Appendix 9
The Clover Mystery: A Probable Solution of It

Read at the Meeting of the British Association for theAdvancement of Science at Cambridge, 19th August 1904

Judging from my own observation, and the opinions of the numerous visitors to my Clifton-on-Bowmont experimental and demonstration farm, this subject is of increasing importance. 'No one', said a visitor lately, 'can be certain that if he sows Clover he will be sure to get a crop of it.' 'If you can only solve the Clover difficulty,' said another, 'you would be of the greatest service to agriculture.' 'This crop of Clover', said a third, looking at a crop growing on the poorest field on the farm and keeping four ewes and their twins per acre, 'is worth going 200 miles to see.' What a deplorable condition must our agriculture be in if such things can be said of that nitrogen-collecting crop on which the success of the subsequent crops and grazing so largely depends. The following experiment and the explanation of its results, throw much light on the subject. One of my agricultural visitors laid down with one of my mixtures (without rye-grass) two halves of a field with seed bought from our respective seedsmen. In both cases the production and appearance of the Clover after the harvest was the same. By the spring following the Clover supplied by his seedsman had vanished, while that supplied by mine continued to flourish. Being anxious to compare the Red Clover supplied to me with that supplied to my agricultural visitor by his seedsman, I asked a neighbour of the experimenter to take home some of my Clover plants (grown from seed supplied by my seedsman), but he was unable to make the comparison as not a single plant from the seed which had failed could be found. Had the whole field been sown with seed supplied by my agricultural visitor's seedsman, there would, of course, have been no Clover at all, and the farmer and his friends would have said, 'Oh, Clover sickness again,' and thought no more about the matter, such disappearances being quite common and invariably accounted for by that supposed malady. On. referring the experiment to my seedsman and asking him to explain why my Clover (supplied to me by him on a large scale for upwards of twenty years past) has always succeeded, while that of my neighbours has often been a partial, and not unfrequently a complete failure, he has replied as follows:

    'As regards the unfailing success of your Clover crop, I think this is, in the first place, due to your deep cultivation, by deep-rooting plants, and, in the second place, to the use of seed of a good and hardy strain, and that has been grown in a suitable climate. How much is relatively due to the system, and how much to the seed, it is impossible to say; but you have abundantly proved that the two together have resulted in unfailing success. The Red Clover you have used at Clifton-on-Bowmont has been the late-flowering red variety, which is exclusively grown in England, chiefly on the Cotswold Hills, and the quantity of seed raised annually bears a very small proportion to the quantity of Red Clover annually sown in Great Britain. But there are other varieties of Red Clover, grown in England and other countries, which are very desirable, such as ordinary English red, Canadian, Russian, North of France, etc. -- hardy sorts of large growth -- and if these strains of the best quality were exclusively used in this country, and grown on your system, I do not doubt that the Clover crops of the United Kingdom would be as invariably successfal as are the crops at Clifton-on-Bowmont.'

The failure then of the experimenter above mentioned to grow Clover from the seed obtained from his seedsman was evidently owing to the latter having supplied seed grown in the South of France, Italy, the United States, or some comparatively warm climate, and I think it is perfectly clear when a crop of Clover comes up in a thoroughly satisfactory manner in the autumn, as that of the above mentioned experimenter did, and totally perishes by the spring following, the failure can only be attributed to the seed having been produced in some much warmer climate than ours.

Let us now turn to the cases where the failures are partial, or, in other words, where the crop falls far short of what it might and should be. In this connection the experiments and results at Clifton-on-Bowmont conclusively support the value of deep-rooting plants and grasses and the system of farming adopted, which is fully described in my Agricultural Changes and Laying Down Land to Grass.

On ploughing down the first turf in my system of rotation a great improvement in the Clover crop is perceptible, out a most marked improvement is shown, which cannot be estimated at less than 25 per cent, after ploughing down the second. The increase of Clover then rises in proportion as the land is filled with decaying vegetable matter and deeply tilled with the agency of roots which enable water to pass rapidly downwards and rise as freely, by capillary attraction, to supply the great demand of the Clover for moisture. There is then no difficulty in forming a decisive opinion as to one of the steps necessary for obtaining the fullest and most certain success in growing Clover, and I say certain because we have succeeded equally well in growing good crops of Clover in seasons of the most severe drought as we have done in the most favourable seasons.

If the preceding arguments are sound, they lead to the certain conclusion that the use of a large proportion of ryegrass is adverse to growing Clover with the fullest degree of success, for it has been found by experiments made by the Highland and Agricultural Society that the amount of roots left by a mixture of natural grasses (other than ryegrass) and Clover is about twice that from ryegrass and Clover, and, I need hardly add, must be much greater in the case of the mixtures used by me. It must be considered further that as ryegrass is a rapid grower it deprives the Clover of food, and what is probably of more importance, moisture at a critical period of its growth. It is not then surprising to find that Clover flourishes the better as the quantity of ryegrass is diminished, and its place supplied by the other natural grasses.

There are then three things probably necessary if we wish to grow uniformly the fullest crops of Clover no matter what the character of the season may be, namely (1) seed of a hardy strain, and drawn from a suitable climatic source, (2) a farming system that will deeply till the land with the agency of deep-rooting plants, and store it with much humus, and (3) the exclusion of perennial ryegrass or its reduction to a small proportion of the mixture used.

Let us now consider the minor contributory causes of failure to grow the fullest crops of clover. These are:

  1. sowing an excess of clover seed;
  2. injudiciously grazing in autumn and spring, more especially of course in the first twelve months;
  3. cutting the covering crop so closely as at once to bleed the Clover and leave little shelter for the plants;
  4. failing to roll the land judiciously in first autumn and spring and especially before admitting stock; and
  5. raking the stubble and thus injuring the Clover plants.

As a sixth minor cause I was at first inclined to add, 'the too frequent repetition of Clover', but on further consideration I have doubts as to whether the usual repetition of the plant, though more frequent than in the case of my farming system, is at all hostile to growing fairly good crops where suitable seed has been in association with little or no perennial rye grass, for, though my system has undoubtedly largely increased the crops of Clover, we always had what farmers considered to be good crops of Clover, in the case of the four farms which have been on my hands, and of which I have had an aggregate experience of over twenty-five years, and also, with the exception of one field to be afterwards alluded to, in the case of a fifth farmed by my son, and I would call particular attention to the fact that this was the case when the farms were first taken over, and before of course my system (excepting the omission of ryegrass) had had time to influence the crops. But when I let the best of these first mentioned farms, the tenant had no difficulty in producing what is called Clover sickness, and that too more than once, and in a most marked degree on one of the best circumstanced fields on the farm. These facts certainly seem to lead to the conclusion, that if a farmer sows good seed produced in a suitable climate, and uses little or no ryegrass, he may be sure of growing fair crops of Clover, though he could not expect them to be nearly as good nor as uniformly good as he could obtain were the land cultivated on the Clifton-on-Bowmont system.

As the facts as regards the sole instance of failure seem of interest I give the manager's report of the field in full:

    Stackyard Field Grass Mixture, One Year's Hay
    Italian ryegrass
    Late-flowering Red Clover
    Alsike Clover
    Kidney Vetch

    'The seed was put in with a good mould with the exception of the heavy clay portions of the field, which at the time of seeding were somewhat rough. There was not a heavy crop of barley, and there was none of the crop "lodged".

    'There was a fair take of seeds after the corn was cut, but a want of Clover, more especially on the clay portions. The "seeds" were grazed in the late autumn with sheep, but only to a moderate extent. When the hay was cut (a fair crop) there was little Clover to be seen -- none in the heavy clay parts -- the same remark applies to the Kidney Vetch.

    'It is sometimes said that "Cocksfoot does not come the first year" -- in this field Cocksfoot bulked largely in the hay crop.'

It is, I think of practical interest to add here that I have in my long planting and agricultural experience observed the same causes of soil decline both in India and in Roxburghshire, and have successfully adopted, in essentials, the same remedy in both cases. We (the planters) cleared forest lands on the Western Ghauts of Mysore and planted them with coffee. All went well till the stock of humus in the soil fell to a low ebb, when the inevitable decline ensued accompanied by decreased production, and increased plant diseases. We then consulted the agricultural chemists, who advised varying combinations of artificial manures, but this only made matters worse, leading to a bumper crop one year and hardly any crop the next, accompanied as might be supposed, with a decline in the quality of the berry. Then I went back to nature and carted on to my land immense quantities of forest top soil, in other words soil rich in humus, and this entirely changed the aspect of affairs, as the land was thus restored in a very great degree to its virgin condition. In like manner I have treated the once run-out soil of the Clifton-on-Bowmont farm, where field after field had been enclosed from the hill. The virgin turf gave of course, with the aid of a little artificial manure with the turnips and swedes, splendid crops for a certain number of years, but as, from the distance from the steading, no farmyard manure could be applied, the inevitable exhaustion of humus ensued. There was only one way of remedying the evil, and that was to produce humus on the spot in the shape of turf. This was done with the aid of my system, and I have found by comparative analysis that I have not only restored the run-out humus, or decaying vegetable matter of the virgin turf, but supplied it in a much more effective degree, in consequence of my deepening the soil with the aid of the deep-rooting plants and grasses used in my mixture. Whether then the season is excessively wet or one of extreme drought, we produce without fail the fullest crops of clover, which, I need hardly add, are the indispensable base of all economical and successful agriculture where the Leguminosae can be grown, and not only for the food supplied for stock, but for the physical and manurial effects provided for the use of the future crops of the rotation. To sum up. If you can grow Clover you can grow grass, and if you can grow grass you can, with the aid of deep-rooting and drought-resisting plants, grow in four years a turf which is manure for four crops without any added manure, either by feeding cake on the land or artificials, except perhaps a small quantity of the latter for the turnip and swede crops, and these 1 hope entirely to abolish next year, as I have found by experiments that after ploughing up a second turf none are required. Nor are they in the case of potatoes. On comparing my yield last year with that of the Balderston Farm experiments near Linlithgow, where 20 tons of dung and 7-1/2 cwt. of artificials were used, I not only, with the aid of a good turf, beat the experiments as to amount of production, but showed a much larger profit, as I used neither dung nor artificials. In this connection it is important to note the following, as growing potatoes with the use of turf alone as manure seems to have an important effect not only as to production, but also as to superiority of eating quality of the potatoes, and especially with reference to potato disease. The variety I used was the 'Up-to-Date', and it produced 13 tons 14 cwt. per acre and there were practically no diseased potatoes, only an occasional one such as, I am told, is commonly seen in all cases. In the case of the same variety the Balderston experiments gave 10 tons 18 cwt. 6 lb., and no less than 7 cwt. 2 lb. of diseased potatoes.

It is of practical interest to note the steps taken by our predecessors in Scotland to maintain the humus of the soil by dividing farms into infield and outfield, and guarding the latter from exhaustion, as the amount of farmyard manure available could of course no more maintain the necessary amount of humus then than it can now. So far as I can judge from the leases of my property of 1782, the outfield was only to be ploughed once at the beginning of a lease, after which it was to lie three years in grass (or four years from sowing the seed, as in Scotland they do not count the first year). If ploughed again a certain course of cropping was prescribed, after which the land was to lie in grass till the end of the lease. When, however, artificial manures came in, such restrictions were abandoned, and field after field of the outfield was added to the infield till all was absorbed, and kept on a system which steadily exhausted the humus of the land. And this circumstance has of course been largely aggravated by the failure of the Clover crop -- sometimes entire and sometimes partial, as we have seen -- for is it not obvious, from what I have previously said, that the failure of the humus limits the Clover crop, and that, in turn, the failure of the latter limits the supply of the former? In this connection I may call attention to a letter over the signature, of 'Blue Book, which appeared in The Times of August 10th, which shows, by a reference to agricultural conditions and prices in France, that to provide cheap food you must have soil fertilized with humus the supply of which has been increased, through the medium of straw, by the high wheat tariff of 1892.

In conclusion I may point out that if, with the aid of a leguminous base, agriculture can be carried on for thousands of years with hardly any manure, our agriculture, aided as it is by the manure of animals, ought certainly to be able to do so without the aid of any purchased manures if the farmer can only make sure of growing large crops of Clover. In Mysore, the farmers sow six drills of a cereal crop to one drill of a bean crop, which in its early stages is suppressed by the former. After harvest the space between the bean drills is cultivated, and the crop-not unlike a French bean in appearance -- soon spreads over the ground. The straw of the crops is used to feed cattle, and their manure is burnt for fuel, the ashes only being returned to the land. These crops are repeated annually, thus giving a scientific rotation (the alternation of crops which derive nitrogen from the atmosphere with those which must derive it from the soil) each year, and with the aid of the atmospheric nitrogen, the roots of the bean and cereal crop, and the ashes of the fuel, crops, more or less good according to the season, have been produced for many centuries, and will continue to be produced. The scientific rotation of the English farmer occurs only once in four or five years with his Clover crop, and if that fails he has then to purchase plant food which ought to have been produced in abundance on the land. On entering one of my fields of Clover which was of a beautiful dark green hue, an agricultural visitor observed to me, 'This field has been nitred.' 'So it has,' I replied, 'but it has been so from the nitrogen produced on the land with the aid of my farming system.' It may be observed that when the farmer buys nitrates, he only buys a chemical agent, whereas when he grows plants which yield him nitrogen he not only acquires plant food but a physical agent as well which ploughs 'the land with its roots, ameliorates the whole condition of the soil, and thus enables the plants successfully to contend with the vicissitudes of our climate and the diseases to which all plants are liable.

From what I have previously said it might be supposed that I think that the agricultural chemist is no longer needed. That is far from my idea, but the chemist must become more of a farmer, and the farmer more of a chemist before either can work effectively in arresting the downward course of our British soils. For upwards of twenty-five years I have now had them through my hands on a large scale, from alluvial flats up to elevations of about 800 feet, and of almost every kind. I have no reason to doubt that soils elsewhere are in much the same condition, and if tthy are I am sure that, with the present agricultural system, they must gradually be deteriorating, and that the exhaustion of the soil, so universally complained of by the farmer, must be more and more aggravated as time advances; the general conditions can only be improved by providing the means for growing large and uniformly successful crops of Clover, and if this can be done, as it has been by me on the stony, steep, poor, and exhausted lands on the slopes of the Cheviots, it could much more easily be done elsewhere. But an improved farming system leading to this end can only be generally attained within a reasonable period of time if the farmer is aided by the following conditions. These are:

  1. the diffusion of practical information on the subject by Government Experimental Stations,
  2. the provision of government seed testing stations,
  3. obliging seedsmen to pass an examination (just as druggists are) before being allowed to practise their business,
  4. the guaranteeing by seedsmen of the rate of germination and purity of all seeds,
  5. that agricultural chemists should have had a practical agricultural training before being allowed to practice, and
  6. that the present system of conducting manurial experiments should be placed on a wider basis.

To enlarge on all these points here would be impossible, but numbers 2 and 6 are of such immediate importance, and can be so readily taken up and acted on, that a few sentences may be devoted to their consideration. As to point 2, it may be briefly stated that with the exception of Great Britain all the leading countries of Europe have official seed-testing stations, where the utmost facilities are given for the testing of agricultural seeds. Even Ireland, thanks to the Hon. Sir Horace Plunkett, has such a station in Dublin. Such stations were advised for Great Britain by the Departmental Committee which sat upon the subject in 1900, but the bewildering variety of our national affairs no doubt leaves little time for the Government to notice the needs of the biggest and most important industry in the kingdom. The sixth point requires notice at greater length.

The usual practice is to conduct manurial experiments on ordinary British soil, in other words soil that has been run out of humus, is therefore in bad physical and manurial condition, and which has not been cultivated nearly to the depth that it might and should be. Plot No. 1 of such land is marked 'no manure', and to the other plots are applied various manures, and conclusions drawn therefrom. Now if we assume that the agriculturist can do nothing further by himself to fertilize the soil, over and above what he does at present, no further steps would be required, and in any case nothing is to be said against this system, so far as it goes, but from not being accompanied by similar manurial experiments on soil which has been tilled and fertilized to the utmost (as the Clifton-on-Bowmont soil has been) through the agency of natural means, the conclusions arrived at by the experimenter must always be incomplete. It is evident then that in every case where ordinary British soil is used for experimental purposes, soil of similar character should be raised to the level of the soil on the Clifton-on-Bowmont farm and then experimented on with artificial and other manures similar to those used for our ordinary run-out soils. A similar course should also be pursued where grass lands are experimentally manured with the view of showing the effects of various manures inproviding more and better food for the animals grazed.on the pastures. In this way only could it be determined how far artificial and other purchased manures pay the farmer who chooses to use to the utmost, as I have, the resources which nature has placed at his disposal. My own experiments are too limited to enable me to pronounce a confident opinion, but, at present prices of farm produce, they lead to the conclusion that purchased fertilizers, though giving an increase of crop, do not pay after the land has been cultivated for a rotation on the system I have adopted. But should the prices of farm produce rise such manures would certainly be required and after a considerable lapse of time it is probable that, even with my system, certain soil ingredients would become so deficient as to give rise to a demand for purchased fertilizers. Fully to determine those important points ought to be the aim of all who are interested in the progress of British agriculture, for cultivation on the old lines, leading to decreasing humus and increasing manure bills, is no more a remedy for low prices than one-sided free trade is for free imports, and it is only by arriving at the utmost safety and economy of production through the agency of natural resources used to the utmost, that our agriculture can be placed on a sound and enduring basis. When this has been attained -- when the land has been cheaply and deeply tilled and aerated with roots, and thus inter-penetrated with humus -- the value of the chemist and the manure merchant will be most strikingly apparent, and will be as absolutely certain as, in consequence of the low state of fertility of our soils, the value of both is at present uncertain. If you apply artificial manures to a mineralized soil you may lose much of your money if the season is either over-wet or over-dry. If you apply them to soil amply supplied with humus the results from the manure are certain, as a fully humus-fed soil is able to set at defiance the vicissitudes of the season, and besides, ripens the crops earlier (last year my barley was got in in good condition, while that of my neighbours was caught by the rain), and from giving a good nidus for the plants, renders them less liable to disease.

I think I have now established the fact that the future success of our agriculture depends upon growing full crops of Clover, and shown how this can be done with absolute certainty, and I may mention in conclusion that I have made a list (published in The Farmer's Gazette, Dublin, 28th November 1903) of no less than twenty-six distinct consequential advantages which arise out of growing it with the aid of the system of farming adopted on my experimental and demonstration farm. This consists of putting down a mixture of three large grasses, one small one, three clovers, kidney vetch, chicory, bumet, and yarrow, which is left for four years, or more, if desirable, and is followed by turnips, oats, turnips, and barley or oats with grass seeds. With this system weeds are so completely abolished that none have been removed from the farm for the last twelve years, and visitors have said that they had never seen a cleaner farm. The effect on the health of the stock has been most marked, partly, I think, from the drainage caused by the deep-rooters, and partly from the tonic properties of the burnet and yarrow, and from the variety of food supplied. At very large sale this year my half-bred ewe lambs topped the market, I obtained first prize for the tup lambs at the Border Union Show at Kelso, and it may be mentioned that, with the exception of some given to the twenty rams annually sold, no artificial food is used with the sheep stock on the 1,250 acres of which the farm consists. Do not the facts in this paper seem to show that on the whole the cheapest and best manure merchant is the seed merchant, and that he is also the cheapest cultivator and drainer of the soil, the most economical producer of meat, the best preserver of the health of stock, and the best promoter of their condition?

    Robert H. Elliot
    Clifton Park, Kelso

Postscript to Paper Read at the Meeting of the British Association at Cambridge, 1904

It may be advisable to note that my paper has been written from a practical farmer's point of view solely. His efforts should, I suggest, be directed mainly to methods for the most economical production of crops, and the prevention of the diseases to which both crops and animals are liable. The discovery of new manurial resources, the question of the application of chemical fertilizers, and the advisability or inadvisability of adopting curative methods for plant and animal diseases should be left to the scientific observer. As to the last named it is of importance to remember that when all the conditions are favourable to health the diseases of plants and animals exist as a rule to a comparatively small degree, and that they only do so to an injurious extent when circumstances are unfavourable. As regards the truth of this rudimentary fact I have had ample evidence both in the case of my Indian and Clifton-on-Bowmont experiences, where healthy conditions of soil, and general circumstances favourable to health, have shown most marked results as regards the diseases to which animals, plants, potatoes, and turnips are liable. It is of great importance, too, to remember that when, by preventive measures, the farmer spends money in such a way as to reduce losses from diseases, he is certain, as I have previously shown, to get a profitable and permanent return for his outlay, while the return from curative measures is always uncertain, and costly, and is generally of a temporary nature.

One word more. It is of practical interest to note that the farmers of the Eastern States of America are recruiting their run-out lands, not as farmers are being urged to do here, and are doing to a considerable extent, by purchased fertilizers, but by growing leguminous crops by which, at the smallest cost, the land can be both chemically and, what is generally of more importance, physically fertilized, and much of the required nitrogen obtained from the atmosphere. In this connection a question of great importance in its immediate and consequential results arises. It is this. If the land by good farming can, with the aid of natural agencies solely, be fully supplied with nitrogen, why should the farmer purchase it? And if there is no need,of his doing so why should the landlord have to pay, under the Unexhausted Manures Act, for any portion of nitrogen-yielding manures? It is a remarkable fact that the efforts made by the legislature, by means of costly experiments with artificial manures, and an act to protect the purchasers of them, should tend, not to good, but to bad farming of a positively injurious form, to a greater and greater reliance on purchased fertilizers, which must always be uncertain in their action and often exhaustive to the soil, rather than to a reliance on that slowly decaying vegetable matter which must yield a certain profit to the farmer and steadily increase the fertility of the soil. And it is, if possible, still more remarkable that the Government should refuse to give compensation for nitrogen stored in the vegetable matter while it grants compensation for the unexhausted residues of artificial manures and cake fed to animals on the land.

It must be remembered that if the fertilizer bill can be cut down on some farms by the adoption of my system of farming this reduction will be more than made up to the manure merchant by the largely increased demand for artificials for the turnip crops of the land which will be again brought under cultivation when my system becomes general-land at present abandoned to worthless pasture, because it would not pay to cultivate it on the old farming system. When the system spreads morrwidely it seems to me clear that much down and more lands may be cultivated on the Clifton Park system.

It may be pointed out lastly that besides the required seed-testing station, and an act to compel seedsmen to guarantee the seeds they sell, an act is urgently required in order to keep spurious, diseased, and adulterated seeds out of the country. In America the Custom House officers take samples of all lots of seeds at the ports of arrival, and forward them to Washington for examination, and the seeds are at once allowed to pass on to their destination, but if the seeds are bad, or do not come up to a certain standard of quality, the names of buyer and seller are published, and thus public warning is given as to the holders of bad seeds. As farmers here are quite unprotected in this matter, spurious seeds, diseased seeds, and seeds mingled with weed seeds are imported without any restriction. It is hardly necessary to add that, unless farmers are aided in their work as the farmers in other civilized countries are, it will be hopeless to expect any rapid progress towards amending the present depressed agricultural situation.

Next: A Map of Clifton-on-Bowmont Experiment and Demonstration Farm

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