Potassium deficiency in corn source:

Potassium is a key ingredient to producing quality crops

Potassium (K) levels have been declining in Ontario fields. Many fields that have been sampled have noticed a drop in their soil sample potassium levels from a few years ago. Simply said, growers are not applying enough fertilizer. In some cases fertilization is less than what the crop will remove causing a decrease in soil nutrient reserves. Potassium is one of the three nutrients needed in large quantities by plants. This essential nutrient could be a limiting factor in your crop yields if your soil is not maintained at adequate levels.

The importance of Potassium to your crop

Looking for ways to increase your crop yield and quality? Look no further than Potassium. It is one of the nutrients that is critical to your crops success. Here is why:

Enzyme Activation: Enzymes are important in the plant for chemical reactions to occur. Potassium ‘’activates” at least 60 different enzymes which aid in plant growth.

PotassiumGraphicWater Use: Potassium regulates and monitors the opening and closing of stomates (which are the pores in leaves that exchange water vapor, oxygen, and carbon dioxide with the outside atmosphere.) Guard cells surround the stomates. On a dry year when the water is scarce, potassium leaves the guard cells causing the pores to close and retain the water minimizing drought stress for the plant. If your soil levels are low, the pores often become slower to respond, allowing more water to escape. Having higher potassium level near the roots of plants increases water uptake as well.

Photosynthesis and Sugars: When plants are deficient in potassium, both the rate of photosynthesis and the movement of sugars is decreased. It also aids in uniformity of ripening as well as growth rate.

Water and Nutrient Transport: Adequate potassium levels in your soils and in your plant will keep the nitrates, phosphates, calcium, magnesium, amino acids, and water moving consistently through the xylem.

Protein Synthesis: Producing protein and enzymes in the plant that regulate growth processes wouldn’t be possible without adequate potassium.

Crop Quality: Adequate potassium levels reduces lodging, improves quality, prevents disease and helps increase resistance to pests and environmental stresses.

Potassium in Soils:

There are 3 forms of Potassium that exist in fields:

  1. Unavailable: Depending on soil type, in general 90-98% of total soil potassium is found in this form. Typically it is in a crystalline – insoluble form. Eventually minerals break down from weathering and release potassium. But this process takes to long so not enough potassium will be made available to the plant though this process.
  2. Slowly Available: Typically this form is trapped between layers of clay particles. The shrinking and swelling of these clays will release nutrients during the growing season.
  3. Readily Available: Potassium dissolved in soil water and held on exchange sites on clay particles is considered readily available.

Potassium availability in soils and plant uptake is determined by many factors such as: Soil Aeration, Soil Test Levels, Cation exchange capacity, Temperature, and Moisture.

Critical Soil Test Levels

In Ontario the critical level for potassium is, on average, 120 ppm on depending on soil type. Below these levels crop yields can be limited.

Large Potassium Removers:

Soybeans, silage corn, alfalfa, tomatoes, tobacco, small grains (straw removed).

Average crop potassium removal
CropK20 (lbs. removal per unit)
Grain corn0.28 per bushel
Silage corn23.13 per ton
Soybeans1.40 per bushel
Alfalfa60 per ton
Wheat (straw removed)1.34 per bushel
Tomatoes7.13 per ton
Tobacco110 per ton

Potassium Sources:

There are many different sources available. The one used will mainly depend on your budget and how quickly it needs to be available.

  1. Muriate of Potash (0-0-60, 0-0-62) either red or white. Takes time to breakdown until it is useable.
  2. Sulphate of Potash Magnesia (K-mag/Trio) 0-0-22, 20% Sulfur 12% Magnesium. Will breakdown quickly and readily available.
  3. Potassium Sulphate (SOP) (0-0-50-18Sulfur) readily available.
  4. There are also many types of foliar K products along with some liquid starters that are usually readily available.

Below are photos of potassium deficiency in corn, soybeans, wheat and tomatoes.

Potassium deficiency in corn photo

Potassium deficiency in corn.

Potassium deficiency in soybeans photo

Potassium deficiency in soybeans.

Potassium deficiency in wheat photo

Potassium deficiency in wheat.

Potassium deficiency in tomatoes photo

Potassium deficiency in tomatoes.

How to Correct Deficiencies?

The best way to avoid deficiencies is through routine potassium application, often in the form of Muriate of Potash in the fall. It’s economical and fall generally provides the time to perform these applications. In a very low soil test situation, including a readily available form in the starter can also help. Once the crop is established your options are more limited. Foliar fertilizers containing larger amounts of potassium and liquid products that can be side dressed must be used. These sources will only provide some that is needed to the current crop. The soil levels will still have to be addressed for future seasons.

Late Season Symptoms in Corn:PotassiumLateSeasonSymptCorn

  • Shorter ear length
  • Lighter grain
  • Incomplete grain filling
  • Thinner and weaker stalks
  • Increased stalk rot in your field

Contact us

For more information contact one of our Agronomy Solution Specialists or any local Thompsons branch.

Chris Hunt, CCA
Agronomy Solutions Specialist
Phone: 519-676-5411, Ext. 20478 | Cell: 519-365-3593

Jevin Vyn
Agronomy Solutions Specialist
Phone: 519-676-5411, Ext. 20303 | Cell: 519-401-2120

Mike Wilson
Advanced Agronomy Solutions Manager
Phone: 519-676-5411, Ext. 20480 | Cell: 519-809-0284

References: ipni.net/, extension.umn.edu, extension.agron.iastate.edu, alcanada.com, extension.iastate.edu, smallfarms.oregonstate.edu, mhhe.com