The Harvest of Grain
The Harvest of Grain
Nathan Miller falling in line behind Khoke Livingston and Zach Miller binding wheat, 2021.

The Harvest of Grain

by Khoke and Ida Livingston of Davis City, IA

I tell you the truth, a grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die to make many seeds. But if it never dies, it remains only a single seed. John 12:24

July. It is hot. If it is a normal threshing season, it is quite humid. If we are lucky, it is not. With that kind of luck though, is a reason why we don’t gamble. But then, since when is farming not gambling?

I think I would rather say farming is a physical manifestation of hard work and an act of faith. We plant with faith that it will rain, and then with faith that it will stop raining when we need to harvest it. Whether or not it does, the farmer always has faith that it will be better next year, or at least something will be better.

We do this every year with our grain. Next year we won’t fertilize the wheat because it got too tall and lodged badly. Next year we’ll plant earlier. Or later. Next year we’ll harvest it earlier to have less shatter, or later because too much shriveled. Next year we’ll maintenance the binders in January so they are ready to go instead of waiting until the second week of July when we need them tomorrow. Next year…

And next year we learn something else.

But when you watch a field of wheat turn from green to golden and wave lightly in the wind, see the shocks lined up in rows as you pass by on the road, watch a load of grain auger into the grain wagon, and then see the cycle begin again. It is beautiful and worth it all.

The clean slate, the blank field that turns into a carpet of green. Fall shows summer the green she lost before winter claims it all in a blanket of white. The sleeping land that wakes to continue the cycle on. The farmer has faith in these seasons and the hope they bring never grows as old as we do. Let it be so.

The Harvest of Grain
Khoke driving out to the field in March to plant oats.

Growing the Grain

There are spring sown and fall sown crops. Wheat and rye, amongst others, are usually sown in the fall. Khoke likes to get the wheat planted in late September to anytime in October. The idea is to plant it early enough for it to grow and become established before winter puts it into dormancy. If it is not well established, then it will grow unevenly in the spring and then ripen unevenly in the summer.

Uneven ripening leaves part of the field too immature with wheat berries that just shrivel and parts of the field overripe with the grain shattering out. Commercial farming practices include spraying fields with a “ripening agent” (or desiccants) such as glyphosate to help prevent this. It is sprayed on the fields about a week before the field is ready to harvest forcing all the wheat to be ready at the same time. As the plant dies it puts everything it has left into ripening the seeds. These seeds are all now ready for harvest at the same time. We just take whatever our losses are to uneven ripening rather than spraying our field with Roundup.

In the spring, oats are planted as well as spring wheat. Spring wheat is a different kind of wheat that does not overwinter. The main difference between winter and spring wheat is when they are planted, as indicated by their classification. Most wheat you buy is winter wheat. In the kitchen, winter wheat is known to have more protein than spring wheat. Winter wheat tends to make better breads, but they can technically be used interchangeably.

As soon as the ground is dry enough to work Khoke plants the oats. For us that is usually sometime in March. This has our oats ready to harvest in July. The later in the season we plant the less water they have available to them. Ground moisture from snow melt helps give them the boost they need.

The Harvest of Grain
A bundle of long-stem Turkey Red wheat.

We grow an heirloom wheat called Turkey Red. Modern wheat has been manipulated and bred to produce shorter stalks that resist lodging and plumper heads with grain that has more gluten.

The heirloom wheat is highly regarded for its health benefits, but the flipside finds it harder to grow. They have taller stalks making them much more susceptible to lodging (the stalks buckling and laying flat or tangled from wind). The heads have less grain for the size of the head. An excellent year will give you 30-35 bushels to the acre, at least here in Iowa. The modern wheat varieties will give you 70+ bushels on an average year, and 100 on a good year.

Due to variance in germination, soil conditions and nutrient availability, the grain can ripen somewhat unevenly. Too ripe and it will shatter, too green and the grain will shrivel and blow away with the chaff during threshing. As the field of grain goldens on its way to ripe, Khoke will check the field as he passes by it every couple days or so when it gets close. Sometimes the weather forecast determines when they need to bind it, especially if the field is in danger of lodging from a coming storm.

Khoke will pick a few heads and test them. Rolling a few kernels out of the hulls he pinches them to test what stage they are in. The milk stage is much too immature. This is when the wheat berry is still milky on the inside. The soft dough stage is still too immature. These will shrivel and blow away with the chaff in the thresher. Soft dough is when the wheat is pinched and kneaded with the thumb nail: its texture is like, um, soft dough. The hard dough stage is what Khoke is looking for; a nice firm kernel that still dents when tested by the thumbnail. This is before the kernel has fully matured, which at that fully mature stage, shatters out very easily. Hard dough is mature enough to finish, yet not quite ready to shatter. Often the field has wheat in varying stages, but he is looking for when the majority of the field is ready.

The Harvest of Grain
Nate Miller and Khoke Livingston binding oats at dawn.


Khoke’s alarm goes off at 2 AM and he heads out to get his horses. It is insanity yet he has bound wheat this way for 15 years or so. He meets his cousins Nate and Zach Miller, each with their own binder, at the wheat field and they fall into line binding the wheat into bundles.

There are a couple of good reasons for starting the binding in the wee hours. First of all, it’s July and very hot by the time the sun meets the midday. The cool early morning start is easier on the horses. The dew clinging to the hull wrapped around those wheat berries makes the heads relaxed and not prone to shatter out. Both are reasons for the early start.

The dew dampened wheat is a little harder to cut and process, making the binder work harder, which then increases the chance of breakdowns and malfunctions. It is always exciting to fix a binder in the dark. Well, maybe Khoke wouldn’t say it that way.

So, for this reason, this past year they decided to wait until the dew burned off like most other sleep-loving binding crews. It did result in fewer jammed sessions and the binders ran smoother. They ended up just giving the horses more breaks throughout the day. Even if there was a malfunction, binders are easier to fix in the daylight.

The Harvest of Grain
Katherine Siemer was visiting from Missouri and wanted to learn how to bind. Khoke is explaining how a binder works to her.

How They Work

Binders definitely belong to the category of more complicated horse drawn equipment. Easily awed by the ingenuity of mechanics, not only those who can understand and fix these machines, but also those who created them in the first place. I am certainly awed by the binder.

To the left of the driver is a sickle bar like that of a mower which cuts the wheat. However just before the grain is cut it is caught by the paddles to help direct the fall. The sickle bar is a step lower than the platform. The paddle tips the wheat to enable them to trip and fall on the platform when they are cut, with the grain heads all laying in the same direction.

The grain on the platform finds itself being carried on a canvas belt with wooden cleats. These cleats are just strips of wood riveted to the canvas, but they help carry the wheat to the elevator canvases which catch and carry the grain to the knotter assembly, beginning with the vibrating butter.

The word butter here has nothing to do with a dairy product. Rather, it is describing in a word the part that pats the cut end of the grain to make the butt ends even. From here the sheaves are caught by the packers, claw-like fingers that catch and pack a bundle of grain. Once a certain weight is reached it releases the tension foot and the knotter assembly gears are engaged.

The Harvest of Grain

The twine is threaded from the ball through the curved needle and its cut end is held by the cord holder. The packers pack the grain bundle on the twine between the needle and the cord holder. When the weight is reached to trip the knotter assembly gears, the needle carries the twine over the bundle to the cord holder where it is caught by the knotter beak. As the knotter beak engages to tie the knot, the cord holder catches the twine before the knife cuts it off.

The knife cuts the twine so the bundle can be released. The needle springs back to its open position and the tension foot stops it from cycling until the bundle is ready. The packers begin loading a bundle again.

Khoke’s McCormick binder has 4 levers in front of him. One of these adjusts the height of the teeth. It is usually tipped down as far as it will go to cut the straw as close to the ground as possible.

Another lever adjusts the height of the paddle in relation to its distance from the canvas platform. Lever number three affects the timing of the paddles as they hit the grain.

The last lever moves the knotter assembly. This is important because the knotter needs to tie the bundles in the center. If the grain is short, it can be tying too near the heads, if the grain is long, it may be tying too near the ends. This makes bundles that fan and do not shock easily.

The trouble is, grain can vary in height not only from field to field but even within the field. Some parts of the field can have taller and/or thicker grain than other parts. The last lever allows you to adjust the knotter assembly while in motion.

As the binder ties and releases bundles, they drop onto the bundle carrier which is on the right of the driver and looks like giant horizontal pitchfork tines. There is a food pedal release for the bundle carrier to drop the bundles; the back of the carrier drops and the binder pulls ahead leaving the bundles lay. The foot pedal resets the carrier in place in time to catch the next bundle.

The Harvest of Grain
Khoke resting his horses in the early morning binding.

Khoke’s binder is a 6 ft binder, Zach and Nate each have 8 ft binders. The 6 and 8 ft binders are exactly the same, the only difference is the platform length. The 8 ft binders require 4 horses and the 6 ft binder needs 3.

If you have an easy field to bind, the 8 footers are faster because they cut a bigger pass each time around. But if you have a difficult field, dense grain or the cover crop is a little too tall, the 6 ft binder will be much less likely to break down. So, for the tough fields the 6 ft binder is faster.

When opening the field the lead binder needs to be mindful of the size of the binders following him, if there are any. Depending on the size of the bundles, a bundle carrier can carry 6-9 bundles, but an 8 ft binder fills up their carrier faster than a 6 ft because it is making a wider pass and cutting more grain. It makes it easier on whoever is shocking the grain if the bundles are dropped in rows as the binders make passes around the field. So when Khoke opens the field, he’ll trip the foot pedal to drop the bundles before his carrier is full so that the spacing is set for the 8 ft binders behind him. Then as the binders make the passes around the field, their operator trips the bundle carrier to drop the bundles near the piles made from the previous passes.

The Harvest of Grain
Zach Miller’s binder jammed, halting the binder procession behind him.

Common Problems

What could go wrong anyway? Plenty. Some of the issues are mechanical and some are just random practical problems that pop up. Some are easy quick fixes done in the field, and some require shop time to fix. The following problems are those Khoke has come across while using a binder or teaching others how to use them.


The most common and easiest mistake/problem, probably done by most if not all binder drivers at one point or another, is breaking a paddle. When the binder passes around a field you usually turn towards the sickle. There are so many things to keep track of on a binder that it is easy to turn a little too sharp and the driving lines can get caught by the binder paddles and the paddle winds up broken. This is only done on a left turn because that direction turns into the paddles.

When replacing this broken paddle, if a person is not careful to put the replacement at the exact length the old one was, it could cause problems. If it is too short it will hit the grain too high, and if it is too long it can hit the canvas platform and break the paddle again.


Another common problem, or easy problem to find, is when a ball of thistle twine collects moisture and is rotten in places, or is mouse chewed. This breaks the twine, and the needle will need to be rethreaded.


Sometimes the canvases get loose and need to be tightened. When they are too loose, they slip on the rollers and quit turning. Over the course of the day, they stretch and will become loose and there is a lever to tighten them.

Khoke likes to start his day with the lever set to have the rollers as loose as they will go. Then when he puts the canvases on, he tightens them as much as he can with the straps on them but waits to use the lever until later when the canvases begin to stretch out. The lever will only stretch the canvas out so far. If the straps are not tightened enough and the lever is maxed out and the canvases slip because they are too loose then you have to stop the binder, release the lever, re-buckle the straps tighter and then begin again. This would be an inconvenient but uncommon situation.


It is common to plant a cover crop with oats. The intent is that since oats are harvested relatively early the clover under it will then flourish. But if the clover decides to flourish a little early it can make too big or dense of a bundle for the needle to penetrate.

Nate’s binder in particular has trouble with this for some reason. When he gets into too much greenery, he has to tip his sickle blades up as far as they will go and cut his straw off high to avoid the bulky vegetation growing among the oats. If he doesn’t, he gets bulky untied bundles or his binder gets jammed.

Thick Grain

Sometimes if the grain is very thick and the paddles are a little too low, they can bump the butt ends of the grain lying on the platform. This will either push the wheat off the platform or jumble it. Neither of which is desirable.

Drive Wheel

If the binder jams somehow and the drive wheel stops turning it can push a mound of dirt ahead of it as it skids. So, when you stop and fix the binder (unplug the knotter or whatever), it can be too hard for the horses to engage all the gears and pull the drive wheel over the hump of dirt. The dirt may need to be kicked out of the way.

Sickle Bar

Watch for ball-ups on the sickle bar. This leaves a strip of uncut grain with each pass. The ball-up is usually at the tip of the bar and caused by lodged grain straw or bindweed (morning glories and all their friendly kin).


Among the lesser common breakdowns is breaking one of the drive chains. This can be caused by wet grain straw plugging a bundle. If the knotter assembly jams or stops it can break the secondary drive chain that runs the rollers and the knotter assembly. Again, this is uncommon, but it has happened.

Roller Pin

Once in a while the ends of the rollers, which are open and exposed, will get packed with straw or greenery and wrap so tightly that the roller pin shears. Usually before this point the binder will stop, but if it doesn’t it will shear the roller pin.

Bundle Carrier

The foot pedal that trips the bundle carrier to drop the bundles can sometimes be a little trigger-happy and when a person hits a bump it can trip and dump the carrier. Generally just keeping your foot on the pedal to make sure it behaves keeps this from being much of a problem.

The Harvest of Grain
A crew shocking bundles while others are binding.


This type of shock has nothing to do with an electrical charge. It is an upright group of grain bundles leaning on each other to remain erect. Then it is topped with another bundle to deflect any rain from really penetrating the shock. These shocks “cure” (finish drying) the grain in the field.

Besides the fact that the shocks allow the grain to finish ripening, the grain is also less vulnerable to the elements. As the grain ripens, the heads become heavy, and its stems become brittle and weak. In this state the grain is very vulnerable to wind and rain. During a storm the grain standing in a field will become soaked, adding weight to its already top-heavy head and then the wind buckles the brittle stem. The wheat falls over and doesn’t have enough life left in its stem to stand back up. This is called lodging.

But if the wheat (or other grain) is already standing in shocks, the rain is deflected. Whatever happens to soak in will dry when the sun comes out and be fine. There is safety in numbers and standing there together in bundles they are safe from most weather. One may have a few poorly stacked shocks blow down. These need to be re-shocked promptly or the wet heads will begin to sprout if they have contact with the ground.

The Harvest of Grain
A 9-bundle shock of oats.

A field can be shocked solo, but this is a long tedious job. It is easier done with friends. To build a 9-bundle shock you stand up two bundles and then lean on either side to prop them up so there are 4 bundles in a row. Now these two center bundles get two bundles on either side leaning on them as props. The ninth bundle is laid on top.

A properly stacked shock allows a man to be able to stand on the shock without the shock toppling or buckling. If the grain stood in the field too long before it was bound, the stems will be too weak to actually do this. One can, in this case, buckle the bundles.

The Harvest of Grain
Ammon Weeks, Pharaoh Kuykendall and Damien Younger shocking oats.

These shocks are best lined up in rows. Aside from the aesthetic appeal from looking neat and tidy, it also makes them much easier to pick up when loading the bundles to take to the thresher. Instead of weaving all over the field to pick them up, all you have to do is drive down a row of shocks.

The shocks usually stand 3-14 days awaiting the big date with the thresher. How long they stand in the field depends on a couple things. First of all, however long it takes to dry the bundles sufficiently. Another thing is, you are looking for a rain-free window large enough to accomplish nice dry threshing. You do not want your grain wagons or straw pile rained on. You wouldn’t think this would be so hard to find in July, and often as not it isn’t hard, but our Midwest tends to have brief pop-up showers at a moment’s notice if we have mown hay or are trying to get the grain processed.

The Harvest of Grain
Pharaoh Kuykendall and Jordan Hale loading a wagon to take to the thresher.

Loading the Wagon with Bundles

When out picking up the shocks, it works best to have at least 2 people working together. If there are plenty of people to spare, then you can have up to 4 people per wagon. One to drive the horses, one to stack the bundles and one on either side of the wagon to fork up the bundles from the shocks. Technically you could have two stacking on a wagon, but it is not advisable. Understand that both have pitchforks and working in a relatively confined space increases a person’s chance of getting poked by the pitchfork.

Speaking of pitchforks, 3-tine pitchforks are the best. The 3-tine pitchforks have the best catch and quick release performance. If you find yourself using a 4- or 5-tine pitchfork, obviously it is better than nothing, but you may find yourself coveting your neighbor’s lovely long handled 3-tine.

The wagon has, or at least should have, front and back racks. Khoke likes to have side braces on his, bracing the racks to the bed. He likes to ride a mountain back to the thresher. These braces help support the racks and keep the stack from upsetting. The braces then have to be removed later so he can stack his wagon with straw bales when the straw pile is baled.

As Khoke stacks the bundles, the grain heads face in and the butt ends hang over the outer edge of the wagon a little. After edges have a couple rows, he’ll put a row down the center. As he stacks, he always keeps more on the edges so the center is a little dished. He wants the bundles to tip in so they are less likely to fall out.

The wagon is driven along a row of shocks. This is when you really appreciate nice straight rows.

Be nice to your stacker or you may find yourself with the job. It is easy for a couple people to load the wagon faster than even a good stacker can stack. This can depend on how close together the shocks are. Generally, it is not worth it to make the folks you are working with cross in hot weather.

The Harvest of Grain
Khoke feeding the thresher with his team Addie and Dora waiting patiently.


One year during threshing season a neighbor stopped by to watch the process. He told a story of threshing long ago. The thresher was making its rounds through the area’s farmers as they processed their grain. A man unloading his wagon kept feeding the thresher too fast. The man who owned the power unit was worried that the thresher, being bogged down from being fed too fast, was going to break the power unit. He lost his temper and climbed on the wagon and in the ensuing fight threw the overfeeder headlong into the bundle carrier causing a fatality.

The men witnessing the event decided it was a clear case. They elected themselves judge and jury there on the field. They had no trees around to hang the guilty party from, so they stood up a wagon tongue and hung the man from there. Then they resumed their work.

A story told of a time past. Thankfully, every threshing experience I have had was a friendly environment and I would expect that is the general consensus of the threshing experience in both time past and present.


We pull our thresher right out in the field for threshing in a relatively level and centrally located area. I have heard of Amish who set up their threshers right next to the barn so the blower can blow the straw directly into the barn.

The thresher needs a good level location. Once there Khoke will check the wind direction and point the nose of the thresher into the wind. This is so the wind works with and not against the machine. It is the direction all the blowers in the thresher are blowing. It also helps blow the straw away from the thresher.

From here the power unit is set up and the belts connect it to the thresher. The grain wagon is pulled under the elevator spout. This is all done while a crew begins loading wagons.

We have two threshers, both are 22” (indicating the size of the cylinder) McCormick-Deering. As the power unit brings the belt-driven thresher to life, Khoke checks it until it comes up to the correct rpms. He looks for 1050-1150 rpms. Once there, the thresher is ready to feed.

The Harvest of Grain
Khoke is feeding bundles into the near end of the thresher while the far end of the thresher is augering grain into a grain wagon and the blower is making a mountain of straw.

How it Works

A wagon pulls up to unload once they are given the okay. It doesn’t take the whole loading crew to unload it, just one person. The bundles are fed into the conveyor and laid heads first. These bundles are carried by the conveyor to the knife arms that cut the twine. Then the bundles are patted out evenly before they hit the cylinder and concaves.

The heads hit the cylinder, which is covered in teeth and spinning at over 1000 rpms. This beats the grain out of the heads. The grain and the chaff fall onto the shaker tray and the long straw is carried onto the straw walker.

The straw walker is similar to a hay lift. It has a series of fingers working in a circular motion to walk the straw to the blower at the back of the threshing machine where it will be blown out onto the pile. The straw gets blown out along with the chaff from the shaker tray.

Back at the cylinder, the grain is beaten out of the heads, and they fall into the shaker tray. The shaker tray shakes back and forth, moving the grain toward the back of the thresher. The grain, being heavy, settles to the bottom of the tray, the chaff floats on top to be then blown off by the blower.

At the end of the shaker tray there are a series of fins. The fin height can be adjusted according to how much chaff there is. The fins need to be high enough to detain the chaff long enough for any lingering grain to fall through it to the fin sieve and screens below. The chaff is then blown out the blower with the straw.

The falling grain and fine chaff lands on a tray with fins moving the opposite direction of the shaker tray above it. Another blower blows air through this grain to clean it (winnow it) before it falls into the auger which takes the grain to the grain wagon.

Trouble Shooting

Wet vs. Dry Grain

If the grain is not as dry as one would hope to have it, the thresher, namely the bundle carrier, needs to be fed slower. If fed too fast it can plug the cylinder.

Dry grain shatters easily and moist grain does not. When the grain is a little wet one needs to add some concaves (1-4). These are stout metal fingers that face the cylinder. They add more surface area to help shatter the hulls.

If you don’t add the concaves for wet grain, you can lose a lot of the grain as it rides out in the heads to be blown into the straw pile.

Dry wheat can be fed about as fast as you can fork it. With the dry grain you do not want the extra concaves. The extra beating can pulverize the brittle straw and make too much chaff. This thick layer of chaff does not release the grain fast enough and it can be blown out to the straw pile. This is called blow-by. It is normal to have about 5% blowby. Much more than that calls for adjustment.

Another way to tell if the straw is over-beaten by the cylinder and concaves is to look at the straw length in the straw pile. Is the straw in short pieces, or is the straw a normal length? If you find long straw with wheat still in the heads, you don’t have enough concaves. If you have short, pulverized straw you have too many.

Other Adjustments

There is a blower under the shaker tray where it blows air through the fin tray to winnow the grain. If the air is blown with too much force it will blow the smaller kernels out with the chaff. If there is not enough air pressure, then you have dirty wheat with a lot of debris.

The blower’s strength is controlled by its air intake. The blower is called the cleaning fan. It has 4 fan blinds that can be opened and adjusted. The more open they are the more air is sent through the grain.

Baling the Straw Pile

Once we put in a long hard day of threshing, you’d think it was punishment enough and we’d go home. Well, it is nice when that can happen. More often than not, however, we face a threat of rain. Hot days in the Midwest call for random pop-up showers.

Rain is a problem for the straw pile. Not that it hurts the straw pile all that much. It just hurts my feelings to go through all the extra work of spreading the straw out over the field so it can dry enough to then bale. There is no easy way to do it either, unless you call using a pitchfork easy.

We put a highly attentive person, usually Nathan, in the tractor to run the baler. One person stands between the baler and the tractor to feed the straw into the baler. There are a couple people pulling the straw into the reach of the person feeding the baler. If there are enough volunteers still around, we have them up on the pile pushing layers of straw down into reach.

As the thresher blew the straw into the pile, it stacked the pile in layers like loose hay. So, as you pull it off at ground level it can be hard to pull, kinda like trying to fork hay off a round bale. This is why the folks at the top of the pile are so helpful. They push it down in layers.

The tractor and baler very slowly circle the straw pile. Usually, we pick the side of the pile where the wind will blow at a 45-degree angle across the baler. This is to blow the dust and chaff away from the fellow feeding the baler. A very dusty job. Wearing a kerchief over one’s nose and mouth helps keep from breathing it all in. The baler then just takes out strips of the pile from this side. Circling the pile to come around and bale from that side once again.

More than once we have worked 23 hours straight, but it was worth it to beat the rain. Our Amish neighbor Menno saw my father-in-law while he was visiting one day last year. He told him how he had heard our thresher running long after dark as he was going to bed. He woke early in the morning to the sound of rain. “There goes the straw pile,” he thought. He got up later and looked out and said, “The straw pile is gone!” He laughed at his surprise as he told it. We had worked clear through the night. But nothing feels so good as sleeping in on a rainy morning with an easy mind. No fretting over undone work.

The first year I helped with the threshing and baling we had a similar experience. We baled late into the night to the light of lightning flashing in the distance. The rain was supposed to start at 1AM and for once it was on time.

We had our wagons loaded as high as the horses could pull and were heading to the barns with them as fast as we dared. It began to sprinkle and as we rolled into the barn the sky opened and dumped rain as from a bucket. A beautiful sound with all the bales safely under the roof.

We left the bales on the wagons, unharnessed the horses and turned them out and headed for home. Walking to the house in a downpour of warm summer rain, washing off the dust and sweat and the push to get it done, helped take the short road to clean sheets and a good night’s sleep.

Not everyone blows the straw into a pile to bale. I have heard of others who will blow the straw directly into the barn loft. Others have blown the straw directly from the thresher into a stationary baler. But then some poor soul has to stand there in the direct path of the dust to move and stack all these bales. Don’t underestimate the misery of that dust and chaff. If you don’t protect yourself somewhat from breathing it all in, you can actually overwhelm your system and develop allergies from overexposure. Just wear the kerchief and look like a bandit to protect your lungs.

The Harvest of Grain
A stream of wheat filling the wagon.

Drying Grain and Storage

Before the grain is sent to the bins for storage, we send a sample (a couple cups), to the local feed store to test its moisture content. A person can buy a home moisture meter to do their own testing if they want though. Too much moisture can compromise the wheat and its ability to store well, its germination, and its susceptibility to damage from heat. Wheat and oats both need to be stored at less than 13% moisture. If it is above 13%, we spread the grain out on our drying floor on sunny days.

This drying floor is just a cement pad about 20’ by 80’. Usually just a couple of sunny days is enough to get the moisture down where we need it. We spread it out evenly during the day to dry, pile it at night to minimize reabsorption from dew, and if it is calling for rain, we shovel it into the grain wagon to store in the barn until the rain passes and the cement pad is dry.

Technically, grain can get too dry as well. This is only a problem if you are hoping to use it as seed stock. You can actually dry the seed to death. This is not easily done however.

The Harvest of Grain
Khoke feeding the thresher as dusk begins to fall.

The Threshing Experience

The threshing season is some of the hardest work of the year. Not because the work is all that hard but because of the long hours and the relentless shade-free heat. Some years are fairly relaxed with enough parched dry days strung together to do the threshing work in bite sized pieces.

But most years we are pushing to get it all done in a window between chances of rain. These are the years with long hours and sweltering humidity. Not only is drinking enough water important but also replenishing lost electrolytes. I like to make big coolers of lightly sweetened mint tea for the threshing crew to drink. There are also several large containers full of salty popcorn. Contrary to historical threshing traditions, Khoke and his friends tend to feel that it is usually too hot during threshing to be in any mood for a big heavy meal. Iced tea or juice with accompanying salty snacks and sandwiches are usually preferred.

Life has its big events, but really it is the little things that define its success. When threshing, there are a few key points that really make all the difference.

When threshing wheat or rye, it is important to wear woven (button down), not knit (t-shirt) fabric. Each kernel of wheat is encased by a hull. Each hull has what is called a beard, a long strand off the end of the hull with tiny barbs like a microscopic harpoon. Running your hand through wheat heads is a little scratchy like the lick of a cat. When this wheat beard gets caught in your clothing the barb catches and works in and does not pull out easily.

Sometimes socks have to be thrown away after they were worn through a day threshing wheat. The beards scratch and irritate the skin and don’t wash out. Tee-shirts and socks are vulnerable to these barbs, sometimes also the lining of tennis shoes. Woven material tends to shed the beards and not snag them like the knit fabric does. Note that oats do not have a barbed beard and are much friendlier at threshing.

Shorts and sandals are another no-no. First of all, everyone is using pitchforks, people should be being careful anyway, but wearing pants and real shoes reduces the chance of breaking skin when the pitchfork is in the hands of an inexperienced or inattentive person. Besides, wearing sandals in the stubble will scratch a person’s ankles terribly, and shorts leave bare legs open to every scratch the straw can give. And it will. Then the scratches sting from the salt in your sweat.

Being around a power unit and the thresher can be loud. Last year when I was resting in the hot shade of the thresher after bringing in a wagon load of wheat with Khoke, the noise of the thresher bothered me, and I had forgotten earplugs. So, I found a couple red clover blossoms, picked off the stem and wore a floral earplug which dimmed the din to my satisfaction.

Hats help keep a person’s face from ripening in the sun. Sleeves or sunscreen help protect a person’s arms. Taking lots of vitamin C can help reduce heat rash. Drinking lots of water, Gatorade or other hydrating fluids help prevent dehydration and heat exhaustion. Take plenty of breaks. It’s not worth getting heat exhaustion. Here in Southern Iowa, threshing day temperatures are usually between 94-100 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade.

Starting off the day with the knowledge that it is going to be as hot as a person can stand, and accepting that as fact instead of resisting it, helps keep a person’s expectations in check. Looking around at all the sweat soaked company brings the feeling that we are all in this together. A person’s mettle is tested. Who becomes cross in their discomfort and who lightens the atmosphere? We get to find out. And sometimes we surprise ourselves.