A Kverneland conventional plough

Conventional Ploughs: History and Operation

Conventional ploughs have played an essential role in agriculture for thousands of years, enabling farmers to cultivate and prepare the land for sowing seeds. This vital piece of farming equipment has evolved over time, adapting to the needs of farmers and the demands of modern agriculture. In this article, we will explore the history of conventional ploughs, their key components, and the techniques involved in their operation.

The history of conventional ploughs

Early ploughs and their development

The origins of the plough can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt around 3000 BCE (1). Early ploughs, known as ards or scratch ploughs, were simple wooden tools used to break up the soil surface without turning it over completely. They consisted of a sharp stick or tine, drawn by humans or animals, to create furrows in the ground.

The evolution of ploughs during the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages (500 to 1500 AD), the mouldboard plough was introduced in Europe, marking a significant advancement in plough technology. The mouldboard plough featured a curved plate that lifted and turned the soil, creating a more effective and efficient way to prepare the land for planting. The use of iron in plough construction also improved the durability and performance of these tools (2).

The Industrial Revolution and the development of modern ploughs

The Industrial Revolution brought about the invention of the cast iron plough in the 18th century. This innovation made ploughs stronger and more durable, allowing for larger and more efficient ploughs to be developed. The advent of mechanization also influenced plough design, with steam-powered and later, internal combustion engine-powered tractors replacing animal-drawn ploughs.

The anatomy of a conventional plough

Basic components of a plough

a close up of the parts which make up a plough
The components which make up a plough.

Ploughshare or share: The ploughshare is the cutting edge of the plough that slices through the soil.

Mouldboard: The mouldboard lifts and turns the soil, creating furrows.

Coulter or point: The coulter is a vertical cutting blade that slices through the soil ahead of the ploughshare, making it easier for the ploughshare to penetrate the ground.

Landside: The landside is a flat plate that runs along the furrow bottom, helping to stabilize the plough.

Beam and handles: The beam connects the plough to the tractor pulling it, while the handles (on horse-drawn ploughs) allow the operator to control the plough’s direction and depth.

Variations in plough design

  1. Single-furrow vs. multi-furrow ploughs: Single-furrow ploughs create one furrow at a time, while multi-furrow ploughs have multiple ploughshares and mouldboards, allowing them to create several furrows simultaneously.
  2. Reversible ploughs: Reversible ploughs can be turned around to create furrows in both directions, reducing the need for the tractor to turn at the end of each row.
  3. Specialized ploughs for different soil types: Some ploughs are designed specifically for certain soil conditions, such as heavy clay or rocky terrain.

Plough operation and techniques

The process of ploughing a field

A tractor ploughing with a five-furrow reversible plough.
A tractor ploughing with a five-furrow reversible plough.

Preparing the equipment and field: Before ploughing, ensure the plough and tractor (or other draft animal) are in good working condition. Check for any damage or wear on the plough components, and perform any necessary maintenance. Additionally, assess the field for any debris, rocks, or obstacles that could impede the ploughing process or damage the equipment. Remove these obstacles or mark them clearly to avoid during ploughing.

Attaching the plough: Properly attach the plough to the tractor or draft animal using the appropriate hitch system. Make sure the attachment is secure, and the plough is correctly aligned with the tractor or draft animal. For tractors, adjust the hydraulic settings as needed to ensure the plough operates at the desired depth and angle.

Setting the ploughing depth: Set the ploughing depth based on the type of soil, crop to be planted, and any specific field requirements. Generally, a depth of 6 to 12 inches is suitable for most crops. Adjust the depth control mechanism, such as the wheel or skid, to maintain a consistent ploughing depth throughout the field.

Planning the ploughing pattern: Choose an appropriate ploughing pattern based on factors like field size, shape, and soil conditions. Some common ploughing patterns include:

a. Up-and-down method: In this method, the field is ploughed in parallel, straight furrows from one end to the other. This pattern is suitable for small or regular-shaped fields and is relatively simple to execute.

b. Headland method: This method involves ploughing around the perimeter of the field, creating a headland, and then ploughing the remaining area in parallel furrows. The headland allows for easy turning of the tractor at the end of each pass, making it suitable for larger or irregularly shaped fields.

c. Contour ploughing: In this method, the furrows follow the contours of the land, which can help reduce soil erosion on sloping fields.

Executing the ploughing process: Begin ploughing the field according to the chosen pattern, maintaining a consistent speed and depth throughout the process. Monitor the furrows for uniformity and adjust the plough settings as needed. Ensure that the tractor or draft animal is moving at a suitable pace, neither too fast nor too slow, to allow the plough to work effectively.

Finishing and assessing the ploughed field: Once the entire field is ploughed, assess the furrows for uniformity and proper soil turnover. If necessary, make any adjustments to the plough and repeat the process in areas where the soil has not been adequately prepared. Finally, remove any remaining debris or rocks from the field to ensure a smooth seedbed for planting.

A short video showing the operation of how a conventional plough lifts and turns the soil.

Factors affecting plough performance

Soil type and conditions: Different soil types, moisture levels, and compaction can impact plough performance, making it crucial to adjust the plough settings accordingly.

a freshly ploughed field
If the soil is too wet it should not be ploughed, as it can lead to problems with compaction.

Plough speed and depth: The speed and depth at which the plough operates can affect the quality of the furrows and the overall efficiency of the ploughing process. Optimal settings vary depending on the specific conditions and requirements of the field.

Proper maintenance and adjustment of plough components: Regular maintenance and timely adjustments of plough components, such as sharpening the ploughshare or adjusting the coulter, help ensure optimal performance and prevent excessive wear on the equipment.

Environmental considerations

The impact of ploughing on soil health: While ploughing is necessary for soil preparation, excessive or improper ploughing can lead to soil erosion, reduced soil fertility, and loss of organic matter. Farmers must balance the need for ploughing with the preservation of soil health.

Conservation tillage and alternative methods: Conservation tillage practices, such as no-till or reduced-till farming, can help minimize the impact of ploughing on the environment. These methods aim to maintain soil structure and reduce erosion by minimizing the amount of soil disturbance.


The enduring importance of conventional ploughs in agriculture cannot be understated. As a testament to human ingenuity and the drive for efficiency, ploughs have undergone significant transformations throughout history. Today, technology continues to improve the efficiency of ploughs, while a growing awareness of environmental concerns pushes farmers to balance tradition and innovation in modern farming practices.


The British Museum. (n.d.). The plough. Retrieved from https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/x29465

Klapwijk, C. (2012). Ploughs and Ploughing. Shire Publications. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=xWN3DwAAQBAJ