The Natural Farming of Winter Wheat – Part Four

Cereal Rotations

 

Stop ploughing, let the natural cycles of the soil be just what they are, and good yields can be drawn, year after year, without the demand for fertility to be drawn from elsewhere – whether it be in the form of machinery, synthetic chemicals, organic matter or whatever the fervent imaginations of desiring humans demand. When the cereal field has been established; companion planting of white clover or black medic, early, open and surface sowing, it is possible to grow the same cereal crop annually without pests, diseases or the proliferation of weeds. This perennialisation of annual crops is not new to nature; escourgeon, which is resistant to salt, has been grown for millennia near salt marshes without rotation and with consistent yields. Similarly, rye has been grown annually on the acid soils of moorland and millet grown without rotation or fallow in drier soils. Nature is always far more diverse than we imagine and if we were to open ourselves to this expression we would discover that NF produces a feast of diversity, way beyond the narrow ordering order of conventional machine and chemical agriculture. The use of a companion legume cover crop with cereals, the mowing of the weeds and companion crop and the return of the straw to the field are all necessary factors in the annual improvement of the soil structure, providing living roots and a cycling of nutrients that help support a diverse and active microbial life. The lignin of the straw and the decomposing green manure provide two of the key elements that help bind the soil together. The straw breaks down to provide the ‘cement’ (lignin) and the green manure breaks down to provide the ‘glue’ (polysaccharides) that bind the soil particles together. While the cementitious action of the straw is long lasting, that of the glue is relatively short term, but both are essential to the natural cycles of soil and allow cereals to be grown annually, without the need for rotations or fallow.

In an NF cereal field, rotations become obsolete; there is no longer any need to ‘clean’ weeds, no longer any need to seed a manure crop before the food crop, no longer any need to seed a deep rooted crop to draw up nutrients, no longer any need to succeed different crops to avoid long term pest and disease problems. Yield rises in the first few years due to the increasing understanding of the NFer, deeper and denser establishment of the clover, the improvement of the cereal through seed selection, the growing quantity of organic matter and root penetration by the preceding crop.

Yet, if the NFer should wish it, it is also possible to continue using rotations, which might be of value on small farms with several small fields or larger farms with many fields to increase diversity. However, when a farm is beyond a certain size it becomes impossible to maintain the appropriate relationship between the NFer and the land, at this point the farmer moves not only from NF to organic agriculture, but from no-mind to theoretical agriculture. If we cannot maintain our deep and abiding contact with the land and its constantly changing expression, then we break the link of attending/tending and step beyond NF.

Such rotations within NF are seeding winter wheat into alfalfa, improved fallow (which has had a green manure or cover crop seeded into it), a mown fodder crop such as Italian Rye Grass, red clover and winter vetch (tare), or tare, oats and fodder crop (mown as it flowers), or if absolutely necessary into colza – although crucifers are never a good precedent for cereal crops – or even into temporary meadows mown as close to the ground before drilling the cereal seed. The use of pasture or fallow for the NF of winter wheat opens a very interesting possibility; provided the NFer has scythed or mown the pasture to keep the grasses and weeds short and the cut plants are left on the surface as mulch, such fields can be brought into cereal production without the need of ploughing or by spraying with herbicides.

Traditionally the concept of ‘fallow’ has been understood as the moment the soil rests after having exerted itself in producing crops. This is a concept, that as an attempt to represent nature is probably about as far from reality as it is possible to get. If soil rests it is dead, the only soil that rests is in a desert and then it gets blown away and only the sand remains! Soil as soil cannot rest because it is alive, dynamic, it is only this life that makes it soil, otherwise soil would be the scholarly interest of geologists and not biologists. What has to be made clear is that when we conventionally farm a cereal field we reduce the life of the soil by wiping out the plants in the field, destroying innumerable trillions of micro-organisms along with the plants. In temperate climates, because of the soil’s ability to go into relative hibernation in Winter, such destruction is not as disastrous as sub-tropical and tropical climates where great swathes of arable land have been decimated by the incorporation of temperate agricultural practices. Rest is death, activity is life for soil and during a fallow period the soil comes back to life, growing a large number of diverse species, initially the fast germinating and growing weed species and then grasses and larger herbaceous plants. The healthiest soil is the most active soil, the more and diverse plants possible the healthier the field; some grow deep to mine nutrients washed from the bare surface of the last culture, some form symbiotic relationships with soil micro-organisms who grow in nodules on these plants roots and begin to fix atmospheric Nitrogen, some grow massive and dense such as grasses, whose blaze of growth in the rich soils of Autumn is something always to behold, but the soil grows what it will and by so doing repairs the ravages of reasoned agriculture. Perhaps it is best to say that fallow is rest only from the human intellect.

Early sowing permits better working because it is possible to seed into a ripening crop reducing the hassle of harvesting quickly to seed the next crop. Seeds from the previous year will have better viability than those of the current year if the current harvest falls in a cool and damp period when wheat seeds will likely be dormant. A good drying is necessary to break such dormancy. It is therefore possible for a NFer to time sowing to before, during and after harvest, spreading the work to suit the quantity of land to be harvested. Harvest, due to earlier sowing, will then be possible earlier the following year, making it possible to resow earlier, creating a virtuous cycle for the wheat and its potential for growth.

Micro-organisms multiply very quickly if conditions are right, having a speed of reproduction which far exceeds any other life form. Some bacteria can duplicate themselves every 20 minutes, so that in 12 hours a single bacteria might (!) produce 268,229,000 descendants. Their short life span allows upto 6500kg or more of living micro-organisms per hectare at any given moment, but, perhaps, another 70 tonnes dead and decomposing in the soil, releasing their nutrients and, because the greatest concentration of micro-organisms live around the roots of plants, it is here that the nutrients, in plant available form, are most concentrated.

The mechanical working of the soil will produce only a fraction of micro-organisms found in an unworked field, perhaps only 5 to 6 tons of microbial humus per hectare per year, and thus the need arises to import to the field and then spread other types of fertiliser. Such expense, both financial and ecological, is just not necessary. Bare soil is a catastrophe for nature, always! But when there is the permanent occupation of the soil, there is no need for off-farm inputs, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium is not washed from the soil, water and air penetrate deeply, the soil becomes balanced in minerals and trace elements, and white clover produces upto 200kg of Nitrogen per hectare per year. Undisturbed soil also supports a large population of algae which, in turn, form a symbiotic relationship with azotobacters and produce more Carbon products, through photosynthesis, and Nitrogen, through atmospheric fixation.

Choose plants with powerful rooting and rapid growth, like the RGI , or a pea – tare – field bean mixture which can). RGI (Italian rye grass) is one of the strongest plants for providing biomass, producing 30 to 60 tonnes of matter in 2 to 3 months, while being able to compete against the allelopathic chemicals secreted by the weed roots. Vetch (tare) is a good green manure cold hardy, grows in poor soil, fixes Nitrogen and produces 35 tons of green matter. Rye because of its resistance to cold and its upright growth provides a good frame for the vetch to attach. These three plants quickly provide a strong quantity of biomass, including a dense and ramified root system, helping to break up soil compacted by conventional techniques. They are all pioneer plants.

 

Six Year Rotation

 

  1. – red clover and RGI
  2. – winter wheat (sown Late June)
  3. – spring oats (or winter oats sown into winter wheat before harvest)
  4. – winter wheat (sown in maturing oats)
  5. – winter barley (sown in maturing wheat)
  6. – spring oats (under-sown with red clover)

 

Winter is the critical period for a cover crop because this is when the soil can be eroded and washed away if left naked after ploughing. Such destructive farming practices result in the soluble salts on the surface (which are basic) being washed from the surface creating acidification; October and pH might be as high as 8.2, but by April this might have dropped to as little as 4.6! This then requires the agriculturalist to once more take out his tractor, hitch a machine and go out into his fields and amend the pH imbalance with agricultural lime (basic). Unfortunately, as the old saying makes clear; ‘If the father uses lime, the son loses fertility over time’, the use of lime has the effect of liberating fertilising elements in the short term, which degrades the soil in the longer term. In silty soils such fluctuations of pH are only aggravated by the loss of the natural soil structure through conventional agricultural practice, resulting in rapid asphyxiation of soil life. In these vulnerable soils, rotations such as sugar beet, potato, or salsify, which demand heavy fertilisation, their harvest further disturbs the structure of the soil and they contribute very little organic matter, become part of the vicious cycle of soil destruction modern agriculture initiates – that always then requires more work from the farmer and more inputs to remedy. Ultimately, this leads to a situation where soil is no longer soil but technically a growing medium that must be carefully worked by machines, with fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides delivered at ordered intervals to ensure the established financial return at the end of the season. Modern farmers force their soils into the form of an intensive care patient that must then be given round-the-clock medication. If I make it sound like madness that is because it is madness!

Once weeds have been controlled by the installation of an effective cover crop, preferably one that fixes Nitrogen such as white clover or black medic, cereals can then be grown annually without the disadvantages usual in traditional agriculture. It is essential to sow winter cereals as early as possible into cover crops such as red clover, sainfoin or alfalfa, close to Midsummers day, so that it can germinate and grow rapidly and be sufficiently developed to take advantage of the nutrients released by the decomposing cover crop, which has been mowed before seeding the cereal.

The rotation of crops in the high mountains is more complicated than elsewhere due to the truncated growing season. In Scotland, Russia, Scandinavia and on high mountains, the perennialisation of winter cereals might not work. Therefore, it is necessary to establish rotations. The use of fallow under these conditions becomes very much more important. The possibility that the cereal harvest might take place as late as September, rules out the obligatory sowing (because of the need to extend the period of growth of the cereal the first year so that it can fully tiller) of winter cereals in June.

In the high pastures, where cereals are occasionally seeded into temporary pasture, the following five-year rotation fits perfectly into these conditions;

 

  1. fallow
  2. rye – winter barley (sown June 15th)
  3. fallow
  4. winter wheat (sown Midsummer’s Day)
  5. common millet – spring oats

 

Winter Wheat Varieties

 

Until about 100 years ago the types of wheat’s cultivated in Europe were many and specific to particular to each region and adapted to climate and soil. Because wheat is self-fertilising (autogamous) spontaneous hybridization is very rare, allowing for stable cultivars. These old varieties of Northern Europe have common characteristics;

 

  • relatively long life cycle 2400°C (against 2200°C for the early alternative varieties)
  • 500 with 700°C for rising to floral initiation (800°C for Poulard wheats)
  • Late rising, middle of August
  • Long straw, 1.50 meters
  • Broad leaves (adaptation to the wet climates)
  • Broad tiller plate
  • Strong vegetative growth
  • Strong tillering
  • Strong rooting

     

All of the above allow these wheat’s to have a very large potential for production.

However, with the changes in farming practices across the last 100 years, farmers have quickly lost sight of this productivity as they’ve searched around for different types of wheat that better fit in with new cropping systems. The incorporation of sugar beet, potatoes or other cultures required farmers to seed their wheat later and this meant that they sought out those varieties with a reduced growing cycle. Unfortunately, this later sowing often left these other wheats open to problems of disease, pests, lodging and scalding. One of the results of this was a desire for wheat with shorter straw that was less liable to lodging.

Alternative varieties were introduced when in 1896, a miller of Nérac, Lot-et-Garonne, France, discovered a quick maturing, short straw wheat, in a batch coming from the area of Odessa (Black Sea). Known as Noé Blé Bleu, it originates not from the Black Sea but from North Africa. In European climates this variety rarely tillers and therefore had the added bonus of being able to be seeded at very dense rates. But because it is North African in origin it does not like the cold and is susceptible to damp climate diseases, such as rusts. But, with the new cultures and the likelihood of having to seed the wheat after October 25th, the alternate varieties became imperative – because of their low thermal requirements, 400-500° before floral initiation.

All this is to say that it was not for the reason of the wheat, health or yield that the old winter wheat’s were replaced, but for the farmers desire to add an extra culture into the yearly cultivation. This was disastrous for the soils as has been all too graphically shown with the loss of topsoil.

In this little more than 100 years, thousands of new varieties have been created, with new varieties appearing all the time. The farmer does not have the time anymore to become accustomed to one variety before he is recommended to use the nest, best variety! However, one thing has remained the same with each new variety cultivated, the increase in work and inputs to just keep production at a steady level.

However it is clear that under the climates of the North-West of Europe, the alternate variety’s precocity and vegetative vigour are incompatible with a high potential of productivity. The introduction of the alternate varieties began a vicious circle from which farmers have still not escaped. They sowed later to add another culture, they chose a variety with poor vigour that was intolerant of cold, that was susceptible to pests and disease and consequently produced poor yields, which they tried to compensate for by more dense sowings, only exacerbating the plants health problems; which has ultimately meant that new solutions have had to be sought for these problems in the form of growth hormones, pesticides and the application of fertilisers, especially in the spring because the alternate wheat has not had the time or warmth to develop the adequate reserves or root system necessary to support itself. Yet, modern wheat fields still suffer from lodging, scalding, and cryptogamic diseases.

But the search goes on for the perfect wheat variety, now crossing the alternates with the dwarfing characteristics of Mexican or Japanese varieties, which while reducing the height of the straw also tend to again reduce production. There is also research into trying to incorporate disease resistance from wild varieties. But all of this only continues the inexorable slide of reduction of vigour, fertility, tillering and rooting, and thus the capacity to compete with weeds and diseases, condemning farmers to the increased use of machines, manure, pesticides, etc.

The answer to the problem is simple, we must end the use of alternate varieties and turn back to the wheat’s that served farmers well for so many centuries. Varieties of true winter wheats that have the following characteristics;

 

  • vegetative vigour
  • long straws
  • broad tiller plate
  • strong cold resistance
  • very late maturity
  • type nor worm at very winter
  • floral initiation from between 600 with 700°C (800 for Poulard wheats)
  • large leaves
  • powerful root system to avoid scalding and lodging

 

Poulard wheats, Triticum turgidum, offer the base characteristics of a true winter wheat, they are strong, vigorous, have a very late rising enabling an extremely long phase ATI compared to ordinary wheats, late grain maturity, long straw, a strong resistance to scalding (even if the summer is very hot) and with straw very resistant to lodging, they tiller strongly, have a high resistance to cold, like rye, in good conditions of culture their ears tend to ramify, they like the heat of summer; so, all in all, they are perfectly matched to continental type climates, but, perhaps, less so in damp maritime areas – but they offer an excellent alternative to durum wheats cultivate because the latter, being of spring type, offers only poor yield.

Poulard varieties include; winter poulard, Giant Milanese, Australian, smooth white, yellow barb, Nonette de Laussane. Other true winter wheat’s from which to choose; Blé Roseau, Autumn Victoria, hybrid winter champlan, Benefactor, Cerès, Prince Albert, Dattel, Blé Roux de Champagne, Rouge d’Alsace, Alsace 22, hybrid King, Autumn Chiddam, Sheriff Square head, white narrow straw (Blanc à pailles raides), hybrid giant red square, hybrid giant white square Parsel, big head, Briquet, Golden Top, Blé-seigle. The best rye to chose is Schlanstadt.

 

Rule of Thumb: Do not use modern varieties or those crossed with them

  • Blé Roseau (Picardie)
  • Victoria d’automne
  • Hybride Champlan d’Hiver
  • Blé Bénéfactor
  • Cerès
  • Prince Albert
  • Dattel
  • Blé Roux de Champagne
  • Rouge d’Alsace
  • Alsace 22
  • Hybride King
  • Chiddam d’automne
  • Blé épi carré (Sheriff Square head)
  • Blanc à pailles raides
  • Hybride carre géant rouge
  • Parsel
  • Grosse tête
  • Briquet
  • Golden Top
  • Blé-seigle
  • Seigle de Schlanstadt
  • Blé hybride carre géant blanc

Modern conventional agriculture demands that the soil and the crop be constantly and continuously monitored and dosed with one or other product to ensure fertility and crop yield. Through no fault of their own, crop plants have been reduced to a pitiful state of dependency; rotation, fallow, manure, compost, fertiliser, herbicide, pesticide, growth regulator, compost tea, biodynamic preparation, some or all must be used to keep it alive, when all the soil and crop require is that we leave it alone to be just what it is, for only then can the cycles of life evolve and flourish and produce the health and vitality natural to them, as to all plants that grow wild in nature and year by year improve the fertility of the land upon which they grow.

Why is something so simple so difficult? Why do we prefer to spend so much time, money and energy on controlling what is freely available and requires no effort at all? The long term effect of such control are only now becoming apparent in the loss of topsoil, organic matter, erosion, loss of species, water table pollution, toxicity, salinisation, collapse of soil structure – almost any woe you might care to name. All in order to produce food – whereas if we were to learn to do-nothing, time, money, energy and destruction would cease and soils would begin to improve and continue to improve until they reached again the fertility they had when agriculture first began.

NF is not just about the growing of food, nor just about the perfection of human being, it is about the whole being whole, the return to the one, which is not even one but nothing, it is about the restoration of soils worldwide.. Only when we begin to gather our disparate energies, when we come together in order to shelter what is, only then do we truly begin to gather and become what we have always been, no different, not separate…Earth.

The NF of cereals ends the destruction of ploughing, ends the application of fertilisers, whether organic or inorganic, the application of all synthetic chemicals that damage soil, plants, insects, birds, earthworms and micro-organisms and asks the Earth to provide. We can plough or we can allow earthworms to plough, we can fertilise or we can allow the clover and cereal to fertilise, we can seed late and manage every stage of growth or we can seed early and allow the sun and rain to manage growth, we can weed with toxic chemicals or we can allow clover to weed. There is a choice, this is the choice, now we must choose.

The association of winter wheat and white clover with oaks and black locust, allows the deep penetration of plant roots into the soil, allows the reaggregation of soil structure, allowing the easy penetration of rain and air into the soil at depth.

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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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1 Response to The Natural Farming of Winter Wheat – Part Four

  1. Nandakumar says:

    Would like to try this NF with cereals..what cover crop do you suggest for tropical climate, India?

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