The role of the plough is under scrutiny as never before, with alternative cultivation methods being heavily promoted, and some groups even calling for its outright ban.

Yet seasons like this past autumn has reinforced it as the primary tool on tillage farms, with the oft expressed belief that it will succeed in conditions where all other methods will fail.

Plough manufacturers will quietly admit that demand for the implement has been declining over the past few years, but all will adamantly defend its continuing role in agriculture.

But, just what should that role be?

This is a question that is put to students on the crops and machinery course at Kildalton College, Co. Kilkenny – should they enter the Lemken and TFM Plough Operator of the Year competition, which is held on an annual basis.

David Murphy and and Sam Ennis
David Murray of Templetuohy Farm Machinery congratulates competition runner up, Sam Ennis

The competition, which is jointly sponsored by Lemken and Templetuohy Farm Machinery (TFM), is not intended to identify the student who can turn the neatest furrow, but instead, aims to find the one who can apply the greatest degree of critical thinking to its use.

As David Murray of TFM pointed out at this years competition, the first question that needs to be asked, is should the plough be in the field at all?

John Deere in field
John Deere dealers TFM are major distributors of Lemken machinery in Ireland and jointly sponsor the competition

This is a reflection of the growing awareness of the importance of soil structure and its preservation. Ploughing is tremendously important in burying weeds, but it can also badly disrupt carefully nurtured soil structures, so its suitability for the job in-hand must be given careful thought.

And the winner is…

It was Ben Stack who came out on top this year, by impressing both David Murray and Derek Delahunty of Lemken, of both his enthusiasm and ability to consider all aspects of the job, ranging from setting the plough to considering the finish required.

Farm in Mallow
The 140 cow herd at Mallow has been robotically milked since 2019

Stack lives on his family farm in Mallow, Co. Cork. The farm is a dairy unit of 110ac, with a herd of 140 that will be expanded further over the next year or two. It is an intensive operation that is tightly managed, even though Ben’s parents have jobs away from the farm, as does Ben himself.

The secret to being able to work full-time and run a dairy unit lies in the adoption of robotic milking and there are two Lely units on the farm, the first being installed in 2019 while a second followed two years later.

JCB Loader
A telescopic handler scores far above a tractor mounted front end loader for yard work according to Ben

The work on the farm is shared between the family members, with the main pit silage being left to a local contractor. Bales are also made to mop up the surplus grass during the season and grazing is tightly controlled, facilitated by the ability to direct the cows to fresh paddocks as they exit the robots.

Broad experience

Stack himself works for another contractor during the silage season, before moving over to a local tillage farm when the silage is finished. Here, he is involved with both the harvest and sowing, which includes a good deal of cultivation.

The tillage farm relies to a large extent on the plough, although there are moves to reduce its use – giving Ben a helpful insight into the factors to be considered when shifting towards less intensive tillage systems.

Ben winner of plough competition with Nicola Lemken
Ben Stack pictured with Nicola Lemken, along with Dirk Hollinderbaumer (left) and Derek Delahunty Right, of Lemken

As part of the prize Ben took was offered a trip to the Lemken manufacturing facilities in northern Germany, here he met Nicola and Victor Lemken, sixth and seventh generation stewards of the family firm, which started 250 years ago.

Up until now his exposure to Lemken products had been minimal, but Ben was delighted with the opportunity to visit the factories and meet the those who carry the name, and work to ensure that farmers are well-equipped to deal with whatever the future throws at them.