Support Plant Health with Starter and Foliar Fertilizers

FBN Network

Feb 16, 2024

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Every season, crops are planted with hopes of reaching their full genetic yield potential. Nearly every year, though, plants struggle to reach this potential due to many external factors outside of a grower’s control.

Growers do, however, have control of supplementing their crops with starter and foliar fertilizers to help support plant health that ultimately can help minimize these yield-robbing events. 

In this blog post, we will cover:

  • Starter Fertilizer

    • How to Use Starter Fertilizer

    • Benefits of Starter Fertilizer 

    • Starter Fertilizer Placement

    • How Much Starter Fertilizer Do Plants Need?

  • Foliar Fertilizer

    • How to Use Foliar Fertilizer

    • Benefits of Foliar Feeding

    • Concerns About Foliar Feeding

  • Selecting the Right Crop Nutrition Products

  • Fertilizer Application Methods 

    • In-Furrow Fertilizer Applications

    • Starter Replacement

    • Starter and Sidedress Enhancement

  • How to Identify Nutrient Deficiencies in Growing Plants

  • Shop for Crop Nutrition Products 

How to Use Starter Fertilizer

Many farmers in the Corn Belt apply a starter fertilizer — they know that early corn often gets planted into cool, wet soils. While these conditions can compromise germination and stand establishment, they also set the stage for starters to do their best work.

Cool soil temperatures are known to slow down root growth. Starter fertilizers aid in supplying nutrients to seedling plants, even though fertile soils exist outside the young plant’s root zone. Low soil temperatures also affect the rate of nitrogen (N) that is released from the organic matter by slowing down microbial activity.

Starter fertilizer can lessen the characteristics of compaction by contributing additional vigor to seedling root growth that may allow root penetration through the compaction zones.

Certain soil types and lower levels of soil fertility can benefit from starter fertilizers. These would include, but are not limited to: 

  • sandy soils with irrigation 

  • sandy soils with low organic matter

  • high pH soils, soils with low fertility levels

  • good heavy soils that have nutrient tie-up potential

With the popularity of no-till, strip-till, or simply reduced tillage, starter fertilizer may have its biggest impact. This may be due to the increased water retention and crop residues remaining on the soil surface creating cooler soil temperatures where these farming practices are implemented.

4 Benefits of Starter Fertilizer

Starter fertilizers help maximize crop yield potential, and the benefits are easy to spot, including:  

  1. A more uniform plant stand

  2. Early seedling vigor

  3. Reduced weed competition

  4. Possible yield increases 

While no one can guarantee a yield increase, starter is an excellent step in achieving yield goals year after year.

Starter Fertilizer Placement 

How the starter fertilizer gets to the young plants is important. The two common methods are in-furrow and two-by-two band.


In-furrow fertilizer application means to place the fertilizer in the seed furrow directly on and with the seed at planting. The set-up cost can be less for in-furrow applications, because many planters are already mounted with the necessary equipment for this application.

This comes with some risk, however. Most commonly used fertilizer contains salt. Too much salt in furrow can cause reduced germination and reduced root growth. This can cause poor plant populations and stunted growth in plants.

Two-by-Two Band

Another popular placement is called a 2-by-2 band, which places the fertilizer 2 inches to the side and 2 inches deeper than the seed placement at planting. This placement will alleviate the salt risk factor mentioned above. 

However, there can be substantial cost involved to set up a planter for two-by-two placement. Slower planter speeds are required as well.

How Much Starter Fertilizer Do Plants Need?

Rates used for in-furrow fertilizer depend on:  

  • the soil type 

  • carbon exchange capacity (CEC)

  • pH of the soil to be planted

In many cases, only nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) are applied as starter fertilizer.

The most common liquid starter fertilizer used is 10-34-0. Some of the most significant benefits come from the added P. Often, a newly formed plant is unable to take advantage of P in the soil under cool, wet conditions, due to the plant's slowed root growth. A starter with P places the essential nutrient directly by the root, making it readily accessible.

A soil test may indicate the need for other nutrients, which can normally be added to the mix and applied as starter. Remember that nutrients applied as starter should be deducted from the total fertilizer required from the soil test recommendation. Always read and follow label instructions. 

Download the FBN® Crop Nutrition Product Placement Guide

How to Use Foliar Fertilizer

By definition, foliar feeding is the application of crop nutrients in a liquid form onto the plant’s leaf surface. The nutrients are then absorbed through the leaf’s stomata, which are the pores on a plant’s leaves and stems that facilitate gas exchange and help them absorb essential elements.

On many farms, foliar applications are a reliable method to correct crop nutrient deficiencies and provide micronutrients to crops during critical growth stages, but they are not typically used to replace large quantities of macronutrients, such as P or N requirements.

7 Benefits of Foliar Feeding

Like many farming practices, as foliar feeding has become more common, agronomists and researchers have debated the value of foliar feeding various crops versus soil-applied fertilizer to maximize crop yield. Here are a few of the possible benefits:

  1. Nutrient efficiency with foliar applications can be higher than soil-applied fertilizer due to insect root damage, soil drainage, drought conditions, soil pH, and other soil stresses

  2. Eliminates soil interaction with the nutrients being applied — foliar feeding is not affected by soil pH

  3. Convenient way to apply small amounts of certain micronutrients that roots cannot supply from the soil

  4. Plant response time is quick to correct deficiencies 

  5. Return on investment (ROI) potential from increased yield is relatively inexpensive as small rates of nutrients are typically applied

  6. Corrects nutrient shortages for maximum production after plant growth has begun

  7. Can be used as a supplemental fertility program following a regular soil and/or tissue test

7 Concerns About Foliar Feeding

Although there are many possible benefits to foliar feeding, there are some concerns about it, including: 

  1. Can be difficult to align plant and environmental conditions with proper timing of the application to allow nutrient uptake efficiently

  2. Possible leaf burn or plant damage can occur from the nutrient being applied

  3. Only small amounts of nutrients can be applied per application so it may take several applications to correct the deficiency

  4. Correction may be only a temporary fix that is not lasting

  5. Possible added expense of several tissue tests throughout growing season, plus labor involved in collecting the tissue test during busy times of year

  6. Difficult to determine return on investment

  7. Foliar feeding is not a substitute for a soil test and a sound fertility plan

Download the FBN® Crop Nutrition Guide

Selecting the Right Crop Nutrition

When selecting what products to use and when, it’s important to understand what factors you are trying to impact. All biological products are rooted in one common purpose: protecting yield potential. 

Within a plant's yield potential, there are two core functions biology can help achieve: 

  1. Enhancing nutrient availability and efficiency

  2. Mitigating abiotic stress

FBN has a quality lineup of crop nutrition products from the Farmers First® brand that are made to help support plants throughout the growing season. There are seemingly endless options to choose from when entering the world of biology, but below are a few recommendations on where to start.

In-Furrow Fertilizer Applications

Nutrients and fertilizers applied alone can be tied up in the soil and unavailable to be utilized by plants. There are several options available to help increase nutrient efficiency, storage, and availability in the beginning stages of the season.  

Starter Replacement

Inhabit P™ is a high-efficiency liquid starter replacement to help improve phosphorus availability and reduce tie-up. Inhabit P™ keeps phosphate highly soluble and resistant to tie-up in conditions with clay, metal ions, calcium, high pH, waterlogging, cold soil, and other difficult conditions. The product should be applied at 2-4 qts/acre and be mixed 10:1 with water.

Inhabit P™ requires 10 times less product than conventional starter. In recent field trials across 1,621 acres in 11 states, it helped to maximize return on investment, boost operational efficiency, and improve the long-term health of soil. 

Review the FBN Inhabit P™ Field Trial Results

Starter and Sidedress Enhancement

Already purchased your starter fertilizer and want to make it more efficient? Inhabit Boost™ is a low-rate, high-efficiency micro-humate derived from a unique source of leonardite that buffers soils and improves water holding capacity and nutrient efficiency in soils and fertilizers. 

Inhabit Boost™ tank mixes well with most fertilizers (a jar test is recommended) and can also be applied at sidedress if preferred. Inhabit Boost should be applied at 16-32 oz/acre or 1 qt/40 gal.

Not sure how to perform a jar test? Start here

Soil probiotics that can increase root mass in low phosphorus environments and that can fix nitrogen in low nitrate soils are additional options as live microbe add-ons. For example:

Identify Nutrient Deficiencies in Growing Plants with Tissue Testing

Tissue tests taken on a growing crop can identify nutrient deficiencies before you see them, and help determine if your crop might benefit from a foliar fertilizer application. Most tissue tests are not taken until some type of deficiency has been seen — tissue tests are sometimes used as a follow-up step to confirm results of soil test results — but it is more effective to conduct tissue tests proactively to find out if your crop is experiencing a micronutrient shortage.

Generally speaking, chelated nutrient products — used for nutrient uptake and efficiency — do not work well in foliar feeding due to molecule size. Chelated molecules are larger than other liquid forms of nutrients and have difficulty entering the leaf’s stomata. Instead, consider using a sulfate nutrient source, or adding a low rate of nitrogen to the spray solution to increase nutrient efficacy.

Shop for Crop Nutrition Products 

Find the ag chem you need at FBN with our diverse crop nutrition product portfolio to support plant health.

Experience the convenience of 24/7 access to the online shop, where you can buy inputs and schedule delivery straight to your farm. Pricing is always transparent. 

Shop Crop Nutrition Now

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FBN Network

Feb 16, 2024

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