Planting Corn with Four-Row tractorAfter World War II, small farmers were finally buying their own small tractors and selling their horses while large farmers were buying new, more powerful tractors. The manufacturers of planting equipment were already offering machines that could automatically plant two rows at once. But farmers with large tractors began to hook two machines together. The manufacturers noticed and began producing integrated four-, six-, and even eight-row planters.

Before the war, many planters were adapted from horse drawn designs by cutting off the long tongue and bolting on a tractor hitch. After the war, manufacturers designed implements specifically for tractors. The way crops like corn were planted changed.

When farmers used horses for cultivating, they had to plant rows as wide as their horses’ hips – 40- to 42-inches. In fact the most common practice was to plant “cross-checked rows” with hills of corn planted equally both north and south and east and west. A wire was stretched across the field with knots every 40 or 42 inches. When the planter hit that knot, it would drop three or four seeds into the hill. Then, later in the season, the farmer could cultivate with horses in both directions.

As farmers bought row crop tractors with wheels that could be adjusted to fit narrower rows, agricultural researchers discovered that single corn plants more closely spaced in rows yielded more corn per acre. In addition, the mechanical corn pickers that were being introduced did better in rows. So, farmers began resetting their planters to drill rows of corn rather than dropping hills of corn.

There was still the problem of precision – planting just one seed at the prescribed interval. Allis-Chalmers and others boasted that their rotary drop mechanism dropped seeds at the same speed as the forward motion of the planter, so that seed dropped straight down for accurate spacing.

Grain drills used for planting wheat and other closely spaced crops were also getting bigger as the decade went on. In addition, boxes for dry fertilizer were added to both corn planters and grain drills so that both operations could be accomplished at once.

By the end of the decade, John Deere’s catalog offerings reflected this time of change and innovation. The company still sold its Model 999 horse-drawn, wire check-row planter. But it also offered no less than 23 different types of row crop planters and grain drills.

Dempster Industries. At Ford-Ferguson, the on-again, off-again relationship of the two tractor partners ensnared a Nebraska company. Dempster from Beatrice was a leading builder of windmills and pumps. In addition, they had been building planters since 1899. When the Fordson was introduced with its three-point hitch, Dempster adapted their planter model to the tractor and began selling them at the Lincoln Ferguson dealer O’Shea-Rogers. The engineers at Ferguson liked the Dempster planter and started talks about hiring the Nebraska company to supply planters for the tractor line.

The war intervened, however. By 1942, all of Dempster’s production capability was taken up manufacturing 90-millimeter shells for the military. A deal was struck for post-war production, and by May 1947, Ferguson ordered:

  • 3,000 grain drills
  • 1,500 rotary moldboard listers
  • 4,800 planter attachments
  • 2,400 lister cultivators
  • 6,000 miscellaneous tiller attachments.

Then the Ford and Ferguson partnership dissolved. Dempster was caught in the middle. They had a contract with Ferguson, but Ford wanted them to produce planters for the new, competing Ford 8N. With Ferguson struggling to get started, Dempster was eventually able to work out contracts with both companies.

International Harvester. At the end of the decade, IH developed a new planter that wouldn’t have a major impact until 40 years or so later. One of their engineers, named Russell R. Poynor, was trying to find a better way to conserve soil and moisture. He reasoned that leaving the residue of last year’s crop on top of the soil would keep moisture from evaporating, keep the soil from blowing and provide some natural fertilizer. The problem was how to soften up the ground for the seed and how to cut through the residue to get the new seed in the soil.

He came up with what he called the McCormick M-21 Till Planter. The machine had a pair of 18-inch “sweeps” or plows at the front to break through the residue and break up the soil leaving the residue still around it. That was followed by a rotary hoe and fertilizing unit, a rear-mounted, two-row drill planter, a disc unit to cover the seeds and a press wheel to firm up the soil.

then-nowThe problem was that idea was ahead of its time. Four decades later, no-till cultivation became popular. Herbicide technology had finally caught up with the planting technique. Leaving the residue on the field requires a way to kill off last year’s crop and to suppress a broad spectrum of weeds in the new field. It took a while for the chemical technology to catch up with the planter and conservation technologies.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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