Ploughmen fight it out for top global prize

Saturday December 9 2017

Team Canada's Jay Lennox checks on one of the team's tractors.

Team Canada's Jay Lennox checks on one of the team's tractors during the 64th edition of the World Ploughing Championships held at Egerton University last week. PHOTO | FRANCIS MUREITHI | NMG 

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The usually serene and almost secluded Ngongongeri Farm in Njoro, Nakuru County, was abuzz last week when it hosted the World Ploughing Contest.

The event held on the 3,000-acre farm owned by Egerton University, some 20km from Nakuru town, was star-studded as it attracted the top ploughmen from across the world.

A perfect weather saw hundreds of enthusiasts from different parts of the country turn up to cheer the ploughmen and their machines as they roared and dug deeper into the earth.

There were participants from 22 countries that included Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania Australia, North Ireland, Slovenia, Switzerland, US, Kenya, New Zealand, Republic of Ireland, Canada and England, which hosted the competition last year.

The Kenyan team carried both the national and the continental flags in the contest, with two participants namely Joshua Kigen from Baringo and Simon Otidi from Trans Nzoia.

There were two broad classes with six award categories. The competitors in the conventional class worked on a 20-metre wide and 100-metre long piece of land while those in the reversible class worked in 42-metre and 100-metre long plots.

John Whelan from Ireland, where ploughing champions are treated like kings, won the gold medal in the reversible class. Gene Gruber, from the US won gold in the conventional class.

“Ploughing is a matter of concentration. Pay attention to details such as depth, width, straightness and furrow,” said Whelan, the seasoned ploughman who has represented his country nine times in the world contest.

His tractor was worth Sh3 million while the plough was more than double the price.

“My plough is almost priceless and that is why I keep it clean, oil all parts and replace worn out parts regularly,” said the father of three boys.

All the ploughmen went to the field at one go and were guided by stewards dressed in green and grey reflector jackets who monitored the ploughing.


To start, the stewards switched on a green light, and later an orange light that warned time was almost up while the red light signalled the end, with the drivers moving out of the fields with their machines. The ploughing was timed at 2 hours and 40 minutes.

The ploughs were mounted on world-class tractors designed to provide hydraulic capacity and horse power ranging from 80HP to 300HP for large implements.

Each plough was fitted with sharp steel blades that cut the earth into slices of pulverised form and to a specific depth.

The machines systematically turned over the upper layer of the soil bringing fresh nutrients to the surface while burying the weeds.

Kenyan representative in the event, Joshua Kigen

Kenyan representative in the event, Joshua Kigen navigates as he ploughs at the Ngongongeri Farm in Njoro. PHOTO | FRANCIS MUREITHI | NMG

Some of the ploughs were reversible and had three or more mounted concave disks that were inclined backward and cut the soil and made it suitable for seed sowing.

The tractors supported by massive wheels were backed by hydraulic cylinders which easily raised, lowered and turned the ploughs in a slow speed at the end of the furrow.

The conventional plough can only turn the soil one way.

“This ploughing competition is a whole different story to everyday ploughing, with every move keenly scrutinised,” said Judge Igor Hrovatic from Slovenia as he entered points in his scoring card.

“We judges look for straightness in the furrows, uniformity and conformity of furrows in height, width and depth throughout its whole length and time taken to complete the job,” added Hrovatic.

He said connecting furrows at butts should be visible over the total length of the plot while furrow sliced should lie close and firm.

Hrovatic, who was judging his fifth world contest, said that all trash and vegetation must completely be buried beneath the furrows to earn points, as that is all that entails good ploughing.


“All roots should be cut or torn off while the first slice should be the same level as the rest and no wheel mark should be showing,” he explained.

“Neatness and regularity are paramount and the soil for seed bed should not have slices on the edge and should be properly turned without pulling pieces of stubble on to the surface. It should be levelled like a flat screen TV,” he added.

Eamonn Tracey, 43, from the Republic of Ireland, who won a silver in the conventional class, said a ploughman should stick to basic preparation tips to attain a good finish.

“One should make sure there is adequate oil, coolant and fuel in the tractor pulling the plough and must check the tyre pressure.”

Tracey, a dairy farmer back home, observed the ploughman must further ensure the check chains are loose to the accepted standard.

“This adjustment is important just in case you hit a large rock underneath the soil. This would enable the plough to skid sideways and avoid damaging the tractor.”

Stewards check on the ploughed land to award points.

Stewards check the ploughed land to award points. The judges looked for straightness in the furrows, uniformity and conformity of furrows in height, width and depth throughout its whole length and time taken to complete the job. PHOTO | AYUB MUIYURO | NMG

While starting the machine, he said one should lower the plough onto the ground with the three-point linkage, drive the tractor some metres forward and then inspect the results.

“The first cut is always tricky since there is no initial furrow for the turf to fall into,” explained Tracey, a seven times national champion and has represented his country in international competition 12 times.

To attain one neat straight furrow, the ploughman should put some marker poles to guide him on the first furrow.
One should then drive to the start of the first furrow and lower the plough and drive six metres forward and inspect the results.

“You must continuously make the adjustments to the plough to get the desired result.”

Adjusting the depth wheel should be done properly to get the recommended depth of the furrow using the tractor hydraulic depth control, he noted.


The next adjustment is done at the top link, which will change the angle of the plough to the ground to ensure a perfect set of ridges and a neat clean furrow.

Some of the ploughmen came with their complete set of machines – a tractor and a plough while others like Jay Lennox from Canada shipped in the plough but his MF4708 tractor was supplied by FMD East Africa.

“I had hopes that I would add another feather in my cap by winning the world championship but Ladyluck was not on my side. I will intensify my practice ahead of the Germany 2018 competition to realise my dreams,” said 22-year-old, who is an agronomist and the 2016 Canadian conventional champion.

Kenyan ploughmen fared badly as they could not match their colleagues in skill and machine in the event that did not have female participants.

“Our representatives did not have modern reversible ploughs and the ones they were using are 10 years old and could not control marking elements such as depth of the furrow,” said Richard Ayabei, who is the National Ploughing Organisation chairman and the managing director of Agricultural Development Corporation.

Fans enjoyed the thrills from the sideline as the machines roared and subdued the earth with precision.

They included President Uhuru Kenyatta who confessed that he was seeing the state-of-the-art ploughs for the first time.

The 64th Edition of World Ploughing Championship's winners, Gene Gruber from the US and John Whelan from the Republic of Ireland.

64th Edition of World Ploughing Championship's winners, Gene Gruber from the US and John Whelan from the Republic of Ireland display their awards at a gala dinner in Nakuru. PHOTO | AYUB MUIYURO | NMG

“I am seeing some of these highly advanced machines for the first time,” he said.

“My government will prioritise the acquisition of such machines to help local farmers increase food production.”
Prof Japheth Onyando, an agricultural engineering specialist at Egerton University, asked farmers to adapt mechanised farming.

“The modern machines are lighter and don’t destroy the soil structure. They are designed to cope with the soil conditions and allow it to regain its fertility as they don’t interfere with its natural properties” said Prof Onyando.

The competition, which was last hosted in Kenya in 1995, heads to Germany in next year.


At a glance

award categories and the winners:

Class One conventional - Stubble:
1. Gene Gruber, US - gold
2. Eamonn Tracey, Republic of Ireland - silver
3. Bjarne Muller Neilson, Denmark - bronze

Class One conventional - Grassland:
1. Gene Gruber, US - gold
2. Stefan Steiner, Austria- silver
3. Eamonn Tracey, Republic of Ireland - bronze

Class One reversible - stubble
1. John Whelan, Republic of Ireland - gold
2. Marco Angst, Switzerland  - silver
3. Bob Mertens, New Zealand - bronze

Class One reversible - grassland

1. John Whelan, Republic of Ireland - gold
2. Thomas Evans, Canada - Silver
3. Kevin Albright, USA - bronze

Overall winners Conventional:
1. Gene Gruber, US - gold
2. Eamonn Tracey, Republic of Ireland - silver
3. Bjarne Muller Nielson, Denmark - bronze

1. John Whelan, Republic of Ireland - gold
2. Bob Mehrtens, New Zealand-silver
3. Yves Thievon, France - bronze