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What Farmers did 150 Years Ago

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In the Earlier Days[edit]

This is an excerpt from the 1881 book, "Household Cyclopedia". It gives an example of what farmers did using crop rotation to maintain soil fertility before the extensive use of chemical fertilizers. These days we can do better but there is always something to learn from the past.


Management of Arable Land.

Alternate husbandry, or the system of having leguminous and culmiferous crops to follow each other, with some modifications, is practicable on every soil. According to its rules, the land would rarely get into a foul and exhausted state; at least, if foul and exhausted under alternate husbandry, matters would be much worse were any other system followed. The rotation may be long or short, as is consistent with the richness of the soil, on which it is executed, and other local circumstances. The crops cultivated may be any of the varieties which compose either of the two tribes according to the nature of soil and climate of the district where the rotation is exercised, and where circumstances render ploughing not so advantageous as pasturing, the land may remain in grass, till those circumstances are obviated, care being always taken, when it is broken up, to follow alternate husbandry during the time it is under tillage.

In this way we think it perfectly practicable to follow the alternate system in every situation; nor do we consider the land being in grass for two, three, or four years, as a departure from that system, if called for by a scarcity of manure, poverty of soil, want of markets for corn, or other accidental circumstances. The basis of every rotation we hold to be either a bare summer fallow, or a fallow on which drill turnips are cultivated, and its conclusion to be with the crop taken in the year preceding a return of fallow or drilled turnips, when, of course, a new rotation commences.

First Rotation of Crops.

According to this rotation, wheat and drilled beans are the crops to be cultivated, though clover and rye-grass may be taken for one year, in place of beans, should such a variety be viewed as more eligible. The rotation begins with summer fallow, because it is only on strong deep lands that it can be profitably practised; and it may go on for any length of time, or so long as the land can be kept clean, though it ought to stop the moment that the land gets into a contrary condition. A considerable quantity of manure is required to go on successfully; dung should be given to each bean crop; and if this crop is drilled and attentively horse-hoed, the rotation may turn out to be one of the most profitable that can be exercised.

Second Rotation.

Upon loams and clays, where it may not be advisable to carry the first rotation into execution, a different one can be practised, according to which labor will be more divided, and the usual grains more generally cultivated, as, for instance:

1. Fallow, with dung.

2. Wheat.

3. Beans, drilled and horse-hoed.

4. Barley.

5. Clover and rye-grass.

6. Oats, or wheat.

7. Beans, drilled and horse-hoed.

8. Wheat

This rotation is excellently calculated to insure an abundant return through the whole of it, provided dung is administered upon the clover stubble. Without this supply the rotation would be crippled, and inferior crops of course produced in the concluding years.

Third Rotation.

This rotation is calculated for clays and loams of an inferior description to those already treated of:

1. Fallow, with dung.

2. Wheat.

3. Clover and ryegrass.

4. Oats.

5. Beans, drilled and horse-hoed.

6. Wheat.

According to this rotation, the rules of good husbandry are studiously practised, while the sequence is obviously calculated to keep the land in good order, and in such a condition as to insure crops of the greatest value. If manure is bestowed either upon the clover stubble or before the beans are sown, the rotation is one of the best that can be devised for the soils mentioned.

Fourth Rotation.

On thin clays gentle husbandry is indispensably necessary, otherwise the soil may be exhausted, and the produce unequal to the expense of cultivation. Soils of this description will not improve much while under grass, but unless an additional stock of manure can be procured, there is a necessity of refreshing them in that way, even though the produce should, in the meantime, be comparatively of small value. The following rotation is an excellent one:

1. Fallow, with dung.

2. Wheat.

3. Grass, pastured, but not too early eaten.

4. Grass.

5. Grass.

6. Oats.

This rotation may be shortened or lengthened, according to circumstances, but should never extend further in point of ploughing, than when dung can be given to the fallow break. This is the keystone of the whole, and if it is neglected the rotation is rendered useless.

Fifth Rotation.

Peat-earth soils are not friendly to wheat unless aided by a quantity of calcereous matter. Taking them in a general point of view, it is not advisable to cultivate wheat, but a crop of oats may almost be depended upon, provided the previous management has been judiciously executed. If the sub-soil of peat-earth lands be retentive of moisture, the process ought to commence with a bare summer fallow, but if such are incumbent on free and open bottoms, a crop of turnips may be substituted for fallow, according to which method the surface will get a body which naturally it did not possess. Grass, on such soils,must always occupy a great space of every rotation, because physical circumstances render regular cropping utterly impracticable.

1. Fallow, or turnips with dung.

2. Oats, of an early variety.

3. Clover, and a considerable quantity of perennial rye-grass.

4. Pasture for several years, till circumstances permit the land to be broken up, when oats are to be repeated.

Sixth Rotation.

Light soils are easily managed, though to procure a full return of the profits which they are capable of yielding, requires generally as much attention as is necessary in the management of those of a stronger description. Upon light soils a bare summer fallow is seldom called for, as cleanliness may be preserved by growing turnips and other leguminous articles. Grass also is of eminent advantage upon such soils, often yielding a greater profit than what is afforded by culmiferous crops.

1. Turnips.

2. Spring wheat, or barley.

3. Clover and rye-grass.

4. Oats, or wheat.

This rotation would be greatly improved, were it extended to eight years, whilst the ground by such an extension, would be kept fresh, and constantly in good condition. As for instance, were seeds for pasture sown in the second year, the ground kept three years under grass, then broken up for oats in the sixth year, drilled with beans and peas in the seventh, and sown with wheat in the eighth, the rotation would be complete; because it included every branch of husbandry, and admitted a variety in management generally agreeable to the soil, and always favorable to the interest of cultivators. The rotation may also consist of six crops, were the land kept only one year in grass, though few situations admit of so much cropping, unless additional manure is within reach.

Seventh Rotation.

Sandy soils, when properly manured, are well adapted to turnips, though it rarely happens that wheat can be cultivated on them with advantage, unless they are dressed with alluvial compost, marl, clay, or some such substance, as will give a body or strength to them which they do not naturally possess. Barley, oats, and rye, the latter especially, are, however, sure crops on sands; and, in favorable seasons, will return greater profit than can be obtained from wheat.

1. Turnips, consumed on the ground.

2. Barley.

3. Grass.

4. Rye or oats.

By keeping the land three years in grass, the rotations would be extended to six years, a measure highly advisable. From what has been stated, every person capable of judging will at once perceive the facility of arranging husbandry upon correct principles, and of cropping the ground in such a way as to make it produce abundant returns to the occupier, whilst at the same time it is preserved in good condition, and never impoverished or exhausted. All these things are perfectly practicable under the alternate system, though it is doubtful whether they can be gained under any other.

It may be added, that winter-sown crops, or crops sown on the winter furrow, are most eligible on all clayey soils. Ploughing, with a view to clean soils of the description under consideration, has little effect unless given in the summer months. This renders summer fallow indispensably necessary; and, without this radical process, none of the heavy and wet soils can be suitably managed, or preserved in a good condition.

To adopt a judicious rotation of chopping for every soil, requires a degree of judgment in the farmer, which can only be gathered from observation and experience. The old rotations were calculated to wear out the soil, and to render it unproductive; but the modern rotations, such as those which we have described, are founded on principles which insure a full return from the soil, without lessening its value or impoverishing its condition. Much depends, however, upon the manner in which the different processes are executed; for the best-arranged rotation may be of no avail, if the processes belonging to it are imperfectly and unreasonably executed.