How to supply Humus, Texture, and Fertility by the Aid of Deep-Rooting Grasses
by William Lamin
Humus -- Compost heaps -- The right grass for dry and sandy districts -- Improved strains of grass
It is a well-known fact that soil erosion is taking place, more or less, all over England especially in the lighter soils -- chiefly through thunderstorms washing the humus out and by strong winds blowing the small particles of humus in a duststorm: also, the dry weather frizzles up the small particles of humus and, consequently, if a farmer is not growing enough humus-making crops his soil gets worse every year. Indeed, there is very little land in England that has not lost some of its humus -- some a little, some a great deal, and some practically all. The job of the farmer is to get the humus back again into the land.
Sir Albert Howard suggests making compost heaps. That is all very well in countries like India where there is plenty of cheap labour, but labour in England is far too dear now to bring land round with compost heaps. No doubt they are a very good thing for smallholdings and allotments; but for a farm the expense would be too great, and you would not have enough for a quarter of the farm.
I quite agree with Sir Albert about the compost heap -- but you want the compost heap all over the farm. The only way to get the humus back to the land is by R. H. Elliot's mixture of deep-rooting grass for a four years ley; if you use that, you will have 'millions of men' working for you while you are asleep. When you have got a good plant of Elliot's mixture for a four years ley, don't plough it up until it has been down four years; and then you will have a better sod to plough up in four years than you would get in fifty years with a rye grass mixture. Rye grass is all very well for the wet parts of England, where they don't suffer from the dry weather; but it is no good for the dry districts, where it is soon burnt up. If there comes a dry spell, the roots are curling about on the top of the ground; they don't go down into the ground to make the humus and they don't get the moisture to keep the grass going.
When I first went to the Bottom House Farm (three hundred and sixty-seven acres), very little humus was left in the land. It nearly broke me bringing it round, as it was full of twitch, thistles and weeds of every description. And it so happened that we had a cycle of dry years, burning everything up -- corn, temporary leys and permanent pasture all alike. We used to have fifty or sixty acres of turnips every year and I never liked to start mowing the seeds until we had most of the turnips struck out and singled. I have seen the time when if you did not see about mowing the new seeds (rye grass and clover) there would soon be none left to mow. They would all be frizzled up; but when I got hold of R. H. Elliot's book on the Clifton Park mixture of deep-rooting grasses and studied it, I made up my mind at once. 'That is what my farm wants'. I never used anything but Elliot's mixture of deep-rooting grasses during the rest of my farming career, and I never had any rye grass in the mixture.
If it is poor land in a dry part of England, and you are trying to get some humus into the land, you do not want any rye grass in the mixture. When ordering the small seed mixture from Gartons', I have often been up until midnight studying Gartons' catalogue of small seeds. I always ordered my own mixture every year and I gradually eliminated some of Mr. Elliot's original mixture. I altered the mixture slightly most years, but the mainstay of Elliot's mixture is cocksfoot (leafy strain), at least ten or twelve lb. to the acre. Some farmers are frightened at using cocksfoot, as it is apt to grow coarse and in clumps, but that is because they have not got enough seed on to make it fine itself down. Even if you are in a dry district, you will have plenty to eat when a rye-grass mixture is burnt up.
We always included Tall Oat grass in Elliot's mixture, but now they have the improved strains of cocksfoot I should advise leaving the Tall Oat grass out and putting extra cocksfoot on instead, as the Tall Oat grass grows very high if it is left for mowing -- it used to grow about as high as me -- and is a bit awkward to handle.
Some seed growers are advocating strips of herbs all round the fields; but I think the herbs in Elliot's mixture, such as chicory, burnet, etc., are better all over the field, where their roots can aerate the soil and, when ordinary mixtures of rye grass and clover are dried up, find the cattle and sheep something to eat. We always had the chicory, burnet, yarrow, etc., all over the field where it wants to be.
I well remember one year, when we were seeding sixty acres down for four years ley -- twenty-five acres at the Goosedale Farm and thirty-five acres at Bottom House Farm. It was just after the Great War, and the seeds had got very dear, over £5 per acre -- I think it was £5 12s. 6d. per acre. It was a very dry year; there was hardly a seed to be seen after harvest in the Goosedale field, and it had to be seeded down again the next year. The thirty-five acres at the Bottom House Farm which had been down twice before with four years ley, were in better heart, and had got some humus in to hold the moisture, so the new seeds had a better chance.
I wrote to Gartons', telling them we had had a failure, and would they be able to make us any return, as it looked like being a loss of over £300. Mr. Pearson of Gartons' came over and had a look at them, and they returned us £50, which was very good of them, as they were not responsible for the weather.
I may say that after Mr. Pearson had had a look at the seeds, there came a big lot of rain. A lot of the seeds on the thirty-five acre field had been lying dormant and started to grow; to finish with, it was not a bad take.
I will give you an instance of how deep these deep-rooting grass roots would grow. We had a little nine-acre field close to the homeland, where we used to keep a lot of sows and a boar, and in summer-time they would about keep themselves in very good condition by grazing the field. One Sunday night my brother and I were having a look at the sows. The field, which is on a very steep hillside, and which we seldom ploughed up, had a few rabbit holes on the hill. You could very easily see right into the rabbit holes and the top of the holes would be covered with fibrous roots two feet deep that had grown from above. My brother, who likes a joke, said that I should have the roots tickling the miners' ears, Bestwood Colliery workings being underneath.
There is a big lot of land in north Notts of the type of sandy soil that my farms were, and all that land could be brought round by the four years ley. It is like throwing money away to put rye grass on that sort of land, except for one year's ley, and all the sandy land in the eastern and southern dry districts could be brought round by the four years ley system. The Norfolk four course system is now out of date. The men and lads are not there as they used to be to strike out and single the turnips. Farmers would be a great deal better growing thousand-head kale which does not want strikers out and singlers, which does not want tagging and chopping up for the sheep like turnips, and does not go mildewed in the dry weather like turnips. It is also hardy and will stand a fair amount of frost, until February -- and you could always grow a few turnips to plough in for the spring if you wanted to. Put the kale in soon enough -- while there is some moisture about -- so that it gets a good start and gets away from the fly before the dry weather comes.
Any farmer starting on the four years ley will find out that he will not want to seed down as much land as he has been in the habit of doing -- perhaps about half -- but he will have to use his own judgment, and keep some of it up a bit longer, or he might soon get more down than he wants. Even if he did get more fields down than he wanted, he could soon plough an extra one up -- even the permanent pastures -- as he would want to keep the plough going all round the farm and there is not one field in a hundred but would be improved by ploughing up and reseeding with better grasses of long ley. The Norfolk four course system would be ideal with R. H. Elliot's system of four years ley of deep-rooting grasses added to it.
R. H. Elliot considered that his mixture of deep-rooting grasses would pull the land round if a few artificials were used when the land came round for turnips. But I should not advise that, as I think he was expecting the grasses to do too much. Our seeds were always seeded down in the barley crop after the potatoes, when there was always plenty of phosphate and potash left in the land, to give the seeds a good start for the first year. We used to give the seeds a touch up every year except the first year. It would not be necessary to give the seeds artificials when you were grazing them; but I should certainly advise giving them a touch up the first year, even though you were grazing them.
Before the last war, we had always plenty of bones and kainit to run at, as there was Messrs. J. & T. Walker's bone works not far away. I may say we had a hundred and sixty tons of steam bone flour the year before the Great War. Slag will do the same; but always get as high a percentage as you can, for it takes no more putting on than a low grade, and don't forget the kainit for the light land. For our light land we always preferred the kainit and potash salts to sulphate of potash or muriate of potash, as we considered the salts did the land good. I well remember the first deal I had with Messrs. Clement Swaffield of Derby. In Nottingham cattle market it did not take many minutes to buy fifty tons of kainit, 12 per cent, at 45s. per ton. He was a very good man to deal with, and would not lose you if he could help it. He could about always afford it a bit cheaper than anybody else, as he bought in large quantities.
When I first started farming there was a noted character named Ben Hall who had his bone works on the Trent side close to the cattle market. The first deal I had with him in the cattle market he said, 'Come and fetch some bones my lad and pay for them when you like.' This just suited us as we had not much surplus money about. In those days we only paid £3 10s, a ton and we never paid him until affer Christmas. When I went to pay I would say, 'The wife wants a new dress out of this'; and he would give me £5 discount. We continued to trade with him for a nice few years until he made his business into a limited company and I could not get on with the manager. Then we traded with J. & T. Walker until the British Glues bought them and closed the works down.'
A piece before my time, I have read about some big man in the seed trade causing all the different seed salesmen to sell rye grass, telling them it was far better than all other grasses. This caused the seedsmen to neglect the grasses that were right for the leys; and I understand he did the country a lot of harm by it. No doubt neither the seedsmen nor farmers knew any better. And no doubt, too, it would be very inferior rye grass, and chiefly stalks like pinwire, different altogether from the improved strains of rye grass that are now grown by Sir George Stapledon and the Aberystwyth Plant Breeding Station.
Sir George Stapledon and the different plant breeders are certainly doing the country a tremendous amount of.good by their improved strains, alike of corn, clovers and leafy strains of grasses, and it behoves the farmer to make the best use of the idea of the different institutes and agricultural organizations, and to experiment himself -- and not be backward at asking for advice, for it is there for the asking.
When seeding down for the four years ley, you are always liable, when you have the late flowering red clover in the mixture, to get more clover in the barley at harvest than you want, and it causes you a lot of trouble to pull the clover out of the barley sheaves, if you don't want to spoil the barley. It is not very often you get the happy medium. You either get too much wet or too much dry weather, but you have to be thankful for what weather is sent. The last year I was farming, I was over seventy years old, and I had the worst year for being tormented that I ever had in my life. Everything took three or four times as much doing as it should have done. We had seeded down a twenty-eight acre wheat field for the four years ley, and to be sure the seeds got a firm seed bed we had rolled twice with a two-horse roll. It being a very wet season, the Montgomery red clover grew at a tremendous pace, and got about as high as the wheat. The wheat being about a month later in ripening than it ought to have been, the clover grew to such an extent that we had to make the whole field into silage. But it did not trouble us so much as we were used to making silage and had the implements to handle it; but we lost the wheat crop.
After that experience, I made up my mind I would try three lb. of New Zealand Wild White instead of the Montgomery Red: for the farmer on sandy land must have a cover crop, and barley crop is best and helps to pay for seeding down. If you are chopping turnips for the sheep, see that the troughs are spread all over the break [a stretch of land under crop, more particularly under a root crop], as if you have the troughs too near the chopper you are sure to have a patch of land overmanured and some laid barley [barley which has fallen owing to its rank growth and its excessive height of straw] which will kill the grass and clover seeds.
Since I retired, the Aberystwyth Plant Breeding Station have brought out a new white clover -- S100 -- which they claim will last three or four years and do better than Wild White. If I were farming now, I should certainly try it instead of the Montgomery Red for the light land -- also of course, with some New Zealand Wild White. If I wanted the ley to stay down more than four years, I should use Kentish Wild White: but remember, when bringing back poor sandy land into good condition, it is the deep-rooting grasses that will do the trick with the clover to get plenty of nitrogen from the air, and feed the grasses.
If you have got plenty of dother (spurry) and green sauce (sorrel) you can depend it want§ some lime, and this ought to be given to the root crop before the barley. We always preferred to drill the lime; we did not like lump lime, since you could not spread it evenly enough on the land.
If your land is run out, it will most likely want a complete manure, to, get the grasses a good start. When you have drilled your seed mixture in the barley, it will want a good roll to get as firm a seedbed as possible for the small seeds; but if it is on land liable to blow away, be sure the barley is high enough to prevent the sandy soil from blowing, when you have rolled it, as the wind might cut all your barley off.
When reading the Royal Journal for 1941, 1 found an article by Professor J. A. Scott Watson on reclaiming run-out sandy land. He says that our standard grass seed mixtures fail to meet the need for making a good growth the second year -- there is only a poor thin sod to plough in the second year, and after July onwards, in the second year, there is very little growth. The rye grass dies out in the second year, and leaves plenty of room for twitch and annual seeds to grow.
When I had been farming a few years, I had an experience of what Professor J. A. Scott Watson says. One winter we had been trying to fatten a hundred beasts -- ninety-six to be exact. We had a few strong Irish bullocks: we could not finish them in the yards, so we put them in a. twenty-eight acre field of seeds, but they were not a bit fatter at the end of the summer than they were at the beginning. There would have been a different tale to tell if they had been on a four years ley of R. H. Elliot's mixture of deep-rooting grasses, and it would not have mattered which of the four years they were on, as by always giving the seeds a touch up, every year, we never had a poor crop -- the deep-rooting grasses in the leys could stand the dry weather, when the permanent pastures were dried up. There is no doubt that Professor J. A. Scott Watson was right about the rye grass mixture for dry land, as I have proved in many years since.
I should say quite two-thirds of the land in England has lost some of its texture, even a lot of the best land.
It has been brought about by farming chiefly on the four course system -- clover and rye grass, and very likely there has not been a very good take of the small seeds, whereas if they had put this good land down for a two years ley, with plenty of cocksfoot, they most probably would have kept its texture about right. On four horse strong land, where farmers have been in the habit of growing three crops of wheat followed by a summer fallow, the texture gets worse every time; the summer fallow which they give to clean it does not improve the texture the least bit. If they would give it a course of four years' Elliot's mixture, the land would get opened out by the deep-rooting grasses -- including chicory and burnet -- all over the field. By the time they had given two courses of four years ley, it would be different land altogether. All good land that runs together does so because it has not got enough fibre in it to open it out; consequently, when there comes a big lot of rain and a bit of dry weather, the land sets so hard that the farmer does not know what to do with it, especially if it is sown with spring corn; he can do nothing but pray for some gentle rain to soften the crust. About two years since, a farmer friend of mine came to see me one Sunday morning, and he said to me, 'My barley has hung itself.' Now his land is good land, and it was only because the land was short of fibre that the soil ran together and formed a crust which was strangling the barley. If there happened to be no gentle rain to soften the crust so that his barley could push its way through, it would very easily be only a moderate crop instead of a good one. That land wanted a four years ley of deep-rooting grasses.
A few years since, I suggested to my sons, in order to improve the texture and humus content, that they should undersow all their wheat with late-flowering red clover, and the first year they tried it, it was a great success. It got a fair height in the wheat, and when the wheat was threshed, there was any amount of clover leaf among the chaff, and the cattle were very fond of that. The wheat was cut a fair height, and there was a good crop of clover for the sheep to eat -- one son had five hundred sheep, and the other four hundred. They did well on the eddish [second crop during same year after mowing] from harvest until the beginning of November, when they had got their potatoes up and could find time to put them on the kale, and to finish with they had a good plant of clover to plough in that had got a lot of nitrogen from the air for the succeeding crop. I also suggested to them to undersow their barley and oats with Italian rye grass, but they didn't want to risk spoiling their barley sample whilst the barley was making a good price. My idea is that every corn crop wants undersowing with clover or Italian rye grass -- to smother the annual weeds so that they have no chance to grow and reseed.
In the district where my sons are farming, the land is infested with mayweed, and I have saved a farming paper which gives the number of seeds contained in a single plant as three hundred thousand. We had an eye-opener the first year on my youngest son's farm. A field next to the homestead that was growing wheat was undersown with late flowering red clover, with the intention of ploughing it up again. Where the small seed drill had missed for ten or twelve yards, there was not a bit of clover, but one mass of mayweed, quite as high as the clover. Now here is one way of eliminating weeds, which will not only help to get rid of them, but also add to the texture and humus of the soil. My brother James has often remarked when we have been walking round my farm, 'No wonder your corn stands the dry weather better than other farmers' on similar land, because your corn has no ankle-biters.' He meant there were no annual weeds and twitch.
Next: Chapter 10
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