Ploughing is the most traditional of seedbed production techniques. But the rise in popularity of high speed, high-output cultivators over the last few years has seen many farms over-look the mouldboard as an effective means of trash and weed seed burial.
With a tractor and plough set properly, there is much to gain from inverting soil, but it demands attention to detail and a knowledgeable operator.
For example, David Tomlinson, of Swan Farm, Deighton, York, chooses to plough about 80% of his farm, each year.
He says: “Ploughing remains an integral part of my cultivations process, and it’s only in the last few years that I have stopped ploughing for oilseed rape establishment, primarily to help tackle an eelworm problem.”
Mr Tomlinson accepts there are cheaper ways of seedbed preparation, but says the farm’s sandy loams are well suited to inversion.
“I plough to achieve a high quality, clean finish that helps to improve field drainage, it can alleviate any compaction and it contributes to increasing weed control,” he says.
“But the ploughing process is all about attention to detail,” he says. “And one setting won’t suit all fields for the whole season. Be prepared to make adjustments and understand what is going on.”
Equipment in use at Swan Farm includes a Lemken five-furrow EurOpal 8 with C40 bodies and a Lemken Vario press with 45-degree rings, behind his New Holland T6030. Also a keen match ploughman, it is perhaps fair to suggest Mr Tomlinson knows his way around a plough and how to get the best result from it.
“Yes, there are compromises to be made and while output is a consideration, the primary goal is quality of finish,” he says.
“As a guideline, ploughing depth should ideally be two thirds of the furrow width but the depth of topsoil will also dictate some settings,” he says. “I aim for nine inch in depth and a 16-inch furrow – it suits my soil type and my tractor tyre size when running in furrow.”
Mr Tomlinson says furrows should butt up tightly against each other and remain closed, to make it harder for any buried weeds to return to the surface.
“If you change your ploughing depth, then you will need to adjust skimmers too, or risk them being in too deep or too shallow, which means trash will not be properly buried.”
“The rear furrow disc, if fitted, only needs to cut a shallow sharp edge at the top of the furrow wall – if its too deep, this can create an odd shape to the furrow and subsequent passes won’t match up.”
He also warns operators should also consider the effect wearing metal can have on the quality of work.
“If I have fitted a new set of points and wings together, then I will run the points until they are about half worn and then fit a new set of points,” he explains. “This helps to even the wear rates between parts and prevents a new point pulling much deeper than the wing.
“When the second set of points are worn, and the wing is getting down too, I can then refit my half-worn points ahead of replacing the points and wings again.
“I accept ploughing is slower and more costly than min-till systems, but good ploughing can reward in many ways. Properly done, I can offset the cost of chemicals and keep weeds under control.”
This is a view echoed by David Farrow, assistant farm manager at Velcourt’s Woolfox Depot, Stamford, Lincolnshire.
“If you are just going to black over a field, you may as well go straight in with the cultivator and scuffle the top few inches,” he says.
“Ploughing is a fairly expensive task compared to cultivating, but it forms part of our long term weed control policy and soil management strategy. But the process must be done properly.”
Velcourt’s Stamford operation handles 2,700ha of cropping on a variety of farming units which serves up a wide variety of soil types. Such a business demands a degree of flexibility when it comes to cultivations strategies.
While the majority of fields are cultivated with min-till equipment, the plough has an important role to play, often one a one-in-five year basis. And Mr Farrow expects ploughing to be carried out to a high standard.
“It is important to know what you are doing with your plough and how to set up your outfit properly to get the best results,” he says.
“You just can’t cut corners.”
“We are looking to get the maximum amount of cultural control from ploughing, so it is essential trash is correctly buried, furrows match up and ploughing leaves an even surface for any subsequent cultivation passes.”
Traditionally, Velcourt has been using the plough after sugar beet and recently, has extended its use to prepare ground ahead of rye.
“Rye responds well to a ploughed seedbed, and this also creates a useful level of drainage too.”
The lion’s share of ploughing at Velcourt’s Stamford operation is the domain of a 12-furrow Kverneland RW100 pulled by one of the farm’s two Quadtrac STX535s. It is an implement which has been in use at Stamford for about eight years and handles around 500ha of ploughing each season.
A smaller six-furrow Besson reversible is also in the machinery fleet for use with wheeled tractors, should there be a requirement to plough when the Quadtracs are fully engaged in cultivations and drilling.
“We aim for a ploughing depth of 8-9 inches and with furrow widths of 14 inches on heavy land,” he says. “We are not chasing output, but having a big plough with plenty of power up front does deliver a useful amount of productivity.”
He says the relatively narrow furrow width makes it easier to turn the heavier soils, creating a useful closure and making it harder for weeds to grow through to the surface.
“We’ve found a wider furrow can reduce the quality of work done,” he says. “And ploughing on-land means the tracks don’t smear the furrow bottom.”
Having a rubber-tracked crawler with identical track widths front and rear makes it easy to set up the front furrow width. And with auto steering guidance on the Quadtrac providing A-B lines on-land, left and right-hand bodies are matched with as much accuracy as running
in the furrow.
Mr Farrow says mouldboard design and skim settings are essential for good inversion and trash burial, as is having the correct forward speed.
“It is too easy to plough too fast, throwing soil and making it look like you are doing a good job.
“Too high a forward speed will see skims throw material over the mouldboard in front and this will affect ploughing quality and trash burial,” he says. “Skims must not be too deep, or too shallow – they just need to peel trash off the edge of the furrow.
“It is important to have a good operator in the cab who can identify what is going on with the plough as soil types and field topography change,” he says. “If you are not prepared to get off the seat a few times and make adjustments to maintain a high quality finish, then
you’re wasting time and money by ploughing.
“We believe there will always be a place for the plough in our rotation, though we make sure our kit properly set-up for the soil types and field conditions.”