Sulfur, the Quiet Plant Nutrient

Larry Oldham, Extension Soils Specialist
By Larry Oldham, Extension Soils Specialist February 5, 2021 09:56 Updated

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Sulfur (S) is essential for growing plants. It is a component of two of the amino acids that make up proteins. According to The Fertilizer Institute, 200 bushels of corn per acre removes 16 pounds and 60 bushels of soybeans per acre removes 11 pounds S per acre. From North Carolina State: cotton seed and lint remove about five pounds S per acre.

Practically all S used by plants is absorbed as the sulfate ion (SO42-) from soil.  Most S already present in the soil or added by manures such as poultry litter is in organic forms that – much like soil nitrogen – becomes plant available when mineralized to the form used by plants. Rates of these microbially mediated conversions depend on temperature and moisture in the soil

For many years, soil S was supplemented by atmospheric deposition – it literally fell out of the sky. However, with improved smokestack scrubbing technology and widespread use of automobile catalytic converters following implementation of the Clean Air Act, S deposition decreased over the decades. The accompanying graphics from the National Atmospheric Deposition Program are the 1998 and 2018 S as sulfate deposition levels (multiply by 0.8922 to convert to pounds per acre).

Sulfur as sulfate measured deposition, 1998

Sulfur as sulfate measured deposition, 2018

Another similarity with nitrate nitrogen is because the plant-available sulfate ion is negatively charged, it is prone to leaching downward through the profile with water movement. Leaching loss of either ion is more likely in coarse textured, sandy soils.

Sulfur also was once co-applied through some pesticides and phosphorus fertilizers of which it was a component. Over time, these sources either have been refined to less or no S content or are no longer used.

Soil testing for phosphorus and potassium provides insight into plant-available levels of each in the soil and provides the basis for relevant recommendations. With S however, similarities with nitrate (e. g. mineralization from organic matter, leaching vulnerability) also hamper developing soil tests that can provide interpretable results in our warm, humid southern climate.

Note: Public laboratories in Tennessee, South Carolina, and North Carolina provide some S soil testing services. The Mississippi State University Extension Soil Testing Laboratory provides estimated soil S if organic matter (OM) is requested. The estimation of soil S based on OM is based on past research from studies completed in Mississippi.

To review, crop nutrition with S is challenged by:

  • Amount of S in soil depends on soil organic matter levels.
  • Less land application of S containing soil amendments, including manures.
  • Less atmospheric deposition is occurring.
  • More leaching potential in coarse textured, sandy soils.
  • Increasing crop removal through yield increases.
  • Inconsistent soil test results on which to base recommendations.

Determining whether S deficiency exists depends on observation and using what you know. Based on the issues above, sulfur deficiencies will occur first on sandy, low CEC soils, and/or low organic matter soils that may be higher in the landscape, such as a ridge.

Young leaves that are pale green to yellow in color is a symptom of S deficiency. Older leaves on the same plant may be darker as S does not relocate within growing plants. S-deficient plants will be spindly and small with slow growth and delayed fruiting. Early season deficiencies do not always carry forward to reduced yields because soil organic S, the chief source of ‘natural’ S, mineralizes more rapidly to the plant-available sulfate form as it warms up. Deficiency can be addressed early in the growing season with a fertilizer containing readily available S, i.e. sulfate, but note the location and adjust nutrient planning for the next crop.

Several sources of fertilizer sulfur are available (See linked table). Elemental S must be oxidized to the sulfate form before it is available to plants which takes several months. Readily available (in the plant nutrition sense of available) S sources include ammonium sulfate, potassium sulfate, gypsum, and zinc sulfate. The fertilizer industry has developed various nitrogen-phosphorus-sulfur products that are being evaluated by Extension across the country.

Sulfur Fertilizers and Soil Amendments


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Larry Oldham, Extension Soils Specialist
By Larry Oldham, Extension Soils Specialist February 5, 2021 09:56 Updated
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