The Development of the Grain Drill

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Jethro Tull demonstrating his seed drill to skeptical bystanders. In the upper right, three men can be seen broadcasting seed in an adjacent field by hand. Mural by A.R. Thomson. Image courtesy British Science Museum.

Grain farmers soon will be getting their grain drills out for the spring planting of cereal grains. Here’s some background on the history of grain drills, as well as a little on the machines made through the years.

A grain drill is a machine used to plant small grain in evenly spaced rows, or drills. The machine forms a series of shallow trenches into which it drops the seeds at a pre-selected distance from each other and then covers them with a uniform layer of soil.

Before grain drills, seed was broadcast (or scattered) over the surface of the ground by hand. A harrow or drag was then pulled over the surface to cover the seeds. In the 17th and 18th centuries, British farmers sang a little ditty as they scattered their seeds: “One for the rook, one for the crow, one to rot, and one to grow.” The scattering and harrowing method resulted in some of the seed being covered too deeply, causing it to rot before germinating, while some was left uncovered, where it was gobbled up by the “rook and the crow.” Hopefully, a few would be left to grow.

In 1701, British agriculturist Jethro Tull developed a wheeled, three-row machine, with a seed hopper and a ground-driven notched wheel, or cylinder, for each row. As the notched wheel revolved inside the seed hopper, it picked up seeds and dropped them into a tube. Just ahead of the bottom end of each seed tube, a knife coulter made a slit in the soil into which the seeds fell. Shovel-like hoes at the rear covered the seeds. British farmers, however, were very reluctant to adopt Tull’s machine and grain drills didn’t come into widespread use until almost a century and a half later.      

American manufacturers involved early

In America, a seven-hoe drill was developed in 1841 by Samuel and Moses Pennock of Chester County, Pennsylvania. A wooden roller with a series of holes rotated in the bottom of the seed hopper above each of the tubes that led to the hoes. The rollers were turned by spur gears on the main axle and could be thrown in or out of gear individually.

As the rollers turned, the holes picked up the seeds and dropped them into the tubes. Set for 9-inch rows, the hoes opened furrows in the soil into which the seeds fell. In loose soil, enough of it fell back into the furrow after the hoes had passed to cover the seeds.

A Buckeye No. 2 five-hoe grain drill made by P.P. Mast Co., Springfield, Ohio. Photo by Sam Moore.

In 1851, a force-feed mechanism was developed to accurately meter the quantity of seeds, and in 1857, disc furrow openers, as well as chains or press wheels to cover the seeds, appeared. By the mid-1870s, grain drills that placed the seed into the ground at a uniform interval and depth, while covering the seed with an even layer of soil, were in common use on American farms.

By 1890, there were close to 50 manufacturers of grain drills in the U.S., including such names as Superior, Deere & Mansur, Kingman, Rude Bros., Hoosier, Dowagiac, Monitor, Champion, Empire, Farmers Friend, Stoddard, Hocking Valley, P.P. Mast, and Van Brunt & Wilkins. These companies made grain drills in many sizes and styles to meet different conditions in every section of the country.

Options designed for tailored needs

Small, walk-behind, one-horse drills were popular in areas where the normal crop rotation was corn followed by wheat, and by farmers with small acreages. Wheat needs to be sown earlier in the fall than corn is ready to harvest, so these machines were pulled between the corn rows to sow five rows of wheat.

One-horse drills often had a rounded sheet metal fender around the front so they couldn’t snag and damage the standing corn. Available with shoe, hoe or disc openers, and with fertilizer and grass seed attachments, these drills could be adjusted to plant rows 6, 7 or 8 inches apart by moving a hand lever.

A Hench & Dromgold eight-row drill equipped with hoe openers; enough dirt fell from the hoe into the furrow behind to cover the seeds.

Larger drills could be bought to plant anywhere from six to 28 rows spaced 6, 7 or 8 inches apart. This led to grain drills being described numerically: For instance, 9 x 7 (nine rows, 7 inches apart) or 12 x 8 (12 rows, 8 inches apart).

Most horse-drawn drills that planted up to 12 rows had one center-mounted tongue, with hitches available for two, three or four horses, while larger machines were equipped with two tongues for three-, four- or six-horse hitches.

Depending upon width, horse drills had one or two hand levers at the rear to lift the furrow openers from the ground and, at the same time, throw the seeding mechanism out of gear. An acre meter was standard equipment on most drills, while rear footboards and operator’s seats were optional. Hoe, shoe and single- and double-disc furrow openers were available.

Modified for mechanized farming

During the 1920s, grain drills intended for use with tractors were introduced. These machines were equipped with mechanical power lifts and short, steel tongues. Until the 1940s, tractor drills could be equipped with optional seats and horse hitches, while many of the hand-lift horse versions could be ordered with tractor hitches.

Of course, thousands of horse-drawn drills had the tongue sawn off and a couple of pieces of strap iron bolted on to make a tractor hitch. Most manufacturers also offered multiple hitches that allowed two or more drills to be pulled behind a tractor.           

Plain drills with only a seed box were used in parts of the country where no fertilization was required. Fertilizer drills had the seed box, as well as a box and distributing mechanism for fertilizer. Grass seeders were available for most drills so clover or other grasses could be sown along with the grain.

A McCormick-Deering Hoosier 12 x 7 drill equipped with single disc openers and covering chains, as shown in a 1923 International Harvester Co. catalog.

Grain drills use a force-feed mechanism to meter the right amount of seed from the hopper and to drop it into the seed tube. These force-feed mechanisms were known as the double-run feed and the fluted feed, both of which were offered for many years by most drill manufacturers. The lower end of each seed tube terminates in a hoe, shoe or disc-type furrow opener that makes a furrow in the soil into which the seeds are dropped.

Each opener is held down by a spring that allows the opener to rise over obstructions without damage. Hand levers or cranks set the depth to which the openers penetrate. To cover the seeds, most furrow openers were equipped with a short chain with three large links that dragged behind pulling loose soil into the furrow and smoothing it over the seeds.            

Grain drills aren’t a hot item with today’s collectors, except for the small, one-horse versions as they are relatively easy to haul. FC

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 at

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