Practical Farm Management
Having examined in some detail my system of organic surface tillage which eliminates the use of the plough, and which is basic to the whole of my farming practice, I can devote the rest of this book to practical details of the application of the system to my own particular farm.
Soil Management and Cropping Rotation
The basis of the effectiveness of nature's husbandry is a fertile soil -- and the measure of a fertile soil is its content of organic matter, or ultimately its humus. Nature bases all her forms of life on humus and attempts nothing without it. Indeed, until she has created it, nature's process of plant and animal life cannot go on. Though often in later stages of the cycle of life nature is known to substitute, she has no substitute for humus -- a point which is paramount to our conception of successful fertility farming.
Upon a basis of humus, nature builds a complete structure of healthy life -- without need of disease control of any kind. Nature does not treat disease because she is the example of perfect health -- disease is the outcome of the unbalancing or perversion of nature -- and serves as a warning that something is wrong. Disease is the result of a removal from natural context or the withholding or perversion of natural nutriment.
The avoidance of disease is therefore the simple practice of natural law.
Upon a basis of humus, nature sows her seed -- or rather the wind and the birds do it for her. There is no ploughing -- no cultivation, no preparation of a seed-bed. The perfect seed-bed is the covering of organic material which has been gently laid upon the earth.
Nature does not even disturb the soil to cover her seed, but drops loosely over the seed more potential humus, in the form of leaves and twigs. Thus speedy germination is assured. Growth commences and is nurtured by various wonderful processes all automatic and adequate to the needs of the plant -- not one of them is in any way capable of satisfactory substitution by man -- though the scientist believes he has improved on nature's ways and that nature is no longer capable of growing abundant crops without his assistance.
But on the organic farm, substitution is never necessary. Except on the thinnest hill land, which probably should not be farmed, in any case, without long recuperative treatment, all the necessary mineral nutriment, which the soil analyst considers most important, is present, though not available until released. This is done in the process of decay of surface organic matter which in the presence of free oxygen releases carbonic acid, which in turn dissolves the minerals in the soil to make them assimilable by the plant.
The difference between this natural process of plant nutriment and the chemical methods of man, is that man provides his artificial nutriment in water-soluble form and the plant has no alternative but to absorb it if it is to take up any moisture at all -- because all the water particles, known as the soil solution, in the soil hold the chemical in solution. The plant is stimulated and builds up what Sir Albert Howard called 'a bastard structure' derived from inorganic nitrogen instead of from the organic protein of the humus.
The artificial provision of soluble nutrient short circuits the mycorrhizal association previously mentioned. This is the process whereby fungal threads -- known as mycelium -- develop in the humus and invade the roots of the plant. This mycelium is rich in organic protein which is digested by the enzymes of the root cells. The sap then carries this nutriment to the green leaf and enables it to develop.
It is this process which is vital to the health of the plant, for it is known that it takes place only in the presence of humus and that plants deprived of it either by 'short-circuit' feeding, or by lack of humus, succumb to pests and disease.
The complete explanation of the ability of naturally fed plants to resist disease is not clear as yet. But I believe it is dependent on a supply of plant hormones from the humus to the plant and eventually to the animal and man. We know the importance of vitamins to the health of all living things. It seems certain that hormones are even more important -- and there, nature is so complex that it is not possible to provide them in the right form synthetically. Attention to the organic content of the soil is therefore the only certain means of ensuring adequately the hormones that are an essential link in every phase of life. They are the life force of nature and are present only in the fresh living nutriment of plant, animal and man. They are not present in a life-maintaining and health-giving form in inorganic elements, or in material that has been mortified by excessive heat. Hence the need for fresh raw food of organic origin for all living things.
The most important aspect of surface tillage is the maintenance of surface organic matter. This is important to any type of good farming and indispensable for healthy crops; but it is an essential part of farming without the plough. For soil lacking in humus is difficult to work with any tool, even with the plough. It is the diminishing sponginess of soil that has contributed more than anything else to the need for more cumbersome machines and more vigorous cultivation in modern farming.
We set as our ideal of good soil the leaf mould of the forest floor. The nearer this ideal is approached on a field scale the less cultivation is needed. For such leaf mould is so porous that it does not need even stirring to incorporate air; it is already itself composed largely of air. Taken in the hand, it feels light and spongy. Seed need only be dropped in soil of this kind to find coverage, warmth and moisture, the ideal conditions for healthy vigorous growth. It is free from weed seeds because a material so full of air and nutriment, so full of moisture and dissolved mineral salts, quickly germinates any seed that may be present, bringing it to a stage when it may be destroyed if not required. Airless soil lacking in humus, on the other hand, tends to preserve weed seeds until such time as the surrounding conditions are ideal for germination and growth.
Not only is ample organic matter imperative, but it must remain on or near the surface. It is useless to apply heavy dressings of organic manure and then to plough it down out of reach of aerobic bacteria, earthworms, and other organisms of decay. At a depth greater than five or six inches at the most, depending on the type of soil, the process of decay ceases and putrefaction (i.e. decay by fungi and bacteria working without oxygen, which break it down to gases of low food value) takes place. Lower still the material tends to be preserved for long periods and only broken down as it may be allowed some contact with air as a result of subsoiling or other disturbance of the lower soil. The ideal to follow, then, in preparing a soil for sowing by the methods here described, is that which nature employs; but because of the long years of exploitation to which all our cultivated soils have been subjected, modification, to the extent of assisting mechanically the incorporation of the organic matter with the topsoil, is necessary.
The imitative processes may be summarized as follows:
Except initially when it will be necessary to break the old plough pan and admit the air to the subsoil by means of a subsoiler, we may cease to touch the soil below a depth of three inches, except inasmuch as the deepening humus of the soil admits the disc harrow in the process of surface working. But on most farms the shattering of the subsoil is a necessary first step towards getting the soil right for organic surface tillage.
This work is done with a tool called a subsoiler, which is available on wheels to be trailed or as a hydraulic fitment for tractors equipped with a hydraulic power system. The active part of the tool is merely an arm which penetrates the soil to a depth of fifteen to twenty-four inches, shattering the subsoil without bringing it to the surface. This is done, generally up and down the slope where one exists, at intervals of four feet apart, or less if tractor wheels allow it without compressing the subsoiled part.
Once each field has been subsoiled it should not be necessary to repeat the operation or to touch the subsoil in any way, at least for the duration of a rotation. If it is convenient to subsoil the land once in each rotation, that is every seven or eight years, it will be beneficial, but once deep-rooting herbal leys have been all round the farm, and are continued in the rotation, even sub-soiling should not be necessary. There is no better means of aerating the subsoil than by the roots of herbs like chicory, burnet, lucerne, and dandelion, all of which penetrate to a depth of three or four feet and more in as many years.
1a. Compost is spread on stubble and disced into surface soil. Into this mulch seed is drilled or broadcast
1b. Ley management. Topping off the ley after grazing and spreading dung droppings
2a. The Abundance of Fertility Farming. An 84-bushels-an-acre crop of Pilot wheat grown by 'Fertility farming' methods at Goosegreen Farm
2b. The Desolation of 'Scientific Farming'. American News Agency photograph depicting 'near record winter wheat crop averaging 18.4 bushels an acre'. (Quoting U.S. Department of Agriculture news release.)
It is as a result of experimenting with surface tillage since 1944 that I have come to the conclusion that we can make the most economical use of available resources by maintaining an adequate supply of organic matter as a surface skin to the soil, relying on the natural action that this engenders to perform all the cultivation of aeration deeper than two to three inches.
The mere omission of the plough is in itself a contribution to the effective organic content of the soil. The solution to all mineral 'deficiencies' is adequate organic matter at the soil surface. It is on this assumption that I have restored all my 'deficiencies' without an ounce of chemical manures. Instead I have maintained the organic content of the topsoil by means of frequent green manuring or sheet composting, and by utilizing all the wastes of the farm -- straw, hedge trimmings, yard scrapings, sawdust, old sacks, and a small proportion of farmyard manure -- to make compost.
Green manure is provided by undersowing cereal crops with trefoil or broad red clover and Italian ryegrass, and by sowing mustard on the bare land in between crops, discing them into the surface, rather than ploughing them under where they would be useless (this is called 'sheet' composting, a term originated many years ago by Sir Albert Howard in India); for, six inches below the surface not only are green crops or organic manures of no value to the shallow-rooting crop, but they act as an obstacle to the capillary flow of moisture to the crop. The crop is sown in the churned-up green manure on the surface, either by means of a disc drill or by broadcasting and afterwards discing if the amount of organic matter makes drilling difficult.
We are now realizing that we have been mistaken to regard weeds as enemies of the farm crop. Most weeds are deep rooting plants which penetrate the subsoil and bring to the surface valuable elements (not available to the shallower-rooting domestic crop) which have been plundered from the topsoil by years of exploitive methods. I have seen my Jersey cattle going around patches of nettles or docks, eating off the flowering tops and relishing something that they have been unable to obtain from the simple shallow-rooting ley mixture.
But it is difficult to make use of weeds in our crops and yet keep them in control. So the thing we must do is to get back into our dairy pastures as many herbs as possible, to assist the health of the cattle grazing the leys and to benefit the topsoil in a way which any amount of chemical dressing can never do. All my leys contain a high proportion of these weeds deliberately sown -- burnet, chicory, plantain, wild vetch, sheep's parsley, dandelion, sweet clover, chickweed -- and when the leys have been down four years and developed roots to a depth of several feet they are then most relished by cattle. The cattle did anything to get from the younger shallower-rooting leys, when I still had some, to those herbal leys that had penetrated the valuable untapped resources of the deeper subsoil.
Deep ploughing can never achieve the same effect, for the elements remain locked up until worked on by organic acids from the humus and the rootlets. Bloat has become a thing of the past since such leys were used, whereas before I lost cattle every year when I practised the method of sowing leys with three or four ingredients only. This is due partly to the more fibrous nature of the herbal ley, the more substantial growth of grasses and clovers grown in soil of high humus content, as compared with the quick-growing chemically stimulated product, and partly to the reserves of elements essential to digestion made available by the deep taproots of the herbs in the ley.
We farmers have almost forgotten about trees and our only thoughts about them nowadays are to decide how best we can cut them down, to make way for larger and more powerful machines. But the slow disappearance of trees from our farmlands has resulted in serious flood and drought problems, and in declining fertility. Trees take up moisture and hold it as required, and it is now common knowledge that the serious drought areas are those with few trees. Further, the roots of trees penetrate to a great depth, bringing up minerals and trace elements to the leaves which are subsequently deposited to contribute organic matter as well to the surrounding fields. Leaf fall may seem to be a small contribution to fertility, but it is an extremely valuable one which cannot be satisfactorily substituted artificially.
Optimum fertility is therefore as dependent on a proper proportion of the farm being devoted to trees as on the application of manures. At least one-twentieth of the farm acreage should be occupied by trees, most of which will, of course, be in hedges. If the farm carries a smaller acreage than this, immediate attention should be given to planting varieties which will have a cash value to the farm.
I am not as knowledgeable about trees as I would like to be -- or as I think a good farmer ought to be. When I had my agricultural training, trees were entirely ignored as a farm crop, but they can be made a valuable cash crop apart from their fertility value, and should have serious attention as such in the future. But I have got hold of information which will enable farmers to make a useful start with trees as a crop. The society known as The Men of the Trees, founded by Richard St. Barbe Baker at The Gate, Abbotsbury, Dorset, will give any more detailed information about technical matters and sources of supply of trees.
Planting Distances. An average distance of five feet apart each way will suit nearly every timber tree. For shelter belts, make the rows six feet apart, with trees four feet apart in the rows, and the outer windward row eight feet or more apart. These distances work out at nearly 2,000 trees per acre, which allows for filling blanks.
Cultivation. Grass is a greedy enemy of young trees. The ground should be cleaned, and a crop of red clover, sown before planting, will keep the ground cool and free of weeds without smothering the young trees. Otherwise the ground between trees should be hoed the first two years.
Planting. Any soft weather between autumn and spring is suitable. The ground can be marked out with a planting marker, and trees rapidly planted at intersections. It is essential to keep tree bundles damp in bags or baskets, only exposing a few roots at a time. Avoid windy and frosty days.
Size of Trees. From eighteen inches to two feet is the best size on good soil. Scots firs are very tough, and may be smaller. Also try acorns sown in rows like peas.
Shelter Belts. For an orchard, or limited small area, a single line of trees may be used. One of the best is Lawson cyprus or Nutka cypress. At eight feet apart they join to make a solid wall, not too high and not too thick. The usual shelter belt should be of five or six rows. The windward row should be of spruce on damp soil, of Austrian fir on dry soil, at ten feet apart to make solid trees. Between the spruce plant alternate trees of birch or poplar to nurse them. The inner rows can be of timber trees for your particular soil, chosen by an expert.
The fast growing hybrid poplars will hide a two-story row of houses in seven years. Cricket bat willows rightly treated can be ready for bats in as little as twelve years. Birch and ash can make useful farm timbers in ten years, and even oak can be useful in fifteen years if very closely planted, as it should be.
In five or six years Sitka spruce, hybrid or Japanese larch make massive young belts which will shelter stock, crops, and working yards. Your farm can be changed from bleak bareness to pleasantly dressed landscape in a dozen years, under average conditions, in less under rich conditions.
Varieties to Plant and Their Uses Variety Soil and Situation Uses Alder Waterside tree. Timber for underwater work, edging streams and ponds against wear; also charcoal, clogs, etc. Ash For waterholding limy soils. Will always sell. Plant plenty. Coachbuilding, handles, hurdles, oars, etc. Beech Well drained lime soils. Chairs, furniture, crates, creosoted posts. Elm Greedy hedge weed. Far too many in our valleys. Fewer more beautiful. Nail-tough, boxes, cartwork. False Acacia (Robinia) Dry hot soils. Valuable everlasting post wood. Spokes, fences, furniture, cartwork, wood nails, much undervalued. Hornbeam Cold, frosty, wet soils. Very hard, wearing parts, pulley blocks, tools. Oak Grows quickly on good land. Acorns from biggest trees in close groups make fine stems. Tough, general purpose timber. Even small bits find market as chair parts and wood blocks. Poplar In most land at least 15 feet apart. Valuable for boxes (no taste), fireproof floorboards, wagon bottoms (no splinters), pulpwood. Sweet Chestnut Light non-limy soils. Better than oak for beams, fences, poles. Sycamore and Norway Maple Very hardy anywhere. Hardwearing floorboards, dairy utensils, textile rollers. Walnut Good, medium lightest soils. Always valuable timber. Plant orchard style. Black Walnut Ditto. Plant in close groups for valuable timber. Bat Willow By water at 15 to 20 feet Pegs, hurdles, packing cases, cart boards, baskets, chip baskets, pulp, indoor woodwork. Larch Good soil on cold slopes. Quality long-lasting construction timber, posts, fencing. Japanese Larch More adaptable to soils. Rapid windbreak in front of slower permanent. Timber as Larch. Corsican Pine Poor dry soils. Quick grower. Rough construction timber, pit props. Scots Pine Poor medium soils. Rough construction, pit props. Austrian Pine Poor and medium soils. Tough protector windbreak trees. Spruce, Norway Soils always moist. Very hardy. Lissom bending wood, masts, boxes, pulp. Spruce, Sitka Rapid, hardy, more adaptable than Norway. Good on swampy ground. Oars, masts, aeroplane work, pulp. Good windbreak on chalk. Douglas Fir Moist sheltered climate. Not recommended for farm work, probably will be found to be much over-rated. Apple, Pear, Cherry, Yew Seedling pears close planted on moist soils soon make timber. Fine for furniture, cabinet work, musical instruments, turned bowls, etc.
The Crop Rotation
I will follow my system of organic surface tillage through a rotation, crop by crop, describing in more detail the methods of soil preparation, seeding and subsequent management of the crop.
The crop which has given rise to more questions about this method than any other, the potato, is in my experience the easiest of all to grow by organic surface tillage, and probably the most spectacular in its results as far as health of crop and saving in labour is concerned. Though it is not one of the major crops in my rotation, in view of the widespread interest and scepticism about the effectiveness of growing it by these methods, I will describe the method of growing potatoes as a part of the root and kale break, in the following rotation:
1st year Kale -- roots -- potatoes or arable silage -- beans or linseed -- 10-12 tons an acre of compost. 2nd year Oats (or wheat) -- grazed in early year, then sown with ley. 3rd year Ley -- grazed. 4th year Ley -- mown and grazed. 5th year Ley -- grazed and mown -- 5 tons an acre compost. 6th year Ley -- grazed and broken for: 7th year Wheat -- grazed in early winter and undersown for autumn and winter grazing. 8th year Oats (or wheat) -- grazed in early year -- disced after harvest to encourage weeds for winter grazing.
Soil Preparation. The process of preparation for the potato crop starts immediately the preceding cereal crop is harvested. The field is first of all disced once or twice, according to soil conditions, to germinate weed seeds. It is then left for the winter, and compost may be put on the surface and lightly disced in. But I generally keep all the compost for potatoes until the time of planting.
During the winter there will be a good growth of weeds which may be used for grazing. Though if the land does not readily cover itself quickly with weeds, something is sown in the disced stubble to effect coverage and to provide winter grazing and subsequent green manuring.
Discing to a depth of two or three inches, with the disc harrows at their most acute angle, is the main operation in the spring, and it is started at any time when the soil is sufficiently dry. We like to have a good even tilth by the end of March in readiness for planting in early April. If the soil has not been given ample organic matter in the past, or if the practice has been to plough it down too deep, the topsoil may be so hard and lumpy that the use of the roller is necessary to make an even seed-bed. This was my experience in fields that came more recently under organic treatment.
Planting. The process of planting is extremely simple.
We draw the fixed tine cultivator across the field in the direction we intend our potato rows to run. Some of the tines are removed so that the shallow grooves made by the cultivator tines are at the proper width apart for the potato rows. Eighteen and twenty-four inches apart are usual for early and main crop respectively.
The shallow row is then ready to receive the potatoes, which are planted therein at distances of about a foot apart, for early potatoes, and one foot three inches to one foot six inches for main crop potatoes. We keep our own compost-grown seed each year and select the best tubers for planting. It is customary in orthodox farming to use only the small tubers for seed, but this means that the tubers which have not had the best nutriment are used year after year. It is not possible to improve by selecting the inferior tubers and this partly explains the increasing incidence of disease in the potato crop. As with all other crops use the biggest and the best for seed, and in a few years of organic methods and your own improving seed disease will disappear and yields increase.
The potatoes are covered with compost, just sufficient to give complete coverage to every tuber. Sometimes we go over the plot with a chain harrow drawing a little of the soil into the rows, but when sufficient coverage has been given we merely leave the potatoes with their covering of compost, until there is a good growth of leaf, when we draw the earth around the potatoes in the ordinary way of earthing up.
If no ripe compost is available with which to cover the potatoes, we use any kind of organic manure, but it has been noticeable that the potatoes receiving the less matured manure always give the greatest trouble in weeding. In properly matured compost the weed seeds are killed before it is applied and practically no hoeing is needed.
The most pleasing aspect of this system of potato growing, apart from the freedom from disease and the immense saving in labour at the time of planting, is the ease with which the potatoes are harvested, for though the tubers are well covered with soil they are all at ground level and merely require to be uncovered before picking. This system is bound to improve the efficiency of mechanical lifters, and reduce the number of stones collected by the machines which collect, as well as uncover, the potatoes. (See Chapter 2, Cash Comparisons, Roots, Kale or Potatoes, for cost comparisons of this method with the orthodox method.)
We get occasional green potatoes by this method but, surprisingly, they have by far the best flavour when baked in a little butter. I always choose the greened potatoes for my own use, though I admit it would not be easy to educate the average consumer to the better flavour, and probable nutritional value, of the green potato grown by my methods.
Kale and Other Crops of the Same Type
Following a seed-bed preparation identical with that for potatoes, the kale seed is drilled, on the flat, during June. A small proportion of the crop is sown in April for early autumn cutting on land which is known to be clean. The reason for the later sowing of the main crop is that ample opportunity is allowed for discing, in order to kill weed seeds which are allowed to germinate on the surface. As all organic matter is on the surface, and this year's application is also applied to the surface and disced in, the kale germinates and grows away quickly, evading the attacks of turnip fly and avoiding the competition of weeds which have all been killed in the earlier cultivations.
Seeding rate is 4 lb. an acre, in drills, or 8 lb. an acre, broadcast, and once sown the crop is not touched, unless weed destruction has not been successful before sowing. No singling is done, and horse or hand hoeing is avoided. The growth of kale by this method is not so stemmy, has a higher proportion of protein and is of a higher feeding value than the coarse thick-stemmed kale which results from earlier sowing and singling.
Though it is perhaps the best source of protein for farm animals, the field bean is being grown less and less each year because of the many problems to which the crop is subject. Before the days of chemical fertilizers, beans were a traditional and widely grown crop on strong land. In medieval Britain they were one of the most important crops, providing protein for horses and for serfs who could rarely afford meat.
Somerset Farm Institute experimenters came to the conclusion some years ago that the main cause of bean growing troubles, particularly chocolate spot, the most serious disease of beans, was potash deficiency. So plots were laid down with varying quantities of artificial manures and dung, and the potash theory seemed to be confirmed, though the dunged plots were among the best.
In 1946 it was expected that at least it would be possible to proclaim the solution. A heavy dressing, 5 cwt. an acre, of muriate of potash, was applied in the full confidence that this would produce really healthy and abundant yields of beans. But in May of that year when I saw the crop it was almost a complete failure. The only patches that showed any promise were around the headlands, and near an old stack site, where cavings had been burned and spread on the surrounding soil.
It seems then that what the Cannington experiments proved, more than anything else, was the impossibility of growing beans for any number of years with artificial fertilizers. What appeared to be a potash problem became worse under heavy applications of inorganic potash, but showed response to organic potash in the form of straw ash.
My own experience indicates that organic manuring in the year of sowing is, however, not the complete answer, though it is an essential to a successful crop.
Some years ago I grew two fields of beans, each of about eight acres. Each had almost identical treatment. One field failed to pod after showing profuse blossom, the other produced a good crop of beans. The explanation of this was in the seed. The field that failed was grown from new seed purchased from seed growers who had reared them with artificial fertilizers. The crop that succeeded was from old seed, bought locally from a farmer who had grown his beans with dung and no artificials. The fact that both fields flowered well, but that only one podded, points to some fault in the fertilization process.
Sir Albert Howard said that he found in his researches in plant breeding that where natural cross pollination of certain plants is prevented, there is a gradual weakening of the ability of the plant to reproduce, and when I discussed my experience of beans with him, he confirmed my suggestion that generations of interference with the natural nutritional process of certain plants by inorganic manuring had an effect on the formation of the flower of the plant and consequently upon its reproductive process. There was in any case no doubt about the weakening reproductive capacity of plants inorganically fed over a number of generations.
In a letter to The Farmer and Stockbreeder in 1946, when I had my bean crop experience described above, Sir Albert Howard wrote the following about the growing of beans:
'On all sides one hears that the bean crop is a failure due to the growing inroads of disease -- fungus and insect. Why is this? I think I can supply the answer. For the last fifty years I have devoted much time to the study of the bean family, and to the methods of growing leguminous crops for seed, including beans and peas, and have I think rediscovered the secret of success. The crux of seed production in this group of plants is not in finding new varieties, but the provision of the soil conditions these crops most enjoy. The first thing to do is to grow the existing varieties properly, and wait while new types of beans are being bred. The bean like most of our leguminous crops is a mycorrhiza former, that is it exhibits the mycorrhizal association in which microscopic threads (mycelium of certain soil fungi) pass from the humus in the soil into the living cells of the active bean roots to live there for a time in partnership. Eventually these threads, which are very rich in protein, are digested. The digestion products then pass into the sap and so find their way into the green leaves where they are used for the synthesis of more protein. By this natural mechanism -- in other words, by this rule in nature -- a passage has been provided for protein to move from the humus in the soil into the leaves of the bean. If our farming does not conform with this rule the bean is unable to resist diseases like chocolate spot, or to grow a good crop of seed. Changing the variety, therefore, will not help us, but good farming will. We must add to the soil a substantial dressing of properly made compost or an equivalent volume of first-class muck if we are to get a good crop of beans. Then we shall be working with nature, and all will be well.
'But in growing beans we must avoid the use of artificial manures because these materials would appear to interfere with the digestion of the fungous threads in the bean roots and thereby prevent the leaves of the crop from producing high quality protein for the seed. When this indication is fully confirmed we shall be provided with a simple explanation of the loss of quality which always follows the use of artificials.
'My experience of growing leguminous crops, including beans and peas, for seed during the last fifty years is, of course, not in accordance with the teaching of our Schools of Agriculture, and presumably is not supported by the new Advisory Service. In my student days I was carefully taught that the nodules on the roots of leguminous crops will always take care of the supply of combined nitrogen these plants need, and that the practice of our fathers and grandfathers in always mucking crops like clover was like carrying coals to Newcastle. I gaily set out on a long adventure in research, fortified by these precepts. Practical experience, alas, soon laid them in ruins. Our ancestors were right; the professors were wrong.
'The failure of the bean crop, in the opinion of the pioneers, is the writing on the wall. Our methods of farming are at fault. To put matters right four things are needed:
- we must sweeten our bean land, when this is necessary, by a dressing of ground limestone or chalk at say three tons to the acre;
- we must shatter the subsoil pan by means of a subsoiler working fourteen to twenty inches below the surface and four feet apart;
- we must apply a dressing of properly made compost or of good short muck, at the rate of at least twenty tons to the acre, and
- we must give up the use of artificial manures for beans.'
All my experience of beans was to confirm Sir Albert Howard's views. I studied the habits of my bees in the two fields mentioned above. During the brief spells of weather in which it was possible that season for the bees to work the beans, they showed a distinct preference for the beans bred with dung. No doubt, during a very favourable pollination season, the bees are able to get around to all the flowers which are acceptable to them. In my case the bees preferred the beans grown from naturally raised seed to the beans grown from seed raised by means of artificial manures, though both lots of seed had been sown in the humus-filled soil of my farm, and though all conditions for both fields were otherwise the same.
Soil Preparation. In preparing a field for beans we start immediately after harvest, for early sowing is an essential of successful bean growing.
The stubble is thoroughly disced as soon as the grain is carried off, or should the weather delay harvest, between the stocks or tripods. The ground is left for two or three weeks for weed seeds to germinate, during which time ten tons an acre of compost is spread on the surface. If we are short of compost, raw sewage sludge is carted direct from the sewage works and spread on the surface at the same rate as compost. Sewage sludge contains quickly available nitrogen and beans thrive on it, but it does not last for subsequent crops as long as compost.
The manure is disced into the surface soil but not put under the soil. Especially if sewage sludge is used, it is important that it should remain in the presence of ample air to assist the activity of the organisms needed to break down the manure.
Sowing. The beans are then drilled in rows 22 inches apart, at the rate of 1-1/2 to 2 cwt. an acre, according to condition of seedbed and fertility of the field, or broadcast and disced in.
If you are practising surface cultivation without ploughing, the beans may be sown broadcast and covered with the disc harrows. The need for inter-row hoeing is removed by the system of surface cultivation. Weed seeds have been germinated and killed on the surface before sowing the domestic seed, so there is little if any competition for the bean. The need for sowing in rows, therefore, no longer exists. But if you prefer to sow in rows it can be done by taking some of the tines off the cultivator so that it will draw the soil up into ridges. Then broadcast the seed and afterwards harrow up and down the ridges with a chain harrow or light fixed tooth harrow. There is now also a new bean drill which drops the beans in a channel created by cultivator tines and allows the earth to fall over them afterwards.
Or you may use the old method of ploughing in the beans, so long as the plough is not allowed to go deeper than three or four inches, or just enough to cover the seed.
Linseed is one of the easiest crops to grow and one of the most valuable sources of protein for the farm livestock. I have found also that it has great medicinal value, and consider it an important ingredient of the cattle diet, however small the proportion may, through inadequate supplies, have to be.
Some difficulty has been experienced in threshing the crop, particularly after a damp harvest, when the seed may not separate easily from the husk at threshing time or if the crop is not just ripe when cut. But if care is taken to see that the crop is exactly ripe (when the heads rattle together quite noisily and when it is possible to squeeze the head between the fingers and press out ripe light brown seeds) a good threshing machine will make a clean job of linseed.
Soil Preparation. Preparation of the seed bed is the same as for potatoes, except that manuring will not be necessary. If a little compost is available there will of course be no harm in using it, but we rarely do, for we need it more urgently on other crops. Linseed is not a greedy crop and makes only small demands on the soil, It may therefore be grown almost anywhere with reasonable hopes of an economical crop, and no fear of robbing the subsequent crop. But linseed does not itself happily follow another crop of linseed, though of course successive crops of linseed are rarely likely.
Sowing. Seed is drilled in April (early if possible, though it may be delayed until the first week in May if other crops have to be sown), and our rate of seeding has progressively diminished with experience during the past ten years, from 1 cwt. an acre officially recommended, to half that quantity or even less on really good fertile seed-beds. Fifty-six pounds an acre should be ample on well-prepared average soils. We found Royal the most suitable variety, and have used our own seed for the past eight years.
No further attention is given after drilling the crop, unless it is to roll the field, soon after drilling, in order to conserve moisture in a dry spring. But even rolling is an operation which may eventually be dispensed with, as the organic content in the top-soil is increased and water holding, or rather water retaining capacity, is improved, with the increasing sponginess of the soil.
In harvesting linseed we find no special difficulties provided the knife is kept sharp. Experimenting with the binder bed at different levels did show us, however, that the stem of the linseed is less tough some inches from the ground, and much more effective cutting was achieved by raising the bed.
The only preparation needed for oats, following any one of the first crops in the rotation above described, will be to disc harrow the field twice or three times. Following linseed or potatoes or beans, this may be done in the autumn and a crop of winter oats sown, or following kale it will wait until the spring. In either case the field is quickly prepared and drilled, for it will be in clean friable condition after the kale or potatoes. Though a little weedier after beans or linseed, where compost was used on the seed-bed and left on the surface, the task of working the soil will involve only a few strokes with the disc harrow which will kill all weeds and leave a loose, easily workable seed-bed in which the oats may be drilled.
Some of my best crops have resulted from sowing as little as 1 cwt. an acre where September sowing is possible. The seeding rate is increased 1/4 cwt. for each month after September up to 1-1/2 cwt.
The ley follows the oats and is either sown under the oats in the spring or on the disced stubble after harvesting the oats.
In established leys I have found the following to be the most important prerequisites of success. Firstly that there should be adequate organic matter in the soil, and secondly that the soil should be sweet, i.e. not lacking calcium.
Clover, like all legumes, is a glutton for organic manures and moisture and it will not grow successfully in an acid soil. I choose then, for the ley, a field that has had a dressing of compost or other organic manure with one of the previous two crops. It need only have been five tons an acre of well-made compost or even less if a green manure crop was worked in with it. This will provide the natural insurance against clover starvation, which often results in soils of low humus content, and also helps the retention of moisture in the critical stages of establishing a ley.
A mixture containing deep-rooting herbs is essential to soil, crop and animal health, assisting in the aeration of the subsoil and the transfer from subsoil to topsoil of important minerals and trace elements.
The mixture I have found successful is as follows in lb. an acre:
Goosegreen Herbal Ley Mixture 4 lb. Perennial Ryegrass (S.23) 4 lb. Perennial Ryegrass (S.24) 5 lb. Cocksfoot (S.143) on light or medium land 5 lb. Cocksfoot (S.26) Plus/or
Timothy (S.51) on heavy land 4 lb. Timothy (S.48) 1 lb. Rough Stalked Meadow Grass 1 lb. Tall Fescue 1 lb. Meadow Fescue 3 lb. Late Flowering Red Clover (Montgomery or Aberystwyth) 1 lb. White Clover (S.100) 1 lb. Wild White Clover 2 lb. Chicory 41b. Burnet 1/2 lb. Yarrow 2 lb. Sheep's Parsley 1 lb. Alsike 2 lb. American Sweet Clover 1 lb. Kidney Vetch 2 lb. Lucerne 1 lb. Plantain 1 lb. Dandelion 1/2 lb. Fennel Plus 6 lb. Italian Ryegrass or a bushel of oats if sown direct. Omit Yarrow or Dandelion if indigenous.
Some plants of comfrey, garlic, raspberry, hazelnut, and cleavers are valuable as additions to the hedgerows if they are not already present. Even docks have a value, though they are, no doubt, already there.
If we are to sow under the oats, the ley mixture is sown broadcast with a seed-fiddle after the winter oats have been grazed hard to the ground by the cows, or immediately the spring oats have been sown, when a spring-sown oat crop is used as 'nurse' for the ley. Though drilling is often recommended, where there is plenty of organic matter in the surface soil I have never had a failure by broadcasting. If the ground is dry it is sufficient to cover the seed with the roller only. I find a further harrowing unnecessary.
Though spring sowing of grass ley seeds is still the usual practice on most farms, I have in recent years found the ley sown after harvest to be the most successful. The clovers may be slower to establish themselves and some of the shyer herbs somewhat deterred by a first hard winter following so close on their germination; but there is always more certainty of establishment in the autumn because there is always a certainty of ample moisture, the absence of which is perhaps the most common cause of failure after a spring sowing. We merely disc the stubble immediately after the grain is cleared. If there is time to do so and still allow an early September sowing for the ley, we allow a fortnight for the germination of weed seeds and then disc the field again.
The seed is then broadcast on the first calm day. If there is not time to allow weed seed germination, and the field is extremely weedy, we leave it till the spring, using the autumn to allow for stubble cleaning. But we do not hesitate for fear of weeds like dandelion and chickweed, for these are valuable ingredients of the grazing which is to follow, so we encourage them and use them as I describe in my chapter on weeds.
An autumn-sown ley generally provides a much earlier bite in the spring than the spring-sown ley does in its first following spring, for where there is ample organic matter to maintain soil warmth the first flush of young growth continues through the winter, at any rate in the south of England.
Grazed in the first year, this mixture will give a good yield of first-class hay in its second year. The deep-rooters will stand very heavy grazing and indeed to get the best from the ley it should be stocked so that it does not grow away from the cattle in the early summer. If the grass does get ahead of the cattle a cut is taken for silage or the field divided, leaving one or more sections to develop a bulk of growth for silage purposes.
By the fourth year my leys are at their peak and broken at this stage they provide maximum fertility for the succeeding wheat crop.
Wheat is the crop which generally follows the ley. Until such time as there is a set of disc harrows available, which will quickly and satisfactorily break a ley without ploughing, this is the only stage in the rotation when I consider ploughing necessary (though there may be occasions when the ground is too wet or too hard and ploughing will more quickly provide soil for working). But the ley should not be ploughed deeply. Four inches, or no more than is needed merely to turn over the turf, should be the maximum depth. Then the turf may subsequently be broken with the disc harrows and chopped up in the top four or five inches of the soil. To plough at a greater depth is only to lose the value of the decaying turf of the ley.
Where we have had time to do the necessary number of discings we have broken leys satisfactorily with the disc harrow and I would consider it the ideal tool for preparing a seed-bed even direct from the ley. The only objection is to the number of times which it is necessary to use the disc harrow in order to get a suitable seed-bed direct from the ley; for this reason only I would advise the plough at this stage in the rotation.
The field is then disced twice or until a satisfactory seed-bed is prepared. It need not be fine so long as the seed is covered, for winter frosts will break down any clods. The wheat is then sown in the months of September and October at the rate of 1-1/2 cwt. an acre. If the soil is rich in organic matter and the date of sowing is September, as little as 1 cwt. of seed is sufficient.
The wheat is grazed hard by the dairy herd in the spring (see 'All-Year-Round Grazing', Chapter 7) and then drag harrowed. In April or May we then undersow the wheat with 4 to 8 lb. trefoil and 8 to 10 lb. Italian ryegrass, broadcast and rolled in. This provides grazing or green manuring in the autumn and winter, and the trefoil provides by means of its nitrogen-fixing ability additional nitrogen for the wheat.
Wheat is also taken as an alternative to oats, following either beans or linseed, or even oats. Then an opportunity is provided for very early sowing and the provision thereby of earlier spring grazing, or even late autumn grazing. Wheat is really a triple purpose crop and we always sow it with grazing as a deliberate part of its treatment, as well as for the provision of grain for food and straw for bedding and compost making.
Wheat for grain alone has never been a very profitable crop, and many farmers have preferred the more lucrative barley. But managed in the triple-purpose way, and with such immense savings in cultivations as my method effects, I have found it to be one of my most profitable and certainly, after the ley, my most important crop.
After wheat, oats come again in the rotation, but in between the wheat and oats and also after the oats, we take a winter grazing. After the wheat, ryegrass and trefoil, or kale and clover, which are sown under the wheat, or a good crop of weeds will be encouraged after the oats, by immediate after-harvest discing, with the addition if necessary of a seeding of barn sweepings or weed seeds from the thresher, to provide winter weed grazing.
Crops Outside the Rotation
The rotation is not adhered to rigidly. It is merely used as a basis for the cropping plan. The condition of the field, the needs of the livestock and other factors of the moment, make frequent alterations and adaptations necessary. Additionally, some crops such as lucerne are grown on certain fields for a period of seven years, taking that field out of the rotation for that period of time.
If a field is in a particularly high state of fertility, and we may feel that another field which is due for say, a wheat crop, is in need of a recuperative crop, or at least one which does not diminish fertility, then we may take wheat in successive years on the fertile field; but if this is done, undersowing of the second wheat crop with a leguminous mixture for green manuring is never omitted.
A small part of the farm also spends a number of years under market-garden crops, again holding that field out of the farm rotation. It is also found sometimes to be convenient to leave a good ley down for an extra year, or to take a seed crop of some kind, as an extra to the rotation.
I consider lucerne a most valuable farm crop on all types of soil. It is generally advised on thin dry soils, as a provision against drought, but on farms following my methods, problems of drought are very rare, due to the ability of the deep-rooting herbal ley to maintain a good green growth in the most severe drought, and the surface skin of organic matter retaining sufficient moisture to keep cereal and other crops going throughout the longest of summer droughts ever likely to be experienced in the British Isles. But even on soils which do not suffer from drought, lucerne provides an almost continuous source of green food throughout the summer, which may be used for cutting green for cows, for tethering bulls on, as well as for cutting for hay or silage.
My own first piece of lucerne provided an interesting experiment in the subject of nitrogen fixation and usage of leguminous plants. Contrary to orthodox advice, I could not feel the necessity of inoculating any plant with bacterial culture in order to enable it to utilize a natural process. All the orthodox books and experts say that lucerne cannot be grown satisfactorily without soaking the seed in a culture of bacillus radicicola which is the organism capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen in the roots of the plant. I was convinced that the right way around the problem of providing adequate nitrogen for the greedy lucerne, was to see that there was adequate organic nitrogen in the soil. This was done by a heavy dressing of good compost on kale which preceded oats after which the lucerne was sown direct. This ensured that the soil was, by the time the lucerne was sown, rich in organic nitrogen and the organisms of nitrogen fixation. I proceeded in the month of April to sow the lucerne broadcast, and now, in its fourth year, the crop is flourishing and providing a greater bulk of cattle food than any other crop on the farm. Lucerne has never before been grown on the farm as far as we can ascertain. What is more, again contrary to orthodox advice that mowing in the first year will militate against a good establishment of the crop, we grazed the lucerne in early June, mowed it in August, and grazed it again in September -- three crops in its first year. And it was up to the knees of the cows again in the last week of February of the second year. So, at any rate on my farm, inoculation was not necessary.
I have two equal sized pieces of lucerne, one sown with 16 lb. lucerne and 3 lb. cocksfoot to the acre, and one with 16 lb. lucerne and 4 lb. timothy. It is too early yet to decide with which grass the lucerne gives the best results. But present indications are that the general advice to use timothy on heavy land and cocksfoot on light land will be confirmed. What I have found is that 4 lb. of timothy was too heavy in my case and threatened to swamp out the lucerne at one stage, but I restored the lucerne by heavy grazing in the early year. The tendency is for a much stronger growth of grass in the early spring, which if not heavily grazed may swamp out the lucerne. This early grazing has proved sufficient to keep the timothy under control. But another time I would sow less timothy, say 2 lb. an acre, or at the most 3 lb., when the balance between lucerne and grass should be maintained without undue need for grazing management of the crop.
Contrary to the established practice of sowing lucerne only on the cleanest land I consider it the best possible cleaning crop. Provided the field is clean enough to get a satisfactory establishment of lucerne, I don't worry about weeds. After two or three times cutting the crop, very few weeds remain, and in its second full year it becomes the cleanest crop on the farm in spite of previous weeds. Lucerne is especially good for eliminating thistles.
We generally graze our first growth in March, mow the second growth in June for tripoded hay, and mow the third growth in August for silage. We often get a further grazing in September or October. Throughout the summer the field is used for tethering bulls, for cutting green food for feeding odd animals, and taking to shows.
I do not consider the lucerne to be an ideal diet on its own. It does not contain a wide enough variety, compared with the herbal ley, and there is, no doubt, a case for the addition of some of the bulkier, quicker-growing herbs, like chicory, in the lucerne mixture. Neither do the cattle show any marked preference for lucerne, against the ley or even a green cereal crop for grazing, which to me is sufficient indication that it is not all a balanced diet should be. But lucerne does provide something green at times when other green food may be scarce, and it does provide an immense bulk of material for use in the winter in conjunction with other foods. What is even more important, its roots grow to a great depth, bringing to the lucerne leaves valuable mineral and trace elements which may not be present adequately in other crops.
Lucerne is also a great labour saver, needing no further attention, once established, for the seven years of its growth, beyond an application of compost whenever it is, and as much as is, available -- if possible during the winter of its third and fifth years, though it will always benefit from more frequent applications, being like all legumes a glutton for organic manure.
Green Manuring Crops
Mustard is the quickest-growing green manuring plant and therefore the most useful catch crop to be used solely for manurial purposes. Cattle do not favour it for direct consumption so that it cannot serve the dual purpose of cattle grazing or green manuring. Where there is any likelihood of the catch crop being needed for cattle, rape or turnips, trefoil or red clover and Italian ryegrass, or vetches, should be used.
But for purely manurial purposes mustard gives the greatest bulk in the shortest time, and the seed is comparatively cheap.
The mustard is sown immediately after harvest or at any convenient time between two crops. The sooner it can be sown, once the field is bare, the better, for this allows time for the growth of maximum bulk for discing in.
All the preparation needed is once or twice discing to make sufficient soil cover and once over again with the discs after broadcasting 20 lb. an acre of seed.
The crop is disced into the topsoil when in full flower, which on our land now gives a crop of about three feet high. It is never ploughed in, for this puts the mustard where it will do least good -- out of reach of the following crop, where, as likely as not, it will putrefy and contribute practically nothing to soil fertility.
Though I have some experience of wild common comfrey I have never grown the Russian variety, but I believe it has great possibilities as a spare corner crop or on land not in the rotation or around the hedgerows of the organic farm. I am indebted to Mr. Lawrence D. Hills for this information.
As a fodder crop it is on the watery side, 90 per cent, and its beta carotene in the fresh state is 77 mg. per kilogramme, compared with the content of average grass of 120 mg. Its dry analysis, taken from a recent sample shredded and put through grass drier, is protein 21.8 per cent, fibre 14 per cent, ash 13.6 per cent, oil 2.1 per cent, carbohydrate 37.4 per cent, moisture 11.1 per cent, beta carotene 122 p.p.m. which compares favourably with much grass meal on the market to-day. But the colour is poor, and the high moisture content makes it costly in fuel. Its qualities as a silage crop are unknown, but as it will give up to six cuts a year, totalling, according to those who sell it and have sold it for years, 20 to 30 tons in the first year, 40 to 60 in the second, and 60 to 80 in the third, with 120 tons as the target for an acre after that, it is worth consideration and experiment.
As fodder, it is an acquired taste. Cattle learn to like it, some eat it greedily from the start, and it has been used for horses, sheep, goats, pigs and poultry. At New Bells Farm, Haughley, Suffolk, the Soil Association use it for cattle food, and recommend it both as fodder and compost material. The leaves are on the rough side hence the specific name. It is distinct from our native comfrey, Symphytum officinale, which is a weed, and useless as fodder, but once they get the taste for the crop stock will leave even grass to eat it. It can be cut from April till November but is deciduous and is no help in winter feeding unless used for silage.
The main reason for its unpopularity is the fact that it cannot be brought in on a normal rotation, it is a long-lived perennial, lasting up to forty years, and it is very hard to kill; the roots have so much depth from which to come up that no method of cultivation will destroy it and the use of sodium chlorate is about the only way to get rid of it.
The place for Russian comfrey is in the odd corner near the compost heap and the farmyard, now growing weeds, where it can be cut quickly for green fodder or compost. It is surprising how little work with scythe and fork will fill a cart to take out to a 'threadbare' field in a dry summer. When it is not required as feed, half an hour with a scythe on an odd Saturday morning will add a ton of material to the compost heap.
The analysis is interesting in the high total of ash, which includes 6.50 per cent potash, 2.02 lime, 0.93 phosphates and 0.63 per cent manganese apart from trace elements, and of course the larger amounts of these substances locked in the organic matter. It is sappy greenstuff of this type that the economical straw-basis farm compost heap lacks.
The ground should be ploughed and cultivated, if possible getting out as many perennial weed roots as you can, and the crowns planted between March and November three feet apart and three between the rows. It sets seed rarely and is difficult to raise from seed. For the first two years it will need surface hoeing between the rows between cuts. When the plants are established weeds cannot survive under it, and the cut is greatly increased by a mulch of manure or compost.
Experiments have been tried with sawdust mulching between the rows, for the fewer weed seeds that are brought to the surface by hoeing the better. The comfrey will, even in the first year, put on so much growth in three weeks that weeds rarely have a chance to set seed and the hoeing is only to prevent them taking advantage of temporary daylight to flower and seed.
A small patch will enable the organic farmer to try the crop; he has no fear of it spreading, as the roots go down, not outwards like creeping thistle.
The few firms who have the true Russian comfrey, not forms of Symphytum officinale, charge about 35s. a hundred (£13 per 1,000 for crowns), but it is so easy to increase that there is no need to buy a further stock. After several cuts have been secured, each plant is a mass of shoots. Either about September or in March, the better season, break off all you need and plant along a furrow, turning the next on to it so they are just covered. Roll and leave to grow. Any gaps can be filled up in showery weather later in the year with further fragments broken off the parents. These should have a growing point and about three or four inches of brown thick root.
In Germany, where Russian comfrey is a favourite smallholder's crop, the custom is to leave the patch down about seven years and then fold pigs on it. The pigs are not rung and eat every bit of root they can scent, after they have cleared the foliage. This is the only way of getting rid of it economically and it enables it to be used as a farm crop like lucerne, outside the normal rotation. The pig 'grazing' system is that described in Chapter 17.
Italian Ryegrass and Trefoil
The combination of Italian ryegrass and trefoil is the obvious choice where there is a likelihood of the catch crop being needed for grazing before it is used for green manuring. We sow 8 lb. of Italian ryegrass an acre and up to 8 lb. of trefoil. This is a heavier seeding of trefoil than is generally recommended but we like plenty and in a summer like 1950 we were grateful for the great bulk of trefoil which grew up in the oats and, when it was obvious that we should never get them dry enough for harvesting in the normal way, we carried the sheaves to the silage pit, cut the bands and packed the mixture of trefoil and unthreshed oats in with a soaking of diluted molasses. This turned out to be really good silage, at least of a quality equal to hay. Without the trefoil the oat sheaves would have been too coarse for silage.
The mixture may be sown with spring oats, or wheat, or separately the day after the oats or wheat are sown; or, under winter oats or wheat after they have been grazed close to the ground in the spring and a little soil loosened with the drag harrows to make a seed bed.
Next: 6. Making Use of Weeds and Other Pests
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