History of Agriculture and Farm Machinery

Farming and Farm Machinery Have Continued to Evolve

Farming and farm machinery have continued to evolve.

The threshing machine has given way to the combine, usually a self-propelled unit that either picks up windrowed grain or cuts and threshes it in one step. The grain binder has been replaced by the swather which cuts the grain and lays it on the ground in windrows, allowing it to dry before being harvested by a combine. Plows are not used nearly as extensively as before, due in large part to the popularity of minimum tillage to reduce soil erosion and conserve moisture. The disk harrow today is more often used after harvesting to cut up the grain stubble left in the field. Although seed drills are still used, the air seeder is becoming more popular with farmers.

Today's farm machinery allows farmers to cultivate many more acres of land than the machines of yesterday.

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Corn Picker

 In 1850, Edmund Quincy invented the corn picker.

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Cotton Gin

 The cotton gin is a machine that separates seeds, hulls and other unwanted materials from cotton after it has been picked. Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin on March 14, 1794.

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Cotton Harvester

Mechanical cotton harvesters are of two types: strippers and pickers.

  • Stripper harvesters strip the entire plant of both open and unopened bolls, along with many leaves and stems. The cotton gin is then used to remove unwanted material.
  • Picker machines, often called spindle-type harvesters, remove the cotton from open bolls and leave the bur on the plant. The spindles, which rotate on their axes at high speeds, are attached to a drum that also turns, causing the spindles to penetrate the plants. The cotton fibers are wrapped around the moistened spindles and then removed by a special device called a doffer; the cotton is then delivered to a large basket carried above the machine.

The first cotton harvester was patented in the U.S. in 1850, but it was not until the 1940s that the machinery was widely used. 

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Crop Rotation

Growing the same crop repeatedly on the same land eventually depletes the soil of different nutrients. Farmers avoided a decrease in soil fertility by practicing crop rotation. Different plant crops were planted in a regular sequence so that the leaching of the soil by a crop of one kind of nutrient was followed by a plant crop that returned that nutrient to the soil. Crop rotation was practiced in ancient Roman, African, and Asian cultures. During the Middle Ages in Europe, a three-year crop rotation was practiced by farmers rotating rye or winter wheat in year one, followed by spring oats or barley in the second year, and followed by a third year of no crops.

In the 18th century, British agriculturalist Charles Townshend aided the European agricultural revolution by popularizing a four- year crop rotation with rotations of wheat, barley, turnips, and clover. In the United States, George Washington Carver brought his science of crop rotation to the farmers and saved the farming resources of the south.

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The Grain Elevator

In 1842, the first grain elevator was built by Joseph Dart. 

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Hay Cultivation

Until the middle of the 19th century, hay was cut by hand with sickles and scythes. In the 1860s early cutting devices were developed that resembled those on reapers and binders; from these came the modern array of fully mechanical mowers, crushers, windrowers, field choppers, balers, and machines for pelletizing or wafering in the field.

The stationary baler or hay press was invented in the 1850's and did not become popular until the 1870's. The "pick up" baler or square baler was replaced by the round baler around the 1940's.

In 1936, a man named Innes, of Davenport, Iowa, invented an automatic baler for hay. It tied bales with binder twine using Appleby-type knotters from a John Deere grain binder. A Pennsylvania Dutchman named Ed Nolt built his own baler, salvaging the twine knotters from the Innes baler. Both balers did not work that well. According to The History of Twine, "Nolt's innovative patents pointed the way by 1939 to the mass production of the one-man automatic hay baler. His balers and their imitators revolutionized hay and straw harvest and created a twine demand beyond the wildest dreams of any twine manufacturer."

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Milking Machine

In 1879, Anna Baldwin patented a milking machine that replaced hand milking - her milking machine was a vacuum device that connected to a hand pump. This is one of the earliest American patents, however, it was not a successful invention. Successful milking machines appeared around 1870. 

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John Deere invented the self-polishing cast steel plow - an improvement over the iron plow.