Market gardening with horses

What is this ?

Market gardening is the growing of vegetables, some small fruit, some aromatic plants, herbs and flowers for human consumption, as well as medicinal plants, using a horse on a professional basis, with the aim of turning a profit or making a living, which differentiates it from simple gardening

The Advantages of using Horses in Market Gardening

Horses, mules and donkeys are very well-suited to market gardening where tractors are seldom seen. Rather, people use tillers or sometimes micro-tractors in market gardening where surfaces are often small (between 0.80 and 1.20 hectares). They are generally on a human scale that is equal to one unit of labour.

The Agronomic Aspect

Modern animal traction is best at limiting soil compaction. Its most immediate effect is to allow more air in, with this ventilation leading to the growth of bacterial and animal life in the soil and better decay of organic matter. However, a commonly-used agricultural practice, touted as the basis of evolution in agriculture, limits this effect: it’s the process of ploughing, even when this is done using animal traction. In fact, it puts pressure at the soil level, sometimes even smoothing it when done in wet weather. In certain types of soil, it helps to create large and indestructible clumps. All of the life in the soil is turned upside down.

Agronomic advantages of ridge planting or mounding

The soil does not react to climatic agents in a uniform way, with rain and the rays of the sun hitting the ridges at different angles, from one side or the other. The structure is thus better maintained and the soil remains better ventilated.

The consequences of soil sealing (destruction of agglomerates by heavy rain) is limited considerably. The clumps on the edges of mounds stay whole, increasing contact points between the soil and air, creating multiple shadow zones.

The surface of soil is multiplied when in contact with air, which favours gaseous and caloric exchanges. Life within the soil is amplified, particularly aerobic fauna. The diversity and importance of this fauna decrease the risk that pathogens will be present and favour the degradation of organic matter. Without ploughing, cultivation residue is integrated progressively. The humus is therefore mineralised without over-compaction in non-hydromorphic conditions.

Water management is improved. Indeed, all of the sun’s rays do not touch the ground at the same angle: The bottom of the mound will stay longer in shadow whereas the sides (depending on how the rows are oriented) will be more in shadow either in the morning or evening. There is less direct evaporation at the soil level. If the mounds are perpendicular, each rainfall during dry periods will collect in the hollows. It will penetrate all the more easily as the intra-mound area is under the surface. In the spring, which is a wet season, the excess water will run off in the hollows leaving the raised crop healthy when it comes to humidity. Drainage of the soil is speeded up, in particular at the top of the mounds which have better exposure to wind and sun. The market gardener can therefore sow more quickly after showers.

Source: PROMMATA Manual for Modern-Day Animal Traction

© JL. Dugast - PROMMATA

© JL. Dugast – PROMMATA

The Practical Aspect

Cultivating on mounds makes the job easier for a young market gardener, and a young horse will more easily follow the space between the mounds than the rows in flat cultivation.

The Economic Aspect

Using equines allows for financial and technical autonomy in small outfits given the low investment they require (Ref. the sheet on market gardening using animal traction – comparison of equipment, on the website of Association Trait Vienne) and the low operating costs (the energy that is consumed via fodder is recycled as compost and the animal engine can reproduce itself), helped by the wide range of possible activities.

The use of equines in market gardening allows for the development of short channels. It also provides an undeniable promotional and commercial advantage in dealing with customers, due to the excellent brand image it carries.

A study* comparing a 35hp two-wheel drive tractor with a horse shows the horse having a higher yield than the tractor (20% as opposed to 6% for the tractor). This gap is emphasised by the fact that horses can work in almost any type of soil, whatever the weather, whereas the use of tractors is limited by its weight and by the soil compaction it causes. One can also note that horses do not make use of fossil fuel energy and therefore cause neither damage to the ecosystem, nor noise pollution.

This same study also compares a horse to the same tractor driven by a less polluting bio-fuel. The horse still comes off better. The tractor would need the output from five hectares of oilseed crops that produce bio-fuels to run for a whole year whereas a horse only requires the output from one and a half hectares, divided between grass, hay, alfalfa and cereals.

One third of users of equines mention that the investment for the use of an equine is less than that for a motorised vehicle.

*B. Dangeard “Comparaison cheval-tracteur, consummation d’énergie et énergie récupérable” (Horse-Tractor Comparison, energy consumption and recoverable energy)

This statement must however be considered in the light of:

– Animal power is often acquired at a price which does not account for the total cost of its production, and which does not allow the breeders to live adequately off their work);

– Even though it allows the optimisation of the efficiency of animal traction and enhances its credibility, technically efficient equipment such as hoes, weeding brushes, weeding stars, and other tool combinations, tend to up the investment cost required considerably.

© JL. Dugast - Exploitation maraîchère dans le Jura

© JL. Dugast – Exploitation maraîchère dans le Jura

The Social Perspective

© E. Rousseaux

© E. Rousseaux – Maraîchage sous serre

Animal traction is a work tool on a human and environmental scale.

Its use in market gardening gives it a very positive natural image by meeting a growing demand for organic and natural products.

The horse meets the needs of a demanding client base, showing a return of interest in organic architecture and natural cultural techniques. Through its image, it can really add value to regionally-grown products.

The success of the work that is carried out is due in the greater part to the bond between the horse or donkey and their driver as it is necessary to make oneself understood, to request and to get the desired result. Putting in place such a work system requires a different approach towards the work. Animals require a learning period and physical training in order to be able to work correctly.

The life choice is also important. It is crucial to have someone there, to be organised and to have someone who can anticipate what work will be required on the equine side.

Some Figures

© E. Rousseaux

© E. Rousseaux

  • It takes 15 minutes to hoe a 500 square metre hothouse .
  • A horse can open and close the furrows on one hectare of potatoes in half a day.
  • The speed of a horse whilst hoeing is the same at which it walks, which is about 4.5km/h when precise work is being done.
  • The ideal spacing between cultivated rows is 70cm but can vary depending on the animal used.

 Strength and pulling Power of different animals

animal Weight (kg) Pulling Power (kg) Normal Speed (m/s) Power (W)
Draft Horse 700-1200 50-100 0,8-1,2 500-1000
Ordinary Horse 400-700 45-80 0,8-1,4 400-800
Mule 350-500 40-60 0,8-1,0 300-600
Donkey 150-300 20-40 0,6-0,8 75-200
Cow 400-600 50-60 0,6-0,8 200-400
Bull 500-900 60-80 0,5-0,7 300-500
Camel 500-1000 80-100 0,8-1,2 400-700
Buffalo 400-900 60-100 0,5-1,0 600-1000

Source FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations) / Force Motrice Animale (Animal Pulling Power)



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