Ley Farming

by Sir R. George Stapledon and William Davies

Chapter 12
Species and Strains of Herbage Plants

Herbage plants are of four classes: the grasses, the clovers and other legumes, the edible miscellaneous herbs of value and the herbs which are to be regarded as weeds pure and simple. We shall deal only with the first three classes of plants and confine our remarks to their agricultural properties and behaviour, having regard more particularly to their proper employment in seeds mixtures.

The Grasses

Although all grasses are eaten to some extent by stock many species are to be regarded as weeds, either because they compete with, and may take the place almost wholly of, more valuable species, or because they are of very slight palatability, of very slight effective yielding capacity, or only offer edible herbage to the animal for a very short period during the grazing season. We shall only deal with the species the seeds of which are necessary for the sowing out of new leys and with those which may compete naturally with the sown seeds. The seeds of many species frequently employed to some extent in seeds mixtures are now in very short supply or unobtainable, we shall, however, make brief allusion to all the chief species normally listed in seedsmen's catalogues.

Italian Ryegrass

Italian ryegrass comes away very quickly from sowing and soon produces an abundance of palatable leafage. It is essentially a grazing grass and of great value in mixtures sown without a cover crop. The greatest merit of Italian ryegrass is that it can be made to give more grazing during the critical period end of October till early May than any other grass. Indeed, for a period of about fourteen months, from sowing by appropriate management, Italian ryegrass can be induced to provide a large bulk of grazing at any desired pre-defined date range. Its greatest value is, therefore, for one-year grazing leys, and to contribute during the year of sowing, and the first harvest year, to longer grazing leys. It should only be used in any quantity in hay mixtures when the hay fields will be grazed fairly hard in the spring, or when aftermath rather than an excessively heavy hay crop is required.

The normal sources of supply of ordinary Italian ryegrass are Ireland, Denmark and France; some of the best strains emanating from Denmark. We are now restricted to Irish seed, with perhaps some additional supplies from New Zealand. New Zealand Italian ryegrass has been variable in quality, much of it being a rather poor type. There has been a definite attempt in recent years to eliminate the worst, and only to grow seed from the best types in the Dominion. Steps are being taken to replace present stocks by pedigree and bred material, and these are proving to be a distinct advance on previously existing commercial strains.

Westernwolths Ryegrass

This is probably the shortest-lived form of ryegrass. It is closely akin to Italian ryegrass, but establishes rather more rapidly, comes sooner to maturity and for all practical purposes is a complete annual. It grows very quickly from seed, and under fertile conditions makes more growth than Italian ryegrass in the first three months after sowing, but it does not, however, make such good recovery after being grazed. Of all the grasses perhaps Westernwolths is the nearest approach to a cereal in its reaction to grazing or cutting. Seed was imported largely from France and Germany. Any advantage held over ordinary Italian ryegrass is small, so that Westernwolths is never likely to play a major part in seeds mixtures.

Perennial Ryegrass

To be of full value perennial ryegrass is a high fertility demander; all strains under conditions of low fertility tend to run too much to stem. Even under low fertility this grass will, however, give fairly heavy (though stemmy) hay yields for a couple of years. Strain counts for immensely much in the case of this all-valuable dual-purpose grass, and the difference between the 'hay' and 'pasture' strains is very pronounced. We have:

Irish and Ayrshire Commercial
These are the standard strains of commerce and are essentially of the 'hay' type. The commercial strains are earlier to start growth in the spring than the 'pasture' strains; they are much more stemmy and more erect in growth. On the richest of soils they are quite long-lived, but even under the most favourable conditions they will not stand up to consistently hard and long-continued grazing, and are not so winter-green or so productive in the back-end as the pasture strains. The commercial strains do not give heavy aftermath, and are often of low grazing productivity during July and August.

Mixed Ryegrass
This is often quoted in catalogues and is usually a mixture of Italian and ordinary perennial ryegrass derived from a mixed sowing. It is not generally advisable to use such mixed samples, and where they have to be used, the purchaser should see that he is informed as to the precise composition of the mixture. Because Italian and perennial ryegrass intercross freely, it is to be expected that the sample harvested from mixed stands will contain an appreciable proportion of hybrid forms.

Aberystwyth S. 24
This is an improved hay strain; it starts growth practically as early as the ordinary Irish or Ayrshire, gives a decidedly more leafy hay, with a better aftermath, and it also affords more July and August grazing. On the better soils is of good persistency and is definitely superior to commercial. In general, it is of great value for two to three-year leys and as a part contributor to longer leys.

New Zealand Certifled (Hawkes Bay)
This strain, like S. 24, is more leafy and more persistent than Irish or Ayrshire, and is also earlier than the bred 'pasture' strains to start growth, but in this country is not as long-lived as the latter. Under present conditions this strain should be regarded as an invaluable aid to the formation of high-yielding two- to three-year leys.

New Zealand Uncertified (South Island), Oregon, Argentine, and other early strains
Under this heading are classed a number of very early extra-stemmy and exceedingly short-lived strains which may be of slight use as temporary fillers, but they are no substitute for commercial perennial ryegrass as normally employed in this country, and if extensively used as the chief ingredient in mixtures they would lead to widespread failure. These strains, although very quick to make growth, are not even good substitutes for Italian ryegrass.

Danish and Swedish strains
Useful strains have been bred in Denmark and Sweden, many of which are superior to our ordinary commercial and in pre-war years we have drawn appreciably on Denmark in particular for supplementary supplies of perennial ryegrass. The Scandinavian 'Victoria' ryegrass comes moderately close to some of our own pasture types.

Aberystwyth S. 23
This is a typical pasture strain. It is late flowering, rather late to start growth in the spring, and under good conditions an excessively leafy winter grass and is long-lived. The leafy strains make heavy demands on nitrogen, and given adequate nitrogen they can be extraordinarily productive of nutritious leaf and very persistent on soils of relatively low fertility. To do itself full justice on soils of the poorer types Aberystwyth S. 23 needs to be well mingled with white clover, and the sward to be regularly urinated and dunged by the grazing animal. Where these conditions are not fulfilled Aberystwyth S. 23 may compare unfavourably with the Irish and Ayrshire strains for two or three years, as would be the case if the fields were cut for hay in the first and second year or persistently under-grazed. It is a feature of pasture strains in general that they demand heavy grazing and animal residues, and consequently when they are employed as the main ingredients in mixtures the swards should be used as pastures at all events for the first two years. The management needs to be judicious for if the grazing is too hard, particularly early in the year, white clover will become excessive. This must be countered by proper grazing on the 'on' and 'off 'basis, and if necessary by the taking of periodic silage cuts. Aberystwyth S. 23 is of its greatest value on the richest soils, and on soils relatively poor for ryegrass, if supported by correct management.

Aberystwyth S. 101
Late flowering and rather late starting in the spring, very leafy, normally with long, bunchy leafage, but not so densely tillering as Aberystwyth S. 23, than which strain it is, however, but little, if any, less persistent on land of good fertility. It maintains excellent summer growth and on good rich soils makes a heavy and leafy contribution to the hay.

Old pasture indigenous
Valuable pasture strains are harvested from old permanent pastures, particularly from the Kentish wild white clover pastures. These lots are, however, mixed and contain strains of varying degrees of leafiness and persistency. When harvested from the old pastures they are comparable to the best-bred pasture strains, but when the seed is derived from 'once-growing' or taken from younger pastures, or from fields sometimes cut for hay, the less desirable (and more 'hay'-like) strains may predominate, consequently the 'indigenous' seed of commerce varies considerably as between lot and lot. 'Guaranteed ex-old pasture' is almost invariably reliable and farmers purchasing 'indigenous' or 'old pasture' perenniaal ryegrass should always ascertain the precise origin of the seed. 'Once-grown' seed varies enormously as between lot and lot, and its purchase therefore is always somewhat of a gamble, and it therefore should not command the same price as genuine 'old pasture'.


Save for Italian ryegrass, cocksfoot and perennial ryegrass of the grasses in most general use are the earliest to start growth in the spring. Cocksfoot is very sensitive to management; if grazed excessively hard early in the spring year after year it will soon be killed out; if left to grow luxuriantly in late July, August and early September, it will gain complete mastery of the sward and soon become coarse and unpalatable, while if grazed properly on the 'on' and 'off 'basis it will yield an immense amount of leafy nutrients over a prolonged grazing season. It is a bulky hay grass, and is held in high esteem for grass drying. Under proper management and with the correct use of strain, cocksfoot will luxuriate on soil types unfavourable to perennial ryegrass -- it is an excellent drought resister.

Commercial 'hay' strains
In pre-war days most of the cocksfoot used in this country came from Denmark. The Danish is a 'hay' strain. Under hard grazing by sheep it is not long persistent, but on fertile and moderately fertile soils if rested at proper intervals, or particularly if allowed to grow away late in the season (as in the North of England where the aftermath of cocksfoot is often allowed to stand for late October-November grazing by cattle) it persists for many years. Cocksfoot from U.S.A. is of the Danish type and was the war-time substitute. France is the least desirable source of origin; the French strains being the most stemmy and the shortest-lived, so that in the case of cocksfoot the fact that we have been unable to obtain supplies from France is not a matter of any consequence.

New Zealand Certified (Akaroa)
This strain is later to start growth in the spring, more leafy, more persistent and more wintergreen than Danish. It is a valuable strain and can well take the place of Danish to which in many respects it is superior. Its growth habits in this country are nearer to those of the bred pasture strains than to Danish.

Aberystivyth S. 37
This was bred as a 'hay' strain but it is rather late starting and, although on good soils it produces heavy yields of leafy hay, it does not differ sufficiently from the pasture strains to rank as a 'hay' strain proper -- it withstands heavy grazing and is markedly persistent.

Aberystwyth pasture strains
The first to be introduced was Aberystwyth S. 26; this has now been followed by Aberystwyth S. 143 (the 'mop'). The bred pasture strains are decidedly later to start growth in the spring than the hay strains, but they continue to grow longer in the autumn and are much more winter-green. Like the pasture strains of perennial ryegrass, they demand abundant animal residues and a good mingling of white clover to attain to full development. Given these requirements the pasture strains withstand heavy grazing in a remarkable manner, and have made it possible to create good swards on soils too poor for ryegrass and where Danish cocksfoot soon languishes and dies. On rich soils or on poorer land when highly manured the pasture strains produce heavy and very leafy crops of hay and an immense amount of leafage if grazed properly on the 'on' and 'off' system. These pasture strains have greatly extended the usefulness of cocksfoot, and perhaps particularly in the direction of forming good sheep swards on land where previously it has been difficult to maintain either productive leys or useful permanent grass. Fields sown down seven to eight years ago on poor soils in Wales are still showing Aberystwyth S. 26 in plenty in the swards and are still affording grazing for large numbers of sheep. The pasture strains tend, at some seasons, to be less palatable than the hay strains; this is sometimes noteworthy if stock has access equally to areas sown respectively with the two strains, and particularly so early in the season, while late in the season it will invariably be the more winter-green pasture strains that are preferred.

When the strains are mixed, or when only the pasture strains contribute to the sward and the grazing is conducted on a proper ,on' and 'off' basis (hard grazing following after a proper rest period), the pasture strains are readily grazed by stock and any differential palatability between the strains loses significance.


Timothy is a late grass, and in combination with the late-flowering red clovers, produces very heavy yields of leafy hay. It does particularly well on peaty soils, and in regions of high rainfall. Certain of the bred strains, however, prosper peculiarly well on calcareous soils and under conditions of somewhat lower rainfall. Timothy is exceedingly palatable to stock and contains rather a higher percentage of dry matter than most grasses.

Hay strains
The ordinary timothy of commerce consists of 'hay' strains which are not multi-tillering and do not long persist under heavy grazing. Timothy is grown for seed in Scotland and is imported to this country in large quantities from U.S.A., and in relatively smaller amounts from Canada. Scotch seed is a better type than that from U.S.A. and Canada, and is less susceptible to yellow rust in this country.

Aberystwyth S. 51
This is a hay strain with long, broad leaves; it tillers more profusely than the ordinary strains and yields a more leafy hay: it is also more resistant to rust and more persistent.

Aberystwyth S. 48
This is a pasture type of timothy: it makes good dense growth and produces an abundance of relatively short leaves. It has proved to be wonderfully persistent under heavy grazing and definitely opens up new uses for timothy. It is this strain that has done so well on the Cotswolds and on other calcareous soils, as well as on lowland peaty soils. From the point of view of palatability it appears to be complementary to the clovers and S. 48-clover swards are greatly relished by stock. This plant is undoubtedly of the highest value on certain soil types where the strains of perennial ryegrass do not attain to full luxuriance, and it is no longer legitimate to regard timothy as primarily a hay grass.

Aberystwyth S. 50
This is an extreme pasture type, typically prostrate and very spreading. It fills up with Aberystwyth S. 48 and by itself with wild white clover can be made the basis of excellent sheep grazing on peaty soils at the extreme limits of cultivation, and has thus further extended the usefulness of timothy.

Meadow Fescue

Meadow fescue, like timothy, is slow to establish if sown in competition with excess of the ryegrasses. It combines well with timothy and is complementary to it since it produces an abundance of aftermath, in which respect timothy is weak. Meadow fescue, when properly established, produces good grazing in July and August when perennial ryegrass is often poor. It does well on heavy clays: it is not, however, as nutritious or as palatable as perennial ryegrass. The best commercial strains normally come from Denmark.

Aberystwyth S. 53
This is a leafy strain suitable for pasture and hay. It is late, and therefore matches well with timothy in the hay, and it gives a particularly rapid growing and dense aftermath.

Aberystwyth S. 215
Is a strain which produces very early growth, while being moderately leafy and productive.

The above grasses, namely, the ryegrasses, cocksfoot, timothy and meadow fescue, are those upon which chief reliance should now be placed, and are really sufficient for the sowing of both short- and long-duration leys. We will, however, refer briefly to three other groups of grasses:

Rough-stalked Meadow Grass and Crested Dogstail
These are two useful bottom grasses and both are winter-green, both, however, are prone to establish themselves from viable seed in the soil on land to which they are propense. Crested dogstail is largely produced in Ireland and New Zealand, and may usefully be included in mixtures for longer grazing leys: it makes good sheep feed, but the flower heads should always be mown off in June if the grass becomes really abundant in the sward. Rough-stalked meadow grass throws a lot of keep in wet seasons and fills up the sward if perennial ryegrass is thin, and at ordinary prices it is well worth including in mixtures for the regions of high rainfall, and particularly on the poorer soils where, too, it contributes usefully to the hay crop. The seed comes mostly from Denmark and is now much too expensive for general use. On the poorest of soils a good creeping red fescue also helps to fill up the sward, and in normal times can usefully contribute to grazing mixtures. A good strain is Aberystwyth S. 59 redJescue: this produces early grass, and is also exceedingly winter-green. Before the war it was extensively used as a lawn grass and was consequently expensive. It is now in short supply and still expensive.

Smooth-stalked Meadow Grass (Poa pratensis)
Unlike Roughstalked, has no place in Britain. Seed comes from America.

Permanent Grasses

There are a number of more or less valuable grass species which establish themselves slowly from sowing in a general mixture but which if sown may become very abundant in the sward after the lapse of a number of years -- such grasses are: tall fescue, meadow foxtail and golden oat grass. We, as a nation, are not now concerned with sowing out to permanent grass, nor with leys of upwards of six or eight years' duration, so that even if the seeds of these species were available (tall fescue comes from Holland and Germany, meadow foxtail from Finland, and golden oat grass from France) at a reasonable price no reasonable farmer would wish to use them.

Bent ( =Agrostis) and Yorkshire Fog
Usually more of these grasses establish themselves from viable seed in the soil than is desirable, and when they appear in sown leys they are to be regarded as highly undesirable weeds. Bent is, however, a very variable grass and there are excellent strains. We had started breeding work on the bents at Aberystwyth just before the war broke out and some of the better-bred strains may come to serve a useful purpose for grazing leys on the poorest soils -- but this awaits further investigation. Yorkshire fog can establish itself from seed under poorer conditions than almost any other grass, and it also grows away very rapidly: that is why it has a definite use as a pioneer crop on land of the lowest fertility. It rapidly grows out of the palatable stage and must be grazed while still young, when it has decided feeding value.

The Clovers and Other Legumes

Red and white clover are essential foundations to most ley mixtures.

Red Clover
We have the broad-leaved or early red clovers and the late-flowering, or single cut cow grass red clovers.

Broad Red Clover
Makes earlier growth in the spring than late-flowering red clover, also gives a higher yield in the year of sowing and in the aftermath of the first harvest year. English-grown broad red clovers are hardier and more reliable than seed from foreign countries. Of the overseas sources of supply, none is more reliable than those from Canada and New Zealand. The chief use of broad red clover is for one-year leys, or as a part-contributor to the first year of longer leys.

Aberystwyth S. 151
Is a strain of broad red starting growth a little later than the ordinary strains, but it yields a heavier hay crop and definitely persists to some extent into a second year.

Late-flowering Red Clover
The English lates are superior to all those of foreign origin -- the Danish and Swedish strains are the most reliable sources of foreign supply. The late red clovers are more profusely branched than the early strains, and on that account they better withstand heavy grazing. The late-flowering red clovers yield hay crops in the first harvest year and also contribute generously to the sward, or to the hay in the second year.

Montgomery and Cornish Marl Extra-late Red Clovers
These strains are extra profuse in branching; they are the most persistent of the red clovers and usually carry on into a third harvest year. They withstand grazing better than any other red clovers. Montgomery red clover (certified as to type) grown in New Zealand is now available on the British market.

Aberystwyth S. 123
This strain has been built up from some forty families of Montgomery and Cornish marl. It is more persistent than even the parent varieties, and has yielded good crops in the third and fourth years. It is late in commencing growth in spring, but it makes a first-class grazing clover, especially on land where white clover tends to be slow to grow.

Alsike Clover
Behaves somewhat like later-flowering red clover, but it is not so persistent. It over-winters well and is hardy, sown in comparatively small quantities in mixtures it safeguards a stand of clover in the first year: there is seldom any risk of it competing unduly with the more valuable red clovers. Sown alone with timothy it makes a heavy hay crop and constitutes a cheap mixture. Seed supplies of this valuable clover -- more valuable, however, as a hay than a grazing plant -- come largely from Canada.

Mixed Alsike and White Clover
Usually of Canadian origin. The two clovers do not, for all practical purposes, intercross, so there will be no hybrids in the mixed sample. The proportion of each clover should always be stated. The white clover in the mixed sample is usually of the ordinary short-lived type, some samples containing a very large-leaved variety similar to Ladino white clover in general usefulness. Mixed alsike and white clover is often a good way of buying white clover for use in short-ley mixtures.

White Clover
White clover must be regarded as the foundation of grazing leys. We have:

Dutch White
A relatively short-lived plant and probably only of value for one, and on some soils two, year grazing leys. A limited amount of Dutch white is grown in England. Our chief sources of supply have been Holland and mid-European countries. White clover and alsike mixed are available from Canada, and some of the uncertified New Zealand strains are of the Dutch type.

Aberystwyth S. 100
This is an early and highly productive large-leaved strain. It persists much better than white Dutch and is altogether more suitable alike for one, two or three year grazing leys, while on richer soils there is evidence to suggest that it will persist for indefinite periods. This strain should entirely replace white Dutch for use in this country. It yields heavy crops of seed and is already in great demand.

New Zealand Certified Mother Seed
This is a productive and relatively persistent white clover much superior to white Dutch. A more or less large proportion of the plants are of the large-leaved fairly dense type, much as those of Aberystwyth S. 100. New Zealand mother seed is, therefore, a valuable strain with which to support Aberystwyth S. 100 in the replacement of the ordinary white or Dutch clover.

New Zealand Pedigree White Clover
A product of the New Zealand Plant Research Station, and an improvement upon New Zealand certified mother seed, and is of the general type of Aberystwyth S. 100. It should prove a highly valuable white clover, and when bought under New Zealand Government certificate, can be used with every confidence in long-duration mixtures. On fertile soils this strain, together with Aberystwyth S. 100, may largely be relied upon and in large measure can replace wild white clover.

Wild White Clover
The sowing of wild white clover in long-duration mixtures has now become a general practice. It is worth including in nearly all mixtures for three years and upwards: by its rapid spread it competes with weeds and enriches the grasses growing with it. Kentish wild white clover has fully justified its great reputation, but wild white clover seed taken from really old pastures in many other counties is of equal value. Excellent strains of wild white rather more productive than those from Kent have been harvested off the best pastures in the Midlands, as well as in Hereford and other counties.

Is a short-lived clover-like plant which comes away quickly from sowing and on calcareous soils provides an abundance of grazing, especially in seasons that are not too hot. It should always be grazed before it sets its seed. If sown in too great quantities in general mixtures it may have a smothering influence on other species. Trefoil does not succeed on soils deficient in lime; because the seed is cheap it used to be sown in great quantities on lime-deficient soils in many parts of Wales, but very rarely established itself. Normally, considerable quantities of seed are harvested in this country.

Crimson Clover
This quick-growing clover is a valuable catchcrop grown alone, or with Italian ryegrass. In the southern half of England, when sown in August it over-winters well, and grows away rapidly in the spring. The seed normally comes from France, although a small crop is usually saved each year in Essex, and occasionally we have received some seed from Hungary.

Kidney Vetch
This legume is much relished by sheep and sown in mixtures gives useful autumn (in year of sowing) and spring grazing -- it is not usually long-lived. The plant is very variable and affords considerable scope to the plant breeder. Supplies normally come from France and the seed is now almost impossible to obtain.

Very little lucerne seed is grown in England. Provence and Grimm are two varieties both of which have proved to be reasonably reliable in this country, while seed from Hungary has also given good results. Lucerne is grown largely in New Zealand, Australia, U.S.A. and Canada. Our chief war-time source was Canada.

Is a very valuable crop, producing hay of high quality. It used to be much more extensively used on calcareous soils -- to which it is well suited -- than has been the case in recent years. On soils that suit sainfoin it can be usefully employed in general mixtures to supplement the red clover. There are two varieties, French or Giant, which is heavy-yielding but short-lived, and Old English, good strains of which hold the ground for a number of years. Much of the seed of the former strain normally came from France, while that of the latter is wholly harvested in this country.

The Miscellaneous Herbs

A miscellaneous herb to be of value in grazing leys must be:

The following fulfil the above requirements to greater or lesser degree and should perhaps be employed in seeds mixtures to a greater extent than they are, or, alternatively, they could be made to contribute to herb strips or blocks sown in the ley fields.

Chicory was one of Elliot's famous deep-rooted plants, and may well have a value, on that account; its leaves are highly mineral-efficient and it is much relished by sheep.

Is said to have definite medicinal properties -- it is minerally efficient and is grazed by stock to varying degrees on soils of different types.

Another deep-rooted plant, and is also freely grazed by sheep, but it soon becomes unpalatable and may become excessive on calcareous soils.

Definitely of high feeding value and also of high mineral content; it may be neglected on rich pastures, but on poor fields it is often grazed hard; it has the merit of being winter-green.


ARMSTRONG, F. S. (1937). British Grasses and their Eniployment in Agriculture. Cambridge Univ. Press, 3rd Edition.

Next: 13. Seeds Mixtures

Back to Contents

Back to Small Farms Library index

Community development | Rural development
City farms | Organic gardening | Composting | Small farms | Biofuel | Solar box cookers
Trees, soil and water | Seeds of the world | Appropriate technology | Project vehicles

Home | What people are saying about us | About Handmade Projects 
Projects | Internet | Schools projects | Sitemap | Site Search | Donations | Contact us