Economic Based Decision Support for Sustainable Horse Drawn Farming Enterprises

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2014: $9,538.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Grant Recipient: Purdue University
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Nicole Olynk Widmar
Purdue University

Information Products


  • Agronomic: corn, oats, grass (misc. perennial), hay


  • Animal Production: feed/forage
  • Education and Training: decision support system, extension, farmer to farmer, networking, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: agricultural finance, budgets/cost and returns, feasibility study, new enterprise development
  • Production Systems: holistic management, integrated crop and livestock systems
  • Sustainable Communities: social capital, sustainability measures


    This project addresses horse drawn farming as a sustainable form of agricultural production and agro tourism in the North Central region. The Horse Drawn Farming Readiness Assessment Tool is an interactive, qualitative tool to help individuals considering horse drawn farming decide whether it is right for their current level of knowledge about horses, lifestyle goals, and farming style. An enterprise budget for horse drawn farming will help both beginning and continuing farmers accurately account for the cost of production with horses and/or tractors.


    This project addresses the lack of research-based information available about the economics of horse drawn farming as a viable option for a sustainable form of agricultural production and agro tourism in the North Central region. Information used to construct a qualitative assessment tool and a horse drawn farming enterprise budget was provided by a working farms Indiana and through a review of available literature. This project will contribute to improved profitability of farmers and ranchers by helping them make sound financial decisions when adopting horse drawn farming, which can be an economically and environmentally sound and sustainable practice. Improving profitability and contributing to economic and environmental sustainability will improve the quality of life for farmers and ranchers as well as those they serve with their production and/or agro tourism services. By contributing to the profitability of farms and agricultural businesses, working to preserve and improve the natural resources and environmental qualities on which agriculture depends, and enhancing the quality of life for the farmers themselves, as well as rural communities, this project contributes directly to the broad-based outcomes of SARE in the North Central Region.

    SARE has funded only one other grant related to horse drawn farming; that study concluded in 1999 by D. Stinner and focused on the quality of life of Amish farmers and the efficiency of nutrient cycling on Amish farms (Integrating Quality of Life, Economic, and Environmental Issues: Agroecosystem Analysis of Amish Farming). The proposed project differs substantially in its design and products. While that study focused specifically on Amish Farmers, the proposed project seeks to create workable tools for horse drawn farming that is applicable to anyone who is considering the financial ramifications of horse drawn farming. In the Journal of Extension in 2007 another Amish-focused study was published establishing a series of enterprise budgets for Amish farms. While not directly applicable to all farming situations, the available literature, especially that focused on the development of enterprise budgets, will be leveraged in this proposed work.

    Beyond Amish-focused studies, several trade press articles have been focused on horse powered farming in recent years, as the topic is one of increasing interest. Notably, Anne and Eric Nordell (2012) addressed the lack of sound models for the use of horses in farming in a publication in The Small Farmer’s Journal: “Thanks to the many apprenticeship programs, field days, conferences, websites and publications available in the new millennium, it is relatively easy for new and transitioning farmers to learn the business of small-scale organic vegetable production. Economic models of horse-powered market gardens, however, are still few and far between.” Four farms were studied in depth by Nordell (2012) to develop a model of the costs of farming with horses, however a more in-depth analysis which utilized the expertise of Purdue University and the Extension and outreach network in place there would serve to leverage previous findings, such as these from The Small Farmer’s Journal to reach larger numbers of interested farmers.

    This project is important and timely because an increasing number of both established and beginning farmers are seeking alternative methods of power for agricultural production due to increasing input prices and/or environmental concerns. In fact, it is estimated that approximately 400,000 operations in North America utilize draft horses in some capacity (Raver, 2013). Likewise, an increasing number of individuals are choosing small farms as part of their lifestyle. Regardless of size or intended purpose of the farm, sound financial decisions are needed to ensure the ongoing success of the operation and quality of life of the farmer or rancher. However, there is a lack of university-developed, peer-reviewed research for those considering horse drawn farming to rely on to make decisions. Furthermore, there is limited availability of sound information and decision support for on-farm decisions incorporating sustainability in an economic, social, and environmental sense when it comes to animal-powered farming.
    Literature Cited:

    James, R. 2007. “Horse and Human Labor Estimates for Amish Farms.” The Journal of Extension. 45:1.

    Nordell, Anne and Eric. 2012. “The Cost of Working Horses.” The Small Farmer’s Journal.

    Raver, Anne. 2013. “Farm Equipment That Runs on Oats” The New York Times.

    Stinner, D. 1999. “Integrating Quality of Life, Economic, and Environmental Issues: Agroecosystem Analysis of Amish Farming.” SARE Research and Education Project.

    Project objectives:

    Several short term outcomes and outputs were identified in the proposal based on initial meetings with farmer participants and a literature review. Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval was sought for a series of questions that would be asked of farmer participants. The IRB at Purdue University determined that IRB Review was not required in a response issued 10-7-14. The questionnaire was emailed to farmer participants to facilitate discussion at meetings and collection of data from farmer participants. The PI, Elizabeth Byrd, in a series of visits to a working farm utilizing horse power, participated in all aspects of the operation. This included learning about horse drawn implements and farm equipment, caring for draft horses, harness horses, safely hitching horses to equipment, driving horses, and operating several different implements. Elizabeth was able to drive horses single, in a team, and four abreast. Finally, Elizabeth was able to learn about conditioning of work horses and monitoring their exertion during work. This in depth experience, along with her previous knowledge of riding horses, provided valuable insight into the basics of farming with horses and the needs and desires of the farmers and ranchers interested in horse powered farming. Elizabeth was able to learn the basic practices of farming with draft horses while interacting with others interested in horse drawn farming who would be the same clientele interested in the outcomes and deliverables of this project. Information learned during the training along with an initial literature review provided the framework for information products included with this report.

    In terms of intermediate outputs, an interactive qualitative decision support tool, the Horse Drawn Farming Readiness Assessment Tool (HDFRA), was conceived of based on interactions with farmer participants and clinic participants, literature review, and field visits. An important aspect of Elizabeth’s experience during farm visits and interacting with other interested parties was the role of horse drawn farming in the lifestyle of the owner/teamster and the farming or operational style best suited to farming with horses. The HDFRA provides insight for the decision to pursue horse drawn farming based on what resources the farmer has, preferred lifestyle, farming operational style, and alignment with values.

    Adaptations of enterprise budgets were also an output of this project. Numerous enterprise budgets for various crops are available from universities in the North Central Region and in other regions. A document explaining how to adapt existing budgets, for example a corn enterprise budget using conventional tractor power, to one using horse drawn power by utilizing information collected from farmer participants, the horse drawn farming clinic, a literature review, and existing equine enterprise budgets for other types of horse businesses. This facilitates producers making decisions between horses and tractors for their given operation. Likewise, it givens those considering utilizing horse power a tool to calculate and understand the costs of keeping horses.

    This project research was accepted and presented as a poster at the 2015 Indiana Small Farms Conference where the poster was on display for conference participants and PI interacted directly with interested participants during the poster sessions. Feedback on the information products was solicited from farmer participants. Then, peer review of the information products for extension publications was sought through the Department of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University. The information products will be made public through the Education Store at Purdue University upon final editing and formatting through the Department of Agricultural Communications at Purdue University.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.