of farming with horses.
We only had one bad incident working those two Haflinger horses singly. It happened with Dan. The Visiting Students Program at Hawthorne Valley Farm retained two mares for horseback riding. One of them was a lovely quarter-horse and every time she came into heat, even though Dan was a gelding he still had enough of the stallion in him that he became quite obsessed with staying close by her. One day when we were trying to cultivate the squash, Dan broke away from us at the end of a row and ran through three electric-wire fence lines still dragging the cultivator, and then finally the chain section holding it to the single-tree broke, and he continued across a paved road through yet another woven-wire fence and on up the high hill pasture to get to the side of the mare in heat. Mad as a hornet, I strode up the hill and fetched him and after determining that he was no worse for the wear, we made him finish the job, and then we spent the rest of the day mending fences.
The other bind we got into with a horse and single cultivator happened with our gelding Tristan when he was a three year old. Cassima’s first teammate had been a Fjord mare named Mari. When we brought her home from Canada as a one year old we found she had the Strangles. We treated her (and every other equine on the place where we were working) and she seemed to recover, but at four years old she sickened and died of an abscess in her lower abdomen that was a rare residual effect of the disease. We buried her on the land of our new farm in Vermont and then we put out an appeal for help to our neighbors at Cobb Hill Co-housing and to our CSA members. Donations poured in and we soon purchased the two year old gelding. We set him to training in harness at that tender age and he already had a pretty full work load the next season as a comingthree year old.
Tristan was doing really well driving in the team with the seasoned mare, but we also wanted to be sure to help him develop skills and confidence in single driving. We trained him to work on the cultivator and he was doing quite well until one day he suddenly reared up at the end of the row and came back down right on top of the implement, fortunately missing anything sharp or metallic, but breaking a wooden handle clean in two. We got him straightened out, and asked him to drag the cultivator back to the barn. After looking Tristan over for any possible injuries and revising his harness and bit, I replaced the broken handle on the cultivator and we took him right back out again. He only reared up on us that one time and has worked out fine single and in team, except that he needs to be regularly reminded that eating is not allowed during work sessions. However, because he is a follower not a leader, I have to be sure to “create” opportunities to drive him singly and not just rely upon the mare. In a team driving situation he is listening to her for his cues at least as much as he is listening to me, so it is very important that he be driven singly to maintain the lines of direct communication between person and horse. To that end, I also did some riding with him early on, which I felt helped to strengthen the bonds of trust between us.
As much as I love driving the team on the forecart, there is a unique satisfaction that comes with being on the ground behind a working horse — an intimacy and connectedness not only to the animal, but to the work at hand and the deep rootedness to the earth beneath one’s feet. And of course, for working the young horse or team, it is essential to first build up the confidence on the ground before getting anything with wheels involved in the process.
OTHER SINGLE HORSE DRAWN IMPLEMENTS
On our farm, in addition to the single horse cultivator, we also find application for the single horse with these implements;
— a section of spring-tine harrow. This implement is useful during midseason for breaking up clods in spaces in the garden that are too narrow to bring in the team with the disc harrow.
— a single section of flex harrow. This is useful for final seed bed preparation for mid or late season succession crops in areas of the garden too narrow for the team to work up.
— single horse plow. We have a small antique single horse plow which we use to make the furrows for planting potatoes in.
ACREAGE UNDER SINGLE HORSE CULTIVATION AT CMF
1-1/4 acres are on 32” spacing — cultivated by the single horse — (potatoes, carrots, green beans, corn, brassica, alliums, peas, and celeriac)
1/3 acre is on 1’ or 2’ spacing (mesclun, lettuce, radishes, chard, spinach, beets)
1/2 acre is on soaker hose/ drip (cucurbits, peppers, eggplants, tomatoes)
1/2 acre is planted to full-season cover crops
2 acres are planted with early or late cover crops
1/8 of an acre is in high tunnel production
1/4 acre is in orchard, demonstration gardens, flowers, etc.
These ratios differ at different points in the growing season; the above ratios represent the garden approaching mid-summer when we would have the largest amount of row crops to cultivate.
ALTERNATIVES TO THE SINGLE HORSE CULTIVATOR
— Light tractor (Farmall cub or Allis Chalmers bug or other makes); these vintage cultivation tractors, manufactured in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, have been given a second life by the surge of demand for organic produce. Some folks have been very innovative in restoring them as either vegetable oil or solar-powered, and an array of basket-weeders, finger-weeders, and other ingenious sweeps have been invented to fit the belly-mounted hydraulic toolbars of these rugged little ultra-light tractors.
— Hand-hoeing; it is not inconceivable to cultivate as much as an acre of ground using hand tools only. In his seminal book, “How to grow more vegetables” John Jeavons outlines how the bio-intensive method can grow all the food necessary to feed a person for one year (vegetarian) off of one acre in Northern California.
— Wheel-hoeing; the old-fashioned high wheels, the old no.9 hoe, and the new Swiss wheel hoes, make the work of cultivation between the rows vastly easier than using hand-held hoes only.
— Rototiller; the Troybilt (pony or horse) can serve not only as a tillage tool but also as a between the rows cultivator. When we lived out in Northern Idaho our neighbors, Paul Smith and Ellen Scriven, raised 6 acres of organic produce using an old Ford tractor for primary tillage and then did all their between row cultivation with a walk-behind rototiller. On the negative side, in a lighter sandy soil this tool might be considered too aggressive and, in any case the pulverizing and aerating action of rotary tines will probably burn up more nitrogen and organic matter than the use of sweeps.
FEEDING THE FJORD
When we had our first team and weanling mare at Hawthorne Valley Farm, we did not have access to prime pasture, but the farm manager told us we were free to graze the horses on any marginal areas of the farm that were grown up rank. To that end, we purchased temporary fence equipment and, even in a dry summer, we managed to keep the horses on grass by fencing them in little bits and spits of ground around the farm that the dairy cows did not have access to. We were amazed at how those horses could go into a drainage ditch swale with meadow grasses grown to 3 feet tall and take it all down in short order. Inspired by that experience of invention by necessity, we started looking at all the areas of our current farming system where grass was being mowed and rethinking how we might utilize it for grazing horses. By grazing areas that were previously kept mowed, the Fjords are adding yet one more facet to the many ways in which they help us reduce our use of fossil fuels.
It took us several years to realize just how efficient is the metabolism of the Norwegian Fjord horse and how easily they become obese if they have too much access to even minimal pasture. We started out with young horses, so our first experience was of feeding rapidly growing animals and we weren’t prepared for how quickly they began to balloon up after reaching maturity at 5 years old. At one point the mare was up to 1200 lbs. and the gelding at 1175 lbs.
We now have the horses on a diet regime that includes restricted access to pasture when available, and supplemented with a hay ration and a grain ration of 16% protein in a high fiber low carb grain in the form of extruded (readily digestible) pellets. This diet mimics closely the variety of forages a wild horse would have access to. The Fjord horse, because it has been so little altered from the primitive wild horse compared to most modern breeds, thrives on such a diet. Horses are not meant to eat a mono diet. A balance of nutrients is needed to keep the horse fit. Through the new regime we have the mare down to 875 lbs. and the gelding at 850 lbs. They now look like the tough little horses they are meant to be rather than fat ponies on steroids.
Our market garden is surrounded on three sides with electric fence to keep the dairy cattle fenced out. The horses are grazed in small temporary paddocks created within the driving lane around the garden. We utilize a temporary fence reel and portable fiberglass posts with plastic insulators to create these paddocks, which are usually big enough to give two to three days worth of grazing to the horses. Setting up the paddocks takes about twenty minutes and has to be timed around cultivating and other field work requirements within the garden. We have two additional small grazing paddocks for the horses nearby the headquarters of the farm to insure an adequate rotation.
Since we have occasion throughout the season to use the flex harrow for seed bed preparation and for lightly burying broadcast cover crop seeds, I will, at the end of a work session, drive around the entire periphery of the garden with the horses dragging the harrow in order to break up manure deposits left from their grazing. The horses are provided with water in the paddocks and the grazing session usually happens at mid-day. By grazing at mid-day the team is available in the morning and in the afternoon for work as required.
We also allow the horses to do some limited grazing of cover crops, for instance this summer they grazed some immature oats under-sown with clover in a 50’ X 200’ section that also had access to grass in the lane. They were allowed to graze this cover crop in increments by moving a fence every day for five days. This incremental grazing prevented too much intake of rich feed and also mitigated the compaction problems of grazing horses on the garden ground and also of reducing their tendency to make a “bathroom” of any single area within the paddock. The paddocks are most often set up so that the horses can be turned out from their yard without having to be haltered. With four horses, this saves a lot of time. They know they will get their grain ration when they come back in, so they do so enthusiastically (by that time they are full on grass and sick of the flies).
We are fortunate, in that our four horses get along very well with each other and we have no problems grazing them in fairly tight spaces. In their limited paddocks we have observed the horses eating plantain, chickweed, dandelion, pigweed, lambs quarters, even nettles. It seems like the only thing they won’t eat is a thistle, and all to no ill-effect. They appear to have enough horse-sense to avoid anything that is noxious to their systems. In 15 years our older mare has only been under the weather with a digestive disorder once when as a yearling she got into some spoiled hay.
A few years ago we tried sending the horses out overnight with grazing muzzles — a halter with a nylon mesh basket that fits over the muzzle and has a small aperture through which the horse can do a limited amount of grazing. The grazing muzzles would probably work just fine for individual horses confined to neat grazing paddocks, but on our rugged hill pastures the horses often found a convenient branch or shrub on which to rub the muzzles off and lose them in the tall grass. The gelding was observed using his teeth to yank the muzzles off his companions after he had freed himself.
We like keeping the horses close by, they seem quieter and more settled since we stopped turning them out all night on the high pastures. Also, not having to go out and fetch them each morning saves us a lot of time. We still want them to enjoy as natural an existence as possible, knowing how they delight to be out on the grass, but keeping them confined to smaller paddocks for shorter time periods and closer into farm headquarters works very well. We’ve heard of some old time horsemen who kept their workhorses in tie-stalls all the time. While we certainly don’t wish to judge the wisdom of the old ways, we feel it is important to the physical and mental well-being of our horses to have a little time each day to simply be a horse.
FEED REQUIREMENTS OF THE CMF FJORDS
Summer: 2 lbs. grain; 5 lbs. hay; 2-5 hours on pasture (duration depends on quality of forage available). Hay and grain are given out at a morning and evening feeding.
Winter: 2 lbs. grain; 10 lbs. hay (an additional pound of hay for every 10 degree drop below 20 degrees F). In the winter we divide the feed into three times to include a midday feeding.
UPDATE FROM CEDAR MOUNTAIN FARM
When we wrote an introductory article about our farming operation for the SFJ SPRING 2009 edition we mentioned that we were aspiring to expand the work of our horses to include not only the market garden, but also haymaking and forestry work. We were very excited to successfully rake a six acre field of first-cut hay with the horses on the forecart in the first week of June. We look forward to continuing to integrate them into our haymaking enterprise. The Cobb Hill co-housing community where our farm is located received a USDA grant through the WHIP program for wildlife enhancement of our woodlot acreage. We plan to get the team out this fall and winter to help skid logs out of a ten acre section of our forests that has a lot of up and coming oak trees in the understory. Cedar Mountain Farm also is the recipient of a significant USDA grant through the EQUIP program which aims to help farmers implement design changes to protect surface and ground water quality. We will be getting 90% funding to build a covered manure storage facility, a concrete pad for turning and storing windrows of compost, an enhanced irrigation system, and development of water sources, perimeter fences and effective lanes for grazing paddocks for the dairy cattle. Like nearly everyone in the state of Vermont, our tomato crop was destroyed by late blight this season, but we planted our potatoes early and once we knew about the disease, we mowed down the tops and it seems that the tubers in the ground have been spared. We have had record cool temps and rainfall this summer, but as in every year, some crops (including grass) have prospered even as others have failed. And, like any farmer who has been farming any length of time, we rest in the surety that “next year will be better.”