Finding new ways to trim nitrogen costs is paying off for this veteran no-till family.

Mike Starkey doesn’t have a problem investing dollars in fertilizer to push up yields. But the trained accountant and veteran no-tiller from Brownsburg, Ind., certainly expects a favorable return on his nutrient investment.

Starkey, his brother Dave and their two sons Nick and Jeff understand that saving just a few dollars per acre is critical with 3,400 acres of no-tilled corn and soybeans.

To do so, they rely on 100% no-till, improved soil structure, reduced nutrient needs, cover crops, soil amendments and are taking a new look at fertilizer application timing.

The family has followed a continuous no-till corn and soybean rotation for 8 years. They have gradually added 200 acres of annual ryegrass as a cover crop over the past 3 years. 

While not getting fertilizer down last fall may be a major concern for some no-tillers (see pages 46 to 54), it isn’t a problem for the Starkeys. They don’t apply any nitrogen in the fall and avoid pre-plant applications.

Reduce The Nitrogen Needs

Because of improved water infiltration and nutrient usage, the Starkeys have backed off considerably on nitrogen rates. That’s because no-till leads to better soil structure and higher organic matter. 

Seven years ago, the Starkeys were applying 200 to 225 pounds of nitrogen per acre based on university recommendations of 1.1 pounds of nitrogen for every expected bushel.

Since then, they’ve been able to produce a bushel of corn with only 0.75 pounds of nitrogen and expect this to drop even further in the future. Corn yields keep increasing even though they’re applying 50 pounds less nitrogen per acre.

More Planter Nitrogen

They apply 25 gallons per acre of 28% liquid nitrogen along with 5 gallons per acre of thiosul liquid sulfur 3 1/2 inches from the seed. They add 3 pounds per acre of 9-18-3 pop-up fertilizer in the trench below the seed. This gives them about 80 pounds of nitrogen applied with the no-till planter.

“Applying liquid sulfur is critical with our deep, poorly drained silt loam and silty clay loam soils with a 0% to 2% slope,” says Starkey.

Sidedressing Efficiencies

Next spring, the Starkeys plan to switch from anhydrous ammonia to a 28% nitrogen solution for sidedressing speed, convenience and safety. Since the knife slot won’t have to be sealed, this will speed up application. Using a narrower knife with the liquid nitrogen solution will also result in less soil covering young corn plants.

On-farm test plot data indicates yields range from 150 bushels per acre with 50 pounds of sidedressed nitrogen up to 165 bushels per acre with 100 pounds of added nitrogen.

“With last year’s weather conditions, it took us until July 1 to finish sidedressing nitrogen and that’s simply too late,” he says. “We’re looking to speed it up this year.”

Adding Gypsum

Always looking to improve, Starkey has 7 years experience with using gypsum to improve soil structure and infiltration.

“Applying gypsum has resulted in a great improvement in soil structure and has helped our calcium and magnesium ratios,” he says. “It also helps reduce flood damage and has softened some of our hard clay soils.”

Gypsum is applied to soils high in magnesium yet low in calcium with a 6.5 to 6.8 pH range. When the pH is lower, high-calcium lime is applied.

Cover Crop Benefits

“We’ve found using annual ryegrass as a cover crop reduces fertilizer costs, scavenges excessive nitrogen left in the soil for use by the corn crop, boosts yields from increased water availability and helps improve manure management,” Starkey says. 

Another goal with annual ryegrass is to avoid having to occasionally subsoil to break up compaction. 

“With the root structure we have developed with annual ryegrass, I’m thinking this will let us avoid having to take the tractor and subsoiler to the field,” he says. 

 With foresight, planning and good management, the Starkey family has turned serious attention to these fertilizer management strategies into highly profitable no-till corn yields. Other no-tillers can do the same.