Well-Built Check-Row Planter Still Impresses

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Elmer Grebner and his team at work.
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Elmer at the reins of his team while Mike, using a remote microphone, explains to the crowd how the tripwire planter works.
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Mike Wurmnest (left) adjusts the tripwire on his Hayes planter before the demonstration begins.
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Elmer’s son walked with the team to keep the horses calm. The team had never pulled a planter before and Elmer was concerned the noise from the planter might frighten them. They worked like pros, however, with no problems.
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The Hayes planter was advanced for its time. Shown here: the unit’s marker arms.
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The July 2012 demonstration was the first pairing of Mike’s Hayes planter with a team of horses. Elmer is shown here driving his team.
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The planter’s tripwire and knots are visible in the foreground.

One hundred years ago, long before the advent of satellites and GPS guidance systems, Midwestern corn farmers had their own version of precision planting. It was called a check-row planter, and it relied on a length of wire stretched and staked from one end of the field to the other, spooled through the planter, to drop seed kernels at precise distances along each row.

Among the most popular brands of check-row planters was a 2-row model manufactured by Hayes Pump & Planter Co., Galva, Ill. The innovative Hayes 4-wheel planter had two wheels on each side. The wheels were set at an angle to one another to firm the soil on either side of the seedbed. Among the company’s customers was central Illinois farmer Henry Schuck who, around 1910, bought a Hayes check-row planter.

Harnessed to a team

Henry’s planter was initially powered by a team of workhorses and later by a tractor. After Henry’s death, his nephew Mike Wurmnest, a farmer from Deer Creek, Ill., acquired the vintage planter. For the last several years, Mike has used an Allis-Chalmers Model G garden tractor to demonstrate check-row planting at the Tazewell Olde Threshers Assn. threshing show held annually in Tazewell County, Ill.

But Mike had long hoped to see the planter back in the field with a team of workhorses. His desire became reality last July, when Elmer Grebner, Germantown, Ill., brought his team of Belgium draft horses to the Tazewell County event (held at the Vernon Koch farm near Tremont) and harnessed them to the Hayes planter.

While some check-row planters were set up to plant on 42-inch centers, Mike says the check wire “buttons” on his vintage Hayes planter are designed to drop seed every 44 inches, with 40-inch spacing between the rows. “That still allowed farmers to cross-cultivate their fields with a 1-row cultivator,” he says. “We have several plates for the planter. Farmers could plant as few as two, three or four kernels per hill depending on their soil type and seed size by changing out the plates.”

Mike says the row width can be adjusted from 38 inches to 44 inches. “Uncle Henry probably had 44-inch rows when using horses and then moved the planter in to 40 inches when he cut off the long horse tongue and changed to pulling the planter with his Hart-Parr 18-28.” (That Hart-Parr is also part of Mike’s antique tractor collection.)

Advanced technology

Mike and his wife, Diane, with help from their sons, Chad and Kyle, raise corn and soybeans on the Wurmnest Centennial Farm near Deer Creek. He says the Hayes planter was surprisingly accurate. “My 16-row Kinze planter with GPS guidance makes planting accurate to within less than one inch,” he says. “But my dad and uncle told me that they could get close to the same accuracy with a good team of horses and the check-row planter.”

Aside from new paint, the Hayes planter is completely original, including the check wire. Mike says the strand of wire is at least a quarter of a mile long, which made it possible for farmers to plant two complete rows before repositioning and re-staking the wire for the next round. “The planter was also designed to help farmers plant their end rows, where they couldn’t use the check wire,” Mike adds. “It has a switch pedal that you can kick with your foot to drop seed each time you planted a hill. So you could say it was one of the first variable rate planters.”

Mike says he’s impressed with the durable design of the vintage planter. “It was built with a lot of castings. The seed boxes are cast iron bolted together, and castings were used for many parts of the frame and the mechanism to advance the plates,” he says. “The manufacturer also used a lot of spring-loaded latches, like those that hold the seed boxes in place, and all those little springs still work well. And the Hayes planter has two marker arms, attached to a rope around the front of the planter, that my dad called an automatic marker system. When the horses turned around at the end of a row, the planter would automatically switch over to the proper marker before you started back through the field.

“Another interesting thing about the Hayes is the way it dropped the seed,” he adds. “Today’s modern planters brag about having only 13 or 14 inches of seed drop. On the Hayes, the seed drops from the plate down a casting to a plate about 2 inches above the ground. On the next click of the planter the seed falls about 2 inches to be planted. This kept the seeds together, which was important when you were cross-cultivating.” FC

For more information: 

— Mike Wurmnest, (309) 370-4430. The Tazewell Olde Threshers Assn. County threshing show is held the final Saturday in July (July 27 in 2013) at the Vernon (Butch) Koch farm southeast of Tremont, Ill.

Jerry Schleicher is a country humorist and cowboy poet. He grew up on a crop and cattle operation in western Nebraska, and now lives in Missouri. Contact him at 8515 Lakeview Dr., Parkville, MO 64152; email: gschleicher1@kc.rr.com.

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