Adding starter fertilizer to corn processes provides efficiency and economic benefits.
Giving Your Crop a Head Start for a Successful Harvest
Corn farming continues to evolve. North American farmers are working hard to meet the demands of a hungry world while continuing to outmaneuver weather, pests, crop diseases and anything else Mother Nature throws at them. They’re planning months, even years in advance, to ensure their crop has the highest chance for success. They’re examining their management plan to see if new technology or methods can provide a leg up in the coming season.
Starter fertilizer is one method producing positive benefits for farmers and agronomists in America’s corn belt. For fields with cool soil temperatures, such as those in northern states or operations employing no-till or continuous corn with high residue, starter fertilizer might already be part of the process. However, this technique might prove beneficial for other conditions, as well.
What Is Starter Fertilizer?
Starter fertilizer is the application of plant nutrients, usually a combination of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), during planting. Other key nutrients like potassium (K), sulfur (S) and zinc (Zn) are sometimes included in starter fertilizer programs, as well. Planters, such as the Massey Ferguson VE Series, can be outfitted with several different fertilizer placement options. The two most common placement options are in-furrow or a 2-by-2-like fertilizer system. The 2-by-2 system places the band of fertilizer 2 inches to the side and 2 inches below the seed. This can be done as a single band on one side of the row or dual band on both sides of the row.
For some farmers, adding starter fertilizer to their operation might not seem cost effective. It adds an extra layer of logistics at planting, plus the additional equipment investment. Still, there are several benefits that starter fertilizer can provide, making it an important consideration.
Let’s walk through the benefits from emergence to harvest.
Establishment and Early Growth Benefits of Starter Fertilizer
By providing the seed easy, early access to vital nutrients, especially nitrogen, starter fertilizer helps accelerate plant development and dry matter accumulation. Soon after the young seedling emerges from the soil, it will begin a transformation from relying mostly on its own kernel reserves for nutrients to what is available in the soil through the root system. Having readily available nutrients near the developing roots can aid in the transition and simulate early plant development. This is especially important in cooler fields, where soil nutrients aren't as readily available yet and the growth of the root system has been slow. Incorporating starter fertilizer can help mitigate the effects of these stressors, resulting in a hardier stand.
It is worth noting that the rate of application can make a difference in harvest-time results. In-furrow fertilizer, or pop-up, should be applied at a lower rate to avoid damaging the seed. Sandy soils and dry conditions have the highest risk. For a common in-furrow like 10-34-0, rates should generally not exceed 5 GPA for corn in a 30-inch row spacing. 2-by-2 application offers greater flexibility. With the increased space between seed and fertilizer, farmers can apply higher rates without worrying about damaging the seed. In these situations, increasing the nutrient rate, particularly the amount of nitrogen, increases the effectiveness and benefit of the starter fertilizer program. Farmers can also add more diverse nutrients with a 2-by-2 system, such as higher rates of potassium and the inclusion of sulfur when needed, without harming the seed.
Starter Fertilizer Results in Faster Growth Rates
Corn planted with starter fertilizer continues growing faster throughout the season. It silks earlier. Pollination occurs earlier. The grain reaches maturity earlier, which gives it more time to dry down in the fall, resulting in dryer grain at harvest. In an eight-year, 52-field study by Purdue University, researchers found starter fertilizer reduced grain moisture by .6% to 1.4% in 78% of their field trials (Cambertao and Nielsen, 2022). For today’s farmer, that 1% could result in significantly reduced drying costs.
The researches demonstrated that this would translate to a $4.50 U.S. savings per acre, assuming a 225 bushel per acre grain yield at 2 cents drying cost per point per bushel. For 1,000 acres of corn, the farmer could see $4,500 cost savings per year.
Does Starter Fertilizer Increase Grain Yield?
The Purdue study found roughly a 50% yield response with 2-by-2 starter fertilizer application where nitrogen rates ranged from 23-50 pounds per acre. In 21 of 52 trials, the team saw an average 8 bushel per acre yield response. Additionally, it's worth mentioning that in a small subset of trials that looked at different combinations of N, P and K nutrients, nitrogen alone was primarily responsible for increased yield.
In-furrow applications only increased yield in 1 of 20 trials.
While yield increases with starter fertilizer were not seen across the board, the high frequency observed in 2-by-2 applications, plus the consistency of the dry-down benefit make it an attractive possibility for farmers.
Starter Fertilizer Can Protect Crop Throughout the Season
Ensuring plants have access to nitrogen at important growth milestones and during periods of peak crop demand is vital for a successful harvest. To that end, many operations have incorporated side-dressing to help better manage nitrogen inputs and avoid loss. However, every farmer knows that Mother Nature sometimes has other plans. Missing the side-dressing window, resulting in drastically delayed applications, can reduce yield.
The amount of nitrogen available with 2-by-2 starter fertilizer applications can provide a degree of flexibility for farmers. By providing an abundance of this vital nutrient at planting, there is less worry if side-dressing is delayed. Think of it as an insurance policy.
Talk to Your Dealer About Implementing Starter Fertilizer
Starter fertilizer has many benefits, but for many farmers, the most important is economic. Early growth, hardier stands, dryer grain and the potential for higher yield can result in a bigger payday at the end of the season. From an agronomic standpoint, 2-by-2 or similar systems that place nutrients further away from the seed are preferred. These systems allow farmers to apply higher rates and provide more flexibility in nutrient combinations. It's important to remember that the nutrients included in any starter fertilizer program should be counted toward the overall fertility program, not extra. Particularly for 2-by-2 systems, start with nitrogen as the main component. From there, determine if adding other major nutrients such as P, K or S are necessary based on price, soil testing and your on-farm research.
If you’re interested in adding starter fertilizer to your management process, contact your local Massey Ferguson dealer today to discuss your unique operation.
Jason Lee is an agronomy and farm solutions manager for AGCO Corporation. He has an extensive background in corn and soybean production, soil fertility management, precision agriculture and crop pest protection. As an agronomist and researcher, Lee’s mission is to provide farmers with the technologies and information to make profitable and sustainable management decisions. Today, Lee’s research focuses on minimizing soil compaction, improving herbicide spray quality, establishing cover crops and evaluating row crop planter performance. He holds a PhD in agronomy from Purdue University, where he also participated in extension activities and on-farm research. Lee was raised in rural South Dakota where he was actively involved with the farming community through raising cattle and working in ag retail. He currently resides in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and enjoys pheasant hunting, fishing and home remodeling projects in his spare time.