Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


A swather, also known as a windrower, is a self-propelled agricultural implement that harvests all types of hay. The introduction of the swather radically altered harvesting techniques in the Great Plains (particularly in South Dakota, North Dakota, northern Nebraska, and southeastern Colorado, where haying is prevalent) and throughout the world. The machine was refined and marketed by an agricultural implement manufacturer in central Kansas whose considerable economic clout resulted directly from the popularity of the swather.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries hay was grown widely on mixed farming operations. It was a profitable crop because it was consumed as feed by horses and mules in cities and rural areas. However, its harvest was time-consuming. A different implement was necessary for each step in the process: mowing the hay, collecting the mowed crop into narrow, elongated piles (windrows) in order to dry it, and–to facilitate drying–"raking" or turning over the windrows. Dry hay is critical to preventing molding once the crop is baled and stored. If the hay is stored when damp, the resulting decomposition can eventually generate enough heat to cause the hay to catch fire.

Hay-harvesting methods were destined to change drastically when Lyle Yost, a Mennonite entrepreneur from Hesston, Kansas, helped form the Hesston Manufacturing Company in 1949. The firm acquired the production rights from a machine-shop owner in Iowa to a device that single-handedly accomplished all the tasks of hay harvesting. Yost's company introduced the "swather" (later renamed the "windrower") in the mid-1950s. In addition to mowing, windrowing, and being self-propelled, the swather has an innovation that enables hay to dry faster and more thoroughly. As the crop is mowed, the stalks are crushed (known as conditioning), allowing the plant's moisture to evaporate more quickly once the hay is stacked in windrows. Ideally, conditioning hay eliminates the need for raking and protects the protein-rich tips and leaves of harvested plants. Today's windrowers are larger and more sophisticated than earlier models, and their central role in haying remains undiminished.

Based largely on the popularity of the swather, Yost's fledgling company eventually employed well over 1,000 people and became an international force in the implement industry. In 1966 the company was renamed Hesston Corporation. In the late 1980s the business underwent major financial restructuring, but it continues to manufacture agricultural implements as Hay and Forage, Inc. Hesston Corporation and its home community, Hesston, became synonymous with hay harvesting. The town of Hesston was transformed from a small farming hamlet into a prosperous suburban-like community by the company's success. Hesston high school sports teams are known as the Swathers, which says much about the influence of Yost, his company, and his hay harvester.

See also AGRICULTURE: Hay.

Steven V. Foulke Perry, Kansas

Jones, Billy M. Factory on the Plains: Lyle Yost and the Hesston Corporation. Wichita KS: Center for Entrepreneurship, Wichita State University, 1987.

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