Australian ploughing for a win

The intensity of concentration leaves Shayne Neal with a headache and a crick in his neck from constantly craning. But the pain is worth it, he says, to represent Australia at the World Ploughing Championships. Source: The Weekly Times

Shayne, from Cape Otway, visited the UK in September to compete against 30 other  countries in the conventional mouldboard ploughing section.

It was the third time he has represented Australia, following competitions in Denmark in 2015 and France the year before, beating state and then national competitors to earn his place as Australia’s flag-bearer.

“I love the challenge,” Mr Neal said, who was joined in the UK by Gippsland’s Brett Loughridge, the only other Australian representative, who competed in the reversible section.

“It’s a lot of fun and really good camaraderie with the other competitors. Everyone shares their different ideas on how to adapt tractors and win.”

While most farmers are content these days to use satellite navigation for perfect furrows and tractors pimped for maximum comfort, the land-lovers who compete in the ploughing championships are dedicated to maintaining the old skills.

Competitors are required to plough a 100m-long x 20m-wide plot in three hours — with points deducted if you’re too quick or go beyond that time.

“You win a contest by making the least amount of mistakes,” the 36-year-old said.

“There’s no GPS guidance, it’s all done the old school way. So if you get the first furrow dead straight you are going to go well, but if it’s even a tiny bit crooked you’ve got a bit of work to do.

“The judges then look at such things as the uniformity of furrows, whether they’re the same width, depth and height and the same amount of soil. Weed control is a big one too.

“In this day and age when broadacre farmers need to be effective and cover ground it’s understandable they use GPS, but the competition is all about the naked eye and going back to the skill of an operator.”

Mr Neal (who came 18th) says Australians are at a disadvantage in the international competition mainly because few farmers here use mouldboarding ploughs, whereas they are popular in Europe.

“With our soils and the size of our vast open paddocks as soon as you use a mouldboard soil movement can occur as the top soil dries, so there’s now a big movement to minimum till and we have seen the evolution of chemicals for weed control.

“I found the soils in the UK to be very sensitive. Through the plot the soil ploughed differently every few metres and it was really challenging to try and work out the best way to move the plough to create even furrows.”

Although dedicated to tradition, competitors are not against modifying tractors, within competition specifications.

Mr Neal’s 20-year-old John Deere 2250 was modified by Trelleborg Wheel Systems with a specially designed wheel.

The company even sponsored him and Mr Loughridge, paying for their tractors and Kverneland ploughs to be shipped overseas in a 12m container, initially to compete in Denmark and then the UK.

“I haven’t had my tractor for 12 months,” Mr Neal said. “Occasionally it can be easier to borrow a tractor when overseas and they can be more modified than what we use.

“Sometimes it’s not ideal. There’s something nice about having your own gear. You know which way it’s going to creep and how the hydraulic systems behave. They all have their own personalities and temperaments.”

Even though Mr Neal has a backup tractor, it’s not a piece of machinery he uses often on his 67ha not-for-profit Conservation Ecology Centre at Cape Otway.

He says it was using the tractor for ecology work — direct seeding native plants for use as shelter belts on farms in the Western District — that first got him interested in competition ploughing.

He grew up on a dairy farm in the Western District, using a disc plough, and studied environmental science, but says it was the ability of the mouldboard plough to do away with chemical use that really convinced him of its merits.

“It’s a good tool for soil health because it stops air and light getting into the underside of the sod, preventing weed growth so you don’t need herbicides.

“It works particularly well in wetter areas like the Otways.

“Shortly after I began using the plough for shelter belts, we had a field day on our property and I got talking to ploughing competitors who convinced me to have a crack.”

Mr Neal has competed every year since 2003, although having helped organise this year’s national championships in Colac, he won’t be competing in next year’s international competition in Kenya.

However, he will be heading to the 2017 National Ploughing Contest near Cowra in NSW in May, which will hopefully qualify him for the 2018 world championships.

“When you go overseas you see how big the sport is compared to in Australia. In the UK they had 30,000 spectators. In Ireland, it’s the biggest field day event in the country. They’ll get tens of thousands.”