Happy 50th, Corn Combine

Corn combine reaches the half-century mark.

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All images courtesy Deere & Co.Prior to 1955, if a farmer needed to shell a lot of corn for feeding or selling, a commercial sheller was hired. It cost 3 to 5 cents per bushel 50 years ago, and was considered a significant expense.

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Most farmers are not averse to adopting new ideas or improved methods … even to experimenting on their own. But in rural America, there's a natural reluctance to change without a sound reason or tangible proof of success. Saving time, saving work or saving money are end results with which most farmers can readily identify. Fifty years ago, harvesting corn with a combine was both a new idea and an improved method for farmers to consider.

Prior to 1955, ear corn was king. For hundreds of years, it was picked by hand. Then, in the 1820s, the mechanical corn picker became the new and accepted method of harvesting corn. As a result, corn acreage in North America increased dramatically. From the back of wagons, ear corn was scooped into wood cribs for storage. However, if a farmer needed shelled corn for feed or to sell on the open market, a commercial sheller was hired at an additional cost of 3 to 5 cents per bushel. Commercial shelling also resulted in a large pile of cobs to be burned and husks blowing wherever the wind wanted to take them.

In 1950, a combine equipped with a grain head was used to harvest a field of corn in Australia. H.C. Quodling, director of agriculture in Queensland, wrote: 'This complete harvesting machine will not only reduce harvesting costs to a minimum, but will eventually prove to be one of the most notable inventions of all time.' How right he was! A new and improved method for harvesting corn was offered to farmers in 1955. That year, John Deere introduced the No. 10 corn attachment for the Model 45 self-propelled combine. For the first time, corn could be 'threshed' the same as wheat, oats or soybeans. There were additional advantages: a significant reduction in field losses, ability to harvest more acres in a day, less storage space needed and elimination of a commercial corn sheller.

The John Deere No. 10 corn attachment consisted of a 2-row snapping unit similar to that used on a corn picker. The corn attachment was readily interchanged with the regular small-grain platform. Therefore, it was possible to harvest soybeans on dry, sunny days, and corn in less favorable weather. Combining corn not only enabled farmers to pick, shell and clean their crop in a single pass over the field, but also to sell their shelled corn earlier, which (a half-century ago) usually resulted in a higher price. By 1957, the No. 10 corn attachment was adapted for use with the larger Models 55 and 95 combines. Then, in 1959, a 2-row corn attachment was introduced for use with the smaller Model 40 combine.

New ideas or improved methods have to be determined or 'sold' before they are widely accepted. John Deere developed a comprehensive publicity campaign to inform as many farmers as possible about the benefits of combining corn. To begin with, the John Deere Harvester Works arranged through dealers across the country to place a Model 45 combine, equipped with the new corn attachment, at farm shows in the fall of 1955. Such shows as Prairie Farmer's Farm Progress Show attracted thousands of farmers every year. During the field demonstrations, farmers walked alongside the combine as it harvested corn. They observed how the combine reduced field losses and left the cobs and husks on the field.

 Deere also produced a short motion picture film for the 1955-56 John Deere Day show held at dealerships during the winter months. Editorial articles and advertisements appeared in The Furrow, Deere's farm magazine circulated to more than one million North American farmers. And, of course, news releases with photos of the corn combine in action were distributed to state, regional and national farm magazines and rural newspapers.

As an additional means of presenting all the facts to farmers, Deere & Co. asked George E. Pickard, professor of power and machinery at the University of Illinois agricultural engineering department, to write a booklet on combining corn. The 36-page booklet was divided into five chapters: Advantages of Combining Corn, How to Combine Corn to Increase Harvest Profits, Storing Shelled Corn, Drying Shelled Corn and Can I Justify Corn Combining?

Pickard used field trial data to show the difference in field shelling losses between harvesting corn with a picker and with a combine with a snapping bar attachment. Combine harvesting cut field losses in half. In the second chapter, Pickard noted that 'With normal weather and field conditions, farmers using a combine to harvest their corn will have a week or two head start.'

In the chapter on storing shelled corn, he emphasized that a storage bin must be strong enough to hold the grain, protect against moisture damage (weather proof, moisture-proof floor and means of aeration to prevent crusting), and be rodent and insect proof. Furthermore, he discussed ways a conventional wood ear corn crib could be modified to store shelled corn.

Because shelled corn is often harvested with a combine earlier in the season and at a higher moisture content, Pickard discussed in the fourth chapter common ways to artificially dry shelled corn: continuous dryer, batch dryer, combination dryer and integral holding bin, and a wagon dryer. The first three methods utilized heated air. The wagon dryer used unheated air and took considerably longer to reduce moisture content to a level safe for storage.

In the chapter entitled 'Can I Justify Corn Combining?,' Pickard suggested dollars-and-cents examples which a farmer could use to determine whether or not corn combining was practical for his operation. It should be noted that in his booklet, Pickard was careful not to endorse any specific make or model of corn combining, drying or storage equipment.

There remained in the late 1950s and early 1960s farmers who needed to harvest both ear corn and shelled corn. They wanted the ear corn for feeding and the shelled corn for selling or storage. For that reason, many of these farmers bought a shelling attachment for their corn picker. John Deere introduced a batch dryer for shelled corn and a portable dryer for ear corn, peanuts, hay and other crops. Both dryers used clean-burning LP gas to heat the air and speed the drying.

In 1955, the USDA estimated there were approximately 650,000 corn pickers on American farms. Today, a corn picker is seldom seen in the field and is about as scarce as the rotary hoe or spike-tooth harrow. After a half a century, corn combining has proved to be a new idea whose time had come.  FC

- Ralph Hughes is retired from a 38-year career with Deere & Co. He joined the company in 1954 as a writer for The Furrow magazine, later worked as an advertising copywriter, and was director of advertising at the time of his retirement.