Winter Wheat in Elwell in Eight Steps part 1

Growing crops is a race against time to beat the autumn equinox at the end of September.  Farmers have been working round the clock through August to get the harvest in:  if there are few windows of dry weather a farmer may literally work around the crop as a wet crop is a lost crop.

a field of newly emerged winter wheatBucolic scenes of rustics enjoying a well-earned rest after the harvest home are visions of a world which vanished decades ago (if it ever existed!).  Even before the harvest was finished in September the ground of those fields whose productivity was finished for this season was being prepared for their 2016 crops.

Elwell is a field nestled between the Hill and the water meadows around the River.  It’s soil has become deep and clayey through the gradual erosion of the Hill over dozens of millennia.  In the 2015 season it was a grass ‘ley’ – a field of grass which has been planted with a special mix of grasses and clover.  Planting a grass ley is a way for a farmer to practice rotation to preserve the fertility of the soil whilst at the same time using it productively (in this case grass for the dairy and beef herd).

In September the ley was ‘sprayed off’ with glyphosate (which gardeners call Roundup).  This means that when the new crop is planted there are no persistent weeds whose roots will simply resprout after the field has been ploughed and planted.  Roundup is a chemical which is indispensable to modern farming.  Maybe this is why it has a habit of being in the news.  Here is a link to a recent article about its possible role in causing cancer.

After about 5 days the ley, together with the weeds that have grown the previous year, has died back.  The next step is to add rotted farmyard manure – the straw bedding accumulated over the previous winter when cows were being kept in the barns.  This post explains a bit of the hows and whys of this.

The third stage is to plough the field.tractor ploughing
As the soil in Elwell is so clayey it needed extra cultivation because it sticks together in large lumps.  So when the soil had dried out a bit the whole field was cultivated with a disk harrow.  Each disc is a bit like a pizza slicer – it cuts as it rotates.tractor and disc harrow

Well, now the work is about halfway done.  Someone still needs to drive a tractor back and forth across the whole field FOUR more times before they can pause a while.  Even then they cannot rest:  the field will have to be monitored for pests including slugs.

Not Just Any Old Grass

Now that the spring barley has been cut, you can see the grass coming through.  This was ‘undersown’ when the barley was planted in the spring.  A specially bred variety is used:  it is called Festulolium because it is actually a hybrid of Festuca (fescue) and Lolium (ryegrass).  There is more about selective breeding of grasses here and more about the particular uses of the many varieties of ryegrass here.

festulolium growing up through spring barley

festulolium growing up through spring barley

The process of crossing two grasses which are not closely related means that the hybrids are tetraploid.  ‘Tetraploid’ means that the cells contain 4 of each type of chromosome:  normally in both plants and animals there are only 2 of each type of chromosome.  Having twice as many chromosomes means that each cell is much larger:  this in turn means that the leaves are larger.  (Modern wheat is ‘octoploid’, ie it has 8 of each type of chromosome.  This happened as a natural mutation thousands of years ago, but partly explains why a grain of wheat is so much larger than a grass seed.)

The reason that these two are hybridised is that each parent species bring a particular set of desirable characteristics.

The fescue (Festuca) brings high yield and durability:

  • high dry matter yield
  • resistance to cold
  • drought tolerance
  • persistence

The ryegrass (Lolium) brings rapid growth and tastiness!

  • rapid establishment
  • good spring growth
  • good digestibility
  • high sugar content
  • good palatibility

There are many varieties of this same hybrid, and each has slightly different traits so farmers can be very specific about the qualities of the grass they grow for a particular purpose.  The various varieties are created by ‘backcrossing’ the hybrids with either the ryegrass or fescue parent species.

This spring barley was undersown so that there would be a grass ley in place when the barley was harvested.  It will be grazed over the autumn and winter, and so the fescue’s resistance to cold will complement the ryegrass’s palatibility and digestibility well for this purpose.

Putting the Lids on Thatched Dorset Cottages

from Will Best in Godmanstone…. is the time of year at Manor Farm  for the visit of the threshing machine. When I was a small boy this was a commonplace on most of the farms in Dorset, but now I only know of 3 or 4 where it happens.

It is not that we dislike combine harvesters, but that we are making combed wheat reed from the straw. There are 3 materials used for thatching roofs: water reed, long straw and combed wheat reed.

Traditionally water reed was used for roofing  in areas where it was grown such as Abbotsbury, longstraw was used up country, but over most of Dorset it was combed wheat reed. Reed combing, which extracts all the long straight straw from a sheaf of wheat, used to be a winter manual job (Tess had to do it at Flintcombe Ash in Hardy’s novel) but in the early 20th century the mechanical reed comber was developed to put on top of a threshing machine; and, 100 years later, no one has successfully found any better way to do it.

A Stooked Field at Manor Farm

A Stooked Field at Manor Farm

So at harvest time we cut the wheat, while it is still a bit green, with a binder and stand up all the resulting sheaves in stooks, otherwise known as hiles, shocks or stitches, 8 sheaves to a stook like tiny houses: the result is rather beautiful. Once the crop is ripe and dry, the sheaves must all be carried into the dry. In the past this meant carting with wagons and trailers, building ricks the size of small houses, and covering them with thatch or tarpaulins. Rick building is a specialised craft and must be done correctly or the wheat can spoil, or be very hard to pull out when the time comes.

Building the Rick

Now we have mechanised this by making big string tied bundles of up to 100 sheaves and using a loader to stack them in a barn, and later, to take them from the barn onto a platform beside the tractor powered thresher/ reed comber which separates out the reed, grain and rest of the straw.

This is the process, but the vital bit is the growing of the wheat. Modern varieties are too short; so old, longstrawed ones must be sown. Nitrogen fertiliser and other agrochemicals weaken the straw, so the crop must be grown organically, or with very few inputs.  This means that in order to grow a good tall clean crop which will stand up well until harvest, you must have good natural fertility in the soil: we only grow ours after a grass/clover ley and an application of composted manure. The whole process is quite complex compared to modern cereal growing, but it must be done if we are to continue to cover our historic buildings with the correct material, and it helps keep alive crafts and methods which go back for millennia.