The layperson's guide to ley farming
Farmer's Weekly|January 28, 2022
Over the past few years, monocropping has largely given way to the crop rotation system, and ley farming has gained popularity in grain-producing areas such as KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, the Free State and North West, where many farmers also produce livestock. Prof Chris Dannhauser spoke to Susan Marais about how the rotating of grain crops with planted pastures can be a highly useful practice.
Susan Marais

FAST FACTS

Ley farming is the practice of growing grasses or legumes in rotation with grain or tilled crops.

Ley crops serve as good-quality animal feed, improve soil quality, and ensure the fertility of the grain crops that are planted afterwards.

Overall, grass cover crops store and supply the soil with more phosphorus than legumes do because they have finer root systems.

While crop rotation may not be a new practice, have you considered including seasonal pastures in your cash crop system? Prof Chris Dannhauser, a grazing specialist from Limpopo, says the ley cropping system, in which a grass/legume mixture is grown in rotation with agricultural crops, starts with the planting of maize every second year, and annual ley crops in the alternate years.

“In this system, perennial pastures can also be utilised in years two and four, between maize production years,” he adds.

The important question every farmer should ask is this: which pasture species can be used for this system on my farm? “It’s important for the species and cultivars used as ley pasture crops to have specific characteristics,” says Dannhauser.

Ley crops have two functions: to serve as good-quality animal feed, and to improve soil quality and fertility for the grain crops that will follow. Knowledge of the impact that a specific ley crop will have on soil and nutrition is therefore crucial to success.

“Some ley pasture crops will aid soil carbon build-up and supply organic matter,” explains Dannhauser. Initially, the grass will produce oxygen. Animals graze the grass, and this leads to the dung they produce, the plant roots and residues, and the micro-organisms in the soil creating organic material and carbon, which feed the soil. Some examples of ley crops that excel in these situations are:

• Summer annuals: babala/pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) and forage sorghum;

• Winter annuals: cereal rye (Secale cereale), stooling rye (S. cereale L.), annual ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum), triticale (×Triticosecale), oats (Avena sativa), wheat (Triticum aestivum), spelt (T. spelta), and barley (Hordeum vulgare); and

• Perennials: tropical grasses, particularly Rhodes grass (Chloris gayana) for its ability to control nematodes.

“Organic material is very important for improving soil structure, water infiltration and plant root development,” says Dannhauser.

Pasture crops that increase the soil’s nitrogen content are ideal for this, and farmers should consider the following options:

• Summer annuals: cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), mung bean (V. radiata), soya bean (Glycine max), dolichos bean (Lablab purpureus), velvet bean (Mucuna pruriens), sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea) and jack bean (Canavalia ensiformis);

• Winter annuals: winter pea (Pisum sativum L.), red clover (Trifolium pratense), sweet clover (Melilotus), vetch (Vicia) and serradella (Ornithopus sativus); and

• Perennials: lucerne (Medicago sativa) and poor man’s lucerne (Lespedeza cuneata).

BENEFITS OF LEY CROPS

Dannhauser says all legumes can provide nitrogen supplementation.“In general, legumes need phosphorus for nitrogen fixation, but are poor scavengers of it in the soil.”

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