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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors
Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

Klaus demonstrating a Pioneer Homesteader at Pferdestarke, the European version of Horse Progress Days held biannually in Germany.

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

by Klaus Struber of Germany – photos by Klaus Struber

In an industrially advanced country such a Germany, the use of the tractor has been the primary source of power and the drive of the farming industry for the past 50 years. The application of tractors and other machinery have proved to be a quicker and more powerful means of force than animals, and thus replaced animal labor. Tractors increase agricultural production from the meat to the dairy industry, and allow greater work with less manpower. About 50 years after the first implementation of tractors in the farming industry, comes the question of what farms give up for this technological advancement and comfort. In Germany 9 out of 10 people live in suburban areas, but the extent to which this affects the amount of machines used for agriculture is not covered in this study; the direct effect of high suburban populations in relation to the need for quicker farming technologies has yet to be calculated. The direct effects of machine use (i.e. tractors) instead of animals will be further examined here; effects on the farm land, the required energy supply, and the effects on the environment. Horses, next to cows and oxen, were the most useful animals for farming until the 1960s. The results of a test operation, started in 2005, using horse labor instead of agricultural machinery will be explained in this report.

The Physical Impact of Tractor Use on Farm Land

The emergence of increased tractor use on farmland carries with it the pressing issue of soil compaction, due to the heavy agricultural machines. In Kanton Bern, Switzerland, for example, the amount of land acceptable for planting crops has been reduced by 25%. Roughly 30 million hectare of land in Europe are irreversibly compacted from heavy machine use. In a loamy soil at Baden-Wu?rttemberg, Germany, it took ten years of natural methods to loosen up compacted soil. In a model test on existing Albic Luvisol ground, a fertile clay-boulder-sand mix left by glacier deposits, the compressed layers of subsoil were still unchanged 22 years after farming with heavy equipment had terminated. The use of tractors creates this compacted soil, resulting in a drop of profits, as well as water erosion due to the decreased ability to absorb water, increasing the risks of serious floods.

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

A Norwegian-made tool carrier called the “Troll” is set up with finger-weeders for a row crop cultivation at Hof Hollergratben.

Energy

The worldwide supply of crude oil will eventually run out and thus the search for alternative energy sources has already begun. The agricultural industry could profit by comparing the energy efficiency of its machines, i.e. tractors, with animal labor. If horses prove to be more efficient, their heightened use will not be a return to primitive farming methods, but instead a development, since the latter can be sustained through regionally found renewable resources (pasture and homegrown forages). In Germany, 13% of greenhouse gasses come from agricultural practices, through the burning of fossil fuels in tractors. At the same time, the agricultural industry is the only one that can theoretically eliminate more greenhouse gases than it produces. In all areas of comparison, tractors are considerably less energy efficient when compared with horses; horses can utilize energy from raw renewable sources to a much greater extent than tractors. The “green-balance analysis” — an energy appraisal system for the suitability of industrial productions created by the German Federal Environmental Agency — rates live horse power higher than tractors. In Sweden in 1927, 60% of the needed energy for farming came from renewable sources, whereas by 1996, due to machinery, that number rests at only 9%. It takes 232 kilograms of corn to produce 50 liters of bioethanol for tractor fuel. That amount of corn could feed a child in Zambia or Mexico for a year. Workhorses can be substantially fed off the land, having a slight, but positive effect on human consumption and nutrition by freeing up grain formerly used for bio fuels.

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

The Environment

There has been a steady increase in the extinction of various species in the last 100 years. One cause of this issue stems from the agricultural industries, which have greatly advanced in the past century through the use of machines, particularly tractors for farming. Today the regular use of tractors for services such as mowing and plowing has decimated various species of amphibians by about 90%, whereas with traditional horse drawn farming equipment that number would rest at only about 10%.

Impact of Horses on the Ground

Confirmed facts justify this proposed question: is the tractor the most beneficial source of power for agricultural production? On one German farm, with 22.5 hectares of productive land, the project “Hummusspha?re” has evaluated the ability to regenerate compacted land through the use of horses; also evaluating what type of energy balance arises from this change in applied work forces.

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

Parcel worked by horses after 30mm of rain.

In 2005, 3 different parcels of land were committed for a series of tests to directly compare the impact of tractors and horses on the land; each parcel is 200 m2 in size and was tested to ensure identical physical characteristics and properties. The land parcels were divided and subsequently worked for 3 years. One side of each parcel was worked only with horses and the other only with tractors; the land was always worked with the same tools and at the same time; the tractor employed for this trial was actually lighter than two draft horses typically used for farming.

By 2008, there were measurable differences between each side of the worked areas; the land’s capacity to hold water and greater aeration were up to 45cm higher in areas worked by horses as opposed to tractors. Thus, it would appear to be more beneficial to use workhorses instead of tractors on damaged and compacted farmland. The benefit and profit every year of each land parcel on the horse-worked side is at least 15% higher.

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

Parcel worked by tractors after 30mm of rain.

Energy

If on a given farm 60% of the work is accomplished through horse drawn equipment the overall fuel consumption is minimized by about 30%. If a suitable solution to financially support more wages could be found, it would be possible for many small farms to switch over to only draft horse-power within 2 years. Thus, the use of fossil fuel on these farms could be completely eliminated.

The Prospects

Apart from the ability of tractors to work large areas, this technology doesn’t have many other positive attributes, but instead has decidedly negative ecological effects. Therefore, it is wrong to depend on tractors as the only means of power in the future of agricultural cultivation. The results of various test farms in Germany show that to replace machines with workhorses, in highly developed countries, can help regenerate unusable, degenerated, and compacted farmland. Developed nations have the ability to create an economical system, and should exercise this, to permit the financial means for further cultivation through horses. However, these developed countries also have a problem since there are presently neither enough workers to oversee the workhorses on farms nor to pass on their skills and knowledge. In countries where traditional methods of animal labor are still in use, the knowledge about animal care is an important resource, one that is now lacking in highly developed countries. Perhaps if the feasibility to finance (farm) wages once again becomes higher, the exercise of animal labor will become more preferable.

Horse Labor Instead of Tractors

Pull power measurement on the plow.

Klaus Struber is a dedicated spokesman for the use of draft horses in agriculture. He has promoted the draft horse through his own farming practices and by writing articles, doing research, giving seminars, making machinery, and much more. Klaus farms at Hof Hollergraben in Shleswig-Holstein, Germany, a 50-acre bio-dynamic farm growing over 40 different varieties of produce for a CSA as well as grain for fresh-baked bread plus hay and forage crops.

Spotlight On: Farming Systems & Approaches

Low Impact Ranching

Low Impact Ranching

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This kind of low-impact management has yielded visible results for Rose who can display flourishing pasture grasses, healthy cattle, and firm banks in his riverside pasture. “I am just a detail oriented person and one of those farm boys who always likes to have a project,” Rose said. “I am trying to get the most out of my land and efforts and I really enjoy seeing the positive outcomes of a finished project.”

Mayfield Farm

Mayfield Farm, New South Wales, Australia

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Mayfield Farm is a small family owned and operated mixed farm situated at 1150 m above sea level on the eastern edge of the Great Dividing Range in northern New South Wales, Australia. Siblings, Sandra and Ian Bannerman, purchased the 350 acre property in October, 2013, and have converted it from a conventionally operated farm to one that is run on organic principles. Additional workers on the farm include Janette, Ian’s wife, and Jessica, Ian’s daughter.

Prosperous Homesteading

Prosperous Homesteading

Prosperous Homesteading at FreeSong Farm by Greg Jeffers prosperoushomesteading.blogspot.com

Personal Food Production

Personal Food Production

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We can argue about when, but someday within several decades, oil and the plentiful super-market food we take for granted will be in short supply and/or very expensive. We must all start immediately to grow as much of our own food as possible. This is the fun part and is the subject of a vast popular movement highlighted by innumerable books, magazines, and web sites. Square-foot gardening, raised beds, and permaculture are the new rage. We don’t need thirty-million acres of lawns. Flowers aren’t very filling either.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 5

You might think that your new farm is fenced all wrong, or that a certain tree is in the wrong place, or that a wet area would be better drained, or that this gully would make a good pond site, or that a depression in the road should be filled, or that the old sheds should all come down right away. Well maybe you’re right on all counts. But maybe, you’re wrong.

Farm To School Programs Take Root

All aim to re-connect school kids with healthy local food.

The First Year

The First Year

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Prior to last year, I had felt I knew the nuances of the land quite well and fancied myself as knowledgeable about the course of the natural world. Outdoors was where I felt the most comfortable. The fresh air and endless views of fields, hills and valleys renewed my spirit and refreshed my mind. I didn’t think there was much that could fluster me when it came to the land. Until I became an organic farmer.

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

We own a 40 jersey cow herd and sell most of their milk to Cobb Hill Cheese, who makes farmstead cheeses. We have a four-acre market garden, which we cultivate with our team of Fjord horses and which supplies produce to a CSA program, farm stand and whole sale markets. Other members of the community add to the diversity of our farm by raising hay, sheep, chickens, pigs, bees, and berries, and tending the forest and the maple sugar-bush.

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

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If you were visiting Earth from some other planet and had to describe its inhabitants upon your return, you might say that the average person eats rice, and grows it as well, usually on a small scale. You’d be accurately describing the habits of over a quarter of the world’s population. Rice has a special story with an exciting chapter now unfolding in the northeast USA among a small but growing group of farmers and growers.

Hand-Harvested Food Challenge

The Hand-Harvested Food Challenge

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In the winter of 2011, Daniel mentioned a fourteen-year-old student of his who had spent a whole month eating only foods gathered from the wild. “Could we go for two days on the hand-harvested food we have here?’ he asked. “Let’s give it a try!” I responded with my usual enthusiasm. We assembled the ingredients on the table. Everything on that table had passed through our hands. We knew all the costs and calories associated with it. No hidden injustice, no questionable pesticides. We felt joy at living in such an edible world.

The Forcing of Plants

The Forcing of Plants

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It is always advisable to place coldframes and hotbeds in a protected place, and particularly to protect them from cold north winds. Buildings afford excellent protection, but the sun is sometimes too hot on the south side of large and light-colored buildings. One of the best means of protection is to plant a hedge of evergreens. It is always desirable, also, to place all the coldframes and hotbeds close together, for the purpose of economizing time and labor.

Raised Bed Gardening

Raised Bed Gardening

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Raised beds may not be right for everyone, and our way is not the only way. I have seen raised beds made from rows of 5’ diameter kiddy pools, and heard of a fellow who collected junk refrigerators from the dump and lined them up on their backs into a rainbow of colored enameled steel raised beds. Even rows of five-gallon pails filled with plants count as raised beds in my estimation. Do it any way you care to, but do it if it’s right for you.

An Introduction To Farm Woodlands

The farm woodland is that portion of the farm which either never was cleared for tillage or pasture, or was later given back to woods growth. Thus it occupies land that never was considered suitable, or later proved unsuitable, for farm enterprises.

LittleField Notes Hay

LittleField Notes: Hay

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Farming never fails to dish up one lesson in humility after another. Despite having all the weather knowledge the information-age has to offer, farmers will still lose hay to the rain, apple blossoms to frost, winter wheat to drought… If we are slow to learn humility in Nature’s presence we can be sure that another lesson is never far off.

Traditional Agriculture in Siberia

Traditional Agriculture in Siberia

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The agricultural system of the Old Believers has long been one of hand labor. Their homesteads (hozyastvas) were not intended for tractors or horses, with the possible exception of their larger potato fields. Traditionally the small peasant hozyastva has its roots in hand labor, and this has helped maintain the health of the land. Understanding the natural systems is easier when one’s hands are in the soil every day as opposed to seeing the land from the seat of a tractor.

Sustainable Forestry

Sustainable Forestry

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After 70 plus years of industrial logging, the world’s forests are as degraded and diminished as its farmlands, or by some estimates even more so. And this is a big problem for all of us, because the forests of the world do much more than supply lumber, Brazil nuts, and maple syrup. Farmlands produce food, a basic need to be sure, but forests are responsible for protecting and purifying the air, water and soil which are even more basic.

Cultivating Questions

Cultivating Questions: Follow-Up On Phosphorus

We like to think that the bio-extensive approach to market gardening minimizes the risk of overloading the soil with nutrients because the fallow lands make it possible to grow lots of cover crops to maintain soil structure and organic matter rather than relying on large quantities of manure and compost. However, we are now seeing the consequences of ignoring our own farm philosophy when we resorted to off-farm inputs to correct a phosphate deficiency.

The Shallow Insistence

…a life of melody, poetry and farming?

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT