AGRICULTURAL PAPERS. No. 4. On the System of Farming Best Adapted Under the Existing Circumstances to Canterbury. By J. N. Tosh will, Esq. The following paper, headed as above, was read to the Lincoln Farmers’ Club by Mr Tosswill on the 9th July, 1872 ; In considering this very wide and important subject it will be obvious that while many matters require to be taken into consideration, such as peculiarities of climate, the relative values of produce and labor, etc., ■ yet they are all in reality included under the one general enquiry—- “ What system of farming will yield the greatest amount of profit, and at the same time diminish the fertility of the soil as little as possible 'I " In this paper I propose to keep the question steadily in view, and although-it is impossible to lay down any rigid rule suitable to all cases, yet I hope to be able to indicate with sufficient distinctness a general system, .which it may reasonably be hoped will best comply with its conditions.
As you are aware, land may he farmed in three ways : 1. As permanent pasture. 2. As arable land, under a rotation of crops extending over four, six, or more years. 3. As alternative pasture and arable land.
As a convenient method of dealing with my subject, I will take these systems in their consecutive order, and endeavor to ascertain how far each is adapted to this province.
1. Permanent pasture. A few years ago, when both sheep and cattle were worth three or four times their present value, when roads were bad and railways only talked of, there was a general desire to sow land down with English grasses. Men looked forward to the time when, relieved from the uncertainties, anxieties, and hard labor attendant on grain growing, all their fields would be in grass, and by anticipation counted up the profits and rejoiced over the comfortable maintenance which they supposed to be in store for them. But, unfortunately, wool steadily declined and sheep fell to one fourth of their former value. Experience moreover proved that pasture, however carefully laid down, in most cases deteriorated rather than improved after the first two or three years, ambit became evident under the peculiar conditions of our climate it would be impossible to maintain ordinary land as permanent pasture with any hope of success or profit. Sheep have lately slightly recovered in value, but it is greatly owing to the fall in cattle having created a sudden demand. In a few years, at the present rate of production, it will probably be difficult to find a market otherwise than by boiling down or preserving for a large proportion of our cross-bred paddock sheep. T need hardly add that under these circumstances the idea of laying down land to permanent pasture has, in most cases been abandoned. 2. Cultivation as arable land under a rotation of crops. It is clear that any regular rotation of crops must imply a corresponding loss year by year of the fertilising properties of the soil, and that unless they are artificially renewed, it must speedily break down. Under the rotations common in England, such as the Norfolk or alternate system, which consists of turnips, barley or oats, clover, wheat (or their equivalents), the fertility of the soil is maintained, and even increased, but it is solely by means of the manure applied to the roots and green crops. This manure is obtained by stall feeding large numbers of cattle—involving much labor, —by feeding sheep upon turnips or hay, and by occasional purchases of guano, phosphate of lime, &c. The cheapness of labor and the high price of meat render it not only impossible but highly successful amidst a dense population like that of England, but as a recent writer in the “ Australasian ” justly observes : “It would be no more possible to farm profitably in these colonies by adopting the four course Norfolk system in its integrity, feeding stock for nearly two thirds of the year upon straw, turnips, and hay, than it would be to pay farm rents in England out of beef and mutton at Australian [and he might have added Australasian] prices. It is the extreme value of meat which maintains the fertility of English farms, and those who are constantly blaming the colonial husbandman for not following the example of his English prototype, only exhibit their incapacity to assume the role of instructors.” 3. Cultivation by alternately sowing down to pasture for a time, and breaking up and cropping for a time : As this system—which is that described in works upon agriculture as the convertible system of husbandry—took its rise out of the old triennial system, it may be well, before proceeding further, to trace their connection. The triennial system, which continued through so many centuries the practice in England, where it was enforced by law, consisted of one year wheat or rye, one year oats or barley, one year fallow. Owing to the thinly populated country, large tracts of grass land and forest were available for pasturage around each village, and while cattle could feed on these runs in summer, and eat up the straw at home in winter, no difficulty was experienced in obtaining sufficient manure to maintain the fertility of the soil and produce two grain crops in succession, while the fallow kept the fields clear of weeds.
But when the pastures were in time broken up, and less manure produced, the land became impoverished, and at last the worst, being uncultivated, returned to natural pasture. After a time it was found to be greatly renovated, and this gave the idea of laying down regularly to grass by sowing seeds, as a means of restoring fertility. In fact, as the Rev. W. Rham states in the “Dictionary of the Farm,” the articles from which are copied into the “National Cyclopjedia ” : —“ The want of a sufficient supply of manure on the old three-field system, led to the laying down arable land for pasture for a time, and then breaking it up again.” •' ■ ' You will perceive that there is in this a remarkable analogy with our own case.
Tho waste lands in the settlor! districts have all become enclosed, and it is no longer possible to enrich our holds at the expense of adjoining open country. The original fertility of our soils has so greatly diminished by repeated cropping, and “the want of a sufficient supply of manure ” is exactly our great need. Our case, in fact, exactly resembles that of our forefathers, and the remedy which they devised appears to bo the only one possible in Canterbury. By the introduction of turnips and green crops highly manured they pass on to the alternate system, with all its many advantages, but for reasons already stated we cannot imitate them. In our rotations we must be content to start from what the Melbourne “ Leader” calls “ the healthy and natural basis of grass,” taking care not to draw too largely upon the fertility thus obtained before sowing down again. Having then arrived at the conclusion that the convertible system is the one best adapted to our circumstances, we will proceed to consider what rotations are possible under it. Land that has been laid down in pasture two or three years becomes greatly enriched, not only by the droppings of sheep and cattle, but also by the peculiar power possessed by grass plants, especially clover, of abstracting nourishment from the atmosphere. “Plants of this kind,” says Professor Stockhardt, absorbs so much nourishment, —namely, carbonic acid, ammonia, and water— from the atmosphere that the roots and other residue produced thereby remaining in the land give the soil more humus constituents and nitrogen than they have extracted from it during their growth. ” When it is broken up this stored up fertility becomes available for the production of crops of grain. By the rotting of the sward it becomes rich in humus. “This substance,” says Professor Stockhardt, “ when air and moisture can act upon it is slowly but unceasingly decomposed still further, and therefore continually furnishes fresh srjjplies of carbonic acid to the roots of plants as nourishment. At the same time also, the nitrogenous and mineral substances which it contains become soluble, and capable of being received as food.” As long as the stock of humus lasts, and there is sufficient moisture to decompose it, good crops may therefore be expected. But owing to the great demands made upon it by cereals, and still more to the gradual disappearance and volatilization going on where it is exposed to the rays of the sun, the supply soon diminishes and for us there is no alternative but sowing down to grass to obtain a fresh supply. The quantity of humus still remaining and available for the nourishment of the young grass is of course dependent upon the extent to which the land has been previously exhausted, and the “ plant” of grass will be good or bad in proportion.
A good “ plant ” of grass is essential to the formation of a fresh supply of humus for a future rotation, and hence it follows that by repeated cropping not only is the immediate result attended with loss and disappointment, but the injury done to the land is felt through many successive years. The humus contained in the soil is, so to speak, a farmer’s capital, and the taking of three or foui grain crops in succession, is nothing less than living upon capital at the expense of income. History teaches us what the result of such a practice has always been, and we need only read the American and Australian papers which lie on this table to learn, that in this respect history still repeats itself, in obedience to the same immutable laws of nature. The best rotation possible, after breaking up grass land, would be to take but one crop of grain, and then sow down again. A good corn crop would be looked for with tolerable certainty, and a splendid pasture would follow, the land becoming more and more rich, in proportion to the amount of humus stored up. Such a rotation would, however, allow but a very small proportion of the total area to be in cultivation at any one time, and this, added to the cost of the necessary clover and grass seeds, would prevent its general adoption. Farmers are so much in need of present returns that I think most men would insist upon at least two grain crops, obtained either twice in succession or with an intermediate fallow or root crop. More than two grain crops in succession are certainly not advisable, for reasons already stated. On rich soils it might be possible to take three grain crops by allowing a turnip crop to intervene, but it is questionable if the third crop would not. be dearly purchased, and the land would certainly require to remain longer in grass before being broken up again; where wheat is required to follow wheat, tin intermediate fallow may no doubt be advantageous. The practice allows of sow • ing rape immediately after the first crop is removed, and plenty of time is allowed to feed it off in spring. The droppings of the sheep, rich in nitrogen, the principal constituent of wheat, are ploughed in fresh and a good crop generally follows. The the chief objection, besides the cost of fallowing and the loss of a year, is that should there be any sorrel in the ground it will speedily spread, unless kept clown by repeated harrowings and scarifyings, and this constant attention it is not always possible to give during the busy months which include harvest. Hallowing the soil no doubt increases its immediate productiveness, owing to the rapid decomposition of its inorganic and humus ingredients. The cereal crop rapidly gains, but it is at least an open question if, in this climate, where the sun is so powerful and evaporation owing to the high winds, so excessive, the loss arising from volatilisation is not more than equal to the gain by absorption fi om the atmosphere. The introduction of a turnip crop between the second and third grain crops, although excellent in itself, and to be defended upon all the principles of scientific husbandry, is open to the same objections about sorrel, and on heavy land in this neighborhood it has been found a bad preparation for grain, owing to the poaching of the soil caused by feeding oft' in winter and early spring, and its consequent lumpy condition. As you are aware, spring is ordinarily ushered in with high winds, the transition from extreme moisture to dryness being exceedingly sudden. Heavy land has always at such times a tendency to cake, and this is much increased by the treading of sheep consequent upon feeding off roots upon the ground. The objection would not, of course, apply in the same degree to light soils. Although it is impossible, as I stated at the commencement of this paper, to lay down any rule applicable to all cases, a man’s own experience being often his best guide, yet in my opinion a
simple rotation something like the following would offer many advantages, and would be open to no serious objection : One year wheat. One year oats or barley. Three years grass, or one year turnips, two years red clover and grass. Upon a farm of 100 acres there might be 20 acres wheat, 20 acres oats or barley, and CO acres grass each year ; or 20 acres wheat, 20 acres oats or barley, 30 acres grass, 10 acres turnips, 20 acres red clover and grass. The proportion of red clover and turnips might vary according to circumstances, but as it appears certain that comparatively high prices will always be obtained for meat in the winter and early spring, each year will probably find us devoting more and more attention to the growth of roots. Turnips fed off witli sheep make a splendid preparation for red clover, and any sorrel m the land world bo speedily banished when the latter became established. Red clover supplies an abundance of feed during the hottest summer months when ordinary pasture is burnt up, and in consequence of its r r ots being so rich in nitrogen is about the best known preparation for wheat. Three years in grass or under turnips and red clover fed off by sheep would more than restore to the soil the humus abstracted from it in producing two grain crops. The farmer would be enabled to keep a comparatively large flock of sheep in proportion to bis acreage, and I need not say that where sheep abound there will grain also abound. Many other reasons might be brought forward, but as this paper has already grown beyond ordinary dimensions, I will conclude by expressing a conviction that if instead of exhausting the soil by repeated cropping some more judicious system were generally adopted we should not only find ourselves nearer to the solution of the question—“ How to obtain the most profit at the least expense in fertility,” but also having the satisfaction of knowing that we had done our duty in our day and generation as stewards and trustees of the farm lands of this young country for the benefit of posterity.
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