Among the first signs of spring on our farm are garden seed catalogs in the mailbox, baby calves on the ground, conversations about planting corn and track meets on the calendar. Themes of planning and preparation are discussed at our kitchen table, whether related to the backyard vegetable garden, the farm, or our kids competing as runners. 

Like my distance runner son, who has a strategy long before track season even begins, I have a plan for my garden before the arrival of the growing season. Selecting seeds and plants is fun, but keeping the soil healthy is a worthy investment so the garden can grow and produce well. In early spring, we’ll fertilize by adding composted manure from our cattle or chickens.

Composting manure ensures that it won’t burn young plants. Since we raise cattle, we can compost their waste with straw and grass hay that spilled on the ground or was used for bedding. The manure provides the nitrogen source, while the straw and hay lend the carbon source that aids decomposition. The results are similar if we apply manure to the garden in the fall or till the composted manure into the soil a month before planting. Manure from cattle in the garden provides good organic matter and approximately 3% nitrogen, 2% phosphorus and 1% potassium. Some plants, like tomatoes, will also receive extra plant food, like Miracle-Gro.

While there’s no official starting time for planting a garden, the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is helpful. Some garden plants thrive in cooler weather and should be planted earlier in the season, while others do best to wait for more warmth. We aren’t aiming for perfection with our garden, but we do hope to teach our kids that it is both fun and rewarding to grow food and enjoy the goodness of fresh garden vegetables. 

However, out on the rest of the farm, the timing is urgent. Taking care of the soil and planting our crops is vital to caring for our family economically in a healthy, sustainable environment. Seed for corn and soybeans on the farm was ordered before Christmas – well before the garden catalogs hit the mailbox. Our fields were grid sampled in the fall to inform us of existing nutrient levels. From that information, fertilizer is applied by prescription in late fall or early spring according to weather conditions and soil properties. 

Sometimes the nutrient source for fertilizer is manure-based, like the backyard garden. More often, the fertilizers we use are synthetic in dry, liquid, or gaseous form, which allows us to be more precise in our application. Either way, the soil nutrient level is maintained to provide for a good harvest. On our farm, using a no-till system, crop rotation, and cover crops also help our soil stay in place and conserve moisture while improving soil health and soil nutrients.

Our growing season will last much longer than my sons’ spring track season, but we’re hoping in the same way that all the planning and preparations will yield great results in the long run. Additional information and topics on farm and garden fertilizers can be found at