Ley Farming

by Sir R. George Stapledon and William Davies

Chapter 4
The Basis of Ley-Farming

The dual aspect of the grass sward provides the basis of ley farming. Considered as a feed for livestock, the grass crop properly used and economically converted is the cheapest source of starch equivalent and of protein equivalent at the disposal of the farmer. Considered as an agent for the promotion of soil fertility, the grass sod, properly managed and intelligently converted, must be regarded as perhaps the most valuable foundation upon which the farmer can build.

The grass sod, to attain to its full manurial value, must contain an abundance of clover roots, and the balance between actively living roots and material in an advanced stage of decay should be nicely adjusted. There should be no tendency to mat formation and no great excess of 'fossilized' root and other material in a condition of suspended decay. The sod should be a medium for favourable bio-chemical processes, leading to the formation of humus and generally of organic matter of a type capable of yielding up its elements freely to the plants growing upon it. A healthy sod has many of the characteristics of a well-made and well-rotted compost, and management should aim at accentuating these characteristics. They are to be accentuated by three obvious means, all applicable to the making of compost, namely:

Thus, from the point of view of using the manurial value of sod to the best advantage, it should always be ploughed up while still capable of maintaining a large head of stock, while abundantly impregnated with animal residues, and while still full of clover -- that is to say, before sward deterioration is manifest and before the advent of any pronounced formation of mat. Further, sod should be ploughed up just as often as applications of lime are demanded. The final acts of compost formation from sod are ploughing and liming. It is only on soils capable of producing permanent grass of the highest possible quality, and only then under superb grazing management, that sod can be maintained in a healthy condition for an indefinite period. It is, however, far indeed from certain whether, even under ideal conditions, sod can be maintained at full potential without periodic ploughing, mixing and turning, and there is no little evidence to suggest that new leys established on the sods of the richest grassland are more productive of grass nutrients than the permanent grass which they replace. That the advantage is with ley grass is true of the predominate acreage of permanent grass of the country -- it is demonstrably true of practically all the Agrostis pastures, the Agrostis-fescue pastures, the fescue pastures and of all the uncultivated types previously referred to.

In terms of meat production per acre per annum, the best fatting pastures (pastures of the ryegrass type) yield about 180-200 lb., while the average for the permanent pastures of the country as a whole (the Agrostis pastures) is a yield of no more than 72 lb, the poorest pastures yielding as little as 20-30 lb., while it is generally assumed that the average for the rough and hill grazings is from 5 to 15 lb. Poor pastures of the Agrostis type, broken and reseeded, in Wales have given meat yields of well over 200 lb. per acre, and yields of over 70 lb. per acre have been obtained from rough grazings that have been re-seeded.

It is evident, therefore, that considering the matter only in terms of grass, there is everything to be said for a system of farming that substitutes the ley for permanent grass. The case is even stronger if we examine the matter from the point of view of milk production. A properly managed sequence of leys gives grass of high nutritive value over a longer grazing season than can be obtained from permanent grass, while it is the experience of the most advanced dairy farmers operating on the ley system that they not only produce more grass nutrients per hundred acres from their leys than they previously produced from their permanent grass, but they are also producing their milk more cheaply.

To-day Britain has to be as nearly self-supporting as possible, and probably for many a long year to come it will behove every farmer to be as nearly self-supporting as possible in the matter of feeding stuffs for his animals, and consequently, the grass sod has now an importance as a means to aiding maximum crop production (wheat and other cereals, sugar-beet, roots, kale, potatoes) at least as great as its grass-producing function.

Ley-farming holds the balance more nicely between grass production and crop production, between food for direct human consumption and feed for animals, and utilizes the sod to the advantage of both to a greater extent than does any other system. Ley-farming renders milk production and corn production absolutely complementary, and makes it possible to push both forms of production to extremes without in any way ravaging the land of its fertility. The essence of ley-farming is to grow crops and grass; and to be at as much pains to use the sod to the best advantage as a manure and the foundation of fertility as to use the grass to the best advantage as a feed. Two corollaries follow naturally. Always the ley sod must be ploughed down before sward deterioration has begun to set in, and always the ley must take its place in the rotation soon enough to prevent, or immediately to rectify, any beginnings of soil exhaustion.

The ploughing-up of millions of acres of permanent grassland can do infinite harm, and that exceedingly rapidly, if all we care about is producing crops till the land will produce no more, and if, along with this, we are compelled steadily to reduce our head of livestock. It can, however, do infinite good if, as well as setting out to produce the crops we need, we will think and act in terms of sensible rotations and re-grass (now in leys) as we go. We shall then, in very truth, be able to produce the crops we need and for an indefinite period; and we shall be able to maintain our livestock at a level sufficiently high to contribute in no uncertain way to our meat as well as to our milk supplies and to sustain the fertility of our land, and that also for an indefinite period.

It is quite impossible to tread sufficient dung in the yards to deal properly with the great acreage now coming under the plough, and the best substitute for dung is the ploughed-in sod that has been heavily grazed and is, therefore, impregnated with animal residues. When straw is the receptacle for dung and urine, there is invariably a great deal of waste; when the healthy grass sod is the receptacle, there is little waste. In order to substantiate what we have said as to the manurial value of animal residues acting through the grass sod, we will refer briefly to experiments conducted at Aberystwyth, and in respect of two of these it will be convenient to quote from an article which has appeared elsewhere (Stapledon 1939):

'On swards that had long been down to grass, Iorwerth Jones set up plots to test different systems of management based on various schemes of cutting and various intensities of grazing. Save for an initial and uniform dressing of basic slag over the whole of the experimental areas, no manures were used, and the only differential. treatments were those of management. After continuing the several treatments for four years, accurate yield and botanical data were obtained, with a view to assessing the cumulative effects of such treatments. Our only concern here is with the yield data, and the statement hereunder sets out comparatively (with the yield from the plots grazed hard during the spring put at 100) the results obtained from the average of two of the trials.

'It will be noticed that the lowest yields were obtained from the mown plots on to which animals were never introduced, while the heaviest yields were obtained from the hard-grazed plots. Looking more closely, we shall see that the hard-grazed plots gave very appreciably higher yields than those grazed more leniently, but that the plot grazed hardest of all (hard grazing throughout the season) gave a slightly lower yield than plots grazed hard during the spring or the summer. Thus, save only for the hardest grazing of all, the yields were directly proportionate to the intensity of the dunging and urination by the animals. This is the more interesting because the yield from the plot upon which the herbage was allowed to rot back after each cutting was less than that obtained from any one of the grazed plots, including the plot that was grazed on a parallel intensity with the cutting on the rot-back plot. The conclusion, therefore, forces itself upon us that herbage returned to the sward via the grazing animal has a considerably greater effect on energy-potential than has similar herbage left to rot back unaided.

'Evidence of a different, but equally informative, character has been obtained from an experiment still in progress. On an area sown down in 1933 with a mixture consisting of Aberystwyth-bred strains of grasses and clovers, and of other leafy strains, plots were arranged to test the differential effect of "day" and "night" paddocking, for it is known that animals excrete more at night (including dusk and dawn) than they do in the day proper. The magnitude of the differences brought about in gross yield of herbage is demonstrated by the statement below.

'Taking the three seasons together, the yield from the "night" paddock has been over twice as great as that from the "day" paddock, while during the growing season of 1936, when herbage yields everywhere were high, the "night" paddock gave practically three times as heavy a yield as the "day" paddock. The beneficial effect of dunging and urination is, therefore, proportionate to the yield of herbage offering and converted. It is proportionate, too, to the quality of the herbage offering and its effect is cumulative, cumulative because herbage plants are peculiarly sensitive to the fertility status of the soil, and as this is graded upwards, so will such plants as are responsive to heightened fertility-level, and as may be present in the sward, gain rapidly on the low-fertility plants previously dominant. While, as fertility further increases (that is to say, as energy-potential becomes higher and is also rendered manifest) plants appropriate to such higher levels of fertility will gradually make their appearance, and then, after the lapse of a further period, it will be these welcome volunteers which will perhaps dominate the sward. We shall then have reached an entirely different range of levels, a herbage at once more productive and richer (in protein and minerals), carrying more stock, and because carrying more stock the return in urine and droppings -- both greatly enriched -- will be enormously increased.'

As a further example of this influence, and in order to demonstrate the profound effect of the grazing animal on the results following the use of artificial manures, we will refer to evidence obtained on uncultivated grazings in the Welsh Hills and recently published by Milton.

In 1930 manurial experiments were started at three centres, two on hill fescue pastures and one on Molinia pastures. On one series of plots the produce was cut each year as hay and aftermath and animals were never allowed on the swards; on another series, the plots were intensively grazed at regular intervals by sheep. In 1939, yield data were obtained from all the plots, which were each cut four times during the grazing season. The manurial dressings were heavy, and on the complete manure plots consisted of four tons of calcium carbonate (in two separate dressings, the second being applied in 1935), 4 cwt. of superphosphate per annum, and 4 cwt. and 1 cwt. respectively per annum of kainit and ammonium sulphate. The outstanding result was that as the outcome of the nine years of treatment the yield of the fully manured plots (average of the centres) on the hay and aftermath series was just over double that of the unmanured plots, while on the grazed series, which had been heavily dunged and urinated by the sheep, the yield on the fully manured plots was over five times that of the unmanured. This very striking result is in full accord with all our evidence, and shows that artificial manures on.sod have a much more potent influence when supported by the dung and urine of animals than when applied in the complete or almost complete absence of the grazing animal. The combined influence of the manures and the animals is to cause the breakdown of the mat and to make conditions favourable for the volunteer entry of wild white clover and such better grasses as the meadow grasses, and even for small amounts of perennial ryegrass and cocksfoot. At the end of the nine-years period, the pasture plots had come to resemble lowland swards, consisting largely of wild white clover and volunteer representatives of the better grasses, while the hay and aftermath plots still consisted practically wholly of the native vegetation proper to a sod still in a matted condition. Actually, the state of affairs on the pasture plots was as if these had been broken and reseeded, a result which, however, took many years of heavy grazing, supported by very heavy manuring, to achieve. It is sods that have been brought to the condition of these grazed and manured plots that are biochemically alive and active and are capable of forming the foundation of a fertile soil if broken and brought under cultivation. These experiments will be referred to again when we discuss pioneer crops and pre-treatments, and then the full significance of clover, animal residues and sod in relation to crop production will be made abundantly clear.

Finally, we must place ley grass in proper perspective relative to other feeds that are available to the farmer. There is a tendency to underestimate the value of grass as a feed. Thus, in the figures recently published from Leeds University and frequently quoted, the average yield of meadow hay (from permanent grass) is given as 30 cwt. The 30 cwt. of hay by no means, however, represent the full starch equivalent and protein equivalent that will be yielded to stock from an acre of meadow -- there will be the grazing as well.

The Leeds figures are of great interest, and are quoted hereunder:

Taken at their face value, and as contrasting only meadow hay as such with other feeds, 'grass' stands in poor comparison with the other products of the farm.

It must be pointed out, however, that the yield of meadow hay (as such) -- essentially the product of ill-farmed permanent grassland -- bears no relation whatsoever to the yields to be obtained from well-managed leys. A well-constituted young ley will produce over the first four or five years of its life an average annual output of from two to four tons per acre of dry matter. We have actually obtained yields of over three tons from leys in the Welsh hills. The dry matter of grass, on the basis of a yield of three tons, if properly utilized, in terms of grazing will provide at least 60 per cent starch equivalent and 12 per cent protein equivalent, representing 36 cwt. starch equivalent and 7.2 cwt. protein equivalent. This compares with about 2.5 cwt. of protein equivalent and 24 cwt. starch equivalent given by a 27 cwt. oat crop, taking also the straw into account. Twenty tons per acre of swedes would provide say 3 cwt. of protein and 30 cwt,. of starch. A similar weight of kale might give 35 cwt. of starch and perhaps 5 cwt. protein equivalent. Allowing for a certain waste, due to inefficient conversion, and assuming a certain proportion of the young grass converted to silage with perhaps also a certain waste, we still have in the well-managed ley a feed which in terms of starch equivalent, and especially of protein equivalent, can stand at the very lowest equal comparison with roots and kale. Roots and kale, however, call for separate and ad hoc cultivations for each crop produced, while from one ploughing and one set of cultivations, two, three, four or five crops of ley grass can be produced, while, generally speaking, a far larger proportion of the product of good leys is consumed in situ by the animals than is the case with kale or roots -- so that on all counts the production of good ley grass must be regarded as the cheapest method of providing the animal with heavy bulks of both starch equivalent and protein equivalent.

The case for ley-farming, then, rests securely on the value and cheapness of young grass as feed when compared with all other feeds and on the energy-potential of the sod as the foundation upon which to build sensible and crop-producing rotations to serve alike the direct needs of man and of his grazing animal. Grass must be considered and treated as a crop -- that is the fundamental basis of ley-farming.


STAPLEDON, R. G. (1939). Agriculture in the Twentieth Century. (Essays presented to Sir Daniel Hall.) Clarendon Press, Oxford.

MILTON, W. E. J. (1940).'The Effect of Manuring, Grazing and Cutting on the Yield, Botanical and Chemical Composition of Natural Hill Pastures.' Journ. of Ecology. Vol. 28.

Next: 5. Modern Developments Influencing Ley Farming

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