Editor's Note: Our No-Till Roundtable question for the 2023 April Conservation Tillage Guide asked no-tillers to describe the starter fertilizer equipment they're using and how starter fertilizer has impacted their yields. We received so many answers that we couldn't fit them all in print! Below are the additional answers, and here's a link to the original article that appeared in the magazine.
— Michaela Paukner, Managing Editor

A: My starter fertilizer program is designed to enhance my overall management of no-till with cereal rye cover crops in both corn and beans. I plant beans first than corn. I'm a one-man operation on 900 row crop acres. Weather permitting, I plant cereal rye as a cover crop after harvest on all my acres.

When planting beans first, I don't always kill the cover crop. I started using a system called Totally Tubular on my 1790 planter about 3 years ago. I use the same factory ground drive pump that came on the planter. The Totally Tubular dribbles on nutrients after the spiked closing wheels but before the drag chains. This does get the starter mix covered a little bit. Plus with cover crops and other types of attachments, I always had a mess on the gauge wheels from the starter if it was put on ahead of the unit. Cover crops always made this worse. So with it going on behind, the only thing dirty is the drag chain. My mix for beans is 2 gallons per acre of K-Thio, Boost (sugar), 1 quart per acre of 10% boron, 1 gallon per acre humic acid and water to make a total mix of 17 gallons per acre. On a 32 x 15-inch row bean planter, the volume needs to be this much to build a little pressure and get a good flow on the ground.

For corn following a previous crop of beans, I plant my cereal rye cover crop in 30 inch rows the fall before. This allows a strip of bare soil to plant the corn into while also being able to let the cereal rye get a little taller to help maximize root growth. Then all my wheel traffic is running on top of this cover crop and helping to eliminate compaction. I've found that by waiting a bit or planting beans first, the soil temps and air temps are higher, and this greatly enhances the emergence of the corn crop. For the planter starter, I use the same 1790 planter but just use the 16 rows on 30-inch centers. The same Totally Tubular system places a starter mix on both sides of the row just like I did for the bean crop. Basically it's a 2x2x0.

My starter mix for corn now is 17 gallons per acre of 28-0-0; 4 gallons per acre of 8-29-2 liquid fertilizer, K-Fuel and Crop Max Micros; and Thio at 4 gallons per acre for a total of 25 gallons per acre. I know that's a lot of gallons per acre for starter fertilizer but because the cereal rye is getting bigger by the time I plant corn, I have to compensate for the nitrogen tie up that happens. Once a person is in this system and has the soil biology working, it's not quite as critical. I've felt that if I spent the dollars to have a cover crop, it made no sense to kill it back in April.

I use a John Deere 1790 planter for both corn and beans, which made it harder to hang starter fertilizer attachments on the planter. I started with Martin attachments on the front 16 rows for doing corn, and like I said, it always made a mess of the planter in cover crops. I ran them until they wore out. Then for one season I put on a set of Bandits from the 360 Yield guys. They did not work at all in no till or in cover crops. Just a big mess. That's how I got to the Totally Tubular system where I'm at today. It's cheap, no wear parts, and it works.

Successful no till is a complete system. No one thing is a magic bullet. Here in northeast Indiana with our heavy clay soils, what works might not be the same in central Illinois or Nebraska or Georgia. I'm 66 years old and have been no-tilling since the mid '80's. I've learned and adapted and can grow a no-till crop that yields as well as any conventional crop planted in my area. All while using less machinery, time, fuel and fertilizer along the way.

— Gene Witte, Decatur, Ind.

A: I'm in southwest Kansas, and on my irrigated acres, I practice a strip/minimum-till.  I no-till soybeans into corn stubble and minimum-till corn into soybean stubble. My soils there have had a good manure program in previous years, so phosphorus levels are fairly high. Our dryland is so dry typically, that phosphorus isn't our limiting factor.  

When I no-till beans into corn stubble with the air seeder, I usually put dry phosphorus in furrow with the seed. I honestly don't know if there's a yield bump or not, but I do it that way because dry is cheaper than liquid, and I want to keep the good phosphorus levels that are there. On the acres going to corn, I usually apply phosphorus in the strip with the coulter rig/strip-till rig. I feel that my levels are high enough that I don't really need starter in furrow. My dad has done side-by-side yield comparisons with and without in furrow starter and has seen no advantage, so we keep our planting operation simple that way.  

The above discussion here has all been about phos. I'm not set up at all for liquid nitrogen on the planter. I have been putting nitrogen in the strip so haven't felt the need for anything close to the seed. I am wanting to get away from 'front-loaded' nitrogen, so may need to consider fertilizer equipment at some time on my planter. I would consider just dribbling it out the back and then watering it in. Precision Planting Conceal is very nice, but it's pricey and takes down pressure away from the opener units. (That statement is my opinion only!)  

I realize my operation is a little unique. I am blessed with good soils that have been managed well for many years by previous tenants. If I had sandy soil, etc., my story might be different.

— Kendall Koehn, Montezuma, Kan.

A: We began using starter fertilizer in 2022. We don’t have any 2x2 applicators on our planter, but we still wanted the proximity of the liquid fertilizer to be at or near that range. We have 2 RTK receivers that we use for guidance in our operation. We used our 16-row Dalton liquid sidedress applicator to mimic a 2x2 application by applying the liquid 3 inches to the side of our planter guidance line. We chose 3 inches due to our inexperience and fear of burning the germinating seed with our untested application strategy. When we returned to the field with the planter, we were able to plant on our existing guidance line with RTK level accuracy alongside the previous application with the sidedress toolbar.

We applied a solution of 32% (27 gallons per acre) and ATS (5-7 gallons per acre) for around 100 pounds of nitrogen (N) and 15-20 pounds of sulfur. We used a preplant dry variable rate application of diammonium phosphate (DAP), potash and elemental sulfur based on soil tests, as well as a sidedress application of 32% with micronutrients around V5. Finally, a foliar application of fungicide and micronutrients is applied via drone, sprayer or airplane, depending on the price and weather.

The 2022 harvest showed us some exciting results. Our consistency of yields across the field was the best we’ve ever had. This contributed to our personal best yields on our farm — we have 70-plus crop years of records. While we saw slight improvement on our best ground, it was the mid-to-lower grounds that saw the biggest benefit.

Now we’ve got 16 rows of 2x2 frame mounted coulters that are in the shed waiting to be put on the corn planter for 2023. We had tanks and a pump on our planter from years of in-furrow pop-up fertilizer application, but we’re replumbing the tank and pump for 2x2 this coming 2023 season. We’re going to run John Deere frame mounted coulters that we bought from a “planter junkyard” for $450 per row. Including the extra hardware and labor, we expect to have around $12,000 in the upgrade.

This on planter upgrade to 2x2 will eliminate the fertilizer pass preplant that we ran last year. While the extra pass netted the desired result, it was somewhat problematic due to the tie up of labor and machinery that would have been planting beans at that time.

Logistics of liquid fertilizer blending, storage and delivery is still a work in progress for us and our local MFA Coop, but that’s a small hurdle compared to the extra bushels in the bins. Another change we’ll likely make it the amount and timing of applications. Putting on less N upfront will give us more flexibility to follow the environment with our N and S applications as the crop grows.

— Jason Erfling, Hermann, Mo.

A: Starter fertilizer program: All dry, 50 pounds AMS, 100 pounds MAP, 75 pounds potash, 2.5 pounds boron and 2.5 pounds zinc per acre. The P and K are adjusted by soil test. Planter is set for 2 inches beside seed, 4 inches deep. I normally plant at 2 inches deep, depending on soil moisture and temp.

No scientific data, but occasionally as a test, I let 3 rows (CIH planter) run out. Easy 20 bushel per acre reduction in corn, and 3-5 bushel reduction in soybeans.

The soils here in Cayuga County, N.Y., are glacial till with a natural pH at 5.5-6.0. The micros aren't much help until pH is over 6. If soil tests call for more than 1 ton of lime, I work it in with disk A/O field cultivator, delete the micros. This is common on new-to-me rented soil.

My normal corn program is bulk spread previous crop removal, plus any buildup required (or I can afford!), starter, then side dress 32% UAN at V4-6 with drop tubes 2 inches beside the row.

No starter on soybeans. I work all my dry bean ground, put all required fertilizer on with the planter. Basic program is 50 pounds AMS, 125 pounds MAP, 100 pounds K plus micros per soil test.

— Thane Benson, Cayuga County, N.Y.

A: We run a dual system on our planter. We ran nitrogen, sulfur, boron, 10-34-0 and a humic/fulvic blend 3-0-3. In furrow we use a BW Fusion blend of micros and calcium with some biology.

When using a typical in furrow starter, we saw 0-6 bushel per acre yield advantage. That's why we switched what we were doing. We were losing money to barely covering our costs. 2022 was the first year for the switch. Due to delayed planting and a slightly earlier than normal frost, our yields were capped, and we did not achieve the maximum return we should have. We had the best tissue tests ever and our 100-day corn was running 235-280 bushels per acre. It kept our 105 corn too healthy and frost capped the yield to 235-245 bushels, unfortunately. I can say neighbors doing this different without starter saw yields of 180-220 with most averaging in the 200 area overall.

This system allowed us to dry spread no NPK at a savings of $80+ per acre with no yield loss or soil test pull down. We plan to continue this for 2023.

— Myron Sylling, Spring Grove, Minn.

A: We use a 2x2 coulter and some in furrow. We’ve always used fertilizer at planting but switched to liquid in 2012. We've seen gains of 20-25 bushels per acre over the years.

— Don Skelly, Ashley, Ind.

A: This will be our first year doing a no-till corn plot. We put 5 gallons per acre of 6-24-6 on corn with no starter on beans. 

— Cody Peterson, Underwood, Minn.

A: I first started using the in-furrow liquid system to put compost tea in the furrow using Keeton seed firmers. Then I used Nachurs 9-18-9 with zinc for several years. Now I use it to apply a biological package along with complex sugars, humates and micronutrients.

— George Hupman, Loretto, Ky.

A: I put 6-24-6 in furrow at 4 gallons per acre then 10 gal of 32% nitrogen on top of row, both sides of corn furrow at planting. In no-till, any cover crop that is a grass will consume any nitrogen away from corn plants. Cover crops can rob corn. 

— Ron Woitaszewski, Wood River, Neb.

A: I used 13-14 gallons in furrow almost in contact with seed. I have heavy soil, and in 15 years, I've had no problem with contact with seed. I recently added a side furrow and also put down another 13-14 gallons. I want the fertilize close to the plants. I'm pushing for 300 bushel per acre yields. One wet year and lots of cattle manure got wet corn but over 530 bushels per acre.

— Doug Ried, Hinton, Iowa 

A: I use 7-18-6 in furrow and band 15 gallons 24 S UAN  with 15 gallons of water out the back with chems. 

— John Skinner, Littleton, N.C.

A: We put our starter fertilizer out with the air seeder when we are sowing wheat. We run an 1890 Drill with a 1910 air cart. We run wheat seed in the front two tanks and usually run MESZ fertilizer in the back tank. 

— John Young, Texas

A:  We use in furrow 3-14-14 with zinc applied through a Keeton seed firmer with a splitter attachment.

— Tom Kladar, Eagan, Minn.

A: I have used a starter fertilizer for over 30 years. Mixes have been tweaked over the years, but always strong on phosphorus. I am using a 6-24-6 mix with micro nutrients and extra zinc at 6 gallons per acre. The starter is made with food-grade ingredients and goes directly on the seed. I have no-tilled since 2000. Wouldn’t take the planter to the field without it. I apply it with two 8-row squeeze pumps. I also apply 25 gallons of 28% 3 inches off the row and sidedress the rest later. I’ve made side-by-side tests previously with about 19 bushel per acre average. 

— Jerome Schumacher, Varna, Ill.

A: I have 2x2x2 for half of my yearly 32% need and Totally Tubular for 5 gallons pop-up with biologicals on my Kinze planter. I would not plant no-till corn without either of these.

— Mark Huelsmann, Breese, Ill.

A: We have only been using 4 gallons of 10-34-0 when planting twin-row corn for quite a few years now. This is blended with some water and a biological directly over the seed behind a rebounder. Because we farm in southeastern Minnesota where the soils are naturally very high in phosphorus, we only look to provide synthetic phosphorus as an aid to corn germination. So long as we partner with nature through regenerative resource management and promote the biology, especially the mycorrhizal fungi, this is all the synthetic P we'll apply to the corn and the following soybean crops. Our yield trials have not shown an advantage to more for us.

— Rod Sommerfield, Mazeppa, Minn.

A: We stoped using starter fertilizer on our first soils in 2012. Today we no longer use starter fertilizer on any of our acres. On farm storage of fertilizer has been sold off. Equipment has now been modified. Fertilizer bins on air seeder are now used to seed multi-species cover crops, and fertilizer coulters on air drill are now used to apply small seeded clovers between small grain rows. Eliminating the dependance on fertilizer has strengthened our bottom line and allowed us to use biology to grow our own fertility renewably.  

— Kelly Lozensky, Max, N.D.

Free Starter Fertilizer eGuide

While there are a lot of benefits to using starter fertilizer, there are also a lot of key questions to answer before introducing it into your nutrient management plan. Download a free copy of No-Till Farmer’s “Successful Strategies for Reducing Costs, Increasing Yields with Starter Fertilizer” eGuide for expert advice on starter fertilizer, equipment pointers, the latest research and more. Click here to download your free copy.