Nutrient Deficiency Symptoms in Corn

Key Points

  • Foliar nutrient deficiency symptoms of corn can be the result of actual deficiencies, environmental interactions, herbicide injury, insect feeding, compaction, and other factors.
  • Soil and foliar tissue testing can help determine if a true nutrient deficiency exists.
  •  Spring-time deficiency symptoms often disappear when soils become warmer and drier. 

Visual Nutrient Deficiency Symptoms

During routine scouting, yellow, brown, purplish, striped, or desiccated corn leaves may be found. These symptoms can be foliar signs of a nutrient deficiency. Common symptoms for the most important corn nutrients include:1

Sulfur (S): Youngest leaves show a yellow striping, particularly at the leaf margin because S is not easily translocated within the plant (Figure 1, left).

Nitrogen (N): Oldest leaves turn pale or yellowish-green and develop an inverted “V” or spear shaped discoloration starting at the tip of the leaf and extending toward the leaf base (Figure 1, right)

Figure 1.Nutrient deficiency symptoms for Sulfur in corn (left), nitrogen deficiency (right). Figure 1. Nutrient deficiency symptoms for Sulfur in corn (left), nitrogen deficiency (right).
Nitrogen deficiency Nitrogen deficiency

Phosphorus (P): Leaves on young plants may appear purplish (Figure 2, left).

Zinc (Zn): Interveinal chlorosis on the upper leaves can occur with veins, midrib, and leaf edges remaining green. Bands or stripes develop on either side of the midrib and leaves may turn nearly white if the deficiency intensifies. Stunted plants may be apparent because of shortened internodes (Figure 2, middle left).

Magnesium (Mg): Plants initially become pale because of a shortage of chlorophyll. Severe deficiencies result in leaves developing full length striping with green veins and yellow tissue between the veins. Lower leaves develop striping first (Figure 2, middle right).

Potassium (K): Leaf edges can become yellow and brown (Figure 2, right). 

Figure 2. Phosphorous deficiency (left) Figure 2. Phosphorous deficiency (left)
Zinc deficiency (middle leftt) Zinc deficiency (middle left)
Magnesium deficiency (middle right) Magnesium deficiency (middle right)
Potassium deficiency (right) Potassium deficiency (right)

Nutrient Deficiency Causes

The affect on potential yield from nutrient deficiencies is dependent on how quickly, if possible, the deficiencies are rectified by more favorable environmental conditions and/or the application of additional nutrients. Season long deficiencies can result in substantial yield loss. When roots are injured by insects or chemicals, and depending on the severity of damage and the time required for new root growth, the potential for yield loss increases. As an example, sulfur deficiencies lasting longer than 21 days after emergence can result in a yield loss of 1 to 2 bu/acre.2

Managing Nutrient Deficiencies

Soil and crop tissue testing can help determine if a deficiency exists and if it is due to soil nutrient availability, restricted plant uptake, or reduced metabolism. When plants with a suspected nutrient deficiency are sampled, a sample of unaffected plants should also be collected and analyzed to help determine if a nutrient deficiency is the cause. Tissue samples taken during the growing season can provide nutrient levels within the plant at the time of sampling and help determine if a supplemental fertilizer should be applied.3 Tissue analysis procedures vary by lab; however, in general, the corn ear leaf at silking should be sampled for S, Mg, and Zn levels.4 An early-season tissue analysis can be done after the seedling stage, but prior to tasseling.

A tissue test, in combination with a soil test, may provide answers as to why plant levels are high or low. Alone, soil test results can be the most useful for predicting nutrient needs for the following growing season, but may not give reliable results for S levels. Corn responds best when soil pH levels range between 5.6 to 7.5. A pH goal for continuous corn or a corn-soybean rotation should be about 6.0 on acid soils. If alfalfa or clover are in the rotation, the pH goal should be 6.5 to 7.0. Appropriate amounts of lime can increase soil pH and help increase the availability of plant nutrients.

Nutrient deficiencies are often outgrown when soils become warmer and drier because root growth, microbial activity, and the breakdown of organic material and the release of nutrients are enhanced. Unrestricted root growth can allow roots to reach water-soluble nutrients such as S and N that may have moved deeper into the soil profile. Between the V3 to V5 growth stages, while corn plants transition from seed dependency to acquiring energy from photosynthesis, plant appearance can be variable and can be from environmental conditions. During the vegetative stages a wait-and-see approach can generally be taken and tissue samples gathered just prior to silking if symptoms persist. Correcting the problem may not be feasible for the current crop; however, soil preparation for the next season can include fertilizer applications based on soil test recommendations and compaction alleviation or prevention. 

Figure 3. Compacted roots (left) can reduce the uptake of nutrients such as phosphorous and cause plants to become purple. Uptake of herbicide carryover (right) such as fomesafen can create symptoms that resemble nutrient deficiencies such as sulfur.  Figure 3. Compacted roots (left) can reduce the uptake of nutrients such as phosphorous and cause plants to become purple. Uptake of herbicide carryover (right) such as fomesafen can create symptoms that resemble nutrient deficiencies such as sulfur.
 Uptake of herbicide carryover (right) Uptake of herbicide carryover (right)

Related Article:

Corn Nutrition 101




1Fernandez, F. 2009. Identifying nutrient deficiencies in corn. the Bulletin. No. 13. Article 6. University of Illinois. 

2Heiniger, R., Crozier, C., Hardy, D., Walls, B., and Reich, R. 2018. Sulfur deficiency symptoms in emerging corn. North Carolina State University.​.

3Stevens, G., Motavalli, P., Scharf, P., Nathan, M., and Dunn, D. 2002. Integrated pest management: Crop nutrient deficiencies and toxicities. IPM1016. University of Missouri-Columbia. 

4Thom, W.O., Brown, J.R., and Plank, C.O. 2000. Sampling for corn plant tissue analysis. NCH-15. National Corn Handbook. Iowa State University Extension. Other Sources: Hartzler, B. and Anderson, M. 2018. Fomesafen carryover to corn. Integrated Crop Management News. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.​/ Kaiser, D.E. and Vetsch, J.A. Sulfur for Minnesota soils. University of Minnesota Extension. Kaiser, D.E. and Rosen, C. 2016. Magnesium for crop production. University of Minnesota Extension. Sutradhar, A.K., Kaiser, D.E., and Rosen, C.J. 2016. Zinc for crop production. University of Minnesota Extension.

Web sources verified 11/13/18. 130411060201

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