Harvest Technology

The era of the combine arrived during the middle of the 20th century and changed rural society in profound ways. The self-propelled wheat combine had been introduced during the 1940s and became the dominate small grains harvester in the 50s and 60s. Then, ag engineers turned to other crops, solved some complex technical problems and introduced a combine that would harvest corn in the 1960s. Mechanisms for cotton, soybeans, rice and other major crops followed.

Farmers in field at sunsetTechnically, a combine has to perform five functions:

  • cut the plants,
  • feed the plants into the machine,
  • shell the seeds, that is, break the seeds loose from the rest of the plant,
  • separate the seeds from the rest of the plant,
  • and clean the seed from the dust and small particles that might be mixed in.

Wheat and small grains were the first crops to be successfully combined. Grain heads sit the top of the stalks and protected by only a relatively thin layer of chaff around the seeds.

Corn, on the other hand, is a large plant that usually develops only one ear. So there’s a lot of excess plant to separate from the ear in a combine. Also, the ear itself is protected by several layers of thick husks – which is why husking corn by hand was such an prized skill. The actual corn kernels cling stubbornly to a thick round cob. The corn plant itself made all of the combining functions difficult.

Yet, in 1954, John Deere & Company was the first company to sell a corn head for its combine. Soon, the other manufacturers found ways to overcome the technical difficulties.

These new technologies made profound changes in rural communities as well as the lives of individual farmers.

  • Combines drastically reduced labor costs for farmers. Before, harvesting wheat required a huge threshing crew – people to shock the grain, others to haul it to the thresher, others to pitch it in, others to run the steam engine, and others to run the thresher. The self-propelled combine needed one person to run it and a second to haul the grain to storage. So, the need for itinerate workers during the harvest was eliminated, especially in the Great Plains.
  • The combines contributed to the trend towards fewer, larger farms and the demise of diversified agriculture. The technology allowed, and in fact almost insisted, that individual farm families work more land and that they concentrate their efforts on only one crop. If a farmer makes a large capital investment in equipment, he or she is prudent to concentrate on only the one crop that his machines work on.
  • As the number of farmers decreases, they can support fewer and fewer small rural communities. There are fewer implement dealers (although those that survive generally become big operations). There are fewer rural schools and churches.
  • Grain elevators and grain merchants usually remain, but their business changes. Because combines speed up the harvest process, elevators find themselves short of storage space at harvest.
  • Railroads find themselves with similar problems. In the 50s when much of the grain began arriving in a short time span, they found they didn’t have nearly enough grain cars to haul it all to the markets – and they were unwilling to build more cars that might not be used during the rest of the year. This fact helped speed the shift from rail to truck transportation of farm produce.
  • Rural banks became more important because combines and other technology were huge investments.

In addition to the social changes, new harvest technology changed the way farmers farmed – sometimes in subtle and fascinating ways.

  • Before the combine, wheat and other crops could be cut while the grain was still wet and still strongly attached to the plant. Combines required the wheat to be harvested when it was “dead ripe,” later in the summer. So farmers had to learn by the touch, the smell and the “bite” of the grain when the crop was ready for harvest. Later, moisture meters were developed, but for a time, the bite test was an important skill farmers had to learn.
  • Combines changed the types of hybrid crops that farmers planted as plant breeders worked to provide varieties that would be strong enough to be mechanically harvested and that would all ripen at the same rate in a field.
  • Increased yields and the speed of the harvest pushed the development of on-farm grain storage and drying systems. If the local elevator was full, a progressive farmer could store the crop in his own bins, dry it down and sell the crop when the market was the highest and the grain was in the best shape.
  • Combines also changed tillage practices. Before the 20s, for example, many farmers used the lister plow to prepare the seedbed. But the lister left steep ridges and rough furrows across the field that made combining difficult and uncomfortable. So more and more farmers moved to disc units for tillage.
  • As self-propelled combines became more popular, tractors were freed up to do other jobs during harvest like hauling the grain to the elevator or the farmer’s bins.

The Great Plains led the adoption of combining technology. The semi-arid, flat fields encouraged planting of large fields of hardy wheat. Combines could easily and quickly move through these huge fields without hitting any stumps or rocks that were prevalent in the wetter areas of the Midwest and the South. Farmers on the plains were already planting varieties of hard winter wheat that ripened uniformly encouraging a harvest system that could bring the crop in quickly. And these fields were generally free of wet weeds that would be difficult for combines to separate from the seeds.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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