A helping hoof
Sometimes, our digital world needs horsepower. Seriously.
Outfitting cellphone towers in rural Wisconsin, U.S. Cellular has turned to draft horses for hauling equipment up steep wooded hillsides, places where trucks have gotten stuck in the mud and all-terrain vehicles haven't been up to the job, either.
The equipment, needed to upgrade mobile phone service in sparsely populated areas, weighs nearly a ton when all the pieces are included. But the big Brabant draft horses haul it through the rugged terrain with ease.
"When wheels fail, hooves always work," said Al Brown, operations manager for CH Coakley Logistics, which hired the horses for U.S. Cellular.
The horses pull a wooden wagon, loaded with high-tech gear, like they would have hauled farm goods a century ago.
Most days, the big draft horses, owned by Jason Julian of Medford, are used for logging, dragging timber out of the woods where a truck or tractor would make a mess of things.
Julian is a dairy farmer and logger. He uses eight Brabants, born and raised on his 225-acre organic farm, to plow fields and harvest crops.
He calls them his "2,000-pound babies."
"I love them horses. I have calluses on my hands and a few scars on my body because we work hard. My horses can have a couple of calluses or a little mark, too. But I am not going to do anything to hurt them," Julian said.
Julian and his wife, Katrina, run their farm in a holistic way, raising a variety of crops and grazing their 50 cows on grass pastures.
They have a tractor, but often the horses are a better and cheaper way to get work done. It's also a lot more fun.
Still, there are limits.
"I am not going to take the horses out on a hot, humid day, because it could kill them. Sometimes we get in the field at 3:30 in the morning, when it's cooler, and we quit at 9 a.m. It takes planning and patience," Julian said.
"The horses need to quit at dinner time, too. They need time to cool down, eat and rest."
U.S. Cellular uses draft horses to reach cell tower sites that often are on top of big hills, where the phone signal transmits the best.
"When you say 'over the hills and through the woods,' that's what we are talking about," said Brandi Vandenberg, a U.S. Cellular regional planning manager for Wisconsin.
Draft horses can haul equipment through deep snow, and they can work in environmentally sensitive areas where a truck or ATV would damage the ground.
"With freezing and thawing, it's been a challenging combination. We have had four-wheel-drive trucks get stuck that had to be pulled out ... and that's where it was a good idea to use the horses," Vandenberg said.
"It's pretty neat to be delivering today's technology with a method that's been around forever," she said.
A few Wisconsin farms, mostly in the northwest part of the state, still use draft horses and mules for work generally done by a tractor.
But over the past 15 years, the use of such animals has really taken a nosedive as older farmers retire, said Mary Jane Swedberg, president of the Jefferson County Draft Horse Association.
"The younger generation just hasn't picked it up," she said.
Wisconsin's draft horses are used for logging because they can get into heavily wooded areas, squeezing between trees where a machine can't go, and they don't tear up the landscape.
With thick hair that keeps them warm, they do well in the winter. It's the drivers who get cold, Swedberg said.
The Brabant, which is what Julian works with, is also known as the Belgian heavy horse. It is legendary for its strength and mild temperament.
"They do hard things in a slow, quiet way. They're gentle giants," Swedberg said.
The number of farm horses in the United States peaked at about 21 million in the early 1900s, according to Nature, a British science journal. At that time, about 20% of the arable land was used to grow feed for the hard-working animals.
A "farm to table" style of farming, that's focused on small acreage and fresh food for households and restaurants, has brought about a renewed interest in draft horses.
Those operations have attracted younger farmers, which could bode well for the future of horses working the land in an efficient, low-impact way.
Julian has been around horses his whole life. His parents took a picture of him on the back of an Appaloosa when he was less than two days old.
About 10 years ago, he left a career in large-scale conventional farming for the smaller operation in western Wisconsin and a more measured pace of life.
He loves harnessing up the horses, which run to him as he approaches the barnyard, and they seem to enjoy the work.
"I am not afraid to sweat, and I am not afraid to ask my horses to sweat. They are healthier for it," he said.