ASK Jeff: The Rodale Institute’s farm manager, Jeff Moyer, answers your hardcore farming questions

Do I need to apply compost through my planter like starter fertilizer?

Posted May 11, 2007

What Jeff brings to the table

Jeff Moyer, who’s been the farm manager here at the 333-acre Rodale Institute research farm for more than a quarter of a century, receives lots of mail from farmers just like you asking for advice. Jeff’s hands-in-the-dirt experience over the past 26 years has run the gamut from refining the farm's cover cropping and crop rotation systems (including managing 270 acres in a rotation of corn, small grains, hay, and edible soy beans for a Japanese market) to overseeing The Rodale Institue Farming Systems Trial®, the world’s longest running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional agriculture. We thought it would be fun and informative to share some of these farmer-to-farmer exchanges, and Jeff’s practical wisdom, with our readers … and we’ll be doing it on a regular basis.

Got a question of your own? Click here to send it to Jeff.

Dear Jeff,

Previous to this past season, I worked hard getting some starter fertilizer (300 pounds/acre bonemeal at 6.5-18-0) through the planter with my corn and soybeans. This past year, due to circumstances, I could only broadcast poultry compost (either 1 ton or 1/2 ton per acre at 5-3-2). I didn't really see much difference in yield.

As conventional farmers we were long taught to apply at least some of our starter fertilizer through the planter (especially important for P). Does this assumption still hold for an organic regime? You might imagine that it would be even more important for compost, since the nutrients are not so readily available, but who really knows? Do you have any actual data showing how much yield loss we might expect by broadcasting only?

As you might guess, I will need the answer quite soon if I am to change my plans.

Richard Glenister
New York


Dear Richard,

Thanks for the very good questions on fertilizer and the differences between conventional programs and organic strategies. The most important conceptual difference is that in a conventional system you tend to have a "put and take" philosophy. You put what the plant needs for this season into the soil and take out your harvest at the end. Organic systems tend to be very different. In these systems, we look at building up basic soil fertility so that the soil is growing the plant (not the highly soluble fertilizers). In conventional systems with corn, many growers will plant their seed as early as possible. In these colder soils, phosphorus can be an issue in getting good seedling vigor, so starter fertilizers show a quick response.

Generally speaking, organic farmers, using untreated seed, will plant later in the planting window when the soil is a few degrees warmer. These warmer soil temperatures often negate the benefits of conventional starter fertilizers. This would be true for the compost as well.

Your goal should always be able to maintain good soil fertility by using a sound crop rotation, a cover crop program based on legumes for nitrogen fixation and compost applications for micro-nutrients and carbon. I also suggest you sample the soil in your fields once a year or at least every other year to track the impact of your soil-building program.

If you have access to compost, I suggest you apply it to your fields somewhere in the rotation where it can be incorporated with ease. We put ours into the rotation in late summer right before we till for wheat. This means our fields get compost about once every four years. We put it on at about 8 to 10 wet tons per acre. Most of our nitrogen comes from legumes, and we’ll buy potassium in the form of mined potassium sulfate if we need it.

Hope this helps,