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Cultivating Questions The Cost of Working Horses

Cultivating Questions: The Cost of Working Horses

by Anne & Eric Nordell of Trout Run, PA

Portraits of Four Horse-Powered Produce Farms

Thanks to the many apprenticeship programs, field days, conferences, websites and publications available in the new millennium, it is relatively easy for new and transitioning farmers to learn the business of small-scale organic vegetable production. Economic models of horse-powered market gardens, however, are still few and far between. To fill that information hole, I asked three experienced farmers to join me in tracking work horse hours, expenses and labor over a two-year period and to share the results in the Small Farmer’s Journal.

When I initiated this horse accounting project in the winter of 2010, I had several goals in mind. First and foremost, I hoped that this survey would provide a pretty complete picture of market gardening with horses. The “horse hours” spreadsheets outline the different work horse tasks that take place on a small acreage produce operation. The tables at the end of the column give a good overview of what’s involved in work horse maintenance.

To round out the numbers, I asked each teamster to write up a self-portrait of their horse-powered market garden with an emphasis on how their farm layout, resources and goals affected the efficiency and costs of their work horse management. I also suggested that everyone mention what they learned from this recordkeeping adventure and describe any changes planned for their farms as a result of the project.

A secondary goal for this number crunching exercise was to begin the process of establishing financial benchmarks for the horse-powered community. For example, out-of-pocket variable costs for the work horses on all four farms average 5 1/2% of total farm expenses. That may be a reasonable figure for horse-powered market gardeners to shoot for or to use when putting together a business plan for their farms.

The cost of working the horses ranged from $3 to $17 per horse hour. Growers could use the average of the four farms, $7.25/hour, for developing enterprise budgets, or select the cost per hour from the market garden that most resembles their own operations. Either way, these numbers fulfilled the third goal of the study: to develop a teamster-relevant method of determining the cost of working horses that was more accurate than the estimates used in the Winter 2010 Cultivating Questions (CQ) on “The Costs of Farming with Horses Vs. Tractors.”

Horsedrawn Produce Sprayer

Please keep in mind that a number of decisions influenced the financial outcomes of this project in ways that might not match the reality or expectations of other horse-powered market gardeners. For instance, the teamsters in this survey chose to focus the recording of horse maintenance labor and expenses on the working horses, excluding the care and upkeep of breeding animals, young stock, or retirees not used in harness.

For practical and philosophical reasons, this team of teamsters also decided not to put a dollar value on the labor for horse maintenance, the fertilizer content of the horse manure, or the amortized cost of major horse-related investments, such as the price of the team and harness or the land and buildings used for horse maintenance. The “capital expenses” and “horse-related person hours” tables at the back of this article may be helpful to anyone interested in figuring out a cash value for these important aspects of farm economics and adding these expenses to the hourly cost of working the horses.

Everyone on the horse accounting team agreed that it was important to go public with our modest farm incomes in order to document the for-profit status of our farms and calculate some of the benchmark ratios. We used our Schedule F forms from the years 2008-2010 to come up with a representative gross and net income.

This four-up of teamsters also decided that it would be more meaningful to track individual horse hours and teamster hours than team hours. By this reckoning, a farmer and three horses discing for two hours would be recorded as six horse hours and two teamster hours. We hoped that tracking individual horse hours would create a more comprehensive picture of horse work over the whole year as illustrated in the month-by-month “horse hours” spreadsheets put together for each farm.

Note that the horse hours recorded for this project covered farm work outside of the market garden including horse maintenance tasks like haymaking and clipping pasture. The work horse tachometer also registered so-called “non-productive” time such as commuting to and from the fields, hitching to the equipment, and loading the manure spreader, produce wagon or hayrack.

Two-Way Plow Plowing Under Green Manure

On the other hand, this teamsters union decided that it was an unfair practice to track harness time on the horse hours time clock. Instead, we voted that harnessing – including grooming, watering and washing down the work animals – should be designated a teamsters job only. Going back to the example of the two-hour discing session, if it took a half hour to harness and unharness the three horses, then total teamster hours would be recorded as 2 1/2 hours while horse time remained 6 hours.

Factors other than recordkeeping decisions also influenced the results of this horse accounting study. An unusually wet spring and fall in 2011 compressed horse hours into the summer months more than normal. For one of the farms I chose to use the 2010 numbers for this final report due to a challenging labor and horse health situation in 2011. Although all four teamsters have experienced untimely horse loss and/or catastrophic veterinary costs, these major expenses did not show up in the results reported here.

Similarities between the four farms may have also skewed the financial picture. For example, the horses in this study did not generate farm income other than supporting vegetable production. Teamsters who use their work animals for giving hayrides, breeding, or custom logging in the off-season, may be able to offset most of their out-of-pocket horse expenses. Likewise, the cost per horse hour would be much lower on diversified farms where many more horse hours are clocked for working large acreages of hay and grain.

Another important economic similarity between the four produce farms is their location in the Northeast: Paul and Carol Hauser’s Maple Hill Farm in southeastern Pennsylvania; David Fisher and Anna Maclay’s Natural Roots Farm in western Massachusetts; Stephen Leslie and Kerry Gawalt’s Cedar Mountain Farm in central Vermont; and our Beech Grove Farm in north-central Pennsylvania. Teamsters in other regions may have to plug local prices for horse supplies and services into the budgets to come up with more meaningful numbers.

The fact that none of the teamsters in this horse accounting project grew up on farms or working with horses must have also affected the results. The same could be said for our philosophical attraction to horse-powered vegetable production. For all of us, farming with horses is a way of life, not a business decision. We may be the least likely candidates for a rigorous financial analysis. Our collective motivation for undertaking this recordkeeping adventure was not financial, but to paint a more complete portrait of horse-powered market gardening by the numbers. – Eric

Horsedrawn Mower Cutting Hay Crop

Maple Hill Farm

Our family has been on our 24 acre farm now since 1981. Farm income has been our family’s only income source for the past 18 years. During that time we raised two sons who are now off on their own. When we formulated our farm plan many years ago we had 3 objectives: 1. diversify production to ensure a stable income; 2. create a farm plan that my wife and I were capable of doing without outside labor; 3. create a sustainable farm by employing work horses.

For the most part, we’ve succeeded in meeting these objectives. We have five primary sources of farm income that have given us stability – vegetable production, tree fruit, greenhouse bedding plants, fresh egg sales, and fruit pie sales from our licensed kitchen. This diversity has helped spread out our workload throughout the year which has enabled us to do it without depending on apprentices or paid labor until this past year. As a concession to advancing age, this past year we had a young lady work 7 hours a week which made our life so much easier. Lastly, I believe that our work horses have made our farm sustainable. We are able to grow all their feed while they provide the fertility and power to work the farm. We believe it creates a sustainable circle.

Our three horses – 2 Suffolks and a Belgian – each spaced approximately 10 years apart in age, provide 100% of the power to till our farm. We grow 5 acres of vegetables, 3/4 of an acre of peaches, and 1/2 acre in brambles and berries. The horses also cut and rake hay off approximately 8 acres along with planting 2 acres of speltz and less than an acre of corn.

A small tractor is used to power the baler, spray the orchard and pull our small combine. We use a tractor to bale because of our limited labor. My wife can’t drive the horses but is willing to drive a tractor pulling the baler. This enables me to stack the wagon as we bale. To use a team would force me to bale, drop it on the ground and pick up later. Using the tractor for pulling the combine also acts as a labor saver. In these cases, for us it just makes sense to rely on a tractor. Otherwise, it’s a horse-powered farm.

From October to mid-May we stable our horses primarily in straight tie stalls. We have very limited pasture, approximately 1 acre, but we turn the horses out daily in a small board fenced paddock. During the summer months, the horses spend their time in this paddock as I simply don’t have the time to handle the manure that would collect in their stalls. They do come in to their stalls every morning and night for their daily grain.

We manage our pasture by limiting the time we allow the horses to graze it. Maybe 2 to 4 hours a day as long as it’s growing and not getting overgrazed. A gate leads directly from the paddock to the pasture so we don’t lead the horses anywhere. Our paddock is only maybe 20 feet from the barn door so we simply open that gate and the horses walk into their stalls at feeding time.

During the October through May stabling season we park our spreader outside a side door. It sits slightly lower than our stalls, so it’s a quick, easy task to fill the wheelbarrow and push it up the planks and dump it over into the spreader. Although we add straw daily to their stalls, we only clean them out once every week or two. We use probably 100 bales of straw a year and maybe 600 plus bales of hay. Hay is fed daily year round because of our limited pasture. We feed ear corn and speltz daily, all grown on our farm.

You may notice in the charts at the end of the article that we have no time expense for hoof care. Being honest – that’s because we don’t do any. The horses’ hooves seem to wear evenly and stay in good shape on their own. And as they say – if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

You may notice that we also have no time allocated for moving temporary fencing – we don’t use it. We live in a suburban area with housing developments sprouting all along our road. We have to have absolute escape-proof fencing to prevent potential liability. An animal getting loose in our neighborhood could cause untold amount of damage – if not causing a dreaded accident. So we have a woven wire fence around our pasture. This past spring we replaced the original we put up when we moved here, at a cost of approximately $1200. We also replaced our small paddock board fence at another cost of $600. These represent long term – 30 years plus – expenses that give us peace of mind.

With the age spacing between our horses we have both the benefit of the quiet, slow dependable character that an older horse gives while also benefiting from the strength and eagerness found in a younger animal. We employ both of these characteristics in the different jobs on the farm. However, not everything goes as planned when you suddenly lose a horse. Unfortunately, if you have horses for a length of time you will face that situation. For us, it most recently occurred two years ago when one of our Suffolk horses suddenly stopped eating. After visits from our local vet, we had to decide just how much money we wanted to spend looking for the cause. As uncaring as it may sound, we just weren’t in the position to empty the bank account investigating every potential cause. We had to draw a line as to how much money we could put into vet bills, give the horse every possible chance to recover, and then move on. That’s also part of horse farming.

As I alluded to earlier, one of our goals was to spread the workload as evenly as possible throughout the year. Keeping your horses working throughout the year will make a big difference in their attitude and temperament. Obviously, there are tasks that are seasonable but we’ve been able to find work for them even in winter except when snow is too deep or it’s simply bitter cold. For us, that’s spreading manure or compost. By winter the manure from our 350 bird laying flock and the cowpens is getting deep. Additionally, in our area we have access to free mushroom compost. As long as the weather is fit – we like to spread. We also like to plow in early winter for early spring vegetables. Keeping your horses working consistently makes for better horses and teamsters.

Unlike most produce farmers, we also grow hay and grain for our livestock. Obviously, this can result in quite a heavy workload in the summer. I do this mostly because I really enjoy growing hay and grain. Diversity is beautiful on the farm. To minimize the summer workload we do a couple of things. First, our growing and marketing season is long. We start selling our first bedding plants in late March and we’re still at market at Thanksgiving. By having such a long cash flow season we’re not compelled to push to make all our money in a relatively short time. We can space our vegetable growing over a longer period. Additionally, we grow mostly timothy and clover mix which only requires two cuttings versus the four or five cuttings neighbors are taking off their alfalfa. We also only cut maybe an acre of hay at one time. It’s an amount I can handle and work into our vegetable production. First cutting hay may take me six weeks depending on the weather. Now the downside is that not all my hay is quality. Some gets a little old before I get to it. But as long as it gets done before we start speltz harvest in July we’re satisfied. Corn doesn’t get picked until late fall which easily fits in.

In conclusion, by recording my time it brought into perspective the actual time I do spend with my horses. The actual hours I spent growing hay and grain for my horses reinforced my belief that it is financially viable. Cost containment for us has been as important as sales growth. My only disappointment coming from this venture had been the time I spent harnessing which proved to be greater than I originally would have thought and, unfortunately, is my least productive time.

I would strongly encourage all of you to do this exercise. It will create an awareness of just how much you’re using your horses and what it’s costing you. It will probably encourage you to look for more ways to integrate your horses into your farming system. You’ll find if you’re willing to commit to using your horses on a regular basis, you’ll see that they are capable of doing most all farm tasks. For me, I’ve come away with two lasting impressions:

First – I feel my horses are very efficient in the amount of work I accomplish with them in a relatively small amount of time.

Second – When you review my time spent caring for the horses versus the hours that my horses actually worked it looks very inefficient. We don’t feel this way at all. For this particular study we need to count the time spent feeding and caring for our horses which I understand. Yet to us, and most all teamsters, this does not constitute “work.” This makes life worth living. As I’m getting older now I dread the approaching time when I will no longer be out there feeding and caring for my horses. That’s how we enjoy life.

– Paul Hauser

Maple Hill Farm: Horse Hours – 2011

Month Spread Manure Plow Harrow Cultipack/Grain Drill/Misc Plant Row-Making Mow Rake Cultivation Total
Jan 11 4 15
Feb 8.5 8.5
Mar 12 7 13.5 2 0.5 35
Apr 2 14 8.5 6.5 31
May 8.5 2 2 4 3 7.5 27
Jun 1 13 15.5 2.5 19 9.5 7.5 68
Jul 5 1 8 7 2.5 23.5
Aug 1 3.5 14.5 2.5 6.5 1 29
Sep 4 13.5 3 5 2.5 0.5 28.5
Oct 2 9 6.5 5 4 26.5
Nov 11.5 1.5 1.5 0.25 14.75
Dec 16 11 1 28
Total 69 57 84 19.5 12.5 47.5 26 19.25 334.75

Skidding Log Through Snow

Natural Roots Farm

We are David Fisher and Anna Maclay. With our children Leora, age eight, and Gabriel, age four, we farm here in Conway, Massachusetts. We are situated in the small valley of the South River, on the Eastern slope of the Berkshire Mountains, with sandy loam bottomland, hillside pasture rising up from the valley floor, and woodland on the upper slopes. We till about 7 acres of bottomland in a Nordell-inspired rotation. This means about 3 1/2 acres in mixed vegetables and 3 1/2 acres actively managed in cover crops and a bare fallow period. We manage a 40-acre woodlot and we also graze and/or hay about 22 acres of grass to feed our working herd of four Belgians and one Standardbred X Percheron workhorses. We keep two hogs for compost-turning duty and raise another pair of piglets annually as replacements. Our farm is also home to an assortment of chickens, gardens, fruit trees, etc. for the home use. We generally employ two apprentices full time from March until Christmas, or longer, and have several local part-time helpers as well. In addition to those mentioned above, we have pursued many endeavors here over the 14 years we’ve been here. Among them are sheep, beef cattle, a dairy cow, farmers’ markets, and wholesale produce. Currently we are primarily a CSA serving about 200 families. Surplus produce is sold to our shareholders for preserving or storage, or to local grocers and restaurants. Anna also runs a small farm store, open to CSA customers, which primarily offers local products from neighboring farms.

We have chosen to run our farm exclusively with horsepower for several reasons. On a very basic and personal level, we really enjoy working with them. We find horses to be incredibly versatile. They are well suited for delicate cultivation, heavy tillage, digging, lifting, hauling, and traction in all seasons, terrain, and conditions. The capacity for us to raise the feed for our draft animals is also very appealing, both economically and philosophically. We feel that relying on live power will help to create a sustainable economy independent from petroleum dependence. In this way, we feel that horsepower can help to address many pressing environmental and political issues.

Our basic care and maintenance of the working herd is fairly labor intensive. We start each day by retrieving our five horses from their night pasture, which can be up to 1/2 mile away. To facilitate this, we ride “commuter” bikes to pasture and ride the horses back in to the barn. Usually two people can bring in the herd in one trip, though David will sometimes bring all five in one trip. Once in the barn, horses are fed and watered, and those who will work are hoof-picked, groomed, and harnessed. In the growing season this means four horses, five days a week, and often six or seven days during haymaking. In winter it can vary from zero to four horses in harness, depending on the day. We prefer to harness the horses during chores and have them in their tie stalls, ready for work whenever we need them. We feel that this helps with efficiency since horses are constantly coming and going off to work in various combinations throughout the day. Furthermore, the horses appreciate the shelter from flies that the barn provides (in summer) when they are not working. By keeping the animals stabled by day we can collect enough manure to provide adequate compost for our vegetable fields. We move our temporary fencing and solar charger around the farm to various pastures. This takes time, but leaves the pasture clear for clipping, post grazing, and pasture dragging, and it minimizes the amount of fencing we need to cover all of our pastures, not to mention the benefits of rotational grazing on pasture health and productivity.

In the vegetable fields, for primary tillage we use three or four horses abreast for disking winterkilled cover crops in our early fields. We do most of our plowing of live cover crops with a team. If we have a lot of secondary tillage to do, we’ll use four abreast on the springtooth harrow, usually with the cultipacker in tandem. We do a lot of work with a team on the riding cultivator such as forming beds, cultivating, and hilling certain crops. We use our homemade transplanter for planting all plugs spaced 12” or greater in the row. This tool is helpful for getting plants watered in with a nutrient boost and set at a uniform distance. We find that it is most efficient when there are few variety changes in the row. We try to foliar feed all vegetables weekly with our five-row boom sprayer, though we often only keep up with this until hay making derails us for a couple of months at mid summer. We also use the sprayer for applying organic pest and disease controls. Most of the work in the fields (mowing cover crops, spreading compost, and all hay making tasks) is done with teams with the exception of the largerhitches mentioned, and some amount of single horse cultivation and mowing in tight spaces. Since we must ford the South River to bring supplies onto the farm and our farm produce off the farm, we spend a good bit of time hauling.

Having two teams plus a spare has proven essential for making hay while keeping up with the demands of the vegetable production. While keeping a spare horse can seem like a drain on resources when it is idle for many weeks, it is a blessing when another horse must rest for illness or injury. We’d like to work that spare horse into more regular work, if only to rest some of the older horses. Some horses have turned out to be relatively easy keepers, subsisting on minimal grain and lighter hay rations, while others (like our best horse) can require much more in grain, vitamins, and supplements to maintain good condition and health.

Participating in this study has been a fantastic exercise for us as it has revealed where some of our inefficiencies lie. It has motivated us to plan for a new barn, which we hope will greatly reduce the time we spend on horse maintenance tasks. For example, we currently put up all of our hay loose, by hand, and, for lack of barn loft space, we make several outdoor haystacks, which need to be moved into the barn for feeding when space permits. We wheelbarrow the daily stall clean out to a separate composting shed, and we need to lead our horses out to turnout in a winter paddock daily for four to five months of the year. With a new barn, we plan to have mow space enough to hold all of our hay and bedding needs for a year under one roof and have space for a traditional track and trolley system for loading the mow with horse power rather than people power. We plan on locating our composting middens in immediate proximity to the horse stalls for easy clean out, and having an attached laneway from the barn to the paddock for hands-free turnout.

We look forward to making improvements towards a more efficient and economical future with horses.

– David Fisher

Natural Roots Farm: 2011 Horse Work Log

Month Horse Maint. (# horses/man hours) Total Haymaking: Horse Hours Total Haymaking: Man Hours Total Farm Work: Horse Hours Total Farm Work: Man Hours Combined Horse Hours (hay+farm work)
Jan 56 8 4 8
Feb 44 53 25 53
Mar 125 178 76 178
April 101 233 140 233
May 117 323 160 323
June 125 52 26 361.5 210 413.5
July 113 136.5 68.25 260.25 149.5 396.75
Aug 88 31.5 15.75 274 155.5 305.5
Sept 69 26.25 13.25 160.5 82.25 186.75
Oct 95 138.75 76.25 138.75

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