The Natural Farming of Winter Wheat – Part Two

Open Sowing

Determining the density of sowing is no less important than the timing, it is the balance between sufficient light and occupation of the soil by the cereal.

Excess Sowing

Agriculturalists sow a ridiculous amount of seeds and then complain that their wheat does not tiller: how can it tiller when it must compete with hundreds of other wheat plants per square metre?

Seeds have a certain magic about them; ‘from tiny acorns mighty oaks grow’ and from a single wheat seed can come 10,000 grains! Perhaps this is why agriculturalists have a tendency to use seed to try to overcome all their problems? More seeds for poorer soils, more seeds for later sowing, more seeds to compete against weeds, more seeds for greater yield. But this is a dense sowing density! Even if the soil is good, the wheat sown early and there are few weeds, modern agriculture’s desire for excessive sowing leaves the ripening wheat fields vulnerable because the straw will not become sufficiently developed; tightly sown the stalks become elongated, the ear is formed so high that the centre of gravity shifts upwards, allowing the stem to yield to even a light wind – this is called ‘lodging’.

Sown widely cereal roots spread with ease allowing the plant to be better nourished, tiller freely, thicken the straw to better able support the larger ears produced.

Modern conventional agriculture does not need to compete against volunteers, ploughing and herbicides have seen to that. But in the transition to NF the ploughed field should be seeded with a leguminous cover as Spring arrives and then the wheat sown at Midsummer. There is no longer any need for ploughing or the use of herbicides because the cereal-legume combination crowd out volunteers. The work of NF is to keep the balance between the legume and wheat (everything is balance). When the legume becomes too rampant it must be cut back and used as mulch, when the wheat becomes too dense it must be sown more openly the following year. Each climate and each field will have its own pattern and it is to this expression we must attend so that there is no longer any need to plough or weed again.

Unfortunately, it has long been forgotten how to understand the appropriate sowing density because the received wisdom of agriculture, to sow ever more thickly irrespective of the consequences for yield or health of the crop, has become the only criterion of judgment. Some agriculturalists sow upto 300kg/hectare! It has been due to this reckless over seeding that some farmers have turned to sowing mixed cereals to counter the detrimental effects of compacted plants; wheat and rye, for example. These mixtures gave higher yields than pure stands of either, because of reduced competition between different cereal species. The high silicon content of rye produces a coarser straw, preventing the wheat from lodging. The rye and wheat are harvested together as are other mixtures, such as barley and winter wheat.

But sowing wheat to compete with weeds is an error; for wheat there is no worse competitor than wheat itself. Plants of the same species always compete for the same resources. If you are inspired to follow NF and have a fundamentalist turn of mind and your circumstances make it an appropriate choice, then sow rye the autumn before the establishment of the leguminous green manure and rye’s noted allelopathic effect will deal with even the most ‘weedy’ field without the need for ploughing or herbicides – just remember to cut the rye at flowering, leave the straw on the field two weeks before sowing the legume to give the allelopathic chemicals the time to dissapate. The legume and wheat will then be more than enough to control new volunteers as long as the NFer continues to pay attention to the balance of the legume and cereal.

 

Open Sowing is not New

In the 18th century agriculturalists experimented with clear sowings with some success. However, these trials were abandoned not for the failure of the crop but because there was the increased need for weeding (no companion, green manure was used) and because farm animals, primarily nourished by straw during the winter particularly in the poorest areas where straw was the main fodder source, found the straw from wheat open sown too tough and refused it, especially draught horses. But, given that the companion planting of a legume reduces weeding and cereals are now grown not for fodder but for grain, such problems are no longer relevant. It is high time the practice of clear sowing was re-established.

Well into the 20th Century the majority of agriculturalists still sowed thickly, with an average of 180 kg of seeds per hectare, intending to choke weeds beneath a surplus of vegetation. But this means of fighting is expensive and only goes to support diseases and pests. It is far better to remove the causes of the growth of weeds; the ploughing that brings weed seeds to the surface, the late sowing of the wheat that allows the winter weeds to gain a head start on the cereal and a lack of companion plants to cover the soil and therefore reduce the chances of germination of these small seeds.

In organic agriculture sowing thickly has become a necessity as a means to control weeds as herbicides are not used. This typically occurs because the organic farmer sows late to avoid the higher weed pressures of summer and he reasons that he will lose some of the young seedlings to cold and flooding, due to the rapid onset of winter, and this loss can be made up by increasing the sowing density. While organic farming is a worthy endeavour it is only a partial view of nature and does not see deeply enough into the whole cycle of natural processes. This partial view leaves organic agriculture in thrall to the conceptualisations of crop rotations, crop residues, animal manures, off-farm wastes, mechanical cultivation, mineral-bearing rocks, and biological pest control to maintain soil health, supply plant nutrients, and minimize insects, weeds, and diseases. In current organic practices it is recommended to sow at a density of 150 to 200 kg per hectare. At such rates of sowing it is not that the extra seeds will make up for the losses, but that the extra seeds actually help create the conditions for even more losses because of the poor environment these dense sowing create.

Late sowing leads to the majority of the vegetative phase of wheat being lost because of the rapid onset of Winter. This encourages the farmers to sow much more densely than necessary to try to compensate in space what they have lost in time. But this causes a too dense leafing, as each wheat plant competes to try to capture the meagre light, forcing the leaves higher, with the largest leaves forming at the top of the stem. All this furious growth toward the light is at the expense of the root system, as the stores that should be put down are used up in leaf growth. Any imbalance between the roots and leaves at this stage will create a long term imbalance, especially in the the Carbon (carbohydrates from photosynthesis) and Nitrogen (from the activity of the roots) levels. Indeed, because of this elongation, the channels of circulation of the sap are dangerously extended, causing the plant’s metabolism to be weakened and energy is expended on leafing at the expense of rooting. The result is that the wheat becomes exhausted even before it tries to form and fill its grains!

The rates of sowing vary between 290 to 420 grains per m2, depending whether one sows on October 25th or December 15th. But agriculturalists who practise the most intensive methods of modern cultivation and carry out their sowings during the first fortnight of October, still seed at densities of 200 to 250 grains per m2. While this reduced density and earlier sowing is a step in the right direction, a step back toward nature, the same cannot be said for what might be labelled ‘Multinational Corporate agriculture’ which is particularly prevalent in Germany and England. In the fields under the control of very fixed reasoning, farmers are told to sow as much as 450 to 500 grains per m2.

A seed is a seed, just that! It will not solve all problems, indeed, at such rates of sowing it ensures a host of new problems. It is much better to understand the full life cycle of the cereal, the soil and the climate and then make appropriate decisions of sowing density.

 

Open Sowing in NF

In NF sowing densities can be as little as 1/100th of the above figures – only 3 seeds per m2! However, this extraordinarily open sowing is only truly possible when we have come to feel the land and the turn of the seasons and properly time the sowing, maintenance and harvest of the wheat and green manure. The French agricultural experimenter, Marc Bonfils, who did so much to lead cereal cultivation in the direction of NF, realised good yields with initial densities of 25 to 45 per m2, sowing between August 25th and September 15th in the Paris Basin. He showed that once the companion plant had become established and the weed pressures thus lessened, it was possible to still gain good yields by reducing this initial number to as few as 5 or 6 seeds per m2, if sown between June 25th and August 15th

 

Here is a brief outline of his experiences;

 

Date of Sowing Sowing Spacing (cm) Density

(/m2)

end June, begin July 40 to 45 5 to 6
mid-July 35 9 to 10
begin August 30 12
August 15th 25 15 to 16
August 25th, 20 25
September 15th (deadline) 15 45 (density limit)

Rule of thumb: with each advance of sowing by one month, reduce seeds by half.

Therefore, in a cool maritime climate such as England, Ireland, Brittany, and coastal areas of the Netherlands, and Belgium, the following seeding dates and spacings could be used;

 

– 5 to 6 …………………………………………….. on June 25th.

– 10 to 12 ……………………………. …………… on July 25th.

– 20 to 25 ……………………………………………on August 25th.

– 40 to 50 ………………………………………….. on September 25th.

 

From Marc’s mechanised, large-scale field trials and from my manual, small-scale garden trials, it is clear that the earlier you sow the greater the need for space between plants to allow the massive vegetative and root growth.

In the NF growing of winter wheat verything is in balance. Seeded in Summer, the quick germinating seeds have the best conditions possible for rapid, healthy growth;

 

  • high light levels,
  • long days,
  • warm soil promoting active microbial life,
  • no competition with other wheat,
  • no competition from weeds and grasses
  • good supply of Nitrogen from high levels of organic matter
  • fixing of atmospheric Nitrogen by green manure,
  • balance between leaves and roots,
  • full tillering during most productive season,
  • root reserves high ready for Spring.

 

It is really very simple. It is only a pity that the human mind is always so busy that it cannot allow this balance to occur by itself but feels the need to fiddle with first this and then that factor, always looking to find ways to improve upon nature. When we try to improve this or that, what we seem to fail to realise is that we inhibit one or other factor that we have not taken into consideration. Many farmers have become frustrated with the plethora of advice they receive from many different sources, advising this, prohibiting that, the necessity of using this product, the negative factors of using that; it is then, just then, in this moment that we should come to recognise the need to give up on our knowledge-based technological understanding and return to nature. Give up! And in giving up we hand back to nature what was always nature’s, however much we might like to have thought it was we who grew plants. The farmers role, our role, is simply to let nature be and our only actions should be guarding against the restless minds of others who are bent upon improving this and that, who would disturb our fields where the wheat is happily growing by itself.

How simple all this sounds. Yet, letting go is never easy.

 

Phosphate

“The effectiveness of phosphate is far greater when the density of sowings is reduced. The phosphorus increases the precocity with which vegetation appears: tillering, the rising and maturity take place earlier and the (tiller-ears) are more thanks to the spacing and the influence of the phosphate; the ears are well filled and constituted, whereas, with increased density, there will be a reduced output despite the phosphate-enriched fertilizer.”

Jeanne Garola (1934)

 

Phosphates have always been regarded as vital for the growing of cereal crops, often seen as the defining factor in increasing yield. However, it should be remembered that it is the development of a good root system that enables not just the uptake of phosphorus, but all other types of soil nutrients too. For example, the growing wheat’s demand for Nitrogen is 150 to 200Kg per hectare, if high yields are sought; still within the normal range of what a white clover, green manure, companion crop will provide each year for the wheat.

Theoretically, Phosphorus is not available to plants except in the phosphate form, which is why agriculturalists insist on the need to fertilize their fields with phosphates. However, theory is not NF practice and in fields where plants are growing year round, where all the straw is returned to the field every year, the build up of organic matter and its decomposition by microbial action that this practice encourages, especially in the most active months of August and September, makes not only Phosphorus available in the phosphate form, but makes all necessary nutrients available to the wheat in a form that it can easily assimilate. The early sowing and open spacing of wheat allows for the balanced uptake of Phosphorus and other soil nutrients in this early, critical phase. Because there are always living roots in the soil and the cluster of micro-organisms about them, such nutrients do not have the tendency, as they do in bare field agriculture, of quickly leaching out of the soil when the Autumn rains come and there are not sufficient roots to capture this ephemeral resource.

Late and dense sowing in bare field agriculture will always aggravate the lack of Phosphorus to the young plants and force the farmer to fertilise his land, otherwise he will experience what so many other conventional and organic farmers have done before, the considerably slowed growth of winter wheat from the 5th/6th leaf stage onward.

Many problems that occur in young wheat cultures are too often due to excesses of sowing. In the confined, dim and airless space, cryptogamic diseases such as root rots and rusts are provided with the most beneficial conditions to develop and spread. The struggle of one wheat plant with another exhausts both, leading to weakness that allows disease to flourish. We are mad, we must be, for why else would we do everything possible to damage the plants upon which we depend! Or, to say it another way, by planting too thickly we have the effect of providing ourselves with more work to care for the sickly plants, and we end up treating them as intensive care patients, seeing to their every need. Is farming not enough for us, must we become doctors too?

All we need do is keep our own and other people’s theories out of our fields and just let the wheat and the clover do what they do, then we will have nothing to do, we will do nothing…but, perhaps, this is the real terror that haunts us? Perhaps we endlessly need to improve this, work at that because otherwise we would have too much time on our hands? Perhaps NF, though being simple, is not easy because our pursuit of always improving that which lies outside ourselves might turn inward and begin to ask where and why this ‘desire’ arises? But to be already on the road to NF is to have already owned up to a doubt as to the necessity of the desires that we project into the future. To be reading this ridiculous book is to be already aware of something which our western culture has too quickly passed over in its desire to dominate and make use of the world. To respond to the path of NF is perhaps to have already understood that by taking the road back to nature we are also beginning to return to ourselves?

The development of parasitic diseases and pests depends above all on the what the field culture offers them. It is not that one year brings a plague of root rot, another lodging and yet another scalding, it is that the wheat itself, because of our cultural practices, offers the potential for these problems because it has been weakened. We isolate particular phenomenon in nature, label them and then apply an agency to this phenomenon that does not properly belong. Just as ivy does not ‘strangle’ a tree so rot does not ‘kill’ wheat. Ivy grows for many factors, just as do diseases and pests. There is just no way to ever get to the bottom of it. Instead of concentrating upon pests and diseases we should recognise that the only answer lies in growing healthy wheat. To call something a disease or a pest is to attribute an agency to it that does not exist. We can never know nature because to understand any one factor we must understand how that factor interacts with every other factor and then understand how every other factor, in turn, interacts with every other.

Here are some of the factors involved in plant growth – it is only a short list of the most obvious factors;

1) Meteorological Conditions:

      1. sunlight
      2. temperature
      3. humidity
      4. wind
      5. oxygen
      6. carbon dioxide
      7. pollution
    1. Soil Conditions:
      1. Physical;
  1. Structure
  2. moisture
  3. air
      1. Chemical
  1. inorganic
  2. organic
  3. nutrients
  4. constituents
    1. Biological Conditions:
      1. animals
      2. plants
      3. microorganisms
    2. Artificial Conditions:
      1. breeding
      2. cultivation
      3. manure
      4. fertilizer
      5. compost
      6. disease and pest control

 

When faced with this number of factors and the fact that each must in turn be referenced in relation to all the others, the best we can say is that the cause of any problem is due to a host of factors, which is about as useful as saying it is a result of the anger of the gods!

While it might make us feel better, and would certainly make a scientist feel better, to tell us at length how our wheat has become infested and what we must do to avoid such a problem in the future, we must understand that this is just another story, no different and no more profound than any other myth.

When growth is slowed by lack of nutrients, carbohydrates begin to accumulate in the oversized leaves because they are not efficiently transported to other parts of the plant; sugars, amino acids, nitrates, etc remain, offering a splendid feast for whichever creature can take advantage of them. The same happens when the wheat’s truncated root system cannot provide the water needs of the elongated plant, causing a breakdown of proteins in the leaves which, nature being nature, attracts parasites.

Thus any delay in growth attracts parasites because of the disruption of the plants biochemical make-up and the soluble substances which should be used by the plant become, instead, the food of a multitude of ‘pests’. But, of course, the word ‘pest’ seems unnecessarily pejorative to creatures just doing what it is they do, perhaps it would be more appropriate to use the word ‘pest’ for the agent who it was who caused the plant its distress in the first place by his cultural practices?

We should plant winter wheat at a time and in such a way that it will have the potential to become what it is, not time-constrained by a previous culture, a desire for raised production, or any of the host of other conceptions with which the ‘pest’ agriculturalist would control it!

 

Lodging

Lodging is the result of the folding of the internodes at the base of the stem due to the weight of the aerial part of the plant. The main cause of lodging is brittleness created by a lack of light that causes elongation and inadequate lignification. While agriculturalists are happy to blame rain or wind, neither of these is exactly unexpected as the seasons change, one into the other and it is, rather, the inability of the wheat to fully become wheat which is the problem. As the fussy draught horses in the 18th Century showed, open sown wheat produces coarse fodder but excellent stems on which large wheat ears can grow.

Lodging always causes a severe reduction in yield as the sudden loss of sap flow and photosynthesis catastrophically retard the lodged wheat and, the earlier lodging occurs, the more serious the reduction in final yield.

If the plant is not well anchored the risk of lodging is even more likely. Therefore, one of the medicines doctor-farmers use to treat their ailing patients is growth regulator, which helps to reduce elongation. Following its application roots become more dense with roughly 1900Kg of roots per hectare as opposed to 1200Kg per hectare without such treatment. In NF cereal growing we simply replace this unnecessary chemical and the equipment needed to deploy it by early and open sowing, which obviates the need for such intervention by allowing the plant to develop its own root and aerial system.

Cereals form grains, it is what they do and when this is what we let them do they do it spectacularly well. From one single grain 10,000 may be formed! All we have to do is let wheat wheat and our need for grain is fulfilled.

If there is no competition between wheat plants themselves and none between any wheat, weeds and grasses, as should become established in an NF cereal field, then the number of tiller-ears will be considerable. Each wheat, given average conditions, has the potential to produce 25 to 35 ears per plant. Sown particularly early and thus particularly clearly, each plant can form 20 to 25 leaves, each one can carry up to 3 tillers. For varieties of particularly strong tillering (see table below) and in the most favourable conditions, each wheat plant can create a staggering 200 ears per plant! However, under the current conditions of culture, tillering is often completely blocked at the stage 6th/7th leaf stage, with the consequence that each plant can only manage 1 to 3 ears per plant.

NB: It is necessary to distinguish two kinds of tillering; the herbaceous tillering, noted at the time of the rising and the tillering-ear, which is observed with the heading.

Bad plant nutrition brought on by an insufficient light causes the self-pruning of many herbaceous tillers. Upto 60% of ears can be pruned this way. In addition, dense sowing decreases the fertility of each ear. The number of spikelets are reduced because of the lack of light to the base of the leaves at floral initiation, and many flowers will fail due to competition. The unit weight of the grain also decreases, the potential grains being too numerous for the activity of the underdeveloped root system following the waste of energy exerted in the elongation of the leaves and the stems.

Under the current conditions of culture, agriculturalists are unable to control the fertility of their wheat and also the unit weight of the grain. Thus they have taken to controlling yield simply by the expedient of seeding densely so that each seed produces one ear, which has become known as apical dominance. Current practices that take into account the tardiness of sowing can only rectify the problem by increasing, massively, the number of plants.

 

The following table shows seeding rates as recommended for conventional farmers sowing winter wheat around 20th October.

 

Variety Type Number of ears/m2 Number of plants/m2

(exit of winter)

Rate of average tillering
Hobbit 450
Castan Alternate 450-500
Fidel Alternate 550 250 2,2
Capitole Winter 500-550 240 2,3
Arminda Winter 600 240 2,5
Bold Semi winter 550-600
Signal Winter 630 – 650 235 2,7
Festival 630-650
Talent Semi winter 700-750 250 2,8

 

Unfortunately, especially for the poor farmers who follow such advice, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that just because you have a certain number of ears of wheat per m2 at the exit of winter that these are the number of ears of wheat you will end up with! Such large numbers of ears are quickly reduced as their fertility drops through lack of the means of support; deficit of sunlight, sap circulation problems, root competition, root diseases etc.

Thus an abnormal density of ears results not only in the reduction in their fertility, but also in that of the weight of the grain; and especially if rising is late and short and the rising occurs at the same time as reproduction. Finally, it has to be said, against all current practices and experience of modern agriculture, too thick a seeding actually exacerbates the disadvantages of late sowings – and if the field of wheat should happen to be at the hydrous stage at the commencement of a heatwave, the many ears all striving for inadequate resources will increase hugely the risk of scalding.

To conclude this section on the influence of seeding densities on the productivity of winter wheat, here is some detail:

 

 

Technique

Date of Sowing

Conventional sowing

End of October

Sowing Beginning of October NF

Sowing End of June

 

 

Seeds in Kg/Ha 160-180 40-50 0.7 – 1.5
Number of plants/m2 350 8 1.5 – 2
Number of ears/m2 0-3 5-7 200 – 300
Number spikelet/m2 12-15 18-20 35
Grains/spikelet 1-3 2-5 Up to 7
Number grains/ear 20-30 40-60 100-150
Weight 1000 grains Low Medium High

 

This table shows that in NF with early sowings, there is good yield, not just the number of ears but their fertility (many grains in each ear and good weight per grain) i.e. that contrary to the traditional technique, with which one seeks to obtain 500 to 600 ears by m2, that, depending on the varieties, with 200 to 300 ears per m2, one can exceed 10,000kg (100 quintals) per hectare. There are half the number of ears but that is preferable because the winter wheat will not completely shade the companion green manure and avoid competition between plants as they grow to fill the spaces between them in order to capture the light and nutrients they will need to produce full ears with large grains.

With this techniqueless technique it is possible to equal and even surpass the intensive techniques of agriculture and, it is worth repeating, these yields are possible year in and year out on the same field. Reality is often difficult to see as it stares us in the face every day and every day we pass it by, too intent upon our own reasoning, our plans to do more, quicker, faster, better. Too many ‘truths’ obscure reality.

With early sowing in NF it is easy to obtain good yields of more than 70,000kg per hectare (70 quintals) and even very good yields of more than 90,000kg per hectare (90 quintals) with only 300 ears per m2.

NF of cereals therefore requires far less seeds and obtains excellent yields by allowing the wheat to express itself fully and therefore producing many ears with each grain well matured. Once the green manure has been established and ploughing, fertilising and weeding are no longer necessary, costs are reduced enormously, as is the work.

In conclusion, widely seeded winter wheat makes better use of the natural cycles and processes which effect the field where it’s grown. Its strong tillering produces a strong tuft which resists uprooting by frost-heave and better resists lodging. Herbaceous tillering will occur earlier due to good light levels and more ears will be produced with each ear bearing a greater number of well filled grains. During the rising and maturation the already vigorous rooting provides all the water and nutrients required at this very delicate stage and, consequently, increases the diameter and lignification of the straw that resists lodging. There is far greater resistance to parasitism, in particular diseases of the roots and scalding.

But, then, all of this has been known for centuries, but our ceaseless desire to improve upon nature has made us forget, it is clearly expressed in the old country saying: “He who sows thickly, harvests small”!

 

Rule of thumb: Winter barley should be sown even more sparsely than wheat to avoid lodging to which it is especially prone. Winter barley also has a very strong capacity for tillering, which, when sown early, can produce several hundred ears and also yield 10,000 seeds from a single seed sown.

 

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About Jamie Nicol

Living in the forested hills of Catalonia, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Zen teacher, recovering philosopher, small-scale natural farmer. Writing just what comes.
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