Planter Technology

During the middle of the 20th century, agricultural research was changing the way farmers planted their crops. Small changes in the width of rows, the spacing of seeds, the depth below the ground that seeds were planted and new fertilizer and pesticide application techniques all made a big difference in yields. Add to this picture the variation in seeds – wheat seeds are small, cotton seeds are small and hairy, corn is large and varied, soybean seeds are large and fragile – and there was tremendous pressure on ag engineers to design systems to deliver precise amounts of varied seeds at precise times at precise depths with precise amounts of chemicals in precise places.

Planter TechnologyUniversity research in the 1950s suggested that corn that was planted with starter fertilizers placed 2½ inches to the side and 2½ inches deeper in the ground, then the seed would increase yields at harvest. But none of the planters on the market had a large enough frame or enough weight to force the fertilizer that deep. So, the manufacturers came up with heavier corn planters with fertilizer attachments and blades to plant corn with this new technology. Heavier planters also meant that the farmer’s tractor had to have enough power to pull it efficiently.

Other research found that corn and many other crops could be planted a lot closer to each other and get dramatically higher yields, especially with new hybrid varieties. Planters were redesigned to allow the farmer to space his rows at 30-, or even 28-inches apart, rather than the traditional 36-, 38-, 40- or even 42-inch rows of before. This change, obviously, meant changes in cultivator and harvester technology, as well.

Research was also showing that planters that either planted two seeds where one was supposed to go, or that missed a seed drop, would hurt yields. So, engineers replaced machines that opened and closed valves with rotary valves that eject seeds more precisely.

Then there were the problems with the strength of different seeds. At the 1966 National Soybean Association meeting, one of the speakers asked, “Why are we only getting 40 percent to 50 percent of the soybean seeds we put in the ground to produce bean plants?” Up until that point, soybean farmers had used slightly modified corn planters. The ag engineers went to work. What they found is that in the real world, soybean seeds had a lot of variation and were fragile, much like peanut seeds. But adapting a peanut planter didn’t work on soybeans.

The solution was a mystery until 1956 when a farmer in Australia named Albert Fuss invented what he called the Gyral air seeder. The idea was to use compressed air and a rotating drum to select wheat seeds to be planted from a hopper and deliver them to the drill.

A decade later, Leo and Claude Loeschs developed a similar system for corn planting. They sold the idea to International Harvester and the Cyclo Planter system was developed. It was a simple machine that would work with soybeans and other crops by changing the drum to one with different sized holes.

So, the development of planter technology during the 1950s and 60s was a story of new techniques requiring new machines, not simply one of bigger machines.

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

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