Hundreds of field trials conducted across the Midwest before the 1990s focused on foliar fertilization of soybean, with a few for corn, mainly during the reproductive growth stages (R1 or more advanced). Fertilizers included nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and sulfur (S), although several trials included micronutrients. Researchers thought that foliar applied nutrients at these stages would delay leaf senescence and minimize “seed starvation” when nutrient uptake from soil or N gas fixation by nodulated soybean was limited. A few Iowa trials in the mid-1970s suggested that spraying an N-P-K-S mixture at the R5 or R6 growth stages could increase yield by 7-8 bu./acre. However, several subsequent trials in Iowa and other Midwest states until the early 2000s showed inconsistent results, with an equal frequency of yield increases and decreases.

My ISU research group's most recent study with foliar fertilization of soybean at the R2 to R3 growth stages was in 2005 and 2006. The results were summarized in an ICM News article last summer. Treatments included foliar fertilization (3 gal./acre of 3-18-18 sprayed at either the V5 or R2/R3 growth stages or at both stages, and 3.3 gal./acre of 28% UAN at the R2/R3 stage), fungicide applied alone at the R2/R3 stage (Headline), and a tankmix of the fungicide with 3-18-18 or UAN. On average, the fungicide increased yield by 2.9 bu./acre and delayed leaf senescence, although disease control was observed only for brown spot in three fields. Spraying 3-18-18 fertilizer on average did not affect yield, but spraying with UAN decreased yield. The UAN application caused moderate leaf burning and the 3-18-18 application caused no burning.

A great deal of research in Iowa since the mid-1990s focused on spraying nutrients to soybean at early growth stages. My research group conducted about 100 trials in which treatments were spraying foliar fertilizers with or without a tankmix with glyphosate herbicide at the V5 to V7 growth stages. The commercial products tested (not all products were included in all trials) included 8-0-8, 3-18-18, 10-10-10 (N-P2O5-K2O) with the two N-P-K products with or without S and with or without the micronutrients boron (B), iron (Fe) and zinc (Zn). Product rates ranged from 2 to 6 gal./acre applied once or twice (spaced 8-10 days). Foliar fertilization increased yield in 15-30% of fields, and about 15% of fields on average. Detailed results were published in a 2008 ICM News article. The average response to the best treatment across all fields was 0.7 bu./acre. Yield with single or double applications did not differ consistently. Treatment differences were not consistent across fields, but yield increases tended to be higher for the 3-gal./acre rate of 3-18-18. Adding S or micronutrients did not produce higher yield, and the highest rate of 10-10-10 and 8-0-8 sometimes reduced yield (some leaf burn was observed). A recent study in northeast Iowa by ISU Extension Field Agronomist Brian Lang showed a small soybean yield response to foliar applied manganese (Mn) only in one of three years.

Unfortunately, as explained in an ICM News article last summer, plant tissue testing is not a good index of P and K fertilizer needs for corn or soybean. This is also the case for other nutrients, mainly due to a lack of recent calibration research in Iowa or neighboring states showing how nutrient levels in plant tissue relate to crop response to fertilization. ISU research continues addressing this issue for N, P, K and S, however, and a new project is beginning to focus on micronutrients.