Farm Progress

Old technology in action: The rotary hoe

Corn Chatter: An early 20th century tool gets a new look when pulled by a 21st century tractor.

Tom J. Bechman, Midwest Crops Editor

June 10, 2024

3 Min Read
A rotary hoe mounted on a tractor with tracks
DOUBLE TAKE: This picture begged to be taken. Who would expect to see a rotary hoe mounted on a state-of-the-art tractor with tracks? Tom J. Bechman

Various members of the ag media gathered at the Beck’s facility near Atlanta, Ind., one early-summer morning to learn about modern seed production technology. Darin Lucas, lead production agronomist, took us to the shop to see the latest in equipment that the company uses to produce seed.

We weren’t surprised to see $1.2 million seed corn harvesters and a new liquid-nitrogen injection rig on tracks. But my jaw dropped when I saw a rotary hoe mounted on a large tracked tractor sitting in the driveway outside the shop. It was a picture begging to be taken.

The irony of early 20th century crop production technology, a rotary hoe, being hooked to a cutting-edge tractor equipped with GPS and autosteering was striking. Admittedly, it was a state-of-the-art, toolbar-style rotary hoe from Yetter — not one from the 1950s. But a tiger is always a tiger, and a rotary hoe is always, well, a rotary hoe!

Earlier days

The four-row rotary hoe on our farm in the 1960s didn’t mount on the three-point hitch. And it wasn’t on a toolbar. It was an old J.I. Case rotary hoe, orange in color — at least, when it was new. The hoe consisted of four rectangular individual units, one for each row, hooked together; each had two sets of slightly curved rotary teeth.

There were no wheels or lift. If you were going to another field on a gravel road — they existed back then — you might get by driving there slowly, if you could get through the gates. Otherwise, you drove the rotary hoe over a wooden sled, unhooked, and hooked to a chain on the end of the sled, pulling it down the road to the next field. If you didn’t do that, you would leave spiked tooth marks in the blacktop road, especially if it was a hot day and the tar was seepy and gooey.

Dad said the hoe’s main purpose was weed control, although I wasn’t convinced how many weeds it actually destroyed. Even after we went from banding herbicides over the row to full-width chemical weed control, Dad still believed in the rotary hoe.

Rotary hoe today

The best use then, in my opinion, is the best use now — to help plants in crusted soils break through and emerge. That was the reason the modern rotary hoe was ready when I spotted it at Beck’s. Seed corn inbreds often aren’t as vigorous as hybrids, and there are times when they need every boost they can get for emergence.

According to reports, rotary hoeing isn’t relegated to only seed fields, even today. Gentry Sorenson, an Iowa State University Extension agronomist, observed farmers rotary hoeing corn in northern Iowa this year. He notes that intermittent heavy rains led to soil crusting after planting in some cases. Farmers did what their dads and granddads did years ago. They ran the rotary hoe to break the crust so corn could emerge.

New technology is great. It is often eye-catching and flashy. Running a rotary hoe with a tracked tractor and a cab beats bouncing around on a John Deere 620 like I did years ago. Just remember, though, once in a while, new technology needs a boost from tried-and-true technology from former days.

About the Author(s)

Tom J. Bechman

Midwest Crops Editor, Farm Progress

Tom J. Bechman became the Midwest Crops editor at Farm Progress in 2024 after serving as editor of Indiana Prairie Farmer for 23 years. He joined Farm Progress in 1981 as a field editor, first writing stories to help farmers adjust to a difficult harvest after a tough weather year. His goal today is the same — writing stories that help farmers adjust to a changing environment in a profitable manner.

Bechman knows about Indiana agriculture because he grew up on a small dairy farm and worked with young farmers as a vocational agriculture teacher and FFA advisor before joining Farm Progress. He works closely with Purdue University specialists, Indiana Farm Bureau and commodity groups to cover cutting-edge issues affecting farmers. He specializes in writing crop stories with a focus on obtaining the highest and most economical yields possible.

Tom and his wife, Carla, have four children: Allison, Ashley, Daniel and Kayla, plus eight grandchildren. They raise produce for the food pantry and house 4-H animals for the grandkids on their small acreage near Franklin, Ind.

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