Have You Been Applying Fertilizer Wrong?

(Rick Koelsch, University of Nebraska Extension )

Littered across the right-hand window of his tractor, Matt Foes scribbles notes during the hours he spends in the seat. His goal? Find a way to be better next season.

In 2018 Foes moved back to the family farm after years of working in research for seed and equipment companies. In the years before he came back he decided he would do whatever it took to make sure his farm was the most efficient and profitable it could be.

“I always assume I don’t know the best way to do something, so I learn from other people,” the Bureau County, Ill. farmer says. “My dream is to figure out how to do things better than I have in the past.”

With a bachelor’s in organic chemistry and a master’s in agronomy under his belt, he’s balking at tradition. On Foes’ one-man operation across 2,300 acres he has to be strategic about how he spends his time and money—and not just accept status quo or doing something because “that’s how it’s always been done.”

“I farm by the rule of 5s,” Foes says. “I want to be 5% better at growing, 5% less expensive and 5% better at marketing”

The first step he took to put the rule of fives in action was to know how much it costs to grow an acre of crop. After that, he took a fine-toothed comb over his expenses to find out what is paying and where he needed to make adjustments to decrease costs or increase yield.

“Consider what kind of fertilizer you’re putting on, how mobile they are and where you put them,” Foes says. “P and K don’t move, but N does.”

For years his family has put dry P and K on the surface and buried N 7” to 8” in the soil before planting corn. By the time seed hits the soil, none of those nutrients are in the optimal position for plant uptake.

“We’re backwards with fertility, we put the immobile stuff on top and the mobile stuff too deep,” he says. He puts nutrients where they need to be to end up in the root zone at planting. After that he spoon-feeds corn nutrients in critical stages.

Spoon-feeding the crop is more nitrogen efficient. So, instead of applying 1+ pounds of N per anticipated bu. of yield, he only applies .8 to .85 lbs. About 25% of his overall N needs are applied before seed hits the soil, with the remaining three-quarters fed throughout the season.

Don’t discount the value of potassium-rich stalks either, Foes adds. Break down corn stalks, even if you’re concerned about tire wear and tear it’s worth it. “The K you have in those stalks could pay for the tires as they break down over time.”

When it comes to P and K he applies according to crop removal rate for the upcoming season—not last season. This ensures he’s keeping the crop fed based on current goals and not historical yields.

His fertilizer strategy has helped him address two of the three rules of fives: better at growing and less expensive. Foes says this strategy has helped him grow 300 bu. per acre corn on just 1.5% organic matter soils and boosted his kernel girth from 16 rows around to 18.

“We’re going to deal with prices that have a 3 in front of them for a while,” he says. His strategic plans are putting him in a better profitability and sustainability position for years of high-$3 corn prices. “What I learned in $6 corn can help keep us profitable in sub-$4 corn.”


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