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Are you Shorting Potassium in Your Forage Fertility Program?
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Are you Shorting Potassium in Your Forage Fertility Program?

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Maintaining very high yields of alfalfa and corn for grain or silage requires optimum to high soil test levels of K. These levels are best maintained through a renewed emphasis on soil testing and …

Maintaining very high yields of alfalfa and corn for grain or silage requires optimum to high soil test levels of K. These levels are best maintained through a renewed emphasis on soil testing and making adjustments for K removal rates from a field. Finally, a potassium fertility program for your farms requires a balanced approach.


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  • 1. Are you Shorting Potassium in Your ForageFertility Program?
  • 2. Importance of Potassium• Potassium (K) is critical for alfalfa and corn silage to achieve high yields and quality and maximize animal performance and profitability• Recently the price of potash (K2O) has risen to very high levels and is characterized by greater volatility than in the past• Soil K levels have also been influenced by a transition to more Average US Farm Prices of K-containing corn silage acres and higher yields fertilizers from 1970-2012 ($/ton) (USDA of corn silage and alfalfa on dairy Economic Research Service - Fertilizer Use and farms Price, 2012.) – Higher yields = higher K removal rates from the field.• Many growers have not adjusted their K fertility programs for these changes
  • 3. Role of K in Alfalfa and Corn Plant Growth• K acts as a catalyst regulating enzymatic processes in the plant• Photosynthesis, cell division, carbohydrate production, protein synthesis, root development, and tolerance to temperature extremes are all influenced by K• K can improve the crops tolerance to drought by regulating water use and can minimize susceptibility to disease• In alfalfa K helps the plant withstand extreme cold temperatures during the winter and helps the plant with N fixation and utilization• In corn K deficiency can shorten the duration of leaf photosynthesis during the season, reduce the transport of nutrients and sugars within the stem, compromise plant integrity, hinder starch formation, and limit use of N• Low K levels can cause lodging in corn or small grains• When in proper balance with N, P, S and other micronutrients, sufficient K ensures high yields of quality forage
  • 4. Drought and K Availability• Growers testing soil for K following the 2012 summer drought may be surprised at below- average soil test levels• K becomes tightly fixed between clay layers under dry soil conditions and is not available until water moves through the soil• K accumulated by corn plants will only be released when rainfall allows to residue breakdown• Expect that K test levels will increase to more normal values following a significant fall rain event• With lower than normal soil tests for K, growers need to rely on long term average soil tests and estimates of crop removal rates Corn leaves showing K deficiency, as indicated by yellowing and necrosis of the leaf margin.
  • 5. Soil Availability of K• There are 3 types of K found in the soil: – K in Soil Minerals (90-98% ): K is tightly bound and unavailable for plant uptake – Non-exchangeable K (1-10%): Replenishes K taken up or lost from the soil solution – Exchangeable/Plant Available K (1 – 2 %): Found in the soil solution or as part of the cation exchange• Soil type and environmental conditions effect the amount of K available for plant use• K availability highest under warm, moist conditions in well aerated soils with neutral or slightly acidic pH• In clay soils, K availability can be affected by Ca and Mg competition for sites on the cation exchange
  • 6. Crop Removal of K• Alfalfa and corn silage remove a tremendous amount of K from the soil profile – A corn crop takes up nearly as much K as it does N• Managing K for corn silage production is different than for high moisture grain, snaplage or earlage harvest K2O K2O Crop Removed Yield Level Removed per Unit* per Acre Alfalfa 60 lbs per ton 10 tons 600 lbs/a 8-9 lbs per Corn Silage 25-30 tons 225-270 lbs/a ton Corn Grain 0.3 lbs/bu 200-230 bu 60-70 lbs/a *Source: UW-Madison. 2012. A2809 Nutrient Application Guidelines for Field, Vegetable and Fruit Crops in Wisconsin.
  • 7. Managing K for Alfalfa• K needs increase with harvest frequency and under high yield situations• With bud stage harvest practices, the high quality feed is removing up to 25% more K from the field than at early to mid flower stage• Important to build up K to optimum or high range before new seedings – Only opportunity during the stand’s life to mix the nutrients through the topsoil• With established stands K is needed during the fall to enhance storage of soluble carbohydrates in the roots and boost the winter hardiness• Applications are best made prior to the last 6 weeks of the growing season• Following the first hay cutting is another convenient time to apply K• Avoid applying high levels of K in the spring prior to first cut – Can lead to excessively high K concentration of first growth and can cause milk fever in dairy cattle
  • 8. Managing K for Alfalfa• When high nutrient application rates are needed to boost soil fertility, it is recommend to split total required amount into 2 or more applications – Helps to avoid salt injury and luxury consumption• Multiple apps assure K availability during the most critical growth periods of the season.• Alfalfa K concentration should be maintained between 2-3% for maximum yield potential and winterhardiness• As alfalfa stands age, the response to K fertilization increases• Critical to fertilize aging stands Potassium concentration in alfalfa plants at various at a high levels to maintain growth stages. Source: Adapted from Figure 37-2, (Barton and Reid, 1977) maximum productivity
  • 9. Managing K for Corn Silage and High Moisture Grain• K fertility management requires a long term commitment to maintaining optimum soil test levels• Growers need to assess the removal rates of K in the harvested crop – Corn silage and alfalfa remove the highest amount of K since it accumulates in the vegetative material of the plant• Highest demand period for K is from V6 through silking• No matter which plant parts are harvested from the field, the growing corn plant will have the same K needs• The big difference is in replacement of nutrients removed: – Corn silage fields may take 5-6 x’s more K than fields where only the grain was removed
  • 10. Taking it to the Field• Test - Soil test fields regularly to track K levels, especially after alfalfa and corn silage crops• Calculate - measure or estimate annual crop removal of potassium. Account for manure and other fertilizer sources applied to the field• Plan - make a plan to replace potassium based on removal rates, manure use and soil test level• Alfalfa – apply twice per year – once after first harvest, once after last summer harvest• Corn – apply needed potassium prior to planting and work into the soil
  • 11. Conclusion• Increased price volatility of fertilizers and higher removal rates of K in forage cropping systems has resulted in more concerns about K fertilization of alfalfa and corn• To maintain very high yields of alfalfa and corn for grain or silage requires optimum to high soil test levels of K – Soil testing and making adjustments for K removal rates from a field help to maintain the optimum to high K levels• K fertility program for your farms requires a balanced approach – It is important to provide all the essential nutrients in the proper amount