Increase alfalfa hay yields by addressing sulfur deficiency

Michigan State University Extension and Charah, Inc. partnered to test two FGD Gypsum products to correct sulfur deficiency, increasing yields in alfalfa.


Sulfur and boron are essential elements for alfalfa yield, quality, regrowth and stand durability. Alfalfa utilizes more sulfur than many other field crops, approximately 5-6 pounds per ton of dry matter harvested. In years past, sulfur deficiencies were uncommon in Michigan alfalfa. However, the recent decline in atmospheric sulfur deposition is making sulfur deficiency increasingly common, particularly where soil organic sulfur and mineralization capacity are limited.

A 2015 state-wide survey of tissue sulfur levels found that 58 percent of alfalfa stands in northern regions of the Michigan were deficient in sulfur, according to Kaatz in 2016. More notably, 88 percent of northeast Michigan alfalfa fields were found to be sulfur deficient. Boron is a micronutrient used in relatively high quantities by alfalfa, and is commonly deficient on high pH, sandy loam soils such as those found in Northeast Lower Michigan, according to Wright, 1986.

To address these potential deficiencies, Presque Isle County Michigan State University Extension conducted a second year of research investigating the impact of two Sul4R PLUS gypsum products from Charah, Inc. on alfalfa hay yield and quality.

Materials and methods

A 2-year-old stand of alfalfa near Onaway, Michigan, was selected for this trial based on preliminary soil analysis showing sulfur and boron deficiency. The field consisted of Onaway fine sandy loam with 0-6 percent slope. Approximately 300 pounds per acre of 3-14-42 dry fertilizer was top-dressed across the entire trial area to address any possible NPK limitations. Plots 40 feet wide by 500 feet long, running east-west, were established at the site in early May of 2017.

Two different treatments of SUL4R-PLUS FGD gypsum were top-dressed over the alfalfa on May 9, 2017, using a calibrated cone spreader. The first treatment consisted of SUL4R-PLUS gypsum (21% Ca, 17% S) applied at a rate of 147 pounds per acre. Treatment two was SUL4R-PLUS B+Z gypsum (18% Ca, 16% S, 0.50% B, 1.5% Zn) applied at a rate of 147 pounds per acre. Remaining plots served as an untreated control. Each treatment was replicated four times in a completely randomized design.

Results and discussion

Alfalfa yield varied significantly between the gypsum and control treatments at first cutting (P=0.008), second cutting (P=0.05) and overall (P=0.02) with the SUL4R-PLUS and SUL4R-PLUS B+Z treatments out-yielding the control treatment by 1,321 and 1,537 pounds dry matter per acre respectively (Table 1). Yield was highest in the SUL4R-PLUS treatment at first cutting, and in the SUL4R-PLUS B+Z treatment at second cutting.

Alfalfa yield was significantly correlated with tissue sulfur concentration (R2 =0.26, P=0.10). Alfalfa tissue S concentrations varied significantly between the SUL4R-PLUS treatment and the control treatment (P=0.10). However, similar to 2016, the SUL4R-PLUS B+Z treatment produced intermediate tissue S concentrations in July not significantly different from the SUL4R-PLUS treatment or the control (Table 2). Unexpectedly, tissue B levels were significantly higher in both the SUL4R-PLUS B+Z and control treatments relative to the SUL4R-PLUS treatment, although all treatments produced sufficient tissue B levels (Table 2).

These differences in nutrition status between treatments did not translate into significant differences in forage quality at first cutting. This is likely because the alfalfa was over-mature and damaged by alfalfa weevil prior to first cutting, making quality poor overall. However, Crude Protein (CP) and Relative Feed Value (RFV) were higher in the SUL4R-PLUS B+Z treatment at second cutting (Table 3). Unfortunately, it was not possible to run statistical analyses on second cutting forage quality data due to aggregate grab sampling (no replication).

Together, these data suggest SUL4R-PLUS products are capable of addressing sulfur, and possibly boron, deficiency in alfalfa to significantly increase forage yield, as well as net economic return to management. The addition of boron to gypsum has produced somewhat unexpected results in 2016 and 2017, suggesting a possible interaction between boron and the calcium or sulfur in gypsum.

Research has documented interactions between calcium, boron and sulfur in soil and plants (Karthikeyan and Shukla, 2008; Singaram and Prabha, 1997), including our previous work that showed reduced B uptake in soybean treated with high rates of gypsum. In this case, the boron in our SUL4R-PLUS B+Z treatment appeared to counteract the negative effect of added calcium on boron uptake by the alfalfa in the SUL4R-PLUS treatment.

The addition of boron to SUL4R-PLUS also appears to have a possible effect on the rate of sulfur uptake and utilization by alfalfa. In both 2016 and 2017, tissue S and first cutting yields were less in forage treated SUL4R-PLUS B compared to SUL4R-PLUS without boron. Yet in 2017, regrowth after first cutting in the boron treatment outpaced even the standard SUL4R-PLUS treatment, and forage quality was also better at second cutting where B was added.

We hypothesize that addition of B as a coating to the gypsum pellets may physically limit the availability of sulfur initially, but eventually the additional B appears to be important in counteracting reduced boron uptake caused by the large amount of calcium in gypsum, and may also interact synergistically with added sulfur to improve forage yield and quality mid-season.

Table 1. Alfalfa dry matter (DM) yield by treatment


First cutting (DM pounds/acre)

Second cutting (DM pounds/acre)

Total yield (DM pounds/acre)

Cost per acre

Net return per acre at $100/ton


2693.56 a

1596.50 a

4290.07 a




2898.43 a

1175.96 ab

4074.39 a




2109.82 b

643.36 b

2753.18 b




Table 2. Alfalfa tissue nutrients by treatment


Tissue Ca (%)

Tissue S (%)

Tissue B (ppm)

Tissue Zn (ppm)


2.03 a

0.228 ab

59.00 a

28.00 a


1.95 a

0.240 a

44.00 b

27.75 a


1.95 a

0.205 b

54.25 a

29.00 a


Table 3. Alfalfa forage quality by treatment


First cutting crude protein (%)

First cutting RFV

Second cutting crude protein (%)

Second cutting RFV



94.90 a





94.85 a





98.98 a




  • DeDecker, J. 2015. Soybean response to gypsum is dependent on soil quality. Michigan State University Extension.
  • Kaatz, P. 2016. Michigan alfalfa tissue test survey provides fertility snap-shot. Michigan State University Extension.
  • Karthikeyan, K. and L.M. Shukla. 2008. Effect of Boron – Sulphur Interaction on their Uptake and Quality Parameters of Mustard (Brassica juncea L.) and Sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.). Journal of the Indian Society of Soil Science, Vol. 56, No. 2, pp 225-230.
  • Singaram P., Prabha K. (1997) Calcium boron interaction studies in tomato grown in a calcareous soil. In: Ando T., Fujita K., Mae T., Matsumoto H., Mori S., Sekiya J. (eds) Plant Nutrition for Sustainable Food Production and Environment. Developments in Plant and Soil Sciences, vol 78. Springer, Dordrecht
  • Wright, H. 1986. Boron Fertilization of Alfalfa. Ontario Ministry of Food and Agriculture Factsheet.

The authors with to thank Charah, Inc. for supporting this research, and Jeff Kala for his time and energy in carrying out the study.

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