Fertility Farming

by Newman Turner

Chapter 9
Managing the Ley

I was brought up on temporary leys in the north of England and, as with all farming practice, acquired certain set ideas from my father. But the more I grow leys, and the more I vary my methods of managing them, the more I learn that there is more to be learned than the experts themselves have yet learned.

Each new ley convinces me more firmly that there can be no rule-of-thumb management of temporary grass. It is as impossible for me to prescribe for your ley as it is for a monkey to prescribe for a polecat. Every farmer is a different animal when it comes to the management of leys. What is right for me may land you in disaster, and vice versa.

My father taught me twenty-five years ago never to mow in the first year of a ley of longer than one year duration. My Professor of Agriculture confirmed the same advice and my County Agricultural Organizer underlined it.

My own experience has shown that while this advice is safe, like many safe policies, it is not always the most profitable. Indeed, in my opinion, it is not possible to get the best out of ley farming, if this rule is observed to the letter, year in, year out.

All sorts of factors contribute to a decision whether or not to mow in the first year. The only man who can make the right decision is the man who lives with the ley; the man who has nursed it from birth knows the soil and the previous management of the field and the behaviour of the particular ingredients of the mixture used on that particular field.

What is more, if two men reached the same decision to mow a field of temporary grass in its first year, and tossed a coin to decide who should manage or perform the operations on the field, the result might be twice as productive with one man as with the other, even discounting the use of fertilizers.

Six years ago I laid down a field with a three-year ley and divided it into three portions. One was to be grazed every year; the other mown in its first year, and the third mown with its first crop and a seed crop taken from its second.

The third portion did not go exactly to plan, for just before the seed heads of the clover were ripe we became short of keep and the cows were turned in. This third portion, then, had what some would regard as the worst possible management, the first crop being mown and the aftermath allowed to go to seed.

The other two sections were carefully managed so that in the first section the treatment was orthodox and very correct, i.e. first-year grazing right through, and the second section the treatment was what the experts would regard as bad, i.e. first crop mown, second crop grazed.

Of the three types of treatment the second was the most productive, though only a fraction ahead of the first section, which in turn was little ahead of the third section. What is significant is that the whole field finished up a good level ley, and so far as establishment of the ley was concerned each treatment produced virtually the same results. Each portion went into its second year, a first-class ley. It was impossible to distinguish one section from the other with the dividing fences removed.

What made it possible to establish a good ley in spite of my disregard of all the best advice against first-year mowing?

The answer, in my opinion, is primarily in the management of the autumn and winter of the sowing year. This is the vital period in the establishment of a spring-sown three- or four-year ley, and it is at this stage that all the rules must be regarded and all one's knowledge of the behaviour of the different grasses and the different fields must be brought to bear.

The first essential is, of course, to observe the condition of the ley at the time of cutting the corn if the ley was spring sown. In the field I have quoted, at the time of corn cutting, grasses were very thin and clover almost non-existent. Normally, it would not have been considered fit to leave, and the cultivator would have gone in between the stooks as the binder came out of the field, but weather conditions prevented this and thereby gave the ley a chance.

By the time the corn was carried it was possible to quote the old maxim: 'A plant a stride, let 'un bide' -- but only just. At this kind of crisis in the establishment of a ley it is my experience that it will stand and benefit from the heavy grazing of light-footed heifers such as Jerseys, but will be ruined by the deep-biting noses of the sheep.

The heifers give the necessary encouragement to the plants that are too nervous to show themselves, whereas the sheep bite the very hearts out of the few plants that have ventured above ground.

On this particular ley hard grazing by heifers worked magic and the field was soon an even mat of clover, with the grasses just evident, but only just. This is the condition which the end of December should see on the ley that may be mown in its first year. The grasses will then get going in the spring for an early cut of grass, and the clovers are strong enough to stand a good cut of red clover before the white clover is advanced enough to be damaged.

A rest after the first hay crop will see the white clovers flourishing again among the grasses that were allowed to get the upper hand in the hay crop. Hard heifer grazing again will even the balance of the mixture, and after a further rest the stage is set for the long, strong tongue of the milking cow.

It is quite amazing what bad management a ley will tolerate once a sound and balanced establishment has been achieved in the first few months. If things do go wrong in subsequent months, the quickest remedy is a topping with the mower. Get things right back to the ground and start again. With controlled grazing, then, it is surprising what new life can be brought to a ley which was dying from cruel treatment.

If the first grazing has been heavy, and continuous rather than 'on and off', there is one winter operation which, if neglected, may make a ley grazed in its first year finish the year in a much worse condition than the ley which is mown in its first year. That is dung-spreading.

Careful spreading of the dung-spots before the ley is left for the winter rest will ensure an even growth in the spring. If the task is omitted, or inadequately done, the ley will grow patchy and a large proportion of the grazing will become sour and coarse. Give the cows a choice of the aftermath of a mown ley, or the aftermath of a grazed ley rank with unspread dung-spots, and they will choose to follow the mower every time.

In my opinion, then, the dangers of grazing in the first year are as great, if not greater, than those of first-year mowing.

But a good ley farmer, with the right kind of stock and a sharp mower knife, should be able to make an equally good ley either entirely by mowing or entirely by grazing or, better still, by a deft combination of the two.

No crop pays better than grass for winter and early spring attention. Once the year has turned, no opportunity should be lost to begin what, on the best-managed farms, are the first cultivations of the season. Indeed, preparations for early bite would have been best begun before the first winter frosts.

I find that by careful planning the influence of winter on the subsequent success of a ley can be considerable.

Firstly, the ley which is to be broken up in the following summer is the one to carry the stock through the winter, particularly on heavy land such as mine. If plenty of straw is used, this practice serves three ends:

  1. A heavy dressing of dung.
  2. Easy utilization of straw.
  3. The preservation of the younger leys for early spring bite.

The weight of winter stocking on the second- or third-year ley is not the serious problem it would be on the younger leys that are needed in good condition for later years. In fact, the heavier the stocking the better the results, providing straw is used lavishly.

The wetter the land, and the heavier the stocking, the more effective is the dressing of the trodden straw-and-dung compost. For plenty of straw is needed to keep the stock reasonably dry and comfortable, and the softer the land the better the treading of straw.

The straw serves three purposes. It provides food for the stock; it mixes with the dung to add potash and phosphates to the surface soil already rich in nitrogen fixed by the clover in the ley; and on heavy land it increases the humus content, and thereby lightens and improves the friability of difficult working fields.

With this method of pre-breaking livestock cultivation of leys, it is advisable to omit ploughing when the time comes to break the ley in the following summer and merely go into it with the heavy disc harrow. The saving in time will make it possible to drill very early wheat, which will come for spring, or even autumn, grazing.

The younger leys have the dung droppings spread as evenly and thinly as possible soon after the stock leaves the field in the autumn. If dung is left where it is dropped the winter and spring rains drive concentrated liquid manure into the soil and cause rank growth which even a starving animal hesitates to eat.

As soon as it is possible to get on the land with horses or tractor a thorough chain-harrowing is given. If I have the courage I use the light drags. It may seem drastic, but grass pays for drastic treatment, both in cultivations and in grazing.

I never use top dressings or artificial fertilizers; indeed, my difficulty is to keep pace with the growth when it starts, on a field that has been previously properly farmed. In my experience, a far more effective way of obtaining early growth (which, after all, is more essential than the temporary increase of bulk growth on a ley), of a quality far superior to that gained by artificial fertilizers, is to blanket the ley with an even covering of straw.

An important aspect of 'early bite', which is forced by nitrogenous chemical fertilizers, is that though the quick soft growth of grass appears to be in every way similar to midsummer grass it in no way compares in feeding value. It is easy to force bulk growth by nitrogenous fertilizers, but in my experience the cost is not justified in returns, and the subsequent slower growth which always follows the first results of earlier stimulation.

3a. Ley Management. Rank growth around unspread dung

3b. Goosegreen herbal ley (third winter). Ingredients identifiable on this photograph: chicory, plantain, sheep's parsley, alsike, white clover, lucerne, timothy and ryegrass. Photograph taken February 6th 1951

4. Spreading dung droppings on the ley. A job for the farmer's son. Hand spreading, until such time as there is an effective implement to do it, still pays. If that cannot be managed, poultry will make quite a good job of spreading if they are moved round the leys after the cows.

My method is to give a good covering of straw, yet not enough to smother the grass. It is worth while to spread the straw carefully, evenly, and in a quantity that will allow the young plants to grow through the straw in the spring. The straw is then left to rot on the ground. The covering of leys with straw in the winter protects the grasses and clovers from frost and maintains warmth in the topsoil, encouraging bacterial activity where it is most needed and at a time when it is usually lacking.

The effect of this is to provide ideal conditions of temperature and nutriment for the young plants long before they would be available on leys that receive no winter attention or receive only the orthodox spring top dressing.

The value of strawing leys was first made clear to me many years ago when I carted out a surplus of straw to be picked over by some cattle wintering out. A severe winter made me bring the cattle into yards before the straw was eaten. It was therefore spread evenly over the grass to avoid damage beneath the heaps of straw.

No further thought was given to the matter until the time came to give a top dressing in the early year, and it was found that on the section of the field covered with straw growth was already under way. This part therefore received no manures, while the unstrawed section had 1 cwt. nitro-chalk and 2 cwt. superphosphate per acre.

I was surprised to find that the unmanured straw section was fit to graze two weeks before the manured part and, what is more, recovery after the first grazing was noticeably quicker on the part that was strawed. The only explanation I can give to this is the difference in soil temperature brought about either by the straw raising the temperature of the strawed section or the chemical manures lowering the temperature on the other section.

It seems clear, then, that where there is ample straw which cannot be used elsewhere it is well to give some time to spreading it on grass that is needed for early bite. The market gardener uses glass cloches to warm his soil and protect his valuable crops during the winter and spring. For the farmer, glass coverings are too costly. But straw is cheap, and it is a crime to burn it. If it pays the market gardener to cloche his crops, it will pay the farmer likewise to straw the most valuable of his crops -- grass.

Next: 10. 'Yard-and-Parlour' Milking and Compost

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