Combine Harvesting-Country Matters by the Hodge August 17

Replacing the ox, the tractor was quite the innovation.

Country Matters

By The Hodge

“By comparison with livestock farming mechanized cereal growing is merely a few children playing with a meccano set.”

A G Street Moonraking 1936

August is traditionally when the farmer harvests his cereal crops although with the dry spring and summer that we’ve been having in the Cotswolds, many combine harvesters were well underway by mid-July this year. With modern machinery and technology, the harvest doesn’t take half as long as it used to, nor does it involve the huge degree of labour it once did.

Before the 19th century, corn was cut by hand and stooked. Think of Poldark with his scythe, (although one should not necessarily take his methods as a good example), but many would use the smaller sickle which was back breaking. As the cutting was done, so a team – often women and children – would come behind and gather up the long straw with the ears of corn intact into armfuls and tie these off into sheaves and leave them standing, grouped in the field in stooks. These, in turn, would be gathered up by another team and transported off by ox and cart, (later horse-drawn), to the threshing barn.

Threshing, (separating the grain from the straw), did not necessarily take place immediately and as long as the harvest was kept dry and reasonably safe from rats and mice, could be stored for a long time to suit the farmer. The straw was a valuable commodity and was kept long for thatching as well as animal bedding. The threshing was done with a hand-held, whip-like, flail on a hard surface. Most such crops then were wheat for flour for bread and cakes; barley for malting to make beer and for animal feed and poor-grade bread; and oats for feeding horses and cattle and for making porridge, oatcakes etc.

Huge strides forward were made in the 19th century as inventions poured forth from the booming industrial revolution. First there was a horse-drawn mower which could cut the corn much quicker and saved the labour of cutting by hand. This was soon followed by a binder – initially horse drawn, it both mowed the crop and tied off the bundles into sheaves. This too speeded up the process and saved labour as the sheaves then just had to be gathered and stooked and then transported.

The arrival of the combustion engine further transformed the harvest process. The binder was still used but now could be drawn by a burgeoning tractor which didn’t need feeding and grooming in quite the same way as a horse which had long since replaced the slow ox teams. [Having said that, there was a team of oxen still being used at Cirencester Park right up to the middle of the 20th century, although they did also have tractors and other modern machinery alongside].

The next transformation, almost at the same time at the binder, was a threshing machine. These were large and expensive and would be taken from farm to farm. They were powered initially by a belt from the flywheel of a traction engine. The sheaves were fed in at one end and passed over a series of riddles in a shaking motion. The grains were knocked out of the heads of corn and fell down to be collected whilst the straw passed overhead and was distributed separately. Another labour-saving device.

In this country, primitive combine harvesters did not really begin to take hold until after WWII. These had a wide cutting bar (up to 12 feet) with a rotating head above to scoop the standing corn into the cutter and then it was fed by a belt into an integrated thresher so that the separation was done in the field. The straw was ejected at the back to be baled by another machine while the corn remained on board. On early machines the corn ran through a hopper into sacks and a man had to stand and tie off the sacks as they became full and put them onto a shute where they’d be deposited onto the ground for a tractor and trailer to pick them up. This quickly changed into another labour-saving device – a bulk tank attached to the combine with an auger which, when full, could be transferred to a tractor and trailer saving even more employees!

The same technology exists today pretty much except that it is a whole lot bigger, faster and more efficient. Many use satellite navigation to harvest the whole crop in a field most efficiently. Cereal varieties today generally have much shorter stalks because there is little demand for thatching and shorter stalks mean less damage from wind and rain which can flatten a crop making the harvesting harder.

Here are a few facts about modern combine harvesters should you wish to go out and buy one.

The cutting head at the front can be 11m wide.

They can cut 22 acres an hour.

They weigh around 30 tons.

When harvesting they move at between 2 and 8mph. On the road they can reach 20mph.

Fuel consumption is 3-5mpg.

Fuel capacity is 253 gallons. (Don’t queue up behind one at the filling station!)

They can cost up to £500,000.

At this moment in time, they still need one human to operate them, replacing a small army of as many as 40 a hundred years ago.

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