Farming 101: Minerals and Fertilizer

By Arneth Beck, Reporter

 

Hello! I’m Arneth Beck, a newbie when it comes to farming, although I have been raised and living on a farm since the day I was born. At age 18 with two years of college under my belt, I now co-own a farm in Clayton with my mother. My goal is to become a better farmer, in all areas and aspects of it. As a new reporter for Loon Lake Times, I’ve decided to write a few articles about things that I’ve learned on our farm, based on my own research, experiences and talking with other local farmers. I wish to help other local farmers with what I’ve learned. If you have any questions or suggestions for future farming or other local topics, or if you wish to be interviewed, please email me at arnethbeck@gmail.com

 

One of the most important aspects of growing a pasture or crops is the application of minerals and fertilizers.

 

All Soils Need Nitrogen

Nitrogen promotes leaf, stem, seed, and fruit growth. It also gives a dark green coloring to plants, encourages rapid growth, improves quality of leaf crops, and increases protein in feed and food crops. In early spring, when the grasses are rich, animal bloating may be an issue. Using a well-nitrated pasture is the best option unless you take your animals off pasture completely until bloating danger is over, which is sometime in August when the spring grass has dried out.

 

The Three Main Minerals

Fields need three main minerals: lime, potash, and phosphate. Fields that grow oats, clovers, cereals, and legumes need these minerals the most. W.R. Thompson, from the Pasture Book, suggests farmers mineralize fields yearly, but some farmers may not have the time for that. The next best method is to consider applying up to 2-4 years’ worth at one time. You can also apply minerals on one-fourth of the field each year.

 

Lime. Farmers may consider “liming” as an important method to improve their crops. Lime is a white powder mineral that is spread across the land – this act is called liming. It is used to correct soil acidity, but it is also a great source of calcium. Magnesium is also supplied to the fields when lime is used. The benefits of liming are many!

  • It improves crop yields.
  • Supplies calcium and magnesium.
  • Increases the nitrogen in legume plants.
  • Improves the soil.
  • Makes poisons in the soil less active.

 

According to Lewis S. Prater; Agricultural Minerals, limestone or lime is used to correct soils that are too acidic, whereas sulfur can make soil more acidic. Liming recommendations are different in each state. Consult your local soil laboratory for specific information on approximate amounts of lime required to raise the pH value in the soil.

 

Potash. Potash is a potassium-rich salt. It is a vital fertilizer to the farming industry as it is a primary plant nutrient. Potash improves crop yields and influences the taste and texture of many plants. It also helps enhance water preservation. Potash was originally made by leaching tree ashes in metal pots. The process left a white residue on the pot, called “pot ash.” Potash has also been used to make glass, soap, as a drying agent in food, animal feed, and used to tenderize tripe.

 

Phosphate. Phosphate is a rock that is commonly used in fertilizers. Phosphorus stimulates early root formation and growth, gives winter hardiness to fall-seeded grains and hay crops, gives a rapid start to plants and hastens maturity. It is best to apply phosphate in early spring because it has a slow-releasing effect on plants. Using too much of anything will have negative effects, and phosphate can cause damage if too much is used. Alternatively, bone meal can be used as a more organic replacement for phosphate.
Additional Minerals to Consider

 

Magnesium and Sulfur. Magnesium promotes the formation of oils and fats, acts as a carrier of phosphoric acid in the plant, regulates uptake of other plant foods, aids in maintaining the dark green color of the leaves, and plays a part in the translocation of starch. Like magnesium, sulfur also helps maintain the dark green color of the plant, and it increases root growth, stimulates seed production, promotes nodule formation in legumes, and encourages more vigorous plant growth.

 

How to recognize the signs that you need to mineralize. Knowing what to look for in your crops is important, along with how to care for it. For example, if there appears to be a “firing” of leaves or crops are drying up, there may not be enough nitrogen. If the growth and maturity is slow, there could be a lack of phosphorus. Premature loss of leaves and falling down before maturity due to poor root development could be a lack of potash.

 

How to Begin with Fertilizer

Fertilizing a field is the next best step in becoming a successful farmer and using a mixed fertilizer is a good start. Mixed fertilizers are used on fields with poor soil because it is good insurance to keep young plants from starvation before they get established.
The best fertilizer is manure. Manure is like gold. A lot of pastures or fields fail because there is not enough organic matter in the soil. With an application of manure, pastures or field crops will double in value the first season.

 

What Manure Does:

  • Helps loosen up soil.
  • Helps hold moisture.
  • Furnishes plant food for young plants.
  • Furnishes a home and food for bacteria.

 

The best thing about manure is that for most farmers it is free. As long as you have livestock, you have free fertilizer. Keep the manure piled in one section of the pen or keep the manure spreader parked nearby and fill it up. Once it’s full, take the load out and spread it. Manure will work for any field and crop.

 

Using Chicken Tractors

We have recently started using chicken tractors on our small farm to fertilize our hay fields. A chicken tractor is basically a mobile chicken house. There are a variety of ways to build one, and they can be any size. We run two or three small chicken tractors a year with Cornish Cross meat chickens, starting at the end of our hay harvest at the end of July. We move the chicken tractors once a day down the length of our field, allowing the chickens to eat and pick at grass and bugs and fertilize our fields. Doing this also raises a healthy, good-tasting meat bird.

 

Salt and Minerals for Livestock

Minerals aren’t only important for fields, but for livestock as well. It is important to keep up on your livestock’s minerals and supplements. Macro minerals that are important for cattle are sulfur, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, chlorine, sodium, and potassium. Additionally, cobalt, copper, zinc, selenium, iodine, iron, and manganese are important trace minerals for cattle. Minerals are important to help support milk production, growth, and body tissue maintenance.

 

All animals need salt for growth and a healthy, properly functioning body. Salt holds many of the trace minerals that animals need and it is very important that all livestock, big and small, have the proper salt block. Salt deficiency can cause milk fever for lactating cows and rickets in calves. These happen from being calcium deficient.

 

Salt blocks are important to have in every pen and pasture for the animals, but having loose salt is also something to consider. Most animals can’t lick enough from the salt blocks to consume their required salt intake. Having the option of loose salt for them to eat at freely is often the best course of action. We recently got back into cattle this year, and we offer them a salt block and a large amount of loose salt in their mineral feeder. According to the D&B Supply Blog, “Loose mineral salts are also easier for cows to consume, which means that this type of supplement will meet the cow’s nutritional needs.”

 

For cattle: Loose salt on one side of the mineral box and bone meal on the other.
For sheep: Nine parts salt and one part phenothiazine.
For poultry: Use pullet and oyster shells for calcium. Hens need calcium for their eggs.

 

Farmer Fun Fact

Farmers used drywall in place of gypsum. Gypsum is one of the earliest forms of fertilizer and is a great source of calcium and sulfur. Gypsum helps soil to better absorb water and reduces erosion. Farmers used to get drywall scraps and grind them up into a powder to spread across their fields.

 

Helpful Sources

USDA Liming to Improve Soil Quality https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/
Using manure as a fertilizer for crop production https://www.epa.gov/sites/
Mineral Supplements for Beef Cattle https://extension.uga.edu/publications
D & B Supply Blog Salt Blocks vs. Loose Salt https://blog.mydbsupply.com
Agricultural Minerals, by Lewis S. Prater, Idaho Bureau of Mines and Geology, 1958 https://www.idahogeology.org/