1902 Encyclopedia > Agriculture > Harvesting of Grain Crops and Preparing Them for Market

(Part 55)


Harvesting of Grain Crops and Preparing Them for Market

Several distinct modes of reaping grain are in use. The most ancient, and still the most common, is by the sickle or reaping-hook, which is used either with a smooth or serrated edge. The latter was at one time preferred, as by it the work was performed most accurately. The smooth-edged instrument is, however, now the favourite, as it requires less exertion to use it, and the reaper can, in consequence, get through more wok in a day; and also because in using it the stalks are less compressed, and consequently dry faster when made into sheaves. In some parts of England the crops are reaped in a method called fagging or bagging. The cutting instrument used is heavier, straighter, and broader in the blade than the common reaping-hook. The workman uses it with a slashing stroke, and gathers the cut corn as he proceeds by means of a hooked stick held in his left hand. It is a similar process to the mode of reaping with the Hainault scythe-an instrument which has been tried in this country, but never adopted to any extent. The common scythe, especially with that form of handle known as the Aberdeen handle or sned, is very extensively used for reaping grain in all parts of the kingdom. Indeed, the practice of mowing grain has been increasing of late years, and would extend more rapidly but for the greater difficulty of finding good mowers than good reapers. A greater amount of dexterity is requied to cut grain well by the scythe than by the sickle. The difficulty lies not in making smooth and clean stubble, but in so laying the swathe as to admit of the corn being sheaved accurately. When the mower lays his swathe at right angles to his line of progress, and the gatherer is skilful and careful, corn may be handled as neatly in reaping by the scythe as by the sickle. When the crops are not much laid or twisted, mowing is somewhat the cheapest of these modes of reaping. Its chief recommendation, however, is that mown sheaves dry most quickly, and suffer least from a drenching rain. This arises from the stalks being less handled, and so forming an open sheaf, through which the wind penetrates freely. Tightly bound sheaves are always difficult to dry.

In Berwickshire and adjoining counties the reaping of the crops has hitherto been accomplished by employing, at day’s wages, such a number of reapers as suffices to cut down the crops on each farm in from twelve to twenty days. The rate of wages paid to reapers for a number of years has ranged from 2s. 6d. to 3s 6d. each per diem, with victuals in addition, costing about eightpence for each person. In marshalling the band, two reapers are placed on each ridge of 15 or 18 feet in breadth, with a binder to each four reapers, and a steward, or the farmer in person, to superintend the whole. When the crop is of average bulk, and lies favourably for reaping, each bandwin, or set of four reaper and a binder, clear two acres in a day of ten hours, but 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 acre only, if it is bulky and lodged. The cost of reaping by this method is therefore from 10s. to 15s. per acre. With a reaping-machine cutting say six acres perr diem, and requiring in all ten persons (five men and five women or stout lads) to attend to and clear up after it, at an average wage, including victuals, of 3s each, and allowing 3s. per diem to cover tear and wear, and interest on its prime cost, there seems a reasonable prospect of a goodly portion of our future crops being reaped for about 6s. per acre. The labour of the horses employed in working the reaper is not included in this estimate, as at this season they would otherwise be idle, and yet eating nearly as much food as when at work. There would thus be a saving in actual outlay of about 5s. per acre. But this is the least important view of the matter. On a Berwickshire farm producing 200 acres of crop, there are usually at least six pairs of horses kept, with a resident population sufficient to yield about thirty persons (including women and youths) available fo harvest labour. The stated forces of such a farm will therefore suffice to man three reaping-machines, which, if the weather is favourable, and the crops standing erect or lying in one direction, will cut down the cop in about ten days. When portions of the crop are much lodged and twisted, it becomes necessary to employ part of the labourers in clearing out such portions by the scythe or sickle. It is often possible to manage these awkward-lying portions by setting one or more men, each with a stout staff, to raise up the crop and lay it towards the machine. When two or more machines are used on the same farm, it is best to work them together by cutting the whole length or width of the field in whichever direction the general lay of the crop admits of them working to most advantage. As each machine completes its cut, it returns empty to the side from which it started; and they follow each other at such an interval as gives time to the lifters and binders, who are placed equidistant along the whole line, to keep the course clear. In such cases a man is usually employed to sharpen the spare knives, to assist in changing them from time to time, and to attend to the oiling and trimming of the whole machinery. It is good economy to have a spare machine at hand ready to put in the place of one that may be disabled by some breakage, and thus avoid interruption to the urgent work of reaping while the damage is being repaired. Great progress has been made in recent years in working these machines skillfully and systematically; they are in general use in all well-cultivated districts, and the time appears to be at hand when the whole grain crops of the country will be reaped by means of them.

It is now agreed on all hands that grain should be reaped before it becomes what is called dead ripe. In the case of wheat and oats, when the grains have ceased to yield a milky fluid on being pressed under the thumb-nail, and when the ears and a few inches of the stem immediately under them have become yellow, the sooner they are reaped the better. Barley requires to be somewhat more matured. Unless the pink stripes on the husk have disappeared, and the grain has acquired a firm substance, it will shrink in drying, and be deficient both in weight and colour. When allowed to stand till it gets curved in the neck, the straw of barley becomes so brittle that many ears break short off in the reaping, and it then suffers even more than other grain crops under a shaking wind.

It is of great consequence to see that corn is dry when it is tied up in sheaves, that these are not too tightly bound, and that every sheaf is kept constantly on foot. From the increased demand for harvest labourers, and the rapidity with which operations must be carried forward, stoking is not now performed with the same accuracy that it was wont to be. There is therefore the greater need for employing a person to review the stooks daily, and keep every sheaf erect. It was formerly the practice in Scotland to set up oats and barley in full stooks of twelve sheaves each, viz., five pairs and two hood-sheaves. These hood-sheaves are an excellent defense when wet weather sets in, but they retard the drying of the corn in fine weather, and there are now few binders who can set them up so as to stand securely. It is better, therefore, to aim at rapid drying, and for this purpose to have the sheaves small individually, and to set but four or six of them together. Large sheaves are worse to dry than small ones, not only from their greater bulk, but from their being almost inevitably tighter bound. The utmost vigilance is required on the part of farmers to avoid this fault. Beans and pease are reaped by the sickle. The former are usually not bound into sheaves at once, but left prostrate in handfuls for a few days until they have withered a little. But it is on the whole safer to stook them as they are reaped. They are then sheaved and bound with ties of twisted straw, which must be provided beforehand. In stacking beans, the tops of the sheaves are kept outwards, as by this means fewer pods are exposed to the weather, or to the depredations of fowls, than when the butts are to the outside. Pease are rolled into wisps as they are reaped, and afterwards turned daily until they are fit to carry. When stacked, they must instantly be thatched, as they take in wet like a sponge. It requires no little discrimination to know when sheaves are dry enough to keep in a stack. The farmer finds it for his profit to consult his most intelligent and experienced labourers on this point. On thrusting the hand into a sheaf sufficiently dried, there is a lightness and kindliness to the touch not easily mistaken when once understood. Whenever this is ascertained, the crop is carried with the utmost possible dispatch. This is best accomplished by using one-horse carts, and by building the sheaves into round stacks of ten or twelve loads each. Very large stacks are for ostentation, not for profit. The labour of pitching up the sheaves to them is needlessly great; corn is much sooner in a state to keep in small stacks than in large ones, and sooner gets into condition for market; the crop is more accessible for thrashing in ten load quantities than in huge ricks; and the crop of different fields and kinds of grain more easily kept separate. While naming ten or twelve loads as a convenient quantity to put together in each stack, let it be observed that this assumes the sheaves to be in a thoroughly dry condition; for in wet seasons it frequently happens that the sheaves have a sufficient degree of dryness to keep safely in stacks of five or six loads each, although they will certainly heat if double these quantities are put together. Judicious farmers therefore accommodate the size of their stacks to the condition of the sheaves, and are more concerned to get their crops secured rapidly and safely than to have their stacks of uniform size. For the same reasons, it is often expedient to stack portions of the crop either in the field where it grew or at some convenient site nearer than the homestead, but on the way towards it, and where two carts will suffice to keep each stacker in work. An incidental benefit from having the stacks in detached groups is, that it lessens the risk from fire.

It is always desirable to have the stacks built upon frames or stools elevated 18 or 20 inches from the ground. Besides the security from vermin thus attained, there is a free admission of air to every part, particularly when aided by a triangle of rough timber in the centre, which speedily insures thorough dryness in the whole stack. When stacks are built upon the ground with a mere bedding of straw under them, the grain from the basement tiers of sheaves is often lighter by several pounds per bushel than that from the rest of it. A farmer who as his rick-yard fully furnished with these frames can often carry his crop without risk-when, if built on the ground, it would inevitably heat-and have the grain in condition for market earlier by months than in the latter case. As the stacks are built, they are thatched without delay. For this purpose, careful farmers provide beforehand ample stores of thatch and straw ropes. The thatch is not elaborately drawn, but merely straightened a little as it falls from the thrashing-mill, tied into large bundles, and built up into stacks, where it gets compressed, and so lies more evenly than if used direct from the mill. A good coating of such thatch secured by straw ropes, interlacing each other in chequers, forms a secure and cheap covering, easily put on by ordinary farm labourers, and possesses, with all its roughness, an air of unpretending rustic neatness which harmonises well with surrounding objects, and which we greatly prefer to the elaborate ricks of the southern counties with their shaved sides, combed thatch, and weather-cock a-peak. Apart from its cost, the shaving of stacks is objectionable, as they then suffer more from a beating rain or snow-drift than when the natural roughness is left upon them, on the same principle that a coarse, shaggy topcoat shoots off wet better than a smooth broadcloth. A stout two-ply cord made of cocoa-nut fibre, or coir, is coming into use as a substitute for straw ropes in the thatching of stacks.

With proper machinery propelled by steam or water, the thrashing and dressing of grain is a simple and inexpensive process. As grain is now universally sold with a reference to its weight per bushel, its relative value depends much upon its dryness and thorough freedom from chaff, dust, light grain, and seeds of weeds. Farmers who are systematically careful in the cultivation, harvesting, thrashing, and dressing of their crops, can always command the best prices of the day. In preparing a parcel of grain for market, it is a good plan to measure a few sacks very carefully ascertain the average weight of these, and then fill every remaining sack to that weight exactly.

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