Subsurface Placement of Nutrient

Stratification is a measurable byproduct of fertilizer placement, residue management and tillage. Crop production is not affected under normal conditions due to the high percentage of the root system which is found in the upper 4 inches of the soil system. There can be fertilizer efficiency advantages to placement of fertilizer under the soil surface. Band place fertilizer is less subject to fixation especially under low soil test conditions for both P and K. Deep banding of P has not shown yield increase but K deep banding has resulted in yield increases in corn and soybeans.

Higher concentrations of phosphorus at the soil surface can result in elevated P levels in water leaving field sites. The surface placement of P results in increased surface concentrations.  Placement of added P nutrient below the soil surface by incorporation or use of banded applications has shown improvements in water quality.  If tillage is planned apply nutrients prior to tillage. Under no-tillage conditions using low disturbance banded application or planter placed may be beneficial from both a yield and water quality standpoint. Increases in tillage and plowing over current practices has the potential to result in increased risk of erosion and sediment losses which can be counterproductive to water quality thus further evaluation of cost benefits need to be measured.

Farmers may want to identify a few select fields to do a stratified soil sample see what the surface compared to deep accounting of nutrients are under their management system.

What is it: 

Subsurface placement is the practice of getting nutrients placed into the soil versus leaving nutrients on the soil surface. Fertilizer sources commonly used today are highly soluble products that once exposed to water, can move off-site in the water flow. Exposing a fertilizer source to a greater volume of soil can provide more binding sites or reduce exposure to runoff. Options for surface application include fertilizer applications just prior to planned tillage; banded-placed nutrients either in the row as starter or as low-disturbance banded applicators; or strip tillage. Where no-till practices are used, nutrients can be managed with banded applications. Subsurface placement is considered an in-field practice.


Why install it: 

P loss by type of applicationThe placement of phosphorus and potassium fertilizer in relation to the soil surface can have consequences for crop production. Water quality concerns regarding phosphorus loss also increase with surface application. When rainfall occurs shortly after surface application, concerns can become acute, and when elevated soluble phosphorus soil test levels exist at the soil surface, concerns can become chronic.

The word stratification describes nutrient concentration changes seen at different soil profile depth increments. For nonmobile nutrients such as phosphorus and potassium, or for soil characteristics such as pH, soil test levels found on the surface (0–2 inches) can be different from those found deeper (8–12 inches) in the profile. Reduced-tillage systems, surface applications of nutrients, and nutrients released from decomposing residue increase the concentrations of phosphorus and potassium on the soil surface. Soil samples from the Sandusky watershed showed phosphorus levels of 59 PPM at 0- to 2-inch depth and 35 PPM for the 2- to 8-inch depth (Baker, 2017). These localized, higher soil test levels resulting from stratification likely play a role in water quality impacts.

Subsurface placement of nutrients can reduce the temporary elevation of soluble nutrients on the soil surface where the nutrients are exposed to runoff or preferential flow through soil profile that elevates phosphorus losses. Subsurface placement exposes the soluble nutrients to more soil surface area and stabilizes the nutrients in the soil profile. Other nutrient factors are influenced by soil profile depth. For example, soil pH is influenced by soil formation and subsoil materials. Western Ohio soils formed on a more basic (higher pH) limestone base while eastern Ohio soils typically have more acidic (lower pH) shale underlying the surface. The results of soil pH influence nutrient availability.

Note: Limited methods exist for placing nutrients in no-till production systems, but options do exist. Starter fertilizer is a good option for nutrient delivery that might provide some or the entire amount of nutrients needed by the crop. High-speed, low-disturbance equipment is being marketed by machinery companies. Any tillage practice should be balanced against the potential for soil erosion and other disruptions in soil ecology.

What do I need to know about it: 


Crop Production

From a general crop production standpoint, plant-root systems are able to obtain nutrients throughout the soil profile wherever soil moisture, oxygen, and nutrient availability support uptake. Plants generally have a greater percentage of their root systems located near the soil surface. In field studies that measured root system percentage at different soil profile depths, corn was found to have 50 percent of its root system in the 0- to 2-inch depth and 28 percent of its root system in the 2- to 4-inch depth (Fernandez, 2012).

Although plant roots are flexible in regards to obtaining nutrients even from shallow depths, other advantages can occur with subsurface placement:

  • Under dry weather conditions, plant roots in shallow soil depth might dry out. This can result in temporary nutrient-deficiency symptoms. Under dry conditions, temporary potassium deficiencies might be observed. There have also been observations of potassium deficiencies where soil tests indicate adequate potassium. One useful piece of diagnostics might be an incremental soil test to determine the nutrient status at different soil depths.
  • Banded fertilizer benefits low soil test conditions. At less-than-critical soil test levels, banded fertilizer applications reduce the fertilizer exposed to soil fixation. Fertilizer in the band maintains increased solubility due to reductions in fixation. For example, phosphorus availability was measured at 3.4 to 17.1 times the soil background level in the fertilizer band (Stecker, 2001).
  • Banded fertilizer rates can be reduced by 25–50 percent. The goal in fertilizer addition is to maintain soluble soil nutrients for plant uptake. Banded applications have the characteristics described above (Stecker, 2001), including less fixation of nutrients, thus increased availability even 18 months after application.
  • Deep banded placement is associated with strip tillage. These systems place nutrients 4–6 inches deep. Studies in Iowa and Illinois provide yield results for deeply placed phosphorus and potassium. Corn yields increased 5 bushels per acre in the Iowa studies (Mallarino, 2000). Corn increased 7 percent (Fernandez, 2012), and soybean yields increased 5 bushels per acre (Farmaha, 2011) in Illinois. The effect was attributed to potassium. The Illinois soybean study also noted a concern of salting injury under certain conditions. No yield effects were measured from added phosphorus.

When starter fertilizers are used, limits to nitrogen and potassium total rates exist. Due to the potential of injury from fertilizer salt, these limits depend on how close the fertilizer is placed to the seed. For corn pop-up (placed in the row), the limit of N+K2O is based on the soil cation exchange capacity (CEC). Soils with a CEC of 7meq/100g or less should limit pop-up fertilizer to 5 lbs of N+K2O, and soils with a CEC of 8meq/1000g or greater should apply no more than 8 lbs N+K2O. In a 2 by 2 placement, do not exceed 100 lbs total N+K2O for corn or 70 lbs N+K2O for soybeans.

Water Quality

Higher concentrations of phosphorus near the surface do have consequences for water quality. Higher concentrations of phosphorus measured in soil tests result in higher levels of soluble nutrients leaving a site. Water moving across the soil surface to surface drains or directly to ditches/ streams will have a higher concentration of phosphorus. Preferential flow results in rapid movement of surface water through the soil profile to the tile system. Preferential flow from macropores is the result of “biological activity (eg., root channels, worm holes, etc.), geological forces (eg., subsurface erosion, desiccation, and synaerisis cracks and fractures), or agrotechnical practices (e.g., plowing, bores, and wells). Surface cracks and channels that bypass the root zone are also responsible for rapid transport of moisture and chemicals through the unsaturated zone” (Cornell University). Surface application of phosphorus only increases the surface phosphorus concentration from stratification, if present, and can result in increased phosphorus losses through these loss paths.

Effect of placement on phosphorous transport

 P loss paths during surface application

Edge-of-field monitoring studies in Ohio have resulted in a four times greater nutrient loss from surface-applied verses incorporated nutrients with a Mono Ammonium Phosphate (MAP) application of 175 lbs. The loss amounts to 1 percent of the applied phosphorus. A rainfall simulator study (Smith, 2016) indicated that loss as high as 17 percent of the application rate might be possible.

Higher surface levels of nutrients—combined with surface application of nutrients—can result in higher losses of nutrients via surface water movement, whether through direct runoff to a ditch, surface water features, or macropore movement. These elevated losses might be temporary.


Costs include the capital cost of new equipment and the logistics cost of fertilizer application. Newer banded equipment is designed to travel at higher speeds (up to 10 MPH), but swath width and other logistics might produce a higher per-acre cost of application.

Banded-application rates might be reduced by up to 50 percent as compared to surface-application rates due to the reduced fixation that occurs in the band. The effects of reduced fixation have been measured up to 18 months after application. Long-term strategies of soil sampling might need to be adjusted if banded fertilizer is consistently placed in the same row space. Inter-row and between-row spaces might need to be sampled separately. If more random banded application occurs, this will be less of a concern. Regardless, the number of cores collected in soil sampling should be increased to 20–25 versus 10–15 if no banding has occurred.


Equipment manufacturers and agronomists should be consulted for design information on this practice.