Nature scatters seeds. Plants produce their seeds and then release them to be distributed by the wind or by passing animals and insects. Millions of seeds are scattered so that a few will find an ideal spot of ground to land, germinate and take root.
At first, farmers followed nature’s example, planting seeds by scattering them – broadcasting the seeds onto the ground. The sculpture of the Sower on the top of the Nebraska State Capitol illustrates this ancient method of planting, dipping his hand into the seed bag before throwing them across his field.
But gradually, farmers noticed that seeds grew better if they found their way slightly below ground where they were protected and might find soil moisture. Gradually, farmers developed machines to plant both small and large seeds at a proper depth. Then they developed machines to plant the seeds at the proper distance away from other seeds, so the growing plants weren’t competing for moisture and nutrients.
In the 1930s, planter technology developed methods of taking advantage of more powerful tractors and of preserving the limited moisture content of the soil during the drought.
The small seed size of wheat, oats and other grains called for different machines for planting them. During the 30s, many different varieties of planters were developed, but according to John Deere, “Perhaps the most notable improvement is the rust-resisting galvanized steel box” that held the seeds and delivered them to several discs or hoes that would open up a shallow furrow for the seeds. These furrows were close together so that the grain would grow in an overall uniform pattern.
Most of the wheat planted on the Great Plains is one of the “winter wheat” varieties. These seeds are planted, sprout and begin to grow during the fall. They go dormant over the winter and then finish growing during the spring. They are harvested in the summer. Farther north, farmers grow fast maturing “spring wheat” varieties.
Corn Planters & Listers
A corn seed is larger than a wheat seed and is planted in rows further apart and deeper. So corn requires a different type of planter than wheat.
The basic design of the corn planter goes back to the 1880s. The planter would plant two rows at a time. A plow blade opened a furrow, a plate mechanism dropped down a specific number of seeds and a following wheel covered the seeds back up with dirt. Most farmers planted three to four seeds in each hill.
They also used a system called “checked corn.” They planted the hills at the same intervals in each direction, usually 40 inches. If the planter was running from north to south, a wire was strung with knots on it every 40 inches. When the planter hit the knot, the seeds dropped. This way, the hills came out in a checkerboard pattern – one hill every 40 inches in all directions. The reason for checked corn was that the farmer could run a cultivator through the field in each direction – once north and south and the next time east and west. In this age before chemical herbicides, it was important to chop out the weeds mechanically.
In the semi-arid plains, farmers adapted the planter to plant the corn in deeper furrows. This planter was known as a “lister.” As Elroy Hoffman remembers, the lister would plant the seeds in a deeper furrow and cover them leaving a four or five inch mound of dirt on either side of the furrow. What rain fell on the field settled into the seed furrow. Then as the season progressed and the corn plant grew, special cultivators were used to throw the mound of dirt back up over the roots, preserving the subsoil moisture and supporting the stalk. By the 30s, well over half the corn planted on the plains was planted with a lister.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.