Cutting Grain with a Binder

By dhowell - Posted on 30 November 2013

The most complex machine used on our farm in the '30s was the Deering grain binder we used to cut oats, rye, barley, or wheat. Like most of our equipment it probably was purchased at some farm auction when Dad started farming. As long as a used piece of equipment was in running order and the price was right, brand names didn't make much difference. Each inventor-builder felt his design and performance was best and said so in his advertising, but there were no standards for farm machines and for both new and second owners, reasonable performance at an affordable price became the rule of the day.

A Deering grain binder

Grain binders were built for use under widely varying conditions. Some grain stood six feet tall in the field while another variety might be 18 inches high when it was ready to cut. Height of the cutting knife from the ground was adjustable by cranking the wheels up or down as the machine was set up. While grain was being cut, minor adjustments could be made with a lever which tilted the machine forward or backward when going up or down hills. The purpose of all this flexibility was to enable the grain operator to cut all the grain stalks long enough to be bound into bundles and to keep from digging into the ground when going uphill or being above the stalks when going down hill.

Even more adjustments were needed to adjust for variations in the length of the different stalks as they accumulated to form a bundle. Packing arms and a butter were used to form and tie bundles—the end product of the binder. Bundles needed to be tied mid length of the stalks or they wouldn't shock well and some of the grain stalks might fall out. A different lever controlled this and could move the butter closer or further away from the needle and knotter which tied each bundle with binder twine. The size (weight) of bundles could be changed by adjustments in tension on the springs which tripped the knotter when the desired number of stalks had been packed into the butter. Usually all bundles for any type of grain were the same size and settings weren't changed until a different type of grain was to be cut. A slow moving reel hanging just above the cutter bar nudged the newly cut stalks back onto moving canvasses which carried the grain away and into the butter. This reel could be lowered or raised as the length of the grain changed or when going up or down hill to be sure the cut grain always fell on the canvass in about the same spot.

Binder in the field

What has been described above takes place when grain is being cut in a field. However, to get one into a field to cut took a different kind of adjustment. Ours was a five foot binder, that is, it cut a swath that wide. In the cutting position a binder was too wide for the gates. One might think that it would be easier to make wider gates than to make changes in the binder, but that didn't happen. While in storage and when traveling to a harvest field, the binder tongue was attached to the end of the machine—90 degrees different from the wide operating side of the binder but narrow enough to go through a gate. In this position, on special utility wheels called trucks, the binder could only be moved along its path—it could not operate to cut grain.

The 8 fenced fields we tilled ranged in size from 5 to 18 acres so we had to go through this process each time we moved to a field and each time we went from one field to another. In addition, two railroads cut through the farm and each crossing had two standard gates. Binder work was done with three horses that needed to be hitched and unhitched to move to the field and to set up for cutting grain.

The tongue was so long that it was removed from the binder in storage and hung on the shed wall. When the binder was needed, the tongue had to be removed from the wall, fitted with the three horse evener and whiffletrees and attached to the binder. Then the binder could be pulled out of the shed and parked under the Maple trees to be prepped for use. There it was possible to install the three canvasses which moved cut grain from the table and up where it could fall into the butter (binder) section of the machine which also had packer arms, a needle, and a knotter. Canvasses were about 40 inches wide with wood slats riveted to them every 8-10 inches. Leather straps bound the ends together to make them into a conveyor. A single canvass on the platform moved cut grain toward the pair used to move the grain up to where it fell into the packers. Canvasses had to be protected from mice and usually were stored hanging on wires from the ceiling of the granary. When repairs were needed it was rough on Mother's Singer sewing machine to patch them, but it had to be done in spite of the needles that might be broken. Straps and buckles were stitched with the awl and riveted as necessary. Canvasses had to be tight in order to move on the driving rollers, so tight that unless loosened at the end of each day in the field, night moisture would shrink them and pull the rivets from the straps.

After the canvasses were in place, the reel was checked for any loose or broken slats, the cutting blade was inspected for loose or missing sections or guards, and the knotter lubricated and threaded with twine from a fresh ball. With a special crank the action of the binder's chains could be operated manually and all points requiring it be lubricated. When everything worked as it should, we were ready to hitch up the team and head for the field. We usually did this late in the afternoon in order to "open out" the field because everything was at its driest then and cut easier. But before the binder could cut grain it had to be changed from the trucks to the traction and operating wheels and this had to be done as soon as you were through the gate in the standing grain.

Horses were unhitched, the tongue removed and placed on the long side of the binder. When the "bull" wheel (traction wheel) was cranked down, it picked up the weight of the binder and helped set the height of the cutting bar. The tongue could then be reattached and used as a lever to get the remaining non-traction wheel in place. When the horses were hooked to the tongue, the floating weight of the machine was on their necks and the bull wheel took the rest. (It took a lot of human muscle to lift the tongue up and snap it onto the harness straps.) After the canvasses were tightened, the reel set, and the butter adjusted for the height of the grain, we were ready to cut again.

Opening out a field was the hardest work to be done. To do this it was necessary to cut around the field at the very outside edge of the grain. The horses and the binder were in standing grain, a full five feet of grain was being cut, the reel was likely to strike branches sticking out from the fence row and the binder action was sluggish from storage. Often there were horse flies in the bushes which irritated the horsed more than usual. Someone had to follow the binder and throw every bundle into the cut area out of the way for the next round which would go the opposite way so you drove in the cut stubble. We were always glad to get this round behind us after many stops and much prodding of the team in its first experience with this most demanding work.

When the first cutting round in the opposite direction was complete, we usually quit for the day and parked the binder for the night. Canvasses always had to be loosened and a canvass cover thrown over the machine especially if it looked stormy. The next day's cutting would be routine as we went round and round the uncut grain dumping bundles into windrows as the rack holding a few was tripped as we drove along. This was probably the hardest work done by our horses because of the power needed to run the binder in the relatively soft ground, the weight of it on their necks, and the heat and flies. Plowing and fitting ground was hard work too, but in the spring it was usually cool and there was no heavy weight hanging on the horse's neck.

Dad usually ran the binder at home, but when I worked for Grandpa Parr (1938) I had to do it alone. Uncle Walter wouldn't operate machines, though he faithfully walked along behind me all day shocking bundles as they were made. His remark when he picked up the last bundle in the field still amuses me: "If I'd 'a known where you was this morning, I'd 'of done you first."

I liked to operate the binder. Sitting high in the air above the machine one could see everything that was going on, reach the control levers to adjust for hill angles and the height of the grain, change the position of the butter when necessary, and keep the reel in the proper position to always nudge the cut grain back onto the platform canvass. If you became too smug and complacent in your lofty perch, something was sure to bring you quickly back to reality. Often it was the realization that you were out of twine and were dumping untied bundles onto the field. At other times it might be a large bunch of green thistles that had plugged the flow of grain and had to be removed with bare hands.

Most of these problems melted away as you cut the field into smaller and smaller rectangles, leaving no uncut grain and only rows of well-tied bundles to be shocked. The best feeling came when you had to restore the binder to its moving position for the trip back to the house. Even the horses seem to share the feeling of satisfaction and moved more swiftly with their lighter burden, for they knew the wait for water, oats, and hay would be short and a long night of rest awaited them.