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

Let's Talk Rusty Iron

| March 2010

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.