What is Farm Power?

Farmers need power to get things done. Think of everything that needs to be done on the farm. Planting seeds. Removing weeds. Picking crops. Feeding animals. Gathering eggs. Cleaning the barns. Throughout history, and even today, a lot of the work done on farms has been done by people and their muscles. Over time, advances in technology have helped farmers produce more, and work more efficiently.


History of Farm Power in Iowa

bone tool used by Ioway1700 Ioway Farm

The Native Americans who lived and farmed in what would be Iowa used their own power to plant and harvest crops. A tribe like the Ioway would make tools from the materials that they had available: wood, stone, and bone.

oxen pull plow1850 Pioneer Farm

The pioneers who settled Iowa still did a lot of farm work by hand. But they had another source of power – animals. Oxen were often used to pull the wagons as the pioneer family moved to Iowa. And when the oxen got to Iowa, they were used to do the heavy work on the farm, such as plowing the ground and moving trees to build fences and the log cabin. Draft power is moving something by pulling or pushing it. Oxen are examples of draft animals; they do work by pulling a load.

horses pull a wagonload of hay at 1900 farm1900 Horse-Powered Farm

By 1900, horses had replaced oxen on the farm. Horses were used for almost all of the field work. In addition, many new machines had been created to help farmers to do their work. These machines could plant, cultivate, and harvest crops faster than a farmer could by using their hands. Oxen were too slow to use these machines effectively, so horses were used for draft power. But even in 1900, there was still a lot of work to be done by people.


John Deere

John Deere. Photo courtesy of the John Deere Archives.

History of Tractors

Tractors helped farmers work even faster, and allowed them to plant and harvest more crops.

1837: John Deere created the first steel plow. This plow could cut through the tough root system of prairie grass. It became popular with farmers in the Midwest.

1853: A two row horse-drawn corn planter was developed. The planter would drop a seed into the ground at the right time.

1868: The first engine-powered farm tractors used steam.

1878: The Internal Combustion Engine made its appearance – this is the engine used in cars today. These gasoline engines started replacing stationary steam engines.

Froelich tractor1888: Steam tractors appeared on American farms.

​1892: John Froelich built and sold the first two successful gasoline tractors. Froelich was living in northeast Iowa when he created and sold these tractors.

1903: Hart Parr Gasoline Engine Company of Charles City, Iowa coined the term “Tractor”.

1916-1922: During this time period more than 100 companies made tractors.

John Deere Combine

Combine. Photo courtesy of the John Deere archives.

1918: John Deere bought out the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company.

1927: John Deere produced a combine.

1928: The General Purpose Tractor was made. It had a two-plow that planted and cultivated three rows at a time.

1939:​ It took some time for farmers to believe that tractors with rubber tires would do as much work as tractors with steel wheels. Model “B” tractor had electric starter and lights, rubber tires, and higher horse-power. This type of tractor sold more than any other tractor before.

1949: Model “R” was the first John Deere tractor with more than 40 horsepower. It was also the first diesel tractor.

4020 tractor

4020 Tractor. Photo courtesy of the John Deere archives.

1964: The 4020 tractor now delivered up to 94 horsepower; it was one of John Deere’s best-selling tractors.

1966: John Deere was the first manufacturer to offer a roll bar to protect the operator. Safety has always been an interest in tractor companies.

1973: The Sound-Gard body offered a new level of comfort and convenience to the driver. It had a panoramic view and shielded the operator from dust, heat, and cold. It reduced the noise level and the driver could use a radio.

1992: Feeding livestock became mechanized. Many different machines were made to process feed easier. The use of fence line concrete feed bunks helped the feeding of livestock.


Farm Power Today

tractor pulls planter through fieldMost of the field work on farms today is done with machinery. Seeds are planted with machines pulled by tractors. Crops are harvested with combines. And crops are transported to market by semi-truck or grain wagon pulled by a tractor, and not by horse and wagon! The use of technology in the field helps farmers plant more accurately and produce more crops.


Today, farmers use tractors to pull planters through the fields. Farmers fill the containers of the planter with seeds, and then the planter drops the seeds in the right place as the farmer moves over the fields. The farmer controls everything from inside the tractor.

combine cutting soybeans at harvestHarvesting

Combines are the machines which farmers use to harvest crops. A Combine does three things:

  • First, it cuts the plant stem—sometimes called reaping.
  • It then removes the kernels, pods or seed heads that the farmer wants—called threshing.
  • Finally, the combine removes the leaves and stem of plant that aren’t needed—this is usually called separating or winnowing.

The Combine “combines” the three processes into one big machine! The front of the combine which cuts the grains can be fitted with different parts or “heads” to allow it to cut different kinds of plants. In the 1840s, a farmer would do all of this by hand, and would need over 75 hours to produce 100 bushels of corn. Today’s combines can do all of this in less than 3 hours.

video iconSee a combine in action in this video clip from the show How Stuff Works.

farmer poses in front of large grain binStoring and Delivering Crops

Sometimes, farmers store their corn and soybeans on the farm in big grain bins. Other times farmers take their crops to a place in town to be stored, like a farmers cooperative.


Harvest: The process or period of gathering in crops.

Ioway: Native American tribe residing in Iowa, Minnesota, and Missouri.

Pioneer: A person who is among the first to explore or settle a new country or area.

Oxen: A large trained animal used as a draft animal.

Draft Power: The act of drawing or pulling a load.

Soybean: A widely cultivated plant of the pea family which produces edible seeds.

Corn: A plant that produces large grains, or kernels, set in rows on a cob. Its many varieties produce numerous products, highly valued for both human and livestock consumption.

Bushel: A unit of size used in dry measurements equal to 4 pecks or about 35 liters.

Tractor: A powerful motor vehicle with large rear wheels, used on farms for hauling equipment.