For thousands of years, farmers have relied on cultivators to maximize the fertility of their land. Whether you’re working a small garden or a multi-acre farm, cultivation is essential for ensuring that you’re able to maximize your yields each season.

Today, we’re going to cover everything you could ever want to know about cultivators, from their vast history to the diverse types of cultivators, their applications, and what to look for as farming enters the 21st century. 

The History of the Farm Cultivator

Cultivators are among the earliest tools used in civilization. There’s evidence to suggest that as far back as 3000 BC, primitive cultivators were being used in India. Other cultures, from the Han Dynasty of China to the Greeks and Romans, used cultivators to prepare their soil for planting, remove weeds from their crops, or both. 

old cultivator

The Romans added wheels to their cultivators, which dramatically improved their ease of use and effectiveness. As cultivators made their way west, new developments would increase the speed and utility of the farm cultivator. 

Cultivators went unchanged until the Industrial Revolution, when inventors like Jethro Tull and Eli Whitney devised new ways to make farming easier and increase crop yield. Tull’s horse-drawn hoe and mechanical plow paved the ground for the motorized cultivators that farmers today use to tend to their crops. 

It wasn’t long after the invention of the tractor that Australian farmer Arthur Clifford Howard attached a cultivator to a tractor, creating the first powered rotary cultivator in 1912. About 20 years later, the concept of the powered tiller made its way stateside, and C.W. Kelsey began producing cultivators under his Rototiller brand. 

Today, cultivators come in many sizes and styles, ranging from hand tillers and powered walk-behind machines for tilling a home garden to massive commercial farming equipment capable of carrying out different soil preparation and weeding tasks on a large scale.

Different Types of Cultivators

Whether you’re tending to a 100-acre farm or a small plot in your backyard, knowing the distinct types of cultivators is vital to ensure you’re selecting the right tool for the job.

Bar Point Cultivators

A bar point cultivator is an often-used agriculture machine used for the primary tillage of the soil. These cultivators have horizontal bars mounted to the frame, and each bar is fitted with tilling implements. There are several types of bar point cultivators to meet the needs of various kinds of tilling. 

Spring Loaded Cultivators

A spring-loaded cultivator is a simple and effective cultivator essential for seedbed preparation. This tool has a series of adjustable tines that you can customize depending on crop row spacing. Each tine is equipped with a heavy spring that absorbs shock for breaking in new dirt or tilling incredibly rocky or difficult soil. 

Rigid Tine Cultivators

Rigid tine cultivators, or chisel plows, are heavy-duty versions of spring tine cultivators used for deep tillage. These cultivators are ideal for ripping through soil that’s littered with rocks or roots, and they can loosen the dirt to greater depths than other cultivators.

Vibrashank Cultivators

A Vibrashank cultivator is a heavy tiller with a frame loaded with tines. The entire cultivator vibrates as it’s worked through the soil. This allows it to work the ground thoroughly without packing the soil, as many other large cultivators tend to do. 

Disc Harrows

Disc harrows are versatile farm cultivators that can prepare the soil for planting or break into new ground. 

This machine features multiple sets of discs mounted in groups called gangs. The gangs are mounted to a heavy steel frame and pulled by a drawbar or 3-point linkage.

Disc harrows are especially useful for rocky, unforgiving soil where you need a heavy-duty cultivator to break up the ground. They can also make quick work of land that’s heavily thatched, as the blades of the plow can slice through the undergrowth easily. 

Disc harrows come in three different configurations: offset discs, tandem discs, and speed discs. 

Offset Discs

Offset disc harrows are the most straightforward and most affordable type, with gangs of discs running perpendicular to the frame. The straightforward design of these cultivators makes it easy to maintain them, and their affordability makes it a popular choice a century after its invention.

Tandem Discs

Tandem disc harrows are an improved version of the offset disc, with gangs of discs in an X-shape. Where the offset disc doesn’t perform well when negotiating turns, the pattern of a tandem disc machine ensures the harrow can work efficiently through turns, working all the soil equally.

Speed Discs

The “sport model” of the three types, speed disc harrows allow you to pull the plough at greater speeds than other styles, so you’re able to prepare more soil in less time. 

Tine and Chain Harrows

Tine and chain harrows provide a polished finishing touch to the soil that’s been cultivated already by heavier rough machinery like an offset harrow or rigid tine cultivator. This tool has a variety of small tines and chains that work through large clods of dirt left behind by the previous cultivator. 

Sometimes, farmers will run a tine and chain harrow behind a larger piece of equipment to accomplish primary and secondary tillage in a single pass.

Rotary Tiller

Rotary cultivators, also known as rotary tillers or rototillers, are among the oldest motorized cultivator designs. Rotary tillers have a spinning drum with tines that dig into the dirt as the drum spins. 

Walk-behind versions with small two or four-stroke engines are popular with homeowners and landscapers. For commercial farming, the tractor’s PTO provides power to the tines. 

Duckfoot Cultivator

This distinctive cultivator gets its name from the shovel-like tines, which resemble a duck’s foot. This type of agriculture machine is for primary tillage. It cuts through weeds and rubbish and buries them as it passes through the soil. Duckfoot cultivators are also useful for mixing fertilizer and other organic materials into the soil before planting.  

The Anatomy of a Cultivator

While there are several distinct types of cultivators to suit the various needs of the field, most cultivators are similar in that they share the same essential components. Let’s take a closer look at the parts that make up a cultivator machine.

Frame

The frame of a cultivator is a component that every cultivator shares. Frames are always made from high gauge tubular steel for durability. The frame will have a linkage component to mount to a tractor, and they usually feature several bars that run horizontally on the frame. 

The actual cultivating equipment, e.g., tines, discs, and sweeps, are mounted to the horizontal bars on the frame, and they enter the soil as the cultivator is dragged through the field. 

cultivator up close

Wheels 

Virtually all cultivators have at least two wheels mounted to the frame to allow the cultivator to move smoothly through the field. Cultivators with rear-mounted components usually employ a caster wheel at the rear of the cultivator to allow for control of the tool. 

Tines 

At the heart of all cultivators are tines. Tines are the implements that enter the soil and do the work of cultivating the field. Depending on the cultivator machine, the design of the tines may be different, but they all follow the same basic working principles. Most tines are curved pieces of steel with a sharp point that enters the soil to aerate it, prepare it for planting, or remove weeds. 

Colters

A colter is an implement that’s common on most plows that run in front of the other tools to prepare the soil for them. In its simplest terms, a colter functions similarly to a pizza cutter. It’s a circular blade that turns through the ground as the plow is pulled, breaking up roots and plant matter while creating a clean furrow.

Most colters follow this disc-like configuration. Some colters are notched, allowing the colter to cut through denser rubbish and plant matter. These implements can be adjusted, allowing you to customize the depth of the cut. 

Disc Hillers

A disc hiller is like a colter because it’s a circular, rolling blade. These concave blades are typically mounted on a slight angle, and they’re used to prune weeds away from crop plants as they grow. 

Disc hillers can cut weeds and cover them with tilled soil effectively, and they’re used before in-row cultivating tools. These implements must be used carefully, as they can damage the root system of crop plants if the disc hiller is running too deeply or too close to the crop row.

Linkage 

A large farming machine intended to cultivate large fields is almost always towed behind a tractor. The three-point linkage is the point on the farming machine that secures the cultivator to the tractor and connects it to the tractor’s PTO. 

Depending on the manufacturer, a three-point linkage looks a bit like a triangle, or the letter A. The two lower arms of the linkage connect to the tractor’s hydraulic system, and they can lift, lower, or tilt the farming machine being towed behind the tractor. 

The top link is independent of the hydraulic system. It sets the angle of the agriculture machine being towed, and it functions as the primary tow point for the equipment. 

Engine

In the case of smaller walk-behind cultivators, a small engine delivers power to the tines. These engines range from 25cc to upwards of 300cc depending on the size of the machine. Both gasoline and electric versions are available, with gas versions delivering more power. 

Cultivator Applications

At their heart, this agriculture machine prepares the soil for new planting. However, there are several functions that a cultivator can serve. 

Improves Soil Structure

Traffic and rain are both enemies of soil because they cause the surface soil to become compacted. When soil is compacted, it doesn’t allow water or air to reach plant roots, and it prevents drainage of whatever water can penetrate beyond the surface. 

The primary function of a cultivator is to break up this top layer of soil, allowing air and water to penetrate to plant roots and encouraging proper drainage.

Weed Management 

Weeds are an enemy of primary crops, and they must be carefully managed to ensure a fruitful harvest. Cultivators can effectively remove weeds at their roots and turn new soil over the top of the roots that have been pulled. This allows the weeds to decompose, adding nutrients and organic matter back into the ground, feeding the primary crops in the process.

Some cultivators are designed to allow weeding within a crop row to eliminate new weeds that sprout up as the main crop is already growing. 

Creating Rows

Once the soil is aerated and any weeds have been turned over, a cultivator can prepare the field for planting by building a seedbed. Blades or tines mounted to the cultivator can create a trench for laying a line of seeds. Furrowed soil on either side of the trench can be pushed over the seeds once they’re planted. 

Emerging Technology in Cultivators

As simple machines, the farm cultivation industry is rarely turned on its ear by game-changing technology. In most ways, the cultivator your great grandfather used is quite like a farming machine you’d use today. 

However, there are a few areas where technology has dramatically improved the efficiency of cultivators, and they show how farming is moving forward in the modern age.

Guided Hitch System 

One of the most significant challenges for farmers is keeping their rows straight as they prepare a field for planting. All it takes is an inch or two to throw off your rows, and keeping your rows straight used to be a painstaking process of constantly looking back and forward to ensure you maintained the row. 

Many manufacturers, including John Deere and Steketee, have released guide systems that use cameras, GPS, or both to maintain the row as the tractor drives at speed. If the cultivator ever comes off a row, the system moves side to side to compensate for this movement and keep the cultivator on its row. 

This modern technology allows operators to prepare fields more quickly and eliminates the concentration that was required when things were done the old-fashioned way. 

Robotic and AI Crop Detection 

Weed control has always been critical for farmers, and the emergence of “superweeds” that have developed immunity to commercial herbicides have made weed control even more critical. Thankfully, robotics and artificial intelligence are rising to meet the challenges of these new weeds. 

Weeding a field is especially difficult when seedlings first sprout. It’s tough to accurately identify the primary crop from nearby weeds, making weeding even more challenging. New robotic systems use cameras to identify the target crop, removing only the weeds.

To accurately discern the target crop from outliers, the seeds are coated in an inert fluorescent material that produces a faint glow as seedlings break through the surface. The coating is completely non-toxic and doesn’t affect the crops. 

So, why the coating? Camera systems on the cultivator can recognize the colour, and it removes anything in the area that doesn’t exhibit the fluorescence of the primary crop. 

Other versions of this technology involve artificial intelligence. Instead of recognizing the special color of the primary crop, the cameras recognize the primary crop based on machine learning garnered from thousands of images of the target crop. The cultivator removes everything from the row that it doesn’t recognize as the primary crop. 

Pros & Cons of Cultivators

Using a cultivator provides significant benefits for landowners and consistently produces a fertile bed for their crops. There are some inherent drawbacks to using a cultivator, so here’s what to expect when considering their usage. 

Pros

  • Quickly prepares large fields for planting
  • Economical with low long-term ownership costs
  • Can be adjusted to suit a variety of tasks 
  • Most have rudimentary designs that are easy to repair and maintain

Cons

  • Repeated tilling degrades soil health and depletes nutrients
  • Can damage root systems if tilling blades are running too deeply
  • Most require a large tractor to power the equipment

Frequently Asked Questions

 

What is a cultivator used for?

Cultivators prepare fields and gardens for planting. They exist in many forms, including hand tools, tractor accessories, and self-propelled versions powered by gasoline or electric engines. Depending on the type of cultivator, the machine can aerate the soil, prepare seed rows for planting, and remove weeds growing amongst the primary crops.

How do you use a cultivator machine?

Cultivator machines connect to tractors via three-point linkage. The tractor drives through the field, pulling the cultivator behind it. As the cultivator passes through the field, a line of tines, discs, or blades passes through the ground, aerates the soil, prepares it for planting, and removes weeds. 

What are the machines used in farming? 

For commercial farming, farmers rely on various tools to prepare their land for planting and harvesting crops. The most useful machines on a farm include tractors, plows, combine harvesters, harrows, rototillers, and levelers.

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