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Check-Row Planting: By the Book

Let's Talk Rusty Iron

| February 2009

  • IH check-row planter
    An International Harvester No. 1 check-row corn planter.
  • check-row layout
    As can be seen in this illustration of how to lay out check wire, the wire couldn’t be pulled absolutely taut but had enough slack left to allow it to follow the planter when close to the end of the row.
  • check-row planter
    A check-row planter equipped with side-mounted wire reel, disc row markers and a fertilizer attachment.
  • planter check head
    A planter check head showing how (assuming the planter is moving from right to left), as the wire slides through the fork (b), the button in the wire (a) catches the fork and pulls it to the rear, opening the valves under the planting units and dropping a hill of seed.
  • check-row by horse
    Planting corn with an early check-row machine.

  • IH check-row planter
  • check-row layout
  • check-row planter
  • planter check head
  • check-row by horse

In the November 2008 issue of Farm Collector David Dewey, Kersey, Colo., wrote a letter to the editor inquiring how check-row corn planters worked. Jim Boblenz had a good account of early hand-check planters in the December 2006 issue of Farm Collector in which he hit briefly on wire-check machines.

Check-rowing was a method of planting where each hill of two, three or four seeds was exactly the same distance from adjoining hills.

A field of check-row-planted corn had the appearance of a checkerboard, with a hill of corn stalks at the exact intersection of each line. That made it possible to cultivate the rows in several directions and made it much easier to keep a field free of weeds.

Highly labor-intensive technique

With the advent of chemical weed control, check-rowed corn fell out of favor and is rarely seen today. A 1944 study revealed that approximately 50 percent of the time it took to plant a field with short, 20-rod rows was taken up in handling check wire and stakes. Even with long rows of 160 rods, 10 to 20 percent of planting time was consumed by laying out, moving and picking up wire. Mechanical corn harvesters also worked much better when cornstalks were stretched out singly in rows rather than clumped in hills.

Check wire usually came in 80-rod (or quarter-mile) lengths, because that was the common length of a typical 40-acre field in the corn belt. Buttons were spaced along the wire at varying distances depending on the desired row spacing. Typically, 42-inch-row spacing was used, although wire was available for other spacing. Check wire had to be capable of being broken at the edge of a field, or passing around a tree or other obstruction in the field, so a special button was placed at about every 5 rods, enabling easy breaks and reconnection. In operation, check wire was stretched across the field and anchored to a stake at each end. Over the years, hundreds of patents were filed for different types of buttons and knots as inventors searched for the cheapest, most efficient and reliable style.

Technology brings enhancements

Check-row planters went through a long period of evolution along with planter wire. Later versions of a typical 2-row planter had a seed can for each row, with a revolving seed plate in the bottom of each. A series of notches around the seed plate’s circumference picked up and counted the desired number of seeds per hill. Each notch picked up only one seed, but it moved far enough between checks to drop the desired number of seeds into the tube.

The distance moved by the plate between drops was usually controlled by a foot lever that had positions for dropping two, three or four seeds per hill, depending on soil fertility. That group of seeds fell onto a valve at the top of the seed tube, while a second valve at the bottom of the seed tube worked in conjunction with the upper valve. Both valves momentarily opened each time a button in the check wire tripped the mechanism. The group of seeds on the bottom valve was deposited directly into the furrow, while the group above began its journey down the tube where it was caught by the now-closed bottom valve to await the next check-wire trip.

Roger Baker
3/14/2009 5:33:25 PM

I find this totally amazing that I just found this article on this corn planter, in that the article was just published last month. You see, I've been cleaning out my Dad's barns and barnyard of 40 years of accumulation. And among everything else I have been trying to move, is this antique corn planter that has been in mow of the barn since we moved in in 1969. In fact I currently have it listed on craigslist,Columbus OH. It strikes amazing similarity to the IH model shown in the gallery. The only markings I have found on the unit ( and they are hardly readable )is " Dutchman No2" on the corn boxes and the patent dates of 1911 and 1913. I'm not trying to "post an ad " here but, you can see pics of a actual unit. Cool publication! Roger Baker


Farm Collector April 16Farm Collector is a monthly magazine focusing on antique tractors and all kinds of antique farm equipment. If it's old and from the farm, we're interested in it!

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