Combine a game-changer for prairie farmers

The earliest combines were pulled with huge teams of 20 horses, but by 1948 the author’s father was using a tractor

A young farmer in Alberta, Harold Hathaway, had just written a letter to his parents, now living in Vancouver. He would rather pull nose hairs with a vise grip than write a letter, but he had managed to fill up two pages by regaling the latest changes in farming.

The recently discovered letter, dated Oct. 13, 1948, and written by the author’s father, started with a report of local gossip and then got into what was really on his mind.

“Harvesting is a big change from 20 years ago, Dad, or even five years ago,” he wrote.

“Now I go out with the swather and cut about 50 to 60 acres a day. Then about 12 days later with fair weather, we come along with the combine, old truck and three men and put it in the granary at about 40 to 50 acres a day. The 12-foot combine can do as much in a day with three men as a 28-inch thrashing outfit, which needed 10 men and 12 horses.”

Today’s combines harvest 100 to 200 acres a day with 34-foot headers.

The very earliest combines were pulled with huge teams of 20 horses, but as machinery improved, 12 horses filled the bill in the 1920s, and by 1948, Harold used a tractor.

The name combine arose from the fact that, with one machine, the work of cutting, threshing and separating could be accomplished — jobs that previously required three.

Harold mentions needing three men for the job because the combine of the post-war era needed a man to stand on the combine to operate its levers while another drove the tractor. A third man drove either a truck or a tractor and wagon to pick up the grain from the combine and haul it to the granary.

The granary itself wasn’t the round bin we see today. They were square little shacks looking much like a small house. Some actually were old houses repurposed for storing grain but most were built by the farmer especially for that purpose.

As a teenager, Harold worked on threshing crews in the area.

This is a diagram of a combine harvester from The Operation, Care and Repair of Farm Machinery, second edition, by John Deere. The year of publication is not stated. Note the platform for the operator. Never mind a cab — there’s not even a seat. | Supplied photo

As he bent over his letter, the old days of threshing drifted through his mind. Ten men needed to be fed and this caused a state of panic in every farm kitchen at the sight of the threshing crew pulling in the yard.

It took a lot of food taken out of the cold cellar to feed that many hard-working bodies. It is best described on Wessels Living History Farm: “Women teamed up with neighbors to feed threshers a huge noon meal, usually of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, bread and biscuits with homemade butter and jam, green beans, lettuce, peas, onions, tomatoes, ham or roast beef, pies and cakes of all kinds, iced tea, and lemonade. Dean Buller remembers the desserts. Caramel pie and chocolate pie were his favorites.” But that was only dinner, as the noon meal was called.

Many men slept under wagons or in bunk houses and also needed breakfast and supper. Someone had to get up at 4 a.m. to start the fire in the boilers of those first tractors.

Ten men also needed to be paid and every farmer hoped the crop was really good so there’d be money left over for him when all was done and dusted.

According to writer Bill Ganzel, labour costs for a threshing crew in 1921 cost the farmer between $86 to $116 a day.

“In addition, the combine was faster,” Ganzel said.

“If a wheat field, for example, averaged 15 bushels per acre, it took over 4.5 man-hours to bind, shock and thresh the wheat. The same field would take only .75 man-hours with a combine. Even if you figured in fuel and repairs, it was estimated that a farmer using a combine could cut an acre of grain for around $1.50. The same acre would cost $4.22 with a binder and thresher.”

The combine has been called one of the most economically important labour-saving inventions in agriculture. The speed and economy with which the harvest could be completed changed the landscape of the Prairies in physical and social terms. Gone were the big straw stacks left on the field after the threshers had done their work. In spite of the labour saving advantage, combines reduced the opportunities for neighbours to work together, building friendships and a network of mutual support.

Also gone were the big neighbourhood parties after the harvest was in the bin. Six or seven families worked together to do the threshing and separating, giving all a chance to visit while working and then celebrate together when it was done.

Harold continued his letter: “There are two new elevators going up in Marwayne. Federal is building a new one. It’s 20 feet higher than the others and holds 50,000 bushels.”

At one time, grain elevators could be found every 10 to 20 kilometres along the railway lines on the Prairies, allowing easy delivery with horse and wagon in one day. The railway offered free land rental to private companies, and elevator numbers peaked at nearly 6,000 in the 1930s. Improved mechanization enabled hauling larger loads at faster speeds and resulted in the decline of the need for so many prairie icons.

Elevators today hold one to two million bushels and inland grain terminals handle millions of bushels.

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