Many farmers in the Corn Belt apply a starter fertilizer—they know that early corn often gets planted into cool, wet soils. While these conditions can compromise germination and stand establishment, they also set the stage for starters to do their best work.
Benefits of starter fertilizer
Starter fertilizers help maximize crop yield potential, and the benefits will be easy to spot—a more uniform plant stand, early seedling vigor, reduced weed competition and possible yield increases. While no one can guarantee a yield increase, starter is an excellent step in achieving your yield goals year after year.
Here’s how starter fertilizer works for plants:
- Cool soil temperatures are known to slow down root growth. Starter fertilizers aid in supplying nutrients to seedling plants, even though fertile soils exist outside the young plant’s root zone. Low soil temperatures also affect the rate of nitrogen that is released from the organic matter by slowing down microbial activity.
- Starter fertilizer can lessen the characteristics of compaction by contributing additional vigor to seedling root growth that may allow root penetration through the compaction zones.
- Certain soil types and lower levels of soil fertility can benefit from starter fertilizers. These would include, but are not limited to, sandy soils with irrigation, sandy soils with low organic matter, high pH soils, soils with low fertility levels, even good heavy soils that have nutrient tie-up potential.
- With the popularity of no-till, strip-till or simply reduced tillage, starter fertilizer may have its biggest impact. This may be due to the increased water retention and crop residues remaining on the soil surface creating cooler soil temperatures where these farming practices are implemented.
How the starter fertilizer gets to the young plants is important.
- In-furrow: In-furrow fertilizer application means to place the fertilizer in the seed furrow directly on and with the seed at planting. But this comes with some risk. Most commonly used fertilizer contains salt. Too much salt in furrow can cause reduced germination and reduced root growth. This can cause poor plant populations and stunted growth in plants.
- Two-by-Two Band: Another popular placement is called a 2-by-2 band, which places the fertilizer 2 inches to the side and 2 inches deeper than the seed placement at planting. This placement will alleviate the salt risk factor mentioned above. However, there can be substantial cost involved to set up a planter for 2 by 2 placement and slower planter speeds are required as well.
The set-up cost can be less for in-furrow applications, because many planters are already mounted with the necessary equipment for this application.
How much starter fertilizer does it take?
Rates used for in-furrow fertilizer depend on the soil type, carbon exchange capacity (CEC), and pH of the soil to be planted. In many cases, only nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) are applied as starter fertilizer.
The most common liquid starter fertilizer used is 10-34-0. Some of the most significant benefits come from the added P. Often, a newly formed plant is unable to take advantage of P in the soil under cool, wet conditions, due to the plants slowed root growth. A starter with P places the essential nutrient directly by the root, making it readily accessible.
A soil test may indicate the need for other nutrients, which can normally be added to the mix and applied as starter. Remember that nutrients applied as starter should be deducted from total fertilizer required from the soil test recommendation.
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