Ley Farming

by Sir R. George Stapledon and William Davies

Chapter 5
Modern Developments Influencing Ley-Farming

The situation created by the war renders it essential that we should take a wide view of the developments that have taken place in recent years and that the best possible use should be made of the facilities arising out of such developments. We have to think and plan in terms of advanced scientific knowledge and pioneering practical experience on the one hand, and on the other in terms of the appliances and materials that can now be made available to the farmer. The position at the outbreak of war in 1939 was very different, and in four crucial respects much more favourable to wise planning and increased food production than at the opening of the 1914-18 war. We refer to facilities and knowledge as applied to mechanization, the use of lime, the use of artificial manures, and the use of grass considered as a crop. In this latter sphere the greatest differences between 1914 and 1939 have been the introduction of new and improved strains of grasses and clovers, increased knowledge as to the factors influencing the nutritive value of grass and great advances in the technique of making silage.

In considering modern developments it is necessary most strongly to emphasize the dangers inherent in short-term planning. Mechanization, artificial fertilizers, and even improved varieties and strains of crops all combine to make it easy to produce something quickly from all classes of land -- so far, so good, but they also make it easy very rapidly completely to exhaust the fertility of land already out of heart. Land out of heart represents the preponderant acreage in this country and that fact should be the starting-point in the formulation of all our plans for increased food production. This is the more so because as an elementary act of prudence we must necessarily cater for an emergency of uncertain duration -- for an emergency period of shall we say at least five years. Further than this, there can be no excuse for wilfully dealing with an emergency by methods that will jeopardize the future unless to do so is unavoidable. In the realm of agriculture and food production, unlike almost any other form of production, it is true to say that our endeavours for meeting our immediate needs (always the 'next' harvest) will be substantial in practically direct proportion as these endeavours conform with the dictates of a well-considered long-duration cropping policy. The prime aim of any well-considered long-term plan must necessarily be to increase the fertility of the maximum possible acreage of the country. Consequently, slipshod methods of cultivation, bad systems of cropping and an ill-considered and inappropriate use of fertilizers, must nowhere be tolerated. In all that follows, and indeed throughout this book, we are thinking of each single harvest year not as a separate problem, but as a part of the equally essential task of catering for an emergency period of unpredictable duration.


The basis of mechanization is the tractor. For a country most of the land of which is out of heart, in which wide-flung reclamations are a necessity, and where the ploughing up of millions of acres of poor permanent grass are called for and where permanent grass on heavy clay land contributes so largely to our potential food resources, the track-laying tractor stands in a class to itself. The track-layer is alone capable of dealing properly with the heavy clays, of effecting deep enough cultivations and thus making the land progressively more fertile for each successive crop. To plough heavy clay land too late and too shallow for a spring cereal is to invite a poor crop, and indeed a poor succession of crops because more likely than not (and particularly if wheat is following wheat) the second ploughing and cultivations will be hurriedly performed. The wheel tractor on clay lands necessarily means skimped (because wheel tractors can only operate at all on the clays under ideal weather conditions) and shallow (because the implements drawn will not be heavy enough) cultivations, and also means much harm done to the land by the tread of the tractor wheels. The track-laying tractor has also rendered possible the successful tackling of land formerly regarded as too steep and too rough for large-scale reclamations and successful cultivations. In short, the track-layer has opened up immense possibilities on the heavy clays and on millions of acres of heathy and so-called marginal land at the higher elevations. These are the two classes of land which, in 1941, had the least to show in the then war effort, the one class ideal wheat and bean land, and the other capable of carrying an enormously increased head of livestock. The tracklayer, by virtue of its extreme ease of manipulation and effective power is invaluable for all the heavy jobs associated with reclamation -- bush clearing, mole-draining, ploughing down heather and bracken, and so forth. The handy medium-power track-layers of about 25 h.p. are the most generally useful. Let us be quite emphatic and say that on many types of land, and for many jobs, the wheel tractor is likely to lead to ineffective work and poor results, while the track-layer would pave the way for systems of cropping that would be rapidly cumulative in their influence on food production. Our food production endeavours are still seriously hampered by an insufficient number of track-laying tractors being available in districts where they are a vital necessity.

In the 1914-18 war, the implements drawn by the fickle and unreliable tractors of that era were not very different from those drawn by horses. To-day all that is altered, and we have implements designed more specifically for the tractor; indeed mechanization implies a well-considered range of specialized implements properly selected to make for effective and economic working in relation to the range of tractor power employed. Thus judged mechanization must, however, be regarded as still in its infancy, and there is immense scope for further improving the models of tractors and implements alike.

Modern multi-furrow ploughs and modern disk-harrows are complementary implements which make it comparatively easy to deal expeditiously with all types of derelict and worn-out land. The introduction of high-clearance digger ploughs -- like the 'Junotrac' and Prairie Buster -- have made it possible to plough wide furrows and turn them over completely, on even the toughest and most uneven ground. These ploughs are admirable for dealing with bracken land and moorland vegetation, and for ploughing down rank vegetation developed from old and rough swards, such as occur on much river alluvium.

The value of the disk-harrow is probably not yet fully appreciated, for the scope of the work which it can undertake is far from generally realized. Many pioneer farmers have, for many years, employed the disk in connection with their pioneer methods. This implement has proved invaluable for dealing with the derelict land on the Lias clay at the Grassland Improvement Station, Stratford- on-Avon. As an example, we quote the following, kindly given us by Mr. Nellist Wilks, a heavy land farmer from Worcester:

'The preparation of a good seed bed requires a tool which will bring the soil to the required degree of physical fineness and if possible reduce the amount of voids at the same time. No single tool fills this requirement better than the disk-harrow. There are various types ranging from the heavy 25 cwt., 10 ft. and 12 ft. double-gang variety, down to the single gang market gardeners' implement with the "parsley cutter" type predominating. All types have their uses, and everything depends on the power available and the class of soil to be worked. For heavy land the heavier implement is undoubtedly required. Heavy soils, and clays particularly, are resistant to cultivating tools and weight is needed to get down to the work and stay there. Strength as apart from weight, and in addition toil, is also required. By extending their use, disk-harrows can be made to cover the whole range of cultivations, especially on heavy land, even to the extent of replacing the plough. Particularly is this the case when dealing with old matted turf. Difficult to plough properly even under favourable conditions, it can be cut to pieces with disks and thoroughly disintegrated even to the extent of providing a seed bed for grain or grass and clover seeds. This technique is very useful when dealing with outrun land where the subsoil is barren and unweathered, and where the need is to make the most of the available humus-forming material as soon as possible. In the heavy class of disks there are two types, much the same in weight but having their disks set at different intervals. These are complementary to each other and a judicious use of both types makes for greater speed and efficiency in working. The wider-spaced disks bite into the land better at the first go off, and do not clog readily if the land is sticky. The closer-spaced tool follows on and cuts the surface layer into a finer tilth. They have also a wider range of sitting angles, which assist in the final cultivations. In addition to their cutting action, disks have a certain consolidating action, which, if not carried to excess, can be used to good advantage in preparing seed beds. The danger is in forming a pan at disk depth similar to a plough pan, but this can be avoided with care. Thus it is essential at each disking to alter direction across the field and also to alter the setting angle of the disks.

'In addition to preparing seed beds, both direct and in the ordinary course of cultivation, disked fallows on old turf are very useful preparations for subsequent ploughing in: giving better mixing of humus-forming material, and a more rapid breaking down to humus. Soil pests are exposed to birds in this way too. " Pre-disking" is likely to become a recognized form of cultivation and its use extended.'

Rotary cultivators are very useful implements for bringing certain types of old turf into a sufficiently broken and earthy condition for direct re-seeding. Thus on peat and peaty soils on the lands of the Cahn Hill Improvement Scheme both the 'Austral' and the 'Fishleigh' have been extensively and successfully used. In any well-ordered programme of ploughing up, large areas of grassland would be pre-treated (see Chapter 10) by heavy dragging and proper manuring some few years before they were due to come under the plough. For such work the Wilder 'Pitchpole' harrow and the 'Aitkenhead' grassland ripper are admirable implements now available in a wide range of weights and sizes.

It is pertinent to emphasize that the initial cultivations and reclamations necessary on derelict land put a very heavy strain on even the strongest implements. Thus it may be said in general of plough, disk, pitchpole and other pioneer implements that the frames are seldom strong enough and the axles and bearings not fully up to the strain imposed upon them by a powerful tractor working at full power on the toughest land. This is a timely and serious criticism of our modern implements, because in all reclamations the thoroughness with which the initial clearings and cultivations are undertaken will affect the yield of not only the first crop, but also the immediately succeeding crops. This latter fact is further to reinforce our arguments in favour of the track-laying tractor, the presence of which implement in a district invites not only mole-draining and sub-soiling, but also the use of the heavier and stronger types of ploughs and disks now available. A long-term policy with fertility as its major aim needs to be supported by a range of tractors and implements quite different from what may be made to serve, as second best, in the fulfilment of a short-term policy. Thus in this matter of implements a long-term policy would serve immediate ends better than a short-term policy because the more expensive and better implements demanded of a long-term policy would the better prepare the land for the crop immediately in view.

Lime and Liming

Short views and long views come into sharp conflict in all questions relating to the use of manures. The short view envisages only the particular crop and seeks only to ascertain the manures that should be applied to achieve maximum yield of the various crops considered individually. The long view regards all manures primarily as a means of increasing soil fertility and therefore of increasing yields in general -- thinks more of the land and less of the particular crop. The use of artificial manures during the last decades has been built up largely around short views -- emphasis always being laid on the immediate product rather than upon the land. Now that a 'war-time economy' is upon us and that immediate crops are so urgently necessary there is the gravest danger that the short view will gain complete ascendancy and that we shall not pay proper attention to the pioneering or fertility-creating aspect of manures. The truth is that if we are to cater for a five-year emergency the pioneer aspect is of far greater moment than the immediate product aspect -- concentrate only on the product and we may successfully fell a few fine specimen trees, but in doing so we shall lose the whole forest!

Lime is essentially a pioneer manure, and that is why it had fallen out of use during recent decades. Now with a pioneer manure the aim should be to apply such manure in a form, at a time, and in a manner that will ensure that it does the greatest amount of good for the longest possible length of time.

Lime operates in four chief directions: it counteracts soil acidity; it ameliorates soil condition; it creates favourable conditions for the ordered rotting down of organic matter, and it is favourable to the growth of leguminous plants -- themselves calcium demanders and potent agents in the creation of fertility. The present emergency, as indeed any wholesale adoption of ley farming, necessitates the ploughing up of millions of acres of permanent grass, all of which permanent grass should be brought into a sensible rotation in which sooner or later the ley with its attendant clovers will take its essential place. It is therefore of the first importance that all lime-deficient land in permanent grass that is broken should be limed before it is sown down to a ley mixture. That to-day should be regarded as the chief pioneer use of lime. To obtain the best results from lime it should always be applied under the plough and not as a top dressing to permanent grass or ley. It need not necessarily be applied at the time of sowing the ley. Land deficient in lime should be limed prior to growing any cruciferous, crop and prior to growing sugar-beet, barley or wheat. The best time to apply lime to an old sod is, however, at the time of ploughing down that sod. Despite the lime subsidy there are still whole districts in urgent need of lime, districts in which lack of lime is to be regarded as perhaps the chief limiting factor to all-out food production. Thus Professor G. W. Robinson, of Bangor, writing as recently as September 1940, stated that in Wales alone there was still need of at least three million tons of ground limestone to bring the lime status of Welsh agricultural soils to a satisfactory level. Professor Robinson strongly advocates the use of ground limestone (or of chalk) as the best liming material. Ground limestone has several advantages over other forms of lime. Perhaps the greatest from the ley farmer's point of view -- and ley farming is essentially pioneer and fertility-sustaining farming -- is that the benefits will be longer continued provided that. the grinding is such as to supply an admixture of fine and coarse particles. Professor Robinson suggests the general adoption of a grade of ground limestone all passing the 20-mesh sieve and having about 45 per cent of material finer than 100 mesh. Ground limestone is easy to handle and can be evenly distributed with the manure drill; it has no burning action and does not deteriorate or change in storage. All these advantages are far more than a set off to the fact that it requires one and three-quarter times as much ground limestone as of quicklime to. supply a given amount of lime. From our own experience of grassland and ley farming we have formed the definite opinion that ground-limestone gives uniformly better results than are to be obtained from other liming materials, and we are in entire agreement with Professor Robinson that one of the most urgent needs to-day is to increase enormously the facilities for grinding, distributing and spreading ground limestone.

This short section on lime may be usefully concluded with an example of the pioneer benefits of lime when applied on natural heath and moorland vegetation on soils with an exceeding high lime requirement. At three centres, two on fescue pastures and one on Molinia pasture ground limestone was applied at the rate of two tons per acre in 1930 and again at the same rate in 1935. The plots were enclosed and intensively grazed by sheep, so that the action of the lime was in the presence of the grazing animal and was therefore supported by urination and dunging. Gradually as the conditions improved white clover made volunteer entry, as did the meadow grasses, and by 1939 the limed sward had completely altered its character, to such an extent indeed that the yield of green eatables (in terms of air-dry matter) on the average of the three centres, was three and a half times that of the control (unlimed though grazed) plots. This was of course a slow and cumulative effect, but results of a similar order have been obtained within a period of no more than two years when heavy dressings of lime have been accompanied by heavy dragging and the sowing of a simple seeds mixture, including wild white clover. These results are highly significant in relation to what we said in the last chapter, as to the manurial value of a clover-impregnated sod, and as to the importance of pre-treatment preliminary to ploughing up the poorest grazings on soils of low inherent fertility, which have been robbed of their fertility. They afford also a striking commentary on the immense value of lime when applied to lime-deficient soils.

Artificial Manures

Maximum food production, with due regard to sustained soil fertility and heavy yields from the crops in most urgent need, demands an intelligent use and intelligent distribution of all manures. The matter presents great difficulties and, as we have previously explained, invites acute conflict between short and long views. We will deal separately with nitrogen, potash and phosphates, and in conformity with our conviction that it is long views that should prevail.


All crops respond to nitrogen, but there is a real risk of the soluble nitrogenous manures reacting adversely on sustained soil fertility when applied to land that is out of heart, devoid of humus and which has not been subjected to deep and thorough cultivations for a number of years. It must be insisted then that in general nitrogen can be used to increase yield with the greatest certainty and with the greatest safety on land that is in good heart. On poor land nitrogenous fertilizers can be used to the best advantage when applied to crops that will be eaten off by the animal. Then the heavier the crop the more dung and urine that will be returned to the land, and we must remember that dung and urine will always tend to increase favourable bio-chemical activity. We must also remember, however, that if the crop is removed by dairy stock, or young animals, there will be a drain on calcium and phosphates in direct proportion to the yield of crop eaten, so that on poor soils deficient in lime or phosphates the application of nitrogen to grass, or to a forage crop like rape or turnips consumed on the ground will soon react against soil fertility in the absence of added lime or phosphates. Nitrogen, if adequately supported by lime and phosphates, will tend to react favourably on the general fertility of the farm when it is used to increase the yield of crops that will be wholly consumed in the yards or byres. It will thus be helping to create an increased bulk of all-valuable animal residues in due course to be returned to the land to hasten forward favourable bio-chemical activity. As a broad generalization we may therefore say that from the point of view of soil fertility nitrogen can be used on the following diminishing scale of advantage, namely, on:

  1. Grazing swards.
  2. Crops like rape, turnips or kale when converted on the ground.
  3. Grass cut for silage, hay or drying: on crops like kale and roots that will be wholly consumed in the yards and byres. The reservation must be made that excessive applications of soluble nitrogen are likely to diminish the keeping qualities of roots.
  4. Crops some considerable proportion of which will be eaten by stock in the byres or yards, or on the field, such are, sugarbeet (when the tops will be eaten), oats (when the grain will not be sold off the farm), and feeding barley.
  5. Crops some proportion of which will be left to rot back on the ground though not passed through the animal -- the potato, for example.
  6. Crops which are removed wholly from the farm or which if any part is returned only a small proportion of the part returned will have passed through the animal -- wheat, and a number of market garden crops.

The risk to be guarded against with nitrogen is that its use will tend to drain the soil of other essential elements and that it will decrease fertility in proportion to its contribution to the bulk of any crop wholly or in major part removed from the farm. Thus there is some considerable danger in an over-insistence on top-dressing cereals, and especially wheat, and indeed on an over-insistence on a general use of nitrogen without regard to soil conditions and the wider implications of the manner of action of the soluble nitrogenous fertilizers. Our major endeavour should be to bring land into good heart at maximum speed, and as far as possible only to grow wheat on land in good heart, hence, incidentally, the imperative necessity of ploughing up large areas of our best grasslands and such grasslands as have been limed and slagged in recent time under the Land Fertility Subsidy.


Certain crops, such as potatoes, sugar-beet, onions and carrots in particular, make heavy calls on potash, and in the main the limited supplies available should be allocated to such crops.

With all manures, however, in the long run it is their pioneering influence that is most important, by which we mean their influence on general and sustained soil fertility, and consequently soils markedly deficient in potash should, if possible, receive an adequate capital dressing as a necessary preliminary to an ordered building up of fertility. Thus, apart from particular crops, particular districts should also if possible have priority calls on potash -- in this country downland would seem justified in substantiating such a claim.


Taking this country as a whole, phosphates are the most important of all pioneering manures. A huge proportion of our soils is seriously deficient in phosphates, and since the ley is of prime significance in building up and maintaining soil fertility and is itself an affair of clovers which in turn are largely an affair of phosphates, it should be readily appreciated that phosphates are of quite unique significance in relation to bringing derelict land into heart. Further than this, such important pioneer crops as rape and kale also demand phosphates. Thus the distribution of phosphates should be guided as much, and probably more, by the needs of particular districts in relation to general fertility as by the needs of particular crops, such as potatoes and cereals for example. Cereals, except when grown on old turf out of heart do not, however, make great demands on phosphates, and the aim in the use of phosphates for cereals on old turf should be to make the applications serve the cereal and general fertility. Thus phosphates should be applied to the cereal when a seeds mixture will be undersown, and on poor turf this should be with the first, or at the latest a second, cereal crop. Again, if phosphates are applied to potatoes the crop immediately following should be one like a short ley or rape, which will be converted by animals on the field.

Since phosphates have been largely employed in certain districts for a number of years, and have also been most generously used by the better and more solvent farmers, our cropping plans should be designed to make the most of such stores of fertility as the generous applications of phosphates will have created -- for example, the ploughing up of well-phosphated permanent grass, and particularly such fields as will have owed their phosphates to the Subsidy under the pre-war Land Fertility Scheme. Our present aim should also be to ensure that a giant's share of such phosphates as are available go on to land that is out of heart and starved for phosphates. That is to say we must ensure that the poorer farmers and men unlikely to be on priority terms with the merchants are not handicapped, but are actually assisted in obtaining supplies. To apply phosphates to land that will produce a reasonable crop without an additional dressing will not produce so much food, as to apply them to land where to withhold them is to invite an almost complete failure of crop, and to make impossible the initiation of a surging rise of fertility. We must always remember that phosphates properly applied, and with a view as much to their pioneering influences as to their affect on the yield of the crop to which they are actually given, will exercise a beneficial influence that should last for at least four years. The rationing of phosphates to a greater extent than the rationing of any other fertilizer should be based on long views, and should pre-suppose that in all cases their use will be supported by a sensible and fertility-enhancing rotation. We would therefore make the following suggestions as a basis for the rationing of phosphates (this was written in 1941; the principle still holds):

In our considered opinion if we are to cater for an emergency period of a duration of at least till the harvest of 1955, and it would be the height of folly to cater for any lesser period, then there is nothing of greater importance than to ensure the largest possible supplies of phosphates and to use such supplies as are available to best possible advantage, and 'advantage' must be assessed in terms of gross productivity per bag of phosphates during the emergency period and not in the yield of a single crop. The irony of the short view, as applied to food production, is that the short view gains nothing for the 'next harvest' always under immediate contemplation which would not be equally achieved by a long-term cropping policy, while it necessarily jeopardizes the prospect for subsequent harvests, and must inevitably fail to cater to the best advantage for an emergency period of unknown duration, and finally bring our methods of husbandry and of farming into a state of complete muddle.

Improved Strains of Herbage Plants

The plant breeder always has before him a variety of aims, and of these increased yielding ability is not necessarily the most important. In the case of cereals, resistance to disease and ability to resist lodging are essential prerequisites to a good variety. In the case of herbage plants, nothing is more important than to develop strains which will widen the sphere of usefulness of the best species by breeding strains that will prosper and luxuriate under conditions of soil and climate where before only the poorer species could maintain themselves. Thus, for example, the Aberystwyth pasture strains of cocksfoot have made it possible to establish excellent cocksfoot swards on poor soils at high elevations where the ordinary Danish cocksfoot had proved itself to be almost useless. Similarly, the Aberystwyth strains of timothy, both the extreme pasture type S. 50 and the pasture type S. 48, are making it possible to develop highly productive swards on certain types of peaty alluvial soil where perennial ryegrass does not make luxuriant growth. In cases like this the new strains make it possible to replace old swards which are poor and stunted with new ones that are capable of sustained and luxuriant growth. Persistency is a very important virtue in a herbage plant intended for the longer-duration leys, and since the nutritive value of a grass resides in its leaf, strains which develop a leafy rather than a stemmy growth are to be desired. The plant breeder has rendered a valuable service in placing leafy and persistent strains at the disposal of the farmer. The new pasture strains of the grasses, such as Aberystwyth S. 23 perennial ryegrass and S. 143 cocksfoot, are the grass equivalents of wild white clover and are complementary to wild white clover in the rapid development of swards of the highest grazing value. Just as the milking and beef breeds of cattle are quite distinct, and it is impossible to unite the supreme virtues of both in a single dual-purpose breed, so with the 'hay' and 'pasture' strains of grasses. The former are more stemmy, shorter lived, and earlier to start growth in the spring than the 'pasture' strains. Thus both 'hay' and 'pasture' strains have their special uses. The 'hay' strains (as long as they persist) are particularly valuable for early spring grazing; the 'pasture' strains are of especial value for back end and winter grazing. Thus a certain blending of 'pasture' strains with 'hay' strains is often to be recommended for short leys, while for longer leys the'hay' strains have a useful contribution to make during the earlier years of the ley, so that these in their turn should be blended with the 'pasture' strains for the longer leys.

Just as the plant breeder has been responsible for the introduction of the'pasture' strains of grasses, so also he can improve the 'hay' strains. He may add somewhat to the leafiness and persistency of the 'hay' strains without rendering them later to start growth in the spring. Good examples of improvements in this direction are the Aberystwyth S. 51 timothy and Aberystwyth S. 24 perennial ryegrass, both bred by Dr. T. J. Jenkin.

An important aim of the clover breeder is to produce a white clover of greater bulk than wild white clover, and also one that starts growth earlier in the spring, and to have bred such a strain, even at the expense of some loss in ultra persistency, represents a valuable advance. Such a white clover is the popular Aberystwyth S. 100 bred by the late Mr. R. D. Williams at Aberystwyth. Of equal importance is the development of an extra late-flowering red clover strain that will bulk unusually heavily in the second harvest year and run on in good amount to a third year. Such a strain is the Aberystwyth S. 123 red clover, also bred by the late Mr. R. D. Williams at Aberystwyth.

In Chapter 7 we shall give a brief description of the characteristics of the chief species and strains of herbage plants, and also indicate the particular uses for which each is specially adapted.

New strains supported by researches into the nutritive value of grasses and of clovers, and into the best means of establishing, maintaining and utilizing leys, supported also by improved methods of making and feeding grass silage, have all combined enormously to enhance the value of the ley.


ROBINSON, G. W. (1940). 'Lime for the Land.' Agriculture. Vol. 47.

Next: 6. How to Change Over to Ley Farming

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