Sulfur deficiency in corn
Sulfur (S) deficiency has been diagnosed in corn and wheat in Indiana in recent years (see ref. 1). More than half the corn S deficiency experiments conducted in northeast Iowa since 2005 have responded to fertilizer S (see ref. 2). It is wise to consider S deficiency when troubleshooting corn growth problems.
click image to zoomFig. 1. The amount of sulfate (SO42‐) deposited on the land in rainfall has been greatly reduced since 1989. Red colors indicate high deposition and green low deposition. Data from: http://epa.gov/castnet/javaweb/wetdep.html. (URL accessed April 2012). Factors Affecting Sulfur Deficiency
Sulfur deficiency of corn and other crops may be becoming more prevalent because less S is deposited from the atmosphere to the soil due to reductions in power plant S emissions (Fig. 1). In addition, increased yields over time result in greater crop S removal from the field. Corn grain contains about 0.5 pound of S for every 10 bushels of grain, so about 10 pounds of S per acre is removed by corn that yields 200 bushel per acre. Additionally, less incidental S applications in fertilizers and pesticides may contribute to more S deficiency. Increases in no‐till, early planting, and heavy residue from high yields have also been implicated in increasing the occurrence of S deficiency.
Soil Factors Resulting in Sulfur Deficiency
The main source of S in most soils is organic S. Each percent organic matter in the plow layer contains about 100 pounds of sulfur per acre. Organic S must be mineralized to sulfate-S (SO4-S) to be taken up by crop plants, in much the same way that organic N is made available to crop plants. Therefore the lower the organic matter content of the soil the more likely S deficiency is to occur.
Since mineralization is a process carried out by microorganisms, soil temperature and moisture largely determine when and how much of the organic S is made available to the crop. Cold and excessively wet or dry conditions reduce microbial activity and reduce S availability from soil organic matter and crop residues. Thus, corn is more likely to be S deficient in the early spring before soil temperatures warm substantially, particularly with minimum tillage which results in colder soils.
Soybean and corn residues contain relatively low concentrations of S. In Stephen Maloney’s research at Vincennes the 1.5 tons of standing soybean stover dry matter at harvest arising from a 40 bushel per acre crop contained less than 3 pounds of S per acre, a concentration about 0.08 percent S. In Eric Miller’s recent research a 200+ bushel corn crop produced about 4.7 tons of stover dry matter per acre at 0.07 percent S, equivalent to less than 7 pounds of S in the stover. During the decomposition of crop residues which are low in S, inorganic S from the soil may be preferentially utilized by the microorganisms making it temporarily unavailable to the crop – a process called immobilization. Thus S deficiency may occur more frequently with large amounts of crop residue early in the growing season.
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