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This article deals around the sources of traction power, useful for eg pulling agricultural machinery, powering stationary machines, ...
Sources of traction power
In general, there are 2 sources of traction power: from animals, and from machines (engine-powered). Due to the work of Fernando Funes-Monzote in Cuba , we know that we can reduce the energy needs as far as possible (ie a 25x reduction was noted in the documentary). However, a better balance can (possibly) be found by using more efficient machinery rather than animals. It is true that ie conventional tractors spend far too much energy compared to ie animals; however, I believe that this is due to their dimensioning. As noted in the documentary, they can not cultivate crops that are placed close together, and they are also badly designed, resulting in a huge efficiency drop. However, with better design, these downsides could be eliminated. Animals for example generate very strong greenhouse gases (methane), require allot of food vs the work they do (see the article I made at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechanization#Mechanical_vs_human_labour ) and are also a risk regarding ie public health (they spread disease, work as a vector, ...) As such, I think it is best to eliminate their use as an agriculture instrument (aswell as their use as a food themselves) alltogether. I believe that in the very near future, they can be replaced with smaller (automated) machines. Already, there are some pruning and weeder robots (ie Ruud), and combined with well known techniques such as crop rotation, companion planting, the use of organic pesticides (see link in forwarded message below), ... they can easily be discarded.
However, besides the ecologic and economic advantages over time, there is still the issue of the primary purchase cost, which would be much higher than that of a horse. Thus, the use of draft horses, oxes, ... for now or simply as a temporary solution (until they attained the money to built a traction engine) seems advisable. (Some more research is needed; ie purchase cost small & large draft horse/ox, purchase cost AT traction engine ?) The reason why the purchase cost (and not the costs on long-term) may be less is because animals can be propogated at practically no cost at all. On the long-term however, the efficiency losses (animals consume more calories for a given task than machines) eliminate benefits attained from the reduced purchasing cost.
Several animals can be used: draft horses, ponies, oxes, ... (lama's/camels ?) Depending on the animal chosen, cost-efficiency will increase/decrease. --> which animal is most cost-efficient ? Depending on the region, several animal breeds seem most useful: horse breeds
According to the oil drum, a single draft horse or mule could easily be sustained on 5-10 acres (that's hay/pasture/grain) --> per year ?. (see comment 1: 5 acres, comment 2: 10 acres, & supposedly 2,5 acres with very good soil/very high yields ) Depending on the region, the space/field require can be nothing (some countries simply grant hectares of space to anyone that bothers cultivating it), to very high costs (ie in "developed" countries, costs can be easily 25000 - 50000 euros per hectare ). Even after attaining the ground, the fields still need to be maintained, fertilised & watered (ie in periods of draught), ... The fertilisation costs can be eliminated if the feces of the animals is collected (ie in a bag) for composting, and after composting, spread on the field. Composting of the feces is definitly needed since, as is, it is a very bad fertiliser (too much nitrogen, no carbon). Also, compostation needs to be integrated for health reasons (ie destroys most of bacteria, ...). Finally, I also find that it is best to also use human feces to increase the efficiency of the field. This can be done using composting toilets (I made a design at http://www.appropedia.org/Composting_toilets#Construction , also added 2 composting toilets at #Gallery )
There are also the costs of the harness, ... These would also represent a relative purchase cost.
The cost will also vary depending on the use of the animal: ie an animal that works continuously will be more cost-efficient (as the animal requires a minimum of food aswell simply to get by the day and not do any work at all). However, even the most trained animal can only work for ? hours; also work is not always available: it varies for the farmer during the year.
Animals can provide :
- ploughing (although this function would be minor, see no-till farming
- harrowing (ie providing nutrients to the soil)
- power agricultural machines (ie grain hullers, ...) --> for very limited duration, ie animal gets mentally affected when working for long hours
- generate power (ie via Freeplay Energy Ltd wind-up generators)--> for very limited duration, ie animal gets mentally affected when working for long hours
Convenience & safety
Some very annoying features of animals are that they are unpredictable; even "friendly" draft horses can get spooked and kill people when they do. Draft horses however have less the tendency to kick with the back feet.[verification needed]
Oxes, ... ?
The animal will need to be cared for daily; ie watering, feeding, ... Besides providing the feed, the farmer will also need to calculate the energy expenditure of the animal, based on the work done, and the hours it worked. After this, the feed quantity needs to be changed and the feed needs to be offered.
There may also be more manual labour involved in attaching machines to the harness, the attaching of the harness, ...
I posted something at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Horsepower#Horsepower_from_a_horse (despite a bit confusing, it contains some very important questions on this subject). Appearantly, temporary power output can be as high as 30HP, and even basic HP seems higher (1,5HP).
As mentioned above, the machinery used today (ie conventional "tractors") isn't cost-efficient, but machines in general are (if they are built appropriately).
I was thinking that a traction engine, purpose-built (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traction_engine ) might be suitable. However this would best not be steam-powered since the parts required for this would be quite heavy and thus result in a economically unuseful project. Potentially, either wood gas could be used, or an emissionless fuel, ... I am still thinking about this though, but it would be made lightweight and as efficient as possible (the use of lightweight, low-cost caterpillar tracks might be incorporated, perhaps based on the DFRobotshop Rover, see http://www.robotshop.com/ )
Also, the robot would need to keep track of his own location, some programs as ArduPilot could possibly be used for this. It would also need to be scaled up and toughened up (see also: http://www.appropedia.org/Appropedia_talk:Village_pump#Dimensioning_.28AT.29_caterpillar_tracks ) Some of the DF Robotshop designs such as the Superdroid/Dr. Robot (see http://www.robotshop.com/tracked-development-platforms-1.html ) could possibly be used together with the DFRobotshop Rover Arduino control system.).
I'm also unaware how much HP we'll require for the traction engine (older traction engines had some 2HP, or the power of 2 horses ?), but I'm unaware whether this is actually enough. In the Edwardian Farm, it was enough (although the result was not amazing), and we can even beef it up easily to 12HP (a regular lawnmower engine has 12HP), but even then I'm still not sure whether that will be enough. This as (2) horses can generate upto 30 HP (see the wikipedia talk page) atleast momentarily; so horses can actually pull out the plough if it gets stuck ie in very clayish soil, ... whereas a lawnmower-powered traction engine "may" not.