How to supply Humus, Texture, and Fertility by the Aid of Deep-Rooting Grasses
by William Lamin
Artificials and humus -- Sir Albert Howard's opinion -- My own experience -- Mixing artificial manure -- Bagging -- Sir George Stapledon's leafy strains of grasses -- A tribute to R. H. Elliot
In an article in the Farmers' Weekly, 16th October 1942, entitled 'Nature -- the supreme farmer', Sir Albert Howard again stresses his disbelief in artificial manures, and gives as an instance King's Lynn, on the great potato area south of the Wash, where the potato eelworm is spreading. He states that the use of large dressings of artificial manures had not only destroyed the earthworm population, but the soil texture as well, and that the soil particles had packed so closely, that a soil flora had been established, and also a weed flora made up of toad pike and other plants which grow on semi-swampy land. Under these conditions, the eelworm disease -- a trouble which invariably follows poor soil aeration -- flourishes, and the potato goes on strike.
My idea is that Sir Albert is quite right with regard to the humus content being maintained, but he is wrong in the way he proposes to maintain it. There is no doubt that in the potato district which Sir Albert Howard describes the farmers were avaricious, and grew the potatoes oftener than they ought, until they finished up with eelworm. There is no doubt that this particular sort of land was very easily worked, and the farmers could get a good deal more profit out of the potatoes than corn and had been growing too many crops of potatoes. But for Sir Albert to suggest that the eelworm has been brought about by the use of too much artificial manure is fallacy. The reason the soil particles had packed so closely was that the farmers had taken too much of the humus and fibre out of the land -- without growing a humus-making crop -- and not that they had been using too much artificial manure.
Sir Albert Howard just gives this one example of using large dressings of artificials in the potato growing district, south of the Wash; and it is very easily explained. Just to show that Sir Albert is wrong in his ideas of artificials, it will be sufficient for me to state my own experience in using heavy dressings of them. I think that whilst growing potatoes for many years I used more artificial manures per acre than any other farmer in the county; and with the aid of the four years ley of deep-rooting grasses we had a compost heap all over the farms, without having to have men turning compost heaps -- which would be very expensive now.
Sir Albert Howard's idea of artificials doping and poisoning the land is erroneous. I may say that when I took my farms they had been on hand -- one for nineteen years and the other for twenty-nine years -- and had never paid any rent or interest on the capital laid out for stocking the farms -- tenant right, etc. -- say £7,000. The Agent told me one day they had never had to find any more money to keep it going; and before the estate had them in hand, the former tenants had been gradually running them out for twenty years or more, so that they would not grow anything but rubbish and a flora of everything that was bad in the weed line.
Sir Albert Howard talks about artificials packing the soil particles which had destroyed the earthworm population and the soil texture as well. I may say that when I took to my first farm, I could not grow any potatoes any better than seed. It was only by using heavy quantities of artificials, and with the aid of the four years ley, which always had plenty of artificials every year they were down, that we were able to improve our farms so much that we had the cheek to enter for the Royal Farm Prize Competition, held at Nottingham 1914-15, for Notts, Derbyshire and Leicestershire. The experiment of having two farms side by side in the way suggested by Lord Teviot and Sir Albert Howard -- one farmed by freshly prepared humus, and the other with an equivalent amount of artificials -- would, so Sir Albert-Howard says, be an eye-opener and cause all the artificial manure manufacturers to close down. I can only say if I were twenty years younger, I should have very much liked the job of farming one farm with artificials and a four years ley, and Sir Albert Howard the other, and each be responsible for the expense. Sir Albert would be a long way behind, the first year. With artificials I should have some good crops the first year, whilst Sir Albert was making his manure and compost heaps. Where is Sir Albert getting the bulk of his stuff to make his humus and compost heaps to start the first year? It would take years to get enough freshly prepared humus to cover a three-hundred acre farm: and what would it cost at the present time?
[There has been a lot of controversy lately about the best way of getting the humus back in the soil. Lord Teviot and Sir Albert Howard's idea of making compost heaps is a very good thing for smallholdings and allotments; but yoiu could not get enough compost for the large farms, and by far the best and cheapest way to get the humus back into the soil again is by R. H. Elliot's Clifton Park System. It gives you four years of deep-rooting grasses and herbs which will also tap the subsoil for the minerals, and then you will have the land full of roots and fibre, which will hold the moisture in the dry weather and improve the physical condition and texture of the soil.]
I think Lord Teviot and Sir Albert Howard have been to the eastern hot climates, and seen the way they make their compost heaps, and have been filled with the idea that compost heaps are what the farmers in this country must have to get the humus and texture back to the land.
As I have said before, when I took my second farm, three hundred and forty-seven acres, in his last year the preceding tenant had only four days' threshing, and no fodder stacks for his cattle, and very little of anything else: and the second year we had it we had fourteen days' threshing -- and a mile and ten yards of potato pits. Now this would have been impossible without the aid of artificial manures, and plenty of them in the right quantities. According to Sir Albert Howard, a trial on Lord Teviot's lines is already in progress at Haughley in Suffolk, under the direction of Lady Eve Balfour, and Sir Albert Howard trusts that all those interested in the land will do all they possibly can to provide the financial support needed to carry her project through to a successful conclusion. I may say it is a foregone conclusion in favour of the artificial manures; and why does Sir Albert want the farmers to aid Lady Eve Balfour financially with her project, when he is so sure of his own ideas, that it will revolutionize farming in England?
I cannot understand why some people get it into their heads that plants of all crops grown by the aid of artificial manures are more subject to disease than plants grown without any artificial manures. My experience is that plants grown with artificials are a deal healthier than plants grown without any. I have seen plenty of miserable-looking crops of corn, roots and grasses in neighbouring farmers' fields, that only wanted a touch up of a complete artificial manure to make them into good growing healthy crops. Crops are a deal more subject to disease when they are not growing properly and short of some artificial manure.
There is no doubt that by the continual use of artificial manures and growing too many corn crops you can take all the humus, texture, and fertility out of the land and make the physical condition of the soil so hard that the bacteria and earthworms cannot do their work properly. By the judicious use of artificial manures on the bad and marginal land 100 per cent bigger crops could be grown. Many advisers on artificial manures prescribe too much nitrogen; some good land wants hardly any nitrogen and no more should be given than the crop will stand without getting down. Poor land can do with one to two cwts. of nitrogen to the acre, depending upon the condition of the field.
On the other hand advisers frequently fail to prescribe nearly enough phosphate: it strengthens the straw and makes better grain. It also helps the clover crop so that it can get plenty of nitrogen from the air. Potash, too, should never be forgotten on sandy land; almost all land wants some, more or less, according to its condition and what crop you are growing. And all land wants lime periodically; I believe in frequent small dressings put on with the drill rather than large dressings at long intervals.
As I have remarked before, I am a great believer in artificial manures. From the time when we took the Goosedale Farm until after the war when we gave up growing potatoes, we always spent up to and sometimes over £2,000 in each year. One year during the last war, when bones went up £14 1Os. per ton, we spent £3,300 for a less quantity of manures than we had paid £2,000 for previously. One day, when I was having a ride to see the blacksmith, I happened to meet a man from one of the firms that we had our bones from for years, and I told him they were killing the goose that laid the golden egg. They had raised the bones from £3 17s. 6d. per ton to £14 10s. per ton in one year: so I made up my mind to have no more bones at the price and the next winter I bought two hundred tons of 35 per cent slag and the year after I bought two hundred and fifty tons. Towards the end of the season, during the year when I had bought two hundred and fifty tons, when we had got all our corn, potatoes, and turnips in, either the firm I bought the slag from or else the slag manufacturers -- I don't recall now which, it was -- pretended they could not get any railway trucks to send the rest of the slag in. During the time between buying the slag and the end of the season for getting all the crops in, the price per ton had gone up ever so much, and they thought that if they put off delivering until we had got everything in, we should say we could manage without it. We had got eighty tons to come, so I said send it on when it is convenient. As soon as they found out we meant having it, they sent a ten-ton truck every day for eight days: so you see there was a bit of craft about not being able to get any trucks. It did not make any difference to us having a ten-ton truck a day, as we had a three-ton lorry and we soon fetched it from the station. After the first year of the war of 1914, as we could get no potash, we had all the flue dust from the Bestwood furnaces. There was only 5 per cent potash in it, but it was better than nothing and we had not far to fetch it. After the war, as our light land had been getting no potash except the flue dust for the potatoes, I bought £1,000 worth of sulphate of potash at one deal. It lasted us a year or two, but I bought it cheaper through having a big lot.
Before the war we had been in the habit of buying our sulphate of ammonia from the Nottingham Corporation at their Basford gas works. One year, some of the gas committee wanted to have German coal and Alderman Ball, the chairman of the committee, said if they had German coal he should resign. So I wrote him a letter telling him I quite agreed with him not wanting German coal, but I did not agree with him charging the foreigner 10s. per ton less than he had charged us farmers that fetched it out of the yard, as the more produce was grown round Nottingham the better it was for the town.
When Alderman Ball received my letter I think it set him thinking, as he rang me up and asked me'to call and see him, which I did -- and after I had talked to him and told him about what quantity we used, he said, 'Whenever you or your friends want any sulphate of, ammonia, if you will come and see me, I will see that you get it worth the money.' But I never went to see him again : it was sufficient for me to call and see the gas manager, and for a nice few years I was always able to buy from the Nottingham Corporation cheaper than buying from a merchant. When all the different Corporations and sulphate ammonia makers formed themselves into a federation, it was all over -- and I could not buy it any cheaper than another farmer who did not use anything like the quantity. During the war of 1914, we used to buy forty tons of sulphate of ammonia at once and have it in as soon after Christmas as we could get it, to be sure we had got it. Some of it would set a bit hard towards the end of the season, as in those days it was not granulated as well as it is now. We used to store it in a little barn with a brick floor and put it on some wood, so that the damp would not strike up those bags that were on the bottom.
I may say I never was a believer in compound manures, as I would reckon about how many tons of nitrogen, phosphate and potash we were likely to want and then we could get the different merchants to quote us. When you were buying a fair quantity, there was mostly someone prepared to quote as low as he could afford.
I may say that only once in my farming experience was I tempted to buy compound manure and according to the result I was never again tempted to save the labour of mixing: but I should always recommend a farmer who was not used to mixing his own manures to buy compound and then he would be sure they were mixed properly and in the right proportions.
When mixing artificial manures we about always mixed enough for two acres at once. Our practice was usually to shoot the manures down into two heaps -- one consisting of two bags of bone flour, with one bag of sulphate of ammonia shot on the top of the bone flour, and the other consisting of two bags of bone flour with a certain quantity of potash shot on the bone flour. The quantity of potash varied according to what we wanted for the two acres -- it would vary, that is to say, according to whether the potash was sulphate potash, muriate potash, kainit or potash salts. After shooting the sulphate of ammonia on the bones, very often the sulphate of ammonia would be lumpy, so we would get on the top of the heap and crush the lumps with our boot heels. Then we would treat the heap of bones with the potash on it the same as the first heap. We would now put each heap through a riddle of about 3/8-inch mesh, and when you had riddled each heap through separately, the ingredients would be finely separated and would not run together in lumps. When the bones in each heap had been put through the riddle and mixed with its artificial we then proceeded to mix the two heaps together: one man was put at each heap and they made a heap equidistant from the two heaps. When mixing the two original heaps together, it is very necessary that each man drops each shovelful fair on the top of the heap so that the manure falls equally all round the heap -- if that is done there is as much of each man's manure on the farther side of the heap as there is on the side next to him. If you want to see that the manure is mixed properly, this is very important. We now proceeded to turn the heap twice, dropping each shovelful fair on the top of the heap, so that the manure fell equally all round it. Sometimes, especially when mixing for the turnips, we might start with three heaps instead of two, as it was not always necessary to riddle all the bone flour, and then one man would shovel the two smallest heaps. But it is absolutely necessary to finish all the heaps at the same time, when putting all the heaps into one before turning.
When bagging the manure, we would put equal numbers of shovelfuls into each bag; we generally knew how many rounds of the manure distributor two acres would need and we filled the bags accordingly so that the man who was working the distributor would regulate the machine in such a way that he would just get the quantity on that was in the bag. If there was not any corn drilled in the field, we would put the bags out
in a row up the middle of the field, so that a man could fill his machine every time he came to the middle of the field. We found that having the row up the middle was better than having it at the end, as you often had to avoid filling the drill too full. Sometimes, when the drill was too full, the manure was likely to arch in the box, and the man had to run his hands through the length of the box and ensure that the manure was running regularly. We always liked to use small bags, as they were so much handier to empty than a wide splathering bag. Slag bags were very handy for the job. Of course if we were using kainit for the potatoes we should not bother to mix a bulky manure like that, but just drill it by itself. If we were top-dressing beet or mangolds with nitro chalk, after they were struck out and singled, we would let a man sow it out of a hopper. We would put enough in a bag to go right across the field and as he would not be able to hold all of it in his hopper, we would have a lad with him to carry the rest of the bagful half-way across the field, to the place where the man would refill his hopper. We used to put a bag out every ten rows at each end: the man would walk down the middle and sow five rows at a time -- and he would soon get some done.
All artificials have to come out of the earth or the air, and when you are applying them to the crops, you are only putting back what has been taken out of the land. There used to be an old saying that the man that made two blades of grass grow where one grew before was a credit to his country. I may say that we have often not stopped at ten blades where one grew before, by the aid of artificial manures and R. H. Elliot's mixture of four years ley of deep-rooting grasses. When I left the farm which I had the longest, the soil was of a darker nature altogether than when I first went to it. The humus made through the rotting of the four years ley held the sandy soil together; it stopped the land from blowing, and also it held the moisture, instead of being dried up in a dry summer.
Sir George Stapledon is doing extraordinarily good work by his improvement in different grass seeds and by breeding better leafy strains; but his perennialized rye grass is only suitable for the wet districts of the west and north, on account of its having such shallow roots. Now, if Sir George could breed a perennialized rye grass with deep roots, like the cocksfoot, he would just about crown all his work. Then his rye grass could be recommended for the dry districts for the two years ley, as well as for the one year ley, and the cocksfoot and deep-rooting grasses for the long ley; and then we should have a compost heap all over England. Instead of Sir Albert Howard bringing the land round with his humus-making compost heaps, it would be Sir George Stapledon and the seed experts who would revolutionize agriculture, with the deep-rooting grasses, and the help of artificial manures, and the plough going all round the farm.
Now I feel that I must leave off where I began, and that is by paying tribute to R. H. Elliot, the pioneer of ley farming with deep-rooting plants, and I earnestly appeal to all farmers to read and study his Clifton Park System of Farming, for this great agriculturalist has so much to impart -- knowledge which he very largely found out for himself on his own farm. Furthermore, the information contained in his book is going to be invaluable in helping British farmers in what will no doubt be the difficult post-war period. In that period many of our present-day run-out arable farms will rightly have to go down to temporary leys, and never be allowed to return to old permanent grassland, such as the poor grazings that we saw in many counties before the present war. Unquestionably, a most sensible way of farming a big area of land will be on some system of fairly reasonable length of leys.
I am perfectly convinced that R. H. Elliot's ideas are right, and that if his suggestions had been taken up by the Government as he wanted, the land would have been in a better condition altogether than it is now. Instead of it gradually losing the humus, texture, and fertility, it would have been increasing its fertility every year by the humus-making roots, as I have proved in many years since.
A few years ago, I saw that some writer was rather taking Mr. Elliot off, by stating that if his ideas were being taken up, he would turn over in his grave, and rest better. My opinion is that if he were alive now he would not have to turn over in his grave, but would die happy, and find a most comfortable position in his grave -- for at long last his ideas of long leys are being taken up by the different institutes and farmers all over the country. I am certainly convinced that it is a long way the best and cheapest way of bringing the land round, as by the end of the war much of the land will have had the last straw taken out of it, and labour and everything the farmer has to buy will be very dear, and as soon as the war is over the Government and the people will not care twopence what becomes of agriculture.
My book has been written from a practical farmer's point of view and in writing it I have no other object than to put my humble experience of over thirty years' farming -- on what was an old worn-out farm -- at the disposal of my fellow farmers.
Next: Appendix 1
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