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Does your starter fertilizer approach pay?Does your starter fertilizer approach pay?

The starter fertilizer conversation has evolved over the last several decades and may refer to any number of products applied at planting. Here’s what we know today and how it might work for you.

Betty Haynes

May 3, 2023

4 Min Read
up-close view of John Deere planter in field
STARTER FERTILIZER: There’s no one-size-fits-all for starter fertilizer application. “The system and products a farmer chooses must be carefully considered to ensure there’s a positive ROI,” says Jack Hardwick, agronomist for Nutrien Ag. Betty Haynes

Like everything in production agriculture, starter fertilizer has changed and matured over time.

“Twenty years ago, starter fertilizer was just that — it was just fertilizer, and predominantly a 10-34-0 combination,” says Jack Hardwick, agronomist for Nutrien Ag. “There’s a lot of different meanings to the term ‘starter fertilizer’ now that weren’t there a few decades ago.”

When growers refer to starter fertilizer now, Hardwick says, they could mean:

  • high-phosphorus-based fertilizers in the seed trench

  • urea ammonium nitrate (UAN) and ammonium thiosulfate (ATS) in a 2-by-2 or a 2-by-0 dribble band

  • 6-18-6 applied at a 3-gallon rate in the seed trench

  • biologicals, plant growth hormones or different additives applied in the seed trench or in a 2-by-2 placement

And some growers, he explains, are doing all the options previously listed, depending on the field situation. This approach requires multiple tanks: one for higher-salt-based starters like UAN and ATS applied in a 2-by-0 dribble band or with 2-by-2 placement, and a separate tank for high-P-based starters plus a biological or plant growth regulator applied in the seed furrow.

R.H. Habbe, who farms in Nashville, Ill., applies 8-19-3, Ethos insecticide-fungicide and the biostimulant Grozyme to promote greater root growth and readily available nutrients in-furrow.

“I like starter fertilizer because you’re putting nutrients where the plant can easily access them early in its life cycle,” says Habbe, comparing starter fertilizer to broadcast dry fertilizer. “The combination of starter fertilizer, Ethos and Grozyme, along with applications of gypsum, is when I’ve seen the most benefit.”

Habbe adds that there’s a noticeable benefit to his crop and soil health — especially come harvest.

“The weather forecast here still says lows in the 40s and highs really only in the 60s,” Habbe explains. “This is the year that starter fertilizer will really pay with these cooler planting conditions.”

Picking a starter fertilizer system

“Since all grower objectives are different, decisions are made on an individual grower basis as to which products and volumes they choose,” Hardwick says. “Every farmer has a little different situation to work through on how they implement a given system.”

The first differentiator on what starter fertilizer plan is best depends on soil and planting conditions.

In fields with low phosphorus levels, some farmers will opt for an in-furrow starter. The likelihood of a positive return on investment from in-furrow 10-34-0 application is much higher in fields with a low P soil test or poor soil pH.

In fields planted in early to mid-April, farmers may opt for an in-furrow starter. The likelihood of a positive ROI from in-furrow application is much higher in cooler soils than warmer soils later in the season.

In fields with continuous corn that lack nitrogen and sulfur, farmers may opt for UAN and ATS application in a 2-by-2 or a 2-by-0 dribble band. The likelihood of a positive ROI is increased from a high-nitrogen and high-sulfur-based fertilizer applied in close proximity.

The second differentiator on what starter fertilizer program is best depends the size of the farm, size of tanks on the planter and distance from field to field.

For growers with limited equipment, an in-furrow starter is a viable option due to the low application rate. Application in the seed trench is typically recommended at a 2.5- to 4-gallon range.

For growers with greater liquid volume capabilities, high-nitrogen and high-sulfur-based fertilizers, with higher salt contents, are a viable option. Application in 2-by-2 or 2-by-0 is recommended at a 6- to 15-gallon range.

“The system a farmer chooses must be carefully considered to ensure there’s a positive ROI,” Hardwick says. “That commitment level is different for everyone. For instance, the commitment it takes to go to a planter-applied liquid system will be more of a challenge.”

Nutrien has been performing client trials to determine which starter fertilizer program equates to the greatest ROI.

“Generally, we see the most positive benefit from a 2-by-2 or 2-by-0 application of a high-UAN, high-ATS plan in a 2-by-2 or 2-by-0 dribble band,” Hardwick says. “Those have shown more consistent ROIs for us than some of the high-phosphorus-based in-furrow starters.”

The exception to this is on fields with low phosphorus levels paired with cool, wet planting conditions. However, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all method.

“The problem is that 2-by-2 and 2-by-0 dribble bands generally mean larger tanks, more volume and more tendering equipment because of the 6- to 15-gallon-per-acre application rate,” Hardwick explains. “Although it’s the highest-ROI systems for starters, it’s harder for a grower to implement than a 3-gallon in-furrow application of 10-34-0.”

In the meantime, Nutrien is evaluating the ROI of in-furrow biological and plant growth regulator application, products the company currently sells. Hardwick says by the end of the year, he hopes to have additional data to help growers make the most profitable and sustainable decisions for their farm.

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About the Author(s)

Betty Haynes

Betty Haynes is the associate editor of Prairie Farmer. She grew up on a Menard County, Ill., farm and graduated from the University of Missouri. Most recently, Betty worked for the Illinois Beef Association, entirely managing and editing its publication.

She and her husband, Dan, raise corn, soybeans and cattle with her family near Petersburg, Ill., and are parents to Clare.

Betty recently won the Emerging Photographer Award from the Ag Communicators Network during the 2022 Ag Media Summit and placed in the Emerging Writer category as well.

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