Tractor vs. Horses

By David L. Bristow, Editor


Which is more economical for a farmer, a tractor or a team of horses?

Ogallala, Neb., 1918. History Nebraska RG0716-34-5


In the early years of tractors, the answer wasn’t obvious to everyone. A series of tractor shows in the Midwest from 1913 to 1919 encouraged the growth of power farming in the United States. Reynold M. Wik writes about it in a 1983 Nebraska History article (PDF).

The earliest tractors used steam power…

This is a Buffalo-Pitts steam tractor and water wagon. The photo is undated, but the Buffalo-Pitts company (of Buffalo, N.Y.) sold their first steam traction engine in 1882. The big steam engines were too expensive for most farmers. Use of tractors expanded as gasoline engines became more powerful and affordable. Tractor manufacturers competed against horses for many years, as shown by this 1932 Farmall brochure:  

“Farmall Tractors Plowed at Less Than Half the Cost of Plowing with Horses,” reads the headline on the back side of the brochure (​History Nebraska RG3358AM-4-8). Here’s a detail that breaks down the costs:  

And here’s a photo of the tractor described in the brochure, location unknown:


(Posted 4/29/2010; updated 3/3/23)

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History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
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