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The Return On Investment for Starter Fertilizer in Corn

Does starter fertilizer get worthwhile results in corn? Here’s an agronomist’s close look at the process and the payoff.

By Marilyn Cummins

Is starter fertilizer in corn worth the investment in application equipment, inputs and time to apply it? Based on the potential for higher yields and decreased grain drying costs from using a starter, the answer can be yes, says Cody Hornaday, Technical Agronomist for White River Cooperative in Loogootee, Indiana.

While getting a master’s degree in agronomy from Purdue University in 2017, his research was a part of ongoing studies into how continuous corn responds to starter fertilizer. He put a pencil to the team’s results, and using current corn, nitrogen and propane costs, he put together a return-on-investment analysis for myFarmLife.com. In this example, a grower could see a positive return of $13.49 an acre in corn by using starter fertilizer when accounting for yield increases, drier grain at harvest and cost of treatment.

Here’s the analysis, in detail.

Putting a Value on Drier Grain, Higher Yields

Hornaday and his peers found that, compared to using no starter fertilizer, starter treatments consistently lowered grain moisture at harvest due to faster plant development and fewer days between planting and silking (See Fig. 1 and the treatment key describing the treatments). The “Starter High” (SH) treatment decreased moisture an average of 1.7 percentage points from the control, so, for example, if the control corn tested as 22% moisture at harvest, the SH-treated corn would be at 20.3% moisture the same day, he says.

Treatment Key (for all three charts below)
PU = Pop-up (in-furrow): 3 lbs/A N and 12 lbs/A P2O5
S = Starter 2”x2” only: 25 lbs/A N and 23lbs/A P2O5
P+S = Pop-up + starter: 3 lbs/A N and 12 lbs/A P2O5 in-furrow, with 22 lbs/A N and 19 lbs/A P2O5 applied as 2”x2”
SH = Starter “high”: 50 lbs/A N and 45 lbs/A P2O5

He computed the savings in propane costs from the drier grain based on the average number of Btu it takes to dry one bushel of corn, then converted that to a more relatable savings-per-acre amount for each treatment, based on an average yield of 205 bushels per acre (Fig. 2). Following the SH treatment through this analysis, a grower could potentially save $6.07 an acre in propane costs alone, not accounting for other costs of grain drying saved, such as electricity and labor. Growers could also benefit from starting and finishing harvest sooner, reducing the chance for a negative weather event to impact the crop in the field.

The other benefit Hornaday factored in from the research is the average yield increase from these same starter treatments over 10 site years (Fig. 3), with the highest being 4.9 bushels per acre with the SH.

So, on the plus side for the SH starter fertilizer treatment, we have grain moisture savings of $6.07/acre plus a per-acre yield increase valued at $16.30, using a corn price of $3.30/bushel = $22.37 realized savings and additional grain income per acre.

Cost of Treatment

The cost of starter treatment can vary widely, depending on a grower’s equipment and operation, but for this analysis, Hornaday made these assumptions:

  • Grower plants 750 acres of corn a year using a 12-row corn planter with no existing liquid fertilizer attachments
  • Grower will apply SH starter treatment – 50 lb/acre of nitrogen as 28% urea ammonium nitrate (UAN) plus 45 lb/acre P2O5 (phosphorus), followed by anhydrous ammonia for the balance of the usual amount of N applied for the season.
  • Added fertilizer input cost based on price difference for the 50 lb/acre UAN used at planting instead of equivalent of anhydrous ammonia: 50 lb X $0.047/lb of N = $2.35 acre additional expense for liquid N
  • New planter hardware needed to apply something similar to the 2X2 SH treatment used in the research: Conceal® nutrient placement system from Precision Planting® for both sides of the row @ $950/row X 12 rows = $11,400 investment
  • Assume grower would get at least six years use of Conceal before needing to replace parts. Planting 750 corn acres a year X 6 = 4,500 acres planted for initial cost of hardware, resulting in an equipment cost of $2.53/acre($11,400/4,500 acres)
  • Average farm corn yield = 205 bu/acre
  • Add in an arbitrary estimate of $4/acre to cover contingencies of a potential later average planting date (and corresponding possible dip in yield) and additional labor costs if the use of starter fertilizer slows down planting.*
  • Analysis does not include additional tractor fuel to pull weight of starter, potential of higher corn prices, benefit from faster canopy close that reduces weed pressure, or higher yield results expected from using Conceal, cost of P2O5 (minor cost compared to N component of SH starter).

Return on investment in liquid starter (SH treatment)

Grain moisture savings = $6.07/acre

Yield increase income = $16.30/acre

Added cost of SH treatment versus no-starter program = $8.88/acre

Savings and income ($6.07 + $16.30) – Cost ($8.88) = $13.49/acre total ROI

Hornaday notes that with the numbers and assumptions in this analysis, a yield increase of just 2.7 bushels per acre  (about ½ what was realized in these studies) would pay for the cost of using this starter fertilizer. “But growers shouldn’t overlook the substantial benefit to ROI from harvesting drier grain,” he says. Dial that in here, and you could break even thanks to a yield bump of less than 1 additional bushel per acre.

If the grower were using a high-speed, high capacity planter – such as the new Fendt® Momentum™ planter equipped with SpeedTube® seed tubes from Precision Planting, its industry-leading-capacity 1,000-gallon liquid fertilizer tank and twin 65-bushel seed tanks – the planting speed could be 10 mph versus 5 mph with fewer stops for fills than any other central-fill planter. That would lessen the chance and cost of longer planting time/lower yields from later planting dates. In addition, Momentum’s Load Logic™ weight management system makes it possible to carry a large volume of liquid fertilizer without causing undue soil compaction.