Farm Machinery and Equipment

This Case steam engine, described as “Grandmother of them all” was on display at “Pionera” in Saskatoon in July 1955.
Everett Baker (Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society)

When the first Europeans came to North America in the early 1600s, they brought with them their seeds and equipment to grow crops. Almost 300 years later, when settlers came west to farm they did the same; but farming technology had changed, and it was to undergo even greater changes over the next hundred years. Several key technologies were in existence at the time of prairie settlement: the self-scouring steel plough, developed by John Deere in 1837, was critically important for breaking prairie soils; in 1831 Cyrus McCormick invented the reaper, which was commercialized in 1847; Jethro Tull had invented the mechanical seed drill in 1701, and the threshing machine had been patented in 1788. Although harnessing steam had been investigated by the Greeks of Alexandria, it would take almost 2,000 years before a ground-driven steam tractor would be developed; the J.I. Case Company in Racine, Wisconsin made the first steam engine for agricultural application in 1869. While the steam engine was beneficial in reducing manual labour and releasing the reliance on horses, it was cumbersome and difficult to adapt to farm tasks. One of the biggest problems with steam engines was the need for engineers to operate them: many of the engineering schools in the US had their origins in filling this need. The big steamers (Case 110 hp, American Abell 110 hp, Reeves 120 hp) broke much of the prairie land, turning about five acres per hour, compared to the one-quarter acre per hour possible with horses.

Recognizing the problem inherent in steamers, J.I. Case introduced the first gasoline-powered successor to the steam engine in 1892. However, it took several years to perfect it: the early gas tractors were nothing more than big stationary engines mounted on wheels and with a crude transmission, of which IHC Titan and Mogul are good examples. It was the Hart Parr company that coined the name “tractor.” The first mass production of tractors began in 1917 with the Fordson, by the Ford Motor Company; the power take off (PTO) was introduced about the same time - a significant development as all equipment up until then had to be ground driven, which limited the size and effectiveness of much farm equipment. But even though mechanical power existed, much of the task of breaking up the prairie was done by oxen and particularly by horsepower. This was especially true in the case of small homestead operations; only the larger farmers relied more on heavy machines.

Tillage equipment was the main area that needed development. The role of the local blacksmith was important in transforming equipment to meet the conditions of prairie soils; it was in this area that Saskatchewan farmers made their mark. The tilling methods used in the early days in Saskatchewan were developed in other areas, under different climatic conditions, on different soils. The results in Saskatchewan were disastrous under drought conditions, and contributed greatly to the dust bowl years of the “Dirty Thirties.” It took many years to develop suitable tillage systems that would leave a protective vegetative cover on the soil throughout the crop production process. The first approach to dealing with inadequate water was to summerfallow: this meant preventing the growth of any vegetation in a field for one year, thereby allowing water to accumulate in the soil to facilitate the growth of a good crop the following year. Unfortunately, this worsened the problem of wind erosion and blowing dust during the fallow year. One solution to this problem was the Morris rod weeder, which used a rotating rod pulled sideways through the soil to cut weed roots while minimizing disturbance of the soil surface.

Eventually, by the last third of the 20th century, machines were developed which could seed through the trash left in the fields from the previous harvest. Much of this equipment was developed by small local manufacturers who were the descendants of local blacksmiths. Together with the development of more drought-resistant crops, these new practices virtually ended the dust storms which had begun in the 1930s. While these methods reduced soil surface disturbance, they also resulted over time in increased compaction of the lower soils, which were never loosened by tillage; the Noble cultivator, with a very wide blade operating deep in the soil, then used to loosen the subsoil, while again minimizing surface disturbance. The early no-till seeders were small and proved inadequate for the large Saskatchewan farms. By the late 1970s new machines called air seeders were developed, which used pressurized air and hoses to distribute seed from a large tank to soil openers over a width of up to sixty feet. These machines could seed over 300 acres a day, but required powerful tractors to pull them: again, Saskatchewan farmers needed the biggest, most expensive tractors available.

Although the first self-propelled combine had been invented in 1896, it was the stationery threshing machine powered by a steam engine that dominated threshing until after the Great Depression. Hovland developed a “Travelling Threshing Machine” in Minneapolis in 1910; some of these appeared in the province and inspired the development of the swather by Hanson Brothers of Lajord, Saskatchewan. Protection from weeds and insects required pesticide sprayers. The small sprayers used in the first half of the 20th century were not up to the task, so faster sprayers were needed: this resulted in the use of aerial sprayers as well as large tractor-mounted and self-propelled sprayers on modified truck chassis, with large flotation (balloon) tires to reduce soil compaction. Large machinery ultimately meant large farms and large fields: this in turn demanded large, high-capacity combines. While traditional manufacturers scaled up their combines, Western RotoThresh in Saskatoon designed a new combine from the ground up, using a rotary drum and a pneumatic grain cleaner instead of the traditional straw walkers and shoe. This company also had its roots in the blacksmith/local machine builder tradition.

Handling the large volumes of grain from these harvesters required large augers and other elevating devices. Again, local shops developed machines and grew into larger companies driving local economies (e.g., Wheatheart, GrainVac). Transporting the grain from the farm to elevators was another process undergoing change. As local rail lines and elevators were closed, grain had to be hauled greater distances: this meant bigger trucks, first semi-trailers, then truck trains. Again, local manufacturers built the trailer bodies. This increase in heavy truck traffic has had serious consequences for a road system designed for cars and light trucks. One interesting response to the growing cost of field machinery has been a return to the “old” ways. McLeod Harvesting Equipment has developed machinery based on the old principle of harvesting in the field and threshing in the farmyard. In this instance, the wheat heads are clipped off in the field and hauled to a central yard, where a stationary thresher/cleaner processes the grain; straw is left in the field or baled into large bales for sale. Balers have also undergone change over the years: from the traditional 100 lb. square bale to round bales, which may be loose-centered (600 lb.) or solid-centered (up to 2,000 lb.), to large square bales (750 lb.) - all of which require special handling equipment. While the balers are imported from the USA, local manufacturers are beginning to produce the handling equipment.

Livestock farming has also seen many changes. As the industry has grown, so have the needs for manure disposal: while the traditional manure spreader is still in use for spreading relatively dry manure on land, new practices using lagoons and pits for manure collection, as well as the encroachment of residential areas around livestock operations, require different methods and different equipment. Typical of these new methods is the soil injection of liquid manure: this method uses a tank truck on which is mounted a set of soil openers through which the manure is pumped into the soil while the truck drives through a field.

One of the most significant changes to have taken place over the first century of farming in Saskatchewan has been the increased size of equipment. The early gasoline tractors developed between 25 and 40 hp. Today a common tractor on medium to large farms generates from 240 to 300 hp, with some exceeding 400 hp. Combines today are capable of threshing over 200 acres per day; air seeders are typically about 40 feet in width. As farms have become bigger, machines have become bigger - or is it the other way around?

Ron Ford, Gary Storey

Further Reading

Carroll, J. 2002. The World Encyclopedia of Tractors and Farm Machinery. London: Hermes House; Wetherell, D. and E. Corbet. 1993. Breaking New Ground: A Century of Farm Equipment Manufacturing on the Canadian Prairies. Saskatoon: Fifth House.