Pickin’ and Grinnin’
For many readers of Green Magazine memories of picking ear corn abound. That fall time harvest activity which for many seemed to drone on and on at a pace even slower than moldboard plowing. I’ve heard many different folks recall picking ear corn in the late fall or even winter with a heavy picker dealing with mud and rain trying to pick up a lot of downed corn. Often it would be cold and windy to make conditions even more miserable.
Growing up on a small farm in southeast Missouri in the 80s’ and 90’s the only corn picker I knew about was the rusting hulk of a 2 row Deere pull-type we used to have sitting in a fencerow. I recall dad letting my brother Alex and I practice our wrenching abilities working to dismantle any part of the rusted hulk of a picker which we could manage. Armed with a can of WD-40, some wrenches, pry bar, and a hammer I recall we made a lot of noise but most of the bolts were rusted beyond the effort we put forth.
Dad talked about picking ear corn for hog feed in the late 50’s and into the 60’s. He didn’t speak to fondly of the process as it was slow and boring for him bringing in load after load of corn to the crib. He seemed to prefer pasturing the standing corn by moving an electric fence one row at a time as the hogs devoured them. It was easier but the forces of nature (wind, rain, freezing/thawing) meant that only part of their corn acreage could be used before falling on the ground and rotting.
My mom’s family headed up by my Grandpa Edgar Lorenz of Shawneetown, Missouri never embraced modern corn pickers. Grandpa used to talk about picking their corn by hand. Mom would sometimes be allowed to drive the “B” tractor in first gear at idle keeping it straight as her brothers and parents would hand pick the corn. Mom recalled many days after school spent in the corn field picking ear corn for animal feed.
Today on my small plot of land in southwest Illinois where we live, I always feed out some steers for freezer beef. I usually get my corn from my father-in-law in the shelled form. A couple of years ago I lost a 900# steer to bloat and had been feeding a ground shelled corn ration. After talking to old timers it seems that the consensus is that ear corn is the best cattle feed because the cob / shucks provide enough roughage that bloat in cattle is near impossible.
About 6 years ago I happened to be talking to my next-door neighbor about raising cattle (he had a cow-calf operation and fed a few feeder steers too) and he asked if I’d like some ear corn. He grew a small patch of corn and it turned out yielding very well. I took him up on the offer and used ear corn that year. It ground up really well in my Owatonna 85 Mixer Mill and the cattle liked the feed. The next year he got out of the cattle business and I was left to go back to shelled corn for cattle feed.
After a few years passed I wanted to get some ear corn again but timing never worked out. I tried some custom blended feed from my local mill but didn’t see any better performance than what I could grind for less cost. Knowing that my next door neighbor has owned a one-row New Idea pull-type corn picker I decided to ask if he would sell. He said, “NO, but you’re welcome to borrow it.” I gladly accepted his offer but he forewarned me that it had an issue with the finger wheels on top of the husking bed and that it wouldn’t feed right into the elevator.
As the corn crop was nearing maturity I retrieved the 323 picker from the neighbors shed to give it a thorough checking over. Having never before worked or even operated a picker it was a real learning experience. I looked high and low all over the picker for loose chains (of which many were loose) or broken parts. All I found after my inspection was one plastic ‘star’ finger wheel above the husking bed missing all of the fingers and that there were 5 paddles on the elevator chain without any rubber left on them (rodents perhaps). After pondering the broken parts I decided that the missing paddles on the elevator chain were far more likely the cause of overloading the elevator than was the broken star wheel.
I searched online for new picker parts thinking that there might be some availability for them but found none. I decided that that star wheel on the husking bed might not cause a problem and that focusing on the elevator paddles was the best way to get it picking like new. The original paddles were thick rubber like sidewalls from old truck tires. Not having any similar material I decided to cut new paddles out of some used round baler belting. While the baler belting was not as thick it is a very pliable material. I had to make a few attempts at getting the paddles the right shape but eventually made one that worked very well and then made copies (with a few extras just in case).
The original chain paddles were made with special shouldered rivets. After spending an hour frustrated that the rivets weren’t coming out I decided to grind the small head on the bottom side off rather than the larger upper part. This is when I discovered the rivets were shouldered. Basically I failed in removing them after grinding the larger shouldered part off and trying to drive a 5/16” stem through a ¼” hole. With some bolts, lock nuts, and thread locker I’d installed the new paddles in about an hour.
My next task was to find and grease every fitting on the picker. For being a fairly compact unit, the New Idea picker had a lot of grease fittings! I took up the slack with the chain adjusters where possible (noting that several of the chains needed to be replaced). The gathering chains were all loose and before tightening I decided to remove the front idler sprockets on each one as I couldn’t find any grease fittings on them (much to my surprise). The idler sprockets turned out to be similar to coulter bearings in that they were simply chilled iron type with a tapered fitting cone and hub. I cleaned them and applied some good quality tacky grease I thought perfect for the job. Additionally I shimmed the idler gears so that the tapered bearings would be snugger and run true (but not too tight).
I checked and topped off all of the gearboxes and decided it was time to give it a try on the PTO. Everything checked out as I oiled the chains so I moved onto getting my wagons ready for the field. I own a JD 1064 wagon gear with a galvanized gravity box made by Heider. Additionally I have a JD 943 wagon with a galvanized flare box as well as another 943 with homemade wooden 7×12 bed. I checked the air in all tires and greased the steering components.
On a Saturday afternoon I headed out toward my in-law’s farm near Prairie Du Rocher, Illinois (about 13 miles). Following my JD 630 was the New Idea 323 picker and both 943 wagons behind. Seeing how both of those wagons have really sloppy steering linkage I pulled them slowly (about 13.5 mph max) and let my wife Teresa pull the 1064 gear and gravity box behind her SUV since it has really tight steering.
About 2/3rd of the way along the trip all of the sudden there was the familiar sound of a flat tire. It turned out to be on the front tire on the 630. I pulled off the road and assessed the situation. I brought a spare tire for the wagon but had no jack or block. I managed to remove the flat tire and left the roll-o-matic to sag down running on only one wheel. I managed to make it the rest of the way with one front tire although steering proved a little tricky. Honestly, I expected a flat or blow-out tire on one of my wagons (old dry cracked tires on most of them) but never considered it on my tractor. It turned out that I’d had only 4 ply 6.00-16 tri-rib tires on the 630.
After arriving at the farm I quickly installed my spare wagon tire/rim on the 630 so I could properly navigate the corn field. With the 630 turning the 323 New Idea picker I proceeded forward in 1st gear as I began to try my hand at picking corn for the first time. Everything went smooth as I got the hang of the where to drive to keep the row centered in the snapping rolls. I made 6 rounds in the field in corn which was yielding 160-175 bushels per acre at 15% seed moisture (per the yield monitor on the combine) before filling the gravity wagon.
I’d fully expected the picker to plug or jam from all of the stories I’ve heard about how bad pickers can be. Additionally, with the higher yielding corn at a planting population of 29,000 seeds /acre it would seem that the 50+ year old picker should have difficulty picking. My expectations of having problems with the picker were never realized since it never once gave any problems. I made several stops in the field to get off and listen and look at the picker without ever seeing any problems (yes I stayed clear of the snapping rolls well aware of the many lost limbs of others due to picker accidents).
The sun set as I’d finished the first wagon load of corn and I stopped for the day. I returned the next day to find that Marvin (my father-in-law) had nearly picked a full load of corn! He grew up on Oliver and IH-Farmall tractors but apparently my hand clutch 630 wasn’t enough to discourage his curiosity of picking corn (something that hadn’t been done on his farm since the late 50’s). Thankfully he left a little room in the wagon for Zachary and I could have some picking time. We also discovered on the second day of picking that the picker would handle picking in 2nd gear on the tractor. Honestly, speed wasn’t the goal as we were enjoying the picking process so much.
My first corn picking experience was a good one (aside from the 630 tire blowout) and I hope to be able to pick again next year. In the meantime I found a 953 JD gear with a wooden barge box and hydraulic hoist to help with unloading. My steers are already enjoying their fresh ground ear corn (with some supplement mixed in) and God willing will be in my freezer early next spring.