Ask the Agronomist

Ask the Agronomist - Find Success With Starter Fertilizer

Alan Blaylock (Progressive Farmer image supplied by Nutrien eKonomics)


Optimizing returns on every dollar spent on fertilizer and crop nutrition holds the key to profitable crop production. Ask the Agronomist, brought to you by eKonomics, provides crucial nutrient management answers as you prepare for the 2021 growing season.

Q: How does starter fit in an overall fertility program on corn when aiming for higher yields?

Alan Blaylock: The reason I like starters is to set a high yield potential from the beginning. It's a concentrated band near the seed, so initial roots capture needed nutrition to reduce early seedling stress, especially in cold, wet soils. Starters supplement a balanced overall fertility program, but starter nutrients should be included in the total nutrient budget.

If you're trying to grow 250- to 300-bushel corn consistently, and your environment and management system support this capability, then starters lay the groundwork for higher yields. Starters don't guarantee greater yield because many things can happen during a growing season, but they can increase yield potential by stimulating early growth.

Q: How does starter impact early corn growth and development?

Blaylock: They reduce the early potential for nutrient stress. Healthy plants during the early growth and development stages of corn lead to more possible kernels and larger ear size. Starter application places a concentrated nutrient band close to seeds so early seedling roots can reach food quickly. And this can help overcome some of the effects of cold, wet soils or less fertile sandy soils.

More significant early corn growth can lead to corn achieving more leaf structure earlier for added photosynthesis during the longer summer sunlight. More leaves and sun can lead to earlier and more efficient pollination and earlier maturity and dry-down when the weather cooperates.

Q: What soil environment is the best fit for starter use?

Blaylock: Farmers need to examine current and future soil conditions and fertility levels. Starters are often shown to have greater benefit in cold, wet spring conditions, in no-till or high residue situations, or soils with low fertility. Starters can also be beneficial in high-fertility soils when early seedling growth is rapid. The best advice is to understand local research on the specific environments where starters show advantages. Take into account the entire growing season during years of success or when it didn't pay and why.

Q: Which is better: pop-up, in-furrow or a banded 2x2 starter application?

Blaylock: One advantage of a pop-up or in-furrow starter is that it's right on the seed for immediate availability upon germination. The caution is potential for fertilizer burn, so low rates must be used, like five gallon per acre of 10-34-0. My preference is 2x2 banding due to more rate and fertilizer options with a higher salt index. This application requires more equipment investment to make sure it keeps fertilizer two inches away from the seed. Then you can start bumping nitrogen and potash rates while including micronutrients, biostimulants and biologicals to create root proliferation and synergy that optimizes plant health. The goal is to stimulate the tiny root systems until they grow and access more of the soil's nutrients.

Q: Do micronutrients and biostimulants/biologicals work well in a starter application?

Blaylock: I like micro and secondary nutrients added to a nitrogen and phosphorus starter for corn -- like zinc, sulfur and boron -- because the crop responds to these, especially if deficient on the soil test. When you get all these nutrients working together in a band close to the row, a synergy stimulates certain biological processes and root growth to increase root uptake efficiency.

Starters are a great opportunity to place biostimulants with nutrients in the seedling root zone where they can all work together. Granted, with all this in one pass, it will slow planting down due to stopping and filling more often. But the benefits can often outweigh the extra time costs.


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