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The return of the hungry horses

By Viv Forbes - posted Friday, 11 September 2015

When I was young we lived on a small family farm at Wheatvale on the Darling Downs in Queensland.

We lived close to the self-sufficient sustainable life style that today's green zealots babble about – we produced much of what we needed and needed much of what we produced. But life was no picnic.

Our farm supported our family of four, plus one or two farm-hands (young trustees from Palen Creek Prison Farm), 30 dairy cows, eight draught horses, two stock horses, two ponies, plus a few pigs and chooks. The farm grew native pasture, wheat, oats, sorghum, corn and made hay. Most of what we harvested was used to feed horses, cows, pigs and chooks. Draught horses are huge eaters – they were big Clydesdales, tall and heavy, and need large quantities of fodder whether they are working or not. They are not ruminants like cattle and thus extract less energy from their fodder and need to process more of it. After everyone on the farm was fed, there was little surplus for others. We sold small quantities of milk and occasionally some grain, pigs and calves.


Green energy powered most activities on the farm. Dad and Mum milked the cows by hand and we all picked corn by hand or wielded pitch-forks to stack hay. Our horses pulled two ploughs, two cultivators, a set of harrows, planter, harvester, mower, hay-rake, wagon, dray and slide; kids walked to school or rode ponies or bicycles. We had an old reaper/binder in the shed and there were still some sulkies being used. There were even some huge wood-burning steam-powered traction engines that drove stationary threshers used to separate grain from chaff.

Our emissions from hydro-carbon fuels were very low. We used a bit of kerosene in lamps for the house and lanterns for the dairy, and a few gallons of petrol in the old farm ute we drove to town every fortnight to buy groceries, boots, work clothes and unmentionables. Milk from all farms was taken to the butter/cheese factory in cans on a milk truck. Nothing was wasted – the milk-man brought whey from cheese-making back to the farm and we fed the pigs on it. We used no coal-powered electricity, no phones and had no diesel or petrol-driven machinery such as tractors, trucks, generators, pumps, chain saws or quad bikes.

But we had lots of breathing, belching, farting farm animals eating carbon-bearing crops and emitting large quantities of the "greenhouse gases", carbon dioxide and methane. However, the climate was much the same as now. We still endured destructive weather events – droughts and floods, crop-killing frosts, destructive hail storms and desiccating heat waves. We hated winter as little vegetation grew leaving the cows hungry and producing less milk.

Most people lived and worked on farms, labour was abundant and cheap, food was expensive, and towns were much smaller. Our life was one of continual repetitive manual labour which produced minimal surplus for landless labourers who sometimes struggled to afford food.

This all changed after WW2, when we first felt the effects of the revolution in food production triggered by two brilliant Americans: Henry Ford, who flooded the world with cheap cars, trucks, utilities and Fordson tractors; and John D Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil flooded the world with cheap kerosene, petrol and lubricants for all those engines.

As a result, most of the horses and farm labourers were gradually made redundant by machines and they quietly disappeared from the farms.


Tractors use far less energy than horses – they do not have to be fed unless they are working. Even when working they used kerosene not grain and hay. Moreover, the tireless tractors could work day and night with bigger machinery, allowing more land to be cultivated when the weather was just right. Thus the coming of tractors allowed farms to produce and sell far more food to town dwellers. Farm exports grew and the relative price of food began a long decline; cities were fed better and urban populations grew.

Today, our farms produce even more cereals, dairy products, meats and fibres, but now power-seeking politicians are proposing that more farm produce must be consumed as ethanol by the hungry iron horses of today – millions of cars, trucks, tractors, bikes and stationary engines. As recently as the year 2000, 90% of the huge US corn crop went into food for people and livestock; in 2013, 40% of an even bigger crop was consumed making biofuel. In many countries, the ethanol and biofuel madness has seen forests, food plantations and grasslands cleared and cultivated to make space for sterile monocultures of ethanol crops.

After farmers have used diesel fuel to cultivate, plant, irrigate, harvest and transport the ethanol crops, then the distilleries use grid power to process and distil it, then oil companies use more diesel to collect, mix and distribute it. The whole ethanol process probably saves NOTHING in energy or emissions.

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About the Author

Viv Forbes is a geologist and farmer who lives on a farm on the Bremer River.

Other articles by this Author

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