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What it is

Subsurface nutrient placement is the method of putting essential crop nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium below the soil surface in the root zone available for plants to uptake. Subsurface placement of nitrogen and phosphorus is considered a best management practice (BMP) that protects surface water quality by dramatically decreasing nutrient runoff potential.

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How it helps

As more farming operations have moved toward no-till or minimal tillage, fertilizer has been broadcast applied to the soil surface and not incorporated. This can result in stratification of nutrients in the top few inches of the soil, leaving highly soluble fertilizer exposed to rainfall that can wash fertilizer off into bodies of water or fall into cracks in the soil that lead to drainage tile. These nutrients can lead to algal bloom issues downstream. Research is showing that placing fertilizer below the soil surface greatly reduces the potential for nutrient loss. Also, by placing fertilizer closer to the root zone, fertilizer is used more efficiently, thereby reducing the amount of fertilizer needed to be applied. This can result in significant cost savings to the producer.

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Planning ahead

Fertilizer placement will vary with every target crop but placing fertilizer below the soil surface can be done with multiple tools. Planting equipment can deliver some fertilizer needs to the crop by placing fertilizer either 2" x 2" from the seed or in the furrow. Also, more equipment manufacturers and dealers are building toolbars that place fertilizer 2 to 4 inches below the soil surface with low soil disturbance. Another option is a strip tillage toolbar, which mixes fertilizer in a band while making a strip to plant the seed into.

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The decision to place your nutrients below ground should be done in conjunction with your nutrient management plan. Changing how you place nutrients can be a major operational change and can come with increased costs for different pieces of equipment. But this change can also lead to more efficient use of fertilizer which can result in a cost savings.

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Subsurface nutrient placement allows farmers to put nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium below the surface so that plants are able to increase their uptake of them. This reduces nutrient runoff and helps farmers protect surface water quality.

Jan Layman of Layman Farms in Hardin County, Ohio discusses the equipment used for subsurface nutrient placement and what they've found to be the least expensive and most efficient with a sidedress machine and saddle tanks.

Wanting to place fertilizer when and where needed most, Austin Heil of Heil Farms in Hardin County, Ohio, retrofitted his own equipment to be able to economically apply fertilizer under the soil profile and between corn rows.

Kevin Thierry of Fulton County Ohio explains the mechanics and setup of his strip-till equipment outfitted with a fertilizer tank to fulfill his needs of placing fertilizer in the ground where needed for best plant uptake while also strip-tilling to clear the soil of debris in one pass.

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