Does “spoon-feeding” nitrogen via Y-drop systems make for a better corn crop? Some say yes — if there’s enough moisture to carry nutrients into the soil.
Some growers, however, have found success even in dry summer conditions, meaning the Y-drop versus side-dress debate continues.
Why it matters: Not every grower finds Y-drop systems worthwhile, but it can be a good fit in some systems. Field characteristics, equipment cost, and general climatic conditions can all alter effectiveness.
Henry Denotter, a grain farmer from Essex County, applies nitrogen in a three-way split. The final application is done via a Y-drop system once the crop canopy has sufficiently developed.
The strategy was originally incorporated into his no-till system to avoid pooling the nutrient in a single application. And while he sees benefit in the practice, Denotter also says it’s “very weather specific,” in that moisture is required to make that final application work.
“Are we totally in love with it? Maybe not as much as the first year. I think myself it works better in the 20-inch rows. The accuracy is good. We do put it both sides,” says Denotter, later adding Y-drop is easier to use in shorter hybrids.
He also says it’s important not to underestimate hardware costs.
“Those wands were $1,000 apiece. You’re buying 30 of them minimum, and all the framework…. Would I spend the money again? Probably not,” Denotter says.
For Greg Stewart, agronomy lead for Maizex, the aforementioned pros and cons illustrate how Y-drop systems — despite being an apparent game-changing story early-on — are not the ultimate solution.
However, the ability to “spoon-feed” nutrient as-needed is appealing, both economically and environmentally.
“The problem is you’re tempted to go quite late with the final application. Even if you think about this year where we’re still very dry, if you waited until July 5 or 10 to put the last drop down, you’ve had in some situations very little rainfall to carry that into the plant,” he says.
“The argument is by laying it right at the bottom of the plant even a little rain will do. But you still need some rain, even if it’s a small amount.”
Stewart’s perspective comes from both wider observations and personal experience. In Y-drop test trials in 2019, for example, corn growing in a Listowel-area plot that received substantial rainfall performed very well. Corn growing in another plot elsewhere, and in dry conditions, suffered. The same application rates and dates were employed in both areas.
“I think it has to be balanced against what it really costs you to apply nitrogen three times in a crop. It’s not that it can’t work. I just think you’re running that risk of getting N into the soil matrix that’s naturally drier and hope you get some reasonable rainfall,” says Stewart.
“I’m not dismissing the idea that to have the option is nice. I’m just afraid of getting (lots) of rain in July happening way less frequently than dry soils in July.”
For Norfolk County farmer Scott Ruppert, however, Y-drop nitrogen application has proved valuable in his sand soils every year, including in drought conditions.
“It’s been for four or five years now. We went from a 30- to 40-foot tool bar for side-dressing, and decided to buy Y-drops on either side for an additional 10 feet,” says Ruppert.
Yield checks between the standard coulters and the Y-drop section indicated constantly better numbers for the latter.
“That first year was a drought year … I figure that was in a worse-case scenario.”
Ruppert has made slight modifications to his nutrient program since that first year, including the incorporation of an expanded boom (now at 60 feet) on a self-propelled sprayer. Nitrogen is applied at planting into 20-inch rows, then as late as possible. The system also allows him to ignore the presence of excessive crop residue, something that he says was an issue for their previous coulter-based system.
“We try to get a full canopy. I like the process. It’s very simple for me,” he says.
“I don’t think I have a challenge with it at all. The first year would have been the biggest hang-up we had with no moisture … but the roots are not travelling really. They’re staying pretty close to home.”