Friday, October 25, 2013


This year the corn harvest has been wrapped up early and though it was a dry second half of the year, the record coolness to the summer saved the corn and it was a pretty good year. Most years however, corn harvest is still in full swing right now.

This picture taken in my early teens shows me running the tractor as I was unloading my father in the combine "on the go" as we referred to it. It was a necessity in fields like this one where the rows stretched on forever and a combine couldn't make it clear through the field without overflowing. In this picture, the hedge row in the background was right on the Missouri - Iowa border and the other end of the field was a half mile north.

When my father was full in the combine, he would signal me unless I already knew from the repetition of the rest of the field already cut where and when he would need to unload. As he approached the designated spot, I would start the tractor and let it warm up a bit. Then as he neared, I would put the tractor in gear and inch forward until the tractor was straddling the proper rows so that the combine auger would dump the grain in the center of the wagon. On a hill, I would have to learn to cheat one way or the other to compensate so that the grain always fell in the center of the wagon from side to side.

As he overtook me, I would throttle up the tractor sending a belch of black diesel smoke into the sky as the John Deere 4020 strained to get the wagons up to speed. Once I had reasonably matched the combines speed and the auger was centered front to back over the wagon needing filling, I would stop adjusting the throttle and let my father do the fine speed adjustments to keep the grain in the center of the wagon. As it reached the top of the wagon, my father would ease forwards and back to make sure as much grain as possible was emptied into the wagon to not waste time or fuel hauling it from the field to the grain bin. Occasionally if we reached softer ground, headed up a steep hill, or other terrain variations, the engine in my tractor wouldn't be able to keep the wagons in the correct speed range the combine needed to efficiently harvest the grain so I always had to keep an eye out for hand signals from my father to speed up or slow down accordingly.

When he had filled the wagons or at least emptied the tank of the combine, I would peel off to the side to avoid being hit by the chopped up corn stalks being shot out the back of the combine and head back to the next fill point or pull the wagons to the end of the field where I dropped them off for someone to haul back to the farm and unload while I hooked onto some more empty wagons. In a bad year and we were close to the farm, I might have enough time to just haul them into the farm and unload them myself while someone else was hauling empties back to the field and catching the grain on the go.

These days things are much the same and yet much different. The combines have gotten bigger and can hold more grain before needing to unload. Now we instead of many small wagons that are much harder to fill without spilling grain, it is caught in a very large catch wagon that has its own auger to unload the grain in smaller wagons that stay parked along the edge of the field. These wagons of course are much larger than the ones in the photo above but much smaller than the large catch wagon. By not pulling full wagons with road tires through the field, the soil isn't compacted nearly as much and the large catch wagon uses large wide tires to help lesson the compaction even more. The large catch wagon is also easier to fill from the combine on the go which increases the speed of harvest overall. The full wagons are still pulled from the field to the farm and unloaded into grain bins much the same way we have always done. The old 4020 in the picture above is still used to run augers and occasionally pull a single wagon up to the auger but that is rarer since the wagons are much bigger and hold much more corn than those two little wagons did back then.


Ron said...

I saw a Mystery Science Theater 3000 movie a while back, which featured jet airplanes refueling in midair. Your description of matching pace with the combine reminded me of that.

sage said...

That's a great photo and a nice description of the harvest. Farmers around here have been busy with corn and beans and it looks like they are enjoying a good crop--a lot better than last year when many fields didn't produce at all.

Anonymous said...

I remember that the harvester needed to stop to engage the belt that ran the screw with us. It was just as well really, since the 70s all tractors had to have roll bars which extended above the rim of the trailer so the tractor couldn't just pull up from behind like you could in your photo. You'd rip off the shoot.
Now though all the tractors that were huge back then rarely leave the yard as the current ones are huge but are actually lighter on the soil by a huge amount. While you still wouldn't want one of them to cross your foot it wouldn't be pulverised like before.
How many rows did that take, and how many do they take now.

Anonymous said...

I've noticed that they are silaging the tops here rather than scattering them out the back.

Ed said...

Ron - Matching the speed of a combine is probably a tad bit easier and less dangerous than a jet airplane!

Sage - We ended up having a good corn year but the soybeans were terrible only yielding slightly more than last year which was horrible.

Vince - Back when this picture was taken we had a six row corn head. Now we have a twelve row head and in the years in the middle we had a nine row head. Some people here silage the tops but because we don't have any livestock anymore we just scatter out the debris.

Leigh said...

What a great post. These are the kinds of memories we need to keep alive, because most modern folks are so out of touch with what it takes to grow food. And why do they always want to portray farmers as dumb? There is knowledge and skill involved, as you point out here. Again, great post.