Soybean response to sulfur was questionable in 2012

In a season dominated by an unprecedented drought, soybean grain yield and leaf sulfur levels were not significantly affected by two starter fertilizers containing supplemental sulfur.

Recent research publications have highlighted potential sulfur (S) deficiencies in corn and soybeans in the North Central region. Sulfur is not mobile within the plant, so symptoms usually appear in the new growth. Atmospheric deposition used to supply a considerable amount of plant available S (about 8 to 15 lbs./A annually), but with the implementation of the Clean Air Act, this amount has significantly decreased. Another important source of S is the soil organic matter. When organic matter decomposes, S is released as a sulfate ion into the soil solution. In Michigan, sulfur deficiencies are most likely to occur on coarse-textured soils with low organic matter. Other factors that may contribute to the need for supplemental S include increased crop removal rates in intensive cropping systems and lack of S impurities in major fertilizer sources.

In 2012, an on-farm research project was conducted in Perry, Mich., where two liquid starter fertilizer products, eNhance® and Access® containing S, were applied at the rate of 2 quarts/A in 2X2 band and compared with untreated (Table 1). The treatment strips were randomized and replicated four times. In addition to S, these two products also contained some micronutrients. The soil characteristics were pH = 6.3, Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) = 5.1 meq/100g and soil organic matter = 1.7 percent.

Table 1. Starter fertilizer treatments in 2012


Sulfur content (%)

Micronutrients (%)



Mn = 0.07, Zn = 0.07



Mn = 0.25, Fe = 0.25




Table 2. Sulfur fertilizer effects on soybean leaf tissue concentration and yield, Perry, Mich., 2012


Moisture (%)

Leaf sulfur (%)**

Yield* (bu/A)***




 51.6 b




53.4 a

Check (no S)



 52.4 ab

*Yield adjusted to 13 percent moisture
**Sulfur analyzed in first trifoliate leaf tissue
***LSD (5 percent) = 1.03; CV =1.1 percent

Although statistically significant, the yield differences between the three treatments were less than two bushels. Access®, which has the highest S content, produced the highest soybean yield, but eNhance® produced no yield response. The S sufficiency range for soybeans is between 0.20 to 0.50 percent. All three treatments in our study were within this range. Drought conditions in 2012 may have contributed to reduced nutrient uptake in 2012. Despite this field being a mineral soil with low CEC and low organic matter, the expected increases in soybean yield and sulfur uptake from supplemental S were not evident. However, this data represents only one site and one year.

Additional information on nutrient sufficiency ranges is found in the Michigan State University Extension Bulletin E-486, Secondary and micronutrients for vegetables and field crops.

This study was funded by the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee. The author wishes to thank Mike Staton, senior MSU Extension educator; Will Willson, soybean producer from Perry, Mich.; and Brian Martindale, Agro-culture liquid fertilizer dealer from St. Johns, Mich., for their collaboration in this study.

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