This view across a harvest field dates from about 1970. It shows a field of corn in stooks. The stooks were made of 8 or 10 sheaves (singular sheaf) which were bundles of cut corn. These stooks of corn represent harvest as done by hand. By the 20th century a reaper-binder was widely used to cut the corn and and to tie individual stalks together, but the gathering up of the sheaves and putting them into stooks still had to be done manually. The reaper-binder was the machine that preceded the combine harvester. Before the invention of this machine the harvest was was cut with a sickle and tied up with strands of straw. Threshing, which used to done with a hand flail, was the first of the operations around gathering in the harvest to be mechanised. The use of threshing machines led to the Captain Swing riots in 1830. Early threshing machines were driven by hand or by a horse on a treadmill.
A combine harvester got its name from combing the processes of reaping and threshing in one machine. Combines now have their own diesel engines but to begin with in the US they were driven by a team of up to 30 horses. When the internal combustion engine took over they were powered by a separate tractor at first. The self propelled combine became widespread in England by 1960.
The combine became the machine of choice during the 50s and 60s. The first combine was imported from North America to a Suffolk farm in 1936. (Once again East Anglia led the way in this country.) It caused a sensation as two men could completely finish a 40 acre field in day. At the beginning of the previous century it had taken a team of men, women and children days merely to cut the corn and all winter to thresh it. This degree of productivity in the mid thirties was quite astonishing and aroused much comment. By 1970 to see the corn still piled in stooks for subsequent threshing was rare indeed.
With the coming of the combine the stacking of the corn for subsequent threshing was no longer required. The corn stacks effectively disappeared. There were still stacks of straw and at first these were still thatched with a roof of straw to keep out the rain. When the straw stacks became piles of bales these stacks could not be thatched as they were flat topped, and so they were either brought into Dutch barns or were covered by a tarpaulin (now a black polythene sheet). These rectangular bales were a useful size for human beings as they could be handled by one man, and such bales are still useful for many purposes. The huge cylindrical bales that have become common since the 70s cannot be manhandled and must be moved by tractor. They cannot be stacked in any meaningful way and weigh half a ton or more. They are bound so tightly that water penetration is less of a problem however, and you frequently see them just left at the edge of a field with nothing to protect them from the rain. Only when the cords binding them are cut is it possible to handle the straw, although this too is manly done by machine.
The chaff which used to a by-product of threshing is now simply blown out of the back of the combine and returned to the land. When it was a plentiful commodity around the farm it was used as an addition to animal feed – useful extra when most farms were mixed arable and livestock. Chaff is primarily the hard scaly covering of the grain, although it can also be produced by fine chopping straw.
Hay stacks have also become few and far between. Bales of hay are still available at the pet shop but most grass for winter animal feed is now fermented as silage. Silage-making is not dependant on a rain-free period as hay-making is, and the crop is more palatable for the livestock and more nutritious. Silage used to be made in pits but is now made in clamps, highly compressed, covered with black sheeting and weighed down with old tyres. It is important that silage is made in anaerobic conditions.
Agriculture has changed enormously with the increased use of mechanisation. In less than a century farming has become a solitary task and whereas the farmer used to employ a dozen or more workers he, and perhaps his son or daughter, can now manage the complete farm alone. Larger fields are needed for the mechanical ploughing and spraying, and hedges which needed cutting were ripped out; even when done by a tractor and flail hedge cutting is still a time consuming job.
The other change has been in the amount of land that can now be put to the plough. Before World War II, when most tillage was still being done by horse, the amount of time it took meant that only a fraction of a farmer’s land could be put under the plough. The majority of his land had to be used for growing permanent pasture which meant livestock and mixed farming. This change to mechanised ploughing meant that East Anglia became an overwhelmingly arable landscape. It still is, although set-aside (now ended) meant a certain return to pasture. Sheep farming in Norfolk seems more popular than it was in the 60s and 70s although dairy herds are becoming increasingly scarce.