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Front view of a red Case combine harvester cutting down soy.

Combine harvesters

In 1800, something like 90 percent of the entire US population was employed working the land; fast-forward 200 years and you'll find only 2 percent of people are now working this way. What caused that amazing change in society? One important factor was the development of huge, automated machines such as combine harvesters that made each agricultural worker vastly more productive. Let's take a closer look at how they work!

Photo: A typical combine harvester, or "combine," made by Case IH; other makes include John Deere, Gleaner, New Holland and Claas. Photo courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith's America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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  1. What does harvesting involve?
  2. Inside a combine harvester
  3. Now in a little bit more detail!
  4. Have combine harvesters always looked like this?
  5. Different types of combine harvesters
  6. Find out more

What does harvesting involve?

The crops we grow in our fields, such as wheat, barley, and rye, are only partly edible. We can use the seeds at the top of each plant (known as the grain) to make products like bread and cereal, but the dry coatings of the seeds (the chaff) are inedible and have to be discarded, along with their stalks.

A bunch of wheat with cereal grains alongside it. Photo by Scott Bauer.

Photo: Wheat is one of the world's most important cereal crops. All we eat are the little grains at the top of each stalk (shown in the small piles alongside). Photo by Scott Bauer courtesy of US Department of Agriculture/Agricultural Research Service (USDA/ARS).

Before modern-day machines were developed, agricultural workers had to harvest crops by carrying out a series of laborious operations one after another. First they had to cut down the plants with a long-handled cutting tool such as a scythe. Next, they had to separate the edible grain from the inedible chaff by beating the cut stalks—an operation known as threshing. Finally, they had to clean any remaining debris away from the seeds to make them suitable for use in a mill. All this took a lot of time and a lot of people.

Thankfully, modern combine harvesters do the whole job automatically: you simply drive them through a field of crops and they cut, thresh, and clean the grains all by themselves using rotating blades, wheels, sieves, and elevators. The grain collects in a tank inside the combine harvester (which is periodically emptied into carts pulled by tractors that drive alongside), while the chaff and the stalks spurt from a big exit pipe at the back and fall back down onto the field.

Massey Ferguson Cerea 7274 struggles to pass a car on a small street.

Photo: Combine harvesters are gigantic machines not really built for small roads. This Massey Ferguson Cerea 7274 weighs 13,800kg (13.8 tonnes or roughly 13.5 tons), stands 4m (13ft) high, and is 10.2m (33.4ft) long. It's main tank can hold 9500 liters (2156 dry gallons) of grain.

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Inside a combine harvester

There's an awful lot going on inside a combine harvester—gears, blades, augers (screws that move cut crops), conveyors, belts, levers, and wheels—so I've vastly simplified everything to make it easier to follow. Roughly speaking, here's how a combine harvester works:

How a combine harvester works: a simplified, labelled diagram showing the main parts inside and the sequence in which they work.

  1. Cereal crops are gathered in by the header at the front, which has a pair of sharp pincers called crop dividers at either end. Generally speaking, the wider the header, the faster and more efficiently a harvester can cut a field. Different headers are used for cutting different crops; the header is often hydraulically powered and can be raised, lowered, and angled in different ways from the cab. The header can be removed and towed behind the harvester lengthwise so it can fit down narrow lanes.

    Top: A side view of a combine showing the wide header unit, reel, and blades. Bottom: Removing the header from a combine harvester and placing it behind a tractor and trailer.

    Photo: Left: The enormously wide header at the front of a combine makes it impossible to drive down a narrow country lane, so how do you move it from field to field? Right: Fortunately, the header can be removed and towed on a special trailer, sideways behind a tractor. It's a simple job that takes just a few minutes.

  2. A slowly rotating wheel called the reel (or pickup reel) pushes the crops down toward the cutter. The reel has horizontal bars called bats and vertical teeth or tines to grip the plant stalks.
  3. The cutter bar runs the entire length of the header underneath the reel. Its teeth (sometimes called mowing fingers) open and close repeatedly to cut off the crops at their base, a bit like a giant electric hedge cutter sweeping along at ground level.
  4. Cutter blade on a John Deere combine harvester.
    Photo: Left: The wide, sweeping header on a John Deere combine harvester. Right: A closeup view. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith courtesy of Gates Frontiers Fund Colorado Collection within the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

  5. Behind the cutter bar, the cut crops are fed toward the center by spinning augers (screws) and travel up a conveyor to the processing mechanism inside the main part of the combine.
  6. A threshing drum beats the cut crops to break and shake the grains away from their stalks.
  7. The grains fall through sieves into a collecting tank below.
  8. The unwanted material (chaff and stalks) passes along conveyors called straw walkers toward the back of the machine. More grain falls through into the tank.
  9. When the grain tank is full, a tractor with a trailer on the back pulls alongside the combine. The grain is carried up from the tank by an elevator and shoots out of a side pipe (sometimes called the unloader) into the trailer.
  10. The unwanted stalks and chaff tumble from the back of the machine. Some combines have a rotating spreader mechanism that throws the straw over a wide area. Sometimes the straw is baled up by a baling machine and used for animal bedding.

Unloading grain from a combine harvester with a tractor and trailer alongside.

Photo: Unloading the grain tank of a combine harvester into a trailer pulled by a tractor driven alongside. The combine's header (cutting blade) has been raised right up so the driver can circle around the parked trailer and fill it up evenly. Look closely at the header and you'll see both the reel (black) and the cutter bar (green) underneath it.

Now in a little bit more detail!

The cutaway diagram below is from a John Deere harvester patent (US Patent #4,450,671: Combine harvester with modified feeder house), courtesy of the US Patent and Trademark Office, and labels about 130 different bits!

Cutaway of a John Deere combine harvester showing some of the main component parts.

You'll be relieved to hear that I'm not going to go through all of them (you can look at the patent itself if you really want that much detail), but I have colored a few of the parts we've already looked at so you can see where they fit into a real machine. From left to right, look out for:

Have combine harvesters always looked like this?

Not exactly! Here's a horse-drawn harvester from 1902. You can just make out the reel on the right, but the really fascinating thing is the huge number of horses—typically about 30—that this machine needed to pull it along!

Horse-drawn harvester from c.1902.

Photo: A 30-odd horse-powered combined harvester, cutting, threshing and sacking machine, pictured in Walla Walla, Washington, c.1902. Photo by Underwood & Underwood courtesy of US Library of Congress.

Here's a slightly more modern-looking Caterpillar wheat harvester from 1900, apparently being pulled by a steam engine:

Steam-powered Caterpillar wheat harvester from c.1900.

Artwork: A steam-powered Caterpillar wheat harvester. Photo courtesy of US Library of Congress.

Here's a drawing of a Gleaner harvester from the 1930s, which looks similar to the machines photographed above. I've colored and simplified into four basic parts:

  1. At the front of the machine, on the right, we have the reel (red) that draws the crops in.
  2. Next we have the cutter unit (orange), including the scythe (blue) that chops the crops.
  3. Once the crops are cut, they're smashed apart in the thresher (yellow).
  4. All that remains is to split the wheat from the unwanted stalks and chaff in the separator unit (green).

Cutaway drawing of a Gleaner combine from 1932, designed by Perren J. Hanson.

Artwork: A Gleaner harvester designed by Perren J. Hanson and patented on June 21, 1932. You can read more detail about how it works in US Patent #1,863,691: Combine harvester (via Google Patents). Artwork courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.

Different types of combine harvesters

Although combine harvesters all look the same to most people, there are a few different variations: different kinds of crops need different cutting and handling. Most combines have interchangeable headers so they can harvest all kinds of crops. This John Deere is fitted with a corn header, a special type of header with large, sturdy prongs for harvesting corn cobs:

Cutter blade on a John Deere combine harvester.
Photo: Harvesting corn. Left: Looking from the front; Right: looking down from the cab toward the incoming corn crops. Photos by Warren Gretz courtesy of US Department of Energy/National Renewable Energy Laboratory (DOE/NREL).

Cotton also needs rather different handling. Here's a John Deere cotton harvester, which is like a cross between a combine harvester (at the front) and a hay bailer (at the back). Instead of spewing out grain and chaff, this machine squeezes and bundles the cotton into giant round bales (called "modules") and wraps them in protective plastic. When a bale is ready, the machine's hydraulic back lifts up to dump it onto the field behind.

A John Deere cotton harvester, photos by Carol M. Highsmith.
Photo: Harvesting cotton. Left: Looking from the front; Right: A rear view shows the hydraulic opening back that ejects the cotton bales. Photos by Carol M. Highsmith in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. The original photos are here and here.

Huge headers need huge wheels to hold them high—but not always. Some combines are fitted with half-tracks at the front (like miniature tanks). Although these are mechanically more complex, and more expensive, they have quite a few advantages. They do away with the need for huge front wheels, so a combine with tracks can be driven down much more narrow roads. They also make driving with a wide header much more stable, and have better grip on hills and difficult terrain. The tracks are surprisingly speedy. The Claas 770 Lexion harvester shown below has a top speed of 40 km/h (25 mph), making it the world's fastest machine.

A Claas 770 Lexion harvester, photo by Carol M. Highsmith.
Photo: A Claas 770 Lexion with half-tracks at the front. Photo courtesy of Carol M. Highsmith's America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

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Side view of a green John Deere combine harvester cutting corn.

Photo: A typical John Deere combine. You can see how wide the header (front cutting mechanism) is compared to the main body of the machine. The biggest combines have headers about 12m (40 ft) wide!

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If you're looking for a really detailed description of how a combine works, patents are a good place to begin. Here are a couple you might find useful:

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Text copyright © Chris Woodford 2009, 2023. All rights reserved. Full copyright notice and terms of use.

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@misc{woodford_2FA, author = "Woodford, Chris", title = "Combine Harvesters", publisher = "Explain that Stuff", year = "2009", url = "", urldate = "2023-04-04" }

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