Alma Center, WI crop/dairy producer Blake Heller was on a mission. For years, Heller had used a starter fertilizer to get the corn crop he grows on 1,500 acres off to a good start. But with fertility levels on his crop ground steadily climbing over the years — thanks in large part to a readily available supply of manure from his 1,200-cow dairy — Heller was starting to wonder if investing nearly $15,000/year in starter was sound strategy.

“You hear people saying starter will give you a yield benefit no matter how high your fertility,” says Heller, who crops a total of 3,200 acres. Along with corn, (50% harvested as silage) soybeans and alfalfa are the mainstays of his rotation. “The question I kept coming back to was, ‘How much of a bang am I really getting for my buck?’ I absolutely hate to spend money when I don't need to.”

Heller used an index developed by University of Wisconsin soil scientists to arrive at an answer. The index uses an average planting date and variety maturity length to estimate the probability of getting a yield boost when using a starter. “In our case, we like a longer season variety,” notes Heller. “The index showed that with a starter, we'd likely get a yield boost in just one year out of eight. We figured we'd have a better chance of getting higher yields by focusing on getting our entire crop planted earlier.”

University of Wisconsin Extension soil scientist Larry Bundy says it's important to keep current fertility levels at the forefront when using this kind of table. “The probabilities are based on an assumption that fertility levels are high,” he says. “If soil tests indicate low levels of phosphorous and potassium, the probability of getting a yield increase with a starter fertilizer is greater. There can be a lot of variation between individual farms and individual fields.”

Gauging whether his decision to forego starter was on target will likely take some time, says Heller. Last year, his corn ground yielded more than 200 bu./acre, an all-time personal best. He says favorable weather and switching to narrow rows (from 30 in. to 20 in. rows) were factors. “We had near perfect weather for growing corn,” he says. “So not using a starter looked like a pretty smart move. Let's see what happens when we get a poor (weather) year.”

Along with reducing his overall fertilizer bill, Heller figures bypassing starter led to other savings as well. These include:

  • Lower initial equipment cost. Heller figures not needing fertilizer boxes and companion equipment allowed him to save at least $6,000 on the new, 24-row planter he purchased last spring. Foregoing insecticide boxes/equipment reduced the purchase price by another $10,000. “Overall, we paid about two-thirds of what we would have paid for a planter with all the bells and whistles on it,” he says.

  • Longer equipment life. “Anytime you have fertilizer around metal, rust is going to be an issue,” says Heller. “The way I see it, the planter we just bought should be around for as long as I care to farm.”

  • Reduced labor requirements. Keeping fertilizer boxes on the planter filled during the planting operation meant sending a truck and driver on a 40-mile roundtrip to a co-op pickup point twice a day. “Counting the time it took to stop and fill up the boxes, we were easily tying up five to six hours a day in labor,” notes Heller. “At $15/hour, you're talking $75-90/day. It's not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. But why pay it if you don't have to?”