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“We’ll make a recommendation for a horse pasture for 20 lbs of sulfur and a fertilizer dealer east of the Mississippi won’t put it on. He’ll say ‘That’ll kill your grass.’ No it won’t. 200 lbs won’t kill it … if you already got it growing.”

-Neal Kinsey

In this week’s “No-Till Influencers and Innovators” podcast features Missouri-based fertility expert Neal Kinsey.

Kinsey’s discussion examines the findings of seven soil samples from various geographic regions, soil types and crop rotations.

He tells us how to best interpret the sample results so that you can balance nutrients and achieve maximum yields with properly applied inputs.

Neal also dives into the importance of lime to correct calcium deficiencies and how magnesium is the key to nitrogen utilization. 

Using real-world soil reports from his lab he’s explained several nutrient imbalances and what steps can be taken to resolve excesses or deficiencies, whether it’s in heavy clays, sandy loams or something in between.








No-Till Farmer‘s No-Till Influencers & Innovators Podcast podcast is brought to you by Verdesian Life Sciences.

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Full Transcript

Brian O'Connor

Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Influencers & Innovators podcast. I am Brian O'Connor, lead content editor for No-Till Farmer. Verdesian sponsors this podcast about the past, present, and future of no-till farming. Today's episode is a re-podcast of an episode that originally aired on the No-Till Farmer podcast in October of 2017. In it, Neal Kinsey talks about the importance of sulfur to crop management, and balancing it with macronutrients and secondary macronutrients. Ladies, gentlemen, others, Neal Kinsey.

Neal Kinsey

Good morning, everyone.


Good morning.

Good morning.

Neal Kinsey

Thanks for sticking it out. Well, as far as sulfur, the first thing I'll tell you is a lot of people are probably going to be disappointed about one question that you like to ask that I don't know the answer to, and it is, "What's the maximum amount of sulfur you can put right there with the seed and not cause any problem?" Because it depends on a number of other circumstances, and I'll say this, as far as if you're growing corn, wheat, and soybeans, not any need to do this, but we'll have places where, in the west, that they'll have 250 parts per million sulfur, and we don't have any problem getting it to germinate.

So if whatever you put underneath as a sulfate source, and whatever you put underneath doesn't drive it above that, then don't worry, but once you start getting... Well, when I say don't worry, if you have low phosphate levels, you don't want high sulfur levels, because sulfur's antagonistic to phosphate uptake, but phosphate's antagonistic to sulfur uptake, too. If you've got really high phosphate, you need good sulfur levels, or else sulfur's going to be the one that suffers. So when you start looking at sulfur, we're just going to move through this. It's going to be a little shorter than normal. I think I can get through it anyway.

But when we start looking at sulfur, the deficiencies are increasing. Why? Because yields are being pushed higher. The higher you go, the more sulfur you're going to use. Less sulfur is included, incidentally, in fertilizers, and pesticides, and so forth, and we've eliminated high sulfur coal as a real sulfur source in the Midwestern United States. east of the Mississippi river, most fertilizer dealers are afraid of sulfur. West of the Mississippi river, well, when you get out west, there are people out there that put a lot more sulfur on than they do phosphorus.

All I'm saying is, we'll make a recommendation for a horse pasture for 20 pounds of sulfur, and a fertilizer dealer east of the Mississippi won't put it on. He'll say, "That'll kill your plant. That'll kill your grass." No, it won't. 200 pounds won't kill it if you already got it growing, but I'm not saying you need 200 pounds. I'm just saying don't be afraid to put sulfur on, because whether it's elemental sulfur or sulfate sulfur, sulfur in amounts up to 50 to 100 pounds, as long as you broadcast it, you're not going to hurt anything, unless you have everything just perfect, and then when you put sulfur on that you don't need, sulfur takes something out as it goes.

It never does go out of that soil by itself. When it leaches away, it takes something with it, and as a rule, what it takes with it is whatever you have in excess, as long as the calcium is above 60% saturation. If you've got an excess of potassium, if you've got an excess of sodium, if you've got an excess of magnesium, that sulfur is going to take out the excess. It's not going to take out the ones that are where they need to be until it gets rid of the excess. It's just the way it works. You can measure it on a test. It works that way. If you have an excess of calcium, sulfur takes it out. If you have an excess of magnesium, sulfur takes it out. If you have an excess of potassium or sodium, sulfur will take it out.

But the last three, magnesium, potassium, and sodium, it only gets taken out if you have enough calcium. If you don't have enough calcium in your soil, and you put sulfur on that and sulfur moves through, guess what it takes with it? Calcium. Until you get 60% saturation of calcium in the soil, sulfur won't take out anything else because calcium does exactly the opposite of what magnesium and potassium and sodium do to a soil. Calcium causes the clay particles to flocculate or aggregator clump up, and as that calcium is put on, it actually increases the porosity of your soil. You increase soil porosity by increasing calcium levels, but magnesium, and potassium, and sodium do exactly the opposite; they disperse clay particles.

What does that mean? It means they push them more apart and it reduces your capillary action, it reduces the poor space in that soil. Too much magnesium makes the soil tighter, too much potassium makes the soil tighter, and too much sodium makes the soil tighter, and if you start looking at any one of those soils that has an excess of those, the higher it goes, the harder it is for that water to get in, because all three of them disperse the clay particle. They tighten the soil. They actually reduce the porosity. Why do plants need sulfur? You need sulfur for plant protein. If you got a wheat crop and you're wondering, "How do I get the protein up?" If you're not adding good amounts of sulfur, most of the time, that's the key to getting protein up.

We've got had fellows that'll have 11% protein in their wheat, get their sulfur levels up, they get up to 14%, 14.5% protein. If you get paid on protein, some areas where we live, nobody talks about how much protein is in the wheat, because you just get paid on bushels, but in some areas, they're looking for the quality, they're looking for the protein. Helps develop enzymes and vitamins; you got to talk to a plant pathologist about that, because I don't know all that. Promotes nodule formation in legumes; you got to have good calcium to have nodulation in legumes, but how many people we've had, we'll check their soil, they got good calcium levels, but they still don't get good nodulation on their legumes. Take a look at what your sulfur levels are.

We've seen alfalfa crops that don't get good nodulation, don't get good protein, come in and correct the sulfur, and what is correcting the sulfur? Well, we'll get to that a little later, but you always want a minimum of 20 parts per million sulfur in any soil. That's the absolute minimum. How much is 20 parts per million? Parts per million times two is pounds per acre. That means 40 pounds of sulfur. If you're less than that, your crop's always going to be short on it because that's bare minimum sulfur; bare minimum. Now, a lot of people will tell you, "Oh, nobody knows what to do about sulfur. Nobody knows because there's not a good test."

Look, Dr. William Albrecht tested for sulfur for 40 years before I ever met him. He knew what the numbers ought to be, and all I had to do was absorb them, and I can tell you, since 1973, we've been working with sulfur and measuring it, and if you don't have sulfur, you're hurting yourself. At least get it up above 20 parts per million. I mean, I'm not saying you can't make yields without sulfur. We made 30, 35 bushel soybeans for 20 years without putting on any fertilizer at all; no lime, no nothing. This is on heavy Sharkey clay soils in Southeast Missouri. Yes, you can make that, but those soils, we always thought that's the best they could do, but you know what? Those soils will make 80 bushels of soybeans. If you put the nutrients there, they'll make a little more than that if you do it right.

Aids and seed production; if you're growing something for seed, sulfur is needed to get top seed production. Any kind of a seed producing plant, we work with vegetable seed growers, we work with all types of seed growers. If you're growing seed, and even if you're not going it for seed production, but you are producing seed, you need sulfur to produce that seed. It's necessary in chlorophyll formation. It's necessary to keep that plant green and it helps with disease control. We'll get a little more specific as we go through. A sulfur deficiency impairs yield and quality both. If you're looking for growing something with quality, we work with thousands of acres of wine grapes, and guess what?

The biggest thing that's lacking in terms of quality for most wine grape growers is sulfur. They don't even realize it because nobody's really told them what the importance of it is, but the last thing we can get them to do is get their sulfur up where it needs to be, and all of a sudden they say, "Oh, we've got the fruitiness we've been trying to get in these wines for a long time." So this program, in terms of sulfur, we're not just talking about corn, wheat, and soybeans; we use it on almonds, we use it on walnuts, we use it on all types of vegetables, and if you're below 20 part per million, you're starving whatever it is you're growing.

In case we don't get to it, ideal sulfur level is 50 parts per million, high side of excellent is 100 parts per million. That means a hundred to 200 pounds of sulfur in those soils. Not that you got to go out and buy it every time; measure what you've already got, and then apply what it takes to get there. Tree crops, if you're growing orchard crops and so forth, once you get that sulfur on a woody type crop, and that includes cotton as well, it includes okra as well, it includes brambles, or cane crops, but once you get that sulfur above 50 part per million, it'll give you a 25% increase in trunk growth by caliber measurement. You can measure it with a caliber. It'll actually increase trunk growth by 25% a year. Now, if it'll do that for wood, it'll do it for other things as well.

Why do we need to look at sofa? Because sulfur is like nitrogen. The form that we need to work in the plant is sulfate sulfur, and like nitrate nitrogen, it leaches out. It's hard to keep sulfur in the soil, and as a general rule, unless you put on some insoluble sulfur like popcorn sulfur, or just sulfur rock, if you put on a good water soluble sulfur, that includes sulfur from gypsum, because it's in the sulfate form already, but even water soluble elemental sulfur, the best known elemental sulfur, because I've work with about 75 countries, and you mentioned Tiger 90 in most any of those countries, and they know that sulfur, if they know sulfur.

Now, I don't sell fertilizer, and so I'm not trying to promote one over another, but that's the one that generally is easiest to find, and even though that's elemental sulfur, don't let anybody talk you in to say, "Oh, it takes months before that works." On corn, it'll get in the corn seven days later. On wheat, it'll be in there within seven days. Just put it on half a field, put 10 pounds of sulfur in with your top dress nitrogen on wheat where you need the sulfur, and then stop at half the field. In seven days, you'll see right to the line where you put it. We've had farmer after farmer call and say, "Look, we can tell right where we stopped in seven days," and that's with elemental sulfur. That's not sulfate sulfur. It has to be water soluble.

Water soluble, if you just stick in a glass and it dissolves; no, I'm not talking about that. Used to, there was a company in Texas called Mineola Sulfur Company, and their sulfur was as soluble as any I'd ever seen, but another company bought them out and then shut the plant down, so don't even know where to get that anymore. EaglePicher used to have it, but Tiger 90 works very well. If you put it on the soil and you get a rain, you can come back and still see it. It looks like half BBs or half moons. You can still see it, but there's enough of it that'll break down, it'll get into your corn crop, get into your wheat crop, get into your bean crop, or whatever else you're growing, within seven days. Just try it and see.

In terms of sulfur, I took this from a presentation by the fertilizer institute in the 1950s, and it says, "Levels may increase with soil depth." I used it because some of these things have changed. Levels increase with soil depth if you're using sulfur. If you're not using sulfur, there are many soils where you don't see much sulfur deeper down into the soil, unless you've got a compaction layer, and on compaction layers, there are three things that tend to accumulate on a compaction layer that we measure all the time, and that is sulfur, sodium, and boron. If you're measuring chlorides, they tend to accumulate as well, but they'll only accumulate if nitrates accumulate, because so chloride can move through a soil just as fast as nitrates.

So if you've got enough water to move the nitrates through, the chloride to get through, too, if there's the hard pan there to collect the nitrates, it's going to collect chloride, too, but in terms of looking at sulfur replenished primarily from fertilizers, pesticides, and from sulfur levels in manure and compost, measure what you think. If you think you're going to get plenty of sulfur from manure or a compost, measure how much sulfur's in it. Most of the time, there's hardly any. You don't get something for nothing. If you're not putting sulfur on what you're growing there to make the manure compost out of, not a good chance that's going to be very high in sulfur.

The people that actually grow the crops that have the sulfur in it, that's where the manure and the compost is going to have better sulfur levels. Analyze your compost. We analyze manures and compost of all kinds because we actually look at them to tell a client, he'll say, "How much can I put on per acre?" Well, we'll take a look at the manure or the compost, and most of the time, in terms of sulfur, you get three to six pounds per ton, hardly any. Now, there will be other areas where you're adding sulfur, but we're just talking in general. If I see a compost or a manure that has six pounds of sulfur per ton, I'll think, "Well, that's pretty good." It's not really. We'd like to have a whole lot better amount than that.

Although sulfur occurs in the soil as sulfate, SO4 ion, the major soil source is organic matter. Therefore, organic matter level and its rate of decomposition strongly influence sulfur availability, and it does, except so many people tell us, "Oh, we get all we need from our manure or compost." Well, is manure a good sulfur source? Just what I said, three to six pounds per ton; not a very good sulfur source, unless you're putting on an awful lot of tons, and then you're probably going to get in trouble on one of the other elements. Broadcast N, P, K, S, and trace it. Now, this is the one thing that we try to tell people all time. The first time I spoke at a no-till conference, Frank Glasser told me, "You know what? The number one question of all the no-tillers, what they put down is number one is they want to hear about time after time, how you increase life in the soil."

He said, "Year after year, that's what they've marked the most." How do you increase biology in the soil or soil life? If you want to increase biology in the soil, feed the soil. Feed the soil if that's what you want, if you're going to get the biology up. So many people say, "Well, I just want to feed the plant". If you stick everything right down under the plant, number one is, I don't know anybody that really knows how much it needs if you just try to put it all right there. The question is, how much can it stand before you tie up something else? But that's why we say broadcast nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and sulfur. Broadcast it, and as far as trace elements, iron, manganese, copper, and zinc, you'd be better off if you broadcast those plus the boron, because then you feed the entire spectrum of the biology in that soil.

Now I'll put a little bit of the caveat on this, but unless you're extremely short, for most of these, broadcasting is going to work just fine. The exception is, if you're planting in cool damp soil, you want to get some phosphate there, even if you show really high phosphate levels. Now, we're talking about sulfur right now, but in terms of phosphate, we always tell our clients, it doesn't matter if you've got two times or three times more phosphate than you need, if you're going to plant a cool damp soil, you're not likely to get enough, so you better put a little bit right down close, and that's the one thing I'd tell you; even if you broadcast phosphate, if your levels are really low, or if you're planting in cool damp soil, put some right there close.

To grow the crop, N, P, K, and S deficiencies first, then calcium and magnesium, then micronutrients. If we're talking about what can we use to grow the best crop this year? Well, if you are short on nitrogen phosphorus, potassium, or sulfur, that's going to make the most difference as a general rule. If you got enough, not great amounts, but if you have sufficient amounts of those, then you look at your limestone. If you're short on one of the others up there, and I mean, in terms of soybeans, P, K, and S, if you're short on those, there are times when limestone will make more difference on soybean than P, K, and S, if you just barely got enough P, K, and S, but if you're short on one of those, that's going to make a bigger difference for you than the lime is short-term.

Had a 3000 acre wheat grower in Canada. He sent samples to us. We made the recommendations. He needed 3 tons of lime to the acre on 3000 acres. He said, "Nobody up here puts on lime." He bought a lime spreader, trucks started hauling lime, started the next year at the program, and he said, "Neal, something's wrong. We used your program, but our yield wasn't any better than anybody else's and we put on all this limestone." I said, "Well, we need to sit down and talk," and he said, "I brought my samples with me." After the second day, I showed this slide. I show it every time. He came up and said, "No need to talk. I know." He said, "I heard you say it last year." He said, "You said N, P, K, and S before lime. We put on all that lime, but we didn't put on the sulfur you called for."

He said, "We didn't put any sulfur on it because we spent our budget on limestone." Well, sulfur should have been first. He said, "I'm going home and putting on sulfur." Went home, put the sulfur on, and he called the next year, and he said, "Now we're getting the results." It isn't a matter you can skip something. It's a matter of how do you look at the order? And as a general rule, if everything's short, that's the order. If everything were equally short; generally it's not. That's where prioritizing comes in. We see some soil that we'll tell you, "You need to put trace elements on before you do anything else," other than if it's corn, nitrogen, and then sometimes we'll say, "After nitrogen, you need trace elements. It's going to make you more difference than anything else you can do." Not often, but sometimes.

Sulfurs are negatively charged anions. The anions, nitrate, sulfate, and borate, they're negatively charged. That means they don't attach to the clay particles. It means they can be leached out easy. Sulfur generally stays around for about a year. Within a year, if you put on sulfate sulfur, expect it's either been used or it's probably going to be gone. The heavier the soil, the more that that is an exception. The higher your humus content, the more that's an exception, but on sandy soil with low humus content, we have to get on that year, after year, after year, or that's going to be limiting. Sulfur and phosphorus. Both sulfur and phosphorus have a plant content of 2/10 to 4/10 of a percent.

If you take crops and start analyzing, and see, well, how much sulfur and how much phosphorus is going to be there, there are some plants that there'll be more sulfur than there is phosphorus, and there's some plants there'll be more phosphorous than sulfur. Corn is a little bit more phosphorous than sulfur, but vegetables, there's more sulfur than phosphorus as a general rule. When you start looking, though, we need both of them in adequate amounts, and the excess sulfur antagonizes phosphate uptake, as we said earlier, and excess phosphate antagonizes sulfur uptake. So if you're using a lot of phosphate, but not using sulfur, you're hurting yourself. If you're putting on huge amounts of sulfur, like they do in the west, because they've got high sodium or things of this nature, when you do that, you better be sure your phosphate levels are good. Build them up together.

Phosphate versus sulfate. Sulfur leaches easily; phosphate tends to remain where it's placed. It's just a matter of putting it on there in a form that it remains available, and there's a lot of controversy about that, but I think there's a whole lot more controversy made over phosphate then needs to be. If you do a soil test that shows what the root acid soluble phosphates are in a soil. The only time that doesn't work is when you had it flooded and kills out the mycorrhiza fungi. Every root acid soluble phosphate test is looking at what happens under normal conditions, and they're counting on the mycorrhiza fungi being there. When we had our 500 year flood along the Missouri and the Mississippi river, even the guy that had terrific phosphate levels, and they didn't harvest the crop the year before, were told, "Oh, you don't need any phosphate."

Well, anyone that put on a starter fertilizer, people that were using pig manure and had phosphate levels at the top, if they put on just 30 pounds of P, P205, in the furrow, or right down close to the crop, made a difference between knee high and belt high corn, and you could see if you could see where the fellows on the end, if they were careless, where they turned off the applicator, and where they turned it back on again, because it would be knee high until they turned it on; then it'd be belt high, that much difference. Even though the phosphate level showed good, we're county on the mycorrhiza fungi being there, and when you had that flood in July, there wasn't time. It takes about eight weeks for them to build back. There wasn't time before it got cold.

So the next year we didn't have the life in that soil to actually supply the phosphate because those mycorrhiza fungi extend the root system by about a 100,000 times. So when you don't have it there, that's the time when phosphate levels are going to tell you one thing on a test and you're not going to have it. The other part of that, though, is sulfur leaches easily. Most people spend a lot of money on phosphate, but they don't spend very much on sulfur, and sulfur's the one you're going to lose easiest, time after time. For sulfur fertilization, use sulfates and elemental sulfur. If you're putting on something that has sulfates in it, count that for look at how many pounds of elemental sulfur you're putting on in the sulfate form, and count that. On the other hand, if you can't get enough sulfur by using sulfates, or if you've put on the sulfates, and you're still short on sulfur, use elemental sulfur to take care of it.

Brian O'Connor

We'll come back to Neal Kinsey in a moment. First, I'd like to thank our sponsor, Verdesian, for supporting today's podcast. Verdesian life sciences believes healthy water and soil for the next generation is just as important as supplying efficient nutrients for today's crops, for Verdesian sustainability and profitability go together. Learn more at or talk to your ag retailer today. Now, back to Neal.

Neal Kinsey

As uptake for grain crops and grass, if you put elemental sulfur on a corn crop, and that really is short on sulfur, you can see it in seven days. If you fly over it, you can see it. Just put it on part of it and don't put it on the other part. 1990s, University of Missouri, where Dr. Albrecht actually was, and where I met him and studied under him, but University of Missouri, in the 1990s, came out with a study and said that sulfur doesn't increase corn yields in the state of Missouri. I had a lot of clients that were using a lot of sulfur, and I thought, "Well, I'm going to start getting some phone calls," because every major ag publication published it.

First guy that called, said, "Neal, did you see that article in the...?" whatever magazine it was. "Yep," I said, "I did see that. Do you have a question?" "Oh, no," he said, "I just called to make sure you saw it. I know you're going to get a lot of calls. I still remember that first year, you said, "Take that 40 acres and break it in half. On one side, put enough sulfur to get your sulfur levels up, and on the other side, do what you've always done." He said it was 12 inches taller and made 12 bushel more corn. He said, "I know what sulfur does." Call, after call, after call, people said that.

Now, why would the experiment say one thing, and the farmers are learning something else? You got to look back and see how much they were experimenting with, because most people tell you corn needs 10 or 20 pounds of sulfur. If I told you that you need 10 or 20 pounds of phosphate, you're going to believe that's going to make you a crop? 10 or 20 pounds of phosphate if you are deficient in the soil? It's not. The experiment was no sulfur, 10 pounds, and 20 pounds. They should have been experimenting with 50, 70, and 80 pounds, because that's what makes your high yield corn.

Now, if you're growing 135 bushel of corn, we've got some hill farmers down in Southeast Missouri that, in a normal year, on those hills, they may not make more than 135, but in a good year, they might make up to 150, but it's a dryland hill farm. In those kind of cases, we don't need 70 pounds of sulfur. In those kind of cases, we just try to keep it up above that 20 parts per million, which is 40 pounds, but once you start getting up to 200, 250, that's when you need those higher amounts of sulfur, and if you're not putting it there, you're limiting what you can make. Yeah, I'm not saying you can't make a good yield without it, but sulfur is going to have an effect on that.

Nitrogen to sulfur ratio; 15 to 1 recommended for optimum plant growth. That's why I got a little bit of red there. That means watch out. That's not enough. When you sit down and figure it out, it's more like 4 or 5 to 1. If you're going to eliminate sulfur as a limiting factor in the ear leaf at tassel, you got to get more like 4 to 5 to 1, not 15 to 1. When we start looking at putting on enough sulfur to get to 80 pounds, well, when you start looking at that, we need 80 pounds of sulfur for 200 bushel of corn, and on a really good soil, we'll figure we need 1 unit of nitrogen for each bushel of corn, so 200 units of N. That's at best.

There are soils that will have to put on 300 units of N to get the same 200 bushel of corn. The higher your magnesium levels are in that soil, the more nitrogen it's going to take to go the same yield. But when we start looking at an ideal soil, it takes 200 units of N and 80 units of sulfur. That's not 15 to 1.


Is that where those figures fall for soybeans [inaudible 00:28:09] tissue?

Neal Kinsey

I'm sorry?


Would that ratio be the same?

Neal Kinsey

No, no. The question is, "Would that ratio be the same on soybeans?" Soybeans, about 60 bushel of soybeans, and I'm just doing this from memory, but about 60 bushel of soybeans, I think needs about 35 pounds of sulfur. Now, it needs that, but remember one thing, if we just say, "Well, we got 35 pounds here. Do we have enough to make 60 bushel of soybean?" Not generally, because that sulfur is going to leach away, and there's one thing most people don't think about; it's easy for a farmer to understand, when we talk about nitrogen, that if you've got crop residues there, the microbes are going to tie up nitrogen to break down the crop residues. Well, what do they need along with that nitrogen? They need some sulfur.


I was talking about the tissues.

Neal Kinsey



The tissue analysis.

Neal Kinsey

The tissue analysis? Oh, would it be-


[inaudible 00:28:54] the tissue analysis?

Neal Kinsey

As far as looking at sulfur on a soybean, what I'd tell you is you want to be at least on the high side of mid-range. Take a look and see that you're on the high side of mid-range, because if you're in the middle or on the low side, generally, you're not using enough sulfur. So in the tissue test, just take a look and see where mid-range is, and at least push it to the high side of mid-range.

60 bushel of soybean: 25 pounds of sulfur is what they're saying, 25, and 28 pounds of P. Soybeans about the same amount. Look at corn: 33 sulfur, 46 P. Wheat: 16 sulfur, 22 P. So wheat uses quite a bit more phosphorus than it does sulfur, but soybeans, about even, and corn, it depends on whose figure you use, and I'm trying to be generous to the phosphate side. Some figures you start looking at, they run neck and neck, depending on whose figures you use. Sulfur deficiencies are most common in sandy or light textured soils, well-drained soils, and soils that have low organic matter or low humus content. In soils that have 4% or 5% humus, you can get by with 60 or 70 pounds of sulfur, where in soil that has less than 2.5%, we'd say you need 80 to 90 because you're going to have a certain amount of sulfur that'll be released out of that humus over the growing season.

The best sulfur levels on a soil test actually show up in August, as far as in here in this area, show up in the summertime. In the Northern Hemisphere, that'd be August; in the Southern Hemisphere, it would be heat of the summer. That's when you'll see the best sulfur levels in your soil, because the microbes are working and helping to release some from the humus content. So if you're taking a sample in the fall, then sulfur's not going to look as good as it does in May, June, July, and August. A question?


Yeah, sulfur in the furrow. I know that you said you wanted the sulfur broadcast, but is there any concern about sulfur placed on the seed?

Neal Kinsey

Well, the concern that I would have is balancing the sulfur and the phosphorus, because the question then becomes how much sulfur do we already have in the soil, and how much phosphorus do we already have in the soil in order to make sure we're not causing one to be antagonistic to the other? If I had to take my choice, I'd still rather have the phosphate put right there because phosphate's going to stay; sulfur, in general, is going to leach away anyway.

But if we're putting both of them there, it's easy to get that sulfur to the point where that now we're antagonizing that phosphate anyway, and this will vary from one place to another. But looking at corn, for example, what the people that study it will tell you is, well, most of the phosphate is needed before tassel; most of the sulfur is needed after tassel. So if you put that phosphate on there early, now you're taking care of what that corn needs first, and then get your sulfur on so that later on, when it really needs it, it'll be there.

Sulfur deficiency; light green or yellow coloration appearing in the youngest leaves first. Nitrogen appears in the oldest leaves; sulfur appears in the youngest leaves. If you walk in your corn field, you look down in the whorl of that corn and you see those yellow stripes, and most fields you see them, you don't have enough sulfur. You don't have enough sulfur early. If you walk in there and that's nice and green, and you don't see any yellow stripes in that whorl, then... These yellow stripes here are from sulfur. It may be that you'll have something else that's deficient, but if you see a stripe like that, and most of the time we'll have clients, and the last thing they'll do is put on the extra sulfur.

Well, the last thing they'll do is put on extra copper, but in terms of the major elements, sulfur is the one that gets pushed back, because that's what... You go to the fertilizer dealer, "Oh, you don't need that," and yes, you do. But when you say that, you come in and put about another 10 pounds of sulfur on one half the field, and don't put it on the other, and walk in there, and see if it doesn't eliminate it. Now, it will eliminate that stripe, at least you got some enough sulfur for there, but is that still enough sulfur to get you through the year? And what I tell you is, just eliminating that stripe doesn't mean you've used enough sulfur. When you see that, it means you certainly have not.


That means you've got a major problem?

Neal Kinsey

That's right; a major problem. This right here is wheat that had the same fertilizer program, except what you see that's yellow over there is not a nitrogen deficiency; that's a sulfur deficiency. Sulfur deficiency shows up on the youngest leaves first. I had a fellow that we were making recommendations for his spring crops, and they were putting on their last nitrogen application on their wheat, and on the last 80 acres, they got down to the last buggy load, and the guy that was spreading the sulfur stopped, and said, "Well, the fertilizer company ran out of sulfur, so we don't have our 10 pounds of sulfur in this last spread."

A week later, the guy called and said, "Come down here and look at this." Came down, and we drove right along the road, and he said, "If I didn't know better, I'd think we didn't put nitrogen on that last part of that 80 acres. Look how yellow it is," but they put the nitrogen on it. They didn't put 10 pounds of sulfur on it. Just got out of the truck, walked out there and looked, and sure enough, the youngest leaves were yellow. If it was a nitrogen deficiency, it'd be the oldest leaves. If you've got young leaves that are yellow, that's not nitrogen; that's sulfur. Only difference here is one of these got sulfur; the other didn't.

I had a client down Southeast Missouri, he grew peanuts beside corn, beans, and wheat. His peanuts were always his pride and joy, and I'd always try to get him to fertilize his beans, but beans were a stepchild. Beans just got what's left over. Well, as long as you farm that way, you're not going to get the best bean yields, but he came to a meeting, saw this picture, and he said, "That little bean looked like mine," and I said, "That's because you need to be using that sulfur we're recommending." You know what? The next year when I got there, he didn't take me to see his peanuts, he took me to see his soybeans. And he said, "Look how green these are, but that's not really what I want to show you."

This guy walked his own fields. He diagnosed if he had white mold, or what diseases, and so forth. He said, "Every year on my soybean, we'll always get little places that die out from Phytophthora," and he said, "You can't find it on my farm in my soybeans this year. We don't have any Phytophthora in our soybeans. The only change I made was I put that sulfur in you told us to put in it." Sulfur does fight diseases. Sorry, I didn't realize this would come out so bad. I thought this was a different color. Applying adequate amounts of sulfur can help reduce the incidence of disease by strengthening a plant's immune system.

I'm not just saying that. That's from mineral nutrition of plant disease. If you want a book that talks the best about sulfur, because most sulfur research was not done until the 1990s. If you start looking back in Marschner's book, and Bergman's book, and the books that are used to stand up in court, they don't have much about sulfur in them because they were written in the '90s, but you get books that are written in 2000 or later, that actually start incorporating the research that was done in the 1990s, and all of a sudden, there's a lot of new information on sulfur that's not really being disseminated that much.


[inaudible 00:36:48] the '50s or 60s, we were getting lot of sulfur from the air.

Neal Kinsey

We were, and-


Because the steel mill was pumping it out daily.

Neal Kinsey

Well, the other part of that was, back when we used 0-20-0, we were getting a lot of sulfur from the 0-20-0, too, but guess what got the credit? Because the phosphate industry was paying for it, the phosphate got the credit, not necessarily the sulfur side. But 0-20-0 is hard rock phosphate treated with sulfuric acid, So we get a lot of sulfur from 0-20-0, and then the the phosphate industry decided, "We're not selling calcium and sulfur; we're selling phosphorus, so let's treat that with phosphoric acid, and we'll get rid of all that calcium and sulfur," which is where the piles of calcium and sulfate came out back of the phosphate processing plant. That's as good a source of gypsum as you can find, as long as you're not certified organic.

It's classic gypsum, all those piles, if you can get somebody to sell them to you, because the lawyers are always afraid, "Oh, there might be some heavy metals." We've never found heavy metals in it; never. It works really well. We used to get it right here at St. Louis $5 a ton loaded on the truck. That was the loading charge. They gave it away free; AlliedSignal Corporation. Well, this is from Mineral Nutrition and Plant Disease by Datnoff, Elmer, and Huber from American Physiological Society Press, APS Press. It was published in 2007. That book had more information on sulfur than any one general book that I've seen, as far as useful information.

Another thing that came from it, as sulfur supply was increased in soils, reductions of the following diseases were noted: in canola, white mold and light leaf spot; in cereal grasses, rust and powdery mildew. Sulfur does help fight rust and powdery mildew. In corn, southern leaf blight; in potatoes and wheat, root rot. "In addition to reduction of diseases, sulfur acts as an acaricide and helps control mites. If you have a mite problem, take a look at where your sulfur levels are. Now, this is not me saying this. This is that book, but I'll tell you, that's true what they're telling you. Sulfur is a lot more important for it to use than most people take a look at.

By [inaudible 00:39:13] root rot in pathogen of soybeans, that's what I was saying. The fellow that took me to see his soybean instead of his peanuts, he said, "We don't have Phytophthora in our soybeans." Sulfate sources immediately available to the plant roots. Yes, they are. Non-sulfate sources require chemical process before available to the plant. There is research on alfalfa that says you put on elemental sulfur, and you don't get any response for up to 24 months, that's because they use a insoluble sulfur. If you use a good water soluble sulfur, you'll get a response on any crop within a matter of one to two weeks.

Water soluble sulfur will work really quick, and you can test it out by putting it on a part of a field, and not on the other portion where you need sulfur. If you can't get sulfate sulfur, don't let somebody talk you out of putting on elemental sulfur, unless you get a real cheap source. I had guy from Montana, he said, "I found some sulfur for 5 cents a pound." Well, it was rock sulfur, crushed rock sulfur. Five years later, you can still find it, because it's not soluble. The solubility is what matters, and if you get a sulfur with plenty of water molecules in the chain, so it'll dissolve, it'll work just fine. Elemental sulfur will work almost as fast, if not as fast, as sulfate sulfur.

That deficiency on that hill of wheat right there, that's sulfur. Now, you don't necessarily know that when you see it yellow. It could be manganese. In that field it could, because erosion, any place you erode the soil away and get down into the sub soil, many times, manganese will turn the wheat yellow like that. But in this case, we went out and checked the wheat, and actually went out and checked the soil, and it was a sulfur deficiency. You can look at the wheat and see the youngest leaves die first, but did they die because it was sulfur? Well, if you do a test, we did soil tests and leaf tests, and both of them verified it was a sulfur deficiency.

Well, this fellow never, ever had used sulfur. If he got something incidental, fine, but you don't generally get incidental if you're buying just the regular fertilizer from the fertilizer plant. He'd never used ammonium sulfate, never used anything that had sulfur in it. Well, you can go through that field, and just 10 pounds of sulfur applied there will bring that wheat up. I'm not saying it's going to make the most difference for you, but it'll sure show elemental sulfur works on wheat within about seven days.

An adequate amount of sulfur results in improved palatability. If you got something you're selling for taste, always look at where your sulfur levels are. It makes a difference in nuts, it makes a difference in grapes, it makes a difference in vegetable, it makes a difference in your grass for your cattle, it'll make a difference in alfalfa. I've had clients that will say, "Well, what source of potassium should I use on my alfalfa?" And I say, "Are you selling it or are you using it?" Well, if it's a dairyman, and he's using it, then the first thing I'll tell him is, "Okay, go out there, and you need potassium, put potassium chloride on half that field, and put potassium sulfate on the other half.

First thing you'll see when you come back, the three different dairymen up by Champaign, Illinois, back in the late '70s, early '80s, and got to the first place, and I said, "Well, the field he did the experiment was right out beside the house," and I said, "Don't tell me which side you put the potassium sulfate on or which side of the potassium chloride. Let's just go walking out in the field." So we went walking out into the field, and I said, "You sprayed anything on here that you wouldn't dare take a bite of it?" Well, he hadn't, so just reach down and take a bite. If it's sweet, that's a sign he used potassium sulfate on it. If it's bitter, that's a sign he used potassium chloride on it. It works. It works time and again.

If you wonder about taste, anything that we sell for taste, if it matters for sweetness or improved taste, sulfur makes the difference. It's not a matter that the potassium did it; it was what was with the potassium. If you're going to sell your alfalfa someplace else, and nobody pays you for taste, potassium chloride is always cheaper than potassium sulfate, but it's a matter of looking for, what do you get back? Sulfur increases protein content. We've talked about that already, but I mean, we'll have people call up and say, I had a fellow that worked for Monsanto, and he came back home to farm with his dad down in Tennessee, and when they were harvesting soybeans, he called me with his cell phone.

This was back when they had the bag phones, and he said, "Neal, do your clients all get 60 pound test weight on soybeans?" I said, "I don't believe I've ever had a client tell me what the test weight was on soybeans." He said, "Well, I worked for Monsanto for years on soybeans. You have a hard time finding anybody that has a 60 pound test weight on soybeans," and he said, "Every one of our fields has 60 pound test weight. Every one of them." Well, the other part of it is the protein levels come up. Now, the test weight is not just sulfur. Sulfur will help you with that, but you've got to get down and get enough manganese, and copper, and zinc in there as well.

Reduce nitrate content. If you've got a problem with nitrates in your feeds or whatever, sulfur helps reduce nitrate content in feeds. Get your sulfur levels up. I'm not saying do dangerous things, but I'm always saying that the better you balance out your sulfur, the less problem you're going to have with nitrate in your feeds. This is something you can see easy, and that is increased rooting ability. Anything you're growing underground, if you're growing an onion, if you're growing garlic, if you're growing tulip bulbs, if you're growing potatoes, if you're growing roots, and everybody's growing roots, take a look and see what a difference sulfur makes, and it doesn't have to be elemental sulfur.

It can be elemental sulfur, and this is not really the case. I just found this. A friend of mine gave me this to put on here, and I'm not even sure where this picture came from, and I don't use it to try to over-do anything, because increases rooting ability 30% to 50%. Well, the story that I'm going to tell you is about a fellow that grew about 3000 acres of wheat in Southeast Missouri, and we came in and started working. Well, his fertilizer dealer told him for three years he needed to work with us, and he said, "You can't tell me somebody from 60 miles away can tell me better what to do than my dad who's farmed here all my life." So for three years, he didn't do anything, but one day he called and said, "Well, Neal, the fertilizer dealer told me I need to talk with you, but now the banker said I did."

So he said, "I'm going to take 300 acres out of our 3000 acre and put it into your program, but you test the 300, but 150, we're going to treat the way we always did, and the other 150, we're going to treat like you say." Well, that was on wheat. About a month later, I'm driving down to meet another client, and he comes and meets me on the road, and flashes his lights, and flips around behind me, and says, "Come back here and look at this." He said, "I've gone and dug roots out of every wheat field, your side and our side, and look at the difference this ammonium..." Well, we told him to use ammonium sulfate, and he would use the ammonium nitrate.

He said, "Look at the difference this ammonium sulfate made on these roots systems," and I said, "Now, that's not really a fair test because on your side, we recommended trace elements and other things, but on your side, you got to count those, too," and he sort of looked at the ground, looked back, and he said, "Well, Neal, we actually did everything you said on all of it, except on one side, we used ammonium nitrate, and on the other side, we used ammonium sulfate. That's the only difference," but he had a third more roots in a month's time on his wheat crop. He had gone and dug up in every one of those fields and came to show you. You get root systems from that.

Are there accurate soil tests for sulfur? When Sulfur Institute started publishing sulfur research back in the 1990s, it was really interesting. I'd look at articles, because there were all kinds of articles in farm magazines saying, "Well, does a farmer need to use sulfur?" And some articles said, "No, you don't." Other articles said, "Yes, you do," and you sort of looked through, and you could tell by the time was over that the ones that said, "Yes, you do," they was sponsored by a fertilizer company that was selling sulfur, and the ones that said, "No, you don't," was sponsored by a fertilizer company that wasn't selling sulfur.

I won't name the name, but it was right here in the Midwest. One big company bought out another company. That big company that was always saying you didn't need sulfur till it bought out the company that now they had sulfur to sell, all of a sudden right in the middle of the stream, their articles changed. Now the farmer did need sulfur, but the question you need to ask there is, is the test something that you can count on when you go out in the field? Because there are lots of different ways to measure sulfur, and most universities, maybe this is changed in recent time, but in the '80s and '90s, most universities didn't do a sulfur test. If they had a sulfur test done, they'd send it out, have a private lab do it, and get it back.

As a consequence, if you don't go out in the field and start looking, and seeing, "Well, where does the number need to be if I want to get a good response?" I tell you, Dr. Albrecht had already been out in the field, because he did go into the field, and he had 40 years of work looking at sulfur tests before I ever came along. It was just a matter of being a sponge, and saying, "Well, what should the levels be?" In those articles, though, the ones that said you didn't need sulfur would always point out, "Well, there's no reliable sulfur test." Well, if there's no reliable sulfur test, how you know don't need sulfur?

Well, there is a reliable sulfur test. You can get a good sulfur test; it's just a matter of learning what the numbers need to be on the particular one you use, because the numbers don't come out the same from one soil test to another, and don't ever expect that that's going to happen, because there are too many different methods, and too many different ways of measuring and reporting sulfur, so the figures that I'm telling you works on the test we do, but somebody else's test, they may tell you don't need that much, and as long as they know what that means in the field, they know more about it than we do. All right, this has got to be the last one.


Should be one more, yeah. One more.

Neal Kinsey

Sulfur is the missing link. As far as I'm concerned, when you look at nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, the next one you need to put in there to grow your crop this year and make sure you have enough is sulfur. The end. Thanks very much.

Brian O'Connor

That was Neal Kinsey talking about sulfur management at the 2017 National No-Tillage Conference. We conclude today's podcast with bit of news. A voice you've been hearing on the No-Till Farmer podcast and this Influencers & Innovators podcast will be moving on, our No-Till Farmer Executive Editor, Julia Gerlach, will be decamping for greener pastures. I'm sure I speak for everyone here at No-Till Farmer in saying Julia's leadership will be missed. I know I personally learned a lot from our time together, and she may guest host future episodes, so stay tuned. Good luck, Julia. That's it for this episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers & Innovators podcast. Thanks to our sponsor, Verdesian, for helping to make this series possible.

You can find more podcasts about no-till topics and strategies at That's A transcript of this episode will be available there shortly. If you have any feedback on today's episode, please feel free to email me at boconnor@lessitermedia, or call me at 262-777-2413. No-till Farmer Editor, Frank Lessiter, would also love to answer your questions about no-till and the people and innovations that have impacted today's practices. Please email your questions for Frank to If you haven't already, you can subscribe to this podcast to get an alert whenever we release a new one. Find us wherever you listen to podcasts. For Frank and our entire staff here at No-Till Farmer, I'm Brian O'Connor. Thanks for listening, and farm ugly.