Iron Horse vs. Kicking Horse

Column by John Mattingly

Agriculture – October 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

“I want to farm it all with horses.”

The speaker (over the phone, long distance), a noted New York City arbitrageur, had recently purchased 1,200 acres under center pivots in Wyoming. Based on readings from his long-time subscription to Amish Farm Journal, he wanted to farm with Belgian draft horses.

“That’s ambitious,” I managed to say.

“Saw your most recent article in New Farm Magazine,” he added, conversationally.

That article, about how to control bindweed with pumpkins, had nothing to do with Amish farming practices, but the call confirmed my suspicion that people seldom read my articles, but saw my name over a large number of words and concluded I must know something.

“Run an analysis for me,” the arbitrageur said. “I’m flying out next week, will pick you up in Denver with my private jet, take you to the farm.”

This was in March of 1978 when diesel fuel on the farm was about a dollar a gallon, a used 200-hp tractor about $15K, and a trained two-horse team about $5K. When all was said and done, my analysis convinced the arbitrageur to farm 120 acres with Belgians, and do the remainder with John Deeres, an outcome for which he remains grateful.

But what about today, when diesel is about $4 a gallon at the farm, a good used 200-hp tractor about $60K, and a two-horse team with gear, $15-20K? Has the cost of diesel fuel and tractors reached a tipping point where it makes sense to break out the harnesses again?

There are multiple ways of approaching this question, many of them dependent on the particulars of circumstance and location. But here in Colorado, possible variables used in calculating the relative efficiency of kicking horses vs iron horses are:

1. As a rule of thumb, acres worked per hour (Aw/h) can be calculated by the following formula: Implement width (Iw) times miles per hour (mph) divided by 10 equals (Aw/h). I don’t know why this works, but it does. (Iw x mph)/10 = Aw/h

2. A good, used 200 hp tractor (e.g. a John Deere 4960) burns about 7 gallons of diesel an hour, at $4 a gallon that equals $28 an hour.

3. Draft horses consume about 30 pounds of dry matter per day in the form of hay and grain, at an average cost of 14¢ a pound ($200/ton for hay, $340/ton for grain), or $4 /day times two horses = $8 a day. If the farmer grew the feed for the horses on the farm worked by the horses, or had good pasture, the cost could be lower.

4. A 200-hp tractor can pull an implement about three times the width that can be pulled by a two-horse team, and pull it about twice as fast.

For purposes of analysis, assume a 160-acre farm with decent soil and fairly level fields. A typical grain or oilseed crop requires seven complete passes over the field to make a seedbed, plant, cultivate or spray, harvest, and incorporate the aftermath, which totals 1,120 acres of work (160 acres times 7 passes). Using, on average, a 21-foot-wide implement at 8 miles per hour, the 200-hp tractor is going to work about 16 acres an hour, or 70 hours of work total for the season, times $28 a hour, or about $2,000 in diesel fuel.

The team, pulling a 7-foot-wide implement at 4 miles an hour will work about 3 acres an hour, or a total of 373 hours for the season, divided by 12 working hours in a day, equals 31 days at $8 or only $248 worth of feed.

(If the 160 acres is already planted to a good stand of hay, 3 to 4 passes over the field would be required, so the numbers would be roughly half that for an annual grain/oilseed crop.)

TURNING NOW to capital cost accounting, the $60K tractor, at 5%, has a capital holding cost of about $3K a year, while the team, at $15-20K, is $1K or less. The horses will eventually die, the tractor will always have some salvage value, so there may be a slight advantage to the tractor when it comes to a final cost consideration, but from the standpoints of fuel and annual capital costs, the horses look pretty attractive: the tractor costs about $5K a year to own, fuel up, and work, while horses cost a little over $1K a year.

This was the set of calculations that seduced the NYC arbitrageur to imagine farming with horses to be more profitable than tractors. But in his enthusiasm, he forgot several things:

1. The horses have to eat another 334 days at $8 a day, which is an additional $2,700.

2. The tractor requires maintenance and repair, but so do the horses: feeding, shoeing, worming, injury treatment, and because they’re being worked, the horses need to be kept in top condition, which requires skilled labor.

3. Timing is perhaps the most important economic function in farming. A few hours one way or the other can make the difference between a good and poor crop, or between a crop and no crop. The tractor has a substantial timing advantage, accomplishing in about 70 hours what the team does in about 373 hours. For horses to match the timing advantage of the tractor would require five to six 2-horse teams (373 hours divided by 70). This multiplies costs well beyond the total costs of the tractor, most ominously in the need for half a dozen skilled horsemen choreographed to work effectively in the field.

A tractor, meanwhile, can be operated and serviced by one man. The tractor’s energy source can be stored and handled easily (that is, it ain’t burnin’ any hay). As tractors have become more sophisticated, the skill level required of the human operator has declined proportionally.

THIS IS A FAMILIAR STORY, repeated in most other sectors of the world economy. But the victory of machines over human and animal energy results not only from the overwhelming convenience of machines, but also from the fact that our economic culture subsidizes machines in subtle ways. The tractor in the above example is running on stored solar energy (oil and gas) rather than the annual solar allowance (hay and grain) that sustains the horses. As long as there is ample stored solar energy in the bank, the account can be drawn down, which amounts to a solar subsidy.

Too, the tractor is allowed to dump its trash (exhaust) into the air for free, despite the fact that we are now learning that its pollution has real costs in human and environmental health. The horse, by contrast, drops a usable waste product back to the soil over which it works. (Horses do not emit methane like ruminant animals, and thus do not contribute much to greenhouse gases.)

Many of the components of the tractor, from its iron ore to its computer chips, have collateral negative impacts on the planet, as well as on the labor force producing those components. But, would the nexus of people involved in producing tractors — from miners to tractor dealership clerks — rather be out in the field with horses than doing what they’re doing?

Those doing slave labor in mines and sweat shops might jump at the chance to get outdoors, but those in the vast network of 8-to-5 jobs with regular hours and benefits would be loathe to leave their positions to spend long hours in sun, dust, and bugs looking at the back-end of a Belgian. Ironically, even though the world of horse-drawn agriculture is healthier for the planet, it is perceived as distinctly unsanitary by most folks in the industrialized world.

The obstacles to farming with horses these days have more to do with the structure of our current economy which values convenience over sustainability, regular hours over open-ended seasonal demands, and a willingness to overlook many of the subtle (externalized) costs of operating fossil-fuel-dependent machines.

Basically, we pass the buck.

John Mattingly is a recovering farmer, now found in Creede.