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Self-Sustaining Rotations

By Newman Turner

Fertility farming—building the fertility of the soil simultaneously with cropping it—has not been popular, especially in official circles, because, since 1939 maximum production at any price has been official policy. It has mattered little that maximum production of chemically-boosted crops has resulted in diminishing fertility for both the soil and the animal, and an increase in degenerative diseases for the ultimate human consumer. The farmer who has dared to put his future soil-fertility on an equal level of importance with productivity has been in perpetual danger of supervision or dispossession by the Agricultural Committees.

Now real efficiency is at last officially permitted. Production is at last beginning, in official circles, to be related to the cost of achieving it; and soil fertility can now once more become a paramount consideration of good farming.

I am using this rotation in reclaiming old worn-out pastures on my present farm.

In the first year, one end of the field is ploughed or rotated in the spring or early summer, and worked periodically to get it clean and start the decomposition of the old turf.

cattle eating silage
Cattle eating silage from a self-serve pile.

In June or early July, into the broken section of the pasture, Thousand-headed kale is sown with a corn drill in rows seven inches apart. The roller follows the drill and no further treatment is given to the kale. It thrives on the decaying turf and produces a leafy plant of kale which is easily grazed behind an electric fence.

The silage heap is made just over on the unploughed portion of the pasture so that the cows may help themselves to silage and kale behind the electric fence—lying back on to the old pasture.

Kale sown on up-churned old turf is ideal for strip-grazing because the turf prevents the soil from becoming too muddy in the winter.

In the second spring, the kale ground is disced or rotavated and sown with oats and vetches, undersown with a herbal ley mixture or sown direct with the ley after cutting the oats and vetches for silage. Another piece of the pasture is broken up and sown to Thousand-headed kale.

The silage heap moves down the field, once more adjoining the kale section.

In the autumn a second silage heap is made from the oats and vetches sown on the first section of the field, leaving the ley underneath for grazing and/or silage in the following spring.
In the third spring we have the herbal ley on the first section, which may be grazed early and then mown to make a silage heap on the old section of the field. The second section which was kale is disced and sown to oats and vetches, and a fourth section is broken for kale. The silage heap is moved down once more on to the old unbroken pasture.

In the fourth spring the second section adds to the area of ley available for grazing and silage. The third section, kale stubble, is disced, or rotated and sown to oats and vetches, undersown or aftersown with a ley, and the fourth section is broken for kale.

Crop Rotation
This chart tracks crop rotations through the four year period.

This process is continued until the whole field has been broken and sown down to a good herbal ley. In the last year the silage heap will have to be made on one of the new ley sections and the oats and vetches section, which is then the last but one section in the field, is sown immediately after the oats and vetches are cut and gathered for silage, to a winter rye or other winter green grazing crop, undersown with ley if early enough in the autumn (i.e. early September), or to be sown down direct with the last piece from which the kale has been grazed, in the spring.

The immense amount of fertility built into the soil by this system comes in a number of ways.

Firstly, everything grown in the field is fed on the field, so that the field grows its own sustenance, passed through the cows, and dunged back rich in nitrogen, potash, and phosphates, and the trace elements derived from the subsoil of adjoining fields brought up by the herbal ley from which the silage was made. When the new ley sections of the field are also going into the silage on the field itself—then the field begins to regenerate its own fertility from its own subsoil (i.e. minerals and trace elements brought up by the deep-rooting herbs of the ley).

If possible each section of the field should be subsoiled either before the kale is sown or before the oats and vetches are sown. In this way the subsoil is opened up ready for the herbal ley which follows the oats and vetches.

Secondly, there are few crops better than oats and vetches for putting nitrogen into the soil. And this is free nitrogen gathered from the atmosphere by the nitrifying bacteria of the vetches—organic nitrogen—the kind which is best for the young ley which is to follow.

You will have no difficulties in establishing a ley from old pasture where a kale crop and an oat and vetch crop have intervened. The decaying turf has released, by means of the organic acids of decay bringing them into solution, the unavailable minerals which are present in every soil if only they can be released. As I have said elsewhere, given a few leaves of organic matter for anchorage, sustenance, and the dissolution of a minute portion of the rock, nature can grow a vigorous and healthy plant actually on a rock. The criterion of crop growing in any part of the world is nothing more complex than the presence of a little moisture-holding, nutrient-releasing organic matter. In other words the secret of establishing a ley is biological and not chemical. This, then, is the third free source of fertility inherent in this system.

Fourthly, the strip-grazing of the kale concentrates an even surface dressing of dung on to the kale section each year, applied far more thoroughly and evenly than by hand or machine, and effectively incorporated into the top soil by the trampling feet of the cattle themselves. A valuable interval of time intervenes for the action of rain, atmosphere and soil organisms to commence their processing of the dung before it is churned into a rich seed-bed by the disc harrow or rotary hoe.

Silage heap
A close-up of a silage heap on Mr. Turner’s farm.

Fifthly, and perhaps the real center-piece in this jig-saw pattern of fertility, is the self-service silage heap, radiating from all angles of the heap the rich manurial value which the cow is continually depositing as she feeds at the heap, and moves to and from the heap in her journeys to the grass to lie and cud, or to the kale to stand and graze. As the silage heap moves across the field each year this concentration of fertility gradually covers the whole field. But as the greatest fertility is always at the site of the heap, additional value may be obtained by shifting the heap from side to side of the field according to where the less fertile areas of the field may be.

Two additions to this self-feeding, self-fertilizing program—one for the heifers and dry stock and one for the milking herd— are the incorporation into the system of the self-feeding of straw and hay.

A system I first saw deliberately practiced in Eire in 1946 is the building of a hay or straw stack in a field in which cattle are to be wintered, and allowing the cattle to pull out the hay or straw as they need it. By this method they gather from the hay or straw both food and shelter. The small residue, trampled under and dunged upon, is forked up into a compost heap when the cattle have finished.

With cattle that are not in milk, where unlimited straw may be allowed, the combination of this straw-feeding system with the self-fed silage and kale provides a way of using straw and increasing the amount of manure available to spread on the field. One snag, however, is that very little of the straw is eaten whenever there is good silage available, and this even applies to hay. It seems that even the best hay is less palatable than good silage and kale.

Source: Fertility Pastures