Are draft animals outdated? Definitely not, fans of animal power would be happy to tell you.
Draft animals have several advantages over machinery, especially when it comes to sustainable agriculture. They don’t require petroleum to run, they are less likely to compact the soil, and they can provide a valuable boost to soil nutrient levels.
However, it is important to recognize that tractors do reduce human labor requirements in many cases. Some draft animal experts estimate that working with horses takes about 20% longer than working with machinery, assuming that the teamster is experienced. And the horse is the fastest draft animal! For large-scale crop production, machinery is still the method of choice.
So are there still situations where draft animals have the edge? Quite possibly. There are three areas in which these hardworking helpers can really shine.
One of the most exciting areas in which draft animals can work these days is sustainable forestry. Horses and oxen have great potential to allow for thinning and harvesting of vulnerable woodlands without the damage risk that machinery poses. They don’t compact soils, bash into delicate young trees, or make clear-cutting a necessity.
On difficult terrain, draft animals have a decided advantage over vehicles. A horse can often worm his way through trunks on a slope that would make pickup owners flinch. Draft animals can also work in areas where there are no roads. Although machinery has been developed for commercial logging under these adverse conditions, it is extremely expensive.
Draft animals are often more economical than machinery when working in small woodlots. When dealing with low-density wood, such as cedar, you may not even need a whole team, just a single animal. While the purchase of draft animals and equipment can cost thousands of dollars, it pales in comparison with the purchase of logging equipment.
Many people love watching draft animals at work, particularly horses. Draft animals can provide a memorable experience to farm visitors that often cannot be matched by a tractor.
There are two main roles draft animals can play within the agritourism sector. The first is educating the public on sustainable and historic farming practices. This type of activity includes animal-powered farm tours, plowing demonstrations, and the like. Some really dedicated farmers even teach workshops for aspiring teamsters.
The second role draft animals can play in agritourism is entertainment. This type of activity includes hay rides and sleighing. Draft animals are often used to give rides of various sorts to crowds already attracted to another entertainment-focused agritourism enterprise, such as a pumpkin patch or a corn maze.
Home-scale gardening is typically most efficient with human power and hand tools. Supplying customers with produce on a regular basis is an entirely different story.
Working with draft animals can be a huge help when managing a large-scale market garden. Animals can aid in many tasks:
- Spreading soil amendments.
- Cultivating to remove weeds.
- Hilling potatoes.
- Hauling carts or wagons to make harvesting easier.
While tractors are sometimes used in market gardens, draft animals can have several advantages. They are usually less expensive to acquire, they do less damage to the soil structure, and they provide manure that can be invaluable to an organic garden of this scale. Furthermore, draft animals can be great for public relations.
Of course, there are other applications for draft animal power these days:
- Organic cash cropping.
- Power generation.
- Carriage rentals.
- Living history museums.
And the possibilities are limited only by your imagination.
At the time of this writing, however, sustainable forestry, agritourism, and market gardening are three areas where draft animals have shown tremendous potential.