Rethinking Starter Fertilizers & Biostimulants

We asked our agronomist how new innovations and research are shifting how we think about starter fertilizers and biostimulants

March 1, 2024
4 mins
Dr. Jason Haegele
North American Agronomy Lead, ICL Growing Solutions

Q: How have new innovations changed your recommendations on starter fertilizers?

A: In my early agronomist days, starter fertilizer discussions focused on basics like orthophosphate versus polyphosphate and placement methods like in-furrow versus 2×2. While still valid agronomic considerations, my mindset has shifted to how early-season growth and vigour set the trajectory for late-season nutrient management and greater yields. Relying solely on starters is not a slam dunk, but integrating them into a full-season plan as a foundation enhances repeatability. I have started to challenge the paradigms of starter fertilizer use. With biologicals, biostimulants (like humic substances), and micronutrients exploding into the market, there are endless opportunities to explore improving root growth, nutrient use efficiency, soil health, and ultimately yield.

Q: What do you think about the potential for biostimulants to improve nutrient uptake and crop outputs, even with the current criticisms?

A: Biostimulants hold real promise in enhancing nutrient uptake and crop outputs, but criticisms related to standardization, product claims, and input costs cast a shadow. This criticism prompts a fundamental question: Are we approaching biostimulants in a way that truly unlocks their benefits? In my opinion, the key lies in exploring our approach to biostimulants; an improved understanding of starter fertilizers may lead to more successful outcomes.

Q: What does it mean to challenge the paradigm in starter fertilizers?

A: Challenging paradigms in starter fertilizers involves questioning the belief that the traditional way of doing things is the only and best approach. Commonly used starter fertilizers like 10-34-0 or high orthophosphate options like 9-18-9 are usually top of mind, widely accessible, and proven effective across various crops. However, compared to other agricultural inputs, innovation in our approach to starter fertilizers has been slow. These liquid starters, for example, typically have application rates between 3 and 5 gallons per acre, a common practice. Why is that? Especially considering that starters aren’t meant to fulfill a full season’s nutrient requirement. Can a starter application achieve equal or superior results with reduced phosphorus? I am eager to challenge the existing norms and explore nutrient use efficiency alongside other starter-applied components like biostimulants.

Q: How do biostimulants and starter fertilizers work together?

A: Phosphorus, as an example, plays a crucial role in improving early season root development and plant vigor when applied in a starter. Biostimulants and starter fertilizers could work synergistically to enhance root growth and nutrient availability, potentially leading to more productive crops, especially in the face of environmental stressors like cold soil temperatures.

Q: What new research stands out?

A: ICL’s Nova® PeKacid™ 0-60-20, a unique water-soluble fertilizer, stands out for its ability to acidify water, improving nutrient compatibility and phosphorus availability, even when water contains a high concentration of dissolved calcium. Nova PeKacid has proven to be a superior source of orthophosphate and potassium across various applications, including fertigation and starter fertilizers. Extensive research and customer experience have shown enhanced availability of not only P and K but also micronutrients due to the reduced soil pH at the point of application.

Q: What products are showing value?

A: Nova PeKacid shines as a starter fertilizer, especially when part of ICL’s Agrolution® pHLow™ 11-45-11 +2%Zn. This high-phosphorus starter, enriched with zinc, proves to be a well-balanced nutrient combination for early-season plant growth. Replicated field trials on corn, soybeans, and potatoes demonstrate equivalent or superior responses compared to grower standard rates of 10-34-0, achieving both efficiency and yield despite lower early-season P levels. Additionally, the integration of ICL’s BIOZ Diamond™ 10-0-1 biostimulant, containing fulvic acid and a yeast extract, shows substantial yield benefits when used alongside Agrolution pHLow, at times matching the yield increases observed with the standalone application of the starter fertilizer.

Q: What are important things to consider for short growing seasons?

A: In short growing seasons with cold early-season temperatures, ensuring the crop is uniform and off to a vigorous start can make the difference between an average and an outstanding yield. Do starter fertilizers always pay off? Maybe not, but I am confident that new research and approaches leveraging starter fertilizer nutrition and biostimulants will continue to elevate the importance of this crop management tool for profitably driving increased yield and sustainability.

About Dr. Jason Haegele, North American Agronomy Lead, ICL Growing Solutions

Jason Haegele leads ICL’s research collaborations with universities and third-party research contractors in North America to demonstrate the efficacy of ICL products on a broad range of row crops and specialty crops. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois (Ph.D. in Crop Science) and Iowa State University (M.S., Crop Production and Physiology), is a Certified Crop Advisor, and has a broad range of experience in applied research and field sales support for plant nutrition, adjuvant, crop protection, and biological products.