Starter Fertilizer Display: How low can YOU go?

When profits are squeezed, more farmers are asking about optimal starter fertilizer rates and how low starter fertilizer rates can be. These questions are the result of wanting to keep fertilizer costs down, to plant as many acres per day as possible, and to take advantage of more efficient, lower rates of banded phosphorus fertilizer compared to higher rates of broadcast phosphorus fertilizer.

To illustrate the role of starter fertilizer rates and seed placement, we put together displays showing the distance between fertilizer granules or droplets at various rates and row spacings. You can see several pictures with canola, corn, soybean, sugar beet, and wheat. We greatly thank John Heard with Manitoba Agriculture for helping with the displays.

The displays show the normal seed spacing for several crops with different dry or liquid fertilizer rates alongside the seed. These displays help visualize the distance between the seed and fertilizer at several rates. University research shows that to achieve the full starter effect, a fertilizer granule or droplet must be within 1.5-2.0 inches of each seed. If the fertilizer granule or droplet is more than 1.5-2.0 inches away from the seed, the starter effect is lost. Some people wonder about these displays, but you can prove it to yourself pretty easily. Just run the planter partially down on a hard surface at normal planting speed. You will see what you imagine as a constant stream of liquid fertilizer, ends up being individual droplets at normal speed, especially with narrow row spacings and lower fertilizer rates.

These displays help illustrate the minimum starter fertilizer rate to maintain fertilizer placement within 1.5-2.0 inches of each seed for the full starter effect. In addition to an adequate starter fertilizer rate, additional phosphorus and potassium should be applied to prevent nutrient mining, causing soil test levels to decline in years when minimum fertilizer rates are applied.

Phosphorus and the 4Rs: The progress we have made

The year 2019 marked the 350th anniversary of discovering phosphorus, an element required for all life on Earth and an essential plant nutrient in crop production. Over the years, we have fallen in and out of love with phosphorus as a necessary crop input and an unwanted water pollutant. Through improved knowledge and technologies, we have made great progress in phosphorus management in crop production. Let’s take a look at our accomplishments!

Right Rate

Phosphorus fertilizer need and amount is determined through soil testing, based on regionally calibrated soil test levels for each crop. Soils with low soil test phosphorus require more fertilizer to optimize crop production, whereas soils with excess soil test phosphorus may only require a starter rate. Across the upper Midwest and northern Great Plains, soil testing shows that our crops generally need MORE phosphorus to optimize crop yield (Figure 1), particularly as crop yield and crop phosphorus removal in grain has increased. Since plant-available phosphorus varies across any field, precision soil sampling (grid or zone) allows us to vary fertilizer rates to better meet crop phosphorus requirements in different parts of the field.

For phosphorus and the 4Rs article

Figure 1. Soil samples with soil test phosphorus below 15 ppm critical level (Olsen P) across the upper Midwest and northern Great Plains in 2019.

Right Source

Nearly all phosphorus fertilizer materials sold in the upper Midwest and northern Great Plains are some ammoniated phosphate source, which has better plant availability in calcareous soils. Monoammonium phosphate (MAP, 11-52-0) is the most common dry source and convenient as a broadcast or seed-placed fertilizer. Some new phosphate products also include sulfur and micronutrients in the fertilizer granule, helping improve nutrient distribution and handling. The most common fluid source is ammonium polyphosphate (APP, 10-34-0), which usually contains about 75% polyphosphate and 25% orthophosphate that is available for immediate plant uptake. Liquid polyphosphate has the impressive ability to carry 2% zinc in solution, whereas pure orthophosphate can only carry 0.05% zinc. Such fertilizer product synergies help optimize phosphorus and micronutrient use efficiency.

Right Time

Soils of the northern Great Plains are often cold in spring, and early season plant phosphorus uptake can be limited to new seedlings and their small root systems. We apply phosphorus before or at planting to ensure adequate plant-available phosphorus to young plants and foster strong plant development. In-season phosphorus is rarely effective as a preventive or corrective strategy.

Right Place

Proper phosphorus placement depends on your system and goals. Broadcasting phosphorus fertilizer followed by incorporation allows quick application and uniform distribution of high phosphorus rates. This strategy works well if you are building soil test phosphorus in conventional till systems. In no-till systems, broadcast phosphorus without incorporation is not ideal because soluble phosphorus left on the surface can move with runoff to water bodies.

In no-till systems, subsurface banded phosphorus is more popular because phosphorus is placed below the soil surface, thus less vulnerable to runoff losses. In general, banded phosphorus is more efficient than broadcast phosphorus. In the concentrated fertilizer band, less soil reacts with the fertilizer granules, thus reducing phosphorus fixation, allowing improved plant phosphorus uptake. Some planting equipment configurations have the ability to place fertilizer near or with seed, which further optimizes fertilizer placement and timing for young plants.

For more information on 4R phosphorus management, please read this excellent open-access review article: Grant, C.A., and D.N. Flaten. 2019. J. Environ. Qual. 48(5):1356–1369.

Fertilizing soybean

Soybean acres expanded greatly across the northern Great Plains and into Manitoba through the 1990s and 2000s. Today, soybean occupies a large portion of planted acres and makes a desirable rotation crop in canola, corn, and small grain production systems. As soybean has advanced northward and westward, soybean is often billed as a low maintenance crop, requiring no fertilizer or even seed inoculation. The fact is, if you expect soybean to be a low maintenance crop, you can expect low yield results. Achieving high soybean yields starts with a good, long-term soil fertility plan.


Soybean yielding 40 bu/acre requires about 200 lb/acre nitrogen, but luckily you do not have to provide all the nitrogen! Soybean relies on nitrogen-fixing bacteria to meet its nitrogen requirements. Legumes, like soybean, form a symbiotic relationship with N-fixing bacteria, housed in root nodules, to provide sufficient nitrogen. Each legume species requires a unique N-fixing bacterium, thus an inoculant for lentil or pea does not work on soybean. Soybean seed must be inoculated with the N-fixing bacteria Bradyrhizobia japonicum. Ensure you have the proper soybean-specific seed inoculant. You can count the number of nodules on soybean roots and verify the presence of active N-fixing bacteria in the nodules with bright pink centers. These soybean plants have enough active N-fixing bacteria to meet soybean nitrogen requirements.

For new soybean growers, the N-fixing bacteria Bradyrhizobia japonicum is not naturally present in soil and seed inoculation is required. During the first few years of soybean establishment, supplemental nitrogen may be required to achieve good soybean yield while the N-fixing bacteria population builds. University of Minnesota researchers in the northern Red River Valley showed that soils with less than 75 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch) required 40-50 lb/acre additional preplant nitrogen. If successful inoculation and good nodule counts are observed in the first year, then no additional nitrogen should be required in subsequent years.

Plant soybean on soils with less than 100 lb/acre nitrate-N (0-24 inch), if possible. High residual soil nitrate may delay root nodulation with N-fixing bacteria and increase the severity of iron deficiency chlorosis (IDC). Because soybean can fix its own nitrogen, you may recoup better economic return on soils with high residual nitrate with crops that do not fix their own nitrogen like corn or wheat.


Soybean does not respond to phosphorus as dramatically as grass crops like corn or wheat do. Nevertheless, medium to high soil test P are required to achieve good soybean yields. Soybean responds to broadcast P placement better than seed-placed or sideband P. In dryland regions where soybean is planted with air drills, seed-placed P or sideband P is often the only opportunity to apply phosphorus. You must pay special attention to seed-placed fertilizer safety with soybean. An air drill with narrow row spacing (6 inch) should not exceed 20 lb/acre P2O5 (40 lb/acre monoammonium phosphate, MAP, 11-52-0). Fertilizer rates exceeding the seed safety limit may delay seedling emergence and reduce plant population. For wider row spacings, no fertilizer should be placed with seed.


Soybean removes far more potassium in harvested seed than canola or wheat. Soybean yielding 40 bu/acre removes about 60 lb/acre K2O, while wheat yielding 60 bu/acre removes only 20 lb/acre K2O. Pay close attention to potassium removal across the crop rotation. After soybean is added to the crop rotation, cumulative potassium removal greatly increases, and declining soil test K is observed over time.

Do not place potassium with soybean seed; delayed seedling emergence and reduced plant population can occur. Any potassium fertilizer should be broadcasted or banded away from seed.


Sulfur deficiency in soybean is uncommon, yet sometimes observed on coarse-textured soils with low organic matter (< 3.0%). Soybean response to sulfur is usually confined to certain zones within fields. With additional sulfur, soybean can produce more vegetative growth, but more vegetative growth may increase soybean disease severity, such as white mold. The residual sulfur remaining after sulfur-fertilized canola, corn, or small grain is often sufficient to meet soybean sulfur requirements.


Soybean is very susceptible to iron deficiency chlorosis (IDC). Soybean IDC is not caused by low soil iron but instead by soil conditions that decrease iron uptake by soybean roots. Soybean IDC risk and severity are primarily related to soil carbonate content (calcium carbonate equivalent, CCE) and worsened by salinity (electrical conductivity, EC).

Soybean IDC is common in the upper Midwest, northern Great Plains, and Canadian Prairies, where soils frequently have high carbonate and/or salinity. Within a field, IDC symptoms are usually confined to soybean IDC hotspots with high carbonate and salinity; however, symptoms may appear across a field if high carbonate and salinity are present throughout the field. Soybean IDC severity is made worse in cool, wet soils and soils with high residual nitrate. Soil pH is not a good indicator of soybean IDC risk because some high pH soils lack high carbonate and salinity, which are the two principal risk factors.

Guidelines for managing soybean IDC:

  1. Soil test each field, zone, or grid for soil carbonate and salinity. This may require soil sampling prior to soybean (possibly outside of your usual soil sampling rotation) or consulting previous soil sampling records.
  2. Plant soybean in fields with low carbonate and salinity (principal soybean IDC risk factors).
  3. Choose an IDC tolerant soybean variety on fields with moderate to high carbonate and salinity. This is your most practical option to reduce soybean IDC risk. Consult seed dealers, university soybean IDC ratings, and neighbor experiences when searching for IDC tolerant soybean varieties.
  4. Plant soybean in wider rows. Soybean IDC tends to be less severe in wide-row spacings (more plants per row, plants are closer together) than narrow-row spacings or solid-seeded spacings.
  5. Apply chelated iron fertilizer (e.g., high quality FeEDDHA) in-furrow at planting. In-furrow FeEDDHA application may not be enough to help an IDC susceptible variety in high IDC risk soils (see points #2 and #3).
  6. Avoid planting soybean on soils with very high IDC risk.


Zinc deficiency in soybean is rare, even on soils with low soil test Zn. Soybean seed yield response to zinc is limited on soils with less than 0.5 ppm Zn. More zinc sensitive crops like corn, dry bean, flax, and potato will respond to zinc on soils with less than 1.0 ppm Zn. If zinc sensitive crops also exist in the crop rotation, you may apply zinc with broadcast phosphorus or potassium during the soybean year as another opportunity to build soil test Zn across the crop rotation.

Caution: Ammonium Sulfate with Seed

Seed-placed fertilizer is a common practice to increase seedling vigor and optimize fertilizer placement and crop response. This is a popular strategy to apply phosphorus for canola, corn, and wheat. However, the seed-placed fertilizer rate cannot exceed seed safety limits, otherwise seedling germination and plant population may be reduced. Sulfur is very important in canola growth and development, so farmers often try placing ammonium sulfate (AMS) with canola seed as well! This can create big problems.

A team of agronomists and soil scientists at the University of Manitoba conducted greenhouse and field studies, examining the effect of seed-placed ammonium sulfate on canola plant population and seed yield. The plant population loss was much greater on soils with pH > 7.5 (Figure 1). The high pH soils contained calcium carbonate (CaCO3), which reacts with ammonium sulfate to create calcium sulfate (gypsum) and ammonium carbonate. The higher reaction pH of ammonium carbonate produces free ammonia (NH3). Free ammonia (NH3) in soil is toxic to living organisms and kills germinating seeds. Acute ammonia toxicity is a major concern with fertilizer materials that liberate free ammonia (NH3) in soil, such as anhydrous ammonia (82-0-0) or urea (46-0-0), ultimately reducing plant population if you are not careful with fertilizer rate and placement.

For Caution: Ammonium Sulfate with Seed post

Figure 1. Ammonium sulfate (AMS, 21-0-0-24S) included with seed-placed monoammonium phosphate (MAP, 10-52-0) reduced canola plant population. Soil carbonate content is 21% CCE and 0.5% CCE in knoll soil and hollow soil, respectively. Brandon, Manitoba.

Across the landscape, soil pH and carbonate content will vary. The well-drained lower landscape positions (swales, hollows) often have acidic to neutral pH and little carbonate. The upper landscape positions (knobs, knolls), suffering decades of soil erosion, often have high pH and ample carbonate (Figure 1). The risk of plant population loss is greater on eroded knobs where adding ammonium sulfate can create ammonia toxicity concern.

Considerable yield loss will occur if canola plant population is less than 70 plants per square meter. Even with low fertilizer rates, the interaction of seed-placed ammonium sulfate and phosphorus can greatly reduce canola plant population. In Manitoba, 25% plant population loss was observed with only 8 lb/acre S and 18 lb/acre P2O5 (Figure 2).For Caution: Ammonium Sulfate with Seed article

Figure 2. Ammonium sulfate (AMS, 21-0-0-24S) included with seed-placed monoammonium phosphate (MAP, 10-52-0) reduced canola plant population. Carman, Manitoba, 2011.

Sulfur is vital for successful canola production, but it must be applied safely. There are new air drill configurations with innovative seed and fertilizer placement options. Seed safety is paramount with seed-placed fertilizer. Ammonium sulfate should be broadcasted or banded away from seed (mid-row). Keeping ammonium sulfate away from seed will also allow you to maximize seed-placed phosphorus rates and efficiency without jeopardizing seed safety.

Placing ammonium sulfate with seed should be an emergency option only. Canola plant population loss should be expected, even at low ammonium sulfate rates, on soils with pH greater than 7.5 and calcium carbonate.

5 Things You Should Know About Phosphorus

1. The two accepted soil phosphorus tests in the North Central Region are the Olsen and Bray-P1 methods

The Olsen (bicarbonate) method is the standard soil P test in the North Central region. This method was developed to work on soils with low and high pH. The Olsen method works well in precision soil sampling, where the same field may have zones with acidic and calcareous soils. The Bray P-1 method is another accepted method in our region, but not always recommended. This method was developed in the U.S. Corn Belt, has a long history of soil test calibration studies and works well on acidic soils. The Bray P-1 method fails on soils with pH greater than 7, producing results with false low soil test P. Therefore, it has remained limited to the U.S. Corn Belt proper. The Mehlich-3 method was introduced as a multi-nutrient soil extractant. But like the Bray P-1 method, the acidic Mehlich-3 method does not perform well on calcareous soils; therefore, it has not gained approval by universities in the northern Great Plains and Canadian Prairies.

All soil P test methods are designed to predict the probability of crop response to P fertilization. The methods measure the plant-available P pool. Since the soil test method is an index of availability, the units are reported in parts per million (ppm) and ranked low, medium, or high based on university soil test calibration research. No soil P test method measures the actual pounds of available P in soil, they are only indexes of crop response.

 2. Most soils in the Northern Plains/Canadian Prairies region could use more phosphorus

Soils in the region are naturally low in P and historical P fertilizer use has been low, relative to crop P removal. As a result, many areas in the region still have low soil test P (below soil test critical level of 15 ppm Olsen P) after many decades of crop production. In other words, most farmers are not over-applying P. In fact, soils with low soil test P should receive moderate to high rates of fertilizer P each year to achieve good crop yield and maximize profitability.

Figure 1. Map developed using AGVISE soil test data. AGVISE has created regional summaries like this for the past 40 years. Check out the summary data for Montana and Canada and summaries of other nutrients and soil properties here.

3. You should use starter phosphorus fertilizer

Starter fertilizer placed near, or with the seed, is critical for crops like corn and wheat, regardless of soil test P level. A P fertilizer band placed near the seed will ensure soluble P near developing plant roots and results in vigorous early season growth, which is important in cold, wet soil conditions. Placing P fertilizer in bands also improves P use efficiency, especially in soils with relatively low or high pH. Phosphorus availability is greatest near soil pH 6.5. Since changing soil pH is difficult and costly, fertilizer P use efficiency is more easily improved with application in fertilizer bands to reduce the volume of soil involved in P fixation reactions.

4. Phosphorus source doesn’t really matter

No matter the starting material, all P fertilizers go through the same chemical reactions in the soil. It does not matter if the fertilizer starts as a poly-phosphate or ortho-phosphate. Within about one week in the soil, all P fertilizer sources react to form lower solubility compounds. What is more important than source is the placement of the fertilizer to increase availability (banding) and the rate of actual P fertilizer applied.

5. Phosphorus can be an environmental concern

Phosphorus entering surface waters can create algae blooms and fish kills. Since P is not mobile in soil, the P leaching risk is very low. However, P does move to surface waters with soil particles when erosion occurs. In cold climates like those on the northern Great Plains and Canadian Prairies, dissolved P released from vegetation can move with snow melt to surface water.

For more information about phosphorus and its reactions in soil, explore the links below:

Understanding Phosphorus in Minnesota Soils (Univ. Minnesota)

Understanding Plant Nutrients: Soil and Applied Phosphorus (Univ. Wisconsin)

Phosphorus Facts: Soil, plant, and fertilizer (Kansas State Univ.)


Fallow Syndrome: Preventing Phosphorus Problems

Some crops that do not support mycorrhizal fungi (left to right: sugar beet, canola, radish).

Producers in the northern Great Plains and upper Midwest need to consider the risk of fallow syndrome in their crop nutrition plans. You are probably asking, what is “fallow syndrome” and why should I care? After all, summer fallow is not that common anymore! But the greater number of Prevented Planting acres in 2019 and 2020 meant that we have had many unintended fallow fields, making fallow syndrome a serious and widespread concern for the next year.

Fallow syndrome is an induced phosphorus deficiency caused by a lack of mycorrhizal fungi in soil. Some plant species, like corn and wheat, rely heavily on mycorrhizae to colonize the plant root system and help acquire important nutrients like phosphorus and zinc. If soil is lacking sufficient mycorrhizae to colonize plant roots, a case of fallow syndrome will increase phosphorus fertilizer needs and even cost crop yield potential.

Understanding mycorrhizae

Mycorrhizae fungi occur naturally in soils and readily colonize plant roots. Upon root colonization, mycorrhizae fungal filaments act as extensions of the root system and increase the soil volume available for plant water and nutrient uptake. The combined root-mycorrhizae surface area can be up to 10-fold greater than roots without mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae depend on living plant roots to support stable mycorrhizae populations. However, not all plant species host and support mycorrhizae growth. Some common field crops are non-host species and their planting results in rapid drops in mycorrhizae populations.

Summer fallow or unplanted cropland, such as Prevented Planting in 2020, is a classic example of providing no or few living plant roots in soil to maintain mycorrhizae populations. In addition, some crop species do not support mycorrhizae, such as those in the goosefoot family (sugar beet) and mustard family (canola, radish, turnip). Following a classic case of summer fallow or a non-mycorrhizae supporting crop, the mycorrhizae population in soil will quickly drop. A cover crop mix that included a grass species (e.g. barley, rye) should still support mycorrhizae and prevent fallow syndrome concerns.

Preventing fallow syndrome

The easiest prevention strategy after fallow is planting a crop species without fallow syndrome risk like soybean, canola, or sugar beet. Avoid planting susceptible crops like corn and wheat. These crops are highly dependent on mycorrhizae to acquire phosphorus, and extra starter phosphorus will be required if fallow syndrome risk is present.

To reduce fallow syndrome risk in corn or wheat, extra phosphorus fertilizer must be placed with or near the seed. Applying more broadcast phosphorus or relying on high soil test P will not prevent fallow syndrome. The starter phosphorus rate should be 20 to 40 lb/acre P2O5. In some university research trials, up to 60 lb/acre P2O5 with 2×2-band placement near the seed was needed to prevent corn yield loss to fallow syndrome.

For wheat, these phosphorus rates are typically seed safe with monoammonium phosphate (MAP, 11-52-0). Most corn planters can safely apply 20 lb/acre P2O5 (5 gal/acre ammonium polyphosphate, APP, 10-34-0) in the furrow. For medium/fine-textured soils with good soil moisture at planting, you can generally apply up to 10 gal/acre 10-34-0 (40 lb/acre P2O5) safely in the furrow at 30-inch row spacing. Higher 10-34-0 rates may exceed seed safety limits on dry soils or coarse-textured soils and require 2×2-band placement to maintain seed safety.

Complete liquid fertilizers, such as 6-24-6 or 9-18-9, are not suggested for preventing fallow syndrome. Compared to 10-34-0, the products have lower P concentration that result in less applied phosphorus, even if used at maximum seed safe rates. The extra N + K2O in “complete” liquid fertilizers increases the salt index and lowers the seed safe rate.