Fertility Farming

by Newman Turner

Chapter 11
Field Recording

One of the first essentials of sound fertility farming is a detailed knowledge of each field.

To look into a field and contemplate the subsequent operations and cropping, merely on a physical examination of the soil, in many cases not even that, is worse than buying a pedigree dairy cow with no knowledge of its pedigree and milking records of its ancestry.

Before cropping the fields of Goosegreen, when I first came here, my policy was to find out all that I could about the fields; that is, ever since I had my first wheat failure, which a wireworm count after the event told me was caused by a million wireworms to the acre.

I've not tackled a field since then without knowing what I was up against.

But more than wireworms, I want to know what each field is capable of in other directions; what treatment must I apply, what crop should I take first, and what sort of rotation may I plan for the field. Is it a field capable of growing the heavy yielding stiff varieties of wheat? Does the field need draining or subsoiling before it is capable of carrying a crop through a wet winter, or if draining or/and subsoiling is needed and not possible, will spring cropping overcome the problem for the time? What are the labour needs of the field; that is, estimated man-tractor hours in relation to the likely returns?

It is also interesting to make a worm count and even a bacterial count. The local District Officer of the County Agricultural Committee will make soil analyses free of charge, and it is as well also to persuade him to measure what, in fact, are far more important indications of soil fertility. Though I have included soil analyses among information likely to be of use in determining the cropping of a field, if the organic content of the soil is satisfactory, there are very few crops that will not grow well whatever the soil analysis may be. The only ones that need worry us are the legumes -- beans, clover, etc. -- which do not readily grow on acid soils. But if there are no worms, and the bacterial count is low, then poor crops of all kinds may be expected, for the sparse populations of earthworms and bacteria mean there is not enough humus to keep them alive, and, as these creatures of the soil suffer nutritionally, so will the crop.

These things are all-important now, but they will be doubly important in the days ahead when farming may only survive as a tolerable occupation by its own efficiency.

By a soil analysis I have saved myself a lot of time and expense on liming which I might otherwise have undertaken. Many farmers have limed field after field on their farms since the increased lime subsidy was announced, simply because it is cheap to do so.

I have seen many fields in my district being given heavy doses of lime, where a physical examination has shown not one symptom of lime deficiency. I am sure it would be a great saving of public money and private time if, where no obvious deficiency exists, a test is taken before applying it. As recently as 1949 I was saved a considerable expenditure on ground limestone in this way. After ten years without lime of any description I decided to apply ground limestone according to requirements on every field. I called in the nearby Castle Hill Quarry analyst and said I intended to lime according to the requirements shown by his analysis. Not a single field indicated any lime requirements. We were both amazed. He said that he had never before sampled the soil of a dairy farm without having got an order for some lime.

I must say I was even more surprised, but it gave me valuable new information besides saving me considerable expense. For it is now evident that organic methods, which include subsoiling and deep-rooting herbs over a period of years, maintain a correct soil balance even on farms which are sending away large quantities of milk. It is the use of chemical manures, particularly sulphate of ammonia, which, far from correcting deficiencies, burn up the natural nutriment of the soil and leave it acid and lacking in various major and trace elements.

Assuming satisfactory drainage, the first crop on newly broken grassland will be winter wheat; but if the field is likely to flood I should winter fallow, disc the field again in spring, and crop to spring wheat or oats.

I must then determine the type of soil in order to decide the variety of wheat. As this varies on most farms, if not in soil type, certainly in fertility, this is very important. It is useless to sow Bersee or Holdfast if the soil is only capable of giving maximum yields from Steadfast or Squarehead Master.

Another aspect of variety choice has been emphasized by the wet weather of some recent summers. That is the necessity of taking every advantage of factors which contribute to an early harvest.

One year I finished harvest on August 17th. It started raining on August 18th and continued nearly every day for weeks, with disastrous results in some parts of the country. The following year I finished corn harvest on August 18th, and while we were bringing in the last few loads it started to rain and persisted without real drying weather for weeks.

It is wise, then, to consider the relative earliness of different fields and to sow the earliest maturing varieties -- Bersee, Jubilee Gem, Holdfast, Little Joss -- on the fields in which conditions of soil and aspect will make for early ripening.

Further, make careful note of any field which is so fertile that it causes heavy crops of cereals to lodge, so that even if it is not your usual practice to graze them in the spring you will in any case graze hard on those fields inclined to lodge, thus ensuring a short strong straw.

At convenient times it is well to make notes of such additional information about each field as length of time taken to perform the various operations such as discing, cultivating, dragging and later cutting or combining under normal conditions, so that in future years it will be possible to plan out a cropping programme and labour schedule which will take the best from every hour.

I know, for instance, that for discing the field 'Big Broadmead' it will take a half-day and that if my tractor driver starts one morning he will be ready for another job by dinner-time. That if it takes one and a half days to roll the field at the speed which gives the right consolidation I may have something unpleasant to say if my driver asks for another job at the end of a day. Incidentally, in the matter of rolling, the only way to find out the time taken for the proper speed is to do it yourself.

All the information that can be gathered is, of course, recorded. A kind of 'case history' of each field provides an unlimited source of valuable information and guidance for the future, to say nothing of winter evening amusement. From the records book it is then a simple matter to arrive at an accurate costing of each crop in each field.

This record book will be even more valuable as a story of the progress of each field in 'going fertility'; that is, changing over from the disease and infertility producing methods of chemical farming to the fertility farming methods described in this book. You will wish to know how each field starts in its level of fertility or humus content, the stages at which you add compost or green manures and roughly the quantities, and the fields from which you may consequently expect the most healthy crops -- and to which you may put any unhealthy animals which are under treatment and therefore need the most fertile grazing.

You will watch the changing colour of each field as it adds each year of fertility farming to its productive capacity, and you will note the increasing speed and economy with which cultivations and cropping operations are carried out. As the years pass you will find that certain operations become unnecessary -- for instance, horse hoeing and then hand hoeing will disappear from the record book for each field as it reaches a high state of fertility and as you gain in ability to use its weeds at the right time and control them by surface discing when they are not needed.

Especially valuable will be the knowledge gained by field recording of the milk-producing capacity of each field. It has been a revelation to me to find, by such careful checks, how different fields, though superficially similar in cropping ability, vary widely as producers of milk when grazed as leys by the milking herd. So, in recording leys, in addition to noting the days of grazing each one provides, give a column to the daily milk production from each ley while it is being grazed, noting also for comparison purposes any additional food which may be fed as a supplement to the ley.

No dairy farmer can work efficiently without milk recording. Field recording is, to my mind, just as helpful to the arable and mixed farmer.

Next: 12. Weatherproof Harvesting

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