The combine harvester, or simply combine, also known as a thresher is a machine that combines the tasks of harvesting, threshing, and cleaning grain crops. The objective is the harvest of the crop; corn (maize), soybeans, flax (linseed), oats, wheat, or rye among others). The waste straw left behind on the field is the remaining dried stems and leaves of the crop with limited nutrients which is either chopped and spread on the field or baled for feed and bedding for livestock.
The first combine was invented by Hiran Moore in 1838. It took many decades for the combine to become popular. Early combines often took more than 16 horses to drive them, and were later combines were pulled by steam engines. George Stockton Berry joined the combine into a single machine using straw to heat the boiler. The header was over forty feet long, cutting over one hundred acres per day.
Early combines, some of them quite large, were drawn by horse or mule teams and used a bull wheel to provide power. In 1902, a combine could harvest enough grain in one hour to make 10 loaves of bread. Tractor-drawn, PTO-powered combines were used for a time. These combines used a shaker to separate the grain from the chaff and straw-walkers (grates with small teeth on an eccentric shaft) to eject the straw while retaining the grain. Tractor drawn combines evolved to have separate gas or diesel engines to power the grain separation. Newer kinds of combines are self-propelled and use diesel engines for power. A significant advance in the design of combines was the rotary design. Straw and grain were separated by use of a powerful fan. “Axial-Flow” rotary combines were introduced by International Harvester “IH” in 1977. In about the 1980s on-board electronics were introduced to measure threshing efficiency. This new instrumentation allowed operators to get better grain yields by optimizing ground speed and other operating parameters.
Despite great advances mechanically and in computer control, the basic operation of the combine harvester has remained unchanged almost since it was invented.
First of all the header, described above, cuts the crop and feeds it into the threshing cylinder. This consists of a series of horizontal rasp bars fixed across the path of the crop and in the shape of a quarter cylinder, guiding the crop upwards through a 90 degree turn. Moving rasp bars or rub bars pull the crop through concaved grates that separate the grain and chaff from the straw. The grain heads fall through the fixed concaves onto the sieves. The straw exits the top of the concave onto the straw walkers.
Since the IH 1440 and 1460 Axial-Flow Combines came out in 1977, combines have rotors in place of conventional cylinders. A rotor is a long, longitudinal mounted rotating cylinder with plates similar to rub bars.
There are usually two sieves, one above the other. Each is a flat metal plate with holes set according to the size of the grain mounted at an angle which shakes. The holes in the top sieve are set larger than the holes in the bottom sieve. While straw is carried to the rear, crop and weed seeds, as well as chaff, fall onto the second sieves, where chaff and crop fall though and are blown out by a fan. The crop is carried to the elevator which carries it into the hopper. Setting the concave clearance, fan speed, and sieve size is critical to ensure that the crop is threshed properly, the grain is clean of debris, and that all of the grain entering the machine reaches the grain tank. ( Observe, for example, that when travelling uphill the fan speed must be reduced to account for the shallower gradient of the sieves.)
Heavy material, e.g., unthreshed heads, fall off the front of the sieves and are returned to the concave for re-threshing.
The straw walkers are located above the sieves, and also have holes in them. Any grain remaining attached to the straw is shaken off and falls onto the top sieve.
When the straw reaches the end of the walkers it falls out the rear of the combine. It can then be baled for cattle bedding or spread by two rotating straw spreaders with rubber arms. Most modern combines are equipped with a straw spreader.