Summer is slipping away and it is time to start harvesting small grains on the farm! Today when we think of important crops in Iowa, we think of corn and soybeans.We forget how important grains, such as wheat and oats, were to farmers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. On a pioneer farm in early Iowa, wheat was a main cash crop. Price and demand for wheat were much higher than that of corn, and money from the sale of wheat allowed families to improve their farms.
Wheat is planted in early spring and ripens in early July. Farmers with only a few acres of wheat cut it with a grain cradle. A grain cradle is a type of scythe with long fingers attached on one side.
The fingers catch the grain as it is cut and then deposit it in a pile at the end of the cutting swing. A skilled cradler could harvest 1 ½ -2 acres a day. One or two people followed the man with the cradle and tied the wheat into bundles using the straw itself. After cutting and binding into bundles, the wheat was piled into shocks and allowed to dry in the field. After the bundles were dry, they were stored in a barn or a carefully built stack, and capped with prairie grass to shed rain until threshing tine.
Wheat and oat plants have a head of edible grain at the top of a long stem. After the grain is cut and dried, the seed heads have to be removed from the stems. This is called threshing. Threshing on farms with small amounts of grain was done using a tool called a flail. A flail has a long handle connected to a short heavy club with a flexible joint. It is used to break the seed heads apart. The bundles of grain are laid on a tarp or a tight fitted floor and the heads are beaten with the flail. A man with a flail could thresh about 7 bushels (420 pounds) of wheat a day. When the threshing was completed, the straw was raked away and used as bedding, and the wheat and chaff were winnowed. For small amounts, the wheat and chaff would be dropped through the air on a breezy day. The lighter chaff would blow away and the heaver grain would fall onto a tarp on the ground.
As farmers put more land into production and the size of wheat fields grew, cutting, binding, and threshing grains by hand was too slow. Between 1850 and 1900, harvesting equipment and methods changed and became more efficient. The grain cradle was replaced with the mechanical reaper–a horse-drawn machine that could harvest 10-12 acres a day! In the 1880’s, a knotting device was added to the reaper to tie the bundles of grain automatically, eliminating the tedious hand tying.
By 1900, threshing machines had increased in size and were powered by steam engines instead of horses. Neighbors often went together to hire engine crews and threshing machines to share costs. Because of these changes, the labor required to harvest of grain dropped from 23 hours per acre in 1850 to 8 hours in 1900.
Wheat production in Iowa peaked in the 1870’s then slowly declined. By 1900, wheat was a distant fourth in importance of Iowa crops after corn, oats, and hay. In early Iowa, the importance of oats increased as horses replaced oxen as a power source on the farm. Oxen can get all the nutrition and energy they need from grass, but horses need grain for energy when they are working hard. In 1900, over 168 million bushels of oats were produced in Iowa, mostly as feed for livestock.
On Saturday, August 1, the 1850 Pioneer Farm will begin threshing their newly harvested wheat crop. At the 1900 Horse-Powered Farm, a steam engine will be driving an vintage threshing machine as the farmers begin threshing oats! Find a full schedule for this year’s Grain Harvest on our website.