Diagnosing early-season growth problems in corn

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Getting a good stand of corn, with vigorous early-season growth, is the first step in getting good yields. When adverse conditions, such as a hard rain or unusually cool weather, occur after planting and emergence, producers should get out in their fields and take a close look at how their corn is doing.

If the plants emerged in good fashion, but the seedlings then have problems maintaining adequate growth and development or leaf color, there may be several possible reasons. A few of the most likely causes include:

  • Corn rootworm damage. Cool, wet weather this year has delayed some corn planting and/or corn emergence and growth. Western corn rootworm (CRW) eggs were deposited in continuous corn fields last fall, and many hatched a little later this spring than usual due to the warmer-than-usual winter. The first CRW larvae were detected in north central Kansas on May 17. These larvae are feeding on corn roots from plants in the V-4-6 stage. In many cases these plants are still struggling with saturated soils. Under more normal conditions, these larvae would be feeding on larger plants with better established root systems at this point in the season. This earlier-than-usual feeding can have a much greater impact on the younger plants than when feeding is on larger, better-established plants.

Figure 1. Western corn rootworm larva. Photo by Holly Schwarting, K-State Research and Extension.

Figure 2. Western corn rootworm larvae and feeding damage on V4 corn roots. Photo by Holly Schwarting, K-State Research and Extension.


  • Unusually cool temperatures, compacted soil, or waterlogging. This has been a common problem in much of Kansas this year. Wet soils and unusually cool temperatures can inhibit root growth especially, slowing plant development. This can cause yellowed, wilting plants due to poor root growth, drowning, or a seedling blight infection. Seedling blight is often characterized by stem tissue near ground level that is discolored or water-soaked in appearance. Also, planting in wet soil can compact the seed furrow, inhibiting root growth. A shallow compaction layer can slow early root growth, resulting in stunted, nutrient deficient plants – especially potassium deficiency – early in the season.


Figure 3. Sidewall and seed zone compaction in heavy clay soil. Photo by Stu Duncan, K-State Research and Extension.


Figure 4. Classic potassium deficiency in a field with excellent soil test K levels but with sidewall compaction from planting when seedbed was wet. Photo by Stu Duncan, K-State Research and Extension.


Figure 5. Yellow corn due to low soil temperature, slow early growth. Photo by Ignacio A. Ciampitti, K-State Research and Extension.

Figure 6. Poor seedling emergence produces uneven stands. Photo by Ignacio A. Ciampitti, K-State Research and Extension.


  • Long period of unusual low temperatures can also cause purple coloring on corn seedlings. This condition is only expressed up until V6 or six-leaf growth stage. For more information on this topic, please check:



Figure 7. Purple coloration in corn due to low temperature, slow early growth. Photo by Ignacio A. Ciampitti, K-State Research and Extension.


  • Early-season lodging (“floppy corn syndrome”). This is usually associated with hot, dry weather during V1 to V6, which prevents adequate development and penetration of nodal roots. Plants can survive for a time on just the seminal root system, but they will have little mechanical support. Reasons for poor nodal root development and an elevated crown include sidewall compaction, erosion after emergence but before nodal root development, and sinking of the seedbed due to pounding rains. Often a good soaking rain is enough to allow nodal roots to establish and plants to recover. Inter-row cultivation can be used to push soil against plants with exposed crowns. For more information on this topic, please check: https://webapp.agron.ksu.edu/agr_social/eu_article.throck?article_id=1402

Figure 8. Plants with adequate (left) and poor (right) root development. Photo by Ignacio Ciampitti, K-State Research and Extension.

  • White grubs or wireworms. These soil insects may be eating the roots, which will cause the plants to wilt.
  • Black cutworms. These insects, which can be found in the soil or on the surface, cause “window paning” of the leaves on young plants. Cutworms may also cut off seedling plants at the soil surface.
  • Flea beetles. These tiny leaf-chewing insects can cause “scratches” on leaves. Eventually, the leaves may shrivel, turn gray, and die. Plants are more susceptible to flea beetle injury when temperatures are cold and seedling growth is slow. Seedling plants are often able to recover from flea beetle injury because the growing point remains below ground level until the fifth leaf emerges.
  • Poor growth that occurs as circular to oval patches in the field could be an indicator of nematode problems. Approximately 35 days after emergence is an ideal time to sample for nematodes, particularly the root lesion nematode that inhabits about 80 percent of Kansas corn fields. Take 20 cores at a depth of 12 inches from directly in or alongside the row from the outer edges of affected areas. Additionally, 2 to 3 root balls of affected plants should be submitted at the same time. Bag the root samples separately from the soil cores. Samples can be submitted through local Extension offices or sent directly to the Plant Disease Diagnostic Lab in Throckmorton Hall.
  • Free ammonia from an anhydrous ammonia application. This can injure roots and kill germinating seed if the ammonia was applied too shallowly (especially in coarser soils), too close to the time of planting, or if dry soil conditions slowed the conversion of ammonia to ammonium. One way to minimize damage is to apply the ammonia at a 10 to 15 degree angle from the direction of planting. If injury occurs then it is more randomly distributed, reducing the multi-plant skips, and allowing the unaffected plants to compensate.
  • Ammonia injury can also occur when sidedressing anhydrous ammonia under dry soil conditions. Root injury can occur if the plants get too big or the knives run too close to the row. Ammonia injury resulting from poor soil sealing can cause leaves to appear watersoaked or have dead margins. Roots may appear sheared off, or burned off. Plants will normally recover from this injury, but yields can be reduced.
  • Putting a urea-based N fertilizer in contact with the seed. Urea will hydrolyze into ammonia and injure the seedling.

Figure 9. Seedlings damaged after starter fertilizer containing urea-N was placed in direct seed contact. Photo by Dorivar Ruiz Diaz, K-State Research and Extension.


  • Nitrogen (N) deficiency. This does not usually occur until a later stage of growth in conventional tillage systems. But in no-till corn, especially in high residue situations, N deficiency is common where producers haven’t applied nitrogen as a starter, or broadcast a significant amount of N prior to or at planting. In early planting in very cold soils where no N was applied close to the seed as a starter, seedlings may be N deficient in conventional-till also. Nitrogen deficient corn seedlings will be spindly, with pale yellow-green foliage. As the plants grow, the lower leaves will “fire,” with yellowing starting from the tip of the leaf and progressing back toward the stalk.
  • Phosphorus deficiency. This can result in stunted growth and purple leaves early in the growing season. Phosphorus deficiency is often enhanced by cool, wet growing conditions.
  • Iron deficiency. This can cause upper leaves to be pale green between the veins. Iron deficiency is more common on high pH and calcareous soils.
  • Sulfur deficiency. This can result in stunted plants having pale green leaves, with no distinct pattern on the leaves.
  • Herbicide injury. This is not as common now as in the past, but can still occur. Corn is very susceptible to injury from carryover sulfonylurea herbicides which may have been applied to a previous crop, such as wheat. Carryover depends on soil pH, soil texture, application rates, rainfall, and other factors listed on the herbicide labels. Symptoms include stunting, chlorosis, and an overall sickly appearance. Corn will not grow out of this type of injury.


Figure 10. ALS herbicide carryover injury to corn. Photo by Stu Duncan, K-State Research and Extension.


For more details, see “Diagnosing Corn Production Problems in Kansas,” K-State publication S-54, at: http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/bookstore/pubs/S54.pdf

In addition, check the new eBook version of this publication at:

Also, see “Corn Production Handbook,” K-State publication C-560, at: http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/bookstore/pubs/C560.pdf


Ignacio Ciampitti, Cropping Systems and Crop Production Specialist

Dorivar Ruiz Diaz, Nutrient Management Specialist

Jeff Whitworth, Extension Entomology

Holly Schwarting, Entomology Research Extension Associate


Doug Jardine, Extension Plant Pathology

Stu Duncan, Northeast Area Crops and Soils Specialist

Doug Shoup, Southeast Area Crops and Soils Specialist