Replacing diesel tractors with horses or oxen – what will that be like?

Preface.  Since fossil fuels are clearly finite, at some point increasing numbers of farmers with diesel vehicles and equipment will want to replace them with horses, which can do the work of six people.  Here’s what  energy expert Vaclav Smil has to say about that.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Vaclav Smil. 2017. Energy and Civilization A History. MIT Press.

During the 1890s a dozen powerful American horses needed some 18 tonnes of oats and corn per year, about 80 times the total of food grain eaten by their master.

Only a few land-rich countries could provide so much feed. Feeding 12 horses would have required about 15 ha of farmland. An average U.S. farm had almost 60 ha of land in 1900, but only one-third of it was cropland. Clearly, even in the United States, only large grain growers could afford to keep a dozen or more working animals; the 1900 average was only three horses per farm.

Even in land-rich agricultures with extraordinary feed production capacities the substitution trend could not have continued much beyond the American achievements of the late 19th century. Heavy gang plows and combines took animal-drawn cultivation to its practical limit. Besides the burden of feeding large numbers of animals used for relatively short periods of field work, much labor had to go into stabling, cleaning, and shoeing the animals. Harnessing and guiding large horse teams were also logistical challenges. There was a clear need for a much more powerful prime mover—and it was soon introduced in the form of internal combustion engines.

The simplest way of transporting loads is to carry them. Where roads were absent people could often do better than animals: their weaker performance was often more than compensated for by flexibility in loading, unloading, moving on narrow paths, and scrambling uphill. Similarly, donkeys and mules with panniers were often preferred to horses: steadier on narrow paths, with harder hooves and lower water needs they were more resilient. The most efficient method of carrying is to place the load’s center of gravity above the carrier’s own center of gravity—but balancing a load is not always practical.

In relative terms, people were better carriers than animals. Typical loads were only about 30% of an animal’s weight (that is, mostly just 50–120 kg) on the level and 25% in the hills. Men aided by a wheel could move loads far surpassing their body weight. Recorded peaks are more than 150 kg in Chinese barrows where the load was centered right above the wheel’s axle.

The superiority of horses could be realized only with a combination of horseshoes and an efficient harness. Performance in land transport also depended on success in reducing friction and allowing higher speeds. The state of roads and the design of vehicles were thus two decisive factors. The differences in energy requirements between moving a load on a smooth, hard, dry road and on a loose, gravelly surface are enormous. In the first case a force of only about 30 kg is needed to wheel a 1 t load, the second instance would call for five times as much draft, and on sandy or muddy roads the multiple can be seven to ten times higher. Axle lubricants (tallow and plant oils) were used at least since the second millennium BCE.

The roads in ancient societies were mostly just soft tracks that seasonally turned into muddy ruts, or dusty trails.  Roads in continental Europe were in similarly bad shape, and coach horses harnessed in teams of four to six animals lasted on average less than three years.

The stabling of the animals in mews and the provision and storage of hay and straw made an enormous demand on urban space. At the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, London had some 300,000 horses. City planners in New York were thinking about setting aside a belt of suburban pastures to accommodate large herds of horses between the peak demands of rush-hour transport. The direct and indirect energy costs of urban horse-drawn transport—the growing of grain and hay, feeding and stabling the animals, grooming, shoeing, harnessing, driving, and removal of wastes to periurban market gardens—were among the largest items on the energy balance of the late 19th-century cities.

The importance of horses, both in cavalry units and harnessed to heavy wagons and field artillery, persisted in all major Western conflicts of the early modern era (1500–1800), as well in the epoch-defining Napoleonic Wars. Large armies projected far from their home base had to rely on animals to move their supplies: pack animals (donkeys, mules, horses, camels, llamas) were used in difficult terrain;

Opening the road to Russia to Napoleon: that is how Philip Paul, Comte de Ségur (1780–1873), one of Napoleon’s young generals and perhaps the most famous chronicler of the disastrous Russian invasion, described the Prussian contribution. By this treaty, Prussia agreed to furnish many goods: 22,046 tons of rye, 264 tons of rice, two million bottles of beer,  44,092 tons of wheat, 71,650 tons of straw, 38,581 tons of hay, six million bushels of oats, 44,000 oxen, 15,000 horses, 300,600 wagons with harness and drivers, each carrying a load of 1700 pounds; and finally, hospitals provided with everything necessary for 20,000 sick.

When in 1900 a Great Plains farmer held the reins of six large horses while plowing his wheat field, he controlled—with considerable physical exertion, perched on a steel seat, and often enveloped in dust—no more than 5 kW of animate power. A century later his great-grandson, sitting high above the ground in the air-conditioned comfort of his tractor cabin, controlled effortlessly more than 250 kW of diesel engine power.

The mechanization of field work has been the main reason behind the rising labor productivity rise and the reduction of agricultural populations: a strong early 20th-century Western horse worked at a rate equal to the labor of at least six men, but even early tractors had power equivalent to 15–20 heavy horses, and today’s most powerful machines working on Canadian prairies rate up to 575 horsepower.

American draft horses reached their highest number in 1915, at 21.4 million animals, but mule numbers peaked only in 1925 and 1926, at 5.9 millio.

Replacing the existing American field machinery by draft animals would require horse and mule stock at least ten times as large as its record numbers from the early 20th century. Some 300 Mha, or twice the total area of U.S. arable land, would be needed just to feed the animals, and masses of urbanites would have to leave the cities for farms.

In single-cropping regimes of northern Europe draft horses would do only 60–80 days of strenuous field work during the fall and spring plowing and the summer harvesting, but most of them were used extensively for transport. A typical working day ranged from just five hours for oxen in many African locations to more than ten hours for water buffaloes in Asian rice fields and for horses during European or North American grain harvests.

A typical draft is 15% of animal’s body weight but for horses it is up to 35% during brief exertions (about 2 kW) and even more during a few seconds of supreme effort (Collins and Caine 1926). The combination of large mass and relatively high speed makes horses the best draft animals, but most horses could not work steadily at the rate of one horsepower (745 W), and usually delivered between 500 and 850 W.

Horses are the most powerful draft animals. Unlike cattle, whose body mass is almost equally divided between the front and the rear, horses’ fronts are notably heavier than their rears (ratio of about 3:2), and so the pulling animal can take a better advantage of inertial motion than cattle. Except in heavy, wet soils, horses can work in fields steadily at speeds of around 1 m/s, easily 30–50% faster than oxen.

Horses also have better endurance (working 8–10 hours a day compared to 4–6 hours for cattle) and they live longer, and while both oxen and horses started working at 3–4 years of age, oxen lasted usually just for 8–10 years, while horses carried on commonly for 15–20 years.

A horse’s leg anatomy gives the animal a unique advantage by virtually eliminating the energy costs of standing. The horse has a very powerful suspensory ligament running down the back of the cannon bone and a pair of tendons (superficial and deep digital flexors) that can “lock” the limb without engaging muscles. This allows the animals to rest, even to doze, while standing, with hardly any metabolic cost, and to spend little energy while grazing. All other mammals need about 10% more energy when standing as compared to lying down.

Besides speeding up plowing and harvesting, animal labor also made it possible to lift large volumes of irrigation water from deeper wells. Animals were used to operate such food-processing machines as mills, grinders, and presses at rates far surpassing human capabilities. Relief from long hours of tiresome labor was no less important than the higher output rates, but more animal work required more cultivated land to grow feed crops.

In North America and in parts of Europe, the upkeep of horses at times claimed up to one-third of all agricultural area.

An average 19th-century European or American horses annual useful labor equal to about six working farmers, and the land used for its feeding (including all the nonworking animals) could have grown food for about six people. Strong, well-fed horses could perform tasks beyond human capacity and endurance.

American farmers were advised to feed their working horses 4.5 kg of oats and 4.5 kg of hay a day (Bailey 1908), which translates to about 120 M J/day. With an average power of 500 W, a horse would do about 11 MJ of useful work during six hours, and while an average male human would contribute less than 2 MJ, though he could not maintain steady exertion above 80 W and managed only brief peaks above 150 W, a horse could work steadily at 500 W and have brief peak pulls in excess of 1 kW, an effort that would require the exertions of a dozen men.

Horses could drag logs and pull out stumps when humans converted forests to cropland, break up rich prairie soils by deep plowing, or pull heavy machinery. There were additional energy costs of animal labor beyond maintaining a breeding herd and providing adequate feeding for field labor; these additional energy costs appeared above all in the making of harnesses and shoes and the stabling of the animals. But there were also additional benefits derived from the recycled manure and from milk, meat, and leather. Manure recycling has been important in all intensive traditional agricultures as the source of scarce nutrients and organic matter. In largely vegetarian societies, meat (including horsemeat in parts of Europe) and milk were valuable sources of perfect protein. Leather was used in making a large number of tools essential in farming and in traditional manufactures. And, of course, the animals were self-reproducing.

In Chinese cities, high shares of human waste (70–80%) were recycled. Similarly, by the 1650s virtually all of Edo’s (today’s Tokyo) human wastes were recycled (Tanaka 1998). But the usefulness of this practice is limited by the availability of such wastes and their low nutrient content, and the practice entails much repetitive, heavy labor. Even before storage and handling losses, the annual yield of human wastes averaged only about 3.3 kg N/capita (Smil 1983). The collection, storage, and delivery of these wastes from cities to the surrounding countryside created large-scale malodorous industries, which even in Europe persisted for most of the 19th century before canalization was completed. Barles (2007) estimated that by 1869, Paris was generating annually about 4.2 Mt N, about 40% from horse manure and about 25% from human wastes;

The recycling of much more copious animal wastes—which involved cleaning of stalls and sties, liquid fermentation or composting of mixed wastes before field applications, and the transfer of wastes to fields—was even more time-consuming. And because most manures have only about 0.5% N, and pre-application and field losses of the nutrient had commonly added up to 60% of the initial content, massive applications of organic wastes were required to produce higher yields.

Every conceivable organic waste was used as a fertilizer in traditional farming: pigeon, goat, sheep, cattle, all other dung, composts made of straw, lupines, chaff, bean stalks, husks, and oak leaves.

Any theoretical estimates of nitrogen in recycled wastes are far removed from its eventual contribution. This is because of very high losses (mainly through ammonia volatilization and leaching into groundwater) between voiding, collection, composting, application, and eventual nitrogen uptake by crops. These losses, commonly of more than two-thirds of the initial nitrogen, further increased the need to apply enormous quantities of organic wastes. Consequently, in all intensive traditional agricultures, large shares of farm labor had to be devoted to the unappealing and heavy tasks of collecting, fermenting, transporting, and applying organic wastes.

Scale of traditional recycling (and hence the energies devoted to gathering, handling and applying the waste biomass) had to be so large because the organic materials applied to field or plowed in (as green manures) had very low nitrogen content: human and animal wastes are largely water, as are green manures; only oil cakes (residues after pressing edible oils) have relatively high nitrogen content. For comparison, urea, the leading modern synthetic fertilizer, contains 46% of nitrogen.

The performance of the best twine-binding harvester was soon surpassed with the introduction of the first horse-drawn combines, marketed by California’s Stockton Works during the 1880s. Housers, the company’s standard combines after 1886, cut two-thirds of California’s wheat by 1900, when more than 500 machines were working in the state’s fields. The largest ones needed up to 40 horses and could harvest a hectare of wheat in less than 40 minutes—but they tested the limits of animal-powered machinery because harnessing and guiding up to 40 horses was an enormous challenge.

At its beginning, a farmer (80 W) working in a field was aided by about 800 W of draft power (two oxen); by its end, a farmer combining his Californian wheat field had at his disposal 18,000 W (a team of 30 horses).

In 1800 New England farmers (seeding by hand, with ox-drawn wooden plows and brush harrows, sickles, and flails) needed 150–170 hours of labor to produce their wheat harvest. By 1900 in California, horse-drawn gang-plowing, spring-tooth harrowing, and combine harvesting could produce the same amount of wheat in less than nine hours. In 1800 New England farmers needed more than seven minutes to produce a kilogram of wheat, but less than half a minute was needed in California’s Central Valley in 1900, roughly a 20-fold labor productivity gain in a century.

Naturally, these huge advances were only partially due to much higher efficiencies resulting from better machinery. The other principal reason for the rapidly rising energy returns of human labor was the substitution of horse power for human muscles. American inventors produced a vast range of efficient implements and machines, but they had only limited success in displacing draft animals as farming prime movers.

During the first two decades of the twentieth century the numbers of American horses and mules stayed around 25 million. Growing enough feed for their maintenance and work required about one quarter of America’s cultivated land

In 1910 America had 24.2 million farm horses and mules (and only 1,000 small tractors); in 1918 the draft animal herd peaked at 26.7 million and the number of tractors rose to 85,000. With an average daily need of 4 kg of grain for working animals and 2 kg of concentrate feed for the rest, the annual feed requirements were roughly 30 Mt of oats and corn. With grain yields of about 1.5 t/ha, this would have required planting at least 20 Mha to feed grains. To supply roughage, working horses needed at least 4 kg/day of hay, while the rest could be maintained with about 2.5 kg/day, requiring an annual total of roughly 30 Mt of hay. With average hay yields of about 3 t/ha, at least 10 Mha of hay had to be harvested. Land devoted to horse feed had to be no less than about 30 Mha, compared to around 125 Mha of annually harvested land, which means that America’s farm horse herd (working and nonworking animals) required almost 25% of the country’s cultivated land. The USDA’s (1959) calculation came up with a nearly identical total of 29.1 Mha.

In early 19th-century Europe the typical ratio of human/animal power capacity rose to around 1:15, but on the most productive American farms it was well above 1:100 during the 1890s. Human labor became a negligible source of mechanical energy, and the value of farmers’ work shifted mostly to management and control, tasks of low-power needs but high-output rewards.


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One Response to Replacing diesel tractors with horses or oxen – what will that be like?

  1. Amarnath says:

    Up to 1960 I grew up in a village next to a town in South India.
    At least for 2000 years, bulls were used for plowing and grinding oil seeds. The saying goes, you can not interchange them as the latter go in circles. Although horses were around, they were used exclusively for transportation.
    One more piece of information. Throughout history palm leaves, cut to the size of a foot ruler, were used for writing. Engraving is done with a sharp nail. With that technology more than 2000 poems of ancient poets were preserved to this day.