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The Iowa Agriculturist

Planting Small Grain

Wheat was the most important small grain crop planted by Iowa farmers. It was not only useful for food but also was easily stored and in great demand as an export product.

Other small grain crops raised included barley, oats, and rye. Barley was useful as livestock, feed, in the preparation of beer and in making bread. Oats supplied the main dish for millions of hardworking horses and supplied oatmeal for hardworking farmers. Rye did well in poor soils and harsh climates.

The earliest farmers planted these crops by hand. They broadcast their seed, that is, they scattered it in the air as they walked across the field. An alternative to broadcast planting was the use of the broadcast seeder. This equipment consisted of a bag with a star-shaped disk at the bottom. As the crank was turned, seed fell onto the rotating disk and scattered across the field.

A later variation of the hand broadcast planter was the horse-drawn broadcast planter. With this device the seed disk was made to spin by the rotation of the wheels as the wagon moved across the field.

With broadcast planting the field had to be harrowed in order to cover as much grain as possible, protecting it from wind, weather and birds.

Throughout the early 1800's inventors worked to improve methods and machinery for planting small grain crops. By the 1860's the grain drill was widely used by farmers in the eastern states. The grain drill didn't come into common use in Iowa until after 1870.

There were many types of drills that were invented and manufactured. Generally, the grain drill was pulled by horses and allowed a space for a rider. A grain box was used to hold a supply of seeds to be planted. The planting mechanism included tubes through which the grain fell into furrows made by discs or shoes attached to the bottom of the drill.

Horse-drawn seed drill

This improved machinery made it possible for farmers to produce more grain per acre and to farm more land.

From: Explorations in Iowa History Project, Price Laboratory School, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA

Photos used by permission from the State Historical Society of Iowa.

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