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The Norfolk Four Course: Turnips and clovers in revolution

Chad Hale for Progressive Forage Published on 31 October 2018
Clover

This is a story of agriculture in Britain hundreds of years ago, with some applications for us today. The year was 1750. The population of Britain was estimated at 5.5 million. It had reached this level several times over the former 1,000 years but had never surpassed it.

The population was stagnant. To put it in forage lingo, the land was at its carrying capacity. But this time it would be different. Several aspects of agriculture were undergoing significant change. One significant development involved some of the forages we use today.

A man by the name of Lord Charles Townshend gets credited with a revolutionary new rotation system that becomes widely adopted in England and later in continental Europe.

To set the stage for this story, a short history lesson is in order. In medieval times in Britain, the Crown owned all land. For organizational and political reasons, the Crown divided the land into parcels sometimes called manors and gave control over them to lords.

The lords employed people to work the land. These people many times held certain rights to the land in common and farmed the land in large common strips. Thus, this group of people was known as “commoners.”

Each commoner had access to a portion of the land, but it was not fenced separately. The earliest records indicate land management was a two-part rotation involving fallow and cropped land (including pasture). The purpose of the fallow period was to recharge the soil with nutrients. About half the land was fallow at any given time.

Sometime later, the rotation changed from two fields to three, and fallow was reduced to around 20 to 30 percent of the land total. The third added field was a legume like peas or beans, which recharged the land and reduced the length of time needed for the fallow period.

At that point, the system stagnated and the English population with it. With no population growth, there was more farmland than there were workers to tend it. Also, there was not much excess labor for the trades in town.

Enter Lord “Turnip” Townshend. He controlled a manor near Norfolk and is credited with using a new rotation that came to be known as the Norfolk Four Course. Pasture had always been part of the farming rotations in England, but what Townshend did was incorporate white and red clover undersown with ryegrass for the pasture component.

So the rotation benefited from the legume, and the livestock benefited from increased nutrition from the legume. This simultaneously increased livestock productivity and reduced the need for fallow due to legumes rejuvenating the soil. Furthermore, the grain sown after pasture yielded much more than it had formerly.

The most revolutionary part of the Norfolk Four Course was the use of turnips as winter feed for livestock. Prior to this innovation, most animals had to be slaughtered before winter because there simply was not enough forage for them. So turnips allowed livestock numbers to increase and overall meat supply to increase and become available for more of the year than just during fall.

As previously mentioned, the British population hit 5.5 million in 1750. This had happened before – during the time of the Roman occupation, again around 1300 and around 1650. But this time something was different: The population kept growing. By 1800, the population was 9 million, and by 1850, it was 16 million.

The increased production of the Norfolk Four Course fueled a population boom. The new rotation itself is estimated to have fixed about three times more nitrogen than previous rotations. The turnips served as a winter cover crop that was grazed and also benefited the soil and kept weeds at bay.

But this rotation nearly eliminated the need for fallow. (The level of fallow fell to less than 5 percent by about 1870.) For the first time, England was able to put all its agricultural land into production.

Improved farm productivity helped the overall economy as well. In 1705, England exported 90 million bushels of wheat. In 1765, it exported 760 million bushels. In time, England became a massive importer of food, especially during the Industrial Revolution, when their industrial output fueled a huge export surplus and they had the luxury of importing food.

So far, this bit of history may be interesting but might not seem “earth shattering.” Let’s connect the dots; here is the life-changing part: Increased agricultural production (thanks to clover and turnips) fueled a population boom. When the population growth exceeded the demand for agricultural labor, it allowed manufacturing interests to consume the excess labor, fueling the Industrial Revolution. No increased food output, no Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. Period.

Right now, you can read this article on your smartphone or tablet (if you want), in a climate-controlled tractor cab driven by GPS – all technologies that trace their origins back to the Industrial Revolution. And all of this is thanks to some guy who was not satisfied with the status quo and decided to plant clover and turnips.

Even though this story happened hundreds of years ago, there are still some key takeaways relevant to us today. Here are some of my favorites:

1. Lord Townshend did not invent the rotation called the Norfolk Four Course. He copied it from continental Europe. He was not afraid to try something totally new. This idea of “that won’t work here” is poison. Learn from your neighbors, near and far. Implement slowly, but always be looking for ways to improve.

2. Lord Townshend was not the first guy in England to plant turnips. They appear in written records as early as 1638. What he did was incorporate turnips into the whole- farm system. Science is giving us more innovations at a faster pace than any time in history. If we don’t always succeed with them, perhaps we need to look at the system as a whole rather than just the new technology in isolation.

3. One innovation spurs another. For example, the Norfolk Four Course made it possible to keep many more animals for breeding. Many of the early advancements in animal breeding happened at this same time. On your operation, buying a new piece of equipment or planting a new forage will impact every other part of your operation.

Most people reading this realize agriculture has always been the foundation of civilization. This is still the case today. Even though less than 2 percent of our population is directly involved in production agriculture, America’s farmers and ranchers provide the food that feeds our nation and generates trade with others. But is there anything we can do to double or triple farm output anymore?

Aren’t the big advancements already made? The answer is probably yes, most of the big leaps in production have already been made. But before we get complacent, consider this: Experts I have talked to estimate over half the grazing land in the U.S. is still managed with set stock grazing. I’m not talking about rangeland in the West; I’m talking about pasture in the East and irrigated pasture in the West.

Talk to any producer who has gone from set stocking to rotational grazing, and most of them will tell you they can run 50 percent more livestock now than they could before. So if everyone in America would transition, we could produce significantly more ruminant livestock. Perhaps all the great discoveries have been made, but our implementation has room to improve.  end mark

PHOTO: Red clover. Photo by Lynn Jaynes.

Chad Hale
  • Chad Hale

  • Research and Acquisitions Manager
  • Western Forage Resources
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