Fodder Matters By Andrew Ormerod (2002)

Historic overview of the Fodder Exhibit which ran at the Eden Project until 2005.  First published in 2002 in “Forage Matters” magazine.   Thanks to Ian Wilkinson at Cotswold Seeds who originally reviewed this article.  A website which provides information on green manures, forage crops etc. can be found at

We see a lot of pasture and grassland in Britain, it forms about two-thirds of UK agricultural land, both cultivated and uncultivated. It is maintained by grazing animals or by human intervention through cutting it for fodder to feed farm animals. The fodder crop exhibit aims to will highlight the importance fodder legumes play in assimilating atmospheric nitrogen via their association with Rhizobium bacteria in their root nodules. It will also refer to show the role that short-term pastures or leys have played in improving soil fertility for subsequent arable crops in a mixed farming system. By way of contrast, there will be an area representing a modern intensive grassland system based on chemical artificial fertilisers and containing limited species diversity. Perhaps the most remarkable story to be told is the beneficial economic effect that fodder legumes had on farming when first introduced and used as part of an arable rotation.

Artistic Inspiration
The Fodder Crop exhibit developed at the Eden Project in 2002 was based on an abstract painting by Anthony Frost, an artist who lives in West Cornwall. He visited Eden several times to get an idea of the colour palette possible from fodder crops. Having created the painting it was a case of matching the fodder crop with the nearest colour. The choice wasn’t just restricted to grasses and fodder legumes, also included were fodder crops with interesting leaf colours such as fodder kale and lupins.


Matching the colours was a challenge because a complex mixture of species of grasses, legumes and herbs can form grassland. This produces a diverse and ever-changing pallet of colour through the season.  The very act of cutting fodder crops changes the colour of the landscape.
The colour match was based on the colour of the crop at flowering time. To raise awareness about the importance and historic context of different fodder species crops were chosen that had the most interesting stories. Short but interesting facts to entice some of the 1.85 million visitors to a year into the Fodder Crop exhibit will be used. In addition, guides and storytellers will, on occasions, relate more of the story at the exhibit will relate more of the story.

Fodder Legumes
Many of the colours in the painting are related to the flower colours of fodder legumes. Fodder legumes, such as clover, when sown on their own or in grass mixtures as a short-term ley in a mixed arable cropping system, had a huge effect on breaking the cycle of ‘mining’ soil nutrients, despite a limited amount of manure being available. This had previously restricted the yield of cereals and the stocking rate of animals. White clover had been observed in Northamptonshire meadowland since the fourteenth century and its virtues were already known in Britain from a German text translated in around 1600. The deliberate sowing of fodder legumes in Britain started slowly in the sixteenth century. This followed following the observation of highly productive and profitable use of clover in a four-course rotation in heathland in Flanders. The use of clover in Britain was restricted at first due to initial conservative attitudes. It was used in the Norfolk four course rotation during the 18th century and by the nineteenth century clover and other fodder legumes were more widely adopted. It played a significant part in improving the profitability of farming.

Clover leys were included in the Norfolk four-course rotation. This was due to the significant role, discovered at the end of the nineteenth century, that Rhizobium bacteria in fodder legume root nodules can play in fixing atmospheric nitrogen. One estimate suggests that the introduction of clover in Northern Europe may have raised total nitrogen supply to the land by up to 60%. The introduction of legumes and grass-legume mixtures in arable rotations marked the end of the medieval subsistence farming and the beginning of modern agriculture. Some authors believe that the cash surplus due to improved profitability may have been invested in the start of the industrial revolution. Whatever the case may be, legume fodder crops have had a huge effect on British agriculture.

Many of the colours in the painting are related to the flower colours of fodder legumes. A short list of species likely to be used in the exhibit has been drawn up, having matched the colours in the painting to different fodder species.

Matching the Colours – candidate species for the exhibit.
White and green – White clover and rye grass has been used. White clover originates from the Eastern Mediterranean and together with red clover is the most important species in the UK. Observed growing in Northamptonshire in the fourteenth century, its virtues were described in English language text at the start of the seventeenth century.  White clover had been observed in Northamptonshire meadow land since the fourteenth century and its virtues were already known in Britain from a German text translated in around 1600. They are used for longer term grazing pastures usually in mixtures with grass. The white clover provides improved quality in terms of live weight gain and milk production, compared to grass on its own. Animals actually seek it out. The white clover and rye grass area in the Fodder exhibit highlights the improved clover rye grass leys promoted by Sir George Stapledon, first director of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station, (to replace the poor unimproved grassland that predominated at the beginning of the 1920’s) in the middle of the twentieth century. Leys were established as part of a mixed farming cropping rotation, building fertility for the following arable crops. With the increased interest in organic farming there has been a resurgence of interest in white clover in grassland. Fodder legumes, such as white clover, offer the only source of nitrogen intake for organic animal production systems where no supplementary feeds are used.


Pink – Red clover has been used. There has been renewed interest in their use for short-term fertility building leys by organic farmers.  Red clover’s centre of origin and early cultivation was very similar to that of Lucerne, it was first cultivated in Media (now Western Iran and Southern Azerbaijan) and south of the Caspian Sea. , Red clover was first mentioned as a cattle feed in the  thirteenth century and reached Britain from Germany by 1645 before going on to America in the eighteenth century. Red clover’s recent increased popularity has increased recently been linked to the rise in interest in the organic farming market. This increased interest is also good news for long-tongued bumblebees which are dependent on red clover as a food source. because red clover flowers are an important food source.

In addition another legume sainfoin, has pink flowers. It has the best balance of protein to meet the requirements of ruminant animals in British Agriculture and does not cause ‘bloat’. Its name is derived from the French sain foin (healthy hay) and it is also sometimes
referred to as esparcet or holy clover. Both Sanfoin and Lucerne’s increase in popularity is linked to increased interest in organic farming.

Crimson – Crimson clover has been used. This is an annual fodder legume, traditionally commonly cut for hay in the Mediterranean, and is grown in some parts of the USA following its introduction in 1818. In Britain it is most commonly used as a green manure. From a practical stand-point we have been trying to source crimson clover lines to stagger the flowering season. In the past crimson clover cultivars were often sown as a winter annual for spring keep, to enable a succession of harvesting dates, cultivars with different flowering and maturity dates were sown at the same time.

Blue – Fodder kale and lupins have been used. There has been increased interest in growing lupins as a fodder crop recently linked to a rise in interest in organic farming. There is a need for farmers to find sources of high quality vegetable protein, to replace animal derived feeds, now outlawed in Europe. One source is soya, however it is becoming more difficult and costly for organic farmers to source and buy GM free soya. This has led to increased interest in farmers producing their own quality protein feed, on farm, from crops such as the white and narrow leafed lupins.

Fodder kale is grown around the British Isles, it was chosen because its bluey glaucous leaves are a one of the nearest match for the painting. It is the highest yielding brassica and provides valuable winter-feed with a high protein content. In Cornwall it was more commonly grown in the past on farms with smaller dairy herds, where it was practical to graze the crop in situ without poaching the land. There is some renewed interest in cutting and carting it for ‘kaleage’, a form of silage.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 15.13.17

Yellow – Gorse has been used. Now of historic significance, gorse was used as a fodder on Welsh, Scottish and Irish farms. French cattle drovers sold seed of Ulex europea -(the species most often used) to Welsh farmers at one point. Rows of gorse bushes were deliberately sown in Ireland and Wales. A plantation was often divided into one, two and three-year-old bushes. Only the three year old bushes were harvested. Gorse stems were used as a winter and spring feed for cows and horses and it was considered an important horse food in Wales during the 19th century. The stems were cut on a regular basis, two to three times a week, and the hard prickles were bruised with a mallet and block or put through a g o r s e roller mill. Lack of labour due the First World War saw the end of this practice in Wales. Yellow is also linked to the fodder legume Bird’s foot trefoil Lotus corniculatus.  Although native to Britain it is not widely used in the UK, but is widely used in areas of Canada, the USA, South America, New Zealand and Australia in low input systems. It has recently been reassessed in the UK for suitability, as an alternative to clover, in a range of low input systems. It is of interest nutritionally because it contains condensed tannins. These are broken down in the rumen more slowly allowing animals to absorb proteins more efficiently. Recent comparative trials have indicated that lambs have a greater live weight gain per day from bird’s foot trefoil compared to red clover, lucerne or grass. It may have a role as the fodder equivalent of a ‘fuel additive’.

Purple – Alfalfa has been used. The history and spread through Europe of alfalfa was linked with the spread of the horse from the Fertile
Crescent. Various suggestions have been put forward for the origin of the name alfalfa linking the plant to the horse including the Persian aspo-asti meaning ‘horse fodder’ and the Arabic al-fasfasa or Kashmiri ashwa-bal meaning horsepower. Lucerne is the other name that it is known by and this may be derived from the Persian word for lapis lazuli ‘lajward’, referring to forms that have blue flowers. Alfalfa has proved
to be a very valuable fodder legume around the world, especially when specifically grown on dry soils, due to its deep rooting system. Alfalfa is the most important forage legume in North America by area. References suggest that it is the oldest cultivated fodder crops. By about 4000 BCE, the area around the Taurus Zagros Mountains became a centre for horse breeding, following the assimilation and settling down of a group of Indo-European Nomadic horsemen. They probably selected the vigorous tetraploid Lucerne found in the protected mountain valleys and oasis in the Iranian plateau. This area is what the Greeks referred to as Mhdich or Media, which has given rise to the Latin
name for alfalfa Medicago. Alfalfa’s westward movement through Europe started about 490 BCE, during an invasion of Greece by the Medes and Persians. The Greeks observed that the opposition had effectively used alfalfa as a horse feed. Alfalfa had spread through
Europe during the Roman period reaching Italy, Germany, France and Spain before crossing to the New World in the early sixteenth century probably arriving in Mexico first of all.

Different shades of green.  Ryegrass has been used .This has been linked to the most significant developments in sown grassland through time. reflect the different views on grass mixtures over the last 200 years, from the complex early seed mixtures, to simpler mixtures and rye grass monocultures of more recent times.

During the nineteenth century there were arguments over complexity or simplicity of grassland mixtures and the most important species to include. We have included Sir George Sinclair’s complex herb rich ‘Woburn Park’ mix of the early nineteenth century and Robert Elliot’s sustainable fertility building ‘Clifton Park’ four-year ley mixtures first outlined in 1895. This was developed to allow four successive cereal and root crops to flourish without the need for additional artificial fertiliser. Rye grasses are the most important agricultural grass species in British agriculture accounting for over 80% grass seed sown per annum. They produce quality feed with good digestibility and high yielding types suited to silage production and there are types suited to a wide range of grassland systems. At the other end of the scale we also have included a deep green high yielding tetraploid perennial rye grass monoculture associated with intensive pastureland and silage making. The latter is associated with the use of artificial chemical fertilisers which became predominant towards the end of the 20th century. This replaced nitrogen assimilated by fodder legumes from the atmosphere and the use of fertility building leys in mixed farm crop rotations. A broad leaf herb mixture is included in part of the picture to provide contrast textures to the grasses. Herbs are sought out by stock and provide minerals in the diet, in addition herbal mixtures are often fed to horses.

Harvey G. (2001) The Forgiveness of Nature. – The Story of Grass
Jonathan Cape.
Stinner D.H. et al. (1992) Forage legumes and cultural sustainability:
lessons from history. Agriculture, Ecosystems Environment, 40 233-248
Stinner, D.H., I. Glick and B.R.Stinner. 1992. Forage legumes and
cultural sustainability: lessons from history. Agric., Ecosys. and Environ.40:233-248.
Wedin,W.F. (2001) Natural history of alfalfa. University of Minnesota.
National Alfalfa Information System (NAIS).

A website which provides information on green manures, forage crops etc it can be found at


©  Andrew Ormerod 2013


About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
This entry was posted in Artistic interpretation, Fodder crops, Grassland, UK crops. Bookmark the permalink.

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