Micronutrients Are Actually No Small Thing

Sally Krueger

Nov 19, 2018

Just because the plant uses them in smaller quantities than macronutrients, doesn’t mean that micronutrients aren’t essential for crop production.

What are micronutrients?

Micronutrients include zinc, iron, manganese, boron, chlorine, copper and molybdenum, and are normally reported on standard soil tests. Cobalt, vanadium, sodium and silicon are also micronutrients but are rarely found to be deficient and that additional nutrient elements are required for normal plant growth.

pH matters

Micronutrients tend to be more available when the pH is 7 to 7.5, which is slightly alkaline, while macronutrients prefer a pH between 6.2 to 7.0, which is slightly acidic. A pH of 7.0 in neutral on the pH scale of 0 to 14. Understanding each micronutrient mineral element’s function in plant growth will help you to determine the right nutrient applications and to diagnosis any potential crop production problems.

1. Zinc (Zn)

Zinc is considered immobile in both plants and soil, and is the most commonly applied micronutrient in corn and soybean production. It is important for protein, enzyme formation and cell wall integrity of plants. There can be problems from zinc tie-ups with high calcium levels in the soil, rendering the zinc unable to be absorbed by plants. Also, high phosphorus levels can cause zinc to not be absorbed as plant growth requires, leading to zinc deficiency symptoms. These symptoms include white banding or striping on corn leaves and shortened internodes in soybeans. Your yields can be impacted from a lack of adequate zinc in the soil.

2. Iron (Fe)

Iron is an immobile nutrient. It plays a vital role in photosynthesis and plant respiration, and is also needed for nitrogen fixation in soybeans. Iron deficiency symptoms include interveinal chlorosis of the soybean leaves, called iron chlorosis, and is usually found on high pH soils of 7.5 to 8.3. In severe cases of iron chlorosis, plant death can occur. To correct the shortage, you can apply iron fertilizer to the soil prior to planting. A foliar application of iron to growing plants can help to resolve the discoloration, but may be only a temporary fix requiring repeated applications.

3. Manganese (Mn)

Manganese is mobile in the soil but immobile within plant tissue. The primary function of manganese is to be a activator of plant growth enzymes. It also helps in chlorophyll formation. Manganese deficiency symptoms can often be confused with iron chlorosis, which is another reason why soil testing is so critical. Soil pH is generally higher in the areas where the yellowing leaf symptoms develop. Adding manganese to areas that have low soil levels of it should see a yield response—cut areas of soil and eroding soil sidehills often respond well to manganese applications.

4. Boron (B)

Boron helps with cell wall formation and regulates plant metabolism. It is a mobile element and can be leached from the soil with rainfall, making it unavailable to your plants. But, boron is also immobile once introduced into plants—plant availability of born decreases in dry environments and when soil pH is high. Boron deficiencies can be identified by malformed and discolored young leaves and stunted plants.

5. Chlorine (Cl)

Chlorine is a very mobile element whose function is to regulate osmosis and charge compensation (that is, the movement of cations, atoms and small molecules in and out of plant cells as part of normal cell activity). While chlorine requirements are small to maintain proper plant growth, concentrations inside plants are high, similar to macronutrient concentrations. Many agronomists speculate that most of the chlorine used by plants comes from rain, soil and air pollution. Overall, you may find that you have more problems of toxicity from too much chlorine rather than a deficiency—symptoms include bronzing leaves followed by wilting and chlorosis.

6. Copper (Cu)

Copper is immobile in both soil and plants. It assists plants in protein and enzyme production and is rarely in short supply. Like chlorine, you should be careful to avoid the possibility of copper toxicity when adding copper to a fertility program. Copper deficiency symptoms are dark, blue-green leaves and stunted plant growth followed by young seedling death.

7. Molybdenum (Mo)

Molybdenum is required by plants in the smallest quantity of any micronutrient to help control the metal component of enzyme formation. It also enables nitrogen to be used by plants efficiently. Molybdenum deficiency symptoms tend to mimic that of nitrogen shortage. Yellowing, stunted plants that lack vigor are common in molybdenum deficient soils. Molybdenum is immobile in plants and a bit mobile in the soil.

Cobalt (Co) an Nickel (Ni) are two more micronutrient elements found in plant tissues, but it’s quite rare that they need to be supplemented through a fertilizer application.

Testing for micronutrient deficiencies

Plant tissue tests should accompany the diagnosis to verify the deficiency. Of course, a reliable soil test can also confirm that there is indeed a micronutrient deficiency requiring the addition of fertilizer to correct the shortage.

Read our “how-to” story on post-harvest soil sampling—it’s easier than you might think.

Correcting micronutrient deficiencies

If you and your agronomist determine that your fields have a confirmed micronutrient deficiency, depending on when the symptoms are discovered, you can most likely correct micronutrient element shortages with a soil-applied fertilizer. It is usually the most efficient method and is often less expensive than a foliar-applied fertilizer application. Always be sure to read and follow label use instructions.

Sally Krueger

Nov 19, 2018