April – July 2016
Right back at the beginning of April, I helped sow a crop of rye on two acres of our arable fields, which had been ploughed over the winter. We sowed the seed using our Monarch Corn Drill, made by L.R. Knapp & Co in the 1920s. Although originally it was designed to be drawn by two horses, the corn drill has since been converted for use with a tractor, as many implements were, and we used our little 1950s Ferguson to pull it.
Conway and Lyndsey drilling a rye crop using the corn drill and Ferguson tractor, 1st April.
The corn drill is essentially a long thin box, with small holes cut at regular intervals in the bottom into which the seed falls due to the movement of the drill. Below each hole, a chute guides seeds down into a shallow furrow in the soil, which is cut by the coulter attached at the bottom of each chute. We pulled a chain harrow behind the drill to lightly cover over the seed. The invention of the horse-drawn corn drill in English agriculture by Jethro Tull in the 1700s made a huge difference to the amount that could be sown efficiently, with much greater control over rates and consistency. It also enabled advances in weed control, as sowing in rows allowed for easier management of hoeing and the development of further horse-drawn devices. Before then, seed was either broadcast by hand or using a seed fiddle to scatter the crop rather randomly across the field. In the photo you can see that the newly-germinated rye is growing in rows.
The new crop – the drilled rye germinating at the end of April on the flinty chalk Chiltern soil
Before we got as far as sowing however, we had to winnow (or raddle) the seed. This means cleaning the chaff and straw and bits of thistle out so that you are left with clean seed, and was achieved by agitating a flat sieve held at an angle over a bucket or wheelbarrow. The seed falls through the sieve into the barrow and the rubbish either blows away or can be brushed off onto the ground. Cleaning the seed like this means it will be sown more evenly across the field and is less likely to clog up the drill. It also means that you can measure out a more accurate seed rate; we sowed one and a half bushels of cleaned seed to the acre.
Our Farm Manager, Conway Rowland, drove the Fergie, while my job was to ride on the drill and check that the seed was flowing evenly down each of the twelve chutes and to free any blockages (using a stick or a long-handled screwdriver), that the chutes remained attached to the coulters and that the coulter pegs, which allow the drill greater flexibility over rough ground, didn’t break. As well as this, I kept half an eye on the harrow being pulled behind to make sure it wasn’t getting too choked up with any debris. It was a very exhilarating experience: the combined clattering of the three pieces of machinery (tractor, corn drill and harrows) over the flinty Chiltern soil was very noisy and I had to keep at least one hand holding on tight in case of a sudden lurch over a particularly uneven patch. The noise and movement combined with having so many things to focus on doing was absorbing and I felt as though I was part of one big machine.
Lyndsey sowing a mixed grass forage ley using the shandybarrow
A fortnight later, we used the shandybarrow to sow a grass and clover forage mix under two acres of rye that had been sown before Christmas (which we will use to thatch the hay rick in the farmyard). The shandybarrow, which can be seen in action in the photo below, is a simpler version of the corn drill. It is a similar long (ours is 12 foot), narrow seed box, with holes in at regular intervals for the seed to fall out on the ground. A little metal plate which can be moved across each hole to different degrees allows some control over how many seeds fall out at a time. This box sits on what is essentially a wheelbarrow frame and the whole thing is pushed by hand. We sowed 7 gallons of the ley seed to the acre. It was rather hard work pushing the ‘barrow backwards and forwards across the field – especially up the steep hill behind the Iron Age house! I had to keep an eye on heading towards the point on the headland, which we’d measured out to the middle of the ‘barrow, in order to keep a straight(ish) line. When I got there, I turned the shandybarrow (making sure I didn’t clout the hedge with one end!), to start at the next point already measured out one ‘barrow’s width along, and set off again, back across the field. But it was a lot quieter than sowing with the tractor and corn drill, and although I still had to concentrate hard, I was more in control of the pace and able to notice the sound of a skylark singing across the valley and a robin watching me from the hedge behind Haddenham Croft Cottage. Since it was sown in April, this ley has been establishing under the growing rye crop, helping to compete with and keep down weeds. Once the rye has been harvested in the next few weeks, this forage ley will be able to grow up quickly and can be used for grazing in the autumn when other grass is becoming scarce to find.
In the Chilterns an historical practice as part of the mixed farm system was the folding of sheep on arable land, to provide a good source of grazing for the sheep (often over the winter) while fertilising the ground with manure, improving it for the next crop at the same time. Since the end of May, we have been grazing some our sheep on the two acres of rye that we sowed with the corn drill. Originally, folding would have been using wooden hurdles: the flock would have been penned tightly over a small area and moved onto a new patch the following day. The Oxford Down breed was developed especially to cope with living in these close-knit conditions and to do well on the thin chalky soils of the Chilterns. However, due to the huge amount of manpower which was required in the historical practice to move tens of hurdles every day, we have used rather more modern electric fencing to open up the next strip of the tasty, ungrazed crop to the flock each day.
Folding Oxford Down sheep on young rye in June.
By Lyndsey Rule
HLF Site and Farm Trainee at Chiltern Open Air Museum