Ryan Heinen’s horses, Pete and Mike, can follow his voice commands when dragging hay to feed the cows. [Photo courtesy of Gwenyn Hill Farm]
Wisconsin farmer Ryan Heinen doesn’t have to drive when he needs to fetch the hay. Instead, he just voice-commands his draft horses. “Step up!” and the horses move forward, pulling the hay cart. “Whoa!” and they stop.
“There’s no tractor that can do that,” says Heinen, a livestock manager tending about 140 cows, 30 sheep and broods of laying hens at Gwenyn Hill Farm in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Heinen works with five Belgian draft horses — Mike, Pat, Pearl, Pete and Poppy — to run errands around the farm. He relies on horsepower to spread feed for the cows up in the hills, plant crops like wheat and oats, dig potatoes and harvest hay — just like farmers did a century ago, before motorized tractors largely replaced draft animals on farms in industrialized countries.
It’s no gimmick. Although draft farming remains a niche in American agriculture, it is on the rise, says John Smolinsky, a horse logger from Cabot, Vermont, and the president of Draft Animal-Power Network. The network of sustainable farmers, loggers, foresters and landowners has 250 members in 29 states as well as countries as far away as England and Sweden, Smolinsky says. Its animal power discussion group on Facebook has nearly 8,000 members.
The current boomlet in draft animals has roots in the sustainable farming movement of recent decades. With skipped-generation farmers tracing their grandparents’ steps back to the farmland, some of them have also invited animal power back as a more economic and eco-friendly way to reconnect with the soil. The interest to preserve draft farming has also grown from the field into classrooms. A few colleges now offer draft animal courses, spurring young folks to learn the trade of traditional farming.
Until the early-1900s, American farmers relied completely on animal power. But diesel-powered wheels quickly replaced hay-powered legs. By the end of World War II, the number of draft animals in the U.S. had dropped by 50% to 11 million. After 1960, horses, mules and oxen were barely used anywhere other than Amish farms and weren’t even tracked anymore in the U.S. government’s agricultural census.
Reaching back to the past, however, is not a simple process. “If you’re not willing to functionally learn or self-reflect,” Smolinsky says, “you might need something that you can shut the key off and walk away” — in other words, a motorized tractor. Smolinsky, who had never worked with horses until a decade ago, describes his horses — Jake and Molly — as “working partners” with whom he needs to earn trust and respect.
“You have to like horses,” agrees Lars Prillaman, who used to farm with his wife Leslie in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. First-generation farmers, the Prillamans got their first horse for their Green Gate Farm in 2015. With the help of their three horses May, Tulip and Jenny, Prillaman says he can get almost everything done on the farm “without turning the key on anything.” In spring 2021, the Prillamans took Tulip, Jenny, and their son Wendell — named after American author Wendell Berry who farmed with horses — and relocated to Loudon, New Hampshire. There, Lars continues to work with the horses on the soil as a teamster for the Sanborn Mills Farm.
It’s hard to compare the economics of draft farming to mechanical power since draft farmers say their costs are highly dependent on each farm’s situation and hard to generalize. But many draft farmers believe draft animals do have a financial edge. A typical draft horse (which can exert up to about 15 horsepower) typically costs between $1,000 to more than $10,000, depending on the breed, age, health and training. In contrast, a compact John Deere tractor with about 60 horsepower can cost more than $45,000. Even four horses at their more expensive price are still cheaper than a tractor.
When it comes to maintenance, some farmers estimate that one horse eats about a bale of hay per day, which costs about $4. Thus, the annual cost of feeding four horses is approximately $5,600. That’s more than $900 less than the estimated cost of a year’s fuel and lubrication for a 60 horsepower diesel-powered farm tractor; assuming about 600 hours of annual operation and the average diesel price is at the current national average of $3.6 per gallon. In addition, draft animal equipment tends to be cheaper since many tools are refurbished or homemade by farmers or the few remaining specialized workshops, says Donn Hewes, a first-generation dairy farmer from Central New York. He has been working with draft horses and mules for more than two decades.
The veterinary cost and nutritional supplements for a healthy work horse normally cost within $1,000 per year, whereas tractor repair can cost from a few hundred to thousands of dollars — though many farmers don’t have the right to repair their own tractors due to technical blocks set by the manufacturers.
Setting aside economics, Prillaman and many draft farmers choose to work with draft animals because of sustainability. Compared with fossil-fuel-powered tractors, horses produce less air pollution and greenhouse gas emission because they feed on grass. “I don’t want to use heavy equipment or burn fossil fuels,” Prillaman says. “The stuff that comes out is not great.” In contrast, he adds, the manure from the animals can be recycled back to the soil and help nourish plant growth, closing the carbon cycle.
The big problem with draft power is that animals can take longer to do the work than tractors and there is a learning curve for working with animals, says Hewes. This inefficiency is especially glaring on large farms with hundreds or even thousands of acres to tend. Hewes says draft animals make more sense for smaller farms under 100 acres, where farmers are more likely to own their land and have the freedom to work at their own pace.
But during the long hours of toil, draft farmers come to cherish the intimate connections with their animals. “I’m bottle-feeding these animals, I’m taking care of them as if they were babies, I’m raising them, I’m dealing with their poop, I’m dealing with their growth, personalities, and I’m dealing with their adolescence,” says Kevin Cunningham, who has been working with oxen on their Northern California farm for 11 production seasons. “They become members of the family.”
Sara Dougherty’s deep connection with draft animals is reflected in her job: she teaches draft horse handling at Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York. “It’s such a weird job,” says Dougherty, who is 25 and a seasoned draft horse teamster. Dougherty was a student of the very same course she is teaching now — she was so involved in the field, the college offered the teaching job when her professor retired in 2017.
Every year, Dougherty trains around two dozen students on the basics of draft horse management and advanced topics such as winter horse work where students learn winter skills such as horse logging and carriage riding. “There’s the rich history,” she says about working with horses, “but there’s also this very new age motion forward.”
Rick Thomas, who heads purportedly the country’s first undergraduate minor program on draft animal power systems at the small Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, feels similarly optimistic about the future of draft power. His students “get involved with the draft horses or the oxen, and they get hooked,” says Thomas, who has mentored hundreds of students over the past 20 years. Two years ago, Thomas moved to Kentucky to help establish Sterling College’s Wendell Berry Farming Program.
“My hope is that people will see draft animals’ value,” Thomas says, “They’re still here, they’re just unused.”