In recent years, sulfur (S) deficiency in wheat has become more common in many areas of Kansas, particularly in no-till wheat. The likely reasons for this are a reduction in sulfur additions to the crop from atmospheric deposition (there is less S in the air now) and cooler soil temperatures as a result of no-till which slows S mineralization in the soil. Some crops in the rotation, such as soybean, can also take up significant amounts of S resulting in an S deficit for the following wheat crop.
Historically, S deficiency was most common on high-yielding crops grown on irrigated, sandy soils that are low in organic matter and subject to leaching. However, due to reasons discussed above, an increasing number of finer-textured soils have shown S deficiency in recent years.
Identification of S deficiency
The photos below are good representations of S deficiency in wheat. Generally, S-deficient wheat is yellow and stunted and is observed in patches in the field, especially in areas where there has been previous soil erosion or soil movement (Figure 1). The patchy S-deficient areas of the field are often found on hilltops or sideslopes where erosion has occurred and soil organic matter is reduced, or where leaching is more pronounced. Wheat in areas where topsoil was removed or significant cuts were made (i.e. terraced or leveled fields) also commonly shows symptoms.
Figure 1. Patches of sulfur deficiency in a wheat field. Photo by Dave Mengel, K-State Research and Extension.
Sulfur deficiency in growing crops is often mistaken for nitrogen (N) deficiency. However, unlike N deficiency where older leaves show firing and yellowing, with S deficiency, the pale-yellow symptoms often appear first on the younger or uppermost leaves. Wheat plants with S deficiency eventually become uniformly chlorotic (yellow leaf tissue; Figure 2).
Figure 2. Close-up of sulfur deficiency in wheat. The wheat is exhibiting yellowing (chlorosis) which is a sign of insufficient sulfur. Photo by Dorivar Ruiz Diaz, K-State Research and Extension.
Sulfur deficiencies in wheat have been showing up early in the spring, shortly after green-up, before organic S is mineralized from soil organic matter, and before wheat roots can grow into the subsoil to utilize any available S (sulfate) accumulations. Deficiencies of S are often difficult to identify because the chlorosis is not always obvious. Crops lacking S also may be stunted, thin-stemmed, and spindly. In the case of wheat and other cereal grains, maturity is delayed. Winter annual weed competition is also enhanced due to the slower growth and lack of good tillering.
At present, many fields in north central and northeast Kansas have an established history of S deficiency for wheat. In this situation, rather than waiting for symptoms to appear in the spring, farmers may want to consider a winter topdress application of S as a preventive measure.
Forms of sulfur in soil
The majority of sulfur in soils is present in organic forms in surface soils and as sulfate (SO42-), an inorganic form. Sulfate is relatively soluble, so it tends to leach down into the subsoil. In many of our Kansas soils, it will accumulate in the B horizon (subsoil) in two forms. Clay surfaces and coatings will retain some sulfate, and sulfate will also be present in the subsoil of many Kansas soils as gypsum (calcium sulfate).
Testing soil for sulfur
There is a soil test for available sulfate-S in the soil profile. For proper interpretation of this test, soil texture, soil organic matter, , the crop to be grown, and the expected yield level all need to be considered. Accurate estimates of S needs cannot be made from a surface sample alone. Since sulfate is mobile, sampling to a 24-inch depth is important. However, due to the relatively high demand for S during the rapid vegetative growth phase of wheat, and relatively shallow rooting by the wheat crop at this time, the S measured in the deeper, subsoil levels by the test may not be available to wheat in the early spring, especially where soils are cold.
Choosing a fertilizer material
There are many S-containing fertilizer materials. Several dry materials are available that can be blended with dry phosphorus or nitrogen fertilizers for winter/spring topdressing. However, some of these products are best used in pre-plant applications.
Topdressing with thiosulfate and UAN can be done early, before Feekes 5 growth stage (green up), and at temperatures below 70 degrees F. Be aware that some leaf burn may be expected with some of these liquid fertilizers. These products would be good sources for pre-plant application as well.
Dorivar Ruiz Diaz, Soil Fertility and Nutrient Management Specialist