Iron chlorosis in soybeans

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Soybean is one of the most susceptible field crops to iron chlorosis, and this problem is not uncommon in Kansas. Iron is a catalyst in the production of chlorophyll, so a deficiency of iron (Fe) displays as a yellowish or pale color in the leaves. Iron is an immobile nutrient in the plant so symptoms first appear on the youngest leaves.

Iron chlorosis is usually caused by a combination of stresses rather than a simple deficiency of available soil iron. Some of the soil chemical factors that play a role in iron chlorosis include high pH, high carbonate levels, high salinity (EC), low available iron (DTPA-Fe), and high soil nitrate levels. Other factors that play a role include variety susceptibility and the presence of soybean cyst nematodes and root rotting fungi. So iron chlorosis is a complex problem, and not one that can be determined solely on the basis of a soil Fe test.

One of the factors that can be involved in the development of iron chlorosis in soybeans is the high levels of soil nitrate. Iron is taken up in the ferric form (Fe+3), then is immediately converted within the plant into the ferrous form (Fe+2) (existing in the chlorophyll). High concentrations of nitrate-N seem to inhibit this conversion of Fe+3 to Fe+2 in the plant, creating Fe deficiencies. Is important to keep in mind that high soil nitrate levels alone will not cause iron chlorosis in soybeans, but is simply one additional factor that will magnify the problem.

Figure 1. Wheel tracks are noticeable with greener plants in this field of soybeans with iron chlorosis. Soil nitrate levels in these wheel tracks are much lower than the rest of the field due to some compaction and the consequent N loss by denitrification. Usually where soil nitrate levels are lower, plants are not as green. But in this case of iron chlorosis, it’s actually the reverse situation. That’s because higher nitrate levels make iron chlorosis symptoms worse. Photo by Dorivar Ruiz Diaz, K-State Research and Extension.


Fertilization strategies for iron chlorosis

In 2009-10, we conducted tests at eight locations in Kansas with seed coating treatments and foliar iron treatments to correct iron deficiency symptoms. We used two varieties, one with good iron chlorosis tolerance and one that was susceptible to iron chlorosis and locations were under irrigated conditions.

The seed coating treatment was approximately 0.3 lb/acre of actual Fe (chelated EDDHA Fe -6%). The foliar treatments were 0.1 lb/acre EDDHA Fe (6%) and 0.1 lb/acre HEDTA Fe (4.5%). There was an untreated check included. Soil pH at these locations varied from 7.9 to 8.4.

Figure 2. Soybean response to seed coating with chelated iron fertilizer. Photos by Dorivar Ruiz Diaz, K-State Research and Extension.


Greenness. The seed coating treatment had a significant effect in improving the greenness of the foliage, as shown by the chlorophyll meter reading. Overall, the greening response to the seed coating was greater than response to foliar iron applications. The variety most susceptible to iron chlorosis greened up in response to the seed coating much more than the variety more tolerant to iron chlorosis, even though there is also increase in greenness with the tolerant variety. This indicates that the tolerant variety stayed greener during the growing season but still showed additional benefit from the seed coating treatment. The seed treatment also increased plant height by an average of about 5 inches for both varieties (data not shown).

Figure 3. Chlorophyll meter reading after foliar Fe application. Higher values are correlated with greener plant leaves. Under these conditions favorable to iron chlorosis, an iron chelate seed coating improved greenness readings.


Yield. Both the tolerant and susceptible variety also had a good yield response to the iron chelate seed coating, and no significant yield response to the foliar iron chelate treatments. Yield increase due to the seed coating treatment in the susceptible variety was approximately 10 bu/acre, while yield increase in the tolerant variety was approximately 20 bu/acre. Previous studies suggested that tolerant varieties tend to utilize Fe fertilizer sources more efficiently, which would explain these results in plant response observed in our study.

Figure 4. Average yield for the “tolerant” variety without seed coating treatment was 44 bu/acre, and with seed coating treatment was 63 bu/acre. Average yield for the “susceptible” variety without seed coating treatment was 47 bu/acre, and with seed coating treatment was 58 bu/acre. 



  • Fe deficiency potential cannot be explained well by any single soil parameter.
  • Foliar Fe treatments to soybeans with iron chlorosis seem to increase the “greenness” effectively but results suggest that yield increase may be inconsistent.
  • An iron chelate seed coating provides significant yield increases to soybeans under conditions favorable to iron chlorosis. Another alternative to seed coating may be in-furrow application of chelated Fe fertilizer. Seed contact with the fertilizer source seems to be particularly important for reducing iron chlorosis symptoms.
  • If iron chlorosis has been a common problem in the past, producers should select a soybean variety that is tolerant to Fe chlorosis. It may also pay to also use a chelated iron foliar treatment, in-furrow application of Fe chelate, or an iron chelate seed coating.
  • Producers should avoid excessive application of nitrogen fertilizer to the crop that precedes soybeans in the rotation. In fields with some risk of iron chlorosis, the high levels of soil nitrate may be a complicating factor.

This study was supported by the Kansas Soybean Commission.


Dorivar Ruiz Diaz, Nutrient Management Specialist