We have been using draft horses to till the soils of our farm since the spring of 2012. During the first two years of farming, we had rented farms which came with the necessary tractor equipement. When we moved to our new rented farm in 2012, renting machinery was not an option that was available to us. We thus began the decision making process to decide which path we would take : tractors or horses.
Their names are Bill and Molly… two middle-aged belgian work horses. Having worked their entire lifes on Amish farms in Ontario, these two horses were well familiarized with farm work; exactly what two young farmers such as ourselves needed!
It’s 5am on a nice summer morning. The day starts with a nice walk out to the pasture where the horses have spent the night. The horses are waiting there by the gate, eager to come in to have their morning ration of sprouted oats and mineral salt. The walk back to the barn is a good time to observe the horses to make sure that they aren’t limping or anything. Back in the barn, we brush them and put their work harness on while the horses enjoy their breakfast. This is another opportunity to inspect them to make sure they don’t have any sores or scratches that need our attention. Then, it’s time for our own breakfast, yumm!
Having a regular morning routine helps us maintain an efficient and enjoyable work environment. If we need to use the horses during the day, they’re already harnessed and ready to work, no need to go out and chase the horses around to get them in. The fact of having a routine means that the horses know to be waiting for us at the pasture gate in the morning.
Once the work day is over, we unharness the horses and bring then out to the pasture to graze and spend the night. After a sweaty day of work, the first thing that the horses do when they get to the pasture is roll around and scratch their backs. Pretty funny to see these two huge horses rolling around like puppys.
The tractor… still around
We have decided to use a hybrid system involving horses and tractors. The idea is not to be dogmatic, but rather to inspire ourselves from the past and present to create the future we wish to live in.
The primary function that we use the tractor for is the front loader which we use for loading compost into the horse drawn compost spreader and for moving heavy loads around the farm using the pallet fork. Other tasks we do with the tractor are : mowing, transplanting, and laying black plastic mulch.
Advantages of using horses in our farm operation :
- Less risk of compacting the soil : Since the horses are significantly less heavy than our tractor, there is less risk of damaging the soil by compacting it. This allows us to work the soil earlier in the spring than if we were using a tractor.
- Less capital intensive : The cost of acquiring and operating a team of horses is significantly lower than to acquire a tractor and all the necessary tillage equipement.
- Quality of Life : Horses are living beings. They need to take a break at lunch time. They don’t have headlights, so you can’t work all night long even if you wanted to. The fact of working with horses means that our lifestyle is less hectic and our quality of life is improved.
- Manure : Horses generate manure which we use to make compost that serves to fertilize our fields and grow great vegetables.
- Self-repairing and regenerating : Horses have the ablility to heal given rest. I’ve never seen my tractor fix itself no matter how long I let it sit there. Also, if we wanted to we could breed our female horse and we would have a new horse.
- Personality : The relationship that we develop with our horses is something that we greatly value. Each horse has it’s own personality which we get to know and appreciate. There is also a certain therapeutic aspect to working with horses. They are very much like mirrors of us. If we are calm, they are calm. If we are nervous, they are nervous and the work does not go so well. To be a good horse farmer, we must learn to be calm and confident.
- Modular power source : We can choose to use one or two or three or more horses depending on our needs. This allows us to tailor our power source to specific tasks. There are situations (such as cultivating in between rows of trellised tomatoes) were we use just one horse to pass where we would never be able to go with a tractor.
- Bio-extensive farming : Horses require a significant amount of space to walk between the rows of vegetables. This encourages us to use the bio-extensive model of farming where widly spaced rows allow good air circulation thus reducing he incidence of disease and we are able to reduce our inputs since each plant has more soil to forage for nutrients using its root system.
- Finally, horses generate good times, both for visitors to the farm and for the farmers.