Draft Animals Can Play a Vital Role in Forestry

Draft Animals Can Play a Vital Role in Forestry

I bought my first draft horse in 1986, and I have been working horses, and oxen, in the woods ever since. One of the most common questions I get is, “Can you really make any money logging with horses?” The answer is yes, particularly if the skid is short and there isn’t a lot of low-grade wood to remove. This may sound like high-grading on small lots, but not necessarily.

The most significant drawback to working with draft animals is the low rate of wood production. This is not a financial disadvantage as much as it is a logistical restriction on the type of work that can be considered. The time required for human physical labor and the limited power of animals makes it difficult to skid long distances or to cost-effectively harvest low-grade products.

Although high production and maximum utilization have become conventional standards, they are not necessary components of successful forest management. I believe that we have become overly dependent on forestry defined solely by timber harvest and the equipment used to do it.

From a financial perspective, the effective distance for ground-skidding logs with a single horse these days is about 500 feet. With a team and a hitch-cart designed for logging, 1,500 feet is a reasonable distance. In certain instances with good conditions, with a sled on snow, or with a horse-drawn forwarder, distances up to half a mile can be considered. These may seem like short distances compared with what machines can handle, but skidding distance – whether mechanical or animal powered – is a cost that ultimately affects stumpage value.

A well-designed network of truck roads and landings can improve accessibility throughout a woodlot. This up-front capital investment reduces the cost of future harvesting operations and can be amortized through an increased return from stumpage. Although this kind of investment is rarer these days because huge, powerful, all-terrain harvesting equipment can go nearly anywhere, there are other benefits to this strategy. A network of all-season roads can be the foundation of a multiple-use working landscape, affording access for recreation, agro-forestry, sugaring, on-site sawmilling, and fuelwood harvest. While it would be beneficial for any type of timber harvest, this is the type of investment that makes draft animal power more practical.

Because of low overhead costs, the primary cost of skidding with draft animals is time. When harvesting sawtimber under suitable conditions, horse loggers can operate with logging costs between $175 and $225 per thousand board feet. As long as the sale price of the timber is higher than that, the job can make financial sense. But when harvesting low-grade material, the cost of the operation can outweigh the value of the product.

A viable strategy for reducing low-grade growing stock without the expense of a harvest is non-commercial crop-tree release, in which low-quality trees are girdled or simply felled and left in place. When it is adopted as a regular, ongoing practice, average stumpage value per acre will increase through the improved growth of crop trees and the elimination of poor-quality stems.

Many landowners can gain the skills to fell or girdle lowvalue trees. Leaving cut trees on the ground reduces out-ofpocket expenses, increases a sense of stewardship, and reduces the disturbance created by equipment traffic. Noncommercial crop-tree release can also be performed at the most effective time for each stem; it is not restricted by a schedule of timber harvests. There are numerous circumstances, however, when the work can be done in conjunction with a harvest.

In financial terms, the harvest of low-grade products returns only minimal value in stumpage payments. By eliminating external harvesting costs, non-commercial thinning returns the entire value of the cut trees to the site. When trees die and remain in place, they eventually contribute nutrients, organic matter, and accumulated carbon to the forest soil. Ecological function and soil productivity are significant factors in sustaining a vital woodlot, so this type of contribution can have real long-term value.

This may seem to suggest that horse logging requires expenses that are not necessary with other systems. Yet, for financial assets to accrue value, there needs to be up-front investment. When done correctly, a timber harvest is an investment, with the cost of the operation being offset by the value of the cut timber. By investing in timber stand improvement and access infrastructure, landowners can reduce future costs while increasing future returns.

Neither of these strategies is a new idea. In fact, they are “old school,” much like animal-powered harvesting. They remain effective approaches to cultivating working landscapes and improving growing stock. With higher-quality growing stock and improved access, frequent light harvests can be more cost effective. This will facilitate small-scale harvesting operations and allow low production systems like horse logging to be cost effective.

If we continue to practice forestry that depends on harvesting large volumes of low-quality material, with access restricted to all-terrain harvesting machinery, then horses, mules, and oxen will never be able to compete. However, if we see forestry as an opportunity to develop accessible, multiple-use forests with a commitment to sustainable management strategies, draft animals can play a vital role.

Carl Russell is a forestry consultant, forest land owner, and horse-logger living in Bethel, Vermont. He is one of the organizers of the Northeast Animal-Power Field Days, to be held September 26-28, 2008, in Tunbridge, Vermont.


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