Utilizing Compost to Boost Crop Productivity

Utilizing Compost to Boost Crop Productivity

Tractor front loaders make turning large amounts of compost possible for farmers. Photo by Turkey Hill Farm.

International Compost Awareness Week is May 6-12 this year. This educational initiative, promoted by the Composting Council Research and Education Foundation, was started in Canada in 1995, and has continued to grow in popularity as communities, businesses, municipalities, schools, and organizations celebrate the benefits of compost and composting. But perhaps the most important people involved in composting are the farmers who produce compost to grow the food we eat.

Compost can be produced and used on the farm as a valuable soil amendment, capable of providing not only a source of slow-release nutrients for crops, but also a way to improve soil structure, increase soil moisture-holding capacity, promote biological activity to enhance plant nutrient availability, suppress weeds, and even help combat some plant diseases.

Farmers can source compostable materials from many businesses, including fish waste from seafood markets. Photo by Turkey Hill Farm.

Although creating on-farm compost can take a lot of time and energy, it can be worth a farmer’s effort, if it keeps soil fertility costs down. One way many farmers produce enough compost to meet their fertility needs is to collect waste products generated by their surrounding community. If a system for collection and transportation can be developed, and non-compostable waste can be excluded, farmers can use waste from grocery stores, restaurants, food processing facilities, breweries, seafood markets, horse stables, dairy operations, and chipped trees collected by power line crews as they clear encroaching tree canopies.

Once a farmer has secured sources for compostable materials, next comes the step of mixing the materials to generate heat, up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately for the farmer, microorganisms do most of the work in the decomposition process. But it is the farmer’s responsibility to provide enough –  and the proper balance of – air, moisture, and nitrogen and carbon-rich food to fuel the aerobic microbial oxidation process. The volume needed to generate favorable composting conditions can be anywhere from about one cubic yard up to 40 cubic yards, depending on these factors.

This is why farmers, who depend on compost to supply a majority of their crops’ nutrient needs, often rely on a dump trailer and tractor front-end loader to move compost ingredients, turn compost piles, and spread the finished product on row beds. With experience, farmers learn the correct ratio of ingredients, proper volume and porosity of their piles, when temperatures plateau and piles need to be turned, and when the compost is finished and ready for use.

Spreading compost on crop rows provides a source of nutrients, improves soil structure, increases soil organic matter content, suppresses weeds, and provides many other benefits. Photo by Turkey Hill Farm.

High quality finished compost typically has an organic matter content of about 50 percent, a carbon to nitrogen ratio of around 20:1, near neutral pH, low soluble salts, and is free of weed seeds and plant phytotoxins. Compost nutrient content by volume is relatively low, and availability can vary greatly depending on soil and climatic conditions, so it is important for the farmer to monitor crop nutrient requirements and use additional amendments as needed. But when compost is used as a long-term strategy for improving soil health and building soil organic matter, its benefits can be appreciated for generations.

Interested in learning more about compost? Leon County Extension is hosting a “Got Compost?” workshop May 8, 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. EST, in celebration of International Compost Awareness Week. This workshop is tailored more for home-composters, but will also touch upon ways to up-scale compost production and will discuss small farm compost production strategies. To find out more and to register, visit the Leon County Extension Eventbrite Page.

Additionally, the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance – a non-profit organization of over 50 farmers within a 100-mile radius of Tallahassee – is promoting International Compost Awareness Week on its website and Facebook page. If you utilize compost on your farm, upload a short compost video to the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance Facebook Page for a chance to win a $50 gift certificate to the Red Hills Online Market.


Now is the Time to Soil Test Crop Fields

Now is the Time to Soil Test Crop Fields

Your peanut fields are harvested and you’re probably waiting for those last few bolls to bust open to finish cotton harvest. After that, it’s time to soil test!

Fertilizer expenses are 46% of your total operational costs in corn in the South. That number is 24% for cotton, and 15% for peanuts. Fertilizer is the single greatest operational cost for corn and cotton in the South, so it’s worth soil testing to manage your soil fertility carefully.

If you had nematode problems this year, you should consider submitting samples for nematode analysis as well. If you wait until winter or early spring, nematode populations will decline, and won’t provide an accurate estimation of populations in your fields. More information on nematode sampling is at this link:  Sampling Instructions for Nematode Assays.  

[important]Not sure what crop you’ll plant next year? You can still soil test. If you change your mind about crops, you can call the lab and they’ll re-run the recommendations using your soil test values for whatever crop you decide to plant next year. There is nothing to be gained in waiting to soil sample. You can download the UF/IFAS soil test form at this link: Commercial Producer Soil Test Form[/important]

When to zone your fields

Not all fields are uniform. If you have a non-uniform field, consider zoning it. Zoning only pays when there is significant variability in your field. Wet areas, low-yielding areas, sandy parts of the field are all factors when you’re considering zoning your field. If you pay a contractor to grid sample your field, take the time to pencil in areas that you feel should perform better. Many contractors or fertilizer suppliers will be able to spread fertilizer for you and help you design a zoned field, if needed. When they zone, you should be at the table to make sure the zones make sense. No one knows your fields like you do.

Field A is uniform and should not be zoned. Field B is highly variable. It makes sense to consider zoning Field B. Be at the table when zones are created to make sure the zones make sense.

Some contractors and fertilizer suppliers have air-boom applicators they can use on your fields.  These increase uniformity and limit overlap, and can even spread cover crop seed as well. Often, these come with GPS guidance and section control. You may find that it pays to have them spread your fertilizer for you, saving you time and diesel.

An air-boom applicator available for hire can spread fertilizer and cover crop seed, and may save you time and diesel. An air boom applicator limits overlap and increases uniformity.

Don’t just focus on lime & macronutrients

Plants need more than just the macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium (NPK). When is the last time your soil tested for sulfur?

Don’t ignore the secondary or the micronutrients. When applying micronutrients, it is recommended to use a liquid formulation, because the spread is more uniform than if they are applied as a granular fertilizer. For example, if you apply two lbs./acre of boron as a granular, you’ll end up with one granule here and another way over there, which won’t help your crop much. A liquid application ensures more uniform application of the micronutrients.

For more information, please read the following UF/IFAS publications:


Winter Pastures Looking Yellow?  It Could be a Sulfur Deficiency

Winter Pastures Looking Yellow? It Could be a Sulfur Deficiency

Cheryl Mackowiak, UF/IFAS NFREC Soils Specialist

As producers near the end of cover crop and cool-season forage planting in the Southeastern U.S., it is time to focus on fertilization.  Depending upon your state, extension professionals have establish guidelines for how much and when to apply nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) fertilizers to meet crop demands. For example, annual ryegrass and small grains (i.e., wheat, oat, rye, triticale) planted on tilled land often benefit from split N rates such as 30 lbs N/acre at or near planting and another 40 to 50 lbs N/acre after establishment. Overseeded pastures may get by with an initial 30 lbs N/acre, but often 50 lbs N/acre is applied once the cool-season grass has emerged with another 50 lbs N/ac applied after repeated grazing to help support regrowth in spring, when winter forage is the most productive. In comparison, P and K applications are based upon soil sampling and your soil report recommendations. These nutrients are typically applied only once in the fall (if needed), and combined with your first N application.

Frequently, a call comes in that a farmer’s winter grass forage does not seem to be responding to N fertilizer. They have met or exceeded the N fertilizer recommendations and yet, the plants remain faded looking and stunted. The first question I ask: “How much sulfur (S) was applied?” Sulfur deficiency can often be mistaken for N deficiency in both, summer and winter grasses. We typically see more problems in winter grasses, because of where the grasses are planted and the previous season land-use. If none of your N fertilizer was applied as ammonium sulfate, or your K fertilizer did not contain potassium sulfate, SolPoMag, or a similar sulfate fertilizer, your grass may be suffering from S deficiency. The good news is that many grass species respond quickly to S fertilization, and an application rate as low as 10 lbs S/acre is often all that is required for recovery. An application of 10 to 20 lbs S/acre will hardly be noticed in your fertilizer bill.

Fig. 1. Nitrogen deficiency due to a faulty fertilizer applicator. Areas of stunted growth are relatively large and plants in the deficient areas appear more uniform than under S deficiency. Credit: Cheryl Mackowiak

Fig. 2. Mechanically induced N deficiency (strips of ample growth alternating with growth suppression). Credit: Cheryl Mackowiak

Both, N and S nutrient deficiencies will result in stunted growth, and a yellow color. However, if it is N deficiency, it is more typical that the field canopy will appear uniformly yellow over large areas, or you will observe straight line streaks where the fertilizer truck may have overlapped with the previous pass (Figs. 1 and 2). Upon closer inspection, the lower (older) leaves of N deficient plants will be lighter green or even yellow (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Close-up of N deficiency, with older (lower) leaves lighter or sometimes yellow, compared to more recently emerged leaves. Credit: Cheryl Mackowiak

With Sulfur (S) deficiency, the field will have a splotchy or mottled appearance, and sometimes the affected plants are intermixed with healthy looking plants (Fig. 4). Upon closer inspection, the newer leaves on individual plants may be lighter green than the older, or more basal leaves (Fig. 5).

Fig. 4. A small grains study site displaying classic S deficiency symptoms. Credit: Cheryl Mackowiak

Fig. 5. Individually affected plants will appear uniformly lighter green, or younger leaves may be lighter colored than older leaves. A visually healthy plant may grow adjacent to an impacted plant. Credit: Cheryl Mackowiak

Conditions that may lead to S deficiencies include, the lack of at least 10 lbs S, in sulfate form, as part of your fertilizer blend (elemental S will not provide a quick enough response), planting on row crop land, or planting on new land that had been forest or pine plantation (often locations for wildlife food plots). Well-managed pastures are less likely to suffer from S deficiencies, since livestock excreta contributes S to the soil. Not all labs analyze for soil S, so the safe bet is to include a small amount (10 to 20 lbs S/acre) of sulfate S in your fertilizer blend. Check the fertilizer label if you purchase bags, or make the request when you hire custom fertilizer spreading. If you have to apply the S fertilizer yourself (small areas), you can purchase SulPoMag, potassium sulfate, calcium sulfate (i.e., gypsum), or magnesium sulfate at many feed and seed stores. Remember, cool-season legumes (clovers, vetch, peas, etc) benefit from 20 lbs S/acre fertilization, as well!

For more information related to this subject, use the following UF/IFAS publication links:

Tillage and Overseeding Pastures for Winter Forage Production in North Florida

Fertilizing and Liming Forage Crops

Soil Test Submission Form

Soil Testing for Plant-Available Nutrients—What Is It and Why Do We Use It?

Soil and Plant Tissue Testing

Has Excess Rain Affected your Cotton Fertility Program?

Has Excess Rain Affected your Cotton Fertility Program?

Michael J. Mulvaney, UF/IFAS Soil Specialist & Glen Harris, UGA Soil Specialist

If you’re like me, you’re watching this rain and wondering where your nutrients are in the soil profile.  The Jay FAWN station has recorded almost 20″ of rain so far in June.  Last week we talked about peanut gypsum application, but this week we’d like to talk about cotton.

Nitrogen (N)

If you applied at-plant N, you might want to re-apply some of it, if you’ve had leaching rainfall events this season.  For BMP purposes, you should document the amount of rainfall to show that leaching likely occurred on your soils.  If you only apply one application at first square, you likely haven’t applied any N yet this season – so there’s still time for you.

To see if you are N deficient, there are commercial cotton petiole tests available from public and private labs in the Southeast. See http://aesl.ces.uga.edu/FeeSchedule/Complete.pdf for more information.  You can also sample representative areas for the youngest fully mature leaf (without petiole).  The leaf tissue N should be in the range of 3.5 to 4.5% N for sufficiency.

Potassium (K)

Those of you on deep sand or soils with no subsoil clay within the top 20 inches should think about K as well.  Modern cotton cultivars have higher K demand than N demand, and K is susceptible to leaching, particularly on very sandy soils.  If you are on deep, sandy soils, you probably already know that you should split your K applications at planting and topdress. Cotton K demand can exceed 3 lbs K2O per acre per day during flowering. Peak K demand comes during flowering and boll set, so K deficiency during this period can lead to boll shed, reduced lint quality, and/or reduced yield.

Source: O. Abaye. 2009. Potassium Fertilization of Cotton. Virginia Cooperative Extension Publication 418-025

K deficiency in cotton shows up as bronzing of leaves and is affiliated with increased Stemphylium disease, as seen below.

Potassium deficiency in cotton appears as bronzing of the leaves. Photo: M. Mulvaney

Oftentimes, we have sufficient soil K according to soil test results, but drought conditions leads to a lack of K in soil water and the plant can’t take it up.  There is still plenty of time for that to happen.  But so far this year, it’s likely to be the opposite problem on deep, sandy soils: K has leached from the rooting zone after you’ve taken your soil samples.

Boron (B)

Boron also leaches easily from sandy soils.  If you are concerned about boron, and you are making a fungicide application at first bloom for Target Spot control, you can consider adding 0.3-0.5 lbs B as a tank mix.  Boron deficiency in cotton is more evident in younger leaf tissue and shows up as stunted or disfigured terminal growing points and shorter, thicker petioles with “coon tailing” visible on the petioles.

Boron deficiency in cotton with “coon tailing” visible on the petioles. Photo credit: Darrin Dodds & Bobby Golden, Mississippi State University

For more information related to this subject, use the following publication link:

Cotton Cultural Practices and Fertility Management


BMAPs, BMPs and the New Florida Water Bill

BMAPs, BMPs and the New Florida Water Bill

Nitrates are the primary pollutant being addressed by the Jackson Blue Spring/Merritt’s Mill Pond BMAP.  This BMAP identifies nitrogen fertilizer used in agriculture as the primary source of nitrates in the Jackson Blue Springs Basin. Photo credit: Doug Mayo

The 2016 Florida Water Bill authorized regulations that will affect everyone in Florida.  Farmers and ranchers have implemented Best Management Practices (BMPs) that maintain or improve water quality on their lands for many years on a voluntary basis. But, for those who farm within an area with a Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP), things have changed and BMP implementation is now required. By keeping good records, farmers can show that they are in compliance with regulations, and doing their part to protect Florida’s waters.

What is a BMAP?

A BMAP is a management plan developed for a waterbody (spring, river, lake, or estuary) that does not meet the water quality standards set by the state.  Once a waterbody is listed as impaired by one or more pollutants (nutrients, bacteria, or metals such as mercury) the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) sets a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for each pollutant. The TMDL is the maximum amount of a given pollutant allowed in the waterbody while still meeting water quality standards.

The goal of the BMAP is to reduce the pollutant to meet the TMDL. Targets are set at 20 years, and progress towards those targets are assessed every five years. BMAPs are road-maps with a list of projects and management action items to reach the TMDL, and they are developed by FDEP with stakeholder input.

BMAPs in the Panhandle

Here in the Panhandle, we currently have three BMAPS.  They are the Bayou Chico BMAP in Escambia County, the Wakulla Springs BMAP in Wakulla County, and the Jackson Blue/Merritt’s Mill Pond BMAP in Jackson County. All three are impaired for different reasons.

  • Bayou ChicoThis waterbody discharges into Pensacola Bay and is polluted by fecal coliform bacteria. The BMAP addresses ways to reduce coliforms from humans and pets, which includes sewer expansion projects, stormwater runoff management, septic tank inspections, pet waste ordinances and a Clean Marina and Boatyard program.
  • Wakulla Springs: Nitrate from human waste is the main pollutant to Wakulla Springs, and Tallahassee’s wastewater treatment facility and the city’s Southeast Sprayfield were identified as the main sources. Both sites were upgraded, greatly reducing nitrate contributions to the spring basin, and now the BMAP is focused on addressing septic systems.
  • Jackson Blue/Merritt’s Mill Pond: Nitrate is also the primary pollutant to the Jackson Blue/Merritt’s Mill Pond Basin, but nitrogen fertilizer from agriculture was identified as the main source. This BMAP focuses on farmers implementing Best Management Practices (BMPs), land acquisition by the Northwest Florida Water Management District (NWFWMD), as well as septic systems, recognizing their nitrogen contribution to Merritt’s Mill Pond.

It’s important to remember that a BMAP includes the entire land area that contributes water to a given waterbody. For example, the area that contributes water to Jackson Blue Springs and Merritt’s Mill Pond (either from surface waters or groundwater flow) is about 154 square miles.

Does the new Water Bill change things for agriculture?

The short answer is yes. The 2016 Water Bill modified existing Florida Statutes on protecting water quality and quantity, and added new sections to existing statutes.

One major change affecting agriculture is that management strategies within a BMAP, including BMPs and water quality monitoring, are now enforceable. A producer within a BMAP must show they are either implementing BMPs adopted by the Florida Department of Consumer Services (FDACS), or monitoring water quality as directed by FDEP or a water management district, at their own expense. Simply enrolling land in the FDACS BMP Program is not enough to be compliant.

It is extremely important for producers to maintain accurate records to show that they are implementing BMPs. Local FDACS field staff are there to help producers enroll in BMPs, and the BMP manuals developed by FDACS describe approved management practices and list the required records to keep. The crop and livestock specific manuals are available through the following FDACS Website:

Agricultural Best Management Practices

BMPs and Cost-share Funds

BMPs are a way to maintain or improve water quality, and many help improve soil conditions. Although BMPs are designed to be technically feasible and economically viable, FDACS recognizes that implementing BMPs can be expensive for farmers and ranchers, and some practices may not be financially viable for all producers. It’s important for producers to work with their local FDACS field technician to determine which BMP practices are feasible on their operation.

The use of cover crops is a Best Management Practice (BMP). In this photo the cereal grain triticale is being used as a winter cover crop in Gadsden County ahead of warm season row crops. Photo by Andrea Albertin

Agriculture BMPs are voluntary on land not included in BMAPs, but are required in BMAP areas. By implementing BMPs and maintaining good records, producers can show that they are in compliance with FDEP, and more importantly, are doing their part to meet water quality standards to protect Florida’s waters.

FDACS, the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the water management districts offer cost-share funds to defer the cost of implementing BMPs. For more information on available cost-shares and funding deadlines, contact your local FDACS field staff, NRCS office and Water Management District. In the Panhandle, contact information can be found at:


2017 Panhandle Row Crop Short Course Presentations and Highlights

2017 Panhandle Row Crop Short Course Presentations and Highlights

The annual Panhandle Row Crop Short Course was hosted by Jackson County Extension on Thursday, March 2, 2017.  Extension Specialists from Florida, Georgia, and Alabama spoke to attendees providing production recommendations and various management tips for row crops farmers. Continuing education units (CEUs) were offered at the event for those with a restricted use pesticide license (Florida, Georgia and Alabama), as well as for Certified Crop Advisors. A total of 119 people turned our for this year’s event, that number is comprised of attendees from nine Florida counties, seven Georgia counties, and four Alabama counties. The event featured nine presentations and a trade show of 27 companies and organizations that provide products and services to the industry.

The focus of the Short Course was primarily on peanut and cotton production, but did overlap other crops regarding fertility, pest management and the market outlook. The speakers provided an update from the Florida Peanut Producers Association, information regarding peanut varieties, herbicides, replant decisions, pest management, market outlook, and early season fertility. Many of the people who attended asked about copies of the presentations. The following recap provides a short summary of what was discussed, as well as direct links to download PDF (printable) versions of the presentations given at the event.

Industry Update

Ken Barton, Executive Director of the Florida Peanut Producers Association (FPPA) provided an update on the current status of the peanut industry, along with the goals of the FPPA.

Barton Florida Peanut Producers Update


Managing Your Favorite Peanut Variety

Dr. Barry Tillman, UF/IFAS Peanut Breeder provided variety data from trials across several states (Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina) demonstrating trends in performance. Hypothetical production situations were used to illustrate management decisions based on factors such as planting date, disease pressure, and risk.

      Tillman Managing Your Favorite Peanut Variety


Generic Herbicides

Dr. Ramon Leon, UF/IFAS Weed Specialist discussed the use of generic herbicides. It is important to always be aware of the amount of active ingredient listed for a product and its formulation, and that the success or failure of a herbicide can be attributed to several causes.

      Leon Generic Herbicides


Making Replant Decisions for Cotton and Peanut

Dr. David Wright, UF/IFAS Agronomist discussed how to determine if replanting a field is beneficial. How much of a stand is adequate and when is replanting necessary? These questions among others are outlined and answered regarding peanut and cotton.

     Wright Making Replant Decisions for Cotton and Peanut


2,4-D and Dicamba Update (as of 3/2/17)

Dr. Ramon Leon, UF/IFAS Weed Specialist discussed the new herbicide technologies available for use in 2017. Enlist Duo, Engenia, FeXapan, and XtendiMax all lack Florida registration as of March 2, 2017 (stay tuned for future updates). Therefore, growers will be required to follow both the EPA label and Florida Organ-Auxin Rule for these products. When the two have conflicting information (i.e. buffer distance between crops, wind speed, etc.), whichever is more restrictive should be used. He outlined how several labels stand as of 3/2/17, however it is IMPORTANT that this presentation not be substituted for the product labels. Always look up the most current label, as they are in a state of transition and are still changing.

     Leon 2,4-D Dicamba Crops Update 2017


Crop Disease Management

Dr. Nicholas Dufault, UF/IFAS Crop Pathologist focused his talk on the performance of peanut fungicides. It is important to know which pathogen you are treating, and confidently select an effective product for its control.

     Dufault Crop Disease Management


2017 Crop Market Outlook

Dr. Adam Rabinowitz, UGA Economist provided a detailed analysis of the crop commodity markets. He covered several commodities, their utilization within the market, inputs, and the potential use of the UGA Crop Comparison Tool. Understanding what factors drive the market and the projected revenues/costs associated with growing different crops will allow producers to make informed decisions this year.

     Rabinowitz Crop Market Outlook


Cotton Insect Management and Control for 2017

Dr. Ron Smith, Auburn Entomologist discussed the seasonal occurrence of pests that affect cotton and their control measures. With new and emerging pests each year, accurate pest identification prior to pesticide applications is key for attaining adequate insect control.

     Smith Cotton Insect Management and Control for 2017


Early Season Fertility

Dr. Michael Mulvaney, UF/IFAS Cropping Systems Specialist elaborated on early season fertility in corn, cotton, and peanut. Recognizing the nutritional need of a crop, and being able to identify symptoms of deficiency are key in maintaining a healthy field.

     Mulvaney Early Season Fertility


Sponsors and Trade Show Exhibitors


These 27 companies and organizations that provide products and services to crop farmers in the region took part in the Trade Show.

Upcoming Events

There are a number of upcoming crop educational events that are taking place largely in the Florida Panhandle. Watch the newsletter for promotional materials regarding these events, or call the Extension office for the listed county for more information.