Answer: Draft animals can offer farmers the advantage of a low initial investment in farm motive power compared to the purchase of even a relatively small tractor. A prospective horse farmer can spend a great deal of money on registered stock, harness and equipment. But it's also possible to obtain perfectly serviceable trained animals, used harness and functional equipment at reasonable prices. If saving money by using draft animals is your motivation, you may be able to do so. Just don't cut corners on safety in the interest of cutting cost. For a novice operator, a well-trained animal is well worth the cost. Sturdy, complete harness is vital.
One advantage of using draft animals as farm power is that their fuel can all be generated on-farm. Opinions vary on whether working horses should be fed grass or alfalfa hay and supplemented with oats or corn. The point is that all of these feeds can be produced locally, if not on the farm itself. Unlike a tractor, draft animals fit in to the nutrient cycle of a farm, utilizing local inputs and providing an output of power with a fertilizer byproduct.
Draft animals can be exceptionally flexible in application. For example, the same team of horses can plow and plant in spring, cultivate in summer, haul in the fall harvest of crops and firewood and feed livestock and offer sleigh rides in winter. Once the team is in harness, it's as efficient to use them for a little task as a big one since they're not burning any more fuel. Maneuverable horses can turn within their own length and they’re a power unit that easily moves from one task to another and one place to another.
In the long view, some draft animals are even capable of producing their own replacements in the form of offspring, something no piece of machinery can do. However, even an enthusiast does well to consider that breeding and training animals are entirely different propositions from working with already trained stock.
The chief benefit of working with draft animals may be their sheer appeal. Some farmers find it especially fulfilling to work daily with a human-scale, living and breathing partner rather than a machine. And draft animals at work have a traffic-stopping appeal for the public that can build farm brand recognition and consumer loyalty more effectively than any paid advertising.
The ATTRA publication Draft Animal Power for Farming provides much more information on this topic, including considerations and benefits involved in using animal power, safety, equipment, and more.
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