We are looking into the possibility of raising organic beef
here in northern Idaho. We have 130 acres available, 20 in
pasture, and the rest in hay. We need advice on how to fertilize
the land for best productivity while preparing it for organic
certification down the road. We have a lot of Rodale books
on organic gardening and, back in the ’80s, we raised
organic produce for the local market in Spokane, Washington.
However, we don't know where to turn to now for sound advice
about the most economical way to get this run-down farm into
good shape. I see by your website that you use exclusively
your own compost on the farm there; that is part of our goal
We are planning to do the composting using municipal wastes,
along with our own manure and from nearby horse ranches, etc.,
in the long run, but right now we are looking for a quicker
"fix" as to what we can apply to the poor pasture
and hay ground to get them more productive. They have been
neglected for many years. The hay has had many years of commercial
fertilizer to it; the pasture none (except manure from the
cattle). Both are pretty sparse with actual grass, and high
Perhaps you can refer us to some organic fertilizer resources
as well as somewhere we might get some consultation.
Thank you for your help!
Luana and Wilbur
Thanks for the email and your interest in The Rodale Institute®.
First I’ll start by saying I have no experience with
your specific growing conditions in northern Idaho; my experience
has dealt mostly with East Coast agriculture. That said, your
situation is one I hear often from across the country as more
and more people are taking charge of land that has been overworked
in the past. The farm that houses The Rodale Institute Farm
was much like yours in terms of condition when we took it
over in 1971, but within a few years it was brought back to
life. I have no doubt that your land will respond the same
with some hard work and some good soil building techniques.
My first suggestion is to get a copy of the book Building
Soils for Better Crops by Fred Magdoff (Sustainable Agriculture
Network, 2000). This book will help guide you as you set out
to improve your land.
There are organic sources for any and all nutrients you’ll
need to grow hay and pasture. Keep in mind that these materials
generally cost more than their chemical counterparts and may
be more difficult to find. The best and cheapest materials
are those that are biologically based and right there on the
farm. Growing legume hay, for example, will produce all the
nitrogen you need by fixing it from the air.
Start your process by getting a good soil test done on each
of the field areas you’ll be managing. While the chemical
analysis only tells you part of the story of what is going
on in the soil, it is a great place to start. You can assume
the biological activity is low and the overall health is poor,
but that will change. First get the phosphorous (P) and potassium
(K) balanced in the soil, do some tillage to remove the existing
weed pressure, and get a new crop of hay and/or pasture grass
You don’t need to do all the areas at once—work
into a rotation and don’t open up more land than is
necessary to prevent erosion. Your county extension agents
are a wealth of knowledge. While they probably won’t
know much about organic practices, they should have a solid
basic understanding about timing of planting, crop variety
suggestions, tillage, irrigation tips, and soil test interpretation.
Once you get the hay established, mowing and bailing will
control the weeds.
There should be one or more organic certification organizations
working in your area. Oregon Tilth (www.tilth.org)
does for sure. Check with them about local fertilizer suppliers.
Sometimes regional buying clubs are set up among organic farmers
to purchase and ship in fertilizer at a substantial savings.
It will be to your advantage to start a relationship with
whomever you want to certify your land since they will be
very useful. They may also be able to supply you with a list
of member farmers in your area who can also offer advice.
Once you know what you need in terms of fertilizers, you might
want to contact Fertrell at (717) 367-1566 and ask for Dave
Mattocks. If he can’t help you, he will know who can.
And last but not least, visit The New Farm online for more
information and a farmer-to-farmer discussion area--Talk--
to ask your questions to thousands of other farmers and experts.
I know I didn’t answer all of your questions specifically
because at this point they are just a little too general.
If you can focus in on specific points, I’ll sure try
to get the information you need out to you.
Good Luck with your operation.
Have some questions to Ask Jeff? E-mail
him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.