Ley Farming

by Sir R. George Stapledon and William Davies

Chapter 17
Rotations and the Need for Simple Experiments

At the present phase of human development, when the affairs of man are in an unprecedented state of flux and when the only certainty is the rapidity with which both conditions and point of view must necessarily change, the greatest merit of ley farming is its extreme flexibility.

This very flexibility, however, has latent in itself very real dangers. There is much virtue in the four-course rotation, each crop is complementary to the others, and under conditions of high farming it has always played fair by the land. The danger to be guarded against in the practice of ley farming is that its very flexibility will be carried to such extremes that the farmer will cease to plan or operate in terms of fixed rotations. Under the ley-system there is almost infinite scope for variations in the actual cropping that can be conducted on any particular field, and therefore there is always present a strong temptation not to formulate precise systems of cropping in advance, not, that is to say, to follow any definite rotation whatsoever. An immense amount of thought and investigation needs to be devoted to the whole question of cropping and rotations, as applied to the ley-system. We must never lose sight of the fact that crops are complementary to each other. Some demand autumn, some spring cultivation: others call for inter-row cultivation: some crops are deep-rooted -- the plants contributing to bay-leys, for example, tend to develop deep-going root systems, while those contributing to grazing-leys will be more shallow rooted -- it is more profitable to use dung on certain crops than on others; potash calls forth a higher response from particular crops than from others, while crops vary widely in their demands on lime and phosphates. Every crop exercises some influence on the soil, as do the particular cultivations proper to the several crops. Thus a restricted rotation long continued tends to favour certain weeds in particular, and cannot give full scope to all the influences favourable to the healthy life of the soil. The aim always should be to subject every field to the widest possible range of cultivations, manuring and cropping, and this can only be achieved with certainty by the adoption of some methodical system of cropping. We must then plan in terms of rotations. The ley-farmer should operate on the basis of perhaps as many as half a dozen well-conceived rotations and seldom on the basis of less than three. A particular field having run through one of these rotations would automatically become due for a run of years in one of the others. Each rotation per se should, as far as possible, consist of crops which are complementary to each other, while the different rotations practised would similarly be complementary to each other. The ley farmer in fact would not only be taking his ley around his whole farm in an ordered sequence, but he would be taking a number of different rotations around his farm also in an ordered sequence, and in rotation. Thus his cropping, although exceedingly flexible and giving a wide range of products, would not be haphazard and would carry with it none of the dangers inherent in haphazard cropping. Every field would get its share of all that was good for the soil, as also it would have to carry its burden of what was bad.

The tendency on almost every farm is to concentrate endeavour and fertilizers on the best fields, forgetting that maximum production can only be achieved by bringing the maximum acreage into the highest possible state of fertility. Any tendency to exaggerate two-compartment farming, even if the separate compartments merely represent very different types of rotations, must in the long run lead to a certain robbing of Peter to pay Paul and react adversely against the productivity of the farm as a whole. The over-long continuance of one type of rotation should be followed by a run of years in a different and compensating type.

We have two main types of rotations, the one devoted largely to cereal production, with the intervention only of the short ley and perhaps without any animals coming on to the fields, and the other subservient to stock, and usually based on the longer ley. These two rotations are complementary. The man who has been farming on the basis of the long ley is in an admirable position to pass over to the cereal rotation for a run of years. He will cash his fertility in terms of grain, but the fertility will be high, and he will do no harm to himself or to his fields if, after a period in a cereal rotation, he swings back to the longer ley and more stock. On much of the permanent grass that has been broken the farmer was forced to start with a cereal rotation; it is imperative, therefore, that before the lapse of too many years he follows with a ley and a stock rotation.

As a working principle it would be sound to run a farm on two broad alternating systems. The one would involve a rotation designed primarily to produce cereals, roots and hay (from one- or two-year leys), the other to produce primarily grazing and silage (two- to four-year leys), with green fodder crops and some smaller amount of cereals. The two types of rotation would swing from one half of the farm to the other on a regular plan, and if, as during the war, the one type had necessarily to be too long continued or to encroach upon the terrain of the other, after the war the rotation that had been curtailed would be proportionately expanded both in time and acreage.

Our whole conception of pretreatment and of pioneer crops is aimed at levelling up the fertility of all the fields of a farm, while to start on the poorest fields with pioneer activities, pioneer crops and pioneer rotations is to embrace the conception of sequential rotations, for later it will be found feasible and profitable to embark upon more normal and more exacting rotations on the fields broken-in by resort to simple and unorthodox systems of cropping.

We have endeavoured to emphasize the principle that we would wish to enforce by giving generalized examples. To a very large extent details remain to be worked out, and sensible rotations established from experience gained during the present period of makeshift cropping. We are arguing in favour of change -- regularized and intelligent change -- as opposed to an absolute stability in our methods. It is perfectly true that there are innumerable examples of high farming based on an extreme stability in the rotation -- witness the best-managed grass-arable farms, for example. It is true also that there are many farmers who make a success of continuous or practically continuous corn growing, but neither in the case of the grass-arable man nor of the continuous corn grower can it be fairly argued that the farm is being maintained at maximum productivity or that the farmer is playing absolutely fair by the fertility of the soil of the farm as a whole: it is doubtful if in either case the standards of what are attainable are set high enough.

The crying need to-day is for experiments in farming, as opposed to experiments in manuring, experiments with different varieties and with different cultivations and methods in the production of any particular crop as such. Experiments in farming necessarily call for the co-operation of the farmers themselves and must, in the last resort, come back to the rotation and to systems of cropping. For every need and every purpose there must be a correct rotation, or a correct sequence of rotations, and to-day, and probably for generations to come, the needs of the soil will have to be served equally with the demands of the consumer. One question above all others must be answered, and that is, how long and under what circumstances is it possible to farm without resort to animal residues, and yet to play absolutely fair by the soil and by the land? The evidence, on the face of it is conflicting. On the poorest land in Wales we have brought fields into a cereal-worthy condition by the intermediary of the animal and have only been able to maintain them in condition by resort to rotations designed to hold a large head of grazing animals for prolonged periods on the fields.

Against this we have the continuous corn growers and the evidence of such a successful practitioner as Mr. F. P. Chamberlain, of Crowmarsh Battle Farm, Benson. Mr. Chamberlain's practice is to sow Italian ryegrass and trefoil (he operates on calcareous soil) in the spring with all his cereal crops. He ploughs in the standing ryegrass and trefoil about February in preparation for the subsequent spring cereal -- never an animal grazes the crop. As a preparation for wheat he will sow a one-year ley from which he will take a hay crop and bastard fallow immediately after harvesting the hay -- the hay is sold off the farm. Here, then, is an interesting case of continuous cereal growing based on the legume and ryegrass to maintain the humus content of the soil and on artificial fertilizers without any return in animal residues whatsoever. It works, and has worked successfully for a number of years, and is manifestly profitable. Mr. Chamberlain, be it noted, is not a continuous wheat or a continuous barley grower: he plays the changes between wheat, oats and barley, and between autumn and spring sown cereals. He tacitly accepts the concept of change. It is such practices as these that must be critically tested against counter-balancing practices. Thus in Mr. Chamberlain's case would his cereal yields be higher or lower if he fed off the trefoil and ryegrass with sheep? We think higher: he thinks lower. Would his gross cereal yields per farm be higher or lower if he rotated a two-year grazing ley at regular, even if at comparatively long, intervals over the whole of his farm? We quote Mr. Chamberlain's methods because they afford an excellent example of a system entirely different from what we have advocated, and because they so well serve our purpose in explaining what we mean by experiments in farming. Turn where we will, look where we will, and everywhere we see interesting practices, every one of which suggests the urgent need of exact experiments.

Never in the whole history of our agriculture has the need for experimenting been greater, and this just because of the facilities now available to the farmer and because of the advances made in agricultural science. These facilities and advances can, however, only be turned to full practical account by the conduct of large-scale experiments on methods and systems of farming. We want experiments of a different character from those which have been considered to fall within the province of the agricultural scientist, or of the agricultural colleges. Rather are we thinking in terms of the activities of the older pioneers, of men like Coke of Norfolk, and of the enterprise of the best pioneering farmers of to-day, but the need is for accurate contrasting evidence obtained on a generous scale, and for a full exploration of methods of cropping aimed at the evolution of entirely new systems of farming. Ley farming as we have envisaged it is undoubtedly in its infancy. It is capable of a greater flexibility and a greater productive capacity than even the famous Aberdeen and Tweedside practitioners have achieved from it. It contains within itself a stimulant favourable to enterprise and originality, and is likely to be the nursery from which will spring entirely new systems of farming -- systems at once in the closest possible harmony with modern knowledge and facilities and with the new demands the nation is making, and will probably long continue to make, on its agriculture.

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