Bigger & Better Farm Machines in the 1950s

Agricultural innovation in the 20th century was driven by the development of ever more powerful tractors, and the 1950s and 60s was something like a golden age. At the end of World War II, there was a lot of pent up demand. Tractor production reached its highest level in 1951 when there were 564,000 tractors manufactured in the U.S. alone. But when the pent up demand was satisfied, production dropped back to about half of the peak and roughly stayed there. See the tractor production chart below.

As farmers filled up their farms with tractors and as the overall number of farms continued to decrease, manufacturers had to entice them with more horsepower and more labor-saving features. Tractors made it possible to work more farm ground than horses – but how much more work could be accomplished in how much less time?

To answer that question we went to the Rae Valley Plowing Bee near Petersburg Nebraska in August 2006. There teams of horses and several varieties of tractors demonstrated their plowing prowess. While the comparison presented on the right is not a scientific experiment, you can compare and contrast a team of horses with two tractors in plowing and two tractors using disc harrows.

As you’ll see, the results are dramatic. Our estimate is that it would take the team of four horses at least 55 hours to plow a 40 acre field. The modern tractor pulling a 25-foot disc harrow unit would make it across that same 40 acres in a little over an hour.

Admittedly, this is like comparing apples to oranges. Discs and plows were originally designed to do different jobs. Plows turn the soil completely over and can reach several inches deep. Discs were originally used to smooth out the clods produced by the plow.

But as more and more virgin land was plowed under, the disc has become the primary tillage implement for much of the United States, particularly in wheat growing regions. However, many row crop farmers have been doing away with tillage entirely. Minimum tillage and no-till agricultural practices have proven to be economically and environmentally rewarding technologies.

So, when we asked the organizers of the Rae Valley Plowing Bee if any neighbors around Petersburg, Nebraska, had modern plowing equipment, we came up empty. The closest we came was the 25-foot disc unit owned by Randy Pelster and pulled by his 1997 John Deere 8100 tractor.

The 1929 John Deere GP pulling the 10-foot disc unit was owned by Steve Stokes. The 1936 Farmall F20 was owned by Micheal O’Brien of Albion. And the four-horse Belgium team was owned by Kevin Vering and Charlie Dush both of Duncan, Nebraska.

film_stork_RThe tractor was the highest technology that a farmer would command. Dan Stork (left) remembers the thrill he felt when he first drove a tractor. “It was huge,” he says. “I was scared to death! But you know Dad was right there with me so that I wouldn’t run over anything. But after a while, it was pretty cool to be in charge of that big tractor. When I weighed you know about 67 pounds – so it was a feeling of power.”film_freeman_L

Don Freeman (right) sees how agricultural technology has changed the ag economy. “In the 40s and the
50s there wasn’t the demand for the size required,” he says. “You look at the investment in a tractor. My goodness, now it’s like driving a home around… A tractor will start maybe at $150,000, a combine at $240,000. And the demands on the farmer to continue to produce more efficiently and not rely upon government plans and government crops – it’s just amazing that they can continue to expand.”

Tractors Produced  in US data

Diffusion. As any new technology is introduced into a marketplace and then gradually adopted, the process is called “diffusion.” As you can see from the chart of tractors produced in the U.S. between 1909 and 1970, tractor technology diffusion went through periods of fits and starts. There was a peak in 1920 that ended when the post-WWI boom went bust in 1921. There was a huge drop of production during the Depression. In the World War II years, production was curtailed by production restrictions imposed by the government and demand that tractor companies produce materiel for the war.

So, by the late 40s and early 50s, there was a tremendous backlog of pent up demand. Farmers had the money for the first time in a long time and they knew they needed tractors and other machines to keep up. Farm hands who had left during the war weren’t coming back, but the country and the world were still demanding more and more food.

1951 was the peak year of tractor production at 564,000 units. But the market quickly saturated. When you buy a tractor, you expect to use it for several years before you buy another. So, the manufacturers had to cut back production and concentrate on offering machines with more horsepower and better amenities and tools for getting the job done.

The diffusion of other agricultural technology — like for instance, self-propelled wheat combines — seems to mimic tractor adoption. A tractor was often the most important new technology purchase a farmer would make with other machines following closely behind.

Safety. By the 1960s, decades of rollover tractor accidents made it obvious that the high-centered machines were dangerous. Hundreds of farmers died.

So John Deere developed and introduced the “Roll-Gard” protection system as an option on many of its tractors in the early 60s. But farmers have to be sensitive to their costs of doing business and they are also often very sure of their own ability in avoiding accidents. John Deere & Co. had trouble selling their systems. So, Deere gave their technology to all of their competitors, and gradually the safety systems were adopted.

Also, during this time, the Automotive Safety Foundation realized that there were more and more accidents between fast cars and slow-moving tractors moving from one field to another on the highways. An agricultural engineering student at Ohio State University developed a fluorescent yellow and orange triangle to designate “slow-moving vehicles.” The Automotive Safety Foundation funded the adoption of that symbol to reduce collisions.

Gradually, other agricultural engineering advances helped reduce somewhat the threat to farmers.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2006. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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