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.
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.