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Cutting Kansas Wheat

Until the mid-1800's, wheat was cut by hand with scythes or sickles, sharp knife-like tools. Then, in 1831, Cyrus McCormick revolutionized wheat harvest with the invention of the first mechanical reaper. The mechanical reaper used a knife with a saw-toothed edge to cut the wheat plants just like a saw could cut wood. It was pulled by horses.

The wheat heads were still attached to the wheat stalks. The wheat would be bundled into wheat shocks or piled into stacks until a threshing machine was available. The threshing machine and its crew would travel from farm to farm to thresh the wheat (separate and remove the wheat kernels from the rest of the plants). The first self-propelled threshing machines had steam or gas engines and it took 25-30 men to thresh the wheat.

Today, a machine cuts the heads off the wheat plants, beats the wheat kernels out of the heads, cleans the grain, and stores the grain in a grain tank. The machine that does all this while moving through a field of wheat is called a combine. The combine got its name because it combined the two basic jobs of cutting and threshing wheat. Early combines were pulled by as many as 32 horses or mules. Later, tractors replaced the horses and mules. Then, combines became self-propelled machines as they are today.

By hand, farmers could cut only 2 acres of wheat a day. With Cyrus McCormick's invention of the reaper, farmers could cut 8 acres a day. Today's modern combines can harvest 1,000 bushels of wheat an hour, cutting an acre of wheat in 6 minutes or less. In other words, today's combines can cut enough wheat to make 73,000 loaves of white bread every hour!


Take a ride inside the cab of John Detmer's combine as he cuts wheat on one of his fields in Great Bend, Kansas.