Harvest Equipment: A Brief History of the Combine - Iron Solutions

Harvest Equipment: A Brief History of the Combine

By Mary Herring Posted in Farm Equipment Value Guides | Resources

May 24, 2020

In the early 1800s, it took an entire family all day to harvest their crop.

Today, the same task takes just seconds for one man in one combine.

Harvesting has come a long way since the days when farmers had to cut down the stalks with a scythe or a cradle – called reaping; separate the kernels from the inedible chaff by beating the cut stalks with a flail –threshing; and separating the kernels from the chaff – winnowing.

All this took a lot of time and a lot of people.

Harvesting has come a long way since the days when farmers had to cut down the plants with a scythe or cradle.
Source: The Farm Collector
Harvesting has come a long way since the days when farmers had to cut down the plants with a scythe or cradle.

The name combine derives from combining three separate harvesting processes

Reaping, threshing, winnowing – combining all three operations into one led to the invention of the combine harvester, simply known as the combine. Considered one of the most important inventions in agriculture, the combine significantly reduced manpower and sped up the harvesting process.

The combine harvester got its start in Scotland in 1826 when Reverend Patrick Bell designed a reaper—a large machine pushed by horses that used a type of scissors to cut the stalks. But Bell did not patent his invention.

The first working combine was the invention of Hiram Moore and John Hascall of Kalamazoo County, Michigan who tested it in the late 1830s, patenting it in 1836. In the same year, another American, Cyrus McCormick, was granted a patent for his famous mechanical reaper.

Moore and Hascall’s combines incorporated most of the features integral to later versions: a reciprocating sickle to cut the stalks; a reel to push the grain onto the platform; and a canvas apron or drape to deliver it to a threshing cylinder. Screens and a fan cleaned the threshed grain.

The first working combine was the invention of Hiram Moore and John Hascall of Kalamazoo County, Michigan.
Source: American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers
The first working combine was the invention of Hiram Moore and John Hascall of Kalamazoo County, Michigan.

Moore’s earliest combine harvesters were pulled by teams of mules, horses or even oxen. His first version was 17-feet long with a 15-foot cut. Up to 30 mules or horses were needed to pull the combine, with a ground-driven bull wheel providing power to the moving parts of the combine.

J.I. Case combine and crew with 20-mule team pulling the machine, circa 1900
Source: Zechariah Judy from Idaho Falls, ID
J.I. Case combine and crew with 20-mule team pulling the machine, circa 1900

Inventors continue to improve combines using steam power

In the late 1880s, California farmer George Stockton Berry integrated the combine with a steam engine to provide power to the mechanics. Men forked straw from the rear of the separator back into the firebox to heat the water in the boiler.

Around the globe, industrious farmer-inventors continued to streamline the harvesting process. In Australia, John Ridley made a successful stripper harvester that simply stripped the heads off the wheat stalks. Another Australian inventor, 20-year-old Hugh Victor McKay, refined the process and created the first commercial combine harvester called the Sunshine Header Harvester in 1885. The machine stripped the standing grain heads, threshed the grain, and cleaned it in one operation.

Early Sunshine Header Harvester, circa 1890
Source: Museums Victoria
Early Sunshine Header Harvester, circa 1890

In 1911, California led the charge of manufacturing self-propelled combines with the Holt Manufacturing Company. Prior to the combine, the typical threshing crew consisted of 20 to 30 workers, while a combine crew consisted of only four or five men to operate the combine.

Holt’s self-propelled combine, first built in 1911
Source: The John Deere Legacy
Holt’s self-propelled combine, first built in 1911

John Deere, Case, IH, Massey Ferguson and others release tractor-pulled combines

Beginning in 1915, International Harvester released its first line of tractor-pulled combines with an engine aboard that powered the threshing mechanism. J.I. Case and John Deere introduced their tractor-pulled combines in the 1920s. These tractor-drawn or pull-type combines were rapidly adopted after World War I, as many farmers had begun to use tractors. Kansas, with more winter wheat than any other state, had the most tractor-pulled combines — 8,274 were in use in 1926. By 1930, of the 75,000 combines in the United States, 27,000 were in Kansas, according to Isern, cited below.

In 1922, Massey-Harris (now Massey Ferguson) sent one of its pull-type combines to the Swift Current, Saskatchewan, Dominion Experimental Farm for testing and use under prairie conditions. At about the same time, a few other combines were sold by International Harvester and J.I. Case to farmers in southwestern Saskatchewan. This marked the beginning of combine use in western Canada. According to Wetherall and Corbet, cited below, in 1925 there were 17 combines in use in the three western provinces, by 1927 there were 791, by 1928 there were 4,448 and by 1930 there were over 9,500.

In 1923 in Kansas, the Curtis brothers and their Gleaner Manufacturing Company (now an Agco brand) patented a self-propelled combine which included several other modern improvements in grain handling. The Gleaner fit on a truck, which was a benefit to custom cutters who moved north with the harvest season, providing harvesting services to farmers.

In Australia, one of the first commercial center-feeding self-propelled combines was manufactured with T-shaped configuration, closely resembling today’s combine. Its center feed crop intake made the machine narrower and easier to maneuver. Called the Sunshine Auto Header and patented in 1923, it was the joint venture of Headlie Shipard Taylor and H.V. McKay.

HV McKay, Sunshine Auto Header, c.1927 One man is driving the Sunshine Auto Header Harvester, while a second man is bagging the collected grain at the back. The image shows five grain bags loaded on a bagging platform.
Source: Museums Victoria
HV McKay, Sunshine Auto Header, c.1927
One man is driving the Sunshine Auto Header Harvester, while a second man is bagging the collected grain at the back. The image shows five grain bags loaded on a bagging platform.

In order to keep up with growing demand, manufacturers competed for market share with Benjamin Holt buying up many of his competitors. In 1925, Holt and Best merged to form Caterpillar and dominated the market. Holt was also able to address the complaint that his combines would not work on steep hills in the northwest. He adjusted the combine’s rear wheels in separate “wheel modules” that could be raised or lowered, as needed, allowing the operator to work on slopes of up to 30 degrees. In 1936, Caterpillar sold the entire combine line to Deere and Company, to concentrate on their crawler tractors.

Massey-Harris (now Massey Ferguson) leads the famous “Harvest Brigade”

By 1937, Thomas Carroll, working for Massey-Harris in Ontario, perfected the first commercially viable self-propelled combine. This eventually evolved into the very successful, lighter-weight Model No. 21 introduced in 1940. The No. 21 is well known for its role in the famous “Harvest Brigade,” Carroll’s innovative idea created during WWII. Massey-Harris convinced the War Production Board (WPB) that if it were permitted to build 500 extra machines over its allotment, they could harvest at least 15 million bushels of grain from more than 1 million acres while releasing some 1,000 tractors for other work and saving 500,000 gallons of fuel. Basically, the 500 machines would only be sold to farmers who signed a document guaranteeing that they would harvest at least 2,000 acres with their new combine.

The “Harvest Brigade” during WWII, 1944
Source: Bangshift.com, 2015
The “Harvest Brigade” during WWII, 1944
Massey-Harris had men in airplanes flying over wheat fields from Texas to Canada to check the ripening process. Mechanics, fuel, and parts were stationed along the proposed route that the combines were taking.

The WPB approved the project and in May 1944, the Harvest Brigade began by cutting flax in Texas and California’s Imperial Valley, then north, cutting rice and barley and the wheat crop in the Pacific Northwest. The brigade moved into northern Texas and Oklahoma, and by July, the red combines marched through Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska. By August, they reached the Dakotas, and by September, the Canadian wheat fields. When the war ended, and they were able to switch back to normal production, the popular campaign created a high demand for Massey-Harris combines.

Massey-Harris Model 21, introduced in 1940
Photo Courtesy of Western Development Museum, Saskatoon, SK
Massey-Harris Model 21, introduced in 1940
The No. 21 is well known for its role in the famous WWII “Harvest Brigade”
Photo Courtesy of Western Development Museum, Saskatoon, SK
The No. 21 is well known for its role in the famous WWII “Harvest Brigade”

New Holland launches commercial twin-rotor combine

Combine innovations continued, when in 1975, New Holland introduced the first commercial twin-rotor combine, a significant advance in harvesting technology still in use today. With the advanced design, grains could be harvested faster and were handled gentler than the previous method. Other manufacturers, including Massey-Harris, John Deere and International Harvester built and tested rotary combines, but never brought them to market before New Holland launched their twin-rotor combine.

New Holland launches the first twin rotor combine in 1975, calling it the TR70
Source: New Holland
New Holland launches the first twin rotor combine in 1975, calling it the TR70

John Deere 55 – A family farmer’s first new combine

Dallas Blome, IronGuides® Managing Editor, grew up on his family farm in Central Iowa, and recalled the day his father replaced his Case pull-type combine, powered by a Wisconsin engine that never started easily during harvest season.

“I remember when we got our first new combine in 1963,” Blome said. “My Dad bought a JD 45 from the local dealer. Dad and a neighbor had both purchased new combines at the same time. The dealer suggested they could get the combines in time for harvest and save the freight cost by driving the combines back home from the Moline factory, rather than having them delivered. So a friend drove Dad and the neighbor to Moline, IL, which is near Deere Headquarters. There they got in the combines and started the trip home which was about 200 miles from our 200-acre farm.”

John Deere 55 Combine, circa 1963
Source: YouTube
John Deere 55 Combine, circa 1963

Blome’s neighbor, driving at top speeds of 12 mph, made it home in about two days. Charlie Blome, however, got about an hour outside of Moline, and the combine’s wheel fell off. Apparently, the factory forgot to put grease in the final drives and the axle broke. The dealer salesman met Charlie Blome off the highway, and they returned to the dealership. After spending an hour on the road in the 45, Blome decided he needed a bigger combine.

“He finally made it home with a new JD 55,” Blome said. “Dad used that combine until he sold it in 1970 replacing it with a JD 6600. His last combine was a JD 6620 purchased in 1980.”

John Deere and Case IH combines are unloading wheat from the grain tanks into a semi-truck.
Source: Todd Klassy Photos
Modern-day combines: John Deere and Case IH combines are unloading wheat from the grain tanks into a semi-truck.

Modern-day combines cutting small grain can harvest about 25 acres per hour

One agriculture equipment dealer has witnessed the combine’s recent evolution firsthand.

Randy Tye, VP of Inventory Management at Mazergroup in Brandon, Manitoba, grew up around farm machinery working in the family dealership. Tye’s father, Max, owned Tye Farm Equipment, a one-location dealership in southern Ontario in operation from 1957 to 1985.

Tye recalled changes in combines over the past 40 years.

“When I started back In 1979, the TR75 combine was powered with a 145 hp engine, and today’s CR10.90 has a 600 hp engine,” he said. ”In those days, the majority of adjustments to the combine would be made outside of the cab, but today most adjustments can be made inside the cab,” he said.

“The cabs now are a farmers’ home away from home, as modern and high end as the nicest car you’ve ever seen,” Tye said. “The technology is revolutionary.”

Combines cutting small grain can harvest about 25 acres per hour, with multiple header types: draper and auger platforms that can run up to 45ft, and corn heads.

“While not common, there are farmers around Regina, Saskatchewan, who harvest up to 45,000 acres using as many as 10 combines running together with 40-foot headers,” Tye said. “When they go down the field and back, they’ve taken off 800 feet of crop in that pass around.”

Case IH combines harvesting in a V-formation
Combines harvesting in a V-formation

“The old days of jumping up in the combine’s cab to see how things are going are gone,” Tye said. “Now, the farm boss can be in one of the combines or driving alongside the field in his truck and monitor each combine’s performance, check fuel consumption, yields and make adjustments to the combine – – all from his iPad.”

The view from the New Holland CR Revelation cab.
Source: New Holland
The view from the New Holland CR Revelation cab.

Combine prices, depreciation rate, and valuations in 2020

The majority of today’s combines are rotary combines offering multi-crop threshing and rotary separation. Optional equipment includes GPS, data collection, luxury panoramic view cabs, touchscreen monitors, and more. The newest models are able to harvest almost 100 tons of small grains per hour. These combines can range in price from $400K to $700K. With the additional cost of headers, platforms and attachments, costs can rise to a million dollars.

The USDA reported in the 2017 survey of equipment on farms that there are currently 323,347 combines on farms in the US. This number is a testament to this amazing machine’s utility.

The price of new combines fluctuates year to year. Looking at the period from 2010 to 2018 on the larger, Class 7 combines shows a trend with an annual price change of -4% to +13%. Factors like commodity prices, Section 179 write-offs (in the US), and changes in emission requirements are all factors that affect the annual price changes of new combines.

Just How Big Can Combines Get?

Combines are divided into classes based on their power. These classes are defined by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM). The class of combine is generally determined by the model’s horsepower where the higher the horsepower the higher the class number. Today, most new combines sold are class 7 or larger (greater than 323hp). The largest is a class 10 combine that first began to appear in 2013 but these behemoth combines are relatively rare. In fact, in 2019, Class 9 and Class 10 combines represented only 10% of the total used combine market in 2019. More on this topic here: “Have Combines Maxed Out On Size?” Or, take a look at some of the biggest modern combines on IronSearch.

Should I Buy a New or Used Combine?

Consider the Total Cost of Ownership when buying combines and deciding if new or used is best for your situation. Factors like the efficiency of new technology, warranty considerations, and the depreciation rates of new versus used equipment should be considered. In some cases you may find that the Total Cost of Ownership Favors Used Combines.

What’s My Combine Worth?

Because of the variety of options available on combines it’s hard to find two that are identical. IronAppraiser has a broad dataset of combine valuation data that includes value adjustments for the wide variety of options as well as usage in engine hours and separator hours. If you’re planning to buy or sell a combine, get a specific appraisal on just about any used combine manufactured in the last 50 years with IronAppraiser.

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  • Mules pull farm equipment, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65466925
  • Early Sunshine Harvester, circa 1890 Museums Victoria
  • HV McKay, Sunshine Auto Header, c.1927 Museums Victoria
  • Adoption of the Combine on the Northern States, by Thomas D. Isern https://www.sdhspress.com/journal/south-dakota-history-10-2/adoption-of-the-combine-on-the-northern-plains/vol-10-no-2-adoption-of-the-combine-on-the-northern-plains.pdf
  • History of Grain Harvesting, by David Badger http://www.legacyquarterly.com/LQ/Outtakes-History-Grain-Harvesting
  • “Breaking New Ground: A Century of Farm Equipment Manufacturing on the Canadian Prairies” by Donald Wetherell with Elise Corbet published by Fifth House Publishers, Saskatoon, SK, 1993.
  • Kalamazoo Living History Show, The Grain Harvester and the Kalamazoo Connection, by Larry L. Coin http://www.kalamazooshow.com/Articles_html/KLHS_Articles_Grain_Harvester_page.html
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combine_harvester
  • https://livinghistoryfarms.wordpress.com/2015/07/28/grain-harvest-and-threshing-time/
  • https://www.asabe.org/About-Us/About-ASABE/History/ASABE-Historic-Landmarks/Moore-Haskall-Combine-1978?SkinSrc=[G]Skins%2FASABE%2Fprint
  • https://www.inventionandtech.com/content/moore-hascall-combine-0
  • https://www.farmcollector.com/company-history/harvest-brigade
  • https://bangshift.com/bangshiftxl/the-harvest-brigade-how-government-industry-and-farmers-fed-the-country-and-world-during-wwii/
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6qljFn9Law
  • https://books.google.com/books?id=3cJeffKoriEC&pg=PA118&lpg=PA118&dq=Holt%E2%80%99s+self-propelled+combine,+first+built+in+1911&source=bl&ots=bv_GEM1Qz9&sig=ACfU3U20u_U_7gTMQsHZGFRtY9vOitUYNw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiUl_jorcXpAhUC26wKHWjwAcQQ6AEwD3oECAwQAQ#v=onepage&q=Holt%E2%80%99s%20self-propelled%20combine%2C%20first%20built%20in%201911&f=false
  • https://agriculture.newholland.com/nar/en-us/about-us/new-holland/a-long-history
  • https://www.farmcollector.com/equipment/grain-cradle-zmnz15octzhur
  • https://assets.cnhindustrial.com/nhag/nar/en-us/assets/pdf/combines/cr-revelation-launch-document-us-en.pdf