Wheat combining technology actually goes back over 170 years. In 1836, Hiram Moore built and patented the first successful combine. His combination reaper, harvester, and threshing machine was 17 feet long, 15 feet wide, and needed 20 horses to pull it and a small army of farm hands to guide the horses and operate the machine. Later, tractors were used to haul combines through wheat fields.

In the 1940s, individual farmers could buy the first self-propelled wheat combines. The diffusion of the technology was rapid. It’s estimated that by 1960, self-propelled combines outnumbered tractor-drawn machines for the first time.

The advantages were obvious. The first tractor-drawn combines required someone to drive the tractor, another person to operate the combine and one to two people to transport the harvested grain. The self-propelled unit required one person to drive the combine and another to haul the grain to the elevator. The self-propelled machines were also more efficient because just enough power was applied right where it was needed.

With the basic design problems of the combine solved, the engineers went to work on the nuances. They fine-tuned the separation and cleaning mechanisms. They increased the capacity of the on-board grain bins and worked on their placement to produce a lower, more stable center of gravity. They increased the width of the cutter heads and the capacity of internal mechanisms.

Most of the manufacturers also brought out “self leveling” models that allowed the combine body to stay vertical while the cutter head followed the contour of a hillside. In fact, by the early 60s, International Harvester boasted that their Model “403” combine had the only four-way leveling — side-to-side as well as front-to-back. All the other “hillside” models could only correct for side-to-side gradients. The IH model could operate on a 36 percent side slope in combination with a 34 percent uphill grade or a 12 percent downhill grade. It had an oil-cushioned 100-pound weight on a pendulum to sense the changes in gradient, and two separate hydraulic pumps and leveling systems to make the changes.

This and other hillside models opened up new land to wheat farming and revolutionized the wheat industry, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.

This era also saw the introduction of factory-installed cabs on combines. By the mid-60s, manufacturers were offering optional cabs to keep the operator out of the brutal sun, wind and dust. By the end of the decade, cabs were becoming standard equipment and included air conditioning. International Harvester advertising suggested that the farmer should “Raise your standard of living on an IH Combine…

Put yourself in a ‘controlled environment’ that rivals living-room comfort. Tinted safety glass provides horizon-wide visibility while the pressurizer fan provides filtered fresh air free of dust, pollen and fumes. The new cab environment can be equipped with air conditioning and or hot water heating that turns blustery days into pleasant Indian Summer!”

Custom combining crews. All of these developments enhanced the combine market. When we chart the growth in numbers of grain combines on farms, there was a very fast growth beginning in the 40s. The peak was reached in 1960 when farmers owned over 1.042 million combines.

Yet, the numbers dropped almost as dramatically shortly thereafter. By 1975 — 15 years later — there were only around half the peak number. Then, farmers began buying combines again.

Some agricultural historians have suggested that the reason for the drop was the rise in the custom combining industry. Small and medium sized grain growers realized that they didn’t have to make the huge capital investment in the combines when there were others willing to buy the machines and harvest grain for a fee.

As early as the 30s, some farmers were founding the custom harvesting business. By the 40s — especially after the introduction of self-propelled machines — the custom cutters began migrating greater and greater distances. The World War II Harvest Brigade promoted the industry even further.

By the 60s, custom combine crews became a full-time business. Agricultural entrepreneurs would invest in several of the latest grain combines. Sometimes entire families would become the operators. Other crews hired workers for a season that begins in late May in Texas. The crew would descend on their first fields with multiple machines as soon as the farmer let them know the wheat was ripe and dry enough to cut. The biggest crews can be into and out of even the largest farms in a day or two.

Terry Schrick remembers being amazed in the 50s at how much faster a custom combining crew with modern, self-propelled, wide cutting heads could complete the harvest. “The only combine we had,” he says, was a “little Allis Chalmers that was a seven foot [cutting head]… The custom crews “were done in a day or a day and a half, where it had been taking you two weeks and sometimes a lot longer with that little seven foot combine.” Terry was also amazed at how the crews moved from Texas to Canada, living out of un-air-conditioned trailors. “They come back with all kinds of stories from coming north.”

Today, cell phones and the Internet keep the crews in touch with the next clients. As the crops ripen, the crews load the combines onto semi-trailer trucks that double as grain haulers, load clothes and food into RVs and move further north. They are paid by the acre as well as a fixed amount per bushel handled.

By November or even December, the harvest migration comes to an end in North Dakota or Canada.

Some people feel that the long days, heavy workloads and close living conditions create an industry filled with romance and adventure. Terry Schrick had neighbors in Oklahoma who took up the custom combining life style. “It’s just amazing what they done,” he says. “And those youngsters, they come back with all kinds of stories from coming north.

It’s an industry that wouldn’t exist without the machines.

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


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