There are some years that using starter fertilizer will pay back big, and 2009 was one of them. Depending on soil type and environmental conditions, starter fertilizer has the ability to give that extra boost to a crop.
"Farmers can expect a yield increase from starter that ranges from 7 bu. to 10 bu. per acre in a typical year,” says Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. "With our starter test plots in 2009 we averaged a little more than 17 bu., and some responses were up to 30 bu.”
Led by Ferrie, the Farm Journal Test Plots have looked at starter timing and placement for two decades.
"In cool wet conditions when nutrient availability is poor, starter can weatherproof a crop,” he says. "In 2009 we were able to keep corn in better condition and move it along faster in tough conditions.”
Ferrie emphasizes that when applying starter fertilizer, it's all about timing and placement. The focus of our starter test plots this past year was on starter rates, placement and the down pressure needed for attachment styles.
"In many cases, the placement of the product and the rate of the product may be more important than the product itself,” Ferrie says. "As for placement, the starter fertilizer needs to be dual-purpose: accessible to the seed roots as well as the crown roots and at a high enough rate to get the plant through the early season stresses. With in-furrow applications, we get availability to the seed root, but we can't always push the rate high enough to get through all of the early season stresses. With 2x2, we can increase the rate but it delays the time the starter kicks in, which doesn't help the earliest of early season stresses. We've found there is a sweet spot ¾" over and ½" down from the seed. There, the seed roots can quickly reach the starter and the rate is high enough to give the full response we're looking for.”
Hitting the sweet spot can be difficult. One option is to split the starter application—put some in-furrow for quick response and the rest in 2x2 to keep corn satisfied.
Focus on keeping the planter pass sacred, Ferrie advises. The equipment on the planter, including starter attachments, shouldn't compromise the seedbed.
"When you install starter attachments, you want to do ground-truthing to be sure you are indeed keeping that planter pass sacred,” he says. "Don't compromise the pass by affecting planter depth or seed spacing.”
Ferrie questioned which down-pressure settings would be needed with different styles of starter attachments. In the field, the crew used the Precision Planting 20/20 SeedSense monitor to collect down-pressure data. The starter attachments from Yetter included the T.O.W. trail-behind nozzle inject, the 2959 planter-mounted coulter, the 2963 Challenger row-mounted angled blade and the Quick Response Shoe mounted between the double-disk openers.
The plots included a Kinze eight-row planter outfitted half-and-half with two attachments: Yetter T.O.W. and Yetter Quick Response Shoe.
"Before heading to the field, I thought the trail behind would take considerably more down pressure than the shoe. Really, there was little difference to keep the row units in the ground,” Ferrie says.
In another plot, we ran the 2959 and the trail-behind. The 20/20 data says the trail-behind was easier to keep in the ground than the 2959.
On a third planter, we looked at the Challenger and the 2959 each mounted on half of a 16-row planter. The Challenger took more down pressure to hold it in the ground than the 2959. This year, we went every other row with the starter attachments and half the planter had air bags, half had springs.
Using the 20/20, the collected data continued to show the Challenger demanding more down pressure than the 2959. This is most likely due to the 2959 running a straight cutter while the Challenger runs at a slight angle.
"Anything we hang on a row unit, whether a coulter or fertilizer applicator, requires more down pressure to hold it in the ground. The Challenger is on an angle and may create more uplift than the 2959 running straight, which is manageable as long as we know it's happening,” Ferrie says.
He also notes that when you have a starter coulter mounted on the front of the row unit, it can bring up moist soil from below that wants to stick to the depth wheel. Be sure you have a scraper on the depth wheels so your starter attachment doesn't interfere with planting depth.
Another test plot effort looked at varying starter rates and row spacings.
"This year due to weather conditions as we increased the rate, yield followed,” Ferrie says. "Typically, 7 gal. to 10 gal. would top out our yield response. In 2009, we saw responses to starter climb with rates above 10 gal.”
When applying starter in furrow, low rates are often the safest application.
"We've seen a benefit to including an additive to make the 3 gal. of starter act like more,” Ferrie says. "Our results are in line with university and independent data that shows Avail can have a 7-bu. increase.”
Our test plots have studied narrow-row corn for almost 20 years, and key in narrow-row starter application is how you measure the rate. For narrow-row corn, starter should be calculated in gallons of starter per foot of row, not just gallons per acre.
As for the coming planting season in 2010, Ferrie says some farmers face an uphill battle with residue breakdown and nutrient management.
"Up front in 2010, we're going to have more issues to deal with. It's not only nitrogen but also phosphorus, as well, that's consumed when processing residue in the spring,” Ferrie says.
You can e-mail Margy Fischer at firstname.lastname@example.org.