Getting started with soil improvement: An overview for beginners – Part 2

New farmers should have a clear understanding of fertilizers and soil amendments, both conventional and organic.

Beginning farmers may start out with low fertility soils where large additions of nutrients are necessary for acceptable crop performance. Even if the soils are great, a fertility program is essential to keep them that way. There are many options available to provide plant nutrients. The following summary is not meant to be exhaustive, but provides an overview.

Conventional fertilizers

“Conventional” fertilizers are concentrated, manufactured chemical products. They are highly soluble in soil water solutions and readily available for plant uptake. These fertilizers are widely available and can be blended to meet specific crop nutrient requirements.


  • Convenience
  • Generally higher concentration of nutrients
  • Lower cost per unit of available nutrient
  • “Quick release”
  • Standardized nutrient content
  • Precision of application
  • Ability to “blend” precision mixtures of nutrients and micronutrients
  • Multiple formulations (dry granular, liquid, foliar)


  • No organic matter included
  • High salt concentration
  • Potentially imbalanced
  • Potential damage to soil organisms
  • Price fluctuates based on cost of energy
  • Environmental hazard potential if misused
  • Manufacturing these products requires high amounts of energy


  • 46-0-0 – urea (46% nitrogen)
  • 0-45-0 – triple superphosphate (45% P2O5)
  • 0-0-60 – muriate of potash (60% K2O)

Organic fertilizers

These products originate from plant, animal or mined sources.


  • Natural, not manufactured
  • Contain multiple plant nutrients
  • Often farm-produced (manures, cover crops)
  • Add soil organic matter
  • Encourage soil biological diversity
  • Improve water-holding capacity
  • Allow a more self-contained farm system
  • Slow-release of nutrients


  • Low nutrient concentration
  • Require large volumes
  • Inconsistent product availability
  • Higher cost per unit of nutrient, especially if purchased
  • Variable nutrient content


  • Compost (2-3% nitrogen, 1-2% P2O5, 1-2% K2O)
  • Cow manure (2-3% nitrogen, 0.5-1% P2O5, 1-2% P2O)
  • Blood meal (12% nitrogen, 1-2% P2O5, 0-1% K2O)

Other soil amendments

Municipal biosolids. “Biosolids” refers to treated sewage sludge that meets the EPA pollutant and pathogen requirements for land application and surface disposal. These products contain significant nutrients, but are state regulated because of the potential for contaminants. They can be an economical source of plant nutrients in the right situation.

Industrial by-products. These vary in availability depending on the presence of industries in Michigan. Examples include paper mill sludge, sugar beet lime/pulp and spent grains from breweries or ethanol plants.

Industrial wood ash. If available, wood ash (0% nitrogen, 1-2% P2O5, 3-7% K2O) makes a good liming agent (typically half the lime value and fast-acting) and provides significant potassium, some phosphorus and micronutrients.

Conventional or organic?

If your ultimate goal is organic certification, then getting started with the certification process is desirable. You should be using only fertilizers and soil amendments acceptable under the USDA National Organic Program. Details can be found at the Michigan State University Organic Farming Exchange website. You may also want to review the Michigan State University Extension Bulletin E3067, “Transitioning to Certified Organic in Michigan: Where to Start?

More details on fertilizers as well as fertilizer recommendations based on soil test reports can be provided by your local field crop, fruit and vegetable MSU Extension educators. Another good resource is the MSU Extension Bulletin E3144 “Building Soils for Organic and Sustainable Farms: Where to Start?

The 2014 MSU Extension Beginning Farmer Webinar Series is an ongoing educational opportunity for people new to farming. Registration is currently open for the following webinars:

Check the MSU Extension events calendar for additional webinars:

  • Getting started with hops
  • Getting started with organic field crops
  • Getting started with expanded vegetable production
  • Getting started with basic farm business records

Read Part 1 of this series for information on how new farmers can benefit from careful assessment of their farm’s soil and planning for crop rotations and use of cover crops.

For more information, contact Extension educator Jim Isleib at or 906-387-2530.

Did you find this article useful?

You Might Also Be Interested In