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A seed drill is a sowing device that precisely positions seeds in the soil and then covers them. Before the introduction of the seed drill, the common practice was to plant seeds by hand. Besides being wasteful, planting was very imprecise and led to a poor distribution of seeds, leading to low productivity. Jethro Tull is widely thought of as having invented the seed drill, though the Sumerians used a single-tube version, and by the 2nd Century BC, the Chinese were using a multi-tube seed drill. The use of a seed drill can improve the ratio of crop yield by as much as nine times.
While the Babylonians used primitive single-tube seed drills around 1500 BC, the invention never reached Europe. Multi-tube iron seed drills were invented by the Chinese in the 2nd century BC. This multi-tube seed drill has been credited with giving China an efficient food production system that allowed it to support its large population for millennia. It has been conjectured that the seed drill was introduced in Europe following contacts with China.
The first known European seed drill was attributed to Camillo Torello and patented by the Venetian Senate in 1566. A seed drill was described in detail by Tadeo Cavalina of Bologna in 1602. In England, the seed drill was further refined by Jethro Tull in 1701 in the Agricultural Revolution. However, seed drills of this and successive types were both expensive and unreliable, as well as fragile. Seed drills would not come into widespread use in Europe until the mid-19th century.
Over the years, seed drills became larger and more sophisticated, but the technology remained substantially the same. Early drills were small enough to be pulled by a single horse, and many of these remained in use into the 1930s. The availability of steam, and later gasoline tractors, however, saw the development of larger and more efficient drills that allowed farmers to seed ever larger tracts in a single day.
Recent improvements to drills allow seed-drilling without prior tilling. This means that soils subject to erosion or moisture loss are protected until the seed germinates and grows enough to keep the soil in place. This also helps prevent soil loss by avoiding erosion after tilling. The development of the press drill was one of the major innovations in pre-1900 farming technology.
In older methods of planting, a field is initially prepared with a plough to a series of linear cuts known as furrows. The field is then seeded by throwing the seeds over the field, a method known as manual broadcasting. Seeds that landed in the furrows had better protection from the elements, and natural erosion or manual raking would preferentially cover them while leaving some exposed. The result was a field planted roughly in rows, but having a large number of plants outside the furrow lanes.
There are several downsides to this approach. The most obvious is that seeds that land outside the furrows will not have the growth shown by the plants sown in the furrow, since they are too shallow on the soil. Because of this, they are lost to the elements. Much of the seed remained on the surface where it never germinated or germinated prematurely, only to be killed by frost. On the surface, it was also vulnerable to being eaten by birds or carried away on the wind.
Since the furrows represent only a portion of the field's area, and broadcasting distributes seeds fairly evenly, this results in considerable wastage of seeds. Less obvious are the effects of overseeding; all crops grow best at a certain density, which varies depending on the soil and weather conditions. Additional seeding above this limit will actually reduce crop yields, in spite of more plants being sown, as there will be competition among the plants for the minerals, water and the soil available. Another reason is that the mineral resources of the soil will also deplete at a much faster rate, thereby directly affecting the growth of the plants.
The invention of the seed drill dramatically improved germination. The seed drill employed a series of runners spaced at the same distance as the ploughed furrows. These runners, or drills, opened the furrow to a uniform depth before the seed was dropped. Behind the drills were a series of presses, metal discs which cut down the sides of the trench into which the seeds had been planted, covering them over.
This innovation permitted farmers to have precise control over the depth at which seeds were planted. This greater measure of control meant that fewer seeds germinated early or late, and that seeds were able to take optimum advantage of available soil moisture in a prepared seed bed. The result was that farmers were able to use less seed, and at the same time experience larger yields than under the broadcast methods.
Drilling is the term used for the mechanized sowing of an agricultural crop. Traditionally, a seed drill consists of a hopper of seeds arranged above a series of tubes that can be set at selected distances from each other to allow optimum growth of the resulting plants. Seed is metered using fluted paddles which rotate using a geared drive from one of the drill's land wheels—seed rate is altered by changing gear ratios. Most modern drills use air to convey seed in plastic tubes from the seed hopper to the coulters—it is an arrangement which allows seed drills to be much wider than the seed hopper—as much as 12 m wide in some cases. The seed is metered mechanically into an airstream created by a hydraulically powered on-board fan and conveyed initially to a distribution head which sub-divides the seed into the pipes taking the seed to the individual coulters.
The seed drill allows farmers to sow seeds in well-spaced rows at specific depths at a specific seed rate; each tube creates a hole of a specific depth, drops in one or more seeds, and covers it over. This invention gave farmers much greater control over the depth that the seed was planted and the ability to cover the seeds without back-tracking. This greater control meant that seeds germinated consistently and in good soil. The result was an increased rate of germination, and a much-improved crop yield (up to eight times ).
A further important consideration was weed control. Broadcast seeding results in a random array of growing crops, making it difficult to control weeds using any method other than hand weeding. A field planted using a seed drill is much more uniform, typically in rows, allowing weeding with the hoe during the course of the growing season. Weeding by hand is laborious and poor weeding limits yield.The ground would have to be plowed and harrowed. The plow would dig up the earth and the harrow would smooth the soil and break up any clumps. You'd set the drill for the size of seed you were using. Then they'd put the grain in the hopper on top and then follow along behind it while the seed drill spaced and planted the seed. This system is still used today but it has been modified and updated so a farmer can plant many rows of seed at the same time
A seed drill can be pulled across the field using bullocks or a tractor. Seeds sown using a seed drill are distributed evenly and placed at the correct depth in the soil.
- The Genius of China, Robert Temple, ISBN 1-85375-292-4
- History Channel, Where Did It Come From? Episode: "Ancient China: Agriculture"
- Temple, p.25
- The story of wheat | Ears of plenty | Economist.com Paid subscription required
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