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How to Determine Crop Nutrient Needs

Factors to consider when creating a nutrient management plan

It's a well-known fact that plants need nutrients in order to thrive. If crops don't have the right amount or combination of nutrients, it is hard for them to reach full yield potential, and a lack of nutrients can make a plant more susceptible to disease or pests. Conversely, when certain nutrient levels are too high, plants may exhibit nutrient toxicity or water quality might be threatened. Over-applying nutrients also wastes money.

Nutrients can be collected, passed through or cycled on a farm. They are added through compost, fertilizer and manure. Nutrients are removed with the crop at harvest and by air and water. They are needed in different amounts—some much greater than others. All essential nutrients are important, however, as a plant cannot live without any one of them.

Keeping up to date on what nutrients your soil needs is essential to achieving maximum yield potential. But how can you tell what nutrients your crops need and in what amounts? When making their nutrient management plans, farmers should consider three important factors: crop nutrient requirement, crop rotation and soil test results.

Crop nutrient requirement

The crop nutrient requirement is the combination of crop weight and nutrient concentration. For some nutrients, such as nitrogen for example, farmers try to match fertilizer applications with the plant's nutrient uptake patterns; throughout the season, growers should add fertilizer at the most beneficial times to maximize yield. In other cases, nutrients simply need to be re-added after harvest.

It is important to learn how best to apply a nutrient, and when. Farmers should also analyze uptake patterns so they can effectively time applications for nutrients like nitrogen.

Crop rotation

Impacts on soil nutrient content are not limited to fertilizer applications. Crop rotation affects crop nutrient needs as well. For instance, some crops that are well fertilized leave ample nutrients in the soil for the next crop. With certain rotations, farmers can provide nutrients based on the rotation instead of basing applications solely on the individual crops.

In addition, certain crops may use less or more of a nutrient, impacting the crop succeeding them. For example, a crop following a legume will need less nitrogen, as legumes do not need as much nitrogen and fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil for the next crop. Cover crops and tillage methods may also impact nutrient requirements for a field.

Soil testing

Testing your soil is the most definite way to see the nutrient composition of the soil. Soil test results provide detailed results of what nutrients are present in a given field, as well as the pH of the soil. Most experts recommend that tests be performed well ahead of any nutrient or lime applications. Proper sampling and testing could take several weeks, and obtaining results could take even longer, so if you are planning on applying nutrients in the spring, try to test your soil in the fall.

Your local Southern States Agronomy Expert or local extension office are great resources during this process. These experts are also very knowledgeable when it comes to taking soil samples as well as reading and interpreting the test results.

Knowledge that pays

Nutrient know-how is also important for your pocketbook. Not only does applying the correct nutrients help maximize the crop's yield, but it also reduces the need for expensive fertilizer when adding nutrients won't produce economic results.

Overall, adequately addressing the soil's nutrient needs will keep your land productive and fertile. For more information on nutrient needs, soil sampling and a professional analysis of the results, consult your local Southern States Agronomist.

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