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Organic Horse Power : River Valley edition : Tuesday, 29 September 2020 14:04 EST : a service of The Public Press
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Horse Power for Organic Farms

     by Ken Laing

So you're an organic farmer and you think you're pretty smart. You have eliminated pesticides and chemical fertilizers and thus reduced your input costs and benefitted the environment, and you are getting twice the price for your production at the farm gate. But on the energy front we seem to be burning up a lot of petroleum producing this organic food and fiber. To me organic also means sustainable in the true sense of the word. If we are dependent on non renewable energy for the production and distribution of our great organic food, stop the tractor, I want off!

But you like your air conditioned cushy cab tractor with all its gadgets and you're just waiting for some corporation to buy your soybeans so they can process them into bio-diesel and then sell them back to you to run your tractor sustainably. It may happen sooner than I thought, but let me tell you about another great option. It's modular, solar powered, 4-wheel drive with power burst, programable with 340 degree vision, has a large memory bank and intelligence all its own, is soft and lovable, and it will not talk back, launch liability suits, or require paid holidays, pension plans, or unemployment insurance. Yep, you guessed right - it's the almost forgotten draft horse.

Advantages of Draft Horses

Horses do require a certain level of care year around, as well as requiring a higher level of management to work with compared to tractors. As is true of organic farming in general, the labor required for a horse-powered farm is somewhat greater than for a tractor-powered farm of the same size, a factor that can be offset to some extent by using larger hitches of horses.

Assuming a well conditioned team, equipment in good repair, and 10 hours in the field, with two 1,500 pound horses, in one day you can expect to:

  • plow 1 1/2 - 2 acres
  • cultivate (single row) 7 acres
  • harrow 8 - 10 acres
  • mow 7 acres
  • drill 8 - 10 acres
  • rake 14 acres
  • plant 8 - 10 acres
  • haul on a wagon 1 1/2 tons 20 - 25 miles

Four horses could accomplish twice as much with the same human labor, but would require implements twice as wide.quiet zone

Procuring Suitable Horse

The size and number of horses you will need to work your organic farm will depend on the size of your operation, the nature of the work, and your personal preferences. If all you have is a 2-acre CSA garden, then a team of ponies may well do all your work and eat a lot less feed, but if you have a lot of heavy draft work to do or many acres to cover you may need the biggest draft horses you can find. Generally a draft horse can exert 10% of its body weight in a horizontal pull (the definition of draft) on a steady basis. Thus a 1,000-pound horse could exert a 100-pound pull all day, but a 2,000-pound horse could pull twice that.

The same horse can exert a pull of half its own weight for a brief time to get you out of a tight spot. As an example, a plow cutting 12" wide, under average soil conditions, would require a draft of 378 pounds. Thus three 1,000-pound horses or two 2,000-pound horses could be expected to pull this plow. If the soil is clay or dry, or the crop is alfalfa, the draft could be much higher. If the horses are not well conditioned to work they will not be able to work without frequent rests and they run the risk of getting sore shoulders.

The general rule of thumb is 25 acres per horse, so a 50-acre mixed farm could be operated with a team of two, but having a spare horse is wise to lighten the load or take the place of a sick or sore horse, or a foaling mare.

Any breed can be suitable, depending on your preferences and prejudices. I personally prefer short but heavy draft horses. Short because they are easier to harness on a daily basis, and heavy because we have a lot of heavy field work to do.

The best way to procure horse is to buy privately from someone you know to be trustworthy. Insist on driving the horses doing something you will ask them to do at home, so you can quickly determine that they are suitable for the job and that you can handle them safely.

Buying at an auction is risky. If the owner is there to talk to it helps. Horses driven in the sale ring offer some assurance that they are trained, but "broke" can mean a wide range of levels of experience and training from almost none to many years.

An inexperienced driver can ruin a well-trained team of horses. Both the horses and the teamster need training. If you are inexperienced take a draft horse workshop, read everything you can get you hands, on including Rural Heritage, and apprentice yourself to a local teamster.

Reprinted with the permission of Rural Heritage, a bimonthly journal focused on the ecologically and economically friendly use of draft animal technology, 281 Dean Ridge Lane, Gainesboro, TN 38562, 931-268-0655, www.ruralheritage.com.

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