Workhorses in Norway
by Martin Aeschlimann of Norway
Dear SFJ Staff,
Having been reading your magazine since ’82, I finally decided to give it a try contributing some information on horsefarming to the SFJ.
Originally from Switzerland I have been living for the last 6 years in Norway. I came here to reintroduce the workhorse at an agriculture school for organic farming. What was meant to be a one year project turned out to be much more.
Last December I took part in an international workshop on animal traction in Kenya. (I had learned about it through SFJ). In connection with this workshop I wrote this paper about the situation of workhorses in Norway and about our school. I am sending a copy to you…
Kind regards, Martin Aeschlimann
Norway is a industrialized country with a highly mechanized agriculture. The income of Norwegian farmers is sinking and there is growing focus on ecological aspects of farming. This has caused some farmers to work again with horses. The government supports projects that lead to a wider acceptance of workhorses as an alternative to tractors among the public. One agricultural school has compulsory teaching with workhorses. This is only a beginning, major demands have to be met before a significant number of farmers begin to use workhorses again.
Norway is situated in the north of Europe. It has a surface of 320,000 square kilometers and 4.3 million inhabitants. The country is more than 1500 km long and has many mountain ranges. Glaciers have cut deep valleys and fjords into the mountains. Off the coast lie many islands. The major part of the population live along the coastline.
The climate is influenced by the gulf-stream, with lots of rainfall along the coastline and fairly mild winters. The east gets less rain and has cold winters with snow from November to April. Some areas in mountain valleys are fairly dry, farming is only possible with artificial irrigation.
Only 3.6% of the total land surface is farmland, with 22% productive forest. Two percent of the working population are farmers. Norway is one of the countries in the world with highest level of subsidized agriculture. It is a political aim for the government to maintain a widely spread population. To support farming is a key to meet this aim.
In the eastern part of the country rolling hills and wide valleys form the landscape. In this area the farms are a lot bigger than the average Norwegian farm of 25 acres. Grains and potatoes are mainly grown in this region.
In the west mountains, lakes and fjords dominate the landscape. The farms are small and often situated on steep hills. Milk production is dominant in this area, with milking goats where the land is too steep for cows to graze. In the summer the animals are grazing in the mountains on summer farms.
Until the end of the 50s the majority of the farms were powered with horses. Fifteen years later tractors had almost completely replaced the workhorse. Today most of the workhorses can be found on smaller farms and in the mountains.
WHY USE WORKHORSES IN NORWAY TODAY?
The workhorse has long been looked upon as reminiscent of past times. Farmers working with horses were looked upon as either crazy or hopeless romantics. It was not considered serious to work with horses.
A new era started around 1980, with a government supported logging-research project. Mechanization with ever bigger machines in forestry resulted in severe damage of the soil and remaining vegetation. At the same time these machines were poorly adapted to steep hillsides. Some people began to take the workhorse in consideration again, and started a research program. The old horse-logging equipment was modernized, underwent intensive field tests and proven efficient, causing a renaissance of the workhorse in forestry in a small scale. The use of workhorses has not greatly increased since the end of the project. But it was nevertheless successful. The public became informed about the possibilities of the workhorse in forestry. New equipment was developed and production started. Books and videos about horselogging were produced and courses held on the subject. For some years the number of professional horselogging contractors increased. Today, with new, harvester type machines, the prices are too low for most horseloggers to be able to compete. With a growing demand for focusing on the ecological aspects of logging, horselogging can be expected to be increasing again in the near future. Nowadays many farmers buy new equipment and use horses for logging in their own forests.
The increased use of horses in forestry, has stimulated their use in farming. The main reason why people want to work with horses is their interest in animals. With the modern farmer working most of the day on his own, having a social partner in the workhorse is another aspect. Often the whole family is interested and involved in the horse. Ecological reasons are also important. With a harder economic press, many farmers are looking how to cut expenses. Some find a solution in replacing one tractor with a horse. (Most of the farms working with horses also have a tractor.)
The vast majority of farmers are still using tractors. The workhorse is gaining terrain and especially small farmers are beginning to see its advantages.
REINTRODUCING THE WORKHORSE AT AN AGRICULTURAL SCHOOL: SOGN FARMING AND GARDENING SCHOOL (SJH)
Sogn Farming- and Gardening School (SJH) is the only college level school for organic farming in Norway.
Rather than concentrating on one direction within organic farming, for example bio dynamic or organic-biologic farming, it emphasizes the qualities from the established organic movement.
The school farm is run organically. The education is organized such that during the two years, the students will experience an entire growing season.
The education at SJH is a solid, professional education, which qualifies students for the title “Agronomist in organic farming.” When finished, the students shall be able to manage an organic farm on their own. The education is both practically and theoretically oriented. In the past years more than 50% of the students were women.
The course also teaches social science, where organic farming is seen in a social, historic and political light. The school has 53 students and 9 teachers.
The 65 acre school farm is the main class room at SJH. It is managed after the IFOAM regulations on organic farming. The students are involved in the daily chores. The barn houses 15 milking cows, 20 milking goats, 40 sheep and 4 workhorses. Besides animal husbandry horticulture is an important part of the farm (3 acres vegetables, 3-4 acres potatoes, 2 acres fruit and berries, greenhouse production).
WORKHORSE PROJECT AT SJH
The discussion whether to get workhorses back to the school had been going on for some years. The final decision was taken in 1990. A government-paid project made possible the reintroduction of the workhorse, after 30 years of absence. Since there was no suitable equipment left at the farm, the project had to start from scratch.
After 6 months of training horses, acquiring and repairing machinery, the teaching of use of workhorses could begin. Today the horses are used in many operations at the farm. The subject “workhorse” is compulsory on line with mechanics and field work with tractors. All students get both theoretical and practical training with and about workhorses.
In the theoretical part the students are getting an introduction to the understanding of horses. They learn about feeding and husbandry, about the possibilities and limits of the workhorse, and about planning the use of workhorses on their own farm.
In the practical part the students get a basic training on harnessing, hitching, driving and safety before they start with field work. They learn to harrow, drill, cultivate and to use the tool frame for weeding in the vegetable and potato fields. Other aspects they learn are plowing, tedding and raking hay, transport and horse-packing.
In wintertime there is also a course on log skidding with horses.
Fifty percent to 80% of the students do not have any experience with horses before they come to SJH. They are eager to learn and many students that have fulfilled the course have started to farm with horses.
SJH arranges also shorter courses (2-3 days) on the subject for the public.
The production of horse equipment had come to a stand still in the 1960s. One of the main tasks of modern animal traction is the supply of adequate, modern machinery. There are a lot of horse drawn machines available in the USA, but most of these do not fit into a small scaled Norwegian farm. Equipment for 1 to 2 horses is needed.
A government-supported project on developing horse powered equipment started in 1993.
A first step was to produce a team-drawn self-loading wagon for loading loose hay and grass. A lightweight tractor drawn pick-up wagon was equipped with a front axle and a motor with pto to drive the pick-up unit. To obtain maximum flexibility, both front axle and power unit can easily be dismounted and used for other equipment. (A flat bed wagon, a manure spreader and a hay tedder can be mounted to the front axle.) The self-loading wagon has proven to meet expectations. The capacity for loading of loose hay is 30-60 m3 per hour.
In a second step, a new Swiss multipurpose tool frame/forecart will be worked on. Equipped with a new hydraulic power unit, it will be used to run both hayrake, haytedder and sprayer. A motor drives a hydraulic system providing a flexible alternative for driving a wide range of pto equipment, including winches, wood saws, milking machines and more.
One argument often used when working with horses is based on the lower impact on the soil compared to working with tractors. Yet little has been done to prove this statement. In 1995 SJH started a 3 year field-research project on the subject. In a hay/grass field one part will only be driven on by tractor, another part only by horses and horsepowered equipment. On a control patch no machines are used at all. In each of the three parcels are 5 fixed registration lines. Along these lines most of the data is registered: weed- and crop registration, penetrometer measuring, registration of driving and soil samples. The first results are not expected before the end of 1996.
There is a growing interest in the workhorse in Norway. A lot of young people wish to learn more about how to farm and work with horses. Yet everyone who wants to work a farm with horses is meeting problems:
- getting the know how
- finding/constructing the needed machinery and getting spare parts
- finding qualified help experienced with workhorses
- replacement of a trained workhorse in case of sudden casualty
The knowledge on working with animals has traditionally been handed down from generation to generation. Little has been written down. “Everybody” knew how to handle a horse until the 1950’s. This traditional handing down of knowledge has been broken. As yet new ways have not been established. There is an increasing need of education and information. Like the above mentioned example of SJH shows, farming schools can successfully be involved. Good books on the subject need to be written.
Practical 2-3 day-long courses are being held at different places. There is a need for better and longer courses directed to the farmer.
To find the necessary horse equipment can be difficult for a farmer. There is still a lot of old machinery available, but as Jean Nolle already realized 40 years ago, new machinery has to be developed in order to keep the workhorse competitive on small farms. Factories producing farming machinery are not interested in development and production of horse equipment. The demands for such machinery is to low. Some machine shops in different European countries are manufacturing horse equipment in small series. They do not have the resources to offer all the machines needed. This is a crucial point considering the future of the workhorse in Norway.
Negative consequences of an over-mechanized agriculture are becoming increasingly visible. Research about farming with workhorses will lead to a wider acceptance of animal traction. The experiences made on the logging research project show this clearly.
Ecological aspects in farming are being increasingly in focus. At the same time farmers are facing lower income and have to cut down on expenses and investments in order to survive. It is also a well known fact that the modern farmer faces major physical strains, such as back problems due to long hours with tractor work. Loneliness, as a result of industrialization of the agriculture, is another aspect of modern farming.
Ecological, economical and social aspects as mentioned above can be arguments for a wider use of workhorses. One part of the solution to reach this lies in the hands of the politicians: to support horsepower by supporting education, consulting, research and development of machinery. The more important part lies on the shoulders of people actively working with horses. They have first-hand knowledge on what benefits workhorses can give to modern agriculture.
Nolle J, 1986. Machines modernes a traction animale: itineaire d’un inventeur au service des petits paysans. Edition L’Harmattan, Paris, France
Toverud B, 1986. Praktisk arbeid med hest i skogen. Landbruksforlaget, Oslo, Norway