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2016 4449-2


Plant Nutrition
and Soil Fertility
by Clain Jones, MSU Extension Soil Fertility Specialist,
and Kathrin Olson-Rutz, Research Associate,

This module is the second in a series of Extension materials designed
to provide information on a variety of nutrient management issues to
Extension agents, Certified Crop Advisers (CCAs), consultants, and
producers. The Appendix at the end of this bulletin lists additional

After reading this module, the reader should:
Know the 17 elements essential for plant nutrition.
Know the macronutrients and micronutrients.
Be familiar with the function and mobility of nutrients within plants.
Understand the forms of each nutrient that are taken up by plants.
Be familiar with typical nutrient plant concentrations.
Be able to specify how nutrient needs change during the growing
Understand the basics of nutrient uptake.
Know how nutrients are held or released by the soil.

1.5 NM
BACKGROUND classified as essential, the element needs to
meet the following criteria:
Plants require 17 nutrients, also called -- The plant cannot complete its life cycle (seed
essential elements, which assist with different to new seed) without it.
plant functions for growth and reproduction. -- The elements function cannot be replaced
Each plant nutrient is needed in different by another element.
amounts and varies in how mobile it is
-- The element is directly involved in the plants
within the plant and the soil. It is useful to growth and reproduction.
know the relative amount of each nutrient
-- Most plants need this element to survive.
that is needed by a crop in making fertilizer
recommendations. In addition, understanding The fourth criterion is used because some
plant functions and mobility within the plant specific plants need certain elements. For
are useful in diagnosing nutrient deficiencies. example, cobalt (Co) is required by bacteria
Soil characteristics that affect nutrient responsible for nitrogen (N) fixation in legumes;
availability to plants are also presented, as they therefore, Co is classified as beneficial, rather
influence nutrient management decisions. than essential. Silica (Si) is not essential, but
highly beneficial to help plants cope with
multiple stresses. Other beneficial elements
PLANT NUTRITION include sodium (Na) and vanadium (V).
Essentiality is generally determined by growing
ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS plants in nutrient solutions with or without a
There are over 100 chemical elements, yet specific element, and observing differences in
scientists have found that only 17 of them are plant growth or function. Bear in mind that
essential for plant growth (Table 1). To be this approach is problematic for elements that

TABLE 1. Essential element, role in plant, and source.

Element Role in Plant Source
Carbon (C) Constituent of carbohydrates; necessary for photosynthesis Air
Hydrogen (H) Maintains osmotic balance; important in numerous biochemical reactions; constituent of carbohydrates Water
Oxygen (O) Constituent of carbohydrates, necessary for respiration Air/Water
Nitrogen (N) Constituent of proteins, chlorophyll and nucleic acids Air/Soil
Phosphorus (P) Constituent of many proteins, coenzymes, nucleic acids and metabolic substrates; important in energy Soil
Potassium (K) Involved with photosynthesis, carbohydrate translocation, protein synthesis, etc. Soil
Calcium (Ca) A component of cell walls; plays a role in the structure and permeability of membranes Soil
Magnesium (Mg) Enzyme activator, component of chlorophyll Soil
Sulfur (S) Important component of plant proteins Soil
Boron (B) Believed to be important in sugar translocation and carbohydrate metabolism Soil
Chlorine (Cl) Involved with oxygen production in photosynthesis Soil
Copper (Cu) A catalyst for respiration; a component of various enzymes Soil
Iron (Fe) Involved with chlorophyll synthesis and in enzymes for electron transfer Soil
Manganese (Mn) Controls several oxidation-reduction systems and photosynthesis Soil
Molybdenum (Mo) Involved with nitrogen fixation and transforming nitrate to ammonium Soil
Nickel (Ni) Necessary for proper functioning of the enzyme, urease, and found to be necessary in seed germination Soil
Zinc (Zn) Involved with enzyme systems that regulate various metabolic activities Soil

2 MODULE 2 Plant Nutrition and Soil Fertility

may be required in only trace amounts, due to
the difficulty in keeping all of a certain trace
element out of the seed-nutrient solution, FIGURE 1. The law of the minimum.
especially when plant seeds contain substantial Image adapted from
amounts of many elements. It is possible that
other elements essential for growth will be
discovered at some point.
A limited supply of one of the essential
nutrients can limit crop yield, although other
factors such as heat or water can also limit
yield. The concept that one factor will generally
limit yield, or the law of the minimum, is
illustrated in Figure 1, where the height of
water in the barrel represents crop yield. In this
figure N is initially the factor that limits yield,
but after N is supplied, phosphorus (P) levels
control yield. FIGURE 2. Nutrient amounts in dried plant material.

Three elements, carbon (C), hydrogen (H), and N, P, K, S, 5% MACRO
oxygen (O), are considered to be non-mineral Ca, Mg
nutrients because they are derived from air
94% C, H, O
and water, rather than from soil minerals.
Although they represent approximately 95% B, Cu, Fe, Mn, Mo, Ni, Zn
of plant biomass, they are generally given little 0.05 to 250 ppm each
Water & air 1% MICRO
attention in plant nutrition because they are Cl
almost always in sufficient supply (Figure 2). 0.05 to 0.5%

MINERAL NUTRIENTS 1 ppm = 1 tsp of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool

The 14 mineral nutrients are classified as
either macronutrients or micronutrients based

Q& A1
on their plant requirements (Q&A 1). There
are six macronutrients: N, P, potassium (K),
calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur
(S). The macronutrients, N, P, and K, are
often classified as primary macronutrients, Most producers generally apply only N, P,
because deficiencies of N, P, and K are more and K. Why is it important to learn about the
common than the secondary macronutrients, other 11 mineral nutrients?
Ca, Mg, and S. The micronutrients include
boron (B), chlorine (Cl), copper (Cu), As Table 2 (page 4) shows, all of the 14 mineral nutrients are taken up by the
iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), molybdenum
crop and then a portion is removed from the field at harvest. If these nutrients
(Mo), nickel (Ni) and zinc (Zn). Most of the
macronutrients represent 0.1 - 5%, or 100- are not replaced by either commercial fertilizers or organic materials such as
5000 parts per million (ppm), of dry plant manure, the amount of each in the soil will decrease, potentially limiting crop
tissue, whereas the micronutrients generally yield. In Montana and Wyoming, besides N, P, and K, there are known cases
comprise less than 0.025%, or 250 ppm,
of B, Cl, Cu, Fe, Mn, S, and Zn deficiencies. By knowing the nutrients that
of dry plant tissue (Table 2, page 4). The
exception is Cl, a micronutrient which has could possibly affect yield, one can better diagnose and remedy crop nutrient
plant tissue concentrations similar to some deficiencies.

MODULE 2 Plant Nutrition and Soil Fertility 3

of the macronutrients. Keep in mind that the be taken up by plants. Knowing what form of
classifications of micro vs. macronutrient a nutrient the plant absorbs helps us to better
refer to plant needs rather than plant uptake understand what controls the movement of
amounts. For example, plants can take up that nutrient in soil.
large amounts of Cl, yet plants need less Cl
than the macronutrients, so it is classified as a
micronutrient. PLANT UPTAKE AND
Nutrients cannot be taken up by plants in REDISTRIBUTION OF
their elemental, or non-charged form, but NUTRIENTS
instead are taken up in an ionic, or charged,
Nutrient uptake by roots is dependent on both
form (Table 2), with the exception of boric
ability of the roots to absorb nutrients and
acid which is uncharged. Most fertilizers are
nutrient concentration at the surface of the root.
made up of combinations of these available
nutrient forms, so when the fertilizer dissolves, ROOTS
the nutrients can be immediately available for Roots are composed of both a mature
uptake. Nutrients contained in plant or animal zone near the shoot, and an elongation
based nutrient sources (e.g., manure, plant zone near the root tip, or cap (Figure 3).
residue) must first be converted to their ionic Nutrients and water move freely through this
form through decomposition before they can elongation zone into the center of the root
(the xylem), and then up into the shoot. It is
more difficult for nutrients to enter the root
through the more mature zone of the root
TABLE 2. Absorbed nutrient forms and concentrations in dry plant due to a restriction called a Casparian strip.
tissue. Cations are green text, anions are white text, and acid is black text. Therefore, nutrient levels in deep soil likely
Concentration Range become more important later in the growing
Element Form Absorbed
in Dry Plant Tissue season, especially for deep-rooted plants.
NO3- (nitrate) Roots spread out both laterally and vertically
Nitrogen (N) 1 - 5% as the plant grows to take advantage of areas
NH4+ (ammonium)
within the soil that have more water and
Phosphorus (P) H2PO4- , HPO4-2 (phosphate) 0.1 - 0.5%
nutrients. Mycorrhizal fungi are beneficial fungi
Potassium (K) K+ 0.5 - 0.8% that colonize the root system, which increase
Calcium (Ca) Ca +2
0.2 - 1.0% the surface area of soil accessed and help
Magnesium (Mg) Mg +2
0.1 - 0.4% with nutrient and water uptake, in exchange
Sulfur (S) SO4-2 (sulfate) 0.1 - 0.4%
H3BO3 (boric acid) FIGURE 3. Cross-section of lower portion of root.
Boron (B) 6 - 60 ppm
H2BO3- (borate)
Casparian Strip
Chlorine (Cl) Cl- (chloride) 0.1 - 1.0%
Copper (Cu) Cu+2 5 - 20 ppm
Root hairs
Fe (ferrous)
Iron (Fe) 50 - 250 ppm Maturation Zone
Fe+3 (ferric)
Xylem Elongation Zone
Manganese (Mn) Mn+2 20 - 200 ppm
Area of most
Molybdenum (Mo) MoO4-2 (molybdate) 0.05 - 0.2 ppm nutrient uptake
Nickel (Ni) Ni+2 0.1 - 1 ppm
Zinc (Zn) Zn+2
25 - 150 ppm Root

4 MODULE 2 Plant Nutrition and Soil Fertility

for carbohydrates supplied by the host stores in the leaves and stalk, through the
plant. Some crops, such as corn, are highly leaves from foliar fertilizer, or through the
dependent on this association, while others do roots. So, both seed quality and seed yield
not support mycorrhizal fungi (e.g., canola). can be increased with late season nutrient
application if other plant requirements are met,
NUTRIENT MOBILITY WITHIN THE such as water. For example, N top-dressed at
PLANT tillering can increase both yield and protein of
All nutrients move relatively easily from the winter wheat grown in Montana, especially at
root to the growing portion of the plant low soil N levels (2), while N applied during
through the xylem. Interestingly, some stem elongation to during flowering may
nutrients can also move from older leaves to increase grain protein (Practices to Increase Wheat
newer leaves if there is a deficiency of that Grain Protein). It is important to understand
nutrient. Knowing which nutrients are mobile nutrient needs and timing of nutrient uptake
(i.e., able to move) is very useful in diagnosing for each crop. See Nutrient Uptake on
plant nutrient deficiencies because if only the MSU Extension Soil Fertility website for
the lower leaves are affected, then a mobile nutrient uptake curves of some crops.
nutrient is most likely deficient. Conversely,
if only the upper leaves show the deficiency,
then the plant is likely deficient in an immobile
nutrient, because that nutrient cannot move The previous section pointed out that nutrient
uptake is dependent on both the plants
TABLE 3. Mobile and immobile nutrients in plants. ability to absorb a nutrient and the nutrient
Mobile Nutrients Immobile Nutrients level at the root surface. Most soils have far
Chloride Boron more nutrients than are needed by a plant in
Magnesium Calcium
a growing season, yet often very little of these
nutrients are in solution. This section describes
Molybdenum Copper
the factors that affect nutrient concentrations
Nitrogen Iron
in the soil solution and explains the process of
Phosphorus Manganese how nutrients in the soil solution move toward
Potassium Nickel the root.
Sulfur (intermediate between mobile and immobile) heading ripening
from older to newer leaves. Table 3 lists the six elongation
Percent of maximum uptake

mobile and eight immobile mineral nutrients.

Sulfur is one element that lies between mobile
and immobile elements depending on the N
degree of deficiency. tillering K
Nutrient uptake does not necessarily match
an increase in plant biomass (Figure 4). For early Dry matter
example, when small grains reach 50% of leaf
their total biomass, they have accumulated
approximately 80% of their necessary N and 00
K, 60% of P, and 70% of S. Therefore, it is Small grain growth
important to supply sufficient nutrients early
in the growing season. Seed (which includes FIGURE 4. Cumulative increase in biomass and uptake of N, P, K, and S
in small grains, as percent of maximum uptake (Saskatchewan, adapted
grain) accumulates nutrients late in the
from 1 ).
growing season, either directly from nutrient

MODULE 2 Plant Nutrition and Soil Fertility 5

Q& A2
What causes clays to have
negative charges?

The negative charge on layer silicate
clays is due to two different processes.
Much of the negative charge originates
when some cations such as Mg+2 replace
other cations such as Al+3 within the layer
silicate structure. This substitution of a
smaller charged ion for a larger charged
ion during formation of the mineral leaves
FIGURE 5. Textural triangle showing the range in sand, silt, and clay for each soil
a net negative charge on the soil particle. textural class.
The second source of the negative charge
originates when a layer silicate particle TEXTURE have such high abilities to retain nutrients.
breaks, exposing edge sites that are The relative amounts Another reason is that clays have net charges
of sand, silt, and clay on their surfaces that can attract nutrients
mostly negatively charged.
are used to define soil (Q&A 2).
texture (Figure 5), which
strongly influences plant CATION AND ANION EXCHANGE

Q& A3
nutrition due to its effect CAPACITY
on the ability to retain Soils hold positively charged ions (cations)
both water and nutrients. such as ammonium (NH4+) in the same
Sand particles are smaller way that hair is attracted to a balloon. Soil
What is a meq? than 2 millimeters (the particles called aluminosilicates, or layer

thickness of a nickel) silicates, and soil organic matter all have a
A milliequivalent (meq) equals 6 x 1020 and larger than 0.05 mm negative charge that attracts cations. Other
of negative charge. Therefore, a soil with (half the thickness of a soil particles, such as iron hydroxides (e.g.,
a CEC of 10 meq/100 g has 60 x 10 20 piece of paper). Sands rust), have positive charges that attract
have very little ability to negatively charged ions (anions), such as
negative charges on 100 g (0.22 lb) of
hold water or nutrients sulfate (SO4-2). Soils generally have much
soil. Put in more relevant terms, this due to large pore spaces higher amounts of layer silicates (negative
means that a soil can hold about 8,000 between particles and low charge) than metal hydroxides (positive
surface area. Conversely, charge); therefore, soils generally have a net
10,000 lbs of cations per acre.
clay particles are smaller negative charge.
than 0.002 millimeters The total negative charge on soil is called
(invisible to the naked the cation exchange capacity, or CEC, and is
eye) and clays can hold large quantities of water a good measure of the ability of a soil to retain
and nutrients. Soils dominated by clay have small and supply nutrients to a crop. Some typical
pores that prevent water from draining freely and values of CEC for various soil textures are
have very high surface areas, up to 90 acres of shown in Table 4.
surface area per pound of soil. This high surface
Cation exchange capacity is typically
area gives nutrients numerous binding places,
expressed in terms of milliequivalents (or meq,
which is part of the reason that fine textured soils
Q&A 3). A CEC above about 15 meq/100 g

6 MODULE 2 Plant Nutrition and Soil Fertility

has a relatively high capacity to hold nutrient substantial amounts of some nutrient anions
cations (e.g., K+; see Table 2). Soils that are such as SO4-2.
high in clay generally have higher CEC values,
although the type of clay can substantially ORGANIC MATTER
affect CEC. Nutrients that are held by charges Organic matter, like clay, has a high surface
on a soil are termed exchangeable. Soil area and a high CEC, making it an excellent
testing (Soil Sampling and Laboratory Selection) is supplier of nutrients to plants. In addition,
often done for exchangeable nutrients, such as organic matter decomposes, it releases
as K, because exchangeable nutrients are the nutrients that are bound in the organic
nutrients available to plants (Q&A 4). matters structure, essentially the ultimate slow
Soils also have the ability to hold anions, release fertilizer. The CEC of organic matter
(e.g., H2PO4- or phosphate, see Table 2). This can be as high as 215 meq/100 g; much
ability is termed the anion exchange capacity, higher than clay. However, the CEC of organic
or AEC. The AEC is generally smaller than the matter drops substantially as pH decreases
CEC, but is high enough in most soils to hold (see following section). Organic matter can
also hold large amounts of water, which helps
TABLE 4. Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) for a nutrients move from soil to plant roots.
range of soil textures (3).
CEC Range pH
Soil Texture
(meq/100 g soil ) The pH of a soil is a measure of the soils
Sand (light color) 3-5 acidity which is based on hydrogen (H+)
concentration. Soils are referred to as being
Sand (dark color) 10-20
alkaline (or basic; pH greater than 7), neutral
Loam 10-15
(pH near 7), or acidic (pH less than 7). As pH
Silt loam 15-25
decreases by one unit (e.g. 7 to 6), the acidity
Clay 20-50 goes up by a factor of 10. Therefore, pH 6 is
10 times more acidic than pH 7, while pH 5 is
100 times more acidic than pH 7.
FIGURE 6. The effect of soil pH on nutrient
availability. Thicker bars indicate higher nutrient Soil pH affects the availability of all of the
availability (4). nutrients (Figure 6). For example, Cu, Fe, Mn,
Ni and Zn are all more available at low pH
Nitrogen than at high pH because metals are bound very
tightly to the soil or exist in solid minerals at
high pH. Conversely, the base cations (Na+,
Potassium K+, Ca+2, Mg+2) are bound more weakly to the
soil, so they can leach out of the surface soil,
especially at low pH, and become less available
at low pH. In Montana and Wyoming, there
Magnesium are many soils with pH levels above 7.5;
therefore, there is a higher likelihood for Fe,
Mn, Ni, Cu, and Zn deficiencies than in areas
Manganese with lower soil pH, although deficiencies of
the micronutrients are not often observed. The
optimum pH appears to be near pH 7, but
Copper and Zinc every crop has different nutrient needs, and
Molybdenum hence optimum pH levels. For example, alfalfa,
pea, wheat, and barley yields decline around
pH below 5.7, 5.6, 5.4, and 5.3 respectively,
4.0 5.0 6.0 7.0 8.0 9.0
pH although there are wheat varieties that tolerate
pH 5.2 (5).

MODULE 2 Plant Nutrition and Soil Fertility 7

High pH Low pH decreases over time, potentially leading to
lower than desirable pH in the seedling root
zone. The number of Montana soil samples
Addition of
H+ ions with pH less than 6.5 has increased 4-fold in
Clay Clay the last 20 years (AgVise Laboratories, Inc.,
particle particle unpublished data). The decrease of soil pH in
the rooting zone can be relatively rapid. Idaho
agricultural soils went from pH around 7 to
pH less than 6 in about 25 years (6). As pH
drops below 5.5, soil clay releases aluminum
(Al) and Mn, which can quickly reach levels
Organic matter Organic matter
toxic to plants (5). See Soil pH and Organic
Matter for more information on these topics.


High CEC, Low AEC Low CEC, High AEC Base saturation quantifies the percent of soil
exchange sites occupied by the base cations
FIGURE 7. Effect of pH on CEC and AEC of clay particles and soil organic (Na+, K+, Ca+2, Mg+2) versus all cations. The
matter. Note decreased pH causes CEC to decrease and AEC to increase
base-cation saturation ratio (BCSR) is
(more positive charges).
proposed as a method to make soil amendment
recommendations by comparing a soils BCSR
Lower pH generally to an ideal ratio of Ca:Mg:K:Na:H:other

Q& A4
causes lower CEC, cations. The proposed ideal ratio, varies
because the higher with soil type, but is generally in the following
concentration of H+ range; 60-80% Ca, 6-20% Mg, and 2-5% K. The
ions in solution will approach was not developed to provide N, P, S
How does CEC affect neutralize the negative or micronutrients recommendations.
nutrient availability? charges on clays and Proponents of the BCSR approach say the

organic matter. Figure 7 correct base cation ratio helps feed the soil
Soils with high CECs hold more positively illustrates how pH affects microbial population, which in turn feeds the
charged nutrients such as Ca+2. One might the surface charge, and plant, that the Ca:Mg ratio is important for
think that if the soil is holding, or binding
hence the CEC and AEC soil structure, that Ca and Mg levels are related
of both clay particles to soil pH, which influences plant growth,
the nutrients, that they are not available and organic matter. The and that excess of some nutrients cause
to plants. However, these attractions are effect of pH on CEC is deficiency of others (7). Research supports
weak, allowing an exchange between more pronounced for soil these points to an extent. However, there are
organic matter than for concerns about using the BCSR approach. The
nutrients in the soil water and nutrients
layer silicates, because actual nutrient concentrations can vary from
on the surface of the soil particle, so as all of the CEC on organic deficient to in-excess in soils with the same
nutrients are taken up by a plant, more matter is dependent Ca:Mg:K ratio. Soils with high CEC will hold
leave the soil surface and enter soil water.
on pH. The negative large, sufficient amount of nutrients, while
charges on the inside of a soil with very low CEC can have the same
Generally, there are many more nutrients the clay particle are not base cation ratio, yet have deficient amounts.
attached to the soil than are in soil water. A neutralized by H+, but The base saturation level is also important.
count of exchangeable nutrients is a much they also arent available A soil can have a high base saturation level,
to bind nutrients. that is, most of its exchange sites are occupied
better measure of available nutrients than
Fertilizing with by Ca+2, Mg+2, K+ and Na+ rather than Al+3
solely nutrient concentrations in soil water. or H+, or have very low base saturation, with
ammonia-based fertilizers
is one way that pH relatively little Ca+2, Mg+2, K+ and Na+, yet have
the same ratio among Ca, Mg, and K. The first

8 MODULE 2 Plant Nutrition and Soil Fertility

would supply sufficient nutrients, the latter NUTRIENT MOVEMENT TO PLANT
insufficient. Finally, extensive field trials that ROOTS
measured crop yields against variable cation
Roots come directly in contact with some
ratios occurring in cropland soils with and
nutrients (called root interception) as
without intentionally altered cation ratios
they grow; however, this only accounts for
have found no correlation between cation
approximately 1-2.5% of the total N, P, and
ratios and yield, as long as the absolute
K uptake of a plant (10). Some plant species
concentrations of cations were above critical
form associations with mycorrhizal fungi. This
sufficiency levels, and not in excess (8).
especially benefits plant uptake of immobile
Managing soils to maintain or improve nutrients at low soil nutrient levels. Other
microbial health, adding Ca or minimizing mechanisms contribute to the movement of
Mg to affect soil structure, adjusting pH if nutrients to the plant.
needed and feasible, and avoiding nutrient
Water moves toward and into the root as the
imbalances are all worthy goals. However, the
plant uses water, or transpires. This process,
base-cation saturation ratio concept is not an
called mass flow (or advection), accounts
ideal approach to soil nutrient management
for a substantial amount of nutrient movement
(9). Interpretation of Soil Test Reports for Agriculture
toward the plant root, especially for the mobile
and Developing Fertilizer Recommendations for
nutrients such as NO3-. Specifically, mass flow
Agriculture present recommended soil testing
has been found to account for about 80% of
methods and how to calculate fertilizer rates.
N movement into the root system of a plant,
yet only 5% of the more immobile P (10).
NUTRIENT MOBILITY IN SOIL Diffusion accounts for the remainder of the
An earlier section discussed the mobility nutrient movement (Q&A 5).
of each nutrient within the plant. Nutrient
Diffusion is the process where chemicals
mobility is somewhat different in soil than in
move from an area of high concentration to
plants, and explains why some nutrients are
an area of low concentration. For example,
less available for plant growth than others.
if you open a bottle of
Nutrient mobility affects how we fertilize.

Q& A5
ammonia in a closed
For example, N fertilizer can be broadcast
room, you can soon
or incorporated with fairly similar results
smell it at the other side
because it is quite mobile. However, P fertilizer
of the room because it
is generally either banded or applied with the
seed because it is quite immobile in most soils.
has diffused from the How do the relatively
Table 5 illustrates the relative mobility in soil of
mouth of the bottle immobile nutrients ever
that had high ammonia make it to the plant
each of the 14 essential mineral nutrients.
concentrations, to
As a good general rule, NH4+, K+, Ca+2, and roots?
the areas of the room
Mg+2 are more mobile than the metals (Cu+2, that previously had no
Fe+2, Fe+3, Mn+2, Ni+2, Zn+2). Fertilizing with The plants create a zone directly next to
ammonia. This same
any of the mobile elements generally needs to process occurs in soil the root that has very low concentrations
be done more frequently than the immobile water, although it of these immobile nutrients. This allows
elements because the mobile elements are generally occurs much diffusion to occur which pulls nutrients
more readily taken up or leached than the slower. The nutrients
immobile elements. The immobile nutrients that are further away from the root
that are most dependent
can be banked, meaning more can be applied on diffusion to move towards the root. This, in turn, pulls more
than meet crop needs as a way of storing them them toward a plant of these immobile nutrients off the soil
for future cropping cycles. Soil banking is root are relatively
also referred to as a build program (see Soil surface to maintain a balance between
immobile (Table 5),
Sampling and Laboratory Selection). have relatively low nutrients in solution and nutrients on the
solution concentrations, surface of the soil.

MODULE 2 Plant Nutrition and Soil Fertility 9

TABLE 5. Mobility of nutrients in soil. and yet are needed in Nutrients vary greatly in their relative
Mobile Relatively Immobile large amounts by the mobility within a soil. For example, nitrate
plant, such as P and (NO3-) is highly mobile, yet phosphate
Boron Calcium
K. By fertilizing with (HPO4-2, H2PO4-) is relatively immobile. These
Chloride Copper
immobile nutrients near differences are key to developing effective
Nitrogen Iron the plant root, the plant nutrient management programs, and explain
Sulfur Magnesium is less dependent on why applying immobile nutrients such as P
Manganese diffusion. The secondary near the root system is important for optimum
Molybdenum macronutrients (Ca, nutrient uptake. Other Nutrient Management
Nickel Mg, S) often do not Modules address each specific nutrient in more
Phosphorus depend on diffusion detail, with emphasis on factors affecting
Potassium because their solution mobility, uptake, and fertilizer requirements.
concentrations are fairly
high in soil relative to
plant requirements. REFERENCES
1. Malhi, S.S., A.M. Johnston, J.J. Schoenau,
Z.H. Wang, and C.L. Vera. 2006. Seasonal
SUMMARY biomass accumulation and nutrient uptake of
Plants need 17 elements, called nutrients, wheat, barley and oat on a Black Chernozem soil
to grow and complete their life cycle. Three in Saskatchewan. Canadian Journal of Plant
Science. 86:10051014. doi:10.4141/P05-
of these nutrients come from air or water,
whereas the other 14 are derived from the
soil. Each of the nutrients performs a specific 2. Lorbeer, S.L., J. Jacobsen, P. Bruckner, D.
Wichman, and J. Berg. 2000. Capturing
function or functions within the plant, and the
the Genetic Protein Potential in Winter Wheat.
amount of each needed by the plant depends
Fertilizer Facts No. 23. Montana State
largely on function. A limitation of one University Extension. http://landresources.
nutrient can prevent the uptake of others, and
ultimately, impact crop yield and quality. Plant
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uptake of nutrients is dependent on both the and W.L. Nelson. 2005. Soil Fertility
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and the nutrient concentration in soil solution. Management. 8th edition. Prentice Hall.
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which is one reason that fertilizing early in the and S.R. Aldrich. 2000. Modern Corn and
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Soils have large quantities of most nutrients, Champaign, Illinois. 353 p.
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plants because they are only weakly bound as State University Extension FS170E. 7 p.
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capacity (CEC) is one measure of the total Koehler. 1985. Longterm acidification
amount of exchangeable cations that can of farmland in northern Idaho and Eastern
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general indicator of soil fertility. Cation Science and Plant Analysis. 16:1, 83-95.
exchange capacity is higher in soils with high
amounts of clay and organic matter, and is 7. Kinsey, N., and C. Walters. 1995. Hands-
lower in acid soils. Soil pH strongly affects the on Agronomy. Acres U.S.A.. Metairie,
Louisiana. 352 p.
plant availability of each of the nutrients, with
pH levels near 7 generally having optimum

10 MODULE 2 Plant Nutrition and Soil Fertility

8. Kopittke, P.M., and N.W. Menzies. 2007. A MEDIA
Review of the Use of the Basic Cation Saturation 4R Plant Nutrition. 2012 International Plant
Ratio and the Ideal Soil. Soil Science Nutrition Institute. Book and CD.
Society of America Journal. 71:259-265.
Plant Nutrition and Soil Fertility Manual. 2nd ed.
9. McKenzie, R. 2015. Using Base-Cation 2013. J.B. Jones, Jr., CRC Press/Taylor &
Saturation Ratios. Grainews. December 1, Francis Group, Boca Raton, Florida. 304 p.
Soil Fertility Manual. 2003. International Plant
Nutrition Institute. 200 p. Book or CD.
10. Foth, H.D., and B.G. Ellis. 1996. Soil
Fertility. 2nd Ed. CRC Press. Boca Raton,
Stewardship Specifics. 2016. International Plant
Florida. 290 p.
Nutrition Institute. One page summaries
of nutrient management issues. www.ipni.
APPENDIX net/stewardship
Western Fertilizer Handbook. 9th ed. 2002.
EXTENSION MATERIALS Western Plant Health Association.
Developing Fertilizer Recommendations for Waveland Press. 356 p.
Agriculture (MT200703AG)
Fertilizer Guidelines for Montana Crops (EB0161) WEB RESOURCES
Interpretation of Soil Test Reports for Agriculture
(MT200702AG) soilfertility/
Montana State University Extension Soil
Practices to Increase Wheat Grain Protein (EB0206)
Fertility webpage with presentations,
Soil Sampling and Laboratory Selection Nutrient publications and links to information and
Management Module No. 1. (4449-1) other resources about soil fertility.
Soil pH and Organic Matter Nutrient Management
Module No. 8 (4449-8) fertilizerfacts/
Available online at http://landresources. Fertilizer Facts summarizing fertilizer, under Extension findings and recommendations based on
Publications, or obtain the MSU Extension field research conducted in Montana by
materials from: Montana State University personnel.
MSU Extension Publications
P.O. Box 172040 Nutrient Management modules covering
Bozeman, MT 59717-2040 such topics as soil sampling and
406-994-3273 laboratory selection, plant nutrition and soil fertility, and cycling and fertilization
for each of the essential plant nutrients.
Soil and Water Management modules
covering such topics as basic soil and water
interactions, salinity and sodicity issues, soil
erosion, chemical transport, and water use

Contact Clain Jones, MSU Extension Soil
Fertility Specialist., (406)

MODULE 2 Plant Nutrition and Soil Fertility 11

We would like to extend our utmost appreciation to the
following who provided their time and insight in making the
original document and this revision a better document:
-- Ron Carlstrom, Gallatin County Extension Office, Bozeman,
-- Rick Engel, Dept. of Land Resources and Environmental
Sciences, MSU, Bozeman, Montana
-- Jeff Farkell, Centrol Inc., Brady, Montana
-- Neal Fehringer, Western Ag Consulting, Billings, Montana
-- Grant Jackson, retired from Western Triangle Agricultural
Research Center, Conrad, Montana
-- Jeff Jacobson, Soil Science Professor Emeritus, MSU,
Bozeman, Montana
-- Allison Kosto, Broadwater County Extension Office,
Townsend, Montana
-- Kent Williams, Custer County Extension Office, Miles City,
-- MSU Extension Communications & Publications

Copyright 2016 MSU Extension

We encourage the use of this document for nonprofit educational purposes. This document may be reprinted for nonprofit educational
purposes if no endorsement of a commercial product, service or company is stated or implied, and if appropriate credit is given to the
author and MSU Extension. To use these documents in electronic formats, permission must be sought from the Extension Communications
Coordinator, 135 Culbertson Hall, Montana State University, Bozeman MT 59717; E-mail:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Montana State University and Montana State University Extension prohibit discrimination
in all of their programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, sexual
orientation, and marital and family status. Issued in furtherance of cooperative extension work in agriculture and home economics,
acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Jeff Bader, Director of Extension, Montana
State University, Bozeman, MT 59717.

12 MODULE 2 Plant Nutrition and Soil Fertility