How Do Farmers Harvest Corn?

On our farm we grow corn for grain. Unlike sweet corn our corn remains in the field until fall when the plant reaches maturity and the grain dries out.  So what kind of equipment do we have to get it out of the field and into our grain bins or off to market?

How do farmers harvest corn? via

The Combine Harvester

A combine harvester, or combine, is the tool of choice for harvesting corn and other grains. The reason this piece of equipment is called a combine is simply because it combines several jobs into a single machine. Combines cut the crop and separate the grain from the plant while processing and spreading the remaining material over the field. The invention of the combine was a major moment in human history (with some debate about who really invented it!) that revolutionized the way grain crops were harvested. Wikipedia has a really nice page on the history of the combine harvester.

How Do Combines Harvest Corn?

At the front of a combine is the corn head. Combines can switch between a variety of heads depending on the type of crop harvested. The inner workings of the combine itself don’t require a swap like changing heads from corn to another crop like soybeans, but adjustments in speeds, spacings, and more are made accordingly.

I discuss how a corn head works in the video below. Basically what happens is a pair of spinning rolls pull the corn stalks down through the head. Just above those rolls metal plates pop the ear off the stalk. Gathering chains push the ears to the back of the head where an auger funnels the ears to the center of the head and into the front of the combine to begin the grain separating process.

Inside the Combine

About 10 seconds after the head takes in the ears there will be clean, separated grain in the grain tank. In this short span of time a lot of activity happens inside the machine. Once the whole corn ears enter the combine they are introduced to a spinning rotor which threshes the grain from the cob. This is done both mechanically by the machine and by grain on grain threshing as material is flung around the rotor. After the rotor a series of cleaning mechanisms come into play. This short animation reveals the process much better than I can say in words.

Once the corn is clean it enters the clean grain elevator where it is transported up into the grain tank where it can be held until the tank is full. Our tank holds just over 400 bushels. Some grain may go through a secondary cleaning process via the tailings elevator. We routinely check samples of grain for damage and cleanliness, and make adjustments to the combine as needed. With today’s modern machines we can make nearly all the adjustments from the cab on the go with the push of a button.

What’s Left?

Once the kernels are in the grain tank all the material left behind must be dealt with. Bits of leaves and stalks along with the corn husks and cobs exit the rear of the combine. Combines are equipped to either spread the material evenly over the field or to drop a windrow of plant material that could be baled for livestock. We spread our chaff and let it sit for no-till or incorporate it into the soil with tillage.

To see our corn harvest in action check out the following video from my YouTube channel. Enjoy! And if you have any questions or comments about combines and corn please comment below!


  1. Brian, this is a great presentation. I see a lot of combines working while I’m driving on the highways. It’s fascinating to see them from above and to see the internals. Thanks for putting this together and sharing with us. Keep up the good work. I’ve seen your other videos also.

    1. Thanks, Harry. I think UAVs are a great way to show people how we do things. So much better than a cell phone picture through my windshield from inside the cab.

  2. Wow my neighour has one never knew how it works. Thanks for the video I call myself an emerging farmer who owns 40h of land but still farm from even owning one of those machines. Every year I go to farmers expo but don’t go even near them.

  3. Brian

    How do you decide on the balance between go to market and store? I’m working for a short term storage company. Is 2016 going to be a good year to expand On Farm storage? We can store up to 85,000 bushels with a aeration and moisture monitoring system.

    1. Part of the benefit of having on farm storage is avoiding the wait in line at the mill. We’ll usually fill our bins first, then go to the mill when we have to. By that point the mill is less congested, hopefully.

    2. Here in the Corn Belt I don’t think many farmers are looking to put up new storage in 2016 because grain prices are quite low at the moment. We still filled most of our on farm storage this year which allows us to hold the crop in the hope prices improve before the next harvest.

  4. What if you are wanting to sell whole eat corn?
    (May be a dumb question but I just don’t know.)

      1. Here’s a great sweet corn harvest video.

        You can also pick dry field corn by the ear and store it that way. Of course before combines came along adding the threshing aspect to corn was picked by the ear and shelled later by another machine.

  5. Brian, great blog ! Videos really helped. I am doing a research and have few questions:

    1- How do you currently monitor and measure the tractor operating time on fields?

    2- Do you have large number of fields? How do you monitor the field efficiency of each?

    3- How do you monitor and measure the efficiency of trucks/routes and gas costs?

    4- How do you currently monitor personnel and work orders start/completed?

    As you can guess – all these questions leads up to identifying areas of efficiency improvement to reduce production costs.

    Thanks in advance !

  6. Today profitable enough vlazhivat capital in farm development. Only need to correctly determine the choice of fields of activity . Each farmer will be indispensable for garden tools made ​​of galvanized steel and plastic , as well as Snow and gardening tools which is useful on any farm or for a person who is engaged in agricultural activities . It is advantageous to make the purchase of equipment in one place , significant savings and benefits .

  7. Loved the post. I was fascinated by seeing corn fields on my drive to work in Texas and was shocked when it look like the plants were left to dry and die. Now I know it is to harvest them. Thank you so much for this information and great videos. I can now say I know how the corn gets harvested. 🙂

  8. Hi Brian. I googled for a video clip on how a Combine Harvester worked, to show my preschool class of 3-5 year olds. I found yours which was just perfect to show an excited bunch of kids from Johannesburg, South Africa who have never seen one. They loved it. The boys now all want to grow up to be a Combine Harvester driver!
    Thank you!

  9. Hello Brian. . .my wife and I just moved to Wisconsin from New York City, and we are wondering about the differences between sweet corn and grain corn, green stalks versus brown stalks, why they are not harvesting now, combines, tractors, grain elevators, etc., and your site has helped us understand EVERYTHING now–most wonderful! This machinery is all magical and powerful. . .thank you for posting all of this, and thank you for your work in keeping people and farm animals fed. Cheers!

  10. I was driving in northern Indiana today and saw some corn fields that had the tops of the corn stalks cut off, the whole field(several acres) were evenly cut. Why do you think it was cut this way? The ears were still on the lower part of the stalks.

    1. You are seeing the female plants of hybrid seed corn production that have had their tassels removed. Depending on the season when you see the detasseled fields, about every fifth row will have its tassels. Those are the male plants. Before the corn is picked as ears, NOT with a combine, the male plants will be destroyed so that their ears do not end up in the harvest. The combination of detasseling the female plants and destroying the male plants before picking ensures that only cross-pollinated ears are harvested.

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