Real Horse Power

Originally, the major means of multiplying the efficiency of farm labour were draught horses or bullocks. In South Australia, the English Shire or English Black Horse and lighter Clydesdale draught horses were most generally used for farm work, although many crossbreds and hacks also contributed to farm transportation and work associated with wheat production.

In the following treatise on the use of farm horses in the UK shortly before 1878, Professor Brown, quoted in “Outlines of Modern Farming” by Robert Scott Burn (1878), gives an outline of how breeds of draught horses were judged at the time:

The following remarks upon the several breeds of agricultural horses, “viewed in relation to their distinctive peculiarities of constitution, speed, and power of draught,” are taken from an able paper, by Professor Brown, on the “Improvement of Agricultural Horses,” in the Journal of the Bath and West of England Society. They will appropriately conclude the present chapter.

“The animal described by Professor Low, as the, ‘English Black Horse,’ is most prevalent, being in some degree connected with most of the common kinds of cart-horse. The original is characterised by a short, thick, ungainly body; strong, thick, and hairy legs, from the knee downwards; his action is slow and heavy, rendering him useful only for slow work. Consequent upon his general distribution, various crosses have of necessity taken place; and not only so, but the influence of very varied conditions has been brought to bear in different localities; so that we are not surprised to find all sort of sizes and forms, from the smallest and thickest of cart horses up to the finest specimens of the London dray horse. In all these varieties the characteristics of the original animal are in general very apparent, especially the hairy leg, circular body, and sluggish movements; for though intermixture with other kinds necessarily modifies these distinctions, it does not extinguish them. At the present time it would. probably be difficult to obtain a pure specimen; but among the numerous results of crossing, many animals might be selected which would possess, in a market degree, the very important requisites, power and hardihood of constitution; and considering the numerical importance of the breed, its improvement cannot consistently be estimated as a matter of indifference.

Usually the strongest carriage horses, after a considerable period of service, finish their career in the cart or on the farm, whilst the lightest kinds supply street vans and carriers' carts.
"The Clydesdale may be placed intermediately between the heaviest and lightest draught horses, combining as he does the very valuable qualities of power and free action. The purest specimens are distinguished by a body longer in proportion than that of the heavier English and Suffolk horse, legs free from long hair, fine coats, and great muscular development. Taking them as a class, their size is considerable; indeed a small Clydesdale is unknown. The breed is generally employed, as we should expect it to be, on account of its important qualifications adapting it to a great variety of agricultural work. The colour is most commonly black, although the grey is frequently met with. The hind quarters have the peculiar droop characteristic of the Flemish horse and his crosses.

Horse management was considered an important science and there were a range of views on how to maintain horses in good working condition by attention to the provision of dry housing, good feed and water, hoof care and general hygiene. Horses were often worked in teams of up to 12 or more for farming operations and their continued good health was critical.  Horses were generally brought in before daybreak, fed and harnessed and ready to work at first light. They were fed again at the end of the day and washed to prevent sores developing underneath their collars (Gerschwitz KG (2008). Clydesdale and Working Horses – A Pictorial History. (D. Angus, ed.) When tractors began to compete with the horse, it was often predicted that horses would never be replaced by tractors but the large amount of work involved in caring for horses compared with tractors ensured that the day of the horse was numbered.

Clearing Land

In the 1860’s the area between Adelaide and what is now referred to as the Lower North constituted the major area of wheat production in Australia. Small areas were developed in the 19th and early 20th Century on Yorke Peninsula and around areas like Port Lincoln, Elliston, Streaky Bay, Haslam and Ceduna which had access to sea transport.


Indeed, South Australia was said to be unique in the world’s wheat growing areas in that with its heavily indented coastline, wheat was commonly grown within site of the sea.
(Whitwell, G. and Sydenham. D. 1991) A Shared Harvest – The Department of Economic History, The University of Melbourne. MacMillan Education Australia Pty. Ltd. 107 Moray St South Melbourne,3205.

From there, agricultural development moved out into drier, less favoured areas. Parts of Upper Eyre Peninsula were the last to be cleared, late in the 20th century. At this time, clearing of virgin land for agricultural development was virtually ended by legislation.

The development of new land for wheat production involved clearing trees and scrub first. It was generally considered that the largest trees were indicators of good soil and rainfall, so areas with the tallest trees were often selected first. At first, clearing was done with axes and hoe-like implements called “grubbers” to remove the stumps and larger surface roots of trees.

However, in drier areas of the State, the local Eucalyptus spp. vegetation, colloquially known as “mallee”, presented a set of unique difficulties in terms of land clearance.  Mallee trees can grow to 10 m and are characterised by several trunks emerging from a woody tuberous stump at the base. Mallee stumps vary in size from 30 cm to a metre in diameter.
The trees are particularly difficult to clear because removing the top growth and leaving the tuberous stump simply encourages new shoots to emerge from the stump. This is a survival mechanism in hot dry areas where fires are common. In the 19th Century, as land clearing moved into drier areas away from Adelaide, Yorke Peninsula for instance, mallee scrub was cleared with axes and grubbers. Each stump had to be removed with a grubber to ensure that there was no possibility of re-growth.

Early in the 20th Century an implement called “Brown’s Great Tree Puller” was used at the State Government’s Minnipa Seed Wheat Farm (later Minnipa Research Centre) to remove mallee trees. The tree puller was anchored to the base of a tree in the centre of the area to be cleared. Two men manually operated a lever connected to two ratchet arms riding on an indented wheel, in appearance something like a large circular saw. At the side of the indented wheel was a spool with a cable which was run out to the centre of the trunk of the tree to be removed.  As the men walked alternatively back and forth, pushing and pulling, the cable was wound back onto the drum and the tree was pulled down to the ground.. Men were employed to dig out the remaining stumps with grubbers. The use of axes to sever roots was not allowed. Men were also employed to cut new shoots off as they emerged from stumps with long handled knives called shoot cutters.

In the 1920’s and later, mallee scrub was dragged down by horses or bullock teams pulling wooden or steel rollers. This was dangerous work for both the operators and the animals. When the scrub was felled, it was burnt in hot weather to kill as many of the trees as possible and to remove sticks and branches. Although the areas to be burned were surrounded by cleared firebreaks, escaping fires were a common occurrence on days with hot northerly winds. A large amount of manual work was involved in picking up stumps turned up by agricultural implements. A considerable amount of labour was also involved in removing stumps from the field or burning them in heaps.

From the beginning, mallee stumps left in the ground were a serious hindrance to cropping machinery at sowing time, when tines and mouldboard ploughshares would snag on them; this often lead to breakages of harness gear or other equipment.  This discouraged the development of land for agriculture in SA.

Preparing the land for cropping

In the 1870’s one of the most important developments in the history of the mechanisation of Australian agriculture took place in South Australia.  Richard and Clarence Smith of Port Wakefield at first invented and then improved the stump-jump plough, the shear of which was held in the ground by a heavy weight on a hinged joint. When the point of the plough shear hit a stump, the force would exceed that exerted by the weight and the plough shear would ride backwards and upwards, clearing the stump and dropping back into the ground once it had passed over it. The Smith Brothers displayed successful single and triple ploughs at the Moonta Show in 1877 and both models were awarded first prizes for innovative machinery. Clarence Smith continued to modify the design and started a factory in 1880 at Ardrossan. When Clarence died in 1901, his two sons took over the factory and continued its expansion as machines were being sent all over Australia. A nine-furrow stump jump disc plough with seed and fertiliser box developed at the factory won many first prizes at Adelaide and country shows. The factory was closed down in 1934 as a result of the Great Depression.

“Andrew Barr migrated to South Australia from Lanarkshire in Scotland with his family in the 1870’s. He acquired land at Wild Horse Plains and his invention of a stump jump disc plough is recorded as having “won a prize” - “although the prior claims of Richard Bowyer and Clarence Herbert Smith were later recognized. Barr prospered until struck in the 1890s by drought and by the bankruptcy of James Martin, agent for his plough.”

The subject of who actually “invented” the stump jump plough has raised some controversy and the following text provides a balanced view on the topic.

“The scrub (or mallee) roller still left stumps in the ground which made ploughing difficult, until the stump-jump plough was brought into use. In 1876 a local agricultural implement maker, Richard Bowyer Smith, exhibited his 'Vixen' three-furrow stump-jump plough. When one of the mouldboards on this plough hit a stump or root, its levers allowed it to rise out of the ground and pass over the obstruction, thus enabling partially cleared land to be cultivated successfully. The stump-jump mechanism was not a totally new idea, but Smith developed it into a practical implement which was widely accepted and copied after some initial opposition. In cases such as the mallee roller, the earlier development of the stripper and similar inventions, it is perhaps invidious to name only one person as the inventor, when several people were working on similar ideas at the same time in the same locality, all encouraged by the prospect of government and agricultural society awards if they were successful. The developments of the mallee roller and the stump-jump plough together so transformed the economics of clearing, cultivating and cropping Mallee country that between 1878 and 1881 more than half a million acres of new land was taken up by wheat farmers.[27]

The stump jump principle is still used on farm machinery today although the weighted hinge has been replaced by springs or hydraulic pressure.

As reliable tractors became widely available after the Second World War, they were used more and more in scrub clearing. The preferred means of clearing was generally with bulldozers with steel tracks rather than puncture-prone rubber tyres although tyred tractors were more affordable and most often used. Slick treaded wire armoured bomber tyres were also widely used on wheeled tractors working on sand hills, where flotation and traction were critical. Another common practice was to use the carcases of old tyres as a protective sheath over the main tires.

Heavy chains, sometimes with a steel ball in the centre, were connected to two tractors and were used by clearing contractors to fell large areas of scrub. Front end loaders with “scrub rakes”, used to push felled trees into large heaps for burning were also widely used. Later, large “V” bladed rippers mounted on the three point linkage of bulldozers were used to loosen or pull stumps out of the ground. These were then collected into rows by large heavy duty wheel rakes, called “Wake” or “Pederick” rakes”, depending on the designer/manufacturer. “Rowing chains” also pulled between two tractors, were used to bring stumps into rows where they could be burnt.

In the 1950’s, John Shearer, an agricultural implement company in Kilkenny, a suburb of Adelaide, produced a large disc plough called the “Majestic”. The discs on the Majestic were nearly a metre in diameter and they could flatten shrubby native scrubland or burnt mallee country to uproot and bring stumps to the surface where they could be more easily dealt with by rowing or pushing into heaps for burning.
Willis AH (1960). Soil preparation and its effect on wheat yields. Wool Technology and Sheep Breeding. .Vol.7 Issue 1 Article 12 (81-86)

Kelly WS 1962. Rural Development in South Australia; Rigby Limited

Scarifiers and Cultivators

When, during the 1850s, wheat prices were high and labour was scarce, the new portable, steam powered threshing machines had been imported from the United Kingdom by a few of the more affluent farmers and hired out by them for use around their districts. Mowing and reaping machines had also been introduced, although more slowly. But as wheat growing declined in these areas, the interest in complex and costly machines also declined and the cheaper, horse-driven threshing machine was generally favoured for the grain harvest. Mowing machines were improved in reliability during the 1870s and were used to harvest oaten-hay, then, in the 1880s, they were superseded by American and British manufactured twine-operated reapers and binders. During these years local manufacturers also began to redesign ploughs to suit local conditions.[25]

Both ploughs and scarifiers were used during the 19th century in South Australia as primary tillage implements to break up the soil for seed bed preparation.  Both implements were subject to the same problem with mallee stumps impeding their progress and so the stump jump principle was equally well adapted to both machines.  Cultivators tended to be lighter implements than scarifiers, with more tines in the same width of machine and were used for secondary tillage for fining the seed bed or for weed control – colloquially referred to as “working back”. However, over time the difference between the two terms became less distinct and both terms are often loosely used to describe either implement.

From the 19th century, the preparation of a fine seed bed for wheat production has been considered essential. To this end, there were three groups of tillage equipment designed to meet this objective.

Primary tillage implements consisted of disc ploughs or scarifiers. These were used to break up the soil at the beginning of the season, sometimes as early as March. When long term fallows were widely used as a means of controlling weeds and conserving soil water, disc ploughs were often used in July or August to partially invert the soil and uproot or bury weeds. In the mid 20th century, ploughs began to give way to scarifiers as the need to cover larger areas more quickly became imperative. In order to pull ever widening machines, some innovative farmers began to join two tractors together in line with linked controls. Sometimes, controlling both machines was a highly skilled and at times hazardous operation. Manufacturers solved the need for greater tractor power by producing models in excess of 200 HP, culminating at the end of the 20th century in large articulated 4 wheel drive machines with horsepower often exceeding 350 kW.

By the 1970’s scarifiers tended to be more widely used than disc ploughs because it had become apparent that crops could be grown adequately with relatively shallow working of the soil. Further, they were easier to pull and less expensive to buy and maintain. Although disc ploughs remain on many farms they are rarely used these days in the wheat industry.

After initial primary tillage, weeds would inevitably emerge again and so paddocks were generally cultivated again (or ‘worked back”) to further fine the soil and remove the ubiquitous weeds. Cultivators or seeding “combines” were generally preferred for this task. In the case of fallows prepared in July-August, it was not uncommon for a given field to be tilled eight to ten times before sowing to keep weeds under control. This had spectacular effects in promoting wind and water erosion which is liable to occur where fine soil particles are exposed to wind or water.

Sometimes before sowing but more generally immediately afterwards, tertiary implements like heavy harrows were used to flatten the soil and tease out clods containing weeds before the crop emerged so that spraying and harvesting were not impeded by the rough surface left by the sowing combine. Many farmers also used light sets of harrows behind the combine to level the ground after sowing. Harrows were also used to “row up” weeds like melons and wireweed which caused tremendous hardship at sowing time. The rowed weeds could be burned or otherwise removed before sowing. These procedures tended to further expose the soil to erosive processes.

Secondary and tertiary implements were generally designed to be used where there were no impediments like residues of straw or weeds. These would often collect around combine tines until the machine began to bulldoze soil ahead of it. Running a standard combine through the stubble of a previous crop or a heavy pasture was generally impossible without burning the stubble or pasture first. The aim for most wheat paddocks was to have the surface as clean as possible before sowing, hence the month of March was often characterised by smoke clouds billowing into the sky and, in dry seasons, by dust clouds during seeding.

In the early 1970’s the winds of change began to blow in the South Australian wheat industry largely as a result of changes taking place in WA and northern NSW.  A considerable proportion of the wheat belt in WA is characterised by highly erodible sandy soils, and conventional cropping systems led to the surface exposure of soils for lengthy periods. Weed control by cultural methods had proved disastrous for many and the development of the bipyridyl herbicides in the UK was followed with great interest by farmers and research scientists, particularly in WA. One of the herbicides, paraquat, was useful for killing seedling grasses while diquat was effective on broad leaved weeds.  At the same time, research was beginning to demonstrate that excessive tillage was effectively destroying soil structure and reducing soil fertility. The combination of the two herbicides in the ICI product Sprayseed ® allowed farmers to reduce the number of tillage operations.

In the 1950’s the ICI company in England began to experiment with bipyridyl herbicides which were non selective and killed plant tissue on contact. These herbicides were able to kill seedling weeds and it was considered that they could be a replacement for mechanical tillage in seed bed preparation.

In the mid 1970’s, the Monsanto company released the glyphosate herbicide Roundup®. Roundup® is widely used throughout the world as a non-selective herbicide for weed control. In particular, it is used to control weeds in no till and reduced till operations before sowing, similar to the bipyridyl herbicides referred to above.

The majority of  South Australian farmers now use these herbicides as a fundamental part of their cropping programs, with enormous benefits in terms of soil stability and yield. Mechanical weed control before cropping involves several passes over a field to control successive weed germinations. This delays seeding and destroys soil structure so that in wet areas, soil becomes intractable. With zero till, seeding begins shortly after the first adequate rain of the season when seedling weeds have just emerged. These weeds are killed by non selective herbicides which are often mixed with other selective grass herbicides which kill later-germinating weeds like ryegrass and wild oats.  Rather than till the entire field, modern sowing operations aim at producing a fine soil tilth only in the immediate area occupied by the wheat seed. This reduces the power requirement of tractors and significantly reduces the damage to soil structure inherent in any mechanical form of cultivation.


Harrows are tertiary tilling machines used following a plough or scarifier to break up the clods and help to create a finer seed bed. They were lighter and easier to pull by a team of horses than ploughs or cultivators. Prior to the development of herbicides,  they were a valuable tool to kill surface weeds that germinated immediately after sowing prior to emergence of the crop plants. At times, harrows were also used after the crop had emerged if grassy weeds were dense. In some seasons and areas they were also used to thin crops out if farmers believed the crops were too thick for the amount of available moisture.

They were also pulled behind the seeder to level the furrows but are rarely used on farms today.

With the advent of hydraulics on tractors, heavy harrows mounted in frames were used like a garden rake to heap weeds (particularly couch and melons that had grown over summer) and surplus trash into rows for later burning. This reduced the build up of rubbish in the combine seeder tynes at later seeding. Combine tynes were generally so closely spaced that they would act like a rake and collect surface trash until the machine had to be stopped and the offending material removed from between the tines. This was extremely time consuming and frustrating.

Harrows were also used to create a fine surface layer, called a “dust mulch”, which would break continuous capillaries coming to the surface and reduce moisture loss. The consequence of this was severe soil erosion, caused by wind or water.

Rod Weeders

These implements were widely used in the USA and Canada and were first imported into Australia in the 70’s. Rod weeders consisted of a square chain-driven rod travelling under the soil surface. This increased its clod breaking action and twisted weed tap roots, pulling them out of the soil. Rod weeders never became popular in South Australia.

Prickle Chain and press wheels

An early form of the prickle chain - a revolving chain with straight rod welded onto the links so that it had a “prickle-like” appearance - was developed by Neil Bennie of Wirrulla. A bearing at each end of the chain allowed it to revolve as it moved forward. The prickle chain could handle a lot more surface trash than harrows and was used to level the surface behind air seeders which tended to leave deep furrows disrupting harvesting operations.  A further development in this field was the disc chain in which the straight rods in the prickle chain were replaced with small discs to improve weed control.  Press wheels were developed in the USA and Canada and are used to enhance seed soil contact to improve germination, especially in dry soil. They have been adapted to Australian conditions and are now made in a wide variety of shapes to suit various soil types. Because they roll along the surface immediately behind each sowing tine, they are ideal as a depth control device and provide more accurate control of the depth at which seeds are placed. They have tended to supersede harrows and prickle chains on most seeding equipment.

Blade and Chisel Ploughs

Blade ploughs consist of wide, (e.g.1 metre) heavy duty blades which run underneath the soil surface and remove weeds without burying the trash which is left on the surface. A disc or coulter runs ahead of the standard on which the blade is mounted to cut a slot through the soil. Blade ploughs do not work well with small grassy weeds with fibrous root systems and they require high powered equipment to tow them. While popular in the USA and Canada for weed control in heavy stubbles, they were not well accepted in SA and the use of chemicals for weed control in direct drilling systems is now widespread.

Chisel ploughs are also a popular implement in the USA and Canada that have been adapted to suit SA farming systems. They are a tyned implement with stronger springs than are fitted to conventional scarifiers so that they can maintain an upright position while working at depths up to 100 mm. Alternatively, hydraulic pressure is used instead of springs to keep the tyne at the correct depth . With wider spacings than sowing combines, they have been now been widely adopted as air seeders which can deal with residue and stubble with wider spaced rows. Initially, wide sweeps (e.g. 300 mm) were used to obtain weed control although they were not as successful in this regard as the more numerous and aggressive 150 mm shears used on standard cultivators. The development of chemical weed control has led to the use of “knife points” which have no weed control capability but are used to place fertiliser and seed at the required depth with minimum soil disturbance. With these changes in design, row spacing in crops has increased from 180 mm to 170- 300mm.

Sowing machinery

Hand sowing by broadcasting seed was the most ancient method of sowing used in SA by the early settlers. Harrows or even a tree branch was dragged by horses to cover the seed with soil. The earliest sowing machine was the sowing drill which consisted of a wooden box on wheels. Under the box were discs which cut slots for the seed to fall into. Later, pipes or “boots” were added to direct the seed into individual slots in the soil. Later, a second box was added to contain fertilizer and the seeding machine became known as a combine seeder or combine.

Trash seeders were a development which used discs and was particularly useful in ensuring less soil disturbance and could handle trash. More detail is available from the Bute History site and Ros Paterson at

Air seeders were developed in Australia from work done in SA by Albert Fuss who later moved to Dalby and patented it in 1956 as the Gyro – see


WS Kelly in his book Rural Development in South Australia (Rigby Limited 1962) details the development of the tractor as follows:
The replacement of the draft horse by the tractor has had a revolutionary effect on agriculture in Australia and this is detailed in his chapter eight “Recent Development in Agricultural Machinery”.
Further extensive material has been written about the development and use of tractors in Australia by Graeme R Quick and are available from the National Library of Australia. Another valuable Australian resource is;
Digging Stick to Rotary Hoe. Men and Machines in Rural Australia by Francis Wheelhouse, published in Melbourne 1966.
Innovative South Australian farmers developed methods of linking two tractors together to increase power and reduce slippage and these were the forerunner to the modern large machines.
Dramatic changes in tractor size and electronics has occurred in the past twenty years with large all wheel drive machines with self driving mechanisms satellite controlled. They are fitted with complex hydraulic systems to manage the complicated machines they pull. Activities such as wheel slip, ground speed, seeding depth, seed blockages seed and fertilizer rates are all con trolled from the cabin with electronic guidance. The guidance systems are allowing machines to use the same tracks with each pass to limit soil compressing and allow transfer of yield data to seed and fertilizer applications.

Nutrient application technology - variable rate, fluid fertilisers, soil testing equipment

To relate nutrient application to soil requirements it is necessary to have an application system that can be accurately and quickly controlled and monitored. Liquid fertilizer is the best to manage this need and once again some of the best systems originated in SA. See

Crop harvesting

Originally, reaping of wheat was done in the traditional way dating back thousands of years, with sickles or reaping hooks. This was a highly labour intensive task and only small areas of wheat could be reaped without a large amount of labour. The wheat was collected in bundles or sheaves and then stooked, dried, stacked and threshed.


South Australia began as an isolated colony and before sufficient wheat was grown to feed the local population, wheat had to be imported from NSW at prices that were relatively high. In 1840, bread sold in Adelaide for 3/6 a loaf (1.8 kg) By 1843, SA was producing wheat from 11,000 ha, sufficient to allow 260 bags of flour to be exported to Western Australia The provision of steam powered flour mills by entrepreneurs Dr. Benjamin Kent and John Ridley were crucial in allowing the colony to develop.


In 1843, with good rainfall, a large wheat crop was expected in SA. The size of the crop was expected to be beyond the capability of the small labour force to reap it by hand with reaping hooks (Jones 1985).

Ridley’s Stripper

In his article on the subject, Jones (1985) explains how a pioneer flour miller, John Ridley, built a machine in the mill’s workshop at Hindmarsh in Adelaide. His machine was demonstrated publicly on November 14 1843 at Wayville, now an inner suburb of Adelaide. The machine, since then known as “Ridley’s stripper” was highly successful and helped bring in the 1843 harvest. It became the “dominant grain gathering machine in South Australia for the remainder of the century” (Jones 1985). This was a remarkable accomplishment. In his paper, Jones (1985) refers to the ensuing controversy between parties supporting John Ridley as the inventor of the stripper and a Mount Barker (Adelaide Hills) farmer, John Bull who claimed that the idea of the stripper originated with himself.  A prominent historian, GW Sutton (1937), reviewed the evidence at the time and sided with Bull. However, using engineering considerations, Jones (1985) concluded that “the credit for producing a practical working machine belongs solely and completely to Ridley”. The original stripper was pushed from behind by two horses. The stripper worked most successfully in hot, dry climates where brittle heads could be knocked from the stalk by beaters in the stripper. By 1857, 50% of the wheat in SA was stripped by machine.


When it was full, the stripper was then taken to a stationary thresher. The heads in the stripper were taken out with a fork and fed into a manually operated thresher-winnower which would thresh the wheat grain from the heads using a peg drum thresher.  Then the winnower would remove the chaff (husks and straw) from the grain using shaking sieves, wind and gravity to blow the chaff away while grain would fall through the sieve into an elevator which would take the grain to a storage bin from where it could be loaded into hessian bags weighing about 180 pounds, or 81.6 kg.

Jones LJ (1985) Engineering considerations in an historical argument – the Ridley-Bull “stripper” controversy. Second National Conference on Engineering Heritage, Melbourne, 20-22 May 1985.

Sutton GW (1937) The invention of the stripper. Journal of the Department of Agriculture of Western Australia, 2nd series, Vol. 14, No.3 (193-247)

Australian Wheat Board Necessity was the mother of invention in South Australia’s wheat industry

The development of large combine harvesters in California drew attention in Australia in the early 1880’s. In 1883, James Morrow of Victoria patented a stripper with threshing attachment, followed by a combined stripper harvester in 1884. In 1885, HV McKay also patented a combined stripper – harvester which stripped the heads from the stems and then threshed and winnowed the grain, collecting it in a bin ready to be bagged off. Both machines worked well and successfully combined the operations of stripping, threshing and winnowing. They were both sold in similar quantities until Morrow died in 1910. After that McKay’s harvester took over the harvester market.


Headlie Shipard Taylor was an agricultural machinery designer who worked for H.V. McKay (later H.V. McKay Massey Harris) from 1914-1954. His major inventions were a header harvester in 1914 and the 'Sunshine' auto-header, the first self-propelled harvester to be manufactured in large numbers, in 1924.

“Grain harvesting was advanced following the development by Hugh Victor McKay of the horse drawn combine harvester at Drummartin near Elmore (VIC) in 1882. The McKay harvester not only reaped the grain, but also cleaned and collected it. Following the success of his harvester, McKay established a factory in Melbourne called the Sunshine Harvester Company, where many models of harvesters, including the very popular AL harvester, were designed and manufactured.

‘Mechanisation of the grain harvest continued to develop. In South Australia, Horward Bagshaw manufactured the Big E harvester which, similar to the McKay harvester, was a ground-drive machine powered by a large sprocket on one of the wheels.  This new type of harvester revolutionised the harvest process by simultaneously threshing the grain from the head and cleaning out the cocky chaff. Grain was collected in a box fitted to the machine and bagged off in the paddock. Bags were hand-sewn, closed and carted by table top wagons to new rail heads established to transport the grain to Melbourne and Geelong. Huge bag stacks were built at local storage sites. Bags were transferred from wagons to stacks largely by man power, with elevators carrying bags to the lumpers on top of the stacks.

‘A new type of reaping machine, the header, soon appeared in the Wimmera. David and John Shearer commenced the manufacture of headers at their factory on the banks of the Murray River at Mannum in South Australia. The header cut heads of grain from the stalk using a knife mechanism and an auger channelled grain to the threshing mechanism, consisting of a rotating drum of a reel of parallel serrated bars over a grooved surface. Harvesters, in comparison, threshed the heads from the stalks by beaters, consisting of a series of fingers on a shaft straddling a fixed set of fingers in the bottom of the drum.

‘The ground-drive used to operate the harvester and headers was replaced using tractors with power-take-off. The ability to operate the harvester directly from the tractor enabled travelling speed to be varied without affecting the operating efficiency of the harvester or header.

‘Boxes on the machines were replaced by trailer bins or “billy carts” attached to the side of the machine. Grain was augured into the billy cart which held around 45 bags of grain, and augured directly into trucks fitted with bins and carted to the silos. The introduction of covered field bins, that held up to 200 bags of grain, allowed the harvest to continue when the truck was away delivering a load or when the silo was closed for the day or weekend. Headers eventually completely replaced harvesters.

‘Recent years have seen the demise of Australian owned harvesting machinery companies and now all harvesting machines are imported. Self-propelled headers have become popular in many areas of Australia and are commonly used by commercial contractors.

“In the early days the surrounding districts of Mannum were densely covered with mallee and pine.  Farmers needed tough equipment to clear the land before making it pay.  And it was here that the Shearer Brothers stepped in with several new machines, adding Stump Jump Ploughs to the grubbing machines, fixed ploughs, scarifiers and harrows already being produced.  The implements were rugged and built for the local conditions; they found a ready market in the district and other parts of South Australia.

“Up to this date farmers had the choice of two plough shares, a cast iron share that broke easily, or a forged share that was almost prohibitive in price.  Determined to solve this expensive problem for farmers, John and David Shearer went to work, and in 1888 invented a virtually unbreakable wrought steel plough share at one quarter the price of the old forged share.  These shares swept Australia in popularity and saved farmers millions in plough-share costs.

“Business had increased enormously by 1895.  Shearer strippers were in terrific demand.  The only answer was to enlarge the factory still more and install more plant.  But as they expanded their business the Shearer brothers made still more improvements, and in 1902 a lighter, stronger stripper with a wider cut was made and enthusiastically received by farmers.

“David Shearer Limited (in Mannum) first placed the header harvester on the market in 1927, and it was an immediate success.  Popularity was such that this type of machine went on to take the major portion of the factory’s capacity in the early 1950s.  It showed once again the wisdom of following the requirements of the man on the land. Farm wagons too were manufactured at this time.


“The first Prince Philip Prize for Australian Design was awarded by the Prince during a luncheon on 31st May 1968 at The Stawell Gallery in Melbourne. Over 90 entries were received and the winning entry was a self-propelled grain header, designed by Kenneth Gibson and entered by David Shearer Ltd of Mannum, South Australia.


“In 1972 David Shearer Limited became the Mannum division of Horwood Bagshaw Limited. In 1977 the Mannum Division of Horwood Bagshaw Limited employed approximately 380 people which at the time was about 60% of the town’s workforce. In 1998 Horwood Bagshaw was purchased by Adelaide based Sweeney Investments to become a South Australian privately owned and based company. Over the next ten years the factory at Mannum was extensively upgraded and continues to operate two divisions; contract engineering and agricultural machinery.


By the end of the 1880s, mechanisation had been adopted widely on Australian cropping farms and this enabled much larger areas to be cropped, under an extensive system of husbandry, than would otherwise have been possible. In the high rainfall areas mixed farming systems had been evolved which served a stable market and enabled the maintenance of soil fertility in the long term. This was after the experience of disastrous impoverishment during an earlier phase of monoculture wheat production. Meanwhile mechanisation had enabled wheat cropping to be transferred far into the drier areas of the Mallee and other regions. This development was increasingly aided by government investment in railways (see Chapter 7) and the passing of a series of land settlement Acts as part of overall policy to settle people on wheat farms. In these new wheat-growing regions, however, stable farming systems which maintained soil fertility had yet to be developed. The principles of good husbandry were again being ignored; indeed, it is probably fair to say that to most of the new farmers they were unknown. Many of these farmers were to have a hard struggle to survive before more stable systems of farming were developed for the dry-land areas in the 20th century by farmers working together with the early generations of agricultural scientists.

Source: -

"The development of the local agricultural engineering industry from the 1860s to the depression in the early 1890s, together with the rapid progress in agricultural machinery manufacture in the United Kingdom and United States, helped Australian agriculture towards the development of low cost, low labour, extensive systems of production. The major agricultural machinery and implement makers in the United Kingdom and the United States advertised extensively in the Australian press and demonstrated their products at local agricultural shows. These overseas engineering industries were more highly developed than those in Australia and so the more complex machines such as steam engines, and reapers and binders, tended to be imported; whereas local makers of ploughs and simpler items were able to challenge the importers of such products, especially as the local ploughs were adapted to be used for the shallower ploughing and the breaking up of the turned furrow which had been found more appropriate to the soils and baking temperatures of Australia.”
 “By the early twentieth century most South Australian farmers were practising a simple wheat-fallow system with few livestock. After a year of fallow with frequent cultivation to suppress weeds and, it was believed, to conserve moisture, wheat was sown with superphosphate following the first autumn rains. However, this system was exploitative, and by the 1930s had led to deteriorated soil structure, depleted fertility, and wind and water erosion.


“The solution to the farming dilemma was found in legumes, notably subterranean clover and various species of medics. These plants originated in the Mediterranean, and were introduced fortuitously to South Australia, possibly by the 1870s. They spread through much of the cereal zone when farmers began sowing superphosphate with their wheat, and grew as volunteer pastures on land which was not immediately ploughed up after the grain harvest. The medics and clovers are particularly useful because they set hard seed at the end of spring, evade the summer drought, and germinate in the next autumn, or the next but one. These pasture legumes, which are stimulated by superphosphate dressings, obtain nitrogen from the air and return it to the soil though decaying plant material and droppings of grazing animals.

“Subterranean clover and the medics provided the basis for a ley system of farming in which grains and pastures are alternated, with the pasture phase supporting livestock, especially prime lambs. The spread of the ley system was accelerated by the replacement of horse-teams by tractors after the Second World War and by the high wool prices of the 1950s. It was a cheap and effective method of restoring structure and fertility to the worn-out wheatlands and of raising the yields of grain harvests, the number of livestock and the weight of fleeces. The South Australian experience was soon applied in other summer-dry farming areas of Australia. This particular ley system ranks among the most important Australian agricultural innovations of this century.”


“In the early part of the 20th century, when long fallowing was widely practiced, it was common to use mouldboard ploughs which were traditionally used in Europe to completely invert the soil, burying weeds and exposing roots. The development of the disc plough provided a practical alternative to the use of the mouldboard plough. The disc plough, which partly inverted the soil, performed much better in drier soil and required less power to pull an implement of the same width.  The marketing of HV McKay’s stump jump disc plough marked the rise in popularity of the disc plough in Australian farming (Willis 1960).

Further developments in harvesting technology

Today, harvesting machines (or “headers”) are highly sophisticated and they continue to increase in capacity, complexity, size and cost. The front or crop cutting section of modern harvesters can be 12 m wide and the grain tank capacity up to 12 000 L or 100 bags in the old terminology. For many years in the USA, a high proportion of the wheat harvest has been done by contracting teams who move north across the country from May to November. In South Australia, the majority of farmers own their own harvesters but there has been a trend towards having trucking contractors cart grain away from the farm to regional terminals rather than the farmer carting with his own truck(s) to local silos. It is possible that if the cost of harvesting machinery continues to increase more quickly than the mean farm size, farmers may move towards shared or co-operative ownership or contracting may become more widely utilised.

Modern harvesters are also commonly fitted with global positioning system (GPS) equipment which can provide detailed yield mapping of individual paddocks and self steering of the machine to improve harvesting efficiency. As the crop is reaped, satellite data is fed into the GPS receiver to pinpoint the harvester’s location as it travels around the field. At the same time, monitors on the harvester record the weight of grain passing into the storage tank and this can be converted to yield. Combining the two sets of information produces maps of grain yield around the field. Complex mathematical and statistical processes are used in producing the final yield map.


Yield maps enable farmers to investigate reasons for variation in yield across a field so that attention can be given to abnormal areas – either high (more fertiliser, higher rates of inputs) or low yielding (soil amelioration, increased weed control, modified fertiliser rates etc.).

In Europe, the use of extremely heavy harvesting equipment when the soil is still wet has led to serious soil compaction problems to considerable depths. In Australia, the soil is generally dry at harvest and
compaction tends to be less severe but when unseasonal rains do wet the soil profile, the large weights of harvesters and grain transport equipment can create severe compaction problems.

Grain Handling

Originally, wheat grown in SA was stored and transported in four bushel jute bags which weighed 240 pounds – 109 kg. In the early part of the 20th century, the bags were reduced to three bushels – 180 pounds (82 kg). Even at three bushels, lifting and handling full wheat bags required considerable strength and skill. After the introduction of bulk handling in the 1950’s, (the uptake of which extended into the 1970’s) only small lots of wheat seed, primarily basic and certified seed were handled in synthetic polythene bags and the weight of the bags was reduced to 50 and later 40 kg.

Wheat was bagged at first from small metal grain storage boxes mounted on threshers or winnowers and later, harvesters. Wheat was fed into the thresher as stooks or as reaped heads from strippers. The metal box had a sloping floor and a small sliding door at the bottom of the slope. A steel bag holder at the door allowed an open bag to be pinned to the holder by sharp prongs. The holder could be moved up and down to “dump’ the bag, allowing it to be filled as rapidly and as tightly as possible. Bags were then sown using twine and a long needle with a broad blade called a bag needle. When the bag was nearly closed, a long funnel was used to feed wheat (sometimes taken from the next bag in line) into the bag using an up and down motion followed by dumping of the bag to make it as tight as possible. Good bag sewers would sew around three hundred bags in a day.

Bags were transported by horse and cart to storage depots at railway yards or at ports. The bags were stacked in a given order to tie them together and reduce the chance of collapse. Mice were a constant threat to wheat stacks and despite the use of corrugated iron fences to deter rodents, many found their way into wheat stacks and inflicted catastrophic damage. Because of this, the first concrete silos built in Australia were located in the Western Australian town of Tammin. Silos were built in all states eventually and at first bagged wheat, with the tops still open, was transported to the silo and the wheat unloaded into the silo from the open bags.

Wheat Storage and Handling

After the introduction of bulk handling, grain was augured from the header direct into bins of trucks which were driven into the paddock during harvest and taken to the bulk handling storage depot. The urgency of harvest led to the development of field bins which could receive grain from the header and be picked up later by trucks without having to stop the harvesting equipment. The earliest field bins consisted of rings of steel reinforcing rectangular mesh (weldmesh ®) lined with hessian or polythene. A galvanised steel cylinder was incorporated into the side of the ring and an auger picked grain up from the storage ring through the cylinder into a truck. These early field bins were dangerous to use as they could collapse if not filled or emptied evenly or were too high. Further, to gather all of the grain inside the ring into the base of the auger, and attachment called a sweep was bolted onto the base of the auger. The sweep was designed to draw grain from the edge of the bin into the auger base. The sweep was in effect a fluted auger with no tubing surrounding it. It could catch the hessian or plastic lining or clothing of people using it and was in itself highly dangerous. Later innovations included the use of a covered sweep which substantially reduced the danger.  In the 1970’s, weather-proof mobile field bins were constructed with wheels which could be transported to the harvesting site and lowered into place. These self-emptying bins had sloping bases with an emptying door and chute at the base so that augers could be placed in the bottom of the bin. The bins were roofed with large doors so headers could pull up alongside and empty their grain into the bin. Commonly field bins store 20-25 tonnes of grain. Later, some bins were fitted with tractor-driven augers to reduce unloading time even further. Chassis bins are also used as an alternative to field bins. These are large bins which can be towed from point to point with a tractor. They have a capacity of 50 tonnes or more and are fitted with large capacity tractor-driven augers for rapid unloading into semi-trailers or road trains.

In a further innovation to improve harvesting efficiency, tractor pulled chaser bins are often used to drive up alongside the harvester as it is operating. The operator engages the bin auger on the harvester and the reaped grain is emptied into the chaser bin which generally has a capacity of from 15 to 40 tonnes or more. The chaser bin is then driven to the field bin or truck and emptied using a large capacity auger driven by the tractor. In this way, the harvester can be operated continuously without stopping to unload.

The delivery of grain to bulk handling depots was generally done by farmers themselves, using their own horse teams and later, grain trucks. In more recent times, farmers have tended to employ contractors with semi trailers or road trains capable of transporting 56 tonnes of grain. These loads may be taken to regional ports rather than to local depots, to reduce handling and freight costs.

Many farmers have decided to store grain on farm to increase the opportunity to market at higher prices. This has usually involved the use of steel silos capable of storing up to 300 tonnes of grain. The silos are often painted white to reflect heat, sealed and fitted with ventilation fans so that the grain can be kept dry and cool, and if necessary, treated with carbon dioxide or other gas to prevent and control insect infestation.  In recent years a system of storing up to about 200 tonnes of grain temporarily in white polyethylene tubes (Silo Bag ®) has been developed to allow air tight insect-free storage on farm at relatively low cost.

“Initially, storage and handling of wheat relied on the humble sack - millions of them! This style of operation was first phased out in New South Wales during the 1920-21 season in favour of a bulk handling system which meant wheat grain was no longer required to be bagged before transport and storage. It took until 1952, however, before all mainland states had implemented their own version of bulk handling.

“Bulk handling led to considerable saving of time and money. Further benefits were gained from reduction in the deterioration of long-standing stacks of bagged wheat and from the protection of wheat from mice, weevils, climatic conditions and leakage. However, the New South Wales and Victoria systems, which generally employ vertical concrete and steel silos, had high initial capital costs. These facilities were unable to handle the entire stock in 'bumper' years and also had high operating costs in lean years. The Western Australian system, using a horizontal shed, minimised these costs by being flexible with lower capital cost.

“The high capital costs associated with supply chain infrastructure meant that, historically, state governments have been heavily involved in this sector of the industry, through both regulation and the provision of capital. Today, handling and storage of over 80% of Australia's grain crop is managed by three major bulk handlers – GrainCorp in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria; ABB Grain in South Australia; and Co-operative Bulk Handling in Western Australia. Smaller commercial and on-farm facilities account for the remainder.

“The large bulk handling companies provide a network of storage facilities which connect by road and rail to seaboard grain export terminals which they also own. In many regions these companies are the sole providers of storage and handling services to wheat growers. These storage facilities take on several different forms, especially between states, but are typically constructed of steel or reinforced concrete. The four most common types used are:

  • the horizontal shed with storage capacity ranging from 10,000 to 40,000 tonnes
  • the squat bin with storage capacity between 5,000 to 15,000 tonnes
  • vertical storages consisting of individual cells with capacity ranging from 1,500 to 4,000 tonnes
  • temporary bunker storages with capacity from 10,000 to 100,000 tonnes to handle overflow during 'bumper' seasons.


In recent times, bunker storages have become more common for general grain storage and are seen at most large inland regional grain storage sites. Grain is dumped into the hard floor bunkers and covered with tarpaulins until it is removed for shipping.

See the following for a brief description of the introduction of bulk handling of grain into SA with the successful demonstration of a bulk export site at Ardrossan in 1952.  Farmers had tried for several decades to persuade the State government to provide bulk export facilities in SA. Interestingly, Broken Hill Pty. Ltd. Provided the equipment which was used to load overseas vessels in the Ardrossan experiment.

Australian Wheat Board Necessity was the mother of invention in South Australia’s wheat industry

Most of the grain taken to railway yards or ports was originally transported by horse teams which would take a load of up to 10 tons, 120 bags of wheat. The wheat was carried on the shoulders of men who carried it up the stack to a height of 23 bags.
Otherwise, wheat bags were lifted up onto the stack by horses using mechanical bag lifters or by horse or engine driven bag elevators.
Gerschwitz KG (2008).  In: Clydesdale and Working Horses – A Pictorial History. (D. Angus, ed.)

Jones LJ (1985) Engineering considerations in an historical argument – the Ridley-Bull “stripper” controversy. Second National Conference on Engineering Heritage, Melbourne, 20-22 May 1985.

Sutton GW (1937) The invention of the stripper. Journal of the Department of Agriculture of Western Australia, 2nd series, Vol. 14, No.3 (193-247)

Willis AH (1960). Soil preparation and its effect on wheat yields. Wool Technology and Sheep Breeding. .Vol.7 Issue 1 Article 12 (81-86)

Kelly WS 1962. Rural Development in South Australia; Rigby Limited

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