Ley Farming

by Sir R. George Stapledon and William Davies

Chapter 13
Seeds Mixtures

The historical usage of seeds mixtures is of general interest. Some of the earliest records of specific mixtures used for the production of leys occur in the middle of the seventeenth century, when sainfoin, lucerne and red clover were employed both singly and in mixtures. During the eighteenth century, simple mixtures of rye-grass, white clover and trefoil were being used for sowing out to temporary grass. The work of Sinclair on the Bedford Estates at Woburn Abbey in the early years of the nineteenth century resulted in the use of a wider range of species in seeds mixtures. Sinclair was, perhaps, the first advocate of the complex mixture which included most of the common grasses of the present day, together with the clovers, vetches and yarrow. Sinclair based his views on the compounding of seeds mixtures not only upon the composition of the best old pastures, but also upon a considerable amount of detailed experimental work in which Davy collaborated on the chemical side. Sinclair's work had a profound influence upon the work of other agriculturalists during the nineteenth century. There was a very definite trend throughout the course of the century to use seeds mixtures of increasing complexity. The work of Fream, Carruthers, Faunce de Laune all tended towards the advocation of mixtures containing a wide variety of grasses and legumes. At the close of the century Elliot, who as we have said was perhaps the first advocate of ley farming in its modern sense, was conducting his classical experiments at Clifton Park (Roxburghshire). He also advocated the complex mixture for leys of four or more years' duration, and laid great stress upon the necessity for including deep-rooted plants, among them chicory, sheep's parsley, yarrow, burnet, ribgrass, field parsnip. Elliot also employed heavy seedings of the legumes, including red clover, white clover, lucerne, kidney vetch and alsike.

The later developments of seeds mixture work since the opening of the present century have been more rapid, but no less interesting than those of the preceding periods. The importance of the work done at Cockle Park (Northumberland) by Gilchrist during the early years of the twentieth century cannot be over-rated. The mixtures advocated by Gilchrist thirty-five years ago have had a most important influence, and the Cockle Park type of mixture in modified form is still a widely employed seeds mixture used in this country. Gilchrist did two things: he greatly simplified the type of mixture in use during the late nineteenth century, and secondly, he was the first to lay real stress upon strain in herbage plants. He advocated the use of New Zealand cocksfoot, which we now know to be a relatively leafy and persistent type of cocksfoot. He advocated wild white clover, especially in the course of his later writings, while from the start he had stressed the relative value of late-flowering red clover. Elliot, of Clifton Park, was, however, one of the first to lay emphasis on the late-flowering red clovers. Findlay, working in Aberdeen, conducted an important series of critical experiments in the first decade of this century, and these showed for the first time the superiority of certain Welsh red clovers. These we now know as the Montgomery extra-late flowering types.

Following upon the work of Gilchrist and others, the trend has been towards a simplification of seeds mixtures by the omission of species of low relative usefulness. Percival (1923) was an exponent of the complex as opposed to the relatively simple (few species) seeds mixture, and even to this day there are adherents to the idea that the more species which are included in the seeds mixture, the better the resultant sward. The two main practical criticisms of the complex (multi-species) mixture are firstly, excessive costliness, and secondly, that only a few of the main species settle down and become real contributors to the sward no matter how complex the mixture. The present trend is towards using simple special-purpose mixtures, based largely on one or two grasses mixed with one or two legumes. Thus, a seeds mixture for the specific purpose of grazing only may consist on good fertile soils of perennial ryegrass and white clover and nothing else. For the special purpose of producing rapid growth in the first year, Italian ryegrass may profitably be added to this mixture: on clay soils timothy might be another useful addition, while red clover alsike and/or trefoil may be added. On light soils and for special conditions the grazing mixture might well be based on cocksfoot and white clover, while in other cases the basis may be timothy with white, red and/or alsike clover.

One of the most interesting and far-reaching developments of seeds mixture work during the present century has been that concerned with plant breeding in both grasses and clovers. It has been noted above that the concept of contrasting strains in herbage plants is practically wholly a development of the last fifty years. Active plant breeding and the production of new strains in the major species of grasses and clovers has taken place largely during the past thirty years. The work of the plant breeder has had a profound effect upon the compounding of seeds mixtures. Whereas the general tendency in practice has been to simplify the seeds mixture in terms of the number of species used, the new strains have made it possible to increase the number of varieties included in the seeds mixture. Instead, therefore, of speaking of a simple mixture of ryegrass and white clover, it is now more appropriate to think in terms of a mixture containing a number of contrasting strains of ryegrass together with contrasting strains of white clover. To give a concrete case, a simple mixture of 20 lb. per acre of ryegrass and 3 lb. per acre of white clover might (in the modern sense) quite appropriately read as follows:

This, the simplest of grazing mixtures, is suitable for a long-duration ley, and where a mixture of strains is employed in both ryegrass, and white clover. The advantages of mixing the strains in this way, and apart altogether from the question of cost, is that rapid growth, long grazing season and persistency are all catered for within the one mixture. At the same time, and because all the ingredients belong to no more than.two species, the sward is almost foolproof in its demands on farm management. One of the striking advantages of the simple mixture, particularly the simple ryegrass-white clover mixture, is that the two species blend together extraordinarily well, and the adverse effects of competition between species is at an absolute minimum.

In war-time, when supplies of seeds are restricted, it is necessary to conserve the available supplies and to use only essential species with the emphasis on those of which we can normally grow adequate seed crops in this country. We must again emphasize that many of the sources of peace-time seed supplies are still closed to us, but if seeds mixtures are knowledgably compounded and we concentrate on the few species that are really fundamental, there is no doubt that we can go a long way in the matter of appropriate regrassing of our ploughed acreage. The really fundamental species for general use in seeds mixtures are not many in number. The ryegrasses (perennial and Italian), cocksfoot, timothy, red clover and white clover are the basal and major species we need in this country. We are largely self-supporting in regard to both Italian and perennial ryegrass seed, indeed, in most years we are on the balance exporters of these seeds.

As we have said, the bulk of our pre-war supplies of cocksfoot came from Denmark, with additional supplies from New Zealand, United States, Sweden and France. Only very small quantities were being normally grown in this country. In the case of cocksfoot, therefore, we had to find alternative supplies, and here was a clear-cut case for greatly extending our home-grown seed supplies. The loss of the Danish supplies was not altogether a disadvantage because Danish cocksfoot, regarded from the strain point of view, is an inferior type, not well-suited to our conditions. With a number of decidedly improved strains of cocksfoot at our disposal in this country, seed-growers and the seed trade have had an excellent opportunity of displacing the Danish trade with advantage to themselves as well as to the user of cocksfoot seed.

The position with regard to timothy seed is not unlike that of cocksfoot. A fair amount of timothy is grown for seed in Scotland, but the bulk of our supplies come from Canada and the U.S.A. Scotch timothy is, on the whole, a more useful type than American and Canadian, partly because these latter are much more liable to become 'rusted' in the autumn, causing a large proportion of premature deaths among the plants. The plant breeder has provided us with a number of improved types of timothy -- types that are bred especially for British conditions. Here again lies an opportunity for the seed-grower and trade to develop home seed production.

In pre-war days we were in some years self-supporting in the matter of red clover seed, but in most years we imported more than we exported. Our climate is, on the whole, less satisfactory for growing clover seed than it is for grass seed production. Even so, there is ample scope to develop clover seed growing, both as regards red and white clovers. This is specially true with reference to the bred strains such as Aberystwyth S. 123, S. 151, S. 100 and S. 184. Before the war, we imported the larger part of our white clover and the bulk of our imports represented the undesirable short-lived type which has been long known in the trade under the term 'Dutch' white. Seed supplies of this type came to us from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Holland. Smaller supplies came also from New Zealand and the U.S.A. The New Zealand certified white clover seed which is now coming into this country in small amount is a different and much more valuable article, and its use should be encouraged.

Among other valuable legumes, alsike, lucerne, kidney vetch, birdsfoot-trefoil were all largely imported, while black medick (=trefoil), crimson clover, suckling clover and sainfoin are, to a large extent, grown at home. Alsike comes largely from Canada, but the other imported seeds were chiefly from European sources. Of the 'minor' grasses, such as crested dogstail, rough-stalked meadow grass, red fescue, tall oatgrass, tall fescue, meadow foxtail and Agrostis, nearly all were imported. Each of these so termed 'minor' grasses has a decided utilitarian value, but none is essential in the sense that ryegrass, cocksfoot, meadow fescue and timothy may be said to be essential.

In the circumstances, therefore, we should concentrate on the production of seed of the essential grasses and clovers rather than attempt to find alternative sources of supply of the 'minor' grasses. The type mixtures shown hereunder are based on the assumption that this country does, in fact, concentrate its immediate efforts upon growing adequate supplies of the chief species (ryegrass, cocksfoot, timothy and the clovers. Where home-grown supplies are deficient, the effort should be to supplement these by importation of seed of these species from overseas -- New Zealand ryegrass, cocksfoot and clover, Canadian and American timothy and clover). The further assumption is also made, namely, that seed supplies of the Aberystwyth leafy pasture strains will be in short supply and will be relatively costly in price. The seed rates shown in respect of these, therefore, is often lower than would be warranted in normal times.

Seeds Mixtures for Special Purposes

1. Autumn and Winter Bite (catch-crop for under-sowing a cereal)

It is often convenient to sow a short-term mixture with the corn in order to supplement the stubble grazing. This is especially true where the subsequent cereal or other crop is to be spring-sown. Thus, in the west and north of England, oats (sown in March or April) will be the following crop and, in this case, the land need not be ploughed until March. Anything that will provide stubble grazing in the autumn and into the winter and spring will obviously be of maximum value, and particularly on sheep farms. Italian ryegrass at about 10 lb. per acre should be the basis of such short-term mixtures, and this may be supplemented by 3 lb. per acre of broad red clover or 2 lb. per acre of trefoil (on lime-rich soils) or 4 lb. per acre of crimson clover and, in special cases (chiefly poor soils) ribgrass at say 5-6 lb. per acre.

These mixtures are essentially short-term grazing mixtures, designed purely to add to the stubble and winter grazing, and by so doing, to add to the fertility of the soil in readiness for the subsequent cereal or other crop.

2. One-year Leys

Chief reliance in mixtures for one-year leys will be placed on the ryegrasses, red clover and trefoil, the latter mainly on lime-rich soils. If the ley is sown under a corn crop, it should provide stubble grazing as well as early keep in the following spring. On land in good heart, hay or silage may appropriately be taken in the first harvest year, but where the fertility of the soil needs to be built up in the shortest possible time, it is better to graze hard throughout the season. Thus, on stale arable land which can only be left down to grass for the one year, it is sound practice to graze in that year and to graze as hard as possible throughout the grazing season in order to introduce the maximum of dung and urine. Folding sheep will even be better than free grazing for the reason that maximum concentration of livestock is attained uniformly over the whole field.

An appropriate mixture sown under the corn crop for a one-year ley (hay and grazing) would be as follows:

This mixture could also be employed for re-seeding on the upturned sod to produce grazing in the year of sowing and hay, silage and/or grazing in the following year. For sowing without a cover crop or under rape (at 2-3 lb. per acre) the seeding of Italian ryegrass should be increased to 8-10 lb. per acre. If an all-grazing mixture is required then the perennial ryegrass might usefully consist wholly of the certified Aberystwyth S. 24 strain, or, alternatively, of New Zealand perennial ryegrass. Where hay is the chief consideration, and especially on wheat lands liable to 'take-all' (Ophiobolus), the one-year mixture may with advantage be based on timothy and clover. The following mixture would be suitable without being unduly expensive at current prices:

This mixture would be improved upon if half the timothy consisted of Aberystwyth S. 51, and half the broad red clover was replaced by Aberystwyth S. 151. The hay and aftermath crops would be added to, especially on fertile soils, if 1 lb. per acre of Aberystwyth S. 100 white clover were added to the mixture. The seeding of alsike could then (in order to reduce costs) be reduced.

3. Two-three-year Hay Leys

There is a growing body of evidence which suggests that the way to get bumper crops of hay is to employ special short-term hay leys. For this purpose, the combination of timothy and late-flowering red clovers should form the basis of the seeds mixture, which might read as follows:

Timothy and late red clover combine to make an exceedingly bulky and leafy hay crop. The hay matures rather later than ordinary ryegrass-clover seeds hay, but is appreciably bulkier. The addition of the large-leaved strains of white clover (e.g. S. 100) contributes a good aftermath as well as adding to the hay crop. Meadow fescue (Aberystwyth S. 53 or S. 215), properly established, forms a useful addition but seed supplies are limited.

4. Two-three-year General-purpose Leys (Hay and/or Grazing)

Where hay and grazing are of equal importance, the choice of species is widened. It is important that the hay crops should not be smothering crops, and therefore fields should not be closed up too early in the spring for the hay crop. The hay-cum-grazing mixture should be grazed at least until the beginning of April, and the hay cut not later than the middle of June. For average soils the following mixture is suggested when under-sowing in corn:

If the mixture is sown without a cover crop or under crucifers, the Italian ryegrass may be increased to as much as 10 lb. per acre but in that case great care needs to be exercised relative to grassland management and the sward must be grazed consistently hard in its first year. On light land the seeding of cocksfoot may, with advantage, be increased to a total of 8-10 lb. per acre with, if necessary, a pro rata reduction in the seed rate of perennial ryegrass. On the heavy clays, timothy at a rate of 6-9 lb. per acre can replace cocksfoot. The timothy sowing might then consist of 3 lb. per acre of each of the following strains, namely, Scotch, Aberystwith S. 51 and Aberystwyth S. 48.

5. Leys For Longer Than Three Years' Duration

As a general principle, long-duration leys should be used in the main as grazing leys. Because of the fact that the long-duration mixture will contain persistent elements, and because these elements, in the main, are slow to establish themselves in the sward, it is essential that these leys be wholly grazed during the first and preferably also in their second harvest year. By that time the new ley has become fully established, and light hay crops may be taken without undue harm. If hay is taken from long-duration leys, the crop should be a light one, closed up late and cut early. It should be regarded as a mow-over crop rather than in the light of a bumper hay crop. No great harm is done say in the third harvest year if the field is closed up in early May and mown in early June. It is surprising, on good, fertile soils, what yields of leafy, nutritious hay can be taken on such leys. Excellent quality silage crops can, of course, be obtained in this way ftom the long-duration ley.

The choice of mixtures for the long-duration ley is a wide one. The mixture may consist of but one grass with white clover (always bearing in mind the mixing of strains). On good soils, perennial ryegrass may form the basis of the mixture, while on poor soils and on light land, the cocksfoot-white clover mixture can be highly satisfactory. On fertile situations and on the heavy clays, timothy with white and late red clovers has proved very successful. The great advantage of the ultra-simple (one grass plus one clover) mixture is that superb swards can be established relatively quickly, and when established they are singularly foolproof as regards management and maintenance.

The ultra-simple mixture given above is suitable as an all-grazing mixture (with occasional light hay or silage crops) on easy-working fertile land.

This mixture is particularly suited to the heavy clay soils. The late red clover adds to the bulk of herbage, especially where fertility is below average, while S. 48 timothy fills in well in cases where ryegrass tends to become open or stunted.

Both the ultra-simple and the extended cocksfoot mixtures are suitable for a wide range of conditions, but are specially applicable to light soils, for example, those on Bunter and other sandstones. These cocksfoot mixtures are also well suited to soils of low general fertility. On good fertile land, cocksfoot is equally suitable, but it must be managed properly to give of its best. It is not the easiest of grasses to manage, and it is well said that 'cocks6ot is a good servant but a bad master'. The extended cocksfoot-with-clover mixture is generally applicable over a wide range of conditions.

These timothy-dominant mixtures are well suited to certain of the clay soils, and also to the peaty soils, both at low elevation and on the,hills. On the clays, perhaps, the extended timothy-with-clover mixture is the more suitable of the two, but on the peaty soils there is much to be said in favour of the ultra-simple timothy mixture. This is true of the alkaline and fen peats just as it is of the acid moorland peats on which timothy does so conspicuously well.

G. Lucerne with Cocksfoot

Lucerne is a valuable plant, both on calcareous soils and on other fertile soils to which lime has been applied liberally. In Wales and Western Britain generally, the growth of grass is rapid during the spring and summer months, and lucerne leys are difficult to keep clean. In districts of low rainfall, however, lucerne leys should quite definitely be extended. The lucerne-leafy-cocksfoot mixture is an excellent combination. Preferably the land should be clean and the ley sown out under barley. The following mixture is a suitable one:

It is usually best to drill the seeds in April or defer until July. Lucerne should not normally be sown under a corn crop as it is very sensitive to competition. On most soils lucerne seed should be appropriately inoculated prior to sowing. On calcareous soils the lucerne-cocksfoot mixture may be under-sown in the first crop following ley or old pasture but more usually it is better to sow on land which has been fully cleaned and is in good heart.

H. Sainfoin with Timothy and Red Clover

We have to differentiate between the two contrasting forms of sainfoin, namely, Giant Sainfoin, which is a short-lived variety, and Old English Sainfoin, which is more persistent. The former is useful, therefore, for short (one- to two-year leys) and the latter as a basis of long-duration leys. Timothy and red clover (extra-late flowering types) fit in well with sainfoin, and help to keep the ley free from weeds. Rough-stalked meadow grass is another useful addition contributing to the same end.

The seed rates suggested in all the foregoing mixtures have not been unduly liberal. It has, in fact, been the definite aim to reduce the suggested rates of seeding. The question of seed rates is a complicated one, and one about which it is difficult to draw satisfactory conclusions. Because of the uncertainties of weather and of the season, what may be an adequate or even a liberal seed rate in one season often proves much too low in another season and under a different set of conditions. Generally speaking, a sowing of 30 lb. per acre of seed is sufficient under normal lowland conditions. When employing the ultra-simple mixtures, 20 lb. or so of seed to the acre has been shown to be enough. On soils of very low fertility and in connection with hill reclamations the seed rate may require to be of the order of 40 lb., or even of 50 lb. per acre. Seed rates in excess of these higher figures are seldom necessary.

The whole question of seed rate is mixed up not only with soil fertility but also, and to a very important degree, with the adequacy of the cultivations. Where cultivations are superbly done, and the soil conditions are good, then rapid and dense establishment takes place. Under these conditions, and always granting that the season is propitious, an extremely low rate of seeding will ensure a successful stand. There is one further point with regard to seed rates and their influence upon the ultimate sward. A very low rate of seeding will provide a sward. If the seeds mixture is such that a preponderance of leafy strains is being used, then the sward can quickly become extremely dense and vigorous. All this, however, would presuppose fertile soil conditions coupled with a high standard of excellence in grassland management.


SINCLAIR, GEO. (1826). Hortus Gramineus Woburnensis. London.

FREAM, W. (1888). 'The Herbage of the Old Grassland.' Journ. R.A.S.E. Vol. 24 (2nd Series).

CARRUTHERS, W. (1882). 'On Laying Down Land for Permanent Pasture.' Journ. R.A.S.E. Vol. 18 (2nd Series).

C. DE LAUNE, FAUNCE DE LAUNE. (1882). On Laying Down Land to Permanent Grass. Vol. 18 (2nd Series).

ELLIOT, R. H. (1943). The Clifton Park System of Farming. Faber and Faber.

GILCHRIST, D. A. (1922). Seeds Mixtures and the Improvement of Grassland. Bath & West and Southern Counties Soc.

FINDLAY, W. M. (1907-13). 'Report on Grass Seed Mixtures.' North of Scotland College of Agriculture. Bulletin No. 18.

PERCIVAL, J. (1923). 'Seeds Mixtures for Permanent Grassland.' Journ. Min. Agric. Vol. 30.

Next: 14. The Management of the Ley

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