Sulfur Deficiency A Developing Issue

Sulfur Deficiency in Corn

Long taken for granted as supplied by the soil and atmosphere, sulfur is slowly rising as a yield-limiting nutrient in Midwestern crops.

Ken Ihlenfeld is certainly finding this to be true. The West Bend, WI, producer farms 2,500 acres including 400 acres of alfalfa used for his 400-head dairy operation. When his standard soil test couldn’t explain the yellowing and unevenness in his alfalfa fields he dug deeper including tissue testing for secondary macronutrients and micronutrients.  “We discovered sulfur levels were really low,” he says.

In 2011 he spread one ton of gypsum — a source of sulfate sulfur and calcium — per acre after the first cutting on 150 acres of alfalfa. A lack of rain likely resulted in little response for second cutting (gypsum is water soluble so moisture helps incorporate it into the soil profile), but by third cutting Ihlenfeld noticed a significant difference.

“There was a six inch height difference, the plants were greener and the crop was lush,” he says. “The treated acres yielded 0.6 tons more than the untreated acres on a dry matter basis.”

The success prompted him to apply gypsum on the rest of his alfalfa acres after third cutting and to some corn and soybean ground in November.

“Already this spring our hay fields are greener and more even in color than our neighbors that haven’t applied gypsum and the check strips we left are very noticeable,” he says.

After hearing repeated farmer accounts of sulfur improving corn yields, Fabian Fernandez, researcher and assistant professor of soil fertility and plant nutrition at University of Illinois, decided to test response himself. His three years of research farm and on-farm trials seem to confirm the reports.

“We have seen an increase in the frequency and intensity of crop response to sulfur application compared to Illinois trials conducted in the late 1970s which showed little to no response,” he reports. “The responses are very variable, but we are identifying conditions where sulfur applications will be beneficial for farmers.”

Results from a 2006 Iowa State University study on corn yield response to sulfur application showed an average 38-bushel yield response to sulfur application for six sites across northeast Iowa. These sites were specifically chosen for their likelihood of being sulfur deficient.1

In small research farm plots not specifically chosen for deficiency, Fernandez found a more moderate average five bushel corn yield response to sulfur applications over three years. One of his Illinois on-farm plots, though, yielded surprising results.

“It produced a one-year, 51-bushel corn increase over the check with an application of sulfur,” Fernandez says. “That’s not a normal response by a long shot, but it goes to show that if sulfur is truly deficient it can severely limit yields.”

Less Sulfur In Rain

Sulfur deposits on farm fields have decreased over the years, in part as a result of emission-reducing technologies used at coal-fired power plants. There is less sulfur in the atmosphere and in rain that hits farm fields. The adjoining maps compare deposits in 2008 versus 1985.

There is no simple test for determining sulfur deficiency on individual farms, says Warren Dick, a researcher and professor in Environmental and Natural Resources at The Ohio State University. Researchers have found, however, that certain factors can increase the likelihood of seeing a response to sulfur.

Soil type, cropping history and the crop planted can help determine on which acres farmers should try using sulfur. Soils with low organic matter are a good place to start as mineralization from organic materials is one of the leading sources of soil sulfur.2

“Soils with low organic matter, such as coarse texture (sandy) soils or eroded soils likely found on sloping hills, are more likely to be low in sulfur and respond to sulfur applications,” Fernandez says.

Sulfur is an essential ingredient for creating proteins, so high-protein crops (alfalfa, canola, soybean, corn silage) require more sulfur than low-protein producing crops.3

A lack of sulfur can impact nitrogen utilization and yield.

Estimates vary, but roughly one pound of sulfur is needed to be applied to balance up to 16 pounds of applied nitrogen for a corn plant to produce proteins and grow.2, 3  “If there’s adequate nitrogen but deficient sulfur the plant won’t grow to its potential until it has the sulfur to balance that nitrogen,” says Ron Chamberlain, GYPSOIL founder and chief agronomist. “Deficiencies are particularly critical in early growth corn because that’s when yield potential is set. If the upper soil profile, where seedlings are growing, is deficient of sulfur there will be less yield potential.”

Sulfur can be recycled back into the soil system through crop residue, Dick says, but in crops such as corn and alfalfa much of the protein — and sulfur — is removed with harvest.

“A 250-bushel corn crop removes quite a bit of sulfur every year without replacing it,” Dick says. “The same is true of hay fields. A lot of nutrients are removed when hay is cut and taken from the field, making alfalfa fields and mixed hay pastures good places to try sulfur applications.”

Sulfur Sources

There are several sulfur sources producers can use to meet crop demand including elemental sulfur, fertilizers such as ammonium thiosulfate, and gypsum.

“Elemental sulfur is used, but it is very acid forming so it isn’t ideal for every situation,” Dick says.

At 16% sulfur by volume, gypsum is a budget-friendly option. That is particularly true for growers who use Flue Gas Desulfurization (FGD) gypsum, a synthetic form that’s produced by the pollution control systems used to reduce emissions. Mined gypsum is significantly more expensive than FGD gypsum.

“The cost of a pound of sulfur in FGD gypsum is significantly lower than sulfur in other forms,” Chamberlain says. “It also provides sulfur in a plant-available form and moves sulfur through the soil profile so it’s where it needs to be in the form it needs to be in for plants to use it.” Gypsum provides the added benefit of 17-20% calcium and is often used in potato production and other calcium-loving specialty crops.

Extensive studies have shown all of the various gypsum sources are safe for land application, says Dick.

For Center Point, IN, producer Brad Brown, gypsum provides the double benefit of building soil structure and replenishing sulfur.

“We didn’t know about sulfur when we first started using gypsum in 1986 to loosen our soil for better drainage and rooting,” Brown says. “Getting sulfur with our gypsum was a win-win, it really helps our corn and it’s in the cheapest form we can get. Our yields are more even from acre to acre and year to year. The sulfur seems to excite the corn for good early season growth.”

Brown applies gypsum every other year. Initially he applied one ton per acre but has dropped to 1,400 pounds every other year applied in the fall ahead of corn.

“As the soil structure builds we’re able to cut back on the rate but we will keep applying it to maintain the sulfur supply for our corn. We shoot for 200-plus bushels per acre,” specifies Brown.

Wisconsin producer Ihlenfeld agrees gypsum is becoming a valued tool in his cropping operation.  “We were attributing sulfur deficiency symptoms to disease, but now that we know what it is we’re able to correct the situation and our yields improved after only one application,” Ihlenfeld says. “Gypsum is a win-win for us because it boost yields by correcting the sulfur deficiency and the calcium helps loosen up our compacted soils.

For more information about sulfur and gypsum, click here.

Footnotes:

1. Dealing With Sulfur Deficiency in Iowa Corn Production. Sawyer et al. 2009 Integrated Crop Management Conference – Iowa State University. 2009. P. 117-123.

2. Sulfur: A Missing Link Between Soils, Crops, and Nutrition. Franzen and Grant. 2008. P. 105-115.

3. Fertility Needs of No-Till Corn, Soybean and Wheat, Raymond C. Ward, Ward Laboratories, Inc. Kearney, NE.

Topics:

Leave a Reply

Micronutrients Stories

Tissue Sampling
Crop InputsMicronutrients Remain A Piece Of Yield Puzzle In 2017
February 4, 2017
There are a couple different market forces working on the micronutrients segment currently in U.S. agriculture. Most impactful, of course, Read More
Fertilizer Tender close-up
MicronutrientsHow Micronutrients Fit Into 2017 Fertility Plans
January 10, 2017
Where do micronutrients stand going forward in fertility plans? For one thing, Tim Mundorf, Field Representative with Midwest Laboratories, says Read More
Trey Curtis, Concept Ag owner
MicronutrientsConcept Ag Debuts TransMaxx Technology For Foliar Applications Of Calcium, Other Nutrients
December 15, 2016
Concept Ag Soil & Plant Nutrition has launched TransMaxx Technology, an innovative translocation technology for foliar feeding crop fertility products. Read More
Young Corn Closeup
MicronutrientsBiostimulants And Micronutrients: The Making Of A Market
September 7, 2016
The market for biostimulants and micronutrients continues to grow faster than many other areas of the crop protection market. While Read More
Trending Articles
Farmer and aptop
Matt Hopkins10 Warning Signs Your Website Is Grossly Outdated
February 8, 2017
Your Website is often a visitor’s first impression of your ag retail business. A positive first impression can set the Read More
AgriSync
Matt Hopkins17 Agriculture Apps That Will Help You Farm Smarter In 2017
December 9, 2016
Ag professionals are working smarter, not harder, than ever before. Smart farming technologies have enabled them to reduce costs, maximize Read More
R4023 Sprayer, John Deere
CropLife 100Ag Retail Equipment Report: The Green Party Continues
December 7, 2016
In the annual race for sales in the ag retail equipment marketplace, the color schemes for participants are a little Read More
Mike Stern
Precision AgClimate Corp. CEO Talks Retailer Support For Digital Ag
December 1, 2016
CropLife Magazine’s sister publication, AgriBusiness Global, recently sat down with Mike Stern, CEO of The Climate Corp., following the Monsanto subsidiary’s Read More
Precision AgTrimble Debuts End-to-End FMIS Platform
November 28, 2016
October’s inaugural PrecisionAg Vision Conference left this author with many thoughts and things to ponder in the coming months. Probably Read More
CHS Primeland
CropLife 100The 2016 CropLife 100 Report: Reviewing The Many Bulls And Bears Impacting This Year’s Marketplace
November 28, 2016
For virtually all of 2016, the nation was wholly focused on the big Presidential election. Some folks aligned themselves with Read More
Latest News
Soybean Plant closeup
HerbicidesRegional Listening Sessions Give Farmers A Voice In The…
February 27, 2017
Both scientists and regulators have had a lot to say about the growing problem of herbicide resistance and how weed Read More
Greystone Construction built the tension membrane fertilizer storage building (left) and steel seed treater building (right)
CropLife 100Pinnacle Announces Successful Exchange Offer Results An…
February 27, 2017
Pinnacle Agriculture Holdings, LLC has announced today the early tender results of its previously announced offer to exchange (the “Exchange Read More
IEI Barge Fertilizer Potash Port Terminal
EquipmentLegacy Building Solutions Receives Design-Build Merit A…
February 27, 2017
When IEI Barge Services needed a building capable of storing and loading fertilizer, they turned to Legacy Building Solutions to Read More
ManagementSouth Africa Update and the New New Leader G5
February 24, 2017
Editors Eric Sfiligoj and Dan Jacobs discuss the recent visit to South Africa by sister magazine AgriBusiness Global and the Read More
Fall Creek Watershed
StewardshipUpdate: Nutrient Stewardship In Indiana Requires Cool, …
February 24, 2017
Update: The application deadline for NCRS funding has been extended to March 17, 2017. Green leaves sparkle in the sunlight. Trees Read More
Greenleaf Technologies TADF03-D Dual Fan Nozzle
NozzlesSix Greenleaf Nozzles Approved For XtendiMax With Vapor…
February 22, 2017
Greenleaf Technologies has announced that six of its TurboDrop D Series nozzles have been approved for use with Monsanto’s XtendiMax Read More
Winter Wheat
Industry NewsTiger-Sul Hires Manitoba And Eastern Canada Account Man…
February 22, 2017
Tiger-Sul, a global leader in sulphur fertilizers and crop performance products, has announced that sales veteran Trevor Loewen has joined Read More
NFMS 17 Hagie Sprayer
Eric SfiligojThe Read From Louisville: Uncertain
February 22, 2017
By the time this column appears across the country, the annual Commodity Classic will be in full swing. This means Read More
SprayersApache 1000 Series Sprayer Earns 2017 EquipmentWatch Hi…
February 21, 2017
ET Works has been named a winner in the 2017 EquipmentWatch Highest Retained Value Awards program, the industry’s only award Read More
Measuring Bulk Tanks
StewardshipMeister Media Among 2017 Award Winners Presented By The…
February 21, 2017
The Pesticide Stewardship Alliance (TPSA) held its annual conference in San Diego, CA, earlier this month where three awards were Read More
John Reifsteck
CropLife 100GROWMARK’s Reifsteck Earns NCFC Director Of The Y…
February 21, 2017
GROWMARK Chairman of the Board and President John Reifsteck has earned the prestigious Director of the Year Award from the Read More
Roy Blunt
LegislationARA Recognizes Blunt, Heitkamp For Legislative Efforts …
February 17, 2017
Agricultural industry continues to face federal regulatory challenges. Thankfully, agriculture’s allies in the U.S. Senate stepped forward. The Agricultural Retailers Read More
LegislationThe Fertilizer Institute Commends Senate On Confirmatio…
February 17, 2017
The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) President Chris Jahn issued the following statement on the Senate confirmation of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Read More
Trump, Senate, Cabinet
LegislationBREAKING: Trump EPA Nominee Scott Pruitt Confirmed by S…
February 17, 2017
Scott Pruitt, who as Oklahoma’s attorney general spent years suing the Environmental Protection Agency over its efforts to regulate various Read More
ManagementFebruary Road Trip Edition
February 17, 2017
Editors Paul Schrimpf and Eric Sfiligoj discuss their recent visits to Indiana and Kentucky. Read More
Heritage Cooperative Finished Building Aerial
ManagementHeritage Cooperative, Agland Co-op Approve Merger
February 17, 2017
Agland Co-op and Heritage Cooperative stockholders have both approved the merger agreement between Agland Co-op and Heritage Cooperative. Now begins Read More
LegislationARA Fly-In: Ag Retail Descends on Capitol Hill, Lawmake…
February 15, 2017
More than 100 agricultural retailers, distributors and suppliers headed to Capitol Hill Tuesday morning for the Agribusiness Congressional Fly-in, according to a Read More
Untreated soybean seed Heartland Coop
Seed/BiotechMarrone Bio Innovations, Groundwork BioAg Bio-stacked M…
February 13, 2017
Marrone Bio Innovations, Inc. and Groundwork BioAg, Ltd have announced successful seed treatment field trials of the world’s first all-biological Read More