The Original Horsepower
January 23, 2017
This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend the Tilth Conference. We will be posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.
Before mechanized farm equipment, there were animal-powered implements. Before that there was man-powered farming, and before agricultural crops were domesticated there were hunters and gatherers. All of these methods still exist today in various arrangements; some are utilized more than others. The size and scale of the farm operation are factors that play into what methods are used. Combinations of these methods are common at a typical farm. As an owner of a family hay farm, my personal experience includes mostly mechanized farm equipment, but I’m intrigued by these other systems. Here, I examine a small-scale re-energized method of farming, using animals to carry out duties on the farm.
The 2016 Tilth Conference in Wenatchee, WA offered many seminar-type workshops. I am a Master of Science candidate studying agricultural systems, but I was happy to attend sessions on a number of different topics. One workshop of particular interest was Starting a Draft-Horse Farm: Becoming a Farm Owner presented by Hayshaker Farm co-owner Chandler Briggs. This farm is out in Walla Walla, WA and is completely powered by draft horses, an alternative to fossil fuel dependent farm implements. Could “old-school” horse-powered farming be coming back, and is it a reliable cost-effective alternative to diesel-powered farm equipment?
I interviewed a fellow audience member and part-owner of our family hay farm, John Allen of C & J Legacy Farm, about what he thought of using horses and other animals as an alternative to traditional mechanized farm equipment: “My honest opinion is yes it is a great method for sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation, but a major downfall of using draft horse power is the added time, effort, and patience when working with animals. They require major upkeep. There are also added costs associated with training and maintaining the health of the horses. The scale of the farm plays a big factor in choosing to run a draft horse powered farm. The implements would have to be ground-driven and most large-scale implements are not. They use a PTO [power take off] connected to a tractor. Therefore, it would be difficult to acquire the right tools for the job.” John seemed to like the idea of using horses, but thought it would take a lot of work and preparation to make it a profitable, thriving business. Horses need attention daily. He is co-owner of our hay production farm out on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle. He has valid points, but I believe this is an endeavor worth trying out for farmers to minimize their carbon footprint and their use of non-renewable natural resources. That said, in addition to John’s reservations, it might be distracting for horses to work in hay fields because that is their preferred forage. For horses, it is imperative they don’t eat on the job. John and I both had a laugh when conversing about it and our own experiences as hay farmers. But in all seriousness, because they are ruminant animals, horses can colic from eating with an elevated body temperature and dehydration, or too much moisture in their forage. I suspect using draft horses on a grain farm would require a skilled and experienced handler. The photo above is of our hay trailer and a consumer’s horse grazing the hay on it.
Using a variety of horse breeds including draft horses in farming could minimize fossil fuel use and use of other non-renewable energy sources on agriculture land. The idea of using horsepower linked my mind to a current event affecting many land owners and rangers protecting public land. One issue that keeps popping up in the news on the west coast of the United States is how to handle the wild/feral horse overpopulation from Washington State to California. These states are progressive, full of animal rights advocates as well as government agencies. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has stated that there is an overabundance of wild/feral horses roaming the Northwest, compacting soil, and devastating vital vegetation of rangeland landscapes. One solution that keeps surfacing is rounding up the horses and culling the herds. Is killing the answer? Animal activists seek nonlethal solutions and believe killing is not the answer. The overpopulation of released horses was caused by humans in the first place. If horse-powered farms gained popularity, these horses could be acquired for virtually free, gelded/castrated, and trained instead of killed. The costs would be in training and maintaining their health. This would be seen as a partial solution to the problem of overpopulation of horses on these wildlands. People in the equine community would most-likely become happy customers of farms supporting this trend.
Using horsepower as an alternative to motorized machines in agriculture has its pros and cons. Farms that use this method face unique challenges, but every farmer knows that farming is something that takes commitment, and challenges pop up all the time that the farmer has to address. After listening to the workshop about using draft horses as a powerful workforce and tool on the farm I was left intrigued and curious. While it seemed to raise more questions than it answered, and the farm owner Chandler Briggs seemed to still have his own questions about how to continue this business under the current circumstances with his farm land lease and landlord situation, I was inspired. At the very least, Chandler’s presentation opened my mind to the holistic approach of using animals as an alternative to diesel and gas-dependent vehicles and equipment to operate a sustainable farm.