Origins of the Feed Cutter: Inventors on Both Sides of the Atlantic Develop Devices

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Drawing of a circa-1760 English lever-type chaff cutter

Drawing (based on one in Michael Partridge's 1973 book, Farm Tools Through the Ages) showing a circa-1760 English lever-type chaff cutter.

Sam Moore

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Has anyone ever heard of a hackselmaschine or a schneidelade? How about a straw chopper or a fodder cutter? The hackselmaschine and the schneidelade (I translate them as “chaff cutter” and “chopping chest”) are German names for devices once used by farmers to chop straw, hay and corn fodder into short pieces easily digested by livestock.

By the middle of the 19th century, the advantages of cutting cattle feed into small pieces was well known and broadly accepted on both sides of the Atlantic, especially by dairy farmers. As one American manufacturer said in its 1883 catalog: “We need not present here any argument in favor of Feed Cutters, as it is admitted by every practical farmer that it pays to cut feed; and that a good Feed Cutter is necessary to the complete outfit of the successful farmer or stock raiser.”

According to Robert Ardrey, in his 1894 book, American Agricultural Implements, a man named Hochfield in Saxony (now a part of Germany) invented the straw chopper in the mid-1700s. Unfortunately, there’s no picture or further information on this device. English farmers (as demonstrated by a drawing based on a circa-1760 straw-cutting box illustrated in Michael Partridge’s 1973 book, Farm Tools Through the Ages) had access to lever-type cutters during the 18th century, as well. Ardrey says the earliest American patent for such a device was issued in 1808 to a man named Hotchkiss, but I’ve been unable to find that patent.

Drawings of early cutting boxes are virtually identical to the Ohio Lever Feed Cutter sold by the Silver Mfg. Co., Salem, Ohio, in 1904. It is a wooden trough on three legs, with a long, heavy knife blade at the small end. The knife blade is hinged at the far end and has a handle at the near end. An armload of stalks is laid into the trough and pushed over the right-hand edge of the box by the operator’s left hand. He pushes down the raised knife with his right hand and shears off the protruding stalks, in much the same way as a paper cutter works.

The early lever-type straw and fodder cutters are collectibles today. I’ve seen them in homes, with potted plants in the wooden troughs. Such gadgets can often be found in antique shops. One shown recently on eBay still had the original lettering. Cleaned up and varnished, it had an opening bid of $148.95, which may have been a bit too hopeful, as the auction closed without a single bid coming in.

At about the start of the 19th century, straw and fodder cutters appeared with self-feeding aprons or rollers to convey the stalks into a set of spiral blades turned by a hand crank. Jonathan Eastman, Baltimore, seems to have come up with this design in 1822.

Probably later, the hackselmaschine design was introduced. In that device, the flywheel turned at a right angle across the business end of the trough and sharp blades were attached to the wheel’s spokes. As fodder was pushed through the trough, either by hand or self-feeding rollers, it passed into the spinning blades, which chopped it (and not a few careless fingers) into pieces. Dick’s Agricultural Works at Canton, Ohio, used this design for many years.

During the 1840s and ’50s, American farmers demanded easier and more efficient ways to do their work. Farm equipment manufacturers, as well as farmer-inventors (and more than a few shysters), introduced hundreds of “New and Improved!” machines, some of which actually lived up to the billing.

Fodder cutters were no exception. Better rotary designs were developed, one of which was the Worth cutter built in the U.S. in about 1840. The hand crank of the Worth machine turned two rollers that were held together by spring pressure. The lower roller had several straight, sharp blades attached lengthwise and spaced an equal distance apart. The blades worked against a soft metal upper roller that provided a firm cutting surface without dulling the blades. Fodder was fed between the rollers and cut into lengths according to the spacing of the blades on the lower roller.

Most all of these early cutters were turned with a hand crank aided by a heavy flywheel to maintain motion while the blade bit through the fodder. Early rotary cutters still required the stalks to be pushed into the blade, but self-feeding cutters soon became available.

As farms and dairy herds became larger, heavier and more elaborate cutters came on the market. Many of these were meant to be powered by horse powers or steam engines and could chop as much as 500 bushels per hour.

Eventually, elevators were added to the horse-powered cutters to raise the cut stalks into a mow. After steam engine power became common, high-speed blowers were fitted to blow fodder into the silos that were coming into vogue at the end of the century.

Whether American feed cutters evolved from designs brought here by German immigrants is unclear. Immigrants from many lands carried memories of tools used in their home countries, tools that were later reproduced here. Most likely only wealthy American farmers could afford to import such machines from Europe. A crude, lever-type cutter could be hammered together by most any carpenter or blacksmith using an old scythe blade. Farmers everywhere faced similar problems, and there are many examples of new machinery designs being developed simultaneously by individuals in different parts of the country, or the world, who had no knowledge of each other’s efforts. FC