Small grains?

If we were farmers 90 years ago, we’d be resting up after the small grain harvest and getting ready to pick corn.

As the Kendall County Record reported on Aug. 25, 1920: “Threshing in Kendall county is about over and returns are gratifying to the farmers. The small grain turned out exceptionally well.”

What, you may be wondering, are small grains?

In old-time farmer talk, small grains were wheat, oats, rye, and barley. They were called small grains to separate them from corn, which was both planted and harvested differently than the small grains.

As can be determined from the note in the Record above, small grains were harvested by threshing, sometimes called thrashing. As the name implies, the grain was originally literally beaten off the stalks with tool called flails after it had dried. Later, mechanical threshing machines took over that work, first powered by horses and later by steam traction engines. By the end of the threshing era, tractors with internal combustion engines powered threshing machines.

Before threshing, the grain had to be cut in the field and tied into bundles, which were then stacked to dry before they were taken to be threshed. American ingenuity first led to mechanical harvesters that cut the grain so it could be bundled an stacked, and then binders that cut the grain and bundled it so it could be stacked to dry.

Eventually, combined harvesters were invented and produced that cut the grain and threshed it, separating it from the stalks, and dumping the clean grain into wagons to be hauled to storage. These combines, as they were eventually called, are still the main harvesting machinery used today, although modern combines are astonishing large and technologically advanced.

American ingenuity struck again by building combines that can be used for both the small grain harvest and for the corn harvest by simply replacing the “head,” the part of the combine that actually works with the grain. Grain heads are for harvesting small grains, and corn heads for picking, husking, and shelling corn.

Although the machinery has changed, the farm year hasn’t. Small grain harvesting is largely over, except for soybeans, and farmers are looking towards the corn harvest, another cycle of the farm year coming to a close.


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Filed under Farming, Food, Illinois History, Kendall County, Science stuff

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