Lessiter Publications founder and editorial director Frank Lessiter shares 40 innovations from the last four decades.

Frank Lessiter, Senior Editor

To celebrate this 40th anniversary of the Farm Equipment SHOWCASE, our staff wanted to look back at the biggest innovations in ag during these past four decades. Since I’m the only editor that’s been around that long, I got the assignment.

Growing up on a six-generation Centennial dairy farm in Michigan, I’ve spent my entire life in agriculture. I started reporting on the ag equipment world in 1965 as an editor of the Massey-Ferguson Farm Profit magazine. I’ve continued to cover ag equipment since that time and have spent the last 38 years reporting on tillage systems, tools and practices as editor of No-Till Farmer.

The innovations that follow are in no particular order and are based on my own memories and impressions. So here’s my take on the most exciting changes over the past four decades.

40 Rotary Combines. Introduced by New Holland in 1976, they’ve become the norm after a slow start for their more efficient threshing, higher harvesting speeds and cleaner grain.

39 Narrower Rows. Row widths for corn, soybeans and other crops have thinned significantly. Four decades ago, 40-inch wide rows were typical as horses were still pulling cultivators between rows. While 30-inch rows are now the norm, many growers have dropped to 22-, 20-, 15- or narrower row widths. Twin rows, which were introduced by Monosem in 1996, are gaining attention and millions of acres of soybeans have long been drilled in 7.5-inch rows.

38 Biotech. The development of biological traits in various crop varieties and corn hybrids has reduced costs and improved control of weeds, insects and diseases. While refuge areas have been required for Bt corn hybrids in recent years, new technology is trimming the size of these areas and will soon allow seed companies to offer refuge-in-the-bag concepts that will eliminate the need for a separate lower- yielding refuge area.

Round hay balers gave farmers a new, productive option for forage handling.

37 Rubber Tracks. Caterpillar started the trend of rubber tracked vehicles in 1987. Innovative farmers soon added tractor tracks to curb compaction and improve field efficiencies. Rubber tracks have been installed on combines, silage harvesters, grain carts and even extra-wide planters and drills.

36 No-Till. No-till got its on-the-farm start in 1961 by Harry Young, Jr., on 7/10ths of an acre near Hopkinsville, Ky. The past 45 years saw it grow to 65 million acres across the U.S. Compared to conventional tillage, no-till reduces fuel needs by 4.21 gallons, machinery investment by $128.05 and labor by 44 minutes per acre, not to mention reducing wind and water erosion. Early yield concerns have since been overcome, and even if there is a slight yield loss, farmers find there’s usually more income to bank at the end of the crop year with no-till.

35 Cover Crops. While cover crops have been used for decades, they’ve gained acceptance for reducing soil erosion, improving soil quality and producing needed nitrogen and other nutrients for more profitable cropping.

34 Planter Attachments. When the majority of our crop ground was moldboard plowed, disked and harrowed, planting and drilling was easy. Seeding became much more difficult as minimum and no-till left residue on the soil surface. This led to hundreds of unique attachments to improve planter and drill performance from numerous shortline companies.

33 Acre-Eaters. With introduction of the Versatile tractor in the mid-1960s, the trend toward higher horsepower tractors, wider implements and wider harvesting equipment was underway. Even advocates for larger capacity equipment four decades ago couldn’t have envisioned how far things have come.

32 GPS. Farming has become easier and more precise. Tackling everything from staying on the row (even with combines harvesting downed corn) to variable rate fertilizing and grid soil sampling, precision technology has been a big profit booster for many growers. Trimble introduced the realtime kinematic (RTK) technology in 1992, taking precision ag to new levels.

GPS and auto-steer technologies add a new dimension to precision agriculture.

31 Large Air Seeders. With the shift to conservation tillage, large-acreage operations spurred demand in air seeders. It started with western Canadian operations that needed wider equipment to seed as many as 20,000 acres during a short spring.

30 Round Balers. Vermeer’s introduction of the round hay baler in 1972 offered a new option for forage handling that caught on rapidly as round bales were easier to harvest, transport and feed. Claas introduced net bale wrapping in ‘85 to reduce field losses.

29 Rotary Milking. The introduction in the mid-1990s of Lely’s 60- to 90-cow rotary milking parlors permanently changed the dairy business as mega-sized operations could handle up to 8,000 or more cows.

28 Wide Planters. Kinze led the way to much wider planters in 1975 with its folding planter technology. This led to the acceptance of 12-, 16-, 24-, 36-row and even wider planters that farmers can still move down narrow fields and across even narrower bridges.

27 Telehandlers. Used widely in the construction market and in European farmers, telehandlers are proving especially valuable in large-sized operations for moving hay bales while reducing both time and effort.

26 Bulk Seed Boxes. As seed hoppers got bigger, farmers found bagged seed to be too time-consuming a task. With some rigs requiring over 100-bushel refills, bulk seed boxes saved time and labor to allow far more seeding acres in a day’s time.

25 Conservation Tillage. In 1972, 85% of the ground was moldboard plowed, 13% was minimum tilled and only 2% was no-tilled. Today’s best guesses place the mix at 38% for conventional tillage, 34% for minimum tillage and 28% for no-till. In 1975, USDA economists predicted reduced tillage would be used on 95% of the land (45% no-tilled and 50% minimum tilled) by 2010. While that goal hasn’t been reached, it’s getting closer each year, with more than 60% of today’s U.S. cropland farmed by conservation tillage practices.

24 Auto-Steer. Auto-steer has caught on rapidly by taking the effort out of tractor driving, increasing cropping efficiencies, more accurately placing inputs and allowing growers to work through the night. While I’ve heard farmers complain about the price of auto-steer, no one has ever told me it turned out to be a poor investment. And the price continues to drop.

23 Timely Spraying. Previously handled by retailers and custom operators, more fertilizer application and pesticide spraying has now shifted to farm operators. A growing number of farmers now invest in pull-type and self-propelled sprayers to cross huge acreages in a much more timely manner, particularly since the Asian soybean rust scare a few years back.

22 Measuring Downtime. While it was more of an attitude change than a specific innovation, Caterpillar’s move into the farm market brought a total change to the service side of the ag machinery business. Delivering the same immediate, in-the-field service as in construction markets, Cat changed the way both farmers and dealers view downtime and service.

21 Large Square Balers. At a time when smaller bales required a great deal of labor and offered few mechanization options, Hesston’s 1978 introduction of the large square baler offered many efficiencies.

20 Clean Air. With more stringent air emission standards, the EPA mandated Tier III and now Tier IV engines to reduce emissions from non-road diesel engines. Still more new engine developments, such as electric engine technologies, are on the horizon.

19 Part-Time Farmers & Hobbyists. The rural lifestyle market brought new opportunities for both equipment manufacturers and dealers. Starting with the development of lower horsepower tractors for this market, a wide range of attachments followed.

The Asian rust soybean scare greatly expanded the market for sprayers.

18 Deere Accepts New Practices. John Deere’s 750 drill did more for notill than any other equipment development. It provided growers with an effective means of no-tilling soybeans, small grains and forage crops. Just as important, it sent a message to the industry that Deere had accepted that no-till was here to stay.

17 Cotton Gets Boost. Deere’s 4-row cotton picker in 1971, the development of cotton modules in the early 1970s and the 2008 introduction of round cotton bales has dramatically changed the harvesting and transport of this important southern crop.

16 Skid-Steer Loaders. Getting its start on construction sites, the versatile and easily maneuvered skid-steer loader is a “must-have” machine on many farms.

15 Making it Rain. While laborsaving and water-saving center-pivot irrigation systems continued to gain acceptance, Valmont’s introduction in 1975 of fold-back units allowed growers to water the corners of fields. Water-saving nozzles are gaining acceptance and sub-surface drip irrigation is finally finding its way to field usage.

14 Roundup. During a Hawaii farm tour in 1974, we worked with Monsanto to put out corn plots where weeds were controlled with the new glyphosate technology, which later became the Roundup herbicide brand. Some 36 years later, this weed control breakthrough is still going strong with new innovations for use with many crops and tillage systems. Adoption of the Roundup technology has been so high, however, that weed resistance is now a major concern.

13 Fertility Advances. Major changes in the plant food area include increased acceptance of liquid fertilizers, anhydrous ammonia, micronutrients, foliar fertilizer, mixing pesticides and fertilizers together in one solution, starter fertilizers and the use of fertilizer stabilizers. More growers are relying on cover crops as low-cost sources of nutrients. Fertilizer banding has grown in popularity, as has GPS grid soil sampling and variable rate fertilizing.

12 Strip-Till. Strip-till has been a significant development since Progressive Farm Products introduced the first rigs in 1989. Building 6- to 8-inch tall soil berms in either the fall or spring has helped many growers get crops off to a quicker start


High-powered Versatile tractors ushered in the era of big farm equipment.

in cold, wet and heavy soils. It has also let growers concentrate fertilizer placement in the row area, which has led to higher yields. Roughly 4 million acres were striptilled in 2009.

11 4WD Articulated Tractors. Introduced by Case IH in 1980, the four-wheel drive articulated tractor with front-wheel assist made driving easier and boosted field performance.

10 Grain Carts. The introduction of two-wheel grain carts by shortline manufacturers in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to expanded use of carts during harvest and on-the-go grain unloading. These units proved much more maneuverable than the cumbersome four-wheel grain carts.

9 Vacuum Planting. Monosem’s introduction of vacuum planters in 1980 opened new ways to accurately place seed at higher, more uniform plant populations.

8 Radial Tires. Radial tires led to improved traction and reduced tire wear, especially with heavier and higher horsepower tractors and combines.

7 Harvesters for Ethanol. While the concept and equipment is not yet fully developed, harvesting corn cobs and crop residue for ethanol production is gaining momentum.

6 Spray Controllers. Raven’s sprayer controller developments in 1979 brought precision to costly pesticide application. Every year brings new sprayer developments, including being able to shut off individual sprayer nozzles as growers cross a grass waterway or pull up to uneven headlands.

5 Accurate Placement. Variable rate seed metering, fertilizing and placement are making huge contributions. New precision developments and GPS enable growers to do a better job of using seed, especially with some newer multi-trait corn hybrids priced at over $300 per bag.

4 Harvesting Options. Developed in Great Britain and later marketed in the U.S., the Shelbourne Reynolds stripper headers have had a significant impact on harvesting for farmers who value standing residue. The technology represented a major breakthrough in harvesting options, as have the more recent draper headers for combines and windrowers.

The rural lifestyle market, brought new opportunities for equipment makers.

3 Ag’s Role in Fuel. Ethanol production and biodiesel fuel production has been the rage over the past few years. While corn has been the major component used to produce ethanol, other crops and crop residues represent ethanol’s future, as new engineering developments will lead to utilization of lower value feedstocks.

2 Combating Disease. For years, I’ve marveled at the value western Canadian grain growers place on fungicides to combat disease concerns throughout the growing season. The lack of interest in fungicides among U.S. producers changed with the Asian soybean rust scare.

1 Tramlines. While I saw the benefits of tramlines in Europe in the early 1970s (my first exposure with permanent wheel tracks came in southern Ohio in 1973), it was slow to catch on. With GPS and the need to overcome serious yield losses due to compaction, the concept is being used effectively by some growers and should gain momentum in the future.


What’s Missing?


 You may have some thoughts regarding a few major innovations that you think we missed in our Top 40 countdown. If so, e-mail a note on these missing innovations to me at lessitef@lesspub.com