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Thread: Circa 1800s grain transportation question

  1. #1
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    Circa 1800s grain transportation question

    If I were Pa Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie, and I had a ten acre field of wheat, how would I know how many wagons and horses I would need to transport the grain to the big city?

    I've worked with numbers on the internet, and it looks crazy. It looks like an acre of cropland gives you 3000 pounds of grain (roughly) but that a team of two horses can only pull about 300 pounds if you drive them all day. Thus, you need 20 horses for each acre you grow. This seems crazy high to me.

    Does anyone know a good resource to find reliable numbers?

  2. #2
    professional dilettante Lakey's Avatar
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    I don't know the answer to your question, but I would bet that crop yields were a LOT lower 200 years ago than they are now. With mechanized planting and harvesting, not to mention modern fertilizers and pesticides (and genetically engineered crops), I wouldn't be surprised to learn that grain yields are an order of magnitude higher now, if not more.

  3. #3
    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Patty View Post
    If I were Pa Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie, and I had a ten acre field of wheat, how would I know how many wagons and horses I would need to transport the grain to the big city?

    I've worked with numbers on the internet, and it looks crazy. It looks like an acre of cropland gives you 3000 pounds of grain (roughly) but that a team of two horses can only pull about 300 pounds if you drive them all day. Thus, you need 20 horses for each acre you grow. This seems crazy high to me.

    Does anyone know a good resource to find reliable numbers?
    First, isn't that why people build silos? They didn't transport all their grain at once, I don't think.

    Also, those numbers can't be right -- is that on a grain cart? Horses pulled wagon trains across the country, which weigh a lot more than 300lbs, and even if you have four horses that math wouldn't add up. Pulling from where? Attached to where? Also driving meaning what, if you see what I'm saying. You can put two people on the back of a horse and that's 300lbs. An empty carriage horse carriage weighs more than 300 lbs and a single horse can pull that along for hours.

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    I was also about to mention that horses thing. Two horses can sure pull a hell of a lot heavier load than 300 pounds.

    Equally pertinent is a more specific date in the 1800s where your story is set. A lot of technological and transportation development took place during that century. Plus, the geographical location also means a lot.

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  5. #5
    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    Also you might check with the closest Amish/Mennonite community that uses horse-drawn transport. Just occurred to me there are people doing this now.

  6. #6
    Rewriting My Destiny Cyia's Avatar
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    Your numbers are way off in regards to how much horses can pull. A single horse can flat carry riders who weigh in excess of 300 lbs, teaming two and giving them a wheeled cart will give you a lot more towing than that.

    Try googling a history of the grange, which was organized to help farmers in the 1800's with grain distribution and sales. You might find what you need there.

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    OK, I've looked at my websites a little more. The 300 pounds apparently is what a 2 horse team of draft horses can pull on the ground (no wheels) for 8 hours. It changes dramatically (15 fold) with wheels and over shorter times.

    A fully loaded wagon is more like 4000 pounds, but there are other issues like how much of that weight is food for the horses. (30%, but the time isn't specified, and presumably the longer they pull, the more of the load has to be for them.)

    Even so, I can imagine only transporting one or two acres worth of food on a cart with two horses - But, maybe this is right. I would have thought it would be much higher.
    Last edited by Patty; 12-02-2017 at 03:55 AM.

  8. #8
    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Patty View Post
    OK, I've looked at my websites a little more. The 300 pounds apparently is what a 2 horse team of draft horses can pull on the ground (no wheels) for 8 hours. It changes dramatically (15 fold) with wheels and over shorter times.

    A fully loaded wagon is more like 4000 pounds, but there are other issues like how much of that weight is food for the horses. (30%, but the time isn't specified, and presumably the longer they pull, the more of the load has to be for them.)

    Even so, I can imagine only transporting one or two acres worth of food on a cart with two horses - But, maybe this is right. I would have thought it would be much higher.
    I don't see how it could be higher -- how big can a cart be? That's why there are silos. I don't think people tended to sell everything all at once, or do now.

    As blackbird asks though, when is this? Where are they going? To town? To a train depot or a grain elevator? To a local market?

  9. #9
    I have a bunch of agriculture books, but a big chunk of them are either ancient times (Rome, China, etc) or the mid-19th c/early 20th c, and most of them are more the smallholder/husbandy kind of books, rather than the monoculture farming that we think of.

    From "Three Acres and Liberty" (1907), which is 100 years off from your time period, but still pre-modern in terms of pesticides and plant genetics--- in a "Western vs Eastern Wheat Yields Compared" table--

    United States Census in the bonanza farm states shows that the yield of wheat was:
    Minnesota 14.5 bu/acre
    North Dakota 13.5 bu/acre
    South Dakota 10.5 bu/acre
    Nebraska 10 bu/acre

    while the following states show
    Connecticut 22 bu/acre
    Rhode Island 21 bu/acre
    Vermont 19 bu/acre
    New York 18 bu/acre
    So, presuming that the weight of a bushel of wheat (60 lbs) is the same now as it was then-- a farmer might get 870 lbs of wheat in 10 acres of Minnesota, and 600 lbs of wheat in 10 acres of Nebraska and 1320 lbs of wheat in Connecticut 110 years ago, and probably less than that 210 years ago.

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    Hi all,

    I avoided the when because it's another world and not completely synced with ours, but close-ish I guess. The time frame could be late 1800s, but no later. Not after 1900.

    The distance and gain (steepness of ascent) I can adjust, and I can adjust the acreage, and the number of carts and teams.

    Definitely organic growing methods, and drought to boot, so the yields will be low. I could have them grow whatever I like which helps too. In terms of the storytelling.

    They don't have a silo but maybe I'll give them one. They sell locally at the markets, and about 16 miles away in the town, and then once a year they trek over the mountains to the big 'ol cities because those city folk need to eat too and the return is better. That's more like 150 miles. But it doesn't need to be that far. I have enough latitude to play with.

    Let me noodle the numbers provided with your excellent help, and feedback, and ideas (Maybe a silo is a really good idea) and I will ask when I have what i think is a workable set of numbers.
    Last edited by Patty; 12-02-2017 at 04:36 AM.

  11. #11
    Resist. Love. Go outside. Marlys's Avatar
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    Maybe take a look at this: Production and Distribution of Cereals of the United States, 1879. A lot of it seems to be big-picture stuff, but there's a chart with average yields per acre for corn and wheat in different parts of the country that might be useful.

  12. #12
    Resist. Love. Go outside. Marlys's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Patty View Post
    Hi all,

    I avoided the when because it's another world and not completely synced with ours, but close-ish I guess. The time frame could be late 1800s, but no later. Not after 1900.

    The distance and gain (steepness of ascent) I can adjust, and I can adjust the acreage, and the number of carts and teams.

    Definitely organic growing methods, and drought to boot, so the yields will be low. I could have them grow whatever I like which helps too. In terms of the storytelling.

    They don't have a silo but maybe I'll give them one. They sell locally at the markets, and about 16 miles away in the town, and then once a year they trek over the mountains to the big 'ol cities because those city folk need to eat too and the return is better. That's more like 150 miles. But it doesn't need to be that far. I have enough latitude to play with.

    Let me noodle the numbers provided with your excellent help, and feedback, and ideas (Maybe a silo is a really good idea) and I will ask when I have what i think is a workable set of numbers.
    If your world is roughly based on Pa Ingalls' time (~1860s-1900), I doubt many people would need to schlep their own grain 150 miles. Inland, there'd be railroads and/or canals; the coasts and Great Lakes would have shipping. If you don't want your people to have this kind of technology, maybe dial back the reference period another 50-100 years to the days before railroads and canals flourished.

  13. #13
    Feeling lucky, Query? jclarkdawe's Avatar
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    Prior to railroads and canals, grain was transported as whiskey. Economically that made sense, but you still didn't raise a large grain to whiskey crop because transport was so expensive. You'd raise enough grain for household use, and a bit more to generate some cash.

    If you're growing 10 acres of grain, you have to factor in your transport cost to whether it would be profitable. But your transport by horse and wagon would be to the nearest railroad or canal. And it wouldn't be too far. You didn't farm grain if you were too far from transport.

    Wagons would more likely use oxen rather then horses. Oxen need less grain so you'd be using up less of your crop to transport. You'd use a team of probably six oxen. Wagon would weigh about 1500 pounds empty and would hold about 2,000 pounds, maybe more depending upon the distance and slopes involved. It seems to me there's quite a few historical descriptions of the transport, but I don't know how much is on the internet.

    Jim Clark-Dawe
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    Scribe of the girls in the basement Marissa D's Avatar
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    I'm currently reading the new bio of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Prairie Fires--it's excellent, and talks a great deal about farming in the places where the Ingallses and Wilders lived.

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    Marlys - - -

    Hmmm. I love the idea of suggesting that railroads might be built in the near future (plans on the drawing board), and the impact of this on culture. Awesome.

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    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    Before railroads, the only way to efficiently transport large volumes of grain (or any other commodity) at once was by water. That's one reason why big cities were nearly all located on navigable rivers, and why canals were so important. Supplying a major market solely by overland transport -- over mountains at that! -- was not really possible, economically or logistically, before railroads.

    And grain, once harvested, has always been stored long-term. The modern stereotype of a silo -- that round wooden tower -- only dates to the 1870s, but other forms of silo have been around since the dawn of agriculture. They're a vital component of a grain-based economy. Your people MUST have silos of some sort, otherwise they're going to starve pretty quickly.

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    Thank you!

    I have given them silos now, as part of the place description. This solves a few problems.

    My caravan was modeled after the silk road, but with more of a Pa Ingalls feel. I'll be curious if this is dead in the water, benbenberi.

    The cities are already coastal, with ports, but they are on largely non-arable land. The caravan brings lumber, ores, grains, wool, etc - - - - - Cattle drovers come along too - - - - Possibly the mileage should be reduced. (...I've never liked it when a 'world' is only 30 miles across ... even though I know it is not the whole world - when the setting is restricted to that it raises other problems in my mind.)

    Perhaps Pa Ingalls is on the caravan to feed the cattle and horses (and people), and the economic rationale for the caravan in the first place is the ores etc.
    Last edited by Patty; 12-03-2017 at 01:17 AM.

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    I just saw Jim Clark Dawe's response.

    Thank you!!

    This is exactly what I need to know. I'm going to bring in some oxen, I think, and perhaps rework the reason for the farmers to be on the caravan in the first place (Is it logical that they are providing the feed for the people and other animals? they are the 'food truck...?)

    For the broader caravan (Pa Ingalls' neighbors, who each do their own thing) I think ores must make sense, and some textiles also seems logical to me, and sugar in some form. Nuts have a good return.
    Last edited by Patty; 12-03-2017 at 01:26 AM.

  19. #19
    Feeling lucky, Query? jclarkdawe's Avatar
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    The reason you go with oxen is they survive best on grazing. Very minimal amount of graze is needed to keep them in flesh. Mules need grain, but a lot less then horses. You want to limit the amount of grain you're transporting because it's not cost efficient. To give you a modern day example, you could pack 100 gallons of gas into your car to go across the country. That weighs about 800 pounds and takes up a lot of space. Instead, you pick up gas as you need it along the way.

    Caravans are unusual. They exist in some cultures as an alternative to stable living. But by and large, humans like to live in a stable environment. In other words, we are most likely to become farmers rather then hunters. And farmers are people who stay where they are other then most people.

    That being said, farmers did engage in some parts of the country in an annual trip to market. For instance, in the 1700's, farmers from interior New Hampshire would travel to Portsmouth, about 50 to 100 miles, once a year. Trip to Portsmouth included freight that would sell in Portsmouth and make a profit. Return trip was with supplies to get through the upcoming year.

    Remember that the more processed the product, the cheaper it is to transport and the more you get for it. In other words, apples can be good, but cider is better, and hard cider is even better. Sheep are good, but wool is better, and yarn is best. (Advantage of sheep is they can walk.) Each farmer would bring what would gain him the most money. If you didn't have enough of your own, you might pool with your neighbors.

    Also remember that there is a lot of change in transportation. Thirty miles in 1800 was a day's journey or longer. Now many people commute one way more then that.

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  20. #20
    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Patty View Post
    My caravan was modeled after the silk road, but with more of a Pa Ingalls feel. I'll be curious if this is dead in the water, benbenberi.
    The Silk Road was largely a route to transport high-value goods -- silk, spices, dye goods, jewels, highly finished luxury goods, etc. Towns on the Silk Road, like towns anywhere else, had to feed themselves from primarily local reserves because no one was going to transport a hungry town's worth of high-volume, low-value bulk commodities long distance on camel or mule-back at an affordable price.

    You wouldn't carry ores long distance by caravan either. You'd want to process them as close to the mine as possible -- the most profitable mines always had a good supply of charcoal or coal nearby to fuel the smelting works. Once you've reduced the raw ore to workable metal you can transport it much more efficiently. Still best done by water, of course.

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    Thanks!! Both.

  22. #22
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    Quote Originally Posted by benbenberi View Post
    The Silk Road was largely a route to transport high-value goods -- silk, spices, dye goods, jewels, highly finished luxury goods, etc. Towns on the Silk Road, like towns anywhere else, had to feed themselves from primarily local reserves because no one was going to transport a hungry town's worth of high-volume, low-value bulk commodities long distance on camel or mule-back at an affordable price.
    This was my thought as well, with the perhaps needless observation that the long-distance transport was of things people at the destination couldn't get otherwise. Wheat didn't need to be transferred long distances until somebody, somewhere, stopped growing it themselves (for example, eastern industrialised cities in the US) or the population boomed in an area it didn't grow well (the Rocky Mountains and California gold rush). A pre-industrial society would have been more likely to practice mixed farming for their own consumption or for sale within a few miles of where it was grown. Think about local farmers markets, for example, although nowadays they've increased dramatically in their sophistication.

    Honestly, as a good Iowa boy I'm surprised by lostlibrarian's data that the Eastern states out-produced the Midwest as late as 1907. That's not the narrative we grew up believing.
    Last edited by Chris P; 12-03-2017 at 07:19 AM.
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    On ore-processing, be aware of the dangers of smelting/refining near living spaces. The ancient copper smelting areas in the Sinai show heavy metal pollution to this day, some 6000 years or more after they were first developed.

    Fuel is a critical resource. How does this city heat itself, cook food, boil water, and melt metal? Wood doesn't have the energy requirements for lots of metal, glass, and ceramic manufacturing, one reason why India & Africa small industries and domestic uses cause deforestation. Steppe and plains cultures with large herbivore herds had access to dried dung, which can serve as well as wood (and be boosted with air bellows). Coal and charcoal offer more useful energy, at the cost of extreme pollution.

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    Feeling lucky, Query? jclarkdawe's Avatar
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    Chris P. -- Here's the map you grew up with --

    http://etc.usf.edu/maps/pages/3000/3054/3054.htm

    The Northeast could out-produce the Midwest per acre, but not that many acres were used for wheat cultivation (or any other farming other then sheep farming at that period). Notice how production, despite the railroads, was still based more around water.

    Jim Clark-Dawe
    Last edited by jclarkdawe; 12-03-2017 at 08:20 AM.
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    [QUOTE=Patty;10314426
    They sell locally at the markets, and about 16 miles away in the town, and then once a year they trek over the mountains to the big 'ol cities because those city folk need to eat too and the return is better.
    [/QUOTE]
    I do have one question, which might affect a farmer's ability to make this trip in person. 'Over the mountains'. How high are the mountains and when does snow start falling in the passes? Because if the way is impassable, or hard to struggle through, in the winter, the caravan would likely happen in the late spring or summer - exactly when the farmers should be farming, so that they have enough to eat for the following year.
    Unless this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip for the farmer, an excursion or adventure, (which raises the question of 'why?') wouldn't he be likelier to sell his grain to a third-party who would have the stock and equipment to regularly make the trip? A broker or dealer or such? Then he could stay home, doing what he does best.

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