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Richard Hackett: Declining standards of ploughmanship to blame for costly 'ponding' on headlands

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Tractor plowing the stubble field

Tractor plowing the stubble field

Tractor plowing the stubble field

The difficulties we have encountered in the fields over the winter have paled into insignificance with the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

I hope that at the end of all this - and it will end - we have learned some lessons and change the way we run parts of our society. In particular, changes need to be made to our food supply chains. But that is for another day. Now we have to concentrate in looking after ourselves and looking after one another as we get through this.

It's a relief for many to be able to head for the fields and get into spring work. But like everyone else, growers, machine operators, those in the supply chain, regulators and indeed agronomists will have to adapt our systems of work to minimise contact with one another and take responsibility for our personal role in controlling and ultimately beating this murrain.

As the ponds and wet areas in the fields finally ebb away, there are a few lessons to be learnt here too. Before the ponds disappear from memory altogether, take a few minutes to note where they were located on your farm.

Ponding is a failure of the drainage system in that particular place. So for every pond you have, try and find out why the water did not dissipate like it should have.

Open drains may have to be cleaned, small runs of drains may have to be put in to address a particular area, or a complete new drainage system may have be installed.

Start designing a plan to address these wet areas.

Given the wet soils and late planting date and underwhelming prospects for the price of grain next harvest, perhaps it's an ideal time to bite the bullet in an area, leave it fallow and spend the summer rectifying the drainage system, to have it ready for next autumn.

Dividends

It's a huge up-front cost, but in the longer term will pay huge dividends.

One place where ponding was noticeably worse than before was along headlands. This is a modern phenomenon and is often due to soil compaction and worse still, poor ploughing skills.

The standard of workmanship in commercial ploughing has deteriorated as the horsepower of the machinery available to carry out the job has increased.

Manufacturers have made bigger, deeper and wider ploughs that can get through the work ever more quickly; electronic aids are also making the job easier.

In that pursuit of output, however, the basics, such as spending time setting up the plough, marking out a field to aid lifting and dropping in a straight line, or even getting out of the cosy cab to have a look at the work, have been forgotten.

Where standards have really fallen is at the 'ins and outs' -headland work and in corners of fields. The idea of ploughing a field one way in one year and another way the next year, or ploughing 'in' a headland one year and ploughing it 'out' the next, is seen as a quant historical throwback, up there with the setting up a reaper binder.

This lack of basic ploughing skill can be seen all over the country. Headlands are becoming ever more unworkable; ponds are emerging metres away from clear open ditches; entire fields are being transformed into water-retentive dishes; field corners more often resemble a bomb site than a productive area.

Not long ago, the ploughman was the most important man with the highest status on a tillage farm. Every good farm had a 'ploughman' who was treated with respect and jealously guarded from being taken by a neighbouring farmer.

This role is no less important now than it was generations ago.

Good ploughing is not about keeping in front of a tiller, or blackening the ground. Good ploughing is a herbicide, a fungicide, an insecticide, a crop stimulant, a drainage system, a source of pride and the definition of good workmanship.

This art will have to be restored.

Richard Hackett is an agronomist based in north Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA

Indo Farming