Our family's choice to use horses to farm our land in Ogden, Utah, was not based on economics. It was simply something we wanted to do for the sake of the entire farming system, including the family involvement in the farm. Some of the significant benefits we recognized include:
- Alleviating some environmental issues, such as soil compaction, hydrocarbon air pollution, and nitrate groundwater pollution.
- Reducing off-farm inputs of diesel fuel and petro-chemicals, while adding to soil fertility.
- A possible labor savings from using animal intelligence in many work situations.
- The potential to facilitate community interaction.
- Additional business possibilities for using draft horses for such things as horse logging, hay and sleigh rides, and the like.
- The intrinsic joy and satisfaction derived from working with intelligent animals.
Not until long after we made our choice to farm with horses did we begin to understand the economic advantages. What are the costs and benefits associated with using draft horses on the small sustainable farm? Are they an economical option, and why? On what size farm might they make sense?
To begin answering these questions, we must establish costs for each option—tractor power and horse power—then look at the trade-off using some fundamental cost evaluation tools. My analysis is based on just one farm, and since the devil is often hidden in the details, my assumptions are structured so you may substitute your own values and make your own comparisons.
**Because Chet Kendell wrote this economic comparison of tractor versus horse farming in 2005, the figures will need to be adjusted to reflect present values. That said, we believe its fundamental conclusion, that tractor farming incorporates a negative cost function that decreases profits while horse farming includes a livestock production function that boosts its economic outcome.