Fertility Farming

by Newman Turner

Chapter 2
Cash Comparisons

I am not the first farmer to be unable to pay his fertilizer bill, and I shall certainly not be the last if the townsman's demand for cheap food grows. But letting hedges spread and weeds get out of hand doesn't help the bank overdraft; and merely cutting out artificials doesn't increase the yields. I had to farm my land and livestock out of their disaster, and I did.

For reasons which I shall explain in the next chapter, I adopted the following principles which together constitute what I have called 'Fertility Farming'. On my Somerset soil they pay both in cash and in the satisfaction of healthy crops and stock which to the true farmer is as essential a part of success as financial prosperity. There is no reason that I know why they should not give the same, or indeed better, results in different hands, on any farm in the world, with modifications to suit individual fields and conditions. I reached these conclusions after many years of experiment and five years' success on a part of the farm, all of which is now run on this system.

1. That only on land which is not adequately supplied with organic matter and is in consequence too hard and lifeless to make a seed bed, need the plough be used again. In building up to this soil condition the plough does occasionally need to be used, for instance in breaking grassland.

2. Worry about the weather can be at an end. The weather is my best friend, come drought, come rain, my crops will grow as nature intended -- from the organic moisture-laden and nutriment-rich sponge surrounding the roots.

3. Although I have used weeds for years in the making of compost, they had been something of a pest when in competition with my crops. Now they no longer offend, for without ploughing, they can be controlled with ease and they become the providers of health and sustenance for my crops, whenever I care to use them. They are the servant of the farmer; nature's free contribution to the self-sufficiency of the farm.

4. Without the plough it is possible to eliminate all the other operations made necessary by the plough -- rolling, harrowing, cultivating, and all the clod-breaking and levelling processes needed to turn the effects of the plough back to a surface suitable for sowing.

5. The disc harrow is the key implement on the farm and as far as preparations for seeding are concerned, the only essential one. Properly used, the disc will cut all kinds of green manure or other organic manure fine enough to allow the passage of the drill. Whenever the surface trash is troublesome, until such time as a suitable drill is on the market, I can broadcast the seed and disc it in.

6. The farming community can dispense immediately with the immense financial burden of chemical manures, anti-weed and anti-pest sprays; for crops grown this natural way, with only occasional use of the plough, are adequately sustained and maintained in health and free from weeds by nature's foolproof process.

7. Drainage problems sink into obscurity. All the paraphernalia of pipes and moles and tiles and trenches, with the immense labour and machinery costs involved in providing and maintaining farm drainage systems, may be dispensed with in properly afforested areas. For, of course, we must not forget that however good our farming, deforestation will bring it to naught. Except in flood and treeless areas, a soil containing adequate organic matter in the right place will attend to its own drainage problems. The man-made drain knows only how to dispose of water, which may later be needed to save the crop from death.

8. All organic matter should be applied to the surface, preferably as mature compost, though if it is kept on the surface where nature always puts it, applying it in an undecayed state may be permitted; in the presence of ample air the process of decay will continue without robbing the growing crop and adequate nutriment will be gathered from the air. Organic matter on the surface can be used with the greatest possible speed and economy by the soil bacteria and fungi, and will itself absorb from the air, by means which I must leave the scientists to explain, not only nitrogen but also other elements essential to plant nutrition, and in the process of decay release unavailable minerals.

9. Fundamental to, and perhaps the most important essential of this system, is the fullest possible use of herbs, especially in the diet of the animals in the leys. Because of the deep-rooting abilities of practically all perennial herbs, which are the kind included in leys, they bring up and prepare without extra cost to the farmer, the essential vitamins and minerals which the foolish farmer and consumer buy at great cost in bags and packets. These first benefit the cow when she eats the herbs and subsequently add minerals to the top soil when she deposits her dung.

10. A healthy man has all kinds of germs in his mouth and his system, yet daily explodes the old-fashioned theory of bacterial infection by his continuing health and his resistance to so-called attack from these germs. In the same way healthy crops and stock, grown by these methods, are not infected by disease, and only rarely by pests

£ s. d. of Fertility Farming

The effect of applying these principles has resulted in some remarkable economies and profits which compare well with any orthodox chemically stimulated farm. It is interesting to compare some of the costs and savings.

The greatest saving is on labour and power. There is also an immense saving of tractor fuel, for instance, in the fields which have been prepared for seeding with four times disc harrowing, as against once or twice ploughing, plus three or four times discing, dragging, cultivating, rolling and all the operations that are made necessary by ploughing.

On my own farm in 1942, with half the farm under crops, I had a regular staff of eight men with seventy head of commercial cattle. To-day, with a pedigree herd of eighty to ninety Jerseys and the whole farm under a four-year-ley rotation, I have a regular staff of three men, none of whom had any experience of farming before they came here.

In the matter of yields, on land which has formerly been incapable of average crops without artificial fertilizers, it may seem reasonable to expect yields to be reduced slightly in the first year without them, and again in the second year, while organic matter is being built up. But on my land the fall in yields did not take place, for the crops which required most fertility were taken on the best fields, and undersowing with a legume benefited cereal crops even in the first year. The retention of organic matter on the surface by omitting the plough was also the equivalent of a dressing of manure, even where nothing was applied.

It was this last point which really solved for me the problem of any time lag in a change over from orthodox to fertility farming methods. The avoidance of ploughing is not only an immense economy, but has the same effect on crop yields as a dressing of fertilizers. It allows organic matter to remain on or near the surface where, in the process of decay, it releases the minerals which, when the plough is used, are not available because the organic matter does not effectively release or obtain the minerals without ample air (see Chapters 3 and 4).

Some idea of my economies in cropping are shown in the following comparisons in which I take as examples ten-acre fields cropped to potatoes and then to wheat.

Roots, Kale or Potatoes

Operations which were necessary on my farm before the changeover:

Orthodox Farm
£ s. d.
The fields would usually be cultivated after harvest, which would amount to about the same cost as discing
5 0 0
The field would be ploughed in the autumn at 30s. an acre
15 0 0
Then farmyard manure would be applied. I think we could reckon that labour involved in carting and spreading raw farmyard manure, as distinct from compost, would be at least £5 more, so that the cost of spreading we could put at
15 0 0
The field would be ploughed again
15 0 0
On my heavy land the amount of discing that was required to prepare a seed-bed after ploughing was at least three or four times. I found that with ploughing, all the operations of discing and preparing a seed-bed were, if anything increased, because of the tendency of the land to bake after ploughing, whereas one might have quite loose soil after discing only. If dry weather follows ploughing it is very often an even bigger job. Then, after discing, the field would need to be harrowed and, in fact, it is generally harrowed whether needed or not. There is a tendency with orthodox farmers very often to go through certain routine operations because it is the done thing. Because it has been done for generations we farmers tend to go on, year after year, doing the same thing. We must nowadays consider what operations can be done without. So that we needed, therefore, discing twice, at a cost of
10 0 0
Ridging once
10 0 0
Horse hoeing
2 0 0
The highest cost of all, with land cropped in the orthodox manner for roots, is -- hand hoeing and singling -- about £5 an acre
50 0 0
£122 0 0

Fertility Farm
£ s. d.
Now I disc in the autumn at a cost of 10s. an acre
5 0 0
Compost would be applied at an approximate cost for labour of
10 0 0
And in the spring I would allow for discing approximately four times
20 0 0
I am allowing for what I would consider to be the maximum. Four times is probably more than would be needed for clean land, but four times would cover most requirements. Then there would be sowing of seed at a cost of
2 0 0
A total for 10 acres of
£37 0 0

This brings the operation costs by fertility farming methods to £37, and under orthodox methods to £122 -- a difference of £85 for the ten acres or £8 to £9 an acre. This does not take account, for the orthodox farm, of spraying which costs an additional several pounds -- say a modest figure of £3 an acre -- making a cost of £11 an acre more than by my method. For we never find spraying necessary as we keep our own organically grown seed year after year. Our average yield of main crop potatoes is, nevertheless, anything from fifteen to twenty tons an acre.

Wheat after Any Crop Except a Ley

For wheat, the difference is not so great, but with a crop like wheat, which, unless one takes advantage of its triple purpose (grazing, grain and straw), is not a profitable crop, the smallest saving is important.

Orthodox Farm
£ s. d.
My methods before I adopted organic farming were to plough at least once -- which for 10 acres would cost
15 0 0
It was then necessary to disc four or five times, say
20 0 0
Harrowing twice
10 0 0
5 0 0
Harrowing again
5 0 0
Then following in spring with harrowing and rolling at a cost of £5 each
10 0 0
That is a total for 10 acres of
£65 0 0

On the fertility farm I find that it is not necessary to roll as well as harrow. If the organic content of the soil is high, the soil does not pack, so rolling is sufficient; if the organic content is low, harrowing only is sufficient. The operations are:

Fertility Farm
£ s. d.
Twice discing of the stubble of previous crop
10 0 0
5 0 0
5 0 0
Harrow or roll in the spring
5 0 0
£25 0 0

Comparing these operations there is a difference of £40 on the ten acres.

Additionally on the orthodox farm there is the operation of spraying with selective weed killers at a cost of at least £3 an acre, which though not done every time is increasingly advocated as general practice. This would add a further £30 to the cost, an expense which I would never tolerate for it would deprive me of weeds which are needed later, in the stubble. This will bring the difference in cost to £70 -- or £7 an acre.

The general criticism of organic methods is the cost of making compost and spreading it. But in comparison one can reckon that the cost of artificials on most farms would more than pay for a man for a whole year making compost. Certainly on my farm our expenditure on fertilisers under orthodox methods was equal to far more than the wages of two men. It is reasonable then to say that in avoiding an artificials bill one could quite easily devote that money to the employment of at least one full-time man doing nothing but making and spreading compost. I therefore set the cost of fertilizers to balance out the so-called extra cost of making compost, though in practice I have not found that compost making is an extra cost.

The veterinary bills, of course, are a considerable item. In my experience I have found that they can be almost completely eliminated. In the first two years of farming at Goosegreen we paid out £250 in vet's bills; in the financial years ending 31st March 1949, £20, and 31st March 1950, only £11. In the latter years practically all veterinary costs were for testing cattle for sale or for my own research purposes. On the orthodox farm routine vaccination (which we have found to be unnecessary) is a costly item, not only directly but in the breeding troubles which I believe it causes. If, for instance, we were vaccinating at Goosegreen, it would cost about £30 a year, and inevitably we should have additional consequential costs. Here, therefore, is a considerable saving for anyone practising fertility farming methods. In addition, one gets the increased return from the longer life of the cattle. We expect our cows at Goosegreen to average at least ten lactations instead of the usual three, and there is no reason why the average cow should not do the same, properly managed.

Silage v. Hay

Silage versus haymaking is an opportunity for another considerable saving in labour costs. In order to make hay one needs a large staff available at the time to take advantage of the weather, so that one needs to have men in reserve at that time of the year. With silage, I find that two men going on steadily with perhaps the assistance of a boy in between milkings, making silage regardless of weather, costs are remarkably low. Two men go out in the morning with tractor and trailer, cut enough for the day and rake it up, then the third man joins them and they go on for the rest of the day carting it in. They can go on regardless of the weather, whereas in haymaking the amount of labour is much greater. I manage to make 300 to 400 tons a year with three men, and shall increase this to 500 tons next year. With the latest hydraulic lifts and green-crop loaders only two men are needed.

Avoidance of Threshing

By harvesting oats slightly green on tripods and feeding them whole in the sheaf I have reduced threshing from fourteen days to six days a year, while at the same time increasing yields. Threshing costs £20 a day, which means a saving of £160 a year on the cost of threshing.

On my 180-acre farm the annual savings, compared with orthodox methods, quite apart from any benefits in crop yields and cattle health which may result, are approximately as follows:

Root and kale crops, 10 acres
Cereals, 80 acres, say £5 an acre
Veterinary costs
Staff reductions, say
Annual saving on the fertility farm of 180 acres

These are merely operational savings. There are in addition the saving on chemical fertilizers and feeding stuffs which would amount to at least another £1,000 to £1,200 a year on my farm if I weren't self-supporting.

In addition to initial capital economies, which are set out in the Part 3, Going Fertility, if we assume say only £1,200 a year as the saving which can be made by eliminating unnecessary operations, it will make quite useful pin money for the missus, and you could then keep all your ordinary farm profits to share between yourself and the nation!

The following profits on the cattle account, the main branch of my farming business, and the milk production, indicates more clearly than any of my arguments the effect of these methods on the financial side of the farm in the years 1945-50.

Year Ending
March 1945
March 1946
March 1947
March 1948
March 1949
March 1950
Cattle Acc't
Milk Production

The 1947 cattle income was reduced by a stabilization in that year with a restriction on sales and a number of purchases for breeding purposes. This resulted in a small loss on the cattle account.

The slight fall in cattle profits for 1949 and 1950 were due to the valuer's anticipation of some fall in values and a deliberate adjustment to meet this possibility. The milk production in these years gives the real picture of the herd, bearing in mind there was no feeding for high yields and that the cattle were all fed off the produce of the farm. There was no leakage from disease which has the most telling influence on milk output. In comparison with many high yielding herds, which use large quantities of purchased concentrates, milk output, though averaging over £110 a cow, could have been higher. But self-sufficiency in feeding stuffs and fertility would have been sacrificed. Output must be related to the cost of achieving it in feeding stuffs and veterinary bills.

What is not shown in the accounts, but what gives the only permanent indication of the success of these methods, is the improvement in the value of the land.

When Sir Albert Howard first stayed with us his most pertinent question after a tour of the farm was 'Do you own the farm?' 'No,' said I. 'Well, you must,' he said. 'You are putting thousands of pounds into the value of this farm by these methods, and though you can't help but make cash profits with your methods, you must also put the fertility you're building into your own pocket.' I agreed and raised the money to buy the farm.

The farm was purchased in 1941, when I started as manager, for £7,500. I gave £10,400 for it in 1946. It was valued in 1950 at £18,750. I am told that certain further improvements, since that valuation, make it now worth £25,000. This means, in any case, that since I started, its value has increased by over £17,000. Some of this is due to general increase in land values, but I am assured by those who know, that the actual value of the farm, quite apart from market changes, is at least double what it was when I took it over as a 'C' farm ten years ago. And that to me is the true farm profit, for it is the only accurate way of measuring a farmer's success.

All my facts and figures are merely those of an ordinary working farmer and are no more accurate or elaborate. As statistics they are no doubt not of the right variety, not being the products of triplicated trial plots and the like, and I am sure they are most inefficiently presented. A research station would have weighed and measured everything, sampled and analysed it to its last definable ingredient, and would probably find me several points too pessimistic. But my experiences have convinced me that under ordinary farm conditions most practical farmers, with no better equipment, knowledge, or ability than their neighbours, would with fertility farming, produce even better results, and with modifications to suit individual farms they would produce them anywhere in the world.

Next: 3. Basis of Fertility Farming

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