Will Your Crop Suffer from Sulfur Deficiency this Cropping Year?

Richard Taylor, Extension Agronomist; rtaylor@udel.edu

Past and recent emphasis has been placed on reducing sulfur (S) emissions from power plants, diesel vehicles, and other industries. The question of whether the Clean Air Act and other programs run by the Environmental Protection Agency are accomplishing their objectives can be answered by the farm community with respect to sulfur emissions. The answer growers would likely give is that yes the air quality programs have worked, but so well that their crops are increasingly showing sulfur deficiency symptoms, especially when grown on sandy, low organic matter, non-manured soils.

Why is S critical for maximum economic yields (MEY)? Sulfur is needed by a crop when making certain amino acids such as cystine and methionine that are vital components of many proteins. The entire factory output (yield) of a crop is dependent on proteins that make up the chlorophyll molecule, all the plant enzyme systems, the plant’s genetic material such as DNA, the assimilation function of legume rhizobia, and all the inter-related metabolic activity in the plant. The ideal nitrogen (N) to sulfur ratio in a plant is 15:1. Above that ratio, the S concentration is not adequate for MEY.

Sources for S include commercial fertilizers, atmospheric deposition, and manures or biosolids. The movement away from the old superphosphate (16 to 22% P2O5 and 12 to 14% S) to triple superphosphates in the late 1900s and then more recently to ammonium phosphates and ammonium polyphosphates (DAP, MAP, and others) has reduced the amount of S fertilizer applied without us consciously being aware of the trend. With the success of the Clean Air Act, atmospheric S deposition had dramatically decreased even before the very recent change over to ultra low sulfur diesel fuel. In addition, the emphasis on nutrient management planning to reduce manure application rates due to phosphorous buildup in the soil and the development of programs to help move poultry manure to areas without manure resources has also contributed to reduced S application rates.

Who should be concerned about the potential for S deficiency on their crops? The answer is that probably everyone but especially those growers with coarse textured soils, with soils low in organic matter, or with soils that have received enough rainfall or irrigation water to leach S below the crop rooting zone should be concerned. For shallow rooted crops such as wheat and barley, it is especially critical to ensure that adequate S is available during tillering and early growth and development. Growers should consider adding enough ammonium sulfate to their normal nitrogen application to provide from 20 to 30 lbs of S per  A in the first N application split in the spring.

If there is adequate S accumulation in the soil clay subsoil as determined with a deep soil test, S fertilization may not be a yield limiting factor on deep rooted crops such as corn. However, this does not mean that early season growth won’t be improved with the early season addition of some type of sulfate fertilizer. Even in high yield irrigated environments, such an application could help improve yield potential or at least not limit yield.

Some growers will want to rely on soil test results to make a decision on whether to add S fertilizer. These growers should be aware that the normal soil test depth of 0 to 6 or 0 to 8 inches is not as good an indicator of soil S status as it is for phosphorus and potassium. Sulfur is taken up by plants as the sulfate (SO42-) ion and as an anion (negatively charged ion) in the soil that is similar to nitrate. It is subject to loss via leaching and anaerobic conditions (similar to denitrification).

Sulfur deficiency symptoms vaguely resemble those of N except that S, unlike N, is not mobile in the plant so symptoms occur first on new growth. Sulfur deficiency is most often described as stunting with general yellowing or chlorosis of the plant. For examples, please review the photos at the end of this article.

The choices available for fertilizing with S include ammonium sulfate and potassium magnesium sulfate (K-PoMag) plus ammonium thiosulfate, calcium sulfate (gypsum), magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts), potassium sulfate, and elemental sulfur. Sulfate is immediately available for plant uptake whereas elemental So must be oxidized by the soil bacteria (requiring warm soil temperatures and adequate moisture) into sulfate before plants can absorb the S. Organic sources (manures, crop residues, biosolids) must undergo mineralization into inorganic sulfate before being available for plant uptake.

Other by-products such as derivatives from battery acid are sold as S sources but should be evaluated carefully by the grower to be certain that potential problems such as heavy metal contamination, non-available S forms, or injurious compounds are not present. Even then the S form in some by-products will need to be converted into plant available forms by the soil microorganisms and if S is needed immediately or if soil conditions are not favorable for this conversion yield potential could be impacted negatively. Certainly, any form other than the sulfate form is not appropriate in-season when deficiency symptoms indicate the immediate need for S.

Photo 1. Induced sulfur deficiency in corn grown in sand culture. Note reddening of lower stem, general chlorosis or yellowing especially of new growth, and stunting of the plant.

Photo 2. Field corn showing stunting and general chlorosis or yellowing, especially of new growth on sandy soil in southern Delaware.

Photo 3. Sulfur deficiency in barley grown on a very light sandy soil low in organic matter in Sussex County, Delaware. Note general chlorosis or yellowing especially of new growth and severe plant stunting.

Photo 4. Sulfur deficiency in wheat grown on a very light soil low in organic matter in Sussex County, Delaware. Note general chlorosis or yellowing especially of new growth and severe plant stunting.

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