By Donna Campbell Smith
Farming with draft animals might seem like little more than a trip down memory lane, an attempt at bringing back the good ole days. But, with the growing interest in sustainable living and a greener lifestyle it is not just about nostalgia. Draft animals, be it mule, horse, or ox, have several advantages over gasoline-powered machines in many farm chores from clearing the land to harvesting the crops.
Draft animals run on hay, not gas, they cost less to maintain than tractors and they leave a smaller footprint on the planet. In addition, they offer companionship, and can double to power horse-drawn recreational vehicles when not working. Finally, they make a valuable contribution to the compost pile.
There are, however, a few challenges that should be addressed before making the change from gasoline power to real horsepower. It takes some specialized knowledge of the animals in order to care for them properly. The animals must be trained to do the required work and horse-drawn farming equipment is also required. Perhaps the largest drawback to using draft animals is you cannot “park and leave it” when not working. The animal will need your care 365 days a year.
If you are not well versed in the care and use of draft animals learning opportunities are available through workshops, classes, plow days and farm tours, which are popping up across the country because of growing interest in reverting to farming with draft animals.
Plow days can be an excellent opportunity to learn some of the basics of farming behind a horse. These events are sponsored by communities, draft horse clubs, and sometimes by individuals from coast to coast.
.Jason Rutledge of Virginia founded Healing Harvest Forest Foundation (HHFF) 1999 to promote using horses to log on a “worse first” single tree harvesting technique and to provide educational opportunities for the public and for forestry students. Using draft animals enables one to extract diseased or damaged trees without doing damage to the surrounding forest. This is not possible when using heavy machinery. Rutledge has conducted workshops throughout the east for the public at colleges and universities, including Duke University in North Carolina, to teach responsible forestry practices using draft horses. Draft horse owners across the country have graduated from this program to become certified biological woodsmen.
To learn what resources are in your community contact your county cooperative extension service. Your county livestock agent is also an excellent resource when it comes to learning how to care for draft animals. The Good Farming Apprenticeship Network offers a list of similar apprenticeship programs with hands on experience across the United States and Canada.
Finding horse drawn machinery is another challenge farmers come up against when they decide to go to real horsepower. But as farming with draft animals becomes more popular farm implement dealers are offering new and refurbished machinery. Amish communities are good places to look for both trained animals and machinery. Farm and estate auctions sometimes will have old horse drawn implements for sale. Ads in draft animal magazines such as Rural Heritage and The Draft Horse Journal are good resources for dealers. Many farmers are finding old machines and do their own refurbishing, a good project from winter downtime.
Horses, mules and oxen cause less damage to the land than heavy machinery, they run on solar power in the form of hay and grain, use less fossil fuel that tractors, and produce fertilizer rather than carbon monoxide, therefore contributing less to global warming. Horses are often self-healing and can even reproduce. Find a tractor that can do that. Farmers who use draft animals to help with their work will tell you that the best reason for using draft animals for farm work is the therapeutic benefit of working with a living, breathing creature.
The Good Farming Apprenticeship Network — www.ruralheritage.com/apprenticeship
Healing Harvest Forest Foundation (Jason Rutledge) — healingharvestforestfoundation.org
Horse Drawn Farm Machinery (I & J Manufacturing) — www.farmingwithhorses.com
Pioneer Farm Equipment Online Catalog — www.pioneerfarmequipment.com