Horse Farming and Holistic Management
by Tony McQuail of Lucknow, ON
Even if you’ve never heard about Holistic Management, if you are a horse farmer, you are likely a pretty “holistic” manager. We had been farming with horses for over 20 years before we took our first Holistic Management course. We had heard a bit about HM and it sounded interesting. Holistic Management was developed by Allan Savory who was a wildlife and ranch biologist in Africa who was concerned that the advice he could give farmers didn’t work in the real environment and even when the advice was good it wouldn’t get implemented. He developed a program which helps farms create a clear Holistic Goal and then use the farms resources to move toward the goal while being ecologically sustainable. After taking the course we moved to being full time on our farm and making a profit each year while taking family summer vacations. And our horse farming turned out to be really in line with the concepts of Holistic Management.
The motto for HM is “Healthy land, Healthy People, Healthy Profits”. Let’s take a look at how horses connect with each of these areas.
Horses and healthy land. When we made the decision to buy horses there were a number of things we considered. Horses run on hay which encourages us to keep some or all of our land under perennial forage crops that build soil organic matter, protect the soil surface from wind and water erosion and provide a living root system to sustain soil micro-organisms and fix atmospheric Nitrogen. The horses eat the grass or the hay and return it to the farm ecosystem and economy as manure. The manure returns to the soil to improve fertility and nourish the plants. We also discovered that using horses also reduced compaction and air pollution. The horses “exhaust” gets recycled by photosynthesizing plants and turned into more forage and it is remarkably free of engine exhaust pollutants. The horse hoof doesn’t create the same compaction “dams” that tractor tires create so wet areas tend to get smaller rather than expand. Today with the concern about climate change it is nice to know that the carbon our horses are releasing is in an annual cycle and is recaptured into the plants they will eat next year. If we are managing our hay and pastures to build soil organic matter we are actually running a farm power source that is sequestering carbon rather that dumping it into the atmosphere. Using horses certainly helped us take a worn out farm with heavy clay soils and low organic matter and turn it into a green and living land with richer dark soils teaming with earthworms, Healthy Land.
Horses and Healthy People. We work with horses. Farming can be a lonely, solitary occupation – but you are not alone when you are working with horses. You’ve got companions , company, another living presence you are partnered with. Horses are biological which means they can’t run all day and night which forces the horse farmer to stop and get a nights sleep rather than running their tractor beyond their own physical limits while breathing dust and diesel fumes. They limit the size of our farms which can encourage us to stay more balanced in our operation and look more to neighbours for the community they offer than the opportunity to cannibalize their land when we expand under the pressure of expensive equipment and the need to “get bigger or get out”. Working with horses also tends to give the farmer more physical exercise which can help us stay in shape, Healthy People.
Horses and Healthy Profits. By running on home grown fuel horses contribute to the internal economy of the farm. They displace the need for purchased fuel and ensure that the nutrients in their feed are recycled back into the farm rather than being shipped off and replaced by purchased fertilizer. By raising colts we also produce a marketable output from our power source. When we looked back on it we realized that our decision to start with a team of horses had proved very rewarding. Over a 10 year period the horses had brought a net $10,000 to the farm in addition to the work they did. The horse purchases, harness, breeding and vet bills were offset by the sale of colts and teams. We bought a small used tractor years after we got the horses and later traded it in on a new tractor. In a similar 10 year period having the tractor took $25,000 out of the farm in purchase price, fuel and repairs and contributed nothing to the biological fertility of our land. We have been very fortunate in that our horses tend to be self repairing and have required a minimum of vet expenses. Instead of replacement tires they need hoof trimming. The routine care and maintenance is something we can do on the farm. No need for expensive shop fees. Horses tend to increase in value as they are trained and worked so it is possible to have a power source that appreciates rather than depreciates. As biological self regulating and self replicating organisms they are self sustaining and this reduces the cash flowing away from the farm, healthy profits.
As a small family farm we feel that our choice of having horses as our primary power source was a good choice. We bought horses in 1976 and there was a steep learning curve but they helped us develop a farm with healthy land, healthy people and healthy profits. If you decide to farm with horses may they do the same for you.