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From Plow to Plentiful: The Most Important Inventions in Agricultural History

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Agriculture is the foundation of human civilization. Throughout history, the quest for more efficient and productive methods of farming has led to the invention of countless tools and technologies. These inventions have not only revolutionized agriculture but have also played a pivotal role in shaping societies and economies. In this comprehensive exploration, we will delve into some of the most important inventions related to agriculture that have had a profound and lasting impact on the way we grow and harvest food.

The Wheel and Axle: Unlocking Mobility and Productivity

The wheel and axle, one of the earliest inventions in human history, had a significant impact on agriculture. This invention, which dates back to around 3500 BC, revolutionized transportation, making it possible to move heavy loads and machinery more efficiently. In agriculture, the wheel and axle played a crucial role in the development of carts, wagons, and plows, enabling farmers to transport goods and cultivate larger areas of land.

The Plow: Cultivating the Earth’s Riches

The plow is arguably one of the most iconic agricultural inventions. Its origins trace back to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3000 BC. The plow transformed agriculture by allowing farmers to dig deep furrows in the soil, turning it over and aerating it. This improved soil quality, making it more fertile and suitable for planting a wider variety of crops. The plow’s evolution from simple wooden implements to more sophisticated steel plows in the 19th century drastically increased the efficiency of farming.

Irrigation Systems: Mastering Water Management

Irrigation systems are a testament to human ingenuity in harnessing water for agriculture. The earliest known irrigation systems date back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, around 6000 BC. These systems, which transported water from rivers to fields, allowed farmers to cultivate crops even in arid regions. Over time, irrigation methods have become increasingly sophisticated, incorporating canals, pumps, and drip irrigation systems, ensuring a consistent and controlled water supply for agriculture. Today, modern irrigation practices help feed billions of people around the world.

The Seed Drill: Sowing the Seeds of Precision

The seed drill, invented by Jethro Tull in the early 18th century, represented a leap forward in precision agriculture. Before its invention, seeds were sown by hand, resulting in uneven distribution and often wasteful planting practices. Tull’s seed drill, powered by horses, allowed farmers to sow seeds at a consistent depth and spacing, significantly increasing crop yields. This invention laid the groundwork for modern agricultural practices, emphasizing efficiency and precision in planting.

The Cotton Gin: Revolutionizing Textile Production

While not directly related to food production, the cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney in 1793, had a profound impact on agriculture in the American South. This revolutionary machine automated the process of separating cotton fibers from their seeds, increasing the efficiency of cotton production by a factor of 50. The cotton gin’s success led to the widespread cultivation of cotton as a cash crop, shaping the economic landscape of the Southern United States.

The Mechanical Reaper: Harvesting the Bounty

The mechanical reaper, invented by Cyrus McCormick in the 1830s, mechanized the labor-intensive process of harvesting grain crops such as wheat. This invention featured a cutting mechanism that could efficiently harvest crops at a much faster rate than manual labor. The mechanical reaper played a pivotal role in increasing agricultural productivity during the 19th century and contributed to the expansion of agriculture in the United States.

The Steam Engine: Powering Progress

The steam engine, invented by James Watt in the late 18th century, revolutionized agriculture by providing a reliable source of power for various farming machinery. Steam engines were used to drive pumps for drainage, power threshing machines, and even locomotives for transporting agricultural goods to markets. The introduction of steam power marked a significant shift from human and animal labor to mechanical power, greatly increasing agricultural efficiency.

The Refrigerated Railcar: Expanding Food Distribution

In the late 19th century, the refrigerated railcar, often credited to Gustavus Swift, transformed the way food was transported and distributed. Before its invention, the transportation of perishable goods was a major logistical challenge. Refrigerated railcars allowed for the long-distance shipment of fresh produce, meat, and dairy products, opening up new markets and ensuring a more reliable food supply for urban populations.

Pesticides and Herbicides: Protecting Crops

The development of synthetic pesticides and herbicides in the 20th century marked a significant milestone in agriculture. These chemical compounds, such as DDT and glyphosate, helped farmers combat pests and weeds that threatened their crops. While these chemicals have played a vital role in increasing agricultural productivity, their use has also raised concerns about environmental impact and health risks, leading to ongoing debates and regulatory measures.

The Green Revolution: Feeding the World

The Green Revolution, which began in the mid-20th century, represented a coordinated effort to improve crop yields through the development of high-yielding varieties of staple crops, improved irrigation techniques, and the increased use of fertilizers and pesticides. This agricultural revolution, led by scientists like Norman Borlaug, played a pivotal role in increasing food production worldwide, helping to avert widespread famine and addressing the food needs of a growing global population.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): Customizing Crops

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) represent a more recent innovation in agriculture. GMOs are organisms whose genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. In agriculture, this technology has been used to develop crops with traits such as resistance to pests, tolerance to herbicides, and improved nutritional content. GMOs have sparked considerable debate over their safety, environmental impact, and ethical considerations.

Precision Agriculture: The Digital Age of Farming

The digital revolution has brought agriculture into the realm of big data and advanced technology. Precision agriculture, also known as smart farming, leverages sensors, GPS technology, drones, and data analytics to optimize various aspects of farming, including planting, irrigation, and crop management. This data-driven approach allows farmers to make informed decisions, minimize resource wastage, and increase crop yields, ultimately contributing to sustainable and efficient agriculture.

Throughout history, agriculture has been a dynamic and ever-evolving field driven by innovation and necessity. The inventions discussed in this article represent a sampling of the many remarkable contributions that have shaped the way we grow and harvest food. As we confront contemporary challenges, such as climate change, food security, and sustainable agriculture, the spirit of innovation continues to drive the development of new technologies and approaches that will shape the future of agriculture. Whether through advancements in genetic engineering, digital agriculture, or sustainable practices, the journey of agricultural innovation is far from over. As we look ahead, we can expect agriculture to continue to adapt and transform, ensuring that the world’s growing population has access to safe, nutritious, and abundant food.

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Mammals and Avian Influenza

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Barry Whitworth, DVM, MPH
Senior Extension Specialist

Department of Animal & Food Sciences

Freguson College of Agriculture

At the writing of this article, High Path Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N1 has been detected in over 83 million domestic poultry in the United States (US). The outbreak includes commercial and backyard flocks. Most people are aware that poultry may succumb to Avian Influenza but may not know that other animals can be infected with the virus. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a variety of mammals have been infected with Avian Influenza H5N1 in the US. The list of over 200 mammals includes bears, foxes, skunks, coyotes, etc. Even marine animals such as dolphins and seals have been found with the virus. Current Avian Influenza H5N1 infections in poultry, mammals, and livestock in the US can be found at the Detections of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza website at https://www.aphis.usda.gov/livestock-poultry-disease/avian/avian-influenza/hpai-detections.

Recently, ruminants have been diagnosed with Avian Influenza H5N1 in the US. The World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH) reported that neonatal goats displaying neurological clinical signs and death were positive for Avian Influenza. The farm was located in Stevens County Minnesota. The poultry on the farm had recently been depopulated due to HPAI H5N1. According to AVMA News, ten goats died that ranged in age from 5 to 9 days old. Five of the goat kids tested positive for the virus. The strain of Avian Influenza found in the goats was very similar to the previous HPAI H5N1 strain found in the chickens and ducks. How the goat kids were infected is still under investigation. However, the goats and poultry shared the same area and water source.

Over the past several weeks, veterinarians and dairymen have been reporting unusual illnesses in dairy cattle in Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas. According to AVMA News and other reports, the illness appeared in approximately ten percent of the herd. The USDA reported that the illness had a rapid onset and tended to be in older lactating cattle. Clinical signs noticed were a decrease in appetite and milk production. Cows had thick yellow colostrum like milk. Some cattle had abnormal feces and fevers. Some respiratory signs were noticed. According to veterinarians involved in treating the cattle, the most helpful treatment was intravenous and oral fluids. Most cattle recovered in two to three weeks.

After a variety of test were performed on the cattle with the illness described above, no clear cause of the disease was found. This initiated the USDA, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to begin a disease investigation. On March 25th, they reported that HPAI H5N1 had been found in the dairy cattle in Kansas, and Texas. Since this initial announcement, sick cattle in New Mexico, Idaho, Michigan, and Ohio were confirmed with the virus and other states were awaiting test results. Whether a correlation exists between the HPAI H5N1 diagnosis and illness in the dairy cattle is still to be determined.

HPAI H5N1 causes severe clinical signs in domestic poultry and normally results in high mortality rates. At the writing of this article, clinical signs in cattle have been mild and no cattle have died. For this reason, several groups have proposed that HPAI H5N1 should not be used to reference the disease in cattle. The adoption of Influenza A Virus-Bovine (IAV-B) or Bovine Influenza A Virus has been proposed. IAV-B will be used in the remainder of this article as the name of the virus.

Prevention of IAV-B and/or other foreign animal diseases relies heavily on biosecurity. Livestock producers should have a proper biosecurity protocol in place. One key to biosecurity is to try to prevent contact with wildlife. While this can be difficult, keeping wild birds away from feeding and watering areas should be a priority. For more information on biosecurity, livestock producers should visit The Center for Food Security and Public Health at https://www.cfsph.iastate.edu/.

The finding of IAV-B in dairy cattle has no impact on the safety of US milk and dairy products. Milk from all sick dairy cattle is discarded and pasteurization kills most bacteria, viruses such as IVA-B, and other pathogens.

On April 1, 2024, the CDC reported a positive human case of Avian Influenza H5N1. The person had been close contact with dairy cattle thought to be infected with IAV-B. The patient has conjunctivitis and is recovering. This human infection does not change the CDC’s assessment of H5N1 virus human health risk. The risk continues to be low. However, individuals that deal with animals or birds suspected of having Avian Influenza virus should wear proper protective equipment.

This is a rapidly evolving situation. Further testing will be required to understand the role that HPAI H5N1 virus played or did not play in the above situations. In the meantime, livestock producers who have questions about sick animals should contact their veterinarian. Also, livestock producers should be protecting their livestock with a good biosecurity plan. Livestock producers wanting additional information on IAV-B in ruminants should contact their veterinarian and/or their Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension County Ag Educator.

References

American Veterinary Medical Association (2024, March 27). AVMA News. https://www.avam.org/news.  

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2024 April 1). Highly pathogenic Avian Influenza (H5N1) Virus Infection Reported in a Person in the US. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2024/p0401-avian-flu.html

USDA APHIS (2024, April 1). Detections of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in Dairy Herds: Frequently Asked Questions. https://www.aphis.usda.gov/sites/default/files/hpai-dairy-faqs.pdf.

 World Organization for Animal Health (2024 March 27). WAHIS. https://wahis.woah.org/#/event-management

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Hazards of Backyard Poultry

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Barry Whitworth, DVM, MPH
Senior Extension Specialist, Department of Animal & Food Sciences, Ferguson College of Agriculture

Having backyard poultry is a popular agriculture enterprise. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 0.8 percent of all households in the United States have chickens. People keep chickens for a variety of reasons with table eggs being one of the more common reasons. Unfortunately, some of these poultry producers are not aware of the hazards that come with keeping poultry because many times they carry pathogens but appear healthy.

Chickens are carriers of several zoonotic diseases. These are diseases that can be passed from animals to humans. According to a recent survey in Pennsylvania, a majority of backyard poultry producers were aware of the dangers of avian influenza. However, this study also revealed that far fewer producers were aware of the risk of possible exposure to Salmonella and Campylobacter. The lack of knowledge about the hazards of raising poultry likely contributes to the continued issues of Salmonella outbreaks associated with backyard poultry. In 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1,072 illnesses of Salmonella linked to backyard poultry, and 272 of those patients required hospitalization. Oklahoma reported 43 individuals with the disease.

Direct contact with chickens is not the only way to be exposed to the pathogens they carry. The environment in which they live can be a danger due to air quality and waste in the soil. The air in a poultry coop is composed of dust particles, ammonia, pathogens, poultry droppings, and other materials. Breathing the dust while cleaning a poultry coop has been associated with respiratory issues in poultry workers. One study found that human infections are associated with contact with poultry waste and soil. Backyard poultry producers may be exposed to poultry droppings when cleaning equipment or pens.

Most zoonotic diseases can be prevented. Proper hand hygiene is one of the best disease prevention tools available. According to the Pennsylvania study, most poultry producers wash their hands after having contact with their birds. However, that same study found most poultry producers do not wear gloves or cover their mouths when handling animals or animal manure. Backyard poultry producers should wear proper protective equipment when cleaning equipment and pens.

Poultry producers can protect themselves by following some simple rules.

  • Wash hands with soap and water before and after having any contact with poultry or any area where poultry are located.  If soap is not available, use hand sanitizer.
  • Do not kiss or snuggle birds.
  • Do not allow poultry to enter areas where food and drinks are prepared, served and stored.
  • Do not eat or drink where poultry are located.
  • Cook eggs thoroughly.
  • Clean equipment associated with poultry outdoors.
  • Older adults, pregnant women, children under five, and immunocompromised individuals should be extra careful around poultry.
  • Wear protective clothing, shoes, gloves, and a face mask when cleaning poultry houses.

Having chickens in the backyard can be very rewarding experiences. However, poultry owners should be aware of the potential hazards associated with backyard poultry production and protect themselves. If poultry producers would like more information about hazards associated with backyard poultry, contact your local veterinarian and/or Oklahoma State University County Extension Agriculture Educator. Also, the CDC has a website dedicated to backyard poultry producers’ health. The website can be accessed at https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/pets/farm-animals/backyard-poultry.html.

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Inventions of Agriculture: The Reaper

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Agriculture has been a staple of human society since around 9000 BCE during the Neolithic Era, when humans began developing and cultivating their own food.

For centuries, food production was a slow, tedious process until the invention of agricultural machinery. One such invention was the reaper. Until its time, small grains were harvested by hand, cut with sickles or scythes, hand-raked and tied into sheaves.

While a few had unsuccessfully attempted to create a similar machine, it was Cyrus McCormick who would ultimately be credited with the invention of the first commercially successful reaper in 1831.

McCormick’s invention was a horse-drawn machine used to harvest wheat, a combination between a chariot and a wheelbarrow. He had joined together the earlier harvesting machines into a single, timesaving one. His reaper allowed producers to double their crop size, capable of cutting six acres of oats in just one afternoon. In contrast, it would have taken 12 workers with scythes to do the equivalent in the same amount of time.

McCormick had simply followed in his father’s footsteps. Growing up in Rockbridge County, Virginia, his father had also created several farming implements and even worked to invent a mechanical reaper of his own.

McCormick would patent his invention in July 1834, a year after Obed Hussey had announced the making of a reaper of his own. In 1837, McCormick began manufacturing his machine on his family’s estate.  

In 1847, McCormick recognized Chicago as the future of the agricultural machinery industry. The railroad to Galena was nearing completion, the Illinois and Michigan Canal would soon be open, and a telegraph link to the east was coming. So, in 1847, McCormick, together with his partner and future Chicago mayor Charles M. Gray, purchased three lots on the Chicago River and built a factory where they would produce the reaper. It was the first of many industrial companies that would make their way to the area, making Chicago an industrial leader.

McCormick wasn’t done yet. He purchased an additional 130 acres in Chicago in 1871, but the Great Fire of 1871 threatened to destroy his company when the factory burned. It was his young wife, Nettie Fowler McCormick, who pushed the company forward when she went to the site just days after the fire and ordered the rebuilding of the factory. By 1880, McCormick was the largest machinery producer in Chicago and employment reached 7,000, a whopping fifth of the nation’s total.

McCormick joined the companies of Deering and Plano to form the International Harvester Company in 1902. At its height, the company controlled more than 80 percent of grain harvesting equipment in the world. While the Great Depression would hit Chicago’s agricultural industry hard, McCormick’s invention of the reaper forever changed the face of agriculture.

Resources

Carstensen, Fred. (2005) Agricultural Machinery Industry. Encyclopedia of Chicago. Retrieved from http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/29.html

Cycrus McCormick, Mechanical Reaper. (2022) The National Inventors Hall of Fame. Retrieved from https://www.invent.org/inductees/cyrus-mccormick

Although the author has made every effort to ensure the informa­tion in this article is accurate, this story is meant for informational purposes only and is not a substi­tute for historical documents.

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