Identifying foliar nutrient deficiency symptoms of corn early in the growing season can be a valuable tool to identify actual nutrient deficiencies and identify management options to correct these deficiencies. There can be other conditions that make nutrient deficiency symptoms more severe or mimic nutrient deficiencies. These conditions include environmental interactions, herbicide injury, insect feeding, nematodes, compaction, root pruning, product genetics, and other factors. Soil and tissue testing can help determine if a true nutrient deficiency exists. Springtime deficiency symptoms often disappear when the soil becomes warmer and drier and after the plant has developed a larger root system.

What to watch for during routine scouting early in the season

There are five general types of nutrient deficiency symptoms:

  • Chlorosis- yellowing due to reduction in chlorophyll – Uniform or interveinal (striped)
  • Necrosis- death of plant tissue
  • Lack of new growth or terminal growth
  • Anthocyanin accumulation (when metabolic processes are disrupted) resulting in reddish (or purple) color
  • Stunting with either normal or dark green color or yellowing

Common symptoms for the most important corn nutrients include:

Nitrogen (N): N deficient leaves show up first on the oldest leaves which turn pale or yellowish green and later in the season the leaf can develop an inverted “V” or spear shaped discoloration starting at the tip of the leaf and extending toward the leaf base. If the problem persists the center of the inverted “V” can eventually exhibit necrosis (dead leaf tissue). The deficiency can work its way up the plant from older leaves to newer leaves.1 (Figure 1).

 Nitrogen deficiency in corn
Figure 1. Nitrogen deficient corn leaf exhibiting the inverted “V”.

Phosphorus (P): Typically, P deficient leaves on young plants may have a distinct dark green color with reddish to purplish leaf margins, starting from the tip. The deficiency is observed in the older leaves. Any soil condition that limits root growth (cool temperature, wet or very dry conditions or compaction) can induce the deficiency even with adequate P levels in the soil. (Figure 2).

 Phosphorus deficiency in corn
Figure 2. Phosphorus deficient corn plant.

Potassium (K): K deficient plants exhibit leaf edges which can become yellow and eventually turn brown and necrotic on the edge of older leaves. Later in the season K deficiency can cause lodging of the crop because stalks are thin and weakened. (Figure 3).

 Potassium deficiency in corn
Figure 3. Potassium deficient corn plant.

Sulfur (S): S deficient plants can be identified by the youngest leaves show a yellow striping, particularly at the leaf margin (edge), because S is not easily translocated within the plant. Sulfur deficiency is often confused with a N deficiency during early plant development, but it is the lower leaves (older leaves) that turn yellow when there is a N deficiency (Figure 4).

 Sulfur deficiency in corn
Figure 4. Sulfur deficient corn plant.
Photo is provided courtesy of the International Plant Nutrition Institute IPNI and its IPNI Crop Nutritional Deficiency Image Collection, Jashandeep Kaur

Zinc (Zn): Z deficiency can be observed as light green to white stripes between veins (interveinal chlorosis) or as wide bands starting at the base of the leaf and extending toward the tip of the newer leaves. In cases of severe deficiency, new leaves can be almost white. Stunted plants may be apparent because of shortened internodes (Figure 5).

 Zinc deficiency in corn
Figure 5. Zinc deficient corn plant.
Photo is provided courtesy of the International Plant Nutrition Institute IPNI and its IPNI Crop Nutritional Deficiency Image Collection, M.K. Sharma and P. Kumar

Magnesium (Mg): Mg deficiency in plants initially can be observed as yellow or white streaking between veins in the leaf because a shortage of chlorophyll. Severe deficiencies result in leaves developing full length striping with green veins and yellow tissue between the veins. The leaves eventually become reddish-purple, and the edge and tip die if the deficiency is severe. Lower leaves develop striping first (Figure 6).

 Magnesium deficiency in corn
Figure 6. Magnesium deficient corn plant.
Photo is provided courtesy of the International Plant Nutrition Institute IPNI and its IPNI Crop Nutritional Deficiency Image Collection, P. Kumar

Nutrient Deficiency Causes:

  • Soil pH – both low and high soil pH can cause a reduction in nutrient uptake depending on the nutrient (optimum pH nutrient availability for corn ranges from 5.8 to 6.2) (Figure 7).
    Nutrient availability chart
    Figure 7. Nutrient availability chart by soil pH.
    Image courtesy of Dr. Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois

  • Compaction that causes restricted root development that can cause foliar symptoms that look like nutrient deficiency (Figure 8).
    Restricted root development in corn
    Figure 8.Restricted corn root development can cause a small corn plant to have a nutrient deficient look.

  • Injured roots from insects, nematodes, diseases, fertilizer burn, or chemicals can look like a nutrient deficiency (Figure 9).
    Nematode damage to corn roots
    Figure 9.Corn roots injured by nematodes that looks like a nutrient deficiency. Normal corn plant on the left, severely damaged corn plant by nematodes on the right.
    Photo courtesy of J. Bond, Southern Illinois University

  • Reduction in plant metabolism and photosynthesis from cool nights, cloudy weather, and saturated soils.
  • Warm temperatures after a cool period can cause plants to grow rapidly and may induce temporary deficiencies.
  • Slow nutrient release from residue.
  • Soil attributes can cause deficiencies - consider texture, CEC, OM, pH, etc.
  • Nutrient interactions – P - Zn (excessive availability of one nutrient can induce a deficiency of another nutrient).

Impact on Your Crop

The effect of potential yield loss from nutrient deficiencies is first dependent on the severity of the nutrient deficiency but is also 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. As an example, for each day that sulfur is deficient past the first 21 days after emergence there is a potential loss of 1 to 2 bushels per acre per day to the point that total crop failure could be experienced. When roots are injured by insects or chemicals, depending on the severity of damage and the time required for new root growth, the potential for yield loss increases.

Managing Nutrient Deficiencies

A nutrient deficiency diagnosis based on deficiency symptoms alone is much less reliable than a diagnosis that is supported by soil sample analysis by a reputable lab. Soil and crop tissue testing can be used to 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 for comparison. In-season plant tissue testing can be useful in diagnosing nutrient deficiencies in field crops, but it must be used with caution. It is very important to follow the tissue analysis procedures for the lab doing the tissue test as these procedures can vary by lab. A tissue test, in combination with a soil test, may provide answers as to why plant nutrient 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 due to potential leaching of this nutrient. Corn responds best when the soil pH levels is around the 6.8 level. Appropriate amounts of lime can increase soil pH and help increase the availability of some plant nutrients on acidic soils.

Nutrient deficiencies are often outgrown when soils become warmer and drier because root growth, microbial activity, and the breakdown of organic material can enhance the release of nutrients. Unrestricted root growth can allow roots to reach water-soluble nutrients such as N and S that may have moved deeper (leached) 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 which can be caused by 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 year; however, soil preparation for the next season can include fertilizer applications and lime applications (to adjust pH in acidic soils) based on soil test recommendations, and compaction alleviation or prevention.