This blog is dedicated to sharing timely and relevant precision ag information with county Extension agents and growers.

Calibration of a spinner-disc spreader performed using the standard pan testing method.

With start of another crop season, lime applications have begun across most of the state with dry pre-plant fertilizer to follow soon. Generally, we do not hear about fertilizer application issues that occur with broadcast spreaders until later in the crop season but this year is different because of the fertilizer costs. One of the recommendations for dealing with high fertilizer prices is being more judicious and efficient with fertilizer use. Well, most growers are aware about the application issues associated with dry broadcast fertilizer spreaders and may not have considered rate verification or calibration in the previous years but again this year is different. One of the common grower questions lately has been “how do I know if my fertilizer spreader is applying the correct rate?”. The reason behind this question, especially early in the season, is that growers are well aware that any misapplications this year are going to hurt their pocket’s a lot more than it would have last year. May be one silver lining in the high fertilizer prices is the increased interest among growers in using precision soil sampling and technologies such as variable-rate application to be more efficient as well as consideration to their equipment’s application accuracy.

It is definitely encouraging to see many growers interested in making sure whether they are applying the correct fertilizer rates but it is also important to emphasize that when it comes to spinner-disc spreaders, verifying application rate alone (by catching product from the conveyor chain for a certain time or using other similar method) is usually not sufficient and can result in some major application issues in the field. When it comes to broadcast spreaders, consideration to application uniformity is equally important as application rate and helps in ensuring that fertilizer is being applied at the target rate, uniformly across the swath and consequently in the whole field.

Let’s try to understand this better by taking an example of application data collected in 2021. The two graphs below shows application rate and uniformity for a single fertilizer product (potash; effective spread width 50 ft.) applied with a spinner-disc spreader before and after calibration. If we look at the mean application rate in both graphs (317 and 310 lbs/ac), they are very comparable and close (95-97%) to the target rate of 300 lbs/ac. However, if we pay attention to the fertilizer distribution (solid red line) and the corresponding uniformity values (49.5% and 12.5% for uncalibrated and calibrated, respectively) in each graph, it’s not hard to miss the stark difference in uniformity between the two applications. Therefore, while the mean rate is similar in both applications, fertilizer application is highly non-uniform across the swath before calibration whereas it is much more uniform across the spread width after calibration.

Graphs illustrating difference in application uniformity for an uncalibrated (top) and a calibrated spreader (bottom).

The purpose of showing this data is to emphasize two main points: 1) application issues related to product rate and/or uniformity are very common with spinner-disc spreaders, and 2) proper spreader calibration can help in achieving both accurate application rate and uniformity. A standard pan testing (shown above in the picture with spreader and pans) is recommended to calibrate broadcast spreaders, and attain desired application rate (±95% of target rate) and spread uniformity (CV≤15%).

Here are few other considerations to keep in mind during calibration of spinner-disc spreaders:

  • Each calibration is specific for the type of product applied, application rate and spread width. Any changes in material type (single or blended), properties (shape, size or density), application rate and/or spread width may require an additional calibration.
  • Before starting the calibration process, refer to the operator’s manual for recommended settings for the specific product type and density. It is always a good practice to start with these recommended settings and then make adjustments there after based on the testing results.
  • During calibration, do not change more than one spreader setting (flow divider position, spinner-disc speed, gate height, etc.) at a time between the test passes to evaluate its influence on application rate or uniformity.
  • Make sure to record all information for each test pass i.e. spreader settings, material density, target rate, spread width, etc. during calibration. This information will be helpful in the future during field application and calibration, especially when using similar material types or blends.

Although strategies such as precision soil sampling and variable-rate application are important to be more efficient with fertilizer use, the successful implementation of these strategies for accurate and precision fertilizer applications relies heavily on proper spreader setup and calibration.