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John Deere’s Planter Pioneer

Tractors are often exalted as one of John Deere’s engineering triumphs (and for many good reasons) to the point that they have stolen the limelight from one of that company’s phenomenal contributions to agriculture.

Fully a century before university agronomists would confirm that corn seed spacing has a huge impact on yields, John Deere was promoting the concept of seed singulation through its then revolutionary Rotary Drop Corn Planter.

Introduced in 1877, the Rotary Drop Corn Planter featured a horizontally operating plate placed at the bottom of the planter’s seed box. This cast-iron plate employed slots spaced at appropriate intervals along its edge. The slots held seed that would be dropped at a metered rate while planting.

The Deere Rotary Drop Corn Planter quickly caught the eye of farmers who were tired of operating manual corn planters or who were frustrated with the lousy stands produced by other horse-drawn corn planters. In just over 20 years, Deere came to dominate planter sales and, in doing so, became the largest producer of planters in the world.

Deere & Mansur

The Rotary Drop Corn Planter was the brainchild of Alvah Mansur and Charles Deere (John Deere’s son). They formed Deere & Mansur. That company would later be absorbed into Deere & Company in 1911.

Prior to Deere & Mansur’s breakthrough, mechanical corn planters primarily employed a plate with holes large enough to hold several seeds for hill-dropping. This resulted in multiple seeds being placed in a cluster. The number of seeds in a hill varied and, accordingly, so did the yields.

Deere & Mansur’s invention created a metering mechanism that doled out single seeds. In doing so, the Rotary Drop Corn Planter was 65% to 85% more accurate than any on the market.

Improvements Galore

Not content to rest on the success of the Rotary Drop Corn Planter, Deere & Mansur introduced its first upgrade by 1887 with the introduction of the Center Level Corn Planter. This implement’s numerous features included a center level that could raise or lower the planter’s runners.

The mid-1890s brought further improvements, with the introduction of the Accumulative Single-Kernel Drill Planter that boosted seed drop accuracy by another 15%. 

By this time, other manufacturers were selling planters with similar features and threatening Deere’s planter predominance. So the firm galvanized its engineers to fashion further advances. From their fruitful minds emerged one of the most successful planters of all time, the No. 999 Edge Drop Planter (shown left).

First introduced in 1891 and refined over time, No. 999 was capable of metering seeds out using their thickness rather than their length. Corn length can vary greatly, whereas kernel thickness is fairly consistent. So by creating metering cells that singulated seed by their thickness, the No. 999 Edge Drop Planter helped to further improve metering accuracy.

The planter had another huge advantage. It would dole out various kinds of seed kernels – not just corn. A variety of Natural Cell Fill plates could be bought to meter out sorghum, beans, peas, sorghum sudan, and kaffir corn. Plus, the No. 999 used 50% fewer moving parts than competitive planters, which reduced maintenance and also helped keep retail prices low.


Most Popular of All Time

All of these advantages greatly broadened the market appeal of row planters, generally, and the No. 999, specifically. So much so that by 1899, the No. 999 was the most popular planter on the market, and Deere & Mansur became the largest manufacturer of planters in the world.

The No. 999 also claimed another singular honor in that it remained in production until 1956, making it the longest produced planter of all time.

Beyond Two-Rows 

By the late 1920s and early 1930s, tractors became more common on farms. To accommodate that trend, Deere introduced a four-row No. 450 tractor corn planter. The model employed the same mechanisms of the No. 999 which, when extended out to four rows and pulled by a tractor, offered farmers the ability to cover an unheard of 40 to 50 acres in a single day. 

The 450 would be replaced by the models 494 and 495 and the six-row models 694 and 695 in 1957. By this time, Deere bragged – and rightfully so – that their planters offered farmers everything they needed in a planter, including metering plates that could dole out 100 different types of seeds.

Finger-Pickup Advance

Yet the days of the plate planter were numbered. Once representing state-of-the-art design, the plate planter’s accuracy was supplanted by the then revolutionary John Deere finger-pickup meter still sold today. The finger-pickup meter was offered in the 1968 introduction of the 1200 and 1300 series Plateless Planter. 

A Tru-Vee Furrow

Deere engineers then turned their attention to seed-depth placement because erratic depth placement was proven to directly affect yields. 

From their engineering investigation emerged the 7000 and 7100 MaxEmerge Planters. 

Featuring the Tru-Vee opener system employing angled disk blades and rubber depth-gauge wheels that formed a consistently deep and wide furrow, the MaxEmerge Planter established Deere as the leader in planter sales. 

Since then, Deere has introduced an avalanche of advances, including pneumatic downforce (replacing down pressure springs) and cable drive lines (replacing chains).

Read more about John Deere's history in What Made Deere Great.

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