When you ask Le Roy, N.Y., strip-tiller, no-tiller and zone-tiller Donn Branton how he’s excelled at managing nutrients efficiently and profitably, he quickly cites three reasons.

  • Taking soil and tissue tests
  • Banding fertilizer when possible
  • Being willing to change

The bottom line, says Branton, is that constantly evaluating the form, rates and placement of nutrients can make the difference between farming profitability and not farming at all.

“When we can, we band fertilizer instead of broadcasting it,” Branton says. “Years ago, when we used conventional tillage, we broadcast fertilizer. It was quick and easy, but it was not efficient.”

Branton farms 1,300 acres, about 30 miles south of Lake Ontario, and grows crops in varied soils, including fields with thin topsoil and those with limestone bedrock and high water tables. He grows field corn and sweet corn, along with soybeans, winter wheat, oats, alfalfa, peas for processing and dry edible beans.

He no-tills the peas, oats, wheat and alfalfa; strip-tills soybeans, grain corn, sweet corn and dry edible beans, and zone-tills grain corn, soybeans and oats.

Branton began farming on his own in 1979, after 13 years in the fertilizer and application business. For 17 years, he used conventional tillage and broadcast fertilizer. After hearing a talk by Michigan farmer and zone-till developer Ray Rawson, he decided to apply fertilizer differently.

In 1996, Branton bought a 12-row, 30-inch spacing Kinze planter, which he set up to apply fertilizer with the Rawson 3-coulter zone-till system. In 1999, he purchased a Flexicoil air seeder for wheat, alfalfa, oats and peas for processing. And 7 years ago, Branton bought an Unverferth strip-till rig, which he uses to band fertilizer in the spring before planting field corn and sweet corn.

The Flexicoil air seeder has a self-contained unit, which holds 140 bushels of seed and two fertilizer tanks that hold 180 bushels — about 6,500 pounds — of dry fertilizer. When Branton decided to strip-till and place fertilizer before planting, he eliminated a time-consuming task for planting corn and sweet corn.

I had to fill the planter up with dry fertilizer every 12.5 acres,” Branton recalls. “I felt that all I was doing was filling up with fertilizer and not getting very much planted.

Deep-Placed Fertilizer

For many years, the conventional wisdom in the area was that fertilizer should be placed in the top 2 inches of the soil because placing it 8 to 10 inches deep would make it vulnerable to leaching. But Branton thought spring rains could make shallow-placed nitrogen vulnerable to washing out. From 2004 through 2006, he did an onfarm tillage and fertilizer placement study. The treatments were:

  • Strip-till with deep-placed nitrogen (8 inches deep)
  • Strip-till with shallow-placed nitrogen (2 inches deep)
  • Zone-tillage with shallow-placed nitrogen.

In the study’s 3-year average, strip-till with deep-placed nitrogen produced 7.4 tons per acre of sweet corn, strip-till with shallow-placed nitrogen yielded 6.72 tons per acre and zone-till with shallow-placed nitrogen resulted in 5.76 tons per acre.

“With shallow-placed fertilizer, warmer temperatures and more active microbes can break down the fertilizer,” Branton says. “By placing nitrogen 8 to 10 inches deep, the soil is cooler and the microbes are not as active and the fertilizer down deep is available as the corn grows and the soil warms up.”

Costs And Benefits

Branton readily acknowledges he does lots of testing and says he sometimes wonders whether some of its necessary.

“We probably test more than we should, but I guess too many tests are better than too few,” he says. “My crop consultant once called me a ‘high-maintenance client’ and says I’m constantly asking questions that no one else does and that he must then go research to find answers.”

But just because he can use technology that doesn’t necessarily mean the payback will be profitable, Branton says. For example, he points to variable-rate application of phosphate.

"Because our phosphorus levels do not vary enough through the fields, I decided it was not worth it financially to invest in on-the-go VR application,” Branton says. “It’s always important to ask, ‘What do we get in return when we make a change?’”

Soil Testing

Through frequent testing — sometimes twice in 3 years — Branton applies phosphorus to maintain and improve crop yields.

“The levels of phosphorus and potassium don’t change very much, but we may need to apply potash on alfalfa hay fields,” he says. “I do watch the levels of calcium and magnesium and we spread a lot of gypsum.

“I first learned about the importance of gypsum and its effects on the levels of calcium and magnesium while attending the National No-Tillage Conference 10 or 12 years ago.”

While Branton wasn’t the first farmer in the area to use gypsum, he was among the first. Today, using gypsum is common among farmers in the area.

Branton has pulled soil samples using 1-acre grids, by soil types and, most recently, by management zones based on soil types and topography. He’s constantly considering which approach may work best.

“We soil test frequently on our farm,” Branton says. “We test at least once every 3 years and sometimes twice. We are known in the area for all the testing we do. We are always evaluating new things.”   In addition to pulling soil samples, he has taken tissue samples of winter wheat once a week from green up in the spring to the flower stage and sends them to the lab used by Phil Needham of Needham Ag Technologies.

“We’re taking the weekly samples to create a baseline,” Branton says. “While we are focusing on nitrogen, sulfur and zinc levels, we are monitoring other nutrient levels as well.”

Branton met Needham at the National No-Tillage Conference and they’ve worked to increase Branton’s soft red winter wheat yields by 15 to 20 bushels.

“Our 4-year average now is just over 100 bushels per acre,” he says.