Dive Deep into Starter Fertilizer This Spring

Every year, we learn valuable lessons from the Farm Journal Test Plots due to ever-changing field environments and weather conditions. Regardless of the variations, Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie can pinpoint yield gain and loss thanks to established and consistent protocols. Those procedures were especially beneficial in 2015 when documenting aggressive and consistent yield responses in a starter test plot in Illinois. 

What Ken Ferrie and Missy Bauer Think You Need to Know
Plots show an average 25 bu. to 30 bu. yield increase with dual placement of starter fertilizer.
Use the right product mixes and combinations to achieve the needed rate per acre conducive to field environments and conditions.
Don’t just evaluate yield gains; make sure your starter fertilizer applications pay the bill.   

Based on past data, we’ve found dual starter placement yields more than just in-furrow or just 2x2 applications. On average, there’s a 7 bu. to 10 bu. response to starter placed 2x2 and a 3 bu. to 5 bu. response to in-furrow application. With dual placement, the plots have shown a 15 bu. to 20 bu. yield increase. 

In 2015, Ferrie continued to study the yield responses to different starter fertilizer placements, more specifically the relay effect. 

When studying starter fertilizer, all variables must be consistent across the field to accurately analyze the data. Ferrie and his crew followed strict protocols to ensure the same hybrid, population, weather environment and planting dates in order to collect, weigh and evaluate the yield results by management zones. 

To ensure accuracy, all applications were replicated up to four times. Even though several starter fertilizer rates and product combinations were tested, the sidedress rates were adjusted so the total amount of nitrogen applied was the same across the field.  

The 2015 results support Ferrie’s  answers to three of the most commonly asked questions on starter fertilizer. The Farm Journal Test Plots have studied starter fertilizer for more than two decades, but many farmers are still evaluating or fine-tuning the practice. 

Test Plot Details

Farmers: Don Schlesinger and Dan Reynolds, south of Weldon, Ill.

Field size: 70 acres

Field specifics: No-till, 30" rows, corn following soybean rotation

Soil types: Hartsburg silty clay loam, Sable silty clay loam, Catlin silt loam, Ipava silt loam

Planting date: May 1, 2015

Hybrid: Stone 6404 Rib 

Plant population: 34,000

Sidedress timing: May 19, 2015

Q: Is a low salt starter in-furrow placement a substitute or equal to a higher 2x2 starter rate?

A: To evaluate this scenario, the plot compared 3 gal. of 10-34-0 Zn Avail in-furrow to 10 gal. of 7-22-5 Zn in the 2x2 application. Per acre, that breaks down to  3-10.2-0.3 Zn Avail and 7-22-5 Zn, which is equivalent to 100 lb. 

Notice zinc was added to both the in-furrow and 2x2 mixes, and Avail was added to the in-furrow mix. Based on previous Farm Journal Test Plots studies, Ferrie recommends adding zinc to starter. His research also shows Avail gives starter fertilizer more horsepower (3 gal. acts like 5 gal.), but it increases overall cost. 

In 2015, the in-furrow application averaged a 9.1 bu. advantage compared with a 16.5 bu. gain in the 2x2 applications across all management zones and soil types in the field. 

“We visibly saw these huge responses throughout the entire growing season when scouting the field and through aerial imagery,” Ferrie says. “These huge yield responses are not always normal.”

To apply starter in-furrow and 2x2, an eight-row Kinze planter was outfitted with Schaffert Generation 2 fertilizer disks and Keeton seed firmers. The Schaffert attachment cuts a trench 2" away from the seed and 2" below the surface and uses an injection nozzle to apply fertilizer.   
Q: Can I just use nitrogen in 2x2 applications instead of starter and not sacrifice yield? 

A: At the Weldon, Ill., plot, Ferrie used three combinations: 10-34-0 in-furrow, 10 gal. 7-22-5 Zn in 2x2 and 15 gal. 21-0-0 in 2x2, which is equivalent to 30 lb. ammonium nitrate. 

There was an average 6 bu. advantage using 10-34-0 in-furrow, a 10 bu. gain using 15 gal. 21-0-0 in 2x2 and a 16.5 bu. advantage using 10 gal. 7-22-5 Zn in 2x2. After Ferrie calculated the cost savings, the 10-34-0 in-furrow application yielded a 2.5 bu. gain, the ammonium nitrate 2x2 showed a 7.5 bu. gain and the 7-22-5 treatment in 2x2 yielded a 9.5 bu. advantage. Yield results show the ammonium nitrate 2x2 application does yield higher than 10-34-0 in-furrow but can’t keep up with 7-22-5 application in 2x2.   

“This shows the plot is responding to front-end nitrogen, which is likely due to the 16" of rain we received in June,” Ferrie says. “Overall, just using nitrogen has enough yield advantage to pay the bill, but the yield results show it still can’t keep up with a full rate of starter fertilizer.”  

The effects of starter fertilizer can be visibly seen at harvest across all replications. Planted to the exact same hybrid, there are clear color differences, as well as distinct ear and leaf differences (seen in top left photo). 

Q: Is there a yield advantage to using 2x2 in addition to an in-furrow application for a relay effect to manage the carbon penalty? 

A: Ferrie used two dual placement combinations: 15 gal. 21-0-0 in 2x2 and 4 gal. 6-18-6 Zn Sulfur Avail in-furrow versus 10 gal. 7-22-5 Zn in 2x2 and 3 gal. 10-34-0 Zn Avail in-furrow. The 15 gal. 21-0-0 in 2x2 and 4 gal. 6-18-6 Zn Sulfur Avail in-furrow combination yielded 25 bu. more, and the 10 gal. 7-22-5 Zn in 2x2 and 3 gal. 10-34-0 Zn Avail in-furrow tallied a 32 bu. gain. 

These yield results show the strength in dual placement, also known as the relay effect. The power is in using both in-furrow and 2x2 applications to keep the plant satisfied. 

“We call it the relay effect because the fertilizer positions hand off the baton, so the roots find the nutrients when needed,” Ferrie says. 

Overall, the 2015 yield results increased the Farm Journal Test Plots average responses to starter fertilizer. Combining the past two years, the plots showed a 6 bu. to 10 bu. response to in-furrow, a 16 bu. to 20 bu. response to 2x2 and a 25 bu. to 30 bu. response to dual placement.

As mentioned, these yields are uncommon, but other plots in Illinois, southern Michigan and northeast Indiana showed more typical responses to starter fertilizer and placements. 

In 2015, across five plot locations in Michigan, there was a 3.2 bu. advantage using dual placement or the relay effect compared with 2x2 alone. The individual responses from each plot ranged from 0.6 bu. to 6.1 bu. 

Across six growing seasons in Michigan, there was a 4.7 bu. gain average, respectively, in 2x2 applications and in-furrow compared with 2x2 alone. The lowest response was in 2012 with a negative 1.7 bu. loss and the highest response in 2009 with a 14.8 bu. gain. In certain years with cool, wet springs, Bauer saw a 10 bu. to 14 bu. per acre response to dual placement. 

“It’s important to see the range of yields across six growing seasons because it shows the positive and negative effects of starter fertilizer,” Bauer says. “As a rule of thumb, advancing maturity through in-furrow placement is a good thing eight out of 10 times. However, it can be negative when pushing maturity into poorer weather conditions, which results in more kernel abortion, as seen in 2011.” (See “Yield Gains With Dual Placement Versus 2x2” below.) 

In 2015, Bauer also conducted two starter fertilizer plots, one in 30" rows and one in twin rows, to evaluate the effect of starter placement in-furrow. Both plots used a 6-12-2 starter fertilizer in-furrow and a 21-12-0 blend at 15 gal. per acre, which was surface- dribbled after the closing wheels and drug in with a chain. 

The twin rows with a 3 gal. starter in-furrow rate saw a 8.4 bu. gain compared with the control (surface- dribbled with 15 gal. 21-12-0). In the 6 gal. starter in-furrow rate, yield jumped 6.2 bu. compared with the check. In the 30" rows, at a 3 gal. starter in-furrow rate, there was a 14.2 bu. gain compared with the check and in the 6 gal. starter in-furrow rate, a 11.5 bu. gain versus the check. 

“The yield results show the 6 gal. starter in-furrow rate was too much for our sandy loam soils,” Bauer says. “Our plots show big in-furrow yield responses so if you don’t have 2x2 placement, the in-furrow placement is even more important.” 

Regardless of the mixes, combinations or placements, it’s essential to consider the economics of starter fertilizer in all situations. Choose the combination that best fits your yield goal, soil types and pocketbook.




Across six growing seasons, field tests in southern Michigan and northeast Indiana showed there was a 4.7 bu. average, respectively, using 2x2 and in-furrow placement compared with 2x2 alone.

Thank You to Our Test Plot Partners

Case IH, Jay Barth, Bill Hoeg, and CJ Parker; Great Plains, Tom Evans and Doug Jennings; New Holland, Mark Hooper, Daniel Valen, Ken Paul, Mike Kizis and Sheldon Gerspacher; Burnips Equipment and Carl VanderKolk; Versatile and Adam Reid; Central Illinois Ag and Kip Hoke; Kinze Manufacturing, Susanne Veatch and Phil Jennings; Marco N.P.K. Inc; Schaffert Manufacturing and Paul Schaffert; SFP; Unverferth Manufacturing and Jerry Ecklund; Wells Equipment; Apache Sprayers; Trimble, Frank Fidanza and John Pointon; AirScout and Brian Sutton; Geovantage; Ag Leader and Luke James; Yetter Manufacturing, Pat Whalen and Scott Cale; Blu-Jet and Nick Jensen; Fast and Dan Liening; Greenmark Equipment and Chad Kasprazak; Schertz Aerial Service Inc. and Scott Schertz; Yamaha; West Central and Joe Schubert; Don Schlesinger and Dan Reynolds; Lawrence “Shorty” Olson; Crop-Tech Consulting, Isaac Ferrie, Brandon Myers and Eric Douglas; LDK Farms and Leon Knirk;  Bob Minor; B&M Crop Consulting, Bill Bauer, Amanda Anderson, Jared Haylett 

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To learn more, visit www.FarmJournal.com/testplots



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