Economics of Farming with Horses—
by Chet Kendell

In the early 1900s many farmers adopted the automobile and internal combustion technology for general transportation, but at the same time continued to use draft horses effectively for their farm traction for another 50 years. Did they understand the selective application of a given technology? Perhaps they did.

Later, in the late 1940s when excess factory capacity became available, farm equipment manufacturers and the agricultural industry in general intensively promoted the sale and use of mechanical specialization including tractors. Many of the equipment companies instituted sales policies of taking in horses as a down payment, with the total cost of the tractor obscured in small monthly payments. Farmers soon began expanding their scale of production to pay for their investment. To this day conventional agriculture continues to emphasis monoculture cropping and equipment specification.

Let's go back to the late 1940s and 1950s. According to our model the next decision point after purchasing the tractor is in 10 years. By then the infrastructure, personnel, knowledge, and ability to effectively use horses on the farm was all but gone. The existing stock of draft horses was largely liquidated and discarded. The stock of complementary equipment had been customized for use with tractors. For the most part, the institutions of our agricultural society had limited their option of using draft horses for farm traction.

In the subsequent 50 years since the 1950s, what has happened? Farm machinery has increased significantly in price and specificity. So have the needed fuel, oil, filters, tires, batteries, and so forth. With little demand for working draft horses, their price remains relatively inexpensive. At the same time over the past 50 years, the threshold value of horses has increased. Today we are at a point where the draft horse may, and perhaps should, be seriously considered as a choice of traction power for our small to medium farms.

Career Cost of Horses versus Tractor
Farm Size
Operational Cost for Horses
Debt Financing

Chet Kendell is on the Economics faculty at Brigham Young University - Idaho in Rexburg and a PhD candidate on the Viability of the Sustainable Agricultural Enterprise with emphasis on animal traction tillage from Michigan State University. This article appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of Rural Heritage.

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26 April 20121 last revision