Alfalfa 101: Feeding Alfalfa Plants, Alfalfa Soil Types and Seeding Alfalfa

By Harold Willis

The place to begin with growing really great alfalfa and other forages is at the beginning—with establishing the stand. If the plants do not get off to a good start, they will likely be sickly, have disease and pest problems, yield poorly, and the stand may die out quickly.

Soil Types for Alfalfa

And the place to begin with establishing the stand is obviously the soil, because soil fertility and soil conditions play the major role in plant growth and crop yield—and most of all, crop quality. When you feed high quality forage to your livestock, they not only will produce more on the same quantity (or less) of feed, but they will also be healthier, and who can’t do with lower vet bills and fewer dead animals?

What kind of soil, fertility, and soil conditions do alfalfa and other forage crops need to establish a good stand?

Organic alfalfa seeds.

Alfalfa Needs

Alfalfa requires a well-drained soil for maximum produc­tion.1 Soils two feet or more in depth are also necessary for best growth, since alfalfa is capable of developing a deep root system if root growth is unrestricted. Soils in which rooting depth is limited by either a shallow hardpan, a high water table (poor drainage), or bedrock are less suitable for alfalfa production.

Hardpan and Alfalfa

Have you ever dug up an alfalfa taproot and been surprised to find it bent at a right angle six or eight inches below the surface? This is dramatic evidence that a hardpan severely restricts root penetration, the use of deep nutrients, and therefore plant growth. The vast majority of farmland today is plagued by hardpans, as evidenced by water accumulating in low spots and even in high spots and on slopes after a rain. A hardpan not only restricts water penetration (and thereby increases water runoff, erosion, and flooding), but it also seals off the lower layer of soil from air. Good soil aeration is vital for healthy soil because roots need oxygen and so do the beneficial soil microorganisms (bacteria, actinomycetes, and fungi), which are tremendously important for maintaining healthy soil and for growing healthy, high quality crops.

Aeration and Alfalfa

In order for the soil to be well aerated (and to overcome a hardpan), the soil must be loose, spongy, and crumbly. In other words, it must have good structure or tilth. Good soil structure can be obtained and maintained for the long run by having an adequate amount of humus and the beneficial soil organisms that produce it. Humus is decomposed organic matter—the plant residues and manures which should be returned to the soil. When organic matter is worked into the upper layers of the soil, a “volunteer army” of bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, and worms should be there waiting to attack it and convert it into dark, fine-textured, rich-smelling humus.

Humus: Abundant Humus in Soil Provides Many Benefits

  1. It is a storehouse of essential plant nutrients (especially nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur) and growth-promoting substances (hormones and vitamins).
  2. It helps make some nutrients more soluble and available to plants. Nutrients are released slowly throughout the growing season, as the plant needs them.
  3. It contributes to good soil structure (tilth) by producing small crumbs (aggregates) of soil particles, allowing good air and water penetration. Water-holding capacity is also increased, and therefore drought resistance. Erosion from both water and wind is reduced. The soil is loose and easy to work.
  4. It protects plants from diseases, pests, toxic chemicals, high salt levels, and drastic changes in pH (acidity/alkalinity).

Soil organic matter is an important soil characteristic that improves tilth, water intake and water-holding capacity. The usual measure of humus on laboratory soil tests is percent organic matter, al­though this does not distinguish between fresh, unrotted organic matter and true humus. By digging in your soil, you can see if last year’s crop residues and manure are rotting quickly to form humus. If they are not, the problem may be due to “dead” soil without an adequate population of the humus-forming microorganisms (possibly because of toxic agricul­tural chemicals) or to tight, poorly aerated soil, causing anaerobic condi­tions (little or no oxygen). Compaction from use of heavy farm machinery is a contributing factor to anaerobic soil. Reducing or eliminating toxic chemicals and increasing humus content will alleviate these problems, but if your soil is so tight and “dead” that organic matter will not decompose quickly to form humus, then you can break out of this vicious circle by use of a soil conditioner to loosen soil and stimulate soil life. Depending on your soil’s needs, some rock fertilizers can help condition soil (calcitic lime and soft rock or colloidal phosphate) or some commercial soil con­ditioners can be beneficial (although some kinds are not so helpful or can even do long-range harm). Inoculating the soil with beneficial bacteria and other organisms may help (if the soil conditions are already fairly good, and not toxic).

Desirable levels of organic matter on soil tests are from 2 – 5%, or even up to 10%, provided the soil is loose and “alive” with organisms.

A stubborn hardpan can be broken up by subsoiling or by plowing a little deeper each year, but a good earthworm population can do a better and quicker job of it.

Nutrients for Alfalfa Crops

The mineral elements that are most essential for good stand establishment are calcium (Ca), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Calcium is needed for cell division, cell wall formation, and root growth. Phosphorus is used for energy transfer and other metabolic func­tions in the plant, and also it increases root growth. Adequate phospho­rus is especially critical for stand establishment. Potassium is required to activate many cell enzymes and for food transport in the plant.

Nitrogen application in the nitrate form will help to establish alfalfa if your soil is low in nitrogen. The nitrogen-fixing bacteria which will later develop in legume root nodules require the trace elements molybdenum (Mo), cobalt (Co), iron (Fe), and copper (Cu). In properly fertilized soil with adequate humus and soil organisms, these trace ele­ments should not be deficient, but the soils in some parts of the country are deficient in one or more trace elements, so some may have to be added. Be sure not to supply too much, because trace elements are only required in very small amounts, and some are toxic to plants or animals in too large amounts or in out-of-balance soil. Natural fertilizer sources such as manures and rock fertilizers can often supply trace element needs, and a good microorganism population will make them available to the plant.

Test Alfalfa Fertilizers

But how can you know how much of what kinds of fertiliz­ers to apply if you have no idea of what your soil needs? So before you do anything, you should have your soil tested by a reliable testing lab. Un­fortunately, different soil testing labs differ in their testing methods and  interpretation of results, so you can send the same soil sample to two labs and get two different sets of numbers and fertilizer recommendations. Because of the prevailing beliefs about crop fertilization, most labs tend to recommend relatively too much potassium and too little calcium and phosphorus. The best soil testing methods for determining plant needs are those that test for readily available (soluble) nutrients (see Chapter 3).

Guidelines for Soil and Alfalfa

It is impossible to give definite recommendations in this book without knowing what your soil needs, but the soil should have a high level of available calcium and phosphorus. If your soil needs these elements, good sources are calcite lime plus soft rock phosphate. These plus an application of organic matter (6 to 10 tons/acre of fresh cattle manure, or 1/2 to 1/3 that amount of poultry manure, or 1 to 3 tons/acre of compost) will take care of most nutrient needs of alfalfa and other forages. The organic matter will provide enough potassium as long as calcium and phosphorus are high. Fresh organic mat­ter should not be applied in excess nor be plowed in too deeply (below 5 to 8 inches) because it may not decompose properly, but may putrify and release toxins. It should be worked into the upper several inches (the aerobic zone).

The soft rock phosphate should be applied before or at the same time as the lime, since by itself, the lime tends to leach downward. They should not be plowed under deeply, and can be left on the surface.

Liming Alfalfa Crops

If you live in a part of the country with low magnesium soils, dolomitic lime (calcium-magnesium carbonate) should still not be used; it has the disadvantage of being harder and slower to break down than calcitic lime, plus its high magnesium content can lead to tighter soil and nitrogen depletion if in excess. Calcitic limestone (cal­cite, calcium carbonate) has none of these disadvantages and should be used instead.

The more finely ground the lime is, the more rapidly it becomes available and the less that is needed. Mesh sizes of 90 – 99 or finer give al­most “instant” availability, but they are hard to spread on windy days, and special spreaders may be needed. The old “E-Z Flow” and Gandy spread­ers and the larger Stolzfus and Webster spreaders will handle fine lime.

Alfalfa pH

Standard recommendations state that alfalfa should have a soil pH of 6.5 to 7 or 7.5, which is above the average for most crops (6.2 – 6.8). Actually, not so much attention should be paid to the exact pH figure because (1) the pH of soil changes constantly, even from day to day, and (2) the pH readings produced by a soil testing lab depend on the meth­ods used. For example, if the soil samples are finely ground before test­ing, the pH readings will be somewhat higher than under field conditions because small lumps of lime will be ground up and made more available.

Perhaps one reason a higher pH is recommended for alfalfa is that alfalfa requires high levels of calcium, and large amounts of lime are ap­plied to raise pH, automatically supplying the crop’s need for calcium.

Low pH (below 6.0) can have detrimental effects in reducing or eliminating growth of beneficial soil bacteria, including nitrogen-fixing bacteria, but high quality forage can be grown on acid soil, provided it has balanced and high fertility.

Preparing Alfalfa Seedbeds

The best seedbed for forage establishment is firm and moist. Firmness will prevent loss of essential moisture; however, a crust is very detrimental to seedling emergence. Good tilth and humus content will prevent crusting. Fall plowing and spring disking and harrowing work well in most areas; however, fall plowing is not recommended in areas where erosion could be increased (steep slopes and high rainfall). Since shallow seed placement is necessary for good emergence, the use of a corrugated roller or packer will provide firmness.

Which Seeding Method for Alfalfa?

Whether you want to use broadcast, drill, or band seeding methods may depend mainly on your situation and available equipment. With good soil conditions, any seeding method can give good results. Under less than ideal conditions (low fertility or dry weather), band seeding (placing a band of seed directly over a band of fertilizer 1-2 inches deep) has been proven superior.

Companion Crops for Alfalfa

In northern and eastern parts of the U.S., most alfalfa is sown with a companion crop (nurse crop) in spring seedings (not in summer or fall seedings). Besides providing an additional crop, companion crops protect the soil from erosion and keep out weeds before the alfalfa is established. However, companion crops can have disadvan­tages: they can compete with or inhibit the alfalfa seedlings by competing for light, moisture, and nutrients. Therefore, less leafy species or smaller seeding rates of companion crops should be used.

Commonly used companion crops are flax, peas, spring wheat, spring barley, and early maturing oats. Winter wheat, winter barley, win­ter rye, and late varieties of oats are poor companion crops for alfalfa.6 Early mowing, grazing, or harvesting of small grain companion crops before the boot stage will help reduce competition with alfalfa.

The percentage of grass in legume-grass mixtures should gener­ally be less than 25 – 40%, up to 50% in pastures, because too much grass will lower the protein content of the hay and may require more nitrogen than the legume can supply. Legume-grass mixtures that do well together include (from Univ. of Wisconsin-Extension Publication A2906,1978, p. 4):

If no companion crop is used (direct seeding, clear seeding), weeds and erosion could be problems on poor soils. On steep slopes, a thin mulch of straw or manure will help reduce erosion. If the available phosphorus level of the soil is about twice as high as potassium, and if the soil is well aerated, weeds are not generally a problem. If you wish to use a herbicide for weed control, consider that most toxic chemicals tend to upset the soil’s beneficial microorganism population, which can lead to humus de­pletion and lowered soil fertility. The use of a surfactant or wetting agent can allow you to greatly reduce the amounts of herbicides used.

Alfalfa Seeds

To get your forage crop off to the best start possible, use high quality (high test weight) seed and a suitable variety which is adapted to your climate. Yield, winter-hardiness, disease and pest resistance, and maturity time are factors to consider in choosing a variety.

Inoculating Alfalfa Seeds

Legume seed should always be inoculated with the proper strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria to insure development of root nodules. The extra cost is small, while the benefits are great. Pre-inocu­lated seed can be purchased or you can apply the inoculant at seeding time. Inoculant or inoculated seeds should be stored in cool temperatures (below 60°F in a refrigerator is fine) and used as soon as possible (not over six months after purchase).

Generally, seed treatment with fungicides is unnecessary for small-seeded legumes and grasses.

Alfalfa Planting Depth

Optimal seeding depth for legumes and grasses is less than one inch. In fine-textured and moist soils, seeds should be planted closer to the surface, from 1/2 to 1/4 inch. In summer or drier pe­riods or in sandy soils, deeper planting (¾ to 1 inch) is recommended.

Seeding Rate for Alfalfa

There are several factors to consider regarding seed­ing rates:

1. Moisture. If the soil will not have much moisture later in the year (especially sandy soils), lower seeding rates will reduce competition for moisture among the seedlings. Adequate humus will increase available soil moisture.

2. Soil conditions. Low soil fertility or acid soils will require higher seeding rates to insure that enough seedlings survive. Proper fertilization and adequate humus will overcome these problems.

3. Species and variety. Different grasses and legumes and their varieties differ in their germination rate, number of seeds per pound, and growth-form (some spread out in growth more than others). Some useful information is provided in the following table, from Iowa State University:

University of Wisconsin recommendations for alfalfa seeding rates are 10 – 12 pounds of live, pure seed per acre for pure stands, 15 pounds per acre if quackgrass may be a problem, and 16 – 18 pounds per acre if you wish to harvest in the year of seeding.

Use the number of seeds per pound to figure seed mixtures. For example, it would take only about one-fifth the amount of orchardgrass seed to equal bromegrass.

Timing for Alfalfa Planting

The timing of stand establishment must be adjusted to your local climate and possible crop rotation schedule. In the North and Northeast, the best time is spring; otherwise dry summer weather may not allow enough growth to survive the winter (companion crops should not be used for late seedings because they compete with the leg­ume and slow the establishment). In the South, late summer is the best time for seeding.

Source: How to Grow Great Alfalfa

Basics of Alfalfa: The Queen Forage Species

By Harold Willis

Alfalfa has been called the “queen of forages” because of its remarkable ability to produce high yields of nutritious, palatable forage under a wide range of soil and climatic conditions. (J. C. Burton, p. 229 in Alfalfa Science and Technology, 1972.)

Alfalfa and other forage crops are an important and vital part of the agriculture of the United States, especially in the high dairy areas of the Great Lakes region and the Northeast, as well as along the Pacific west coast. Forages are also important wherever livestock are fattened. In 1969, the total acreage harvested for hay and seed in the U. S. was 27.1 million acres, of which 26.6 million were used for alfalfa. Out of this, over 60% was grown in the Great Lakes region. (J. L. Bolton, B. P. Goplen, & H. Baenziger, p. 24 in Alfalfa Science and Technology, 1972.)

Kinds of Forages

Besides alfalfa, other forage species most often grown include red clover, sweetclover, birdsfoot trefoil, Ladino clover, white clover (all of those are legumes), plus smooth bromegrass, timo­thy, bluegrass, reed canarygrass, and orchardgrass (the latter five are grasses, in a different plant family than the legumes).

Other forage crops that are not grown as commonly or that are restricted to certain parts of the country include, among the legumes: al-sike clover, sour clover, crimson clover, lespedezas, vetches, soybeans, field peas, cowpeas, peanut vines, and kudzu; and among the grasses: fescues, redtop, meadow foxtail, sudangrass, Johnsongrass, sorghum and its hybrids, millet, proso, tall oatgrass, wheatgrasses, bluestems, grama grasses, buffalograss, switchgrass, lovegrass, ryegrasses, needle-grasses, Bahiagrass, Bermudagrass, carpetgrass, Dallisgrass, oats, barley, wheat, rye, and corn (maize).

Since alfalfa is by far the most widely grown forage species, this article will mainly deal with alfalfa, although most of the legume forages are about the same in their growth requirements. To simplify matters, we will briefly list the characteristics of the non-alfalfa forages first and then concentrate on alfalfa.


The plants in the legume family have the distinct ability to provide a home for a type of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, Rhizobium, in the swol­len nodules that can form on the legume’s roots. These bacteria live in a symbiotic relationship with the legume and are able to capture (fix) nitrogen gas from the air and change it into ammonia, which the legume uses to produce proteins. There are many varieties or strains of the bac­teria, and only certain ones can successfully form nodules on a certain species or variety of legume. Although the bacteria are generally com­mon in fertile soil (which has not been sterilized by toxic chemicals), it is best to plant seed that has been inoculated with the right strain of bacteria to insure successful nodule formation.

Most legume forages are perennial plants (they live more than one year), although some sweetclover and alfalfa varieties are annual (live one year). Most legumes are characterized by deep taproots and growth of several stems from a crown region near ground level. The stems grow and elongate at the tips, but when the crop is harvested or grazed, new stems grow from buds in the crown.

Birdsfoot trefoil. Long-lived perennial; moderate-yielding with good midseason growth and late maturity; fair drought-tolerance and gener­ally poor winter hardiness; does well on poor soils; tolerates continuous but not close grazing; difficult to establish. A related species is called big trefoil.

Red clover.

Red clover. Short-lived perennial (2 years in North) or annual (South); moderately high yielding with fair midseason growth; fair drought-tolerance and winter hardiness.

Sweetclover. Biennial (lives 2 years) or annual; high-yielding with only moderate top growth the first season and little late growth the second season in 2-year varieties; good drought-tolerance and winter hardiness; does well on poor soils; not very palatable to livestock be­cause of coumarin content; makes poor hay; does not tolerate close cutting or grazing.

White clover and Ladino clover. Rapid-growing perennial (Ladino is short-lived); low-yielding with early spring and poor midseason growth; poor drought-tolerance and good to moderate (Ladino) winter hardiness; tolerate continuous grazing.


Grasses are characterized by comparatively shallow, diffuse root systems (with many roots, but no main taproots). The growing points for leaves and seed stalks are at ground level, so cutting or grazing will not injure them. Most forage grasses are perennial, while many weedy grasses are annual, as are crop grains (oats, wheat, corn, etc.).

Bluegrass, Kentucky bluegrass. Long-lived cool season peren­nial; low-yielding with early spring and poor midseason growth; poor drought-tolerance and very good winter hardiness; tolerates continuous grazing.

Bromegrass, smooth bromegrass. Long-lived cool season perennial; high-yielding with moderate spring and fair midseason growth; moder­ately good drought-tolerance and very good winter hardiness; weakened by heavy grazing; difficult to establish.

Orchardgrass. Cool season perennial; high-yielding with early spring and moderate midseason growth; excellent drought-tolerance and fair winter hardiness; coarse and unpalatable at maturity.

Reed canarygrass. Cool season perennial; high-yielding with early spring and good midseason growth; very good drought-tolerance and very good winter hardiness; poor palatability at maturity; difficult to establish.

Tall fescue. Perennial; moderate-yielding; good drought-tolerance and fair winter hardiness; poor palatability in warm summer months; weakened by heavy grazing.

Timothy. Cool season perennial; moderate-yielding with poor mid­season growth; fair drought-tolerance and moderate winter hardiness; low palatability at maturity; weakened by heavy grazing and cutting.

Will Winter: Pasture, the Profit Maker, from the 2006 Eco-Ag Conference and Trade Show (53 minutes, 51 seconds). Listen in as professional livestock consultant Will Winter discusses ways to manage pasture profitably.

Alfalfa, the Queen

Long-lived perennial (except annual varie­ties); high-yielding with early spring and good midseason growth; good drought-tolerance, some varieties very winter hardy; cannot be grazed in seedling stage. What’s it all about?

Alfalfa is the oldest crop grown solely for forage. It is native to the mountainous regions of southwestern Asia, in the vicinity of Iran and the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia. It was grown in ancient times by the Arabians and Persians, and was then introduced into Europe and from there into Central and South America by the first Spanish explorers and settlers. Although grown to a small extent on the East Coast of the U. S. in the 1700s, alfalfa really succeeded in North America after seed was brought in the early 1840s by settlers sailing around Cape Horn to California. The name “alfalfa” comes from Arabic and means “best fodder.” It is often called lucerne in other parts of the world.

For anyone who feeds livestock the growing of high quality, healthful forages should be your number one concern. That is what will give the maximum production by your animals, as well as pro­moting their health and well-being. Also, high quality hay can be an excellent cash crop in many parts of the country.

Let’s see how you can do it.

Source: How to Grow Great Alfalfa

Managing Your Farm in the Facebook era

By Kelsey Jorissen
This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A. Magazine.

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by a child in my community. She was working on a project for school where she could choose anything she wanted to focus on, and she chose to study women in agriculture and how to open her own farmstand. So she chose me, a first-generation female farmer who raises pastured chickens and vegetables using permaculture methods on five acres in southeastern Wisconsin. To say I was touched was an understatement; I felt like I had won a ticket to the moon.

After a short tour of the farm, we chatted in my living room. Her first and most important question was, “How do you find customers for your farm?” I stopped to think about it. Then it hit me. We find all of our customers for our farm online.

We have never put a physical ad in a paper, we have never been to a chamber of commerce meeting and we haven’t done any networking events. Mind you, these are all perfectly okay things to do to make yourself more “findable” for customers, but we don’t have the time for them. We have a farm to run.

My answer to her was a smorgasbord of all the ways we have “plugged in our farm” so that the right customers — the ones who care about our farming practices and are willing to pay our prices — appear at our farm stand with money in hand.

As I explained our farm’s online methodology to this ninth-grade Generation Z’er in my living room, she totally got it. She didn’t bat an eye that this was how businesses find customers nowadays — this is completely normal to her and the entire Generation Z population. Heck, it’s normal for me, a millenial, and it’s even become the norm for my parents, two class-act baby boomers.

farmer on computer


Let’s talk numbers. In 2018, over half the global population was online. E-commerce made up 15 percent of total sales in 2018, and it continues to grow despite retail sales stagnating.

Now let’s discuss online users by generations and their purchasing power. Generation Z has surpassed millenials in size; they make up nearly a third of the global population, and 84 percent of them are active online. About 97 percent of millenials are online.

Another extremely important point to make is that 60 percent of people say they’re willing to pay a higher price for sustainably made goods — 74 percent among millennials. This is a massive group of young people who are shopping online and are willing to pay the higher prices of your high-quality food.

Consumers are becoming increasingly conscious of how food is grown and raised, as demonstrated in how buzzwords like “sustainable” and “regenerative” are popping up on the websites of companies that don’t even sell food. The organic sector grew by 6.4 percent in 2017, six times faster than the overall food market. Customers want more good food grown in a good way.

But these numbers are only a piece of the pie as to why your farm needs to have an online presence. The final piece came to me as I was sitting in a coffee shop in Milwaukee. My dear friend sat down in a huff and threw up her hands. “I spent a solid hour researching online for local farms that sell pastured, whole chicken this morning, and I came up completely short. All of their websites were so out of date, they didn’t include any info on how they raise their chickens or they literally didn’t have a website! Like how do you expect me to email you or call, let alone PAY you, if your website isn’t even accurate?!”

Now, I knew that there were at least four farms local to us that sold pastured whole chicken, but that’s because I’m a farmer and I’ve networked with these farmers. I decided to put on my consumer hat and got online to see what I could find. The results were abysmal. Some had websites that looked like they were born on the first computer ever to see the internet, some had absolutely no pictures or even an “About Me” page and none of them had a place to opt-in and stay updated on what’s happening on the farm.

We lovers of the land work hard, and I can see why establishing a solid online presence can feel like a non-starter when you’re mucking barns, planting cover crops and racing to keep up with harvesting the snap peas. But when I put myself in my friend’s shoes, I completely saw her point.

If I hear about an interesting company or organization in passing conversation, I immediately turn to the web to research them and to view their products or “About” page. If their website is haphazard, doesn’t have the info I need or hasn’t been updated in months … I pull a faster exit than when an angry sow makes to break my legs against the fence. I know I’m not the only one who does this.

Take a moment and ask yourself how you made your last five purchases. I’ll bet my broody hen that the majority of those were online. We live in a time now where people learn about companies online, experience their branding on social media, grow to trust them based on their online presence and ultimately purchase their products on the internet. Your farm is no different.

Consumers have evolved with the rise of the internet, and farmers have to do the same. Without a strong online presence, potential buyers pass us by or are left frustrated. This is exactly where we as farmers are failing our perfect customers.


Simon Simek said it best in his book Start With Why: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Customers begin to trust you when they are let in on your “why.” You need to give them the chance to fall in love with your “why” by having a solid online presence.

Allow me to cut through the haze and give you a simple framework on what a solid online presence looks like, where to achieve it, and ballpark prices.

Use a logo

Have a logo that you can use across social media platforms, including on signage for a roadside farm stand or at farmers’ markets. You can create these for free on DIY sites like Canva ( or for as little as $5 on sites like Fiverr (

Post photos

Have pictures of you and your farm to post on your website and social media platforms. This can be free if you get someone to take them on your phone, or you can barter with a local photographer to take some professional ones. If push comes to shove, there are also great free stock photo sites you can pull from such as UnSplash ( and Pexels (

Create an About page

Keep a clean and uncluttered website that includes an “About” page, a how to find you and contact you page, what products you sell, and how your products are raised or grown. I’ve been around the block on DIY websites, and Weebly ( is by far the best for beginners. It has clean, beautiful drag-and-drop templates with pricing ranging from free to $300. Just be sure to purchase your domain from GoDaddy ( instead of Weebly — this will be much cheaper in the long run.

Keep a blog

Publish a blog on your website that posts at least twice a month on what’s happening on your farm. Having a blog is included in the website cost.

Send an e-newsletter

Establish an email marketing account with an email opt-in posted on your website so you can gather potential customer emails and send them updates as needed. This is free for up to 2,000 subscribers on MailChimp (

Offer online shopping

Create an online shopping cart where customers can buy your CSA shares, purchase tickets to a workshop or event, or reserve produce for pickup. Gumroad ( is a free embeddable shopping cart that charges only 5 percent to cover credit card and transfer fees. Weebly also has a shopping cart built into its Business and Pro plans.

Be visible on social media

Maintain an Instagram account that posts at least every three days. This is free.

Keep a Facebook page that posts at least once a week. This is also free.

This is the most basic framework you can create to have a trustworthy online presence for your perfect customers. The best part is that it costs you next to nothing to implement but has the ability to reap massive amounts of profit for your farm.

What I also love about this basic framework is that it can take as little as one or two days to set up. From there you can spend just 15 to 30 minutes a day maintaining it. That’s less time than I spend doing morning chores on the farm!

Within this basic framework, you are given ample opportunity to share your “why” with potential buyers so that they turn into loyal customers who spend their money with you over and over again. There are so many “why’s” on a farm that when you stop to think about it, you’ll have blogs and captions to write for the rest of your life. Why do you feed your livestock a certain way? Why do you raise your livestock a certain way? Why do you plant a certain crop? Why do you compost? Why do you use certain brands of tools on the farm? Why do you host workshops? Why do you do farm tours? But most importantly, why are you a farmer?

This form of online marketing is called “content marketing” and is completely free, depending on how you slice it. Answering these questions for the conscious consumer who visits your website and social media pages is going to grow trust and, subsequently, grow your farm’s profits.


My partner and I run two successful e-commerce businesses, the farm being our most recent venture. My greatest asset when it came to starting the farm was my online marketing experience, so I put that to work first and foremost as we geared up to launch our roadside farm stand. And let me tell you — it’s paid off handsomely.

We hit our supply ceiling within one month and didn’t even have to travel to a farmers’ market on the weekends to do so. Now we struggle to keep up with demand. But thanks to our online efforts, we also have the capital to expand our operation if we choose to do so. These are good problems to have!

Aside from guaranteed customers, the best part of implementing a solid online presence is the smile I see on first-time customers’ faces when they stop in to buy something. They know me even though we haven’t met. They jump right into a conversation about the importance of local, organically grown food as if we were good friends. By frontloading the work and building trust online, I have made not only loyal customers but dear friends.

Commenting on the future of e-commerce, Aaron Orendorff, former editor-in-chief of the major shopping cart platform Shopify, said it best: “The future will manifest itself in relationships. Choice isn’t tomorrow. It’s today. Direct and meaningful connections to customers that include but extend far beyond mere products.”

Allow your farm the opportunity to build direct, meaningful and lasting connections with your perfect customers so you can continue to do what you love: growing and raising healthy food.

To discover how to use online marketing to grow your farm’s profits and to learn more about permaculture farmer Kelsey Jorissen, visit her at

Tractor Time Episode 32: Bob Quinn, Liz Carlisle, Authors, Grain by Grain

Hosted by Ben Trollinger

Hello and welcome to Tractor Time podcast, brought to you by Acres U.S.A., the Voice of Eco-Agriculture. I’m your host, Ben Trollinger, and as always, I want to say thank you to our sponsors, BCS America.

You’re probably heard of kamut (kah-moot), also known as khorasan wheat, also known as King Tut’s Wheat. It’s drought resistant and highly nutritious. It’s in organic breakfast cereals. It’s in pasta. People with gluten sensitivity can eat it. Artisan bakers drool over it.

It’s one of organic farming’s biggest success stories. It’s a story that’s rooted deep in history and that might just show us the way forward.

I’m joined by Bob Quinn and Liz Carlisle, co-authors of Grain by Grain: A Quest to Revive Ancient Wheat, Rural Jobs, and Healthy Food.

Tractor Time podcast episode 32 Bob Quinn and Liz Carlisle

The book details Quinn’s journey over the last several decades to turn his dryland farm in Big Sandy, Montana into a powerhouse of organic and regenerative agriculture. Through his multi-million dollar heirloom grain company, Kamut International, Quinn has managed to create a durable network of around 200 organic farmers.

Quinn was also instrumental in shaping the country’s first organic food standards back in the late 1990s. Before that, in the 1980s, he helped establish standards for his home state. 

Liz Carlisle is a lecturer in the School of Earth, Energy, and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University. Her first book, Lentil Underground, prominently features Bob Quinn’s work and also won the Montana Book Award and the Green Prize for Sustainable Literature. She’s a forager of regenerative agriculture wisdom — and also a recovering country and western singer.

1 hour, 4 minutes

Use mulch to fight drought

By Dale Strickler
This is an excerpt from the book The Drought Resilient Farm, and also appeared in the August 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Perhaps no other practice improves water movement into the soil surface more effectively than creating and maintaining a mulch layer. The primary benefit of a mulch layer is not that it slows the velocity of overland water flow, as is often assumed (though that is important); rather, it is that mulch absorbs the energy of falling raindrops and thereby prevents raindrop impact from destroying soil aggregates. If the aggregates remain intact, the water goes into the soil through the intact large pore spaces, and there is no runoff to slow down.

In my teaching days, I conducted a demo with two areas of soil. Over one area we suspended straw mulch on a frame of chicken wire a few inches above the soil surface. The adjacent area of soil had no protection. We sprayed both areas with a garden hose for several minutes. Even though the straw was not actually touching the soil, there was no runoff at all in soil under the mulch. The soil surface remained open and loose, while the unprotected area became sealed over and then crusted when it dried. Table 2.2 (below) indicates how surface mulch affects water infiltration.

How straw mulch affects rainfall infiltration in soil

Keeping the Residue We Already Have

So how do we create a mulch? The first and most obvious way is simply to avoid destroying or removing the mulch we have as a byproduct of our current land management, such as crop residue or the stubble of pasture grass.

Keep Plant Residues in the Field

Just as tillage is destructive, so is removal of crop residue from the field.

During the drought of 2012, a huge amount of crop residue was baled and sold for low-grade livestock feed in my area. I had neighbors who thought they had found a miniature gold mine, selling baled corn stalks for $60 a ton. I felt compelled to point out a few items to them. First, the cost of swathing, baling, and moving those bales amounted to around $30 a ton. So, their net above-harvest cost was only about $30. Then I had them figure the value of the fertilizer in those stalks. A ton of corn stalks contains about 20 pounds of nitrogen, about 8 pounds of phosphate, and about 60 pounds of potash. At $0.65 per pound of nitrogen, $0.75 per pound of phosphate, and $0.50 per pound of potash, that fertilizer value amounted to $49 a ton. Essentially, they sold $49 worth of fertilizer for $30.

The real loss, however, was the value of the stalks as mulch and organic matter. Neighbors who continued on this path for several years started to notice that their dryland fields were dropping in yields quite rapidly. They began to have crop failures while their neighbors were still pulling off average yields. They also had large amounts of potassium deficiency.

Potassium deficiency predisposes plants to stalk rots, which are fungal diseases that infect the lower stalks. Once the lower stalk is infected, it not only makes it difficult for the plant to take up water and nutrients, resulting in reduced yield, but the structural integrity of the stalk is compromised as well, and the plants begin to lodge (fall over) and become difficult to harvest.

No one fertilizes with potassium in my area, because our soils tend to be very high in that element. But when crop residue is harvested year after year, the most easily available potassium ions are largely removed from the surfaces of soil colloids and transported away in bales of stalks and straw.

The Amish have a saying that the man who sells hay is slowly selling his farm, and I have seen formerly rich soils become progressively impoverished by too much removal of crop residue. On top of that there is the issue of soil erosion. Removing the protective layer of natural mulch leaves the soil more vulnerable to erosion. I shudder to think of what might happen if cellulosic ethanol ever becomes a viable concern, if crop residue is the preferred feedstock. I am all for green energy, but only when it makes sense in the long run. Being able to fill our gas tank cheaply won’t do us much good if we can no longer grow food.

Mineral Nutrient Content of Common Crop Residues chart

Avoid Overgrazing

Similar to the removal of crop residue on cropland is the overgrazing of pasture lands. It is critical to leave a minimal amount of grass residue on the soil surface to promote water infiltration. The data below illustrate the effects of too much grass removal on water infiltration in a Texas study.

It may be helpful to point out exactly what “too much” grass removal consists of. In terms of pounds per acre, it is, roughly, grazing so much that less than 2,000 pounds of forage per acre remains. Once residue amounts drop below 1,000 pounds per acre, runoff rates (and evaporation rates, as the next chapter will describe) increase even more dramatically. In lieu of clipping, drying, and weighing the forage, however, it is much easier to “eyeball” the pasture. If there is any bare dirt showing (other than in high-traffic areas such as gateways), there has been too much forage removal.

Not only does bare, exposed soil reduce infiltration, but it also means that there is sunlight not being captured by green leaves, and not contributing to pasture productivity.

How grazing pressure affects infiltration of pasture soil chart

No-Till Cover-Crop Mulch

On cropland and gardens, we can add to the amount of mulch left by crop residue by growing cover crops in between cash crops. Cover crops can be managed to provide multiple benefits, but perhaps the most beneficial is the addition of surface mulch. As with all mulches, no-till is essential to maintaining this benefit.

A cover-crop mulch can dramatically improve infiltration. My very first experience in which I no-tilled (planted a crop without tillage, using a no-till planter) into a cover crop mulch demonstrated this in spectacular fashion. I planted a soybean crop into a killed cover crop of very thick rye. The mulch was so heavy that on 40 acres I flushed 29 hen pheasants out of it while planting (they were looking for a place to nest, and this was by far the best cover around).

During the planting process I had this nagging feeling that there was something I had forgotten. I kept getting out and checking the drill to see what I had omitted. Then it dawned on me: there was no dust. Every time I had planted into tilled ground there was always a cloud of dust that followed the tractor, and a layer of dust on the drill. This time, there was none. I wondered how much longer my bearings and engine would last without all that abrasive soil getting into them (not to mention my lungs) and how much money the lower maintenance alone would save me over the long run.

That summer it rained 11 inches (30 cm) in a two-week period from late July through early August. This is a perfect scenario for growing soybeans, and sure enough, this field produced the highest yield of soybeans the farm had ever grown. But the more astonishing thing about it was revealed later. You see, this field was shaped like a big bowl, and all the water drained into a small pond. During the two weeks when those 11 inches of rain fell, not once did the level of that pond rise. All the rain went right down into the soil.

Then the rains shut off in mid-August, and no rain fell until the following May 23. I planted wheat into this field following soybean harvest in October, and despite no rain for 10 months, my field raised a whopping 77 bushels of wheat an acre. My neighbor across the field access road, an excellent farmer and winner of many regional yield contests, drilled wheat into his soybean stubble the day before I did; his made 25 bushels an acre. All that excess rainfall that fell on my field during the growth of the soybean crop was stored for use by the wheat crop that followed, instead of running off.

The graphs below illustrate how cover crops improve water infiltration.

How cover crops affect water infiltration in soil chart

About the Author

Dale Strickler is an agronomist for Green Cover Seed, the nation’s leading cover crop-specific seed company, and a leader in the soil health movement. He is based out of Bladen, NE. This article is an excerpt from his book, The Drought Resilient Farm.

Buying farmland without Wall Street

By Stephanie Hiller
This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Since the 2007 subprime mortgage crash, which threatened to derail the entire global economy, Americans have been waking up to the realization that Wall Street is too stratified, trading is too abstract and too rapid, and corporate power has advanced so much that no one is looking out for Main Street.

Young farmers have suffered greatly, especially those who raise organic produce and pasture-raised meat for families in their own communities; they have experienced a decrease in their ability to obtain the capital they need for land and equipment to run a successful farm enterprise.

According to the American Farmland Trust (AFT), the number of beginning farmers has reached a 30-year low. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of beginners dropped 20 percent, and new farmers now represent the smallest share of farmers since 1982, as per the Census of Agriculture.

Responding to what is starting to look like a crisis in farming, with thousands of farmers due to retire and fewer young farmers than ever, a number of organizations — including USDA, large agricultural universities such as Cornell and the University of Minnesota, Farm Credit and the AFT — have put forth new programs to help young farmers find land and financing.

farm in autumn

Smaller Programs

But closer to home are the many small, innovative programs that have been springing up in the past decade to create new tools for building local economies.

Progressive economists have been pointing out that a dollar spent at a business in one’s own community circulates many times within that community, while a dollar spent at a national Big Box store disappears into corporate coffers, where it contributes to the profits of faraway shareholders.

New local investing programs have been devised that depend upon direct community involvement to finance small, local businesses and farms. Beginning with crowdfunding, which uses social media to promote and help fund adventurous new projects, these innovative programs are wielding old investment methods like shareholding and even local stock exchanges to engage the community in investing in businesses close to home.

Instead of buying stocks in distant companies, the public can invest close to home in a local farm or business through a mechanism called a Direct Public Offering, or DPO. Unlike investors in the stock market, these buyers do not have to be accredited to invest in a DPO, and no minimum investment is required.

Amy Cortese, author of the book and blog Locavesting — a term she invented to identify the new investment model — tells how residents in her Brooklyn neighborhood got together to rescue a beloved bookstore by investing whatever they could afford to provide the business with capital.

According to the Sustainable Economies Law Center in Oakland, in a DPO, “a business owner or a group of leaders of an organization advertise the opportunity to invest in their enterprise to their community or to the general public directly, without the use of stock markets, brokers, or other middlemen.”

In 2012, President Obama signed into law the JOBS Act — Jumpstart Our Business Startups — which established a legal framework for DPOs. It took until last year for the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) to work out the details. Now 34 states have created their version of the rules for local investment.

Cutting Edge Capital ( works with a team of attorneys to help farmers and small businesses set up DPOs.

Investing Clubs

With the high cost of land, young farmers are likely to need more capital than an urban bookstore or a small-town bakery.

“A more just food system is inherently intertwined with a more just system of land distribution and ownership,” said Christina Oatfield, policy director of the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC). “Beginning farmers need some pretty significant financial resources to buy land. Where will all that money come from?”

SELC is exploring some possibilities. Trillions of dollars are held in retirement savings and other long-term savings accounts, she said, and “many of these investors would be willing to take a smaller return on their investment if their dollars were financing more just and sustainable food systems.”

In Port Townsend, Washington, a group of investors got together and pioneered the concept of a Local Investing Opportunity Network (LION). Locavesting reports that since 2008, “the Port Townsend LION has grown to more than 60 members, who have made more than $3 million in investments.” A similar investing club in Maine is called No Small Potatoes.

With the surge in consumer desire for fresh, local, organically grown and well-prepared foods, much of this investment has gone to food, whether in the ground, in the store or for prepared specialty items.

Slow Money, an adaptation of the concepts espoused by Slow Foods, an organization that seeks to produce local, natural, community-supported food systems, has invested $57 million since 2010 in more than 625 organic farms and food enterprises via dozens of local Slow Money groups. 

A similar organization, FarmlandLP, aims to “provide investors with the opportunity to invest in two dynamic markets: farmland and organic food.” It invests in commercial farmland, converts it to organic and then manages the land.

Iroquois Valley Farmland Real Estate Investment Trust is “a restorative farmland finance company providing land access to organic family farmers, with a focus on the next generation.” It has a special program for young farmers and is currently seeking “young farmers with a diversity of farming operations, including grains, local and organic foods, vegetables and pastured livestock.”

“Some of this work is already happening through loosely organized community groups, as well as nonprofit loan funds like RSF Social Finance, Northern California Community Loan Fund and others,” said Oatfield. SELC intends to pick the best models “to support a new generation of more diverse, ecologically-minded, community-supported farmers.”

Rules vary, so you may need to do some hunting online to find out what’s available in your state.

As with seeking any other type of financing, know what you are looking for and have your farm business plan at the ready. The task of finding “slow money” can indeed be slow, but that may be one of its strengths.

A livestock feedstuffs guide

By Kelly Klober
This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

No two farms are exactly the same, and no one feeding regiment will work on every farm.

We hadn’t been in the hog business for very long when we realized that some of the feed performance being advertised resulted from the misleading practice of feeding test subject the porcine equivalent of jet fuel.

The performance data was coming from very small groups of animals held in very small pens. They were essentially being continually fed a pig starter ration. They were intact males that were going to grow faster and more efficiently than the barrows and gilts that most producers grow.

There’s a big difference between maximum animal performance and optimum animal performance, and farmers must address the question of cost effectiveness when considering feed management practices. Good farm records are essential in guiding feed selection.

pigs at feeder
A round feeder over a perforated platform serves to protect soil and feet in a high-use area at A-D farm in Sampson County, North Carolina.

Livestock are fed to make a profit, not to save money. Animals need good nutrition to reach their full genetic potential.

Here in Missouri, the cost of organic feed can more than double production costs. Organic production has never been as highly valued here as in some other areas, and in many of those places the demand is plateauing or even declining. Many local egg producers are finding marketing success by using a line of feeds based on plant protein sources. These are cheaper than organic feeds, are available in a greater variety of forms and their formulations are more consistent than the limited number of organic feeds. The farmers add value to their eggs by touting their use of plant-based feeds, heritage breeds and free-range set-ups.

Every year seems to bring a new line of ration additives and performance-boosting agents. All will have at least some value, but only good recordkeeping can tell if they produce the increase in income needed to cover their costs. Nearly all consumers are at least somewhat driven by price, and the added costs of a feedstuff used to boost Omega-3 content in eggs will be lost on a great many of them.

Most livestock feeds are sold with fairly clear and concise directions for use. They are researched and formulated to achieve good rates of performance in most farm environments, although a growing number are directed toward the needs of confined animals. Departing too much from the usage instructions can cause some real problems. Two that are often brought to my attention are overfeeding scratch grains to laying stock and too quickly pulling growing pullets off of starter/grower rations. Both are generally done in the hope that doing so will save money by lowering the feed bill.

Free choice scratch grain, though less costly than layer mash, does not provide the nutrients needed to sustain a laying bird, and overconsumption of the grain quickly knocks the ration out of balance by reducing the needed daily consumption of laying mash.

Pullets should remain on a starter/grower ration until they lay their first eggs. They should then gradually be shifted over to a laying ration over a period of several days. The developing bird’s frame is forming and its ovi-tract in particular needs a nutrient-dense ration.


Livestock feeds are big business. There are national-level feed companies, regional brands, feed brands that are long gone and dearly missed (anybody remember Dixie or Supersweet?) and even special ration blends from the little elevator down the road.

As the years have passed, feed formulas and formulations have changed, the research has generally gotten better and demand still continues to affect availability. Some years ago, local feed suppliers filled their warehouses with a wide variety of sow feeds and pig starter rations. Now there may just be one or two of each and a much wider variety of poultry and cattle feeds. Even the local Walmart now carries a short line of livestock feeds.

Most swine rations and many other livestock feeds are now offered in what is called a “complete form.” These feeds are designed to contain all of the nutrients animals of a particular age or weight will need. They are processed into a form that is easy to feed — either as a meal, crumbles, pellets, cubes, blocks or tubs, and there are even a few liquids. There are also protein and vitamin/mineral supplements that can be blended with grains to form complete rations.

Feed for most livestock species now comes in meal, crumbles or pelleted forms and is sold in 50-pound bags. There may be a discount if bought in ton or larger lots. Some elevators offer custom grinding and mixing for some rations and may offer delivery in bulk or re-sacking for an additional fee. They generally require a minimum purchase of a least several hundred pounds. Some may also blend medicated rations under a veterinarian’s directive, although there may be added costs due to the time needed to clean the equipment afterward.

Pellets offer the small-scale farmer convenience and quality and the all-important element of bite-after-bite consistency. Some believe that the pelleting process and the binders used to hold the pellets together (often alfalfa) might have an adverse affect, though I was taught otherwise. The pre-grinding process should make most grains more digestible, and the heating and pressure employed in the pelleting process has been said to release another 3 to 5 percent of the nutrients contained within the ration components.

Pellets exist in many sizes, from a mini-pellet formed for poultry and rabbits, to larger pellets about three-eights of an inch in length for smaller hoofed stock, to a cube of roughly the size of a thumb. The cubes are for larger animals and are formed to be durable enough to be fed on the ground. Some of the feed sold as crumbles appears to be pellets that have been crushed. We feed pelleted laying rations as they reduce waste and keep the feed in better condition in the feeders.


Feed storage need not be elaborate as long as the feed is kept dry, fresh and protected from vermin. A 55-gallon drum will safely and securely hold 350 pounds of grain or complete feed as long as it has a tight-fitting lid. It should be placed on a good pallet or riser to keep vermin at bay.

One of the simplest cost-control measures is to buy feed as needed, on a week-to-week basis. This is the best way to average out the price highs and lows that occur throughout the year.

Comparison shop, but do not be penny wise and pound foolish. The so-called generic feeds are often based on older ration formulations and are often less complex and conducive to optimum performance. Some are also computer-formulated, meaning that their blend may vary greatly from week to week depending on which components are cheapest at the time of production.

It is good practice to buy from feed companies that have ongoing programs of research and development in the species you are raising. Seek out companies with large lines of feed options and other needs for your chosen species. A nickel a bushel more for shelled corn is more than offset by the suppliers that maintain a complete line of needed products and timely assistance.

The fresher the feed, the better the level of consumption and utilization. Do not accept feed in bags showing staining and dampness, that have been badly torn and patched, or that are dusty and covered with cobwebs from a long time in the warehouse. Likewise, reject feeds that are caked, have lots of dust, are clumping, have a bad odor, show foreign materials or are discolored.

Kelly Klober lives in Missouri and specializes in raising livestock with natural methods. He is the author of several books, including Talking Chicken and Beyond the Chicken, available at the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.

Prevent herbicide drift on your organic farm

By Jill Henderson

It was a sunny, late-spring day and my husband and I were driving to Memphis on I-555, which cuts right through the rich delta flatlands of north-central Arkansas. The land here is as flat as a pancake, with few trees or houses to break up the monotony of thousands of acres of soil and sky. Suddenly, a small, yellow plane dropped out of nowhere in a hard, low turn that practically skimmed the paint off the roof of our car. My heart thudded in my chest and it was all I could do to maintain my grip on the steering wheel. Despite the fright, I couldn’t help but turn my head to watch as the pilot leveled out his wings and dipped down below the power lines.

Within seconds, an opaque cloud of aerosolized chemicals emerged from numerous nozzles affixed to both wings, dousing a swath of newly emerged soybean and cotton seedlings. I quickly rolled up the windows and hit the recirculation button on the car’s ventilation system, but there was no escaping the smell or the knowledge of what we’d just been exposed to. Before I could think much more about it, the plane pulled up hard at the far end of the field and banked around for another run. I put the pedal to the metal to try and put as much breathing room between us and the ag plane as possible.

Protect your organic farm from pesticide and herbicide drift.

As we drove on down the road, I couldn’t help but keep one eye on the sky, hoping to avoid yet another dousing. While admiring the pilot’s obvious skill and daring, I fumed over what I know are the long-term consequences of exposure to chemicals such as those he was spraying. I could clearly see that the aerosol was not just settling onto the designated strip of field but was spreading and drifting ever so slightly in all directions.

Where else were these chemicals going to land, and what are the consequences to neighboring crops and soils? What about the people that live in the towns nearby and the workers I can see in the fields across the highway? What kind of impact do these chemicals have on livestock, waterfowl, fish and the environment as a whole? And more importantly, what can we do as ecological farmers and gardeners to protect ourselves and those places and systems that are so vital to our way of life?

Anyone who cares anything about sustainable agriculture is well aware of the ongoing threat posed by the use of toxic herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup and its primary ingredient, glyphosate. For years, eco-agriculturalists have decried their toxicity and begged their neighbors to stop using them. And now, the very same farmers who have embraced chemical ag for decades have themselves been hit hard by the herbicides they tend to embrace. In fact, the horror stories and billion-dollar lawsuits surrounding herbicides such as the drift-prone dicamba are proof that even conventional farmers have their limits.

Dicamba is one of the old herbicides that is being raised from the grave of time and stitched together with other creatures of the black lagoon to create some truly frightening herbicidal characters. When aerosolized, many of these new-old chemicals are known to transgress the boundaries of targeted fields and crops through what manufacturers call “drift.” These off-target sprays are not just knocking back weeds in genetically modified crop fields; they are assassinating a wide array of non-resistant crops and plants in neighboring fields, woodlots and orchards. For farmers who didn’t buy into the program, drift is generating tens of billions of dollars in crop losses.


It’s hard to keep track of the many deleterious chemicals being dowsed on the American landscape. An authority on this issue is Linda Wells, Midwest Director of Organizing for the highly respected advocacy group Pesticide Action Network — North America (PANNA).

“The truth is that we can’t say which chemicals are the most dangerous,” Wells said. “We don’t have a regulatory system that prioritizes prevention — and so the chemicals that we know to be highly dangerous are often just the ones that have been on the market for decades and are the most-studied, like chlorpyrifos. If you had asked me three years ago, I would have said that glyphosate was one of the safer chemicals on the market, but now we are finding out that it is linked to cancer”

“One of the new herbicides to watch this year is 2,4-D. China has just approved Enlist Duo (2,4-D-resistant seeds), and so farmers will now choose between dicamba and 2,4-D-resistant crops. This herbicide is linked to both cancer and reproductive harm,” she said. “And while it has been around a long time, like dicamba, we will be seeing a massive increase in quantity used.”

The same thing happened with glyphosate. First, Monsanto said farmers would need to spray less of it than traditional herbicides. Yet during the last twenty years it has gained notoriety for being the most-used herbicide ever in terms of sheer volume.

The allure of near total control over the food and farming industry, and the incredible wealth associated with it, has the likes of Bayer-Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and Syngenta racing for the top spot and swallowing one another in the attempt to become the biggest, most-powerful seed-chemical-drug corporations in the world.

“Industrial agri-business has reigned in states like Iowa since the end of WWII,” said Denise O’Brien, a long-time organic farmer, activist, and current Chairwoman of the Board at PANNA. “The need for chemical companies to sell their products has greatly overridden the safety of the people and the earth. American farmers have been sold a bill of goods that they must feed the world. In reality, the commodity crops are grown for ethanol production and animal feed — not to feed people directly. During the time of growth in commodity crop production, agri-business has mostly gone unquestioned in their research and development.”

“Yes, there has been a lot of good research over the years, but independent scientists who question the corporations like Bayer/Monsanto are made to look like quacks, and smear campaigns are launched to ruin the reputations of these scientists. We have allowed corporations to put profits over health. Sustainable and organic farmers are working hard to change that philosophy,” she said.

“PANNA is continuing to work on pressing short-term issues impacting farmers, farmworkers, and rural communities,” said Wells. “These include specific regulations on pesticides like dicamba and chlorpyrifos as well as promoting our Equitable Food Initiative and working with our international partners to promote agroecology worldwide. We are also always pushing for a more holistic regulatory system that provides more assistance and financial aid for farmers while adequately reviewing and restricting applications of volatile and health harmful chemicals.


“Non-farmers and gardeners, not to mention ordinary civilians, are unfortunately also at risk from chemical drift,” O’Briend said. “The use of chemicals in backyard gardening is quite high, so questions need to be asked of neighboring gardeners about what they are using for pest and disease control and also fertilization.”

“There is a lot of peer pressure to maintain artificially beautiful lawns. The array of chemicals used for pest-free and disease-free yards can contaminate our water sources as well as the inside of our houses. We play, work or relax in our yards and then enter our houses with our shoes on, tracking a lot of residue into our homes,” she said. “The price of a beautiful lawn may be chronic health issues and deadly illnesses.”

“It may take a tree several years of looking unhealthy to actually understand that it is, in fact, dying,” Wells explained. “There are leaf tests that can be done by labs if drifting is suspected, but many times this takes a while for the testing to be analyzed, and the tests are costly.”

Take for example the phenomenon of severe plant stunting and sudden crop death that many home gardeners have experienced over the last five or six years. For a while no one really understood what was happening. Thanks to an intricate online network of gardeners, though, it didn’t take long to connect the crop failures to one of several common denominators: manure, compost, hay and straw.

It turns out that these common garden enrichments, which are commonly brought into urban and suburban gardens from outside sources, were contaminated with herbicides such as Roundup, Grazeon and Clean Wave, just to name a few. Herbicides like these are used on genetically modified crops, particularly as desiccants on grains, the stems of which become straw. The straw is used as animal bedding and ends up in compost, which gets imported into gardens. “There doesn’t seem to be any legal recourse at this point for this “secondary drift” contamination.

Even large-scale operations like Bader Farms in Campbell, Missouri, which lost some 30,000 fruit trees and incurred more than one-and-a-half million dollars in losses due to dicamba drift in 2016, are having a difficult time seeking legal redress for their damages. Monsanto simply argued that it wasn’t they who killed the fruit trees, but rather the farmer who misused their product.

“Budgets and lack of staff are many times what hold back the solving of the drift problem,” O’Brien said. “So far the fines are not steep enough — they are like a slap on the hand.”


Wells and O’Brien suggest that anyone concerned with drift should read PANNA’s free publication, In Case of Drift: A Toolkit for Responding to Pesticide Drift (available at

Both women recommend that all concerned farmers register with Driftwatch, which was designed by staff from the Purdue University Agricultural and Biological Engineering and Agricultural Communications departments, with input and support from Purdue University Cooperative Extension Specialists. O’Brien points out that this program is now operated by FieldWatch, Inc., a non-profit company created by Purdue in collaboration with interested agricultural stakeholder groups.

According to their website, FieldWatch’s mission is to “develop and provide easy-to-use, reliable, accurate and secure online mapping tools intended to enhance communications that promote awareness and stewardship activities between producers of specialty crops, beekeepers and pesticide applicators” O’Brien adds that twenty states currently use the FieldWatch technology and that anyone can take advantage of it.

Additionally, O’Brien suggests that talking to neighbors about drift before it becomes a legal issue is a good first step to prevention. “Some farmers are able to talk to their neighbors about cautious use and sensitivity to what it means to lose organic/sustainable certifications,” she said. “I have talked with one of my neighbors and so far we have a good understanding. The other two neighbors just wish I would go away. But the neighbor who listens knows that my return per acre is much higher than his return, and in order for me to maintain that income I cannot afford to have spray and drift knock me out of my organic certification status for several years.”

“Unfortunately for the sustainable and organic farmer, it is up to us to provide the buffer strip around our farms. That isn’t always feasible for some because of land formations and lack of enough land to allow for buffer strips,” she said. “The onus should be on all farms surrounding the organic, sustainable farm, but buffer strips are not mandatory, and farming is on such tight margins that taking land out to protect bees or someone’s crop seems like an added expense.”

O’Brien goes on to point out that the fines that pertain to drift where she lives in Iowa are just not steep enough to cause a conventional farm to take the necessary steps to prevent contamination to neighboring farms. This is among the many reasons she has been involved in the political and decision-making process for many years, and now through PANNA.

“PANNA has been and will be a plaintiff in legal suits against the EPA for failing to properly assess risks to health and the farm economy, and we are always interested in connecting with people who have been personally impacted who can represent others in these suits,”” she said. “We are also working at the state level for more restrictive policies on drift.”

“It is a sad fact that there are too few brave souls in government policy positions who are actively looking out for those who are determined to farm in an ecological and sustainable manner. But farmers, as well as the average civilian, can do simple things to help. “The average person needs to support the local farmers who are growing crops and livestock on family farm size land,” O’Brien said. “And buying local is important in supporting our small, rural businesses, too.”

“There are many small rural towns that actually survived the Walmart-ization of rural America and were able to add jobs and wages to the local economy. However, many of those local businesses cannot survive the Amazon effect, which has made it so easy to be a consumer from the convenience of our homes,” she said.

“Support food that is grown near you and know that it is safe and nutritious. This should be the motto on everyone’s refrigerator.”

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is the editor of Show Me Oz (, a blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen HerbsA Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.

How Nitrogen Works in Soil

By Jon Frank
This article first appeared in the July 2019 edition of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Corn growers hold a special place in American agriculture. Corn is our largest crop, representing millions of acres under production. And farmers are the stewards of those acres. This is a serious responsibility and a massive opportunity to improve soil health on a significant proportion of American farmland.

As every corn grower knows, nitrogen is the most important nutrient for corn production. When it comes to corn yield, all other nutrients take a back seat. Field corn is a large plant — typically ranging from 6- to 8-feet tall and sown anywhere from 26,000 to 40,000 plants per acre. Yields today average from 150 to 300 bushels per acre. When you add up these three features — tall plants, high planting density and large yields — it’s no wonder corn requires a heavy dose of nitrogen.

High nitrogen rates enable excess nitrogen to run off into surface water and from there to aquifers. When nitrogen and phosphorous get into waterways, they stimulate the growth of algae. When this algae bloom dies and decomposes, it sucks up much of the oxygen out of the water, causing fish to die — especially game fish, which require higher oxygen levels.

It is here, at the intersection of agronomy and the environment, that every farmer walks a tightrope. Farmers have a fiduciary responsibility to make a profit, and profit requires a sizable yield. At the same time, farmers have a moral obligation to carefully steward the land they farm. Fortunately, most farmers are salt-of-the-earth folks who already feel this tension and want to do what is right.

In their defense, I do want to point out that nitrates are a natural form of water droplets pick up nitrates from the atmosphere and deposit free nitrogen into the soil. Because these nitrates come in small doses — 1-2 pounds per acre — plants pick them up quickly and virtually none escapes out of the root zone.

Nitrogen: It’s Complicated

Nitrogen is a peculiar element. Its home address is the atmosphere. Thus, its natural tendency is to find a way back home. It is in every breath of air we breathe and also in every single living cell. It is ubiquitous and rather mysterious. Nitrogen is a shape-shifter, easily changing from one form to another.

There are four main forms of nitrogen:

1. Nitrate (NO3) — Nitrate provides growth energy to corn, helping the plant build its infrastructure of stalks and leaves. Nitrates combine with many other elements, including a large number of trace minerals. This form of nitrogen is subject to leaching.

2. Ammonium (NH4) — This form of nitrogen, along with its close relative, urea, provides reproductive energy to corn. Reproductive energy promotes blossoms, flowers and pod set. Ammonial forms of nitrogen are subject to volatilization — the process in which nitrogen escapes the soil to return to the atmosphere. Combining nitrogen with growth energy and nitrogen with reproductive energy can suddenly release a lot of energy. This energy can be used both as an explosive and as a fertilizer for corn. Either way, it packs a lot of energy.

3. Amino Acid / Protein — This is the form of nitrogen made by biology. It can be produced in-house by soil microbes and growing plants, or by animals creating manure or fish harvested from the ocean. When nitrogen is in the amino acid or protein form, it will not leach or volatilize.

4. Humus — When soil biology combines an amino acid type of nitrogen with plant-available minerals in a carbon matrix, you get humus. Humus is reserve soil fertility — ready-to-use plant nutrients as soon as there is a need. Just like a well-stocked pantry.

Function in Soil

Nitrogen is the primary electrolyte in soil. This means that soluble nitrogen in soil increases electrical conductivity. In the human body we also have a certain balance of electrolytes in our blood and body fluids. These electrolytes carry weak electrical charges throughout our bodies.

In soils, electrolytes do the same thing. Having an adequate supply of electrolytes corresponds very closely with plant growth; or, to say it better, an adequate supply of electrolytes corresponds with nutrient availability, which drives plant growth. Nitrogen is not the only electrolyte. Other soluble nutrients or salts also conduct electrical charges.

By way of illustration, an electrical circuit has copper wires, which conduct electricity, and resistors, which moderate the flow of electricity. Soluble nutrients in soil conduct electrical charges just like a wire in a circuit. Humus and carbons moderate the electrical flow to make it suitable for plant uptake. Both functions are needed simultaneously.

As a point of clarification, any nutrient in soil, and many aspects of soil, can be looked at through various lenses. This is like having different kinds of glasses — each pair will illuminate objects differently. We can look at soil and nutrients through the lens of physics, chemistry or biology. It’s best to use all three to get a comprehensive view. Here is an example when looking at nitrogen:

• Physics — Nitrogen is an electrolyte that carries electrical charges that assist in nutrient delivery and plant growth

• Chemistry — Nitrogen is the center core of amino acids and proteins

• Biology — Soil biology builds amino acids through the microbial system

I will switch around between these various lenses. While nature works in all three realms simultaneously, I have to write in a linear fashion.

For corn growers there are two ways to apply nitrogen for its electrolyte function. Both methods work pretty well.

• Check soil EC (electrical conductivity) with a conductivity meter

• Guestimate based off experience from trial and error.

Most corn growers are not familiar with conductivity meters. But using one regularly throughout the season brings many revelations.

When soil has an adequate supply of available nutrients, and especially nitrogen, these nutrients carry an electrical charge. With a simple hand-held meter, farmers can measure the electrical conductivity of their soil. This reading is a de facto indicator of nutrient sufficiency.

The unit of measurement is micro Siemens per centimeter (µS/cm), or milli Siemens per centimeter (mS/cm). To convert between the two is simple; divide by 1,000 or multiply by 1,000. As an example, 0.36 mS/cm = 360 µS/cm. I prefer setting conductivity meters to auto range. This will default to readings of µS/cm. If the conductivity is above 2,000, it will then display as mS/cm.

I have found excellent corn growth when soil conductivity is around 700 µS/cm.

The more nutrients applied as fertilizer, the higher the conductivity reading. The more rainfall or crop uptake, the lower the conductivity. An over-application of fertilizer results in high or excessive conductivity.

A conductivity meter is an excellent diagnostic tool to help identify hidden nutrient deficiencies. When too little nitrogen is applied, yield suffers.

How to Take a Conductivity Reading

First make sure you have a meter with a direct soil probe. The old method of mixing half soil and half distilled water is accurate but way too cumbersome.

Neal Kinsey, Using Soil Analysis to Grow Crops, from the 2005 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show. (50 minutes, 12 seconds). Listen in as agronomist Neal Kinsey, the author of Hands-On Agronomy, teaches about how to test your soils, and use that data, to increase crop yield and decrease weed pressures.

I strongly recommend a meter with a 24-inch T-handle probe. This allows a quick check without having to squat to the ground. Next select a consistent location, such as 4 inches from the corn stalk. Be sure to have a regular depth. I normally suggest between 2 and 4 inches. Now take multiple readings across your field and average them together.

While the conductivity meter is incredibly valuable, there are a number of caveats to keep in mind.

• The higher the humus level, the more moderated conductivity readings become; i.e., less up and down swings. High humus generally lowers the base desired level.

• The healthier the soil, the more biology will provide the nutrition the crop needs in place of applied fertilizers. This lowers the desired conductivity level.

• A buildup of soluble non-nutrients such as sodium, chlorides and bicarbonates can impact the conductivity reading and raise the base desired level. The same applies to high conductivity irrigation water.

• The more the corn crop draws on nitrogen from humus and amino acid nitrogen, the lower the base level needs to be.

Consistently low conductivity indicates lost yield. A side dress or fertigation of liquid nitrogen or other soluble nutrients will immediately raise soil conductivity. In contrast, a foliar spray will not appreciably raise soil conductivity. Nutrients have to be in the soil, not on plant leaves, in order to raise conductivity.

Excessively high conductivity throughout the season indicates excess fertilizer application and the potential to leach nutrients out of the root zone into the subsoil. Very high conductivity levels are especially hard on germinating seeds and can burn roots if over 2,000 µS/cm.

If all of this seems too complex and overwhelming, now you know why most farmers and consultants use the tried-and-true method of calculating pounds of nitrogen applied throughout the growing cycle. It is so much easier — but there is a problem … no one agrees.

Ask a dozen crop consultants how much nitrogen a corn crop requires and you are likely to get at least a dozen answers and quite a few comments about desired yield. The answer to this question is every corn farmer’s dilemma: too much nitrogen is expensive for the farmer and expensive for the environment; too little nitrogen and you lose yield and thus profit.

Metrics are important in the economy, in business and on your farm. The most common metric everybody talks about is yield per acre. One of the most important metrics from a financial perspective is profit per acre. While this is a useful metric and should be tracked, it is a purely “Ebenezer Scrooge” kind of a number.

It is more inciteful to ask a deeper question: how many pounds of nitrogen are required for every bushel of corn I raise? The answer to this question gets to the heart of the corn farmer’s dilemma. Better soils and farming practices require less nitrogen per bushel.

Let’s say you broadcasted 100 pounds of monoammonium phosphate (MAP), 200 pounds of ammonium sulfate and 200 pounds of urea before planting. MAP is 11-52-0. The ammonium sulfate is 21-0-0, while urea is 46-0-0. All these numbers represent percentages. Thus, the “11” in 11-52-0 indicates 11 percent. This multiplied by the total amount of applied product gives the total pounds of nitrogen applied for that fertilizer. MAP (0.11 x 100) gives 11 pounds of nitrogen, the ammonium sulfate (0.21 x 200) provides 42 pounds and the urea (0.46 x 200) adds 92 pounds. Added up, this equals 145 pounds of actual nitrogen applied.

Let’s assume this farmer had read my earlier article on humus and had sprayed last year’s residue with 5 pounds of nitrogen as part of the residue spray for a nice even number of 150 pounds of total nitrogen applied. At harvest, this farmer averaged 200 bushels per acre.

Nitrogen Efficiency (NE) = pounds of N applied per acre divided by bushels of corn harvested per acre. Thus NE = 150/200 = 0.75. This farmer can say that for every bushel of corn, he applied ¾ of a pound of nitrogen. The inverse of this equation is also interesting. 200/150 = 1.33. This means that for every pound of nitrogen applied, the farmer harvested one and a third bushels of corn.

The Soil Works Podcast, by Glen Rabenberg, recommended for readers on this page. Listen in and learn how nitrogen can become available for your plants.

Nitrogen efficiency is at the very heart of the issue. It is actually the best metric to use when looking at overall efficiency of farming corn. Why? Because biological practices promote a healthy soil. A healthy soil supports a larger and broader diversity of microbial species in the rhizosphere that surround plant roots. This microbial system supports corn plants by predigesting soil amendments and rock minerals. As these additional nutrients and pre-made amino acids, derived from the dying off microbes, are taken up by corn plants, nitrogen efficiency increases. In other words, you get more corn with less nitrogen.

By pouring on excessive nitrogen, toxic agriculture can compete and win the bragging rights to yield per acre. But this comes at a very steep environmental cost. I also question this corn’s value as a feed ingredient. It is far better to focus on biological practices and use nitrogen efficiency as your main metric. And if we keep improving the health of the soil, the health of the microbes and nitrogen efficiency we should be able to compete on another metric: profit per acre.

Here is the place I must give a disclaimer. By improving the overall environment in your soil fertility program, you earn the right to use less nitrogen. Too many people have fallen for the half-truth that says, “Use this super-duper juice and cut your nitrogen in half.” Saves you a lot of money, right? And the scary thing is it might actually work for a couple of years. But eventually the Pied Piper has to be paid.

Super-duper juice products can work really well. And they may even be sold by very well-intentioned businesses. But without a zealous focus on the fundamentals — things like levels and ratios of available minerals, energy in the soil, full-spectrum nutrition, adequate NPK or sufficient calcium — things can crash and burn. Please don’t let that be you!

6 Ways to Increase Nitrogen Efficiency

Here are six ways to improve the health of your soil, the health of the microbial population and ultimately nitrogen efficiency.

1. Use Amino Acid / Protein Forms of Nitrogen

You don’t need all your nitrogen coming in this form. Just look for places they can be added. Products to use include legume green manure / cover crops, animal manure, liquid or dry fish, or compost. Unless produced on-farm, these products will be more expensive. In the chart for nitrogen efficiency it was listed that <0.15 was possible. This is not theoretical. It has been done numerous times, multiple years in a row. And if you are wondering about yield, it was consistently 200 bushels, all organic.

My longtime partner in International Ag Lab, Wendell Owens, made this profound discovery decades ago. Not only did he prove 200 bushels could be consistently harvested organically, he also demonstrated the greatest nitrogen efficiency I have seen to date. And it is so simple. Ready? Just side-dress 50 gallons of 5-1-1 liquid fish 6 inches over from the row of corn.

This fish is as thick as molasses but not so sticky. It will require a squeeze pump with all nozzles and filters removed. Use 3/8-inch to ½-inch tubing and dilute the fish 50:50 with water to make it flowable. That’s the complete nitrogen program.

So, let’s run the numbers and calculate the nitrogen efficiency. 5-1-1 fish weighs 9.5 pounds per gallon. 50 x 9.5 = 475 pounds. 475 x 5 percent = 23.75 pounds of actual N. NE = 23.75/200 = 0.12.

Wow – a nitrogen efficiency of 0.12!

With high-priced organic corn, this program penciled out. The nitrogen in the fish is 100 percent amino acid form. Low-nitrogen fish spiked with Chilean Nitrate to get t 5 percent N will not work this way because it is not an amino acid nitrogen.

Dr. Carey Reams taught that every living cell across all species of life has the same foundational formation. He called this the Primordial Cell. The center of every cell is life, but wrapped around that life are always these five elements: nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and calcium. Reams taught that every living cell has the same foundation, and from there various other elements and compounds are added according to its genetic instructions.

It is fascinating to note that amino acids have the exact same elemental components. Life may be absent, but the composition of elements is the same. It is also intriguing to consider that 0.12 lbs. of nitrogen is far less than the actual amount of nitrogen in a bushel of corn which is at least half a pound. Where did the remaining nitrogen come from? Here is my answer: Ask the trees of the forest where they got their nitrogen for their leaves and twigs.

2. Have a Reservoir of Nitrogen as Humus

Humus is fertility in a soil savings account with full liquidity. It can easily liquidate into its fertility components, including nitrogen. But if you look at most soil tests for corn, you find humus levels at the bottom of the barrel.

It is very useful to build up this “fertility bank account” during fall, winter and spring. During summer, withdrawals can be made to keep pace with corn’s rapid growth and intense nitrogen demand.

Having a reservoir of the humus form of nitrogen adds resiliency to your farming operation. And it allows for less overall nitrogen, thus increasing nitrogen efficiency. Check your soil reports. When you see 30 and above on humus, you are in great shape. If you are 10 or below, you do not have any appreciable reserve fertility in the humus form. Therefore, it must be fully supplied via applied nitrogen.

For ultimate success in building humus, avoid GMOs and especially Bt-traited corn. You also need to eliminate herbicides. Both practices hinder the humification process.

3. Fix the Cal:Mag Ratio to 7:1

One of the rules we follow at International Ag Labs is very simple: Create an optimum environment for roots and microbes. And nowhere is that more important than fixing your soil’s calcium-to-magnesium ratio.

On the soil test we promote, the original Morgan Test, the optimum calcium-to-magnesium ratio is 7:1. This ratio directly impacts soil physics, soil chemistry and soil biology. This ratio is easy to calculate: just divide the calcium by the magnesium. Because this number is so important, we put it on every soil test.

Gary Zimmer, Gaining a Working Knowledge of Calcium, from the 2002 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show. Listen to Gary Zimmer talk about how calcium drives the flow of other minerals and nutrients through the soil and plant, and how to measure and balance calcium levels in your fields.

When the Cal:Mag ratio is below 7:1, the magnesium pushes nitrogen out of the soil and back into the atmosphere as gaseous nitrogen. This represents a huge inefficiency! The lower the ratio, the more nitrogen is expelled from the soil, and the costlier it gets to raise corn in this field.

Have you ever farmed a sticky heavy soil with excess magnesium? If so, you will find corn always does poorly. Why? Because corn is a nitrogen-loving crop. However, soil physics are dissipating nitrogen back into the atmosphere. That means it will take more nitrogen just to get the same yield.

If you own a piece of ground like this with a calcium to magnesium ratio of 4:1 or less, you need to take two actions:

  1. Fix the Cal:Mag ratio to at least 6:1; and
  2. Quite growing corn on that field until the ratio is corrected.

A better crop would be one that produces nitrogen such as soybeans.

Make sure you use high-calcium limestone as your primary amendment to raise available calcium and correct the Cal:Mag ratio. Never use Dolomite on a soil with a low Cal:Mag ratio. Calcium nitrate, gypsum and soft rock phosphate can all contribute as supplemental calcium sources, but never as the primary source to raise available calcium.

4. Increase Soil Biology

Soil biology is an incredibly broad subject. Many books have been written on it. The bottom line for you as a corn grower is very simple. A large microbial population around corn roots is actually a biological fertilizer factory.

As microbes live, reproduce and die, they leave behind the protoplasm of their dead bodies. Along with many minerals, this also contributes a steady stream of pre-made amino acids. Plants pick up these amino acids. This saves the corn plant a tremendous amount of metabolic energy by not having to construct its own amino acids. By using biology to convert soil and atmospheric nitrogen into high-efficiency amino acid nitrogen, less overall nitrogen is required.

Please read the next sentence very carefully. The key focus is not soil biology … it is on creating the optimum environment for soil biology. And the optimum environment is always an automatic result derived from the level and ratio of available minerals.

If you follow the rule to create an optimum environment for roots and microbes, you will reap the reward of creating your own fertilizer factory right beneath your corn plants. To implement this really requires a change in mindset and budget allocation.

We all know budget is a limiting factor in corn production. The key is to move money away from high-priced GMO seeds and various toxic chemical applications and into fertility inputs that optimize the environment for soil biology. The key is to always start with the foundations: major minerals, secondary minerals, trace elements and even rare earth elements. Once these foundations are in place, things like microbial inoculants, biostimulants and foliar sprays really work well.

Gary Zimmer, Minerals for Healthy Soil, from the 2017 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show. (18 minutes, 56 seconds.) Listen in as agronomist Gary Zimmer, author of The Biological Farmer and Advanced Biological Farming, teaches why he puts these four minerals at the top of his priority list.

5. Spread Out Nitrogen Applications

A single large dose of commercial nitrogen is inefficient. By splitting up the nitrogen into several smaller doses, efficiency significantly increases. The exception to this rule is the use of amino acid/protein forms of nitrogen. They always maintain their efficiency.

In my opinion, the fiscal nitrogen budget for the next crop starts as soon as the current crop is harvested. This means that the fall residue program is the first small dose of nitrogen for the next crop. Additional applications can be made via:

  • Fall applications of manure or ammonium sulfate;
  • Incorporating N-producing legume crops;
  • Spring applied dry nitrogen as a broadcast;
  • Liquid or dry nitrogen in the starter, side-dress, or topdress;
  • Liquid nitrogen applied through pivot irrigation;

The key for increased nitrogen efficiency is to use multiple N applications over the growing season. This will allow you to safely reduce 5-10 percent of overall nitrogen use.

6. Modify All Liquid N Applications

Straight liquid nitrogen such as UAN 32 percent (Urea Ammonium Nitrate) is inefficient on two counts. It is a very useful tool in a farmer’s toolshed. And it is far superior to anhydrous ammonia — a toxic, but cheap, form of nitrogen that destroys humus and kills soil biology. It just needs a little tweaking to overcome its inefficiencies.

The first inefficiency is that nitrates are prone to leaching, while ammoniacal and urea forms can volatilize. The second inefficiency is more serious. Plants can pick up straight nitrogen like UAN, but to make amino acids and proteins they first have to add carbons to the nitrogen. To do this, plants cycle N up to plant leaves and then back down to the roots while they pick up additional carbons. This is repeated until the nitrogen has enough carbons to make amino acids and proteins. This is a terrible waste of metabolic energy in plants.

To help correct both inefficiencies in liquid nitrogen, simply add carbohydrates. The easiest way is to dissolve 2-3 pounds of dextrose per acre. I prefer dextrose because it is available, ships without water weight and dissolves much quicker than table sugar. You can also use molasses or various syrups at 1-2 gallons per acre.

I categorize all carbohydrates as energized carbons. This energy feeds soil microbes and improves plant metabolism. These carbohydrates also help reduce leaching and volatilization.

Look at liquid nitrogen as an opportunity to create an amino acid precursor. Do this by adding carbohydrates, sulfur and possibly calcium to the nitrogen base. Here is a typical application per acre:

  • 10-15 gallons liquid UAN
  • 2-3 pounds dextrose dissolved in water
  • 2-3 gallons ammonium thiosulfate or 2-3 gallons liquid Calcium Nitrate

For most soils use ammonium thiosulfate. For low calcium soils the ammonium thiosulfate can be replaced with liquid calcium nitrate. Don’t use both, since the mixture has issues with stability.

I want to leave you with 5 cultural practices and actions you can take to improve nitrogen efficiency on your farm:

  • Do the fall residue program on corn residue
  • Soil test and amend to fix the Cal:Mag ratio
  • Consider cover crops or manure applications
  • Always modify liquid nitrogen
  • Know your metrics

Every business has metrics and so should every acre of corn. Here are the top three metrics I suggest for corn production.

  • Profit per acre
  • Nitrogen efficiency
  • Reserve fertility = humus

Jon Frank is the owner of International Ag Labs (, based in southern Minnesota. He is a soil consultant with more than 20 years of experience and is the founder of Grow Your Own Nutrition ( This article first appeared in the July 2019 edition of Acres U.S.A..

Herd Math for the Multi-species Grazier

By Paul Dorrance

It never fails. Like a group of fishermen telling their “big one that got away” story, where the fish gets bigger and bigger with each telling, we graziers are no different. Instead of comparing the size of the fish, we rank ourselves by asking a very loaded question: “How many cows do you run per acre?” Then we wait, hoping that the other person’s number is lower than ours, so that we can pat ourselves on the back for obviously being a better forage and livestock manager. Maybe we round our number up. Maybe to the nearest 10 head. And heaven help you if you happen to graze livestock AND fish …

Another iteration of the question is guaranteed to surface whenever I speak a group of prospective graziers: “How many acres do I need per cow?” The internet is full of “official estimates” and it is a critical question to ask as you are planning your initial grazing enterprise, but I feel like I let both experienced and future graziers down when my answer is always the same: It depends.

cows in pasture
Healthy cattle grazing healthy pastures produce healthy beef that provides benefits to the soil, economy and people’s overall health.

What Is Carrying Capacity, And Why Do I Care?

Calculating the carrying capacity of our pastures provides important information, but it is important to note that we are really just creating an estimate. There are so many variables that go into the set of assumptions, including climate, growing zone, forage species, environmental pressures, livestock selection, management strategies, etc. Absolutely use this discussion to calibrate your own eye for forage production and animal performance, or track capacity trends on your own acreage relative to weather, management changes, etc. But avoid the pitfall of comparison, even (or especially) compared to other graziers in your local area.

It is also important to define what “carrying capacity” is. Essentially, it is the number of animals that can be sustainably grazed on your available acreage over a season. The critical piece of that definition is sustainably grazed. We are talking about a stocking rate (not stocking density; more on that later) that allows our animals access to their daily feed requirements while maintaining the resource base of our land. If you graze more animals than your land can support over a season, then your resource base will begin to deteriorate in the form of decreased plant species, erosion, increased weed pressures and decreased productivity.

Additionally, carrying capacity is measured over a long period of time, either a season or a year. If you are a contract grazier who purchases weaned calves in the spring and sells them in the fall, then you would calculate your carrying capacity over the entire time you have animals on your pastures. If you have a cow-calf operation, then your calculation would typically be based on the forage growing season in your area. This isn’t a short-term stocking density calculation, although that does affect things. This is a season-long estimate of your sustainable stocking rate.

Pasture Math – The Basics

There are four basic parts that go into a carrying capacity calculation (say that three times fast!): forage production, utilization rate, animal nutrition requirements and length of grazing season. Forage production is expressed in pounds/acre, and can typically be found with a quick Google search. Remember to find estimates at least specific to your state/climatic region and your forage species, and make sure that the number is expressed as “dry matter.” For my area of south-central Ohio, with a mixed species of grasses and legumes, I use a three tons/acre figure for my calculations. Your region and species mix will result in a different number. Alternatively, you can calculate your actual production value by clipping, drying and weighing your forage — but seriously, who has time for that?

Utilization rate encapsulates the idea that the cow isn’t going to eat every single piece of grass on your place. In fact she will eat some, leave some, trample some and poop on some. The concept of “take half, leave half” is included in this number, as is selectivity and waste. This also happens to be where the tenets of rotational and management-intensive grazing (MiG) really shine, as increased stocking density concentrates animal impact, reduces selectivity and allows for plant rest periods. Typical utilization rates for a continuous grazing scenario are 30-40%, but rotating pastures even just four times per season increases your utilization rate to 40-60%. Practicing MiG principles with 8 or more paddock divisions can yield rates closer to 70-90% utilization! This is critical to maximizing our carrying capacity, and often could be the difference between being red or black on our farm’s balance sheet. That being said, especially if you are just starting out, I would recommend starting with a conservative number here to avoid over-stocking and pasture damage. It is so much better to have too much grass and not enough animals at the end of this calculation than the other way around. Let’s use 50% utilization rate for our example calculation.

Animal nutrition requirements, expressed as daily dry matter (DM) in pounds, are easily found online. While there absolutely are variations among animal personalities, the general numbers will work just fine for our purposes. It is more important to recognize the difference that life stage has on cattle requirements. For a dry cow I use 2% of her body weight, for a nursing cow I use 3%. So my typical 1,000-pound cow needs somewhere between 20 to 30 pounds of DM per day. I’ll use 25 pounds for the purposes of this conversation, in order to run a calculation for my entire herd over the course of both nursing and dry cow seasons.

Speaking of seasons, the last thing we need to consider in order to calculate carrying capacity is the growing season of our region. You obviously can’t graze something that isn’t there, and so we have to put a time limit on our cow’s grazing nutritional requirements. If you are in a climate that allows year-round grazing then by all means use 365, but for the rest of us, our average growing season can be generally be found with a quick internet search. Keep in mind that this number is forage-specific, so if you are finishing animals on warm-season annuals, then your number will be much smaller than mine grazing cool-season perennials. Southern Ohio’s growing season is usually mid-April through mid-October, or roughly 180 days.

Cow Day Math – The Formula

So, we’ve finally arrived to my favorite part — formulas! We just have to determine which question we are seeking an answer to. It’s the same formula, just run differently to answer either:

1. How many cows can I put on my X acre farm?
2. How many acres do I need to support my X cows?

If your acreage is set (option 1) then you are looking for your land’s carrying capacity, which looks like this:

Acreage Carrying Capacity = Forage Production  x  Utilization Rate  x  Available Acreage Carrying Capacity ÷ Daily Intake  x  Growing Season

Using my example numbers from above, this formula would work out like this:            

Carrying Capacity =  6000 x .50 x 70 ÷ 25 x 180  =  46.6 cows

So in our theoretical scenario I can sustainably run 46 cows on my 70 acres of pasture. Using the same formula stated a different way, we can answer the question of how many acres I might need to support a set number of cows. Why ask this question? Maybe we have a potential new market for X number of animals, or maybe our financial calculations tell us that we need to move X number of cattle in order to be profitable. How many acres would I need to rent, plant or fence in order to take advantage of a potential opportunity? Using a set number of cows (option 2), the formula changes to look like this:

Acreage Required =  Number Of Cows  x  Daily Intake  x  Growing Season ÷ Forage Production  x  Utilization Rate

Already knowing what the number should end up to be, here is what my example numbers look like:

Acreage Required = 46 x 25 x 180 ÷ 6000 x .50 =  69 acres

Buckle up, it is time for me to get on my soap-box for a minute. Taking a second look at both of these formulas you can see the multiplier effect that increased utilization rate has on the formulas, you can exponentially increase your carrying capacity. Changing only the utilization rate from 50% to 70% (the low end of the MiG range), I would increase my carrying capacity to 65 cows… a 150% increase in inventory that represents a change in net income (in my direct marketing world) of $45,600! That is the value in managing your pastures with excellence, and fully leveraging the benefits of rotational and management-intensive grazing techniques.

What About Multi-Species Operations?

Up to this point we’ve kept the conversation to just cows for simplicity, but everyone knows that sustainable and regenerative systems are anything but simple. If you are running a herd of mama cows or stocker steers, there’s absolutely no reason for you not to consider adding in a small ruminant as well. You’ll increase your forage utilization, differentiate yourself in the market, and increase your bottom line. Who doesn’t want all of that?

To take the same information already presented, but alter it for multi-species purposes, we have to remove the “cow” and replace her with an “animal unit” or AU. Don’t feel bad for her getting replaced; she is still the basis of the AU measure, where a mature cow (and her unweaned calf) represents 1 AU. In actuality, we are concerned more with her DM requirement, since that is what will change as we begin substituting different classes of livestock. So when we equate 1AU with 25 pounds of DM per day, then the first formula doesn’t change except to yield a carrying capacity as AUs instead of cows.

Still with me? Awesome! To translate our results into various combinations of animal species, the final thing we need is an equivalency chart. There are many different versions of this chart running around, but most differences are subtle and unimportant. The one I’ll provide here is adapted from the NRCS National Range and Pasture Handbook:

Class of Animal Animal Unit Equivalent
Cattle, Cow with Calf 1.00
Cattle, Bull 1.40
Cattle, Weaned Calf 0.60
Cattle, Yearling 0.70
Cattle, 2 Year Old 0.90
Bison, Cow 1.00
Bison, Bull 1.50
Sheep, Ewe with Lamb 0.20
Sheep, Ram 0.25
Sheep, Weaned Lamb 0.12
Goat, Mature 0.15
Goat, Weaned Kid 0.10
Jackrabbit 0.02
Prairie Dog 0.004

I went ahead and included the jackrabbit and prairie dog data, since pastured rabbits are the next big thing in food and you just never know what is next after that. In case anyone is wondering, according to my math I can sustainably graze 2,330 rabbits on my 70 acres!

Silly example or not, that is how you take the final step in adapting our formulas for multi-species use. Run the numbers, then divide the results (now AUs) by the equivalent number from the chart:

Carrying Capacity  = 46.6 ÷ 0.02  =  2,330 rabbits

More than likely, you will want to add enterprises to your existing herd instead of replace all your cows with rabbits. In this case, just subtract the desired number of cattle AUs from the total carrying capacity, then divide the remaining capacity by whatever enterprise you are considering adding.

I hope this article has helped shed some light on the concept of carrying capacity, factors that influence it and how to adapt the formulas for multiple species. Additionally, I can’t let you go without reiterating the value of rotational and management-intensive grazing methods, whether you are grazing cows or rabbits. Now, when the inevitable question gets asked about how many cows you run per acre, your answer can be just like mine: It depends.

About Paul Dorrance

Paul Dorrance owns and operates a pasture-based livestock operation in Ohio, marketing 100 percent grass-fed beef and lamb, as well as pastured non-GMO pork, poultry and eggs directly to consumers. Previously an active duty Air Force officer, Paul still serves as a pilot in the Air Force Reserves.

Learn more about Paul by listening to his Tractor Time podcast interview here!