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How Wheat Grows: From Spring to Harvest

3rd Week of June

Harvest is here! The wheat stalks are dry and can barely support the weight of the heads of wheat. When the heads begin to “nod”, it’s time to cut the wheat.

Wheat is harvested by a self-propelled machine called a combine. As the combine moves thru the field, the bars on the (somewhat round) reel at the front of the machine gently pull the wheat stalks toward the machine. At the point where the bars on the reel almost touch the lower front edge of the machine, there is a cutting bar. This cutting bar or “sickle” has triangular blades with very sharp edges and moves from side to side rapidly as it cuts the wheat stalks and anything else it comes into contact with.

The parts of the wheat plants that were cut off the stalk by the “sickle” drop into an area that is tilted downward and towards the middle of the machine. In the center, there is an opening and the cut material slides and is pulled toward that opening. Once it goes thru the opening, it is carried inside the combine. The combine uses air, shaking, and gravity to separate the kernels (wheat seeds) from the beards, stalks, and other pieces of the cut plants (and weeds or whatever else gets pulled into the combine). The wheat seeds are saved and moved into a “grain tank” on the combine. When the grain tank gets full, the wheat seeds will be unloaded onto a truck or grain cart.

The combine uses air to blow everything else towards the rear of the combine – everything but the wheat seeds and things similar in size and weight that manage to move into the grain tank. The “chaff” is the pieces of wheat straw, the beards from the wheat head, and all the other lightweight extra things that are easily blown out of the combine and fall to the ground.

A “strawchopper” with blades will chop up any long pieces of wheat stalks or weeds as they fall out of the combine. The smaller pieces will fall thru the wheat stubble (what’s left of the wheat plants after the heads are cut off) and be easier to work into the soil. The smaller pieces will also decompose faster.

The work for each wheat crop actually begins at least one year in advance with the preparation of the ground, the planting in late September or early October, the management through the winter and spring, and all the preparation for wheat harvest. Harvest is like the end of working and waiting for a whole year for a paycheck that comes only once a year. If everything goes just right, it’s an exciting time!