A plough (UK) or plow (US; both //) is a tool or farm implement used for initial cultivation to loosen or turn the soil in preparation for sowing seed or planting. Ploughs were traditionally drawn by working animals such as oxen and horses, but in modern farms are drawn by tractors. A plough may be made of wood, iron, or steel frame with an attached blade or stick used to cut and loosen the soil. It has been a basic instrument for most of history, and is one of the most significant inventions. The earliest ploughs were wheelless, with the Romans using a wheelless plough called the aratrum, but Celtic peoples began using wheeled ploughs during the Roman era.
The primary purpose of ploughing is to turn over the upper layer of the soil, bringing fresh nutrients to the surface, while burying weeds and the remains of previous crops and allowing them to decay. As the plough is drawn through the soil, it creates long trenches of fertile soil called furrows. In modern use, a ploughed field is typically left to dry out, and is then harrowed before planting. Ploughing and cultivating a soil homogenises and modifies the upper 12 to 25 centimetres (5 to 10 in) to form a plough layer, where the majority of fine plant feeder roots grow.
Ploughs were initially human-powered, but the process became considerably more efficient once animals were pressed into service. The first animal-powered ploughs were undoubtedly pulled by oxen, and later in many areas by horses and mules, although various other animals have been used for this purpose. The industrial revolution brought steam engines to pull ploughs, ploughing engines or steam tractors, which were gradually superseded by internal-combustion-powered tractors.
Modern competitions take place for ploughing enthusiasts like the National Ploughing Championships in Ireland. Use of the plough has decreased in some areas, often those significantly threatened by soil damage and erosion, in favour of shallower ploughing and other less-invasive conservation tillage techniques.
In older English, as in other Germanic languages, the plough was traditionally known by other names, e.g. Old English sulh, Old High German medela, geiza, huohilī(n), Old Norse arðr (Swedish årder), and Gothic hōha, all presumably referring to the ard (scratch plough). The term plough, as used today, was not common until 1700.
The modern word plough comes from Old Norse plógr, and therefore Germanic, but it appears relatively late (it is not attested in Gothic), and is thought to be a loanword from one of the north Italic languages. The German cognate is "Pflug", the Dutch is "ploeg" and the Swedish is "plog". In many Slavic languages and also Rumanian the word is "plug". Words with the same root appeared with related meanings: in Raetic plaumorati "wheeled heavy plough" (Pliny, Nat. Hist. 18, 172), and in Latin plaustrum "farm cart", plōstrum, plōstellum "cart", and plōxenum, plōximum "cart box". The word must have originally referred to the wheeled heavy plough, which was common in Roman northwestern Europe by the 5th century AD.
The diagram (right) shows the basic parts of the modern plough:
- hitch (Brit: hake)
- vertical regulator
- coulter (knife coulter pictured, but disk coulter common)
- chisel (foreshare)
- share (mainshare)
Other parts not shown or labelled include the frog (or frame), runner, landside, shin, trashboard, and stilts (handles).
On modern ploughs and some older ploughs, the mouldboard is separate from the share and runner, so these parts can be replaced without replacing the mouldboard. Abrasion eventually destroys all parts of a plough that come into contact with the soil.
When agriculture was first developed, soil was turned using simple hand-held digging sticks and hoes. These were used in highly fertile areas, such as the banks of the Nile where the annual flood rejuvenates the soil, to create drills (furrows) to plant seeds in. Digging sticks, hoes, and mattocks were not invented in any one place, and hoe-cultivation must have been common everywhere agriculture was practiced. Hoe-farming is the traditional tillage method in tropical or sub-tropical regions, which are characterised by stony soils, steep slope gradients, predominant root crops, and coarse grains grown at wide distances apart. While hoe-agriculture is best suited to these regions, it is used in some fashion everywhere. Instead of hoeing, some cultures use pigs to trample the soil and grub the earth.
Some ancient hoes, like the Egyptian mr, were pointed and strong enough to clear rocky soil and make seed drills, which is why they are called hand-ards. However, the domestication of oxen in Mesopotamia and the Indus valley civilization, perhaps as early as the 6th millennium BC, provided mankind with the draft power necessary to develop the larger, animal-drawn true ard (or scratch plough). The earliest evidence of a ploughed field in the world was found at the Indus Valley Civilization site of Kalibangan (c. 2800 BC). Archeological finds in Prague, Czech Republic, push the oldest known ploughed field even further, to 3500–3800 BC. A terracotta model of the early ards was found at Banawali, giving historians insight into the form of the tool. The ard remains easy to replace if it were to become damaged and easy to find materials to recreate.
The earliest was the bow ard, which consists of a draft-pole (or beam) pierced by a thinner vertical pointed stick called the head (or body), with one end being the stilt (handle) and the other a share (cutting blade) that was dragged through the topsoil to cut a shallow furrow suitable for most cereal crops. The ard does not clear new land well, so hoes or mattocks must be used to pull up grass and undergrowth, and a hand-held, coulter-like ristle could be used to cut deeper furrows ahead of the share. Because the ard leaves a strip of undisturbed earth between the furrows, the fields are often cross-ploughed lengthwise and widthwise, and this tends to form squarish fields (Celtic fields).:42 The ard is best suited to loamy or sandy soils that are naturally fertilised by annual flooding, as in the Nile Delta and Fertile Crescent, and to a lesser extent any other cereal-growing region with light or thin soil. By the late Iron Age, ards in Europe were commonly fitted with coulters.
To grow crops regularly in less-fertile areas, it was once believed that the soil must be turned to bring nutrients to the surface. A major advance for this type of farming was the turnplough, also known as the mouldboard plough (UK), moldboard plow (US), or frame-plough. A coulter (or skeith) could be added to cut vertically into the ground just ahead of the share (in front of the frog), a wedge-shaped cutting edge at the bottom front of the mouldboard with the landside of the frame supporting the undershare (below-ground component). The mouldboard plough was introduced in the 18th century and was a major advance in plough technology.
The upper parts of the frame carry (from the front) the coupling for the motive power (horses), the coulter and the landside frame. Depending on the size of the implement, and the number of furrows it is designed to plough at one time, a forecarriage with a wheel or wheels (known as a furrow wheel and support wheel) may be added to support the frame (wheeled plough). In the case of a single-furrow plough there is only one wheel at the front and handles at the rear for the ploughman to steer and manoeuvre it.
When dragged through a field the coulter cuts down into the soil and the share cuts horizontally from the previous furrow to the vertical cut. This releases a rectangular strip of sod that is then lifted by the share and carried by the mouldboard up and over, so that the strip of sod (slice of the topsoil) that is being cut lifts and rolls over as the plough moves forward, dropping back to the ground upside down into the furrow and onto the turned soil from the previous run down the field. Each gap in the ground where the soil has been lifted and moved across (usually to the right) is called a furrow. The sod that has been lifted from it rests at about a 45 degree angle in the next-door furrow and lies up the back of the sod from the previous run.
In this way, a series of ploughing runs down a field leaves a row of sods that lie partly in the furrows and partly on the ground lifted earlier. Visually, across the rows, there is the land on the left, a furrow (half the width of the removed strip of soil) and the removed strip almost upside-down lying on about half of the previous strip of inverted soil, and so on across the field. Each layer of soil and the gutter it came from forms the classic furrow.
The mouldboard plough greatly reduced the amount of time needed to prepare a field, and as a consequence, allowed a farmer to work a larger area of land. In addition, the resulting pattern of low (under the mouldboard) and high (beside it) ridges in the soil forms water channels, allowing the soil to drain. In areas where snow buildup causes difficulties, this lets farmers plant the soil earlier, as the snow runoff drains away more quickly.
There are five major parts of a mouldboard plough:
- Landside (short or long)
- Frog (sometimes called a standard)
Share, landside, mouldboard are bolted to the frog which is an irregular piece of cast iron. The base of a plough body is called the frog and the soil wearing parts are bolted to it.
The share is the cutting edge which makes the horizontal cut separating the furrow slice from the soil below. Conventional shares are shaped to penetrate soil efficiently; the tip is pointed downward to pull the share into the ground to a regulated depth. The clearance, usually referred to as “suction" or "down suck”, varies with different makes and types of plough. Share configuration is related to soil type, particularly in the down suction, or concavity, of its lower surface. Generally, three degrees of clearance or down suction are recognized: regular for light soil, deep for ordinary dry soil, and double-deep for clay and gravelly soils.
As the share wears away, it becomes blunt and the plough will require more power to pull it through the soil. A plough body with a worn share will not have enough 'suck' to ensure that it penetrates the ground to its full working depth.
In addition, the share has horizontal suction, which is related to the amount its point is bent out of line with the landside. Down suction causes the plough to penetrate to proper depth when pulled forward, while horizontal suction causes the plough to create the desired width of furrow. The share is a plane part with trapezoidal shape. It cuts the soil horizontally and lifts it. Common types are regular, winged-plane, bar-point, and share with mounted or welded point. The regular share conserves a good cut but is recommended on stone-free soils. The winged-plane share is used on heavy soil with a moderate amount of stones. The bar-point share can be used in extreme conditions (hard and stony soils). The use of the share with mounted point is somewhere between the last two types. Manufacturers have designed shares of various shapes (trapezium, diamond, etc.) with bolted point and wings, often separately renewable. Sometimes the share cutting edge is placed well in advance of the mouldboard to reduce the pulverizing action of the soil.
The mouldboard is that part of the plough which receives the furrow slice from the share. The mouldboard is responsible for lifting and turning the furrow slice and sometimes for shattering it, depending on the type of mouldboard, ploughing depth, and soil conditions. The intensity of this action depends on the type of the mouldboard. To suit different soil conditions and crop requirements, mouldboards have been designed in different shapes, each producing its own furrow profile and surface finish, but they still basically conform to the original plough body classification. Traditionally, the various types of plough body have been classified as general purpose, digger, and semi-digger, as described below.
- The general-purpose mouldboard. This is a low draft body with a gently curved and a cross-sectional convex curve from top to bottom, which turns a furrow three parts wide by two parts deep, e.g. 300 mm (12 in) wide by 200 mm (7.9 in) deep. It turns the furrow slice slowly almost without breaking it, and is normally used for shallow ploughing (maximum 200 mm (7.9 in) depth). It is useful for grassland ploughing and sets up the land for weathering by winter frosts, which reduces the time taken to prepare a seedbed for spring sown crops.
- The digger mouldboard has a short, abruptly curved with a concave cross-section both from top to bottom and from shin to tail. It turns the furrow slice rapidly, giving maximum shatter and deeper than its width. It is normally used for very deep ploughing (300 mm (12 in) deep or more). It has a higher power requirement and leaves a very broken surface. Digger ploughs are mainly used for land to be or planted with potatoes and other root crops.
- The semi-digger mouldboard. This is a bit shorter than the general-purpose mouldboard, but with a concave cross-section and a more abrupt curve. Being intermediate between the two mouldboards above described, it has a performance that comes in between (approximately 250 mm (9.8 in) deep) and with less shattering than the digger mouldboard. It turns an almost square sectioned furrow and leaves a more broken surface finish. Semi-digger mouldboards can be used at different depths and speeds, making them suitable for most of the general ploughing on the farm.
(In addition, slatted mouldboards are preferred by some farmers, though they are a less common type. They consist of a number of curved steel slats bolted to the frog along the length of the mouldboard, so that there are gaps between the slats. They tend to break up the soil more than a full mouldboard and improve soil movement across the mouldboard when working in sticky soils where the solid mouldboard does not scour well.)
The landside is the flat plate which presses against and transmits the lateral thrust of the plough bottom to the furrow wall. It helps to resist the side pressure exerted by the furrow slice on the mouldboard. It also helps in stabilizing the plough while it is in operations. The rear bottom end of the landslide, which rubs against the furrow sole, is known as heel . A heel iron is bolted to the end of the rear of the landside and helps to carry the back of the plough. The landside and share are arranged to give a ‘'lead” towards the unploughed land, thus helping to maintain the correct furrow width. The landside is usually made of solid medium carbon steel, and is very short except on the rear bottom of the plough. The heel or rear end of the rear landside may be subject to excessive wear if the rear wheel is out of adjustment, therefore, a chilled iron heel piece is frequently used. This heel is inexpensive and can be easily replaced. The land side is fastened to the frog with the help of plough bolts.
The frog (standard) is the central part of the plough bottom to which the other components of the bottom are attached. It is an irregular piece of metal, which may be made of cast iron for cast iron ploughs or welded steel for steel ploughs. The frog is the foundation of the plough bottom. It takes the shock resulting from hitting rocks, and therefore should be tough and strong. The frog is in turn fastened to the plough frame.
A runner extending from behind the share to the rear of the plough controls the direction of the plough, because it is held against the bottom land-side corner of the new furrow being formed. The holding force is the weight of the sod, as it is raised and rotated, on the curved surface of the mouldboard. Because of this runner, the mouldboard plough is harder to turn around than the scratch plough, and its introduction brought about a change in the shape of fields – from mostly square fields into longer rectangular "strips" (hence the introduction of the furlong).
An advance on the basic design was the iron[dubious ] ploughshare, a replaceable horizontal cutting surface mounted on the tip of the share. The earliest ploughs with a detachable and replaceable share date from around 1000 BC in the Ancient Near East,[dubious ] and the earliest iron ploughshares from c. 500 BC in China. Early mouldboards were basically wedges that sat inside the cut formed by the coulter, turning over the soil to the side. The ploughshare spread the cut horizontally below the surface, so when the mouldboard lifted it, a wider area of soil was turned over. Mouldboards are known in Britain from the late 6th century on.
Mouldboard plough type is usually determined by the method in which the plough is attached to the tractor and by the way it is lifted and carried. The basic types are:
- Three wheel trailing type – attached to the standard tractor drawbar and carried on its own three wheels.
- Mounted or integral – most use a three-point hitch and have a rear wheel in use only when ploughing. Some also have a gauge wheel to regulate maximum depth.
- Semi-mounted – used principally for larger ploughs. These have a rear wheel which usually carries weight and side thrust when ploughing and sometimes the weight of the rear end of the plough when lifted. The front end of the plough is carried on the tractor lower or draft links.
Gauge wheel – It is an auxiliary wheel of an implement to maintain uniform depth of working. Gauge wheel helps to maintain uniformity in respect of depth of ploughing in different soil conditions. It is usually placed in hanging position.
Land wheel – It is the wheel of the plough, which runs on the ploughed land.
Front furrow wheel – It is the front wheel of the plough, which runs in the furrow.
Rear furrow wheel – It is the rear wheel of the plough, which runs in the furrow.
Plough protective devices
When a plough hits a rock or other solid obstruction, serious damage may result unless the plough is equipped with some safety device. The damage may be bent or broken shares, bent standards, beams or braces.
Three basic types of safety devices are used on mouldboard ploughs as follows:
- A spring release device in the plough drawbar.
- Trip beam construction on each bottom
- Automatic reset design on each bottom.
The spring release device was used in the past almost universally on trailing type ploughs with one to three or four bottoms. It is not practical on larger ploughs. When an obstruction is encountered the spring release mechanism in the hitch permits the plough to uncouple from the tractor. When a hydraulic lift is used on the plough, the hydraulic hoses will also usually uncouple automatically when the plough uncouples. Most plough makers offer an automatic reset system for tough conditions or rocky soils. The re-set mechanism allows each body to move rearward and upward to pass over obstacle (e.g. rocks hidden below soil surface) without damage. A heavy leaf or coil spring mechanism, which holds the body in its working position under normal conditions, resets the plough after the obstruction is passed.
Another type of auto-reset mechanism uses an oil (hydraulic) and gas accumulator. Shock loads cause the oil to compress the gas, when the gas expands again the leg returns to its working ploughing position after passing over the obstacle. The most simple mechanism is a breaking (shear) bolt that needs replacement. Shear bolts which break when a plough body hits an obstruction are a cheaper overload protection device. It is important to use the correct replacement bolt.
Trip beam ploughs are constructed with a hinge point in the beam. This point is usually located some distance above the top of the plough bottom. The bottom is held in normal ploughing position by a spring operated latch. When an obstruction is encountered the entire bottom is released and hinges back and up so as to pass over the obstruction. It is necessary to back up the tractor and plough to reset the bottom This construction is used to protect the individual bottoms. The automatic reset design has only recently been introduced on American ploughs, but has been used extensively on European and Australian ploughs. In this construction the beam is hinged at a point nearly above the point of the share. The bottom is held in the normal position by a set of springs or by a hydraulic cylinder on each bottom.
When an obstruction is encountered, the plough bottom hinges back and up in such a way as to pass over the obstruction, without stopping the tractor and plough. The bottom automatically returns to normal ploughing position as soon as the obstruction is passed, without any interruption of forward motion. The automatic reset design permits higher field efficiencies since stopping for stones is practically eliminated. It also reduces costs for broken shares, beams and other parts. The fast resetting action also helps produce a better job of ploughing since large areas of unploughed land are not left as when lifting a plough over a stone.
Loy ploughing was a form of manual ploughing in Ireland, on small farms, where farmers could not afford them, or on very hilly ground, where horses could not work. It was used up until the 1960s in poorer land. This suited the moist climate of Ireland, as the trenches formed by turning in the sods provided drainage. It also allowed the growing of potatoes in bogs as well as on mountain slopes where no other cultivation could take place.
In the basic mouldboard plough the depth of the cut is adjusted by lifting against the runner in the furrow, which limited the weight of the plough to what the ploughman could easily lift. This limited the construction to a small amount of wood (although metal edges were possible). These ploughs were fairly fragile, and were not suitable for breaking up the heavier soils of northern Europe. The introduction of wheels to replace the runner allowed the weight of the plough to increase, and in turn allowed the use of a much larger mouldboard faced in metal. These heavy ploughs led to greater food production and eventually a significant population increase beginning around 1000 AD.
Before the Han Dynasty (202 BC – AD 220), Chinese ploughs were made almost entirely of wood, except the iron blade of the ploughshare. By the Han period, the entire ploughshare was made of cast iron; these are the first known heavy mouldboard iron ploughs.
The Romans achieved the heavy wheeled mouldboard plough in the late 3rd and 4th century AD, when archaeological evidence appears, inter alia, in Roman Britain. The first indisputable appearance after the Roman period is from 643, in a northern Italian document.:50 Old words connected with the heavy plough and its use appear in Slavic, suggesting possible early use in this region.:49ff The general adoption of the carruca heavy plough in Europe appears to have accompanied the adoption of the three-field system in the later eighth and early ninth centuries, leading to an improvement of the agricultural productivity per unit of land in northern Europe.:69–78 This was accompanied by larger fields as well, known variously as carucates, ploughlands, and ploughgates.
The basic plough, with coulter, ploughshare and mouldboard, remained in use for a millennium. Major changes in design did not become common until the Age of Enlightenment, when there was rapid progress in design. Joseph Foljambe in Rotherham, England, in 1730 used new shapes as the basis for the Rotherham plough, which also covered the mouldboard with iron. Unlike the heavy plough, the Rotherham (or Rotherham swing) plough consisted entirely of the coulter, mouldboard and handles. It was much lighter than conventional designs and became very popular in England. It may have been the first plough to be widely built in factories and the first to be commercially successful.
In 1789 Robert Ransome, an iron founder in Ipswich, started casting ploughshares in a disused malting at St Margaret's Ditches. As a result of a mishap in his foundry, a broken mould caused molten metal to come into contact with cold metal, making the metal surface extremely hard. This process, chilled casting, resulted in what Ransome advertised as "self-sharpening" ploughs. He received patents for his discovery.
James Small further advanced the design. Using mathematical methods he experimented with various designs until he arrived at a shape cast from a single piece of iron, an improvement on the Scots plough of James Anderson of Hermiston. A single-piece cast iron plough was also developed and patented by Charles Newbold in the United States. This was again improved on by Jethro Wood, a blacksmith of Scipio, New York, who made a three-part Scots Plough that allowed a broken piece to be replaced. In 1837 John Deere introduced the first steel plough; it was so much stronger than iron designs that it could work soil in areas of the US that had previously been considered unsuitable for farming.
Improvements on this followed developments in metallurgy: steel coulters and shares with softer iron mouldboards to prevent breakage, the chilled plough (an early example of surface-hardened steel), and eventually mouldboards with faces strong enough to dispense with the coulter.
The first mouldboard ploughs could only turn the soil over in one direction (conventionally always to the right), as dictated by the shape of the mouldboard, and so the field had to be ploughed in long strips, or lands. The plough was usually worked clockwise around each land, ploughing the long sides and being dragged across the short sides without ploughing. The length of the strip was limited by the distance oxen (or later horses) could comfortably work without a rest, and their width by the distance the plough could conveniently be dragged. These distances determined the traditional size of the strips: a furlong, (or "furrow's length", 220 yards (200 m)) by a chain (22 yards (20 m)) – an area of one acre (about 0.4 hectares); this is the origin of the acre. The one-sided action gradually moved soil from the sides to the centre line of the strip. If the strip was in the same place each year, the soil built up into a ridge, creating the ridge and furrow topography still seen in some ancient fields.
The turnwrest plough allows ploughing to be done to either side. The mouldboard is removable, turning to the right for one furrow, then being moved to the other side of the plough to turn to the left (the coulter and ploughshare are fixed). In this way adjacent furrows can be ploughed in opposite directions, allowing ploughing to proceed continuously along the field and thus avoiding the ridge and furrow topography.
The reversible plough (or "rollover plow") has two mouldboard ploughs mounted back-to-back, one turning to the right, the other to the left. While one is working the land, the other is carried upside-down in the air. At the end of each row, the paired ploughs are turned over, so the other can be used. This returns along the next furrow, again working the field in a consistent direction.
These ploughs date back to the days of the steam engine and the horse. In almost universal use on farms, they have right- and left-handed mouldboards enabling them to work up and down the same furrow. Reversible ploughs may either be mounted or semi-mounted and are heavier and more expensive than right-handed models, but they have the great advantage of leaving a level surface which makes seedbed preparation and harvesting easier. Very little marking out is necessary before ploughing can start and idle running on the headland is minimal compared with conventional ploughs.
Driving the tractor with the furrow-side wheels in the furrow bottom provides the most efficient line of draft between tractor and plough. It is also easier to steer the tractor and driving with the front wheel against the furrow wall will keep the front furrow at the correct width. This is less satisfactory when using a tractor with very wide front tyres, for although they make better use of the tractor power, the tyres may compact part of the last furrow slice turned on the previous run. The use of furrow widener or a longer mouldboard on the rear body will overcome the problem. The latter moves the soil further towards the ploughed land leaving more room for the tractor wheels on the next run.
Driving with all four wheels on unploughed land is another solution to the problem of wide tyres. Semi-mounted ploughs can be hitched in a way that allows the tractor to run on unbroken land and pull the plough in correct alignment without any sideways movement (crabbing).
Riding and multiple-furrow ploughs
Early steel ploughs, like those for thousands of years prior, were walking ploughs, directed by the ploughman holding onto handles on either side of the plough. The steel ploughs were so much easier to draw through the soil that the constant adjustments of the blade to react to roots or clods was no longer necessary, as the plough could easily cut through them. Consequently, it was not long after that the first riding ploughs appeared. On these, wheels kept the plough at an adjustable level above the ground, while the ploughman sat on a seat; whereas, with earlier ploughs the ploughman would have had to walk. Direction was now controlled mostly through the draught team, with levers allowing fine adjustments. This led very quickly to riding ploughs with multiple mouldboards, dramatically increasing ploughing performance.
A single draught horse can normally pull a single-furrow plough in clean light soil, but in heavier soils two horses are needed, one walking on the land and one in the furrow. For ploughs with two or more furrows more than two horses are needed and, usually, one or more horses have to walk on the loose ploughed sod – and that makes hard going for them, and the horse treads the newly ploughed land down. It is usual to rest such horses every half-hour for about ten minutes.
Heavy volcanic loam soils, such as are found in New Zealand, require the use of four heavy draught horses to pull a double-furrow plough. Where paddocks are more square than long-rectangular it is more economical to have horses four wide in harness than two-by-two ahead, thus one horse is always on the ploughed land (the sod). The limits of strength and endurance of horses made greater than two-furrow ploughs uneconomic to use on one farm.
Amish farmers tend to use a team of about seven horses or mules when spring ploughing and as Amish farmers often help each other plough, teams are sometimes changed at noon. Using this method about 10 acres (4.0 ha) can be ploughed per day in light soils and about 2 acres (0.81 ha) in heavy soils.
Improvement in metallurgy and design
John Deere, an Illinois, US blacksmith, noted that the ploughing of many sticky, non-sandy soils might benefit from modifications in the design of the mouldboard and in the metals used. He noted that a polished needle would enter leather and fabric with greater ease, and a polished pitchfork required less effort as well. In the pursuit of a polished and thus slicker surface for a plough, he experimented with portions of saw blades and by 1837, he was making polished, cast steel ploughs. The energy effort required was lessened, which enabled the use of larger ploughs, making more effective use of horse power.
The advent of the mobile steam engine allowed steam power to be applied to ploughing from about 1850. In Europe, soil conditions were often too soft to support the weight of heavy traction engines. Instead, counterbalanced, wheeled ploughs, known as balance ploughs, were drawn by cables across the fields by pairs of ploughing engines on opposite field edges, or by a single engine drawing directly towards it at one end and drawing away from it via a pulley at the other end. The balance plough had two sets of ploughs facing each other, arranged so when one was in the ground, the other set was lifted into the air. When pulled in one direction, the trailing ploughs were lowered onto the ground by the tension on the cable. When the plough reached the edge of the field, the other engine pulled the opposite cable, and the plough tilted (balanced), putting the other set of shares into the ground, and the plough worked back across the field.
One set of ploughs was right-handed, and the other left-handed, allowing continuous ploughing along the field, as with the turnwrest and reversible ploughs. The man credited with the invention of the ploughing engine and the associated balance plough, in the mid nineteenth century, was John Fowler, an English agricultural engineer and inventor.
In America the firm soil of the Plains allowed direct pulling with steam tractors, such as the big Case, Reeves or Sawyer-Massey breaking engines. Gang ploughs of up to fourteen bottoms were used. Often these big ploughs were used in regiments of engines, so that in a single field there might be ten steam tractors each drawing a plough. In this way hundreds of acres could be turned over in a day. Only steam engines had the power to draw the big units. When internal combustion engines appeared, they had neither the strength nor the ruggedness compared to the big steam tractors. Only by reducing the number of shares could the work be completed.
The stump-jump plough was an Australian invention of the 1870s, designed to cope with the breaking up of new farming land, that contains many tree stumps and rocks that would be very expensive to remove. The plough uses a moveable weight to hold the ploughshare in position. When a tree stump or other obstruction such as a rock is encountered, the ploughshare is thrown upwards, clear of the obstacle, to avoid breaking the plough's harness or linkage; ploughing can be continued when the weight is returned to the earth after the obstacle is passed.
A simpler system, developed later, uses a concave disc (or a pair of them) set at a large angle to the direction of progress, that uses the concave shape to hold the disc into the soil – unless something hard strikes the circumference of the disk, causing it to roll up and over the obstruction. As the arrangement is dragged forward, the sharp edge of the disc cuts the soil, and the concave surface of the rotating disc lifts and throws the soil to the side. It doesn't make as good a job as the mouldboard plough (but this is not considered a disadvantage, because it helps fight wind erosion), but it does lift and break up the soil (see disc harrow).
Modern ploughs are usually multiple reversible ploughs, mounted on a tractor via a three-point linkage. These commonly have between two and as many as seven mouldboards – and semi-mounted ploughs (the lifting of which is supplemented by a wheel about halfway along their length) can have as many as eighteen mouldboards. The hydraulic system of the tractor is used to lift and reverse the implement, as well as to adjust furrow width and depth. The ploughman still has to set the draughting linkage from the tractor so that the plough is carried at the proper angle in the soil. This angle and depth can be controlled automatically by modern tractors. As a complement to the rear plough a two or three mouldboards-plough can be mounted on the front of the tractor if it is equipped with front three-point linkage.
The chisel plough is a common tool to get deep tillage (prepared land) with limited soil disruption. The main function of this plough is to loosen and aerate the soils while leaving crop residue at the top of the soil. This plough can be used to reduce the effects of compaction and to help break up ploughpan and hardpan. Unlike many other ploughs the chisel will not invert or turn the soil. This characteristic has made it a useful addition to no-till and low-till farming practices that attempt to maximise the erosion-prevention benefits of keeping organic matter and farming residues present on the soil surface through the year. Because of these attributes, the use of a chisel plough is considered by some[who?] to be more sustainable than other types of plough, such as the mouldboard plough.
Chisel ploughs are becoming more popular as a primary tillage tool in row crop farming areas. Basically the chisel plough is a very heavy duty field cultivator intended to operate at depths from 15 cm [6 in] to as much as 46 cm [18 in]. However some models may run much deeper. Each of the individual ploughs, or shanks, are typically set from nine inches (229 mm) to twelve inches (305 mm) apart. Such a plough can encounter significant soil drag, consequently a tractor of sufficient power and good traction is required. When planning to plough with a chisel plough it is important to bear in mind that 10 to 20 horsepower (7.5 to 15 kW) per shank will be required, depending on depth.
Pull type chisel ploughs are made in working widths from about 2.5 m [8 ft] up to 13.7 m [45 ft], they are tractor mounted and working depth is hydraulically controlled. Those more than about 4 m [13 ft] wide may be equipped with folding wings to reduce transport width. Wider machines may have the wings supported by individual wheels and have hinge joints to allow flexing of the machine over uneven ground. The wider models usually have a wheel at each side to control working depth. Three-point hitch mounted units are made in widths from about 1.5 m [5 ft] to 9 m [30 ft].
Cultivators are often similar in form to chisel ploughs, but their goals are different. Cultivator teeth work near the surface, usually for weed control, whereas chisel plough shanks work deep beneath the surface. Consequently, cultivating also takes much less power per shank than does chisel ploughing.
A ridging plough is used for crops, such as potatoes or scallions, which are grown buried in ridges of soil using a technique called ridging or hilling. A ridging plough has two mouldboards facing away from each other, cutting a deep furrow on each pass, with high ridges either side. The same plough may be used to split the ridges to harvest the crop.
Scottish hand plough
This is a variety of ridge plough notable in that the blade points towards the operator. It is used solely by human effort rather than with animal or machine assistance, and is pulled backwards by the operator, requiring great physical effort. It is particularly used for second breaking of ground, and for potato planting. It is found in Shetland, some western crofts and more rarely Central Scotland. The tool is typically found on small holdings too small or poor to merit use of animals.
The mole plough allows underdrainage to be installed without trenches, or it breaks up deep impermeable soil layers that impede drainage. It is a very deep plough, with a torpedo-shaped or wedge-shaped tip, and a narrow blade connecting this to the body. When dragged through the ground, it leaves a channel deep under the ground, and this acts as a drain. Modern mole ploughs may also bury a flexible perforated plastic drain pipe as they go, making a more permanent drain – or they may be used to lay pipes for water supply or other purposes. Similar machines, so called pipe-and-cable-laying ploughs, are even used under the sea, for the laying of cables, as well as preparing the earth for side-scan sonar in a process used in oil exploration.
Heavy land requires draining to reduce its water content to a level satisfactory for efficient plant growth. Heavy soils usually have a system of permanent drains using either perforated plastic or clay pipes which discharge into a ditch. Mole ploughs are used to form small tunnels (mole drains) in the soil at a depth of up to 950 mm (30 in) at an angle to the pipe drains. Water from the mole drains seeps into the pipes and runs along them into a ditch.
The mole plough allows underdrainage to be installed without trenches, or it breaks up deep impermeable soil layers which impede drainage. It is a very deep plough, with a torpedo-shaped or wedge-shaped tip, and a narrow blade connecting this to the body. When dragged through the ground, it leaves a channel deep under the ground, and this acts as a drain. Modern mole ploughs may also bury a flexible perforated plastic drain pipe as they go, making a more permanent drain – or they may be used to lay pipes for water supply or other purposes. A simple check can be made to find if the subsoil is in the right condition for mole ploughing. Compact a tennis ball sized sample taken at moling depth by hand, then push a pencil through. If the hole remains intact without splitting the ball the soil is in an ideal condition for the mole plough.
Mole ploughs are usually trailed and pulled by a crawler tractor, but lighter models for use on the three-point linkage of powerful four-wheel drive tractors are also made. A mole plough has a very strong frame which slides along the ground when the machine is in work. A heavy leg, similar to a subsoiler leg, is attached to the frame and a circular section share with a larger diameter expander on a flexible link is bolted to the leg. The bullet shaped share forms a tunnel, about 75 mm diameter, in the soil and the expander presses the soil outwards to form a long-lasting drainage channel.
The paraplough, or paraplow, is a tool for loosening compacted soil layers 12 to 16 inches deep and still maintain high surface residue levels.It is primary tillage implement used for deep ploughing without inversion .
The spade plough is designed to cut the soil and turn it on its side, minimising the damage to the earthworms, soil microorganism, and fungi. This helps maximise the sustainability and long term fertility of the soils.
Using a bar with square shares mounted perpendicularly and a pivot point to change the bar's angle, the switch plough allows ploughing in either direction. It is best in previously-worked soils, as the ploughshares are designed more to turn the soil over than for deep tillage. At the headland, the operator pivots the bar (and thus the ploughshares) to turn the soil to the opposite side of the direction of travel. Switch ploughs are usually lighter than rollover ploughs, requiring less horsepower to operate.
Effects of mouldboard ploughing
Mouldboard ploughing, in cold and temperate climates, no deeper than 20 cm, aerates the soil by loosening it. It incorporates crop residues, solid manures, limestone and commercial fertilisers along with oxygen. By doing so, it reduces nitrogen losses by denitrification, accelerates mineralization and increases short-term nitrogen availability for transformation of organic matter into humus. It erases wheel tracks and ruts caused by harvesting equipment. It controls many perennial weeds and pushes back the growth of other weeds until the following spring. It accelerates soil warming and water evaporation in spring because of the lesser quantity of residues on the soil surface. It facilitates seeding with a lighter seeder. It controls many enemies of crops (slugs, crane flies, seedcorn maggots-bean seed flies, borers). It increases the number of "soil-eating" earthworms (endogea) but is detrimental to vertical-dwelling earthworms (anecic).
Ploughing leaves very little crop residue on the surface, which otherwise could reduce both wind and water erosion. Over-ploughing can lead to the formation of hardpan. Typically farmers break up hardpan up with a subsoiler, which acts as a long, sharp knife to slice through the hardened layer of soil deep below the surface. Soil erosion due to improper land and plough utilisation is possible. Contour ploughing mitigates soil erosion by ploughing across a slope, along elevation lines. Alternatives to ploughing, such as the no till method, have the potential to actually build soil levels and humus. These may be suitable to smaller, more intensively cultivated plots, and to farming on poor, shallow or degraded soils that ploughing would further degrade.
Back side of a 100 Mark banknote issued 1908
1975 Italian Lira coin
Henry Herbert La Thangue, The Last Furrow, 1895
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- Conduit current collection
- Foot plough
- Headland (agriculture)
- History of agriculture
- Railroad plough
- Ransome Victory Plough
- Silviculture has a technique for preparing soil for seeding in forests called scarification, which is explained in that article.
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