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The Importance of Micronutrients in Soil

Complete nutrition plays a big part in maximizing yields.

While it's common knowledge that plants need water and air to grow, sometimes the question of exactly what nutrients a plant needs in order to thrive can be challenging.

Nutrients in the soil are vital to the growth of plants, and proper allocation is critical to the plant's quality. Understanding fully what nutrients are and how they help a plant grow are the first steps in providing an enriching environment for your crops.

The basics

Essential nutrients are just that - nutrients that a plant needs for survival. They are divided into two categories: mineral and non-mineral. The non-mineral nutrients required by plants are carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, found in the air and water. Mineral nutrients are classified as either macronutrients or micronutrients.

Plants need large amounts of macronutrients in order to thrive. Macronutrients are classified further into primary and secondary nutrients.

Proportionately, plants need the largest quantities of primary nutrients. Primary nutrients include:

  • Nitrogen (N)
  • Phosphorus (P)
  • Potassium (K)

Secondary nutrients are as important to a plant's nutrition as the primary nutrients, but plants don’t require quite as much in terms of quantity. Secondary nutrients include:

  • Calcium (Ca)
  • Magnesium (Mg)
  • Sulfur (S)

Micronutrients review

Proportionate to primary and secondary nutrients, plants need a much smaller quantity of micronutrients. However, their importance is still great. A shortage of micronutrients can limit plant growth and crop yields. Too great a shortage could even cause plant death, even with all other essential elements fully represented. Micronutrients include:

  • Boron (B): Transports sugar to roots and tops
  • Chloride (Cl): Aids in plant metabolism
  • Copper (Cu): Activates enzymes, aides in chlorophyll production and is involved in protein synthesis
  • Iron (Fe): Essential for formation of chlorophyll
  • Manganese (Mn): Important for the production of chlorophyll
  • Molybdenum (Mo): Reduces nitrates for protein synthesis
  • Nickel (Ni): Essential for formation of chlorophyll
  • Zinc (Zn): Activates enzymes

As plants develop, from seedling stage to harvest, their need for nutrition varies. During the seedling stage, the need for nutrients is low, but it gradually starts to increase. Nutrient demand quickly increases during the vegetative state. In the reproductive stage, demand lessens again: While plants still need nutrients, the demand is mostly met by a redistribution of elements held in the vegetative tissues.

Maximizing plant potential

The importance of micronutrients to a plant's health has gotten more attention recently as their incorporation into broad fertilizers has become more common.

One reason is increasing per-acre crop yields. This trend removes higher amounts of micronutrients from fields, and the soil is unable to naturally compensate for the loss. Growers are left with the burden of adding the nutrients back to the soil.

Also, advances in fertilizer technology have improved the removal of impurities in the manufacturing process. Adding micronutrients has become much easier and more effective.

In addition, before the common practice of adding primary nutrients to soil, farmers had fields lacking in these elements; the absence of micronutrients paled in comparison to the greater need for primary nutrients.

The Law of the Minimum places even more importance on micronutrients. The concept, developed by a German scientist in the mid 19th century, holds that "plants will use essential elements only in proportion to each other, and the element that is in shortest supply in proportion to the rest will determine how well the plant will use the other nutrient elements." Basically, a plant's growth will be limited by the specific nutrient it lacks most.

Smart growers strive to ensure that all the essential nutrients are provided for their crops. Farmers can analyze and improve nutrient programs through soil tests, plants analyses and local field demonstrations. For more information on proper nutrient management, please consult with your agronomist or local Extension resources.

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