MANHATTAN, Kan. — In the past decade, scientists have been reporting that America’s move from burning coal to natural gas and low-sulfur coal has led to a large decrease in the amount of atmospheric sulfur, compared to 40 years ago.
And while that’s good news for the environment, it also has led to a new challenge for the country’s farmers.
“In recent years, sulfur deficiency has become a big challenge for wheat production in the southern Great Plains,” said Romulo Lollato, a wheat production specialist with K-State Research and Extension.
Lollato said sulfur balances in many agricultural fields are now negative, suggesting that farmers may need to apply sulfur fertilizer at some point, especially in fields with sandier soils and low soil organic matter. He said it’s not uncommon early in the spring to be driving by a wheat field that looks bright green, a sign that the crop might be sulfur deficient.
“The reason for the deficiency is that over time there has been a lesser amount of sulfur in the rainfall,” Lollato said. “We have less pollution going out in the air, and therefore we have less sulfur coming back to the crop.”
A sulfur deficiency not only leads to yield losses, but also ultimately affects the quality of the wheat produced, he said.
Lollato and his colleagues have been studying ways in which growers can add safe amounts of sulfur in conjunction with other nutrients, such as nitrogen.
Lollato said the scientists are trying to understand how wheat varieties respond to differing rates of nitrogen and sulfur.
Their early data indicates that when sulfur is extremely deficient in a field, the crop showed no response to nitrogen, which inevitably affects its yield and quality. But when sulfur was present in sufficient amounts, “yield increased, and the crop became responsive to the applied nitrogen,” Lollato said.
He adds: “We are able to use nitrogen more efficiently when sulfur is available or is added to the plant.”
Lollato said the work continues in hopes of bringing specific recommendations to wheat growers. For more information, interested persons can contact their local extension agent, or Lollato is available at 785-532-0397, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“This is an example of the type of research that K-State, together with the Kansas Wheat Commission and Grain Craft is bringing to the Kansas wheat producer,” Lollato said.