Forage Harvester Development Marked by Fits and Starts

A Scotch baronet, an agricultural engineering professor and others had a hand in improving the forage harvester.

forage harvester research

During the 1920s, Professor Floyd Waldo Duffee of the Department of Agricultural Engineering at the University of Wisconsin was conducting research on a hay chopper now referred to as the forage harvester.

Photo by Sam Moore

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Scotch Baronet Sir Charles Ross (1872-1942), a soldier who served in the second Boer War and World War I, inventor of the Ross rifle used by Canadian forces early in World War I, and a rich and eccentric land owner of some 366,000 acres in Scotland with about 3,000 tenant farmers, also appears to have developed the first crude field forage harvester.

Elmer J. Baker Jr. wrote in a 1963 column in Implement & Tractor magazine that, while attempting to get away from hand labor on his estates, Sir Charles “drew on a fertile imagination and concocted a dream machine, the production of which he hastened to put into effect by coming to the states. He had heard of a firm (LaCrosse Plow Co.) that could make anything, if you told them what you wanted.”

Baker continues the story. “By July 1925, the machine was ready for field trial. It was pulled by an authoritative tractor, (and) was operated by an 80 hp motor. The machine was mounted on what looked like a Cat 10 undergear. A 6-ft. cylinder-type hay loader was pulled at the side to elevate a swath or windrow. The roughage was delivered to the feeder of a big 22-inch cylinder-type ensilage cutter, which blew the chopped silage to a trailer behind. Thence by truck to the silo. Rube Goldberg never did a better job of designing.

“But the point is: It was the first field ensilage harvester ever to see the light of day and successfully cut silage from a standing crop and deliver it ready for elevation to a silo in one operation. The best agricultural engineering brains in the world had never done as much or as well up to this point.”

A better idea?

One man who saw Ross’ invention in action was Floyd W. Duffee, an agriculture engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin. Duffee immediately saw ways to improve on the Ross machine and made sketches, as Baker wrote, “of a field ensilage cutter as it should be made.”

According to Baker, Duffee showed his drawings to several implement makers, including one large manufacturer who, “by location and size should have been most interested (but who) snarled at Duffee for presuming to think that he could suggest anything of promise that the company’s designers had overlooked.”

Fox willing to give it a try

Finally, Duffee tried the small Fox River Tractor Co. in Appleton, Wisconsin, which was owned by the Saberlich family and which was making a popular line of stationary ensilage cutter-blowers for filling silos. Baker writes, “Duffee’s improvement on Sir Charles Ross’ original idea (as) functionalized by Fox has revolutionized dairy and beef feeding.”

I have in my collection a little booklet titled The History of Modern Forage Harvesting, put out in the early 1950s by Fox Co., which mentions neither Ross nor Duffee and gives all the credit for developing the forage harvester to its own engineers.

The Fox booklet describes the company’s first 1930 machine: “First, they mounted a Red Fox silo filler so it could be trailed crosswise behind a tractor and driven from the tractor’s power take-off shaft. Behind the cutter trailed a modified hay loader. The loader picked up hay from the windrow and dropped it on the silo filler’s feed table. There it was cut up and blown into a truck that ran alongside. A crude machine, perhaps, compared to today’s Fox equipment, but it proved the idea would work.”

Of course, back then most hay was put up as hay, and silage was generally made from chopped corn, so Fox got busy on that. The booklet continues:

“The machine was developed into a corn ensilage harvester by mounting a corn binder – minus tying mechanism – between the tractor and the cutter. The binder cut the standing corn, dropping it onto the silo filler to be chopped and blown into the truck running alongside. A small machine, but it worked well, and a number of silos were filled by this experimental model.”

Experimentation pays off

In 1931, Fox built a huge, 19-foot-wide machine with its own engine and either a pickup head or a cutter bar with a reel to sweep the hay into the cutter bar. Both machines used a horizontal moving canvas behind the cutter bar or pickup reel and an angled pair of canvases, like those on a grain binder, to raise the hay and drop it on the chopper’s feed table. This effort was too big and awkward to be practical.

The next year Fox built a more compact pickup-type forage harvester that was sold to Brook Hill Farms, a large dairy in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, where it was used successfully until it was replaced by a new Fox machine in 1945.

More years of experimentation followed and, in 1936, Fox put on the market what was touted as the first pickup hay chopper. In 1940 came a Fox chopper with a cutter bar that could cut hay, chop it and have it ready for the silo in one operation. This was followed the next year by a corn harvesting attachment, and now the Fox forage harvester became a machine that could chop mown hay with its pickup attachment, standing hay with the cutter bar attachment, or standing corn with the corn attachment.

Modern improvements

After World War II, Fox improved its chopper by making it lighter and the interchangeability of the attachments much easier. In 1950, Fox introduced this triple-threat machine as the Forage Master. Fox field choppers were quite popular for many years.

A 2-row corn head was offered in 1955, followed two years later by a self-unloading forage wagon. In 1960, Fox came out with a self-propelled forage harvester, but by that time competition from big manufacturers was growing. The Saberliches sold out in 1970, and the firm became the Fox Tractor Farm Division of Koehring Co. Koehring sold the Fox assets to Piper Industries in 1981 and, five years later, Piper unloaded it on the Hiniker Company of Mankato, Minnesota, which promptly closed it down.

Fox forage harvesters were not manufactured after 1986, although the remaining well-built and reliable Fox machines were in use for many years and some probably still are. FC


Great Minds Think Alike

While leafing through the October 1939 issue of Farm Journal magazine in my collection, I found a short article that proves that most farm labor-saving inventions didn’t spring full-blown from the genius of a single individual. In fact, many inventions are thought of by more than one person at nearly the same time. A case in point is the field forage harvester.

If the records are correct, Sir Charles Ross first thought of the concept of marrying a pickup device, in his case, a hay loader, to an ensilage cutter and blower, all powered by an engine auxiliary to the tractor that pulled the rig.

Professor Floyd Duffee took Ross’s contraption and improved it, while Fox River Tractor Co. improved it still further. These machines all picked up hay that had been previously mown and raked into windrows, and although Fox did make an experimental mower-type chopper in 1931, the company didn’t put a cutter bar chopper on the market until 1940.

During the summer of 1938, George Michel, who farmed in Linn County, Iowa, ensiled alfalfa for the first time. Although quickly sold on the idea, Michel told the Farm Journal reporter, “Try pitching silage and you will start to think about a machine to do the work.”

The next winter Michel raided his scrap pile and got busy in his farm shop. He made a frame from angle iron salvaged from a windmill tower and mounted it on the chassis and wheels of a junked Model T Ford. The cutter bar, reel and elevating canvas from a combine were hung at the right of the frame and an ensilage cutter was mounted crosswise behind that. The elevator from an old corn picker was mounted at the rear to elevate the chopped alfalfa into a trailed wagon. The cutting, chopping and elevating mechanisms were all driven from the tractor’s PTO and the machine was said to require no more power than a 2-row corn picker.

During the summer of 1939, Michel and his helpers filled two 14- by 45-foot silos in three days, using the machine. Michel himself ran the tractor, with one man assisting in feeding the chopper and another building the load in the wagon. It doesn’t say so in the article, but I assume there were other helpers who shuttled loaded and empty wagons back and forth, while still others worked at the silo.

Of course, Michel may have heard of the experiments by Ross, Duffee and Fox in Wisconsin, but he still came up with innovations of his own, like the cutter bar and PTO drive, both features not yet offered by Fox.

So I’m always a little suspicious of claims such as, “He gave to the world the steel plow,” or “He invented the reaper.” Inventions usually are incremental, with even failed experiments by many individuals contributing to the final breakthrough claimed by one person.


Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email.