Corn seed is going into the ground at breakneck speed in the tri-state area of southwest Minnesota, northwest Iowa and southeast South Dakota.  This brought back memories of corn planting in earlier years. My first memory of corn planting was of taking mid-morning lunch out to my father who had left shortly after daybreak with a team of horses to plant with a two-row John Deere wire-check planter. Prior to the early 1950s, weeds in corn were controlled solely by cultivation. In order to kill the most weeds, corn was planted so it could be cultivated in two directions. This was accomplished by planting with a planter that dropped corn seeds, three or four to a hill, in 40-inch rows 40 inches apart. This was done by a wire laid the length of the field with “buttons” every 40 inches apart that tripped a lever on the corn planter so it would drop the seeds.  At each end of the field the wire was moved 40 inches and reset on the planter for the next trip across the field. 

As long as the wire didn’t break, planting went smoothly and the corn could easily be cultivated in two directions. If the wire broke and had to be mended there might be a few hills of corn that did not line up when cross cultivating and would get cultivated out.  A good team of horses could plant between 1.25 and 1.5 acres an hour and the corn population was about 13,000 plants per acre. Dad would change teams at noon and plant until dusk and in a good day, plant up to 15 acres in a day. Why 40-inch rows?  Because that was the width of the hind end of a good pair of draft horses and if the rows were any narrower, the horses would knock down corn when cultivating. 

My mother told me that on one occasion I was sent out to take the mid-morning lunch of coffee, sandwiches and cookies to Dad and when he came in at noon for dinner and to change horses, he asked why he had not gotten his morning lunch. Apparently I got tired of waiting for Dad to complete a round of planting where, for most of the round, the planter was hidden after going over a small hill. I ate the lunch and dumped the coffee on the ground and walked back to the house.   

Sometime in the early 1950s we got a 4-row tractor-drawn corn planter that could put starter fertilizer by the side of the corn seed. I can remember that the fertilizer came in 96-lb. paper sacks that were unloaded from a railroad box car during the winter, stored in a shed until planting, loaded on a hay rack, and finally opened and dumped into the fertilizer hopper on the planter. That was hard physical work. With the advent of the tractor-drawn planter, cross cultivation ended and “power checking” came in. A planter would drop two seeds every so many inches, with the spacing determined by changing the drive chain on two sets of sprockets on the planter. The corn population increased to about 16,500 with two kernels being dropped about every 19 inches. Corn seeds were metered with a seed corn plate. Plates came in various sizes for different sizes and shapes of seeds. There were plates for small, medium and large round and flat seeds. If a farmer couldn’t get all the varieties of seed corn in the same size seed he would have to change the seed plates in in the planter to plant the new variety. Seed corn was usually sold in bags of 80,000 kernels and a bag of large rounds might weigh 70 lbs. while a bag of small rounds might weigh 40 lbs. Some university research was to see if different seed sizes affected yield. Planting speed seldom exceeded 4.5 mph because stands became erratic at faster speeds. There was also a fine art to getting corn rows planted straight because the tractor driver was always looking back to make sure the planter was operating properly and no drive chains had broken or come off a drive sprocket.

Over time, power checking ended and corn was “drilled” at one kernel every so many inches. Plant populations slowly increased and row widths narrowed. Seed corn plates became obsolete as the finger pick-up was developed later to be replaced by the air seed planters. Planter size increased also, going to six-, eight-, and 12-row planters, then to today’s 120-foot machines that plant more acres in 10 minutes than the two-row horse-drawn planter could plant in a 12-hour day; and they do it with precision accuracy at the same time as they put down fertilizer.

With modern technology steering the tractor and planting straight rows, turning at the end of the field, varying planting population, monitoring all the planter functions, and shutting off seed units on point rows and field ends, the operator has little to do besides program the computers and check the markets and weather on his or her smart phone. Next up – driverless planters?

Editor’s Note: The photo used in this commentary was taken by Kim Lemmon, Managing Editor of Ohio’s Country Journal. Read her article on “Harnessing the Power of the Draft Horse: Joe Reed.”