For many growers, starter fertilizer translates into better corn yields. Farmers are familiar with how starter fertilizers can help boost yields, but a number of other advantages can be gained throughout the growing season from the application of spring starter materials.
According to Robert Mullen, director of agronomy at PotashCorp and a contributor to the eKonomics program, growers should pay attention to the range of agronomic and economic advantages associated with starter materials this spring. He has identified three key areas where starters can benefit your fields:
• Better crop growth early in growing season, especially in colder climates. Starters play a key role in fostering crop growth early in the growing season, especially in colder climates and in no-till operations. This is primarily due to soil temperature.
“The reason why that’s important is because the colder the soil temperature, the slower the chemical reaction that makes fertilizer materials available to the plant,” says Mullen. “Even though the soil may have an abundant supply of phosphorus based on a soil test that we took, the phosphorus that’s there might not be moving into the plant as fast as the plant would like it to.”
Starters help to prevent this issue; they supply a large amount of phosphorus near the root, allowing it to have higher availability to that young growing plant.
• Grain that’s drier and quicker to mature. One of the biggest — and most overlooked — advantages of starter use is that it can lead to drier grain come corn at harvesttime.
According to a summary review by Purdue University, researchers found growers experienced drier grain more often when applying starters. When compared to those who did not use starter treatments, corn grain can be up to 3% drier.
“The reason this happens is because starters help a plant accumulate biomass faster,” says Mullen. “This allows for the plant to mature faster, leading to a lower grain moisture level.”
There are two main benefits to having drier grain. First, you can harvest earlier. That’s a huge benefit; there’s nothing worse than having to wait for your grain to dry below 25% moisture to get it out of the field. Second, you won’t have to pay as much of a fee to dry your grain.
To explain the economic advantage, let’s assume you’re working with a high-temperature dryer that uses air recirculation. Propane has a cost of $1.70 per gallon. On a 400-acre farm with a 200-bushel-per-acre yield, you would dry about 85,000 total bushels, with a desired grain moisture of 15%.
If the initial grain moisture is 25% and you don’t use starters, the cost of drying would be 30 cents per bushel for propane cost alone. That works out to a total cost of about $24,990.
If you are using starter fertilizer, you could experience drier grain and have a grain moisture level of 22%. In this case, the cost of drying would be only about 20 cents per bushel (again, the cost of propane only), meaning a total cost of $17,510. This would lead to a savings of more than $7,000.
• Environmentally responsible. Another benefit of using starters is an environmental one. By supplying a portion of the phosphorus in the spring as a starter application — that otherwise would have been applied last fall as a fall application — growers can achieve two distinct environmental benefits.
First, by applying in the spring the application is occurring when the corn plant actually needs it. Second, because you are applying the starter fertilizer below the soil surface, it’s not subjected to erosion or runoff losses.
However, this starter application shouldn’t be used to completely replace a broader phosphorus application in the fall or in the spring. Instead, the starter can offset a small portion to complement the fall-applied phosphorus.
In the end, when growers look at all the logistical, environmental and economic benefits, an investment in starter fertilizer can be a sound business decision beyond the obvious benefit of increased yields. For more information on using proper nutrient management techniques to maximize your farm’s yields and profits, visit potashcorp-ekonomics.com.