In the first part of the pull-type combine story in the January 23, 2018, issue of Grainews we looked at some of the earliest commercial offerings. Now, we pick up the story from World War II until last production in 1991.
The war created a serious shortage of farm manpower, which accelerated the demand for combines. But farm equipment companies were busy building war materials and were not allowed to devote resources to new products — although they were authorized to continue limited production of pre-war pull types (PT). An exception was granted to Massey Harris by the government in late 1943, when they were permitted enough steel to produce 500 model 21A self-propelled (SP) models in addition to their allocation of 1,300 PTs.
These 500 were to be built exclusively for the 1944 “Harvest Brigade” (a moving group of custom combiners harvesting across much of North America), which is a story in itself. The next year that number was increased to 750, so the market was still very much a PT business.
The PT market remained strong during the early post war period in the grain growing areas, but farmers in the corn belt were testing the idea of combines to harvest grain corn. Initially this did not affect the Canadian West, because there were no grain corn varieties grown there.
At that time on our family farm in southern Manitoba, we did grow corn for ensilage but, usually between August 25 and September 5 there would be a killing frost and the corn had to be foraged immediately before the leaves dried out. We harvested all of it with a one-row forage harvester.
Corn heads on SP combines really started to gain traction during the mid 1950s. At the same time, PT combines were changing to include sealed bearings, variable cylinder speed control (without changing sprockets), easily adjusted concaves and hydraulic header lifts.
At International Harvester the model 140 was released in 1954, and at the same time the IH tractors featured independent power take off and Torque Amplifier which allowed “on the go” ground speed control, making an efficient unit.
Self-propelled gains action
By 1959 when I started my career in the business at IH, the idea of SP combines for grain harvest was spreading on the Prairies and things were getting extremely competitive, with Massey and Cockshutt (plus CCIL selling re-branded Cockshutts) making major inroads. At IH, any time we could convince a customer of the economy of a PT combine and a new tractor it was good news, since our chances of a sale became much better. The key to this was often a demonstration.
These demonstrations were a real highlight for me as a not-long-off-the-farm boy. A new tractor and combine brought to the farm on a fine fall day were usually met with great hospitality. Most of the meals were excellent and reflected the farm tradition left over from the threshing crew days. However, we occasionally had a different experience.
My most vivid memory was of a noon meal provided by a gracious farm wife whose married daughter and her new baby were visiting. I was sitting at the right hand end of a rectangular table .The young mother was sitting to my right, not at the table. When it became necessary to change the baby, she did it right beside me. The next thing I knew the diaper was “sunny side up” on the table, right beside my plate. My experience with babies was very limited, so this almost caused another embarrassment.
Lunch was soon over and the action moved gratefully back to the field.
Tractors kept getting bigger and every few years IH and some competitors released larger PT combines to match them. By the late 1970s the PT market in North America was concentrated in Western Canada, with a few sold into the neighboring wheat-growing states. At IH we were getting a greater and greater share of a declining market. This prompted the decision to stay in the PT business to provide volume for the East Moline plant, which had capacity to build far more combines than the market for SPs could absorb.
With farm consolidation in full swing in Western Canada, many things were changing.
Effective weed control was common, new grain varieties were being developed with stronger stems to keep from lodging, making straight cutting more practical.
SP combines were capable of wider headers too, while pull types couldn’t handle them due to their offset design. And the change from auger to draper feeding meant more high-speed productivity.
There was also the less obvious, but very significant pride of owning a modern SP combine that trumped the slower economy and helped push SP sales higher.
In 1987 the last of the big pull-type combines, the Case IH 1682 was introduced. It was discontinued in 1991, ending another agricultural chapter in Western Canada.