Ley Farming

by Sir R. George Stapledon and William Davies

Chapter 6
How to Change Over to Ley-Farming

Implicit in the question of how to change over to ley farming is the further question of where to change over. Broadly considered, there are two systems of present-day farming which should be changed to ley farming. The first is the all-grass system and the second is the grass-arable system. The all-grass system was conducted wholly on permanent grass and on holdings so farmed there was no cultivated land at all. The grass-arable system maintains a part of the farm permanently in permanent grass and another part permanently in some system of arable cultivation. It is these two systems which shared between them all the permanent grass in the country. Of the 15,832,862 acres scheduled as permanent grass in England and Wales in 1938, we estimated as the result of our survey that about 9,147,000 acres were in a condition at once ploughable and from all points of view fit and proper subjects for the plough. Fit subjects because the land occupied by these acres could be more profitably employed under some system of husbandry based on the ley and because as a means merely of grassland improvement, ploughing and subsequent reseeding would be the best treatment. Because our survey was not directly concerned with farm boundaries we are unable to state the precise acreage of the ploughable and ought-to-be-ploughed permanent grass which appertained respectively to all-grass and grass-arable holdings, but it would probably not be very wide of the mark to say that about 75 per cent of the total was proper to the all-grass holdings and 25 per cent to the grass-arable holdings. The total area in arable (including leys) was 8,877,712 acres for England and Wales, and of this we estimated that at least 220,000 acres were plough-sick and completely farmed out. Here again we are, however, unable to state with accuracy what proportion of this plough-sick land was on grass-arable holdings and what proportion on all-arable holdings, but much the larger proportion was definitely on the former holdings. Where plough-sick arable land occurs on grass-arable holdings, the case for ley-farming is doubly strong, for on these holdings the correct procedure would be to put the plough-sick land into leys and to plough up the permanent grass for immediate crop production and so work round into a system of ley farming taken over the whole farm.

There are arable farms proper that have lapsed to such a poor state of fertility that the wisest plan would be to bring them into the ley system. To do so rapidly and concurrently with increased crop production is not, however, easy, because on such farms there is no permanent grass waiting to be ploughed up for immediate crop production. The acreage of land devoted to arable farming proper that on the score of plough-sickness should be converted to ley farming is not, however, large, compared with the acreage of poor grass on the all-grass and grass-arable holdings. The consequence is that the major problem connected with the changing-over to ley farming is concerned with the breaking-up and proper cropping of permanent grass, and with the grassing-out into temporary leys of the plough-sick arable land on grass-arable holdings. On the basis of acreage, and therefore on the score of achieving maximum food production -- in the last resort, maximum food production must necessarily be an affair of the maximum possible acres of fertile land in a crop-worthy condition -- by far the most important problem is the breaking and cropping of the ought-to-be-ploughed acres in permanent grass.

Actually our problem does not end with the acres scheduled as permanent grass, because much of the rough and hill grazings is, in fact, plough-worthy, and should be brought into cultivation based on the ley -- indeed, in many districts hill-farming could be completely revolutionized by increasing the area of enclosed land and bringing the whole of the extended acreage into the ley system. There is also the question of park lands, of which there are about 596,000 acres in England and Wales. Of these, some 250,000 acres are at once ploughworthy and ought-to-be-ploughed.

It is true to say that wherever there is permanent grass to excess, there is the strongest prima facie case for ley farming, and that the actual type of ley farming that should be practised and the best and quickest means of change-over to the systems are to be determined by the type of permanent grass (in terms of the types previously described) contributing to the particular districts.

In general, it may be said that the case for ley farming is strongest in the regions of high rainfall. In such regions, the permanent grass seldom attains to the highest quality, and it is under high rainfall that the ley can be made with the greatest certainty and where grass production can be made so extremely abundant -- while in the regions of the highest rainfall crops like roots, oats and kale are not debarred. The case is but little less strong in regions of lower rainfall, and this is particularly true of the Downs, where, by adopting the Hosier and kindred methods, ley farming renders corn production and milk production complementary undertakings. While on thin soils of many types and in regions of lower rainfall, ley farming can be made a substitute for the intensive arable folding of sheep, and, indeed, to-day the distinction between 'grass' and 'arable' sheep is not nearly as clear-cut as in the heyday of sheep-barley farming.

The case of the torgrass-fescue pastures of Warwickshire and elsewhere in the Midlands is interesting, and, in some respects, unique. For the land occupied by these worthless swards is almost ideal for wheat and beans, and a strong case could be made for a complete arable rotation (with resort only to the one-year ley) as the proper system to be adopted: and with modern track-laying tractors and heavy implements, these heavy clays must be regarded as a perfectly sound and sensible arable proposition. The acreage is, however, considerable, and lies close to the large Midland centres of population, so that probably ley farming rather than arable should replace the present all-grass and grass-arable systems, and this purely on the score of the regional demand for milk in vast quantities. Looked at from the product standpoint, it is milk more than any other single commodity that should be produced on ley farms, and this equally on the grounds of the health of the herds, of cheapness and self-sufficiency of production and of the quality of the milk. The ley farmer must necessarily look to the lime and phosphate content of his soil and to the carotene content of his grass, and these automatically manifest themselves in the quality of the milk. We can, therefore, make the further and very important generalization that ley farming should replace all-grass farming in all the dairying districts of the country.

To sum the matter up briefly from the geographical point of view, we would, therefore, say that ley farming is pre-eminently indicated in the following districts and localities:

  1. On Down land and the Cotswolds, together with the chalky and oolitic soils in general, predominantly for milk, corn and mutton production.

  2. On the heavy clays of the Midlands predominantly for milk, wheat and bean production; also on the clays of the southern counties, including Wealden, London, Oxford and Kimmeridge clays.

  3. On the lands in close proximity to the large industrial centres, especially those associated with the coal measure boulder clays and the millstone grits. Typical examples are to be seen in East Lancashire, North-East Cheshire, North Stafford, North and East Derby, parts of Nottingham, the West Riding of Yorkshire, Durham, Northumberland, Glamorgan, and some of the adjacent counties of South Wales. The market throughout these large districts is for milk and dairy produce in general. Each of these areas was a heavy milk producer before the war and the output was largely based on imported concentrates. The pastures almost everywhere were in a deplorably poor state and were often in large measure nothing better than exercising grounds for the dairy herds in summer.

  4. In all-grass counties (i.e. of pre-war days) like Monmouth, Carmarthen, the dales of Yorkshire and other North of England counties (on both sides of the Pennines). Also in the valleys throughout Mid and North Wales, and the valleys running up into the heart of Exmoor and Dartmoor. Initially with a view to most rapidly and most economically bringing the huge acreage of poor permanent grass in these districts into cultivation and immediate productivity and usefulness. Considerable quantities of milk are produced in many of these districts, while the raising of store stock is also an important activity. They are every one of them areas of high rainfall in which ley farming is peculiarly appropriate and in which the permanent pastures are characteristically of very poor quality.

  5. Marginal land and rough grazings at the higher limits of the plough line in the hilly and high-rainfall districts of the North and West. This would apply to huge areas in Cumberland, Westmorland, Lancashire, Wales, and in parts of Devon and Somerset. Pre-eminently to increase the cattle population and to maintain and sustain the mountain flocks of sheep and their progeny. The scope for fatting lambs on the higher elevations is enormous. Oat and root crops, as well as ley grass, prosper at the highest limits of the plough line.

  6. In counties where ley farming has long been practised as the arable rotation on grass-arable farms. On such farms the ley system should be taken over the whole farm and this would apply to very large areas in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, and in parts of Northumberland, Cumberland and North-West Lancashire, and also in many Welsh counties, especially Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire. In each of these areas oats, barley, roots and other arable crops do well, while the production of first-class leys seldom presents any difficulty whatsoever.

  7. In districts where the permanent grass is esteemed at a worth greater than its intrinsic merit justifies, and where the heavier land of a farm is retained in permanent grass and the lighter maintained in crops. This is true of parts of Shropshire, Cheshire, Warwickshire, Herefordshire, Worcester, Stafford, Gloucester and other counties. Most arable crops are well suited to these lands, while high-quality leys are easily established. By changing the system and taking the ley all round the farm, both crop production and beef or milk production would be increased by a very considerable margin.

  8. In districts where arable-sick land is associated on the same farms with acres in poor permanent grass. Striking examples of this state of affairs are to be found in Bedford, Stafford, Shropshire, Gloucester, Oxford, Buckingham, Yorkshire, and Durham, and indeed in most other counties.

The first action to be taken towards changing over to the ley system is, as we have said, in most cases the ploughing-up of old permanent grass, and it is, therefore, essential to consider in detail what our aims and methods should be in dealing with permanent grass. Our attack on any particular piece of permanent grass can take one of the following six courses. The first four involve an immediate ploughing-up of the sod: the fifth defers the ploughing-up to a later date, and the sixth calls not for the use of the plough either now or at any future date. The six courses are:

  1. To maintain a series of cereal and other arable crops for a number of years -- perhaps four, or even more -- before sowing the field down to a ley. This is applicable to fields in the richest and best of permanent grass and to some types of but moderate quality.

  2. To sow a ley mixture with a first cereal crop taken on the upturned sod, or at the latest to sow a ley mixture with a second cereal crop. This is applicable to fields in medium to medium-poor to poor permanent grass.

  3. To sow a ley mixture direct upon the upturned sod as the first crop and without any cereal nurse. This is applicable to medium-poor and to very poor permanent grass, especially in districts of high rainfall and on damp soils elsewhere.

  4. To start with a pioneer crop; the aim of a pioneer crop is to hasten the breaking-up and decay of an old and matted turf and to get the land ready for a regular and productive system of cropping. Pioneer crops are of two main types: the one, like the potato, which demands a great deal of cultivation in connection with growing the crop; the other, like rape, hardy green turnips and Italian ryegrass, which, by holding stock in large numbers to the ground, causes the return of excess of animal residues, which greatly hastens the rotting-down of the old turf and mat. This is applicable to the poor and poorest types of permanent grass and particularly to such as are in a tufted and densely matted condition.

  5. To start with pretreatment. By pretreatment we mean taking appropriate action on permanent grass (a) to make it immediately more productive, and (b) to get it into a condition in which a few years hence it will plough up nicely and yield productive crops. This is applicable to the poor and poorest types of permanent grass, and such as are rank and densely matted.

  6. So to deal with permanent grass that it will produce the maximum amount of nutrients this year and during the next few years, and this without regard to the ultimate effect on the condition of the sward. This is applicable to permanent grass which for any good reason is unlikely ever to be asked to yield to the plough.

Before discussing each of these six courses in detail, it is essential to make two points of paramount importance. As a war measure, with a few exceptions which we shall clearly specify, we do not advocate putting down any ley (that is to say, putting down any field to grass) for a period. of longer than three years. (This principle still holds. The precise length of ley however must always be related to local conditions. To implement the policy of taking the plough around the farm, many leys, still fully productive, may have to be retained for 4 years or more in order to carry the plough to the still unploughed acreage of permanent grassland. -- W.D. Jan. 1948.)

We strongly advocate, however, making a clear distinction between hay leys and grazing-only leys. In the main, we would use three-year leys as grazing-only leys and one- and two-year leys as hay leys. Late-flowering red clover lasts two years and contributes sumptuously to the hay yield, and that fact makes the case for the two-year hay ley. We do not believe in the dual-purpose ley, and would always make to have the acreage in leys partly in essentially hay leys (hay leys will always come for some grazing) and partly in all-grazing leys. It is, however, legitimate to take silage crops (cut at a proper stage of young growth) from all-grazing leys.

Our second point is this. There is much discussion about what sort of grassland it is right and proper to plough up -- the best, the medium, the poor or the very poor -- and which type should be tackled first.

Our answer to this question is emphatic: we should start on representatives of all types together and at once, and continue each year to attack representatives of all types together, and so continue till we are into ley farming and virtually completely out of all-grass and grass-arable farming.

If we start towards the medium and better end, and just crop out the fields ploughed, we shall not only get our farming into a hopeless muddle, but we shall be draining the fertility from those fields and shall have done nothing to be building up the fertility of other fields to take their place. If, on the other hand, we begin on fields representing all classes of grassland at the same time and on each adopt the more appropriate of the six courses we have advocated, we shall be doing three things each of equal importance. We shall be producing each year an abundance of crops (many of them crops for direct human consumption) from old grassland; we shall also be regrassing as we go, and from the very outset shall be initiating schemes of cropping (=rotations) and schemes which of themselves will tend to build up and sustain fertility. By adopting this plan, we shall be able to go a long way towards completely maintaining our head of cattle (and not only dairy cattle) and sheep; we shall hasten the plough around and so most rapidly bring the largest possible acreage of permanent grass into full productiveness and so also produce the maximum amount of crops from the greatest possible acreage of land. There is no time and no place for idle acres, and idle acres mean idle tractor hours. By a simultaneous attack on all types of grassland and by resort to the courses we have suggested, there would be ample work for tractors the whole year round. To extend the scope of our activities -- every one of which means food -- is automatically to extend the scope for doing work under all manner of weather conditions and at all times of the year. What we have said about the different classes of grassland is to be taken to apply equally to fields of different types on one and the same farm, and to different whole districts. To get the maximum out of our land we must be prepared not only to regard individual farms as our unit, but, where necessary, to think in terms of units covering a whole district: and we must also, where the land has any promise at all, bring our activities to bear on common lands, park lands and any other idle lands in blocks large enough to warrant a mass attack being made upon them.

With the lessons of the 1914 war still clearly in our minds, it does seem almost incredible that we have not learned these lessons, lessons which can be summed up in a single phrase: 'Think in terms of sensible rotations and not merely of crops, and, above all, regrass on a proper plan as the plough moves forward and move the plough forward.'

It is the moving of the plough forward that is the whole essence of ley farming; for the system postulates an ordered sequence of leys and of crops following each other on every field in fairly close conformity with a prearranged plan. Thus, every ploughable field on the farm comes for its turn in crops and for its turn in ley-grass, and consequently every field in turn derives due benefit from the residues left by the grazing animal and from the rotting-down of the clover-impregnated grass sod.

Next: 7. The Correct Place for the Ley in the Rotation

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