Starter Fertilizer Proves Key

Published online: Apr 10, 2017 Fertilizer, New Products
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This year, much of the Midwest experienced unseasonably warm early spring weather, tempting many growers with a lot of acres into planting early. There are reasons to plant early, like increasing yield potential, smoothing out the spring rush workload and avoiding planting delays, but there are also challenges associated with early planting.

“Farmers that plant early are doing so into cool soils and sometimes wet conditions, and when that happens there is not as much phosphorus available to the crop,” says Todd Carpenter, technical development manager at Verdesian Life Sciences. “If you plant early, it’s important to use a starter fertilizer to get crops off to a fast start.”

Dave Schwartz, Verdesian vice president of plant nutrition sales, uses starter fertilizer religiously on his corn and soybean farm in west-central Iowa. Schwartz has been 100 percent no-till for 27 years, as his conservation plan dictates on his sloping, highly erodible ground. He applies his starter fertilizer in both a 2×2 and in-furrow liquid application. This year he will be applying 2×2 on both sides of the row and an in-furrow application.

“I’ve noticed that placing the phosphorus in proximity of the seedling and keeping it there allows the plant to get off to a fast start and gives the crop nutrition for the entire season,” says Schwartz. “We’ve noticed dramatic increases in yields by putting the phosphorus down right where the plant needs it.”

Getting that crop off to a good start is critical, and starter fertilizer can help by providing readily available phosphorus that is important to early root growth and development, says Carpenter. Having a more robust plant with better root structure, more leaf area and larger stalks can help corn better withstand environmental stress through the season and can get corn a full growth stage ahead of schedule. 

“Starter fertilizer results in better root systems early,” says Carpenter. “These better root systems mean that the plant will use water and nutrients more efficiently, allowing it to grow more rapidly and put more of those resources into grain.”

But applying starter fertilizer is only part of the puzzle of getting crops off to a vigorous start. Phosphorus, the key nutrient in starter fertilizers, is very difficult to manage because it is susceptible to binding with minerals and getting “locked” in the soil. Due to this process, 75 to 95 percent of applied phosphorus can be tied up in the soil and unavailable for plant uptake. There are some steps growers can take to ensure their applied phosphorus remains available to the plant.

“The first thing farmers can do is to follow the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship, making sure we apply the right product at the right rate, at the right time, and in the right place,” says Carpenter. “Following the 4Rs is a critical component, but it’s not enough when phosphorus is so reactive and so readily tied up in the soil. One of the key things we can do is to protect that phosphorus and keep it from being bound in the soil.”

One way growers can keep applied phosphorus available when the plant needs it and thereby increase plant uptake of this vital nutrient is to treat phosphorus fertilizer with Verdesian’s Avail phosphorus fertilizer enhancer.

“Our research indicates an average of 30 percent more phosphorus is available to the crop when you use Avail, compared to controls,” says Carpenter. “Across all sources and soil types, 30 percent is the average. In some cases, the percentage of available phosphorus increases much more than 30 percent. By protecting your starter fertilizer with Avail, you keep more phosphorus available to the plant. When you make applications of MAP, DAP or 10-34-0, you can also use Avail to protect the investment in phosphorus and ensure it makes its way into this year’s crop.”

Schwartz uses Avail on his starter fertilizer, which has led to significant yield increases. He says Avail, on average, adds about 7 to 7.5 bushels per acre to his corn crops when used with starter fertilizer, but he says on his farm he has consistently added 12 to 15 bushels per acre by using Avail and starter fertilizer. Schwartz is now applying 100 percent of his phosphorus as a liquid with the planter. He also says including micronutrients is important, with zinc being particularly crucial to seeing the benefits of Avail. Schwartz has increased his corn yields nearly 100 bushels per since 2005, which he credits to a better understanding of soil fertility, using Avail and NutriSphere-N nitrogen fertilizer manager, split applications of nitrogen, and improved corn hybrids.

“Avail, whether used in a liquid or dry application system, has been used successfully on more than 72 million acres since its introduction in 2005,” says Schwartz. “Soils with pH below 6.2 or above 7.2 fix phosphorus the most, so if your soils are in that range, you have an immediate need for Avail. Even if your pH falls between 6.2 and 7.2, you can still realize a 7-bushel-per-acre increase on average.”

While farmers have varying fertility needs, Avail can play a role in improving phosphorus management. Growers who are cash-renting their ground will want to apply only the amount of phosphorus needed for this year’s crop, rather than building up phosphorus in the soil that they may or may not be farming in the future. Applying only removal rates of phosphorus protected with Avail allows cash-rent farmers to maximize their ROI on the phosphorus fertilizer applied for that particular growing season.

At the same time, growers that own ground and want to build phosphorus levels up over time can use a dry fertilizer program protected by Avail, says Schwartz. Avail can be used on other crops as well.

“I started using starter fertilizer treated with Avail on soybeans and saw a 5-bushel-per-acre response right out of the gate, and my soybean yields have increased by 30 bushels per acre since 2009,” says Schwartz. “I’ve seen much healthier soybeans that really jump out of the ground and get a good stand establishment, even when no-tilling into corn stalks.”