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SECTION CONTENTS:

• Introduction
• K in Plants
• K Uptake by Plants
• K Removal by Crops
• K Deficiency Symptoms
• K in Nature
• K Interactions
• Placement
• Potassium Fertilizers

Introduction
Potassium (K) is one of sixteen essential nutrients required for plant growth and reproduction. It is
classified as a macronutrient, as are nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P). The chemical symbol for
potassium is "K." It is taken up by plants in its ionic form (K+). The word potassium translates from
the Latin or German word, Kalium. The term "potash" comes from the colonial practice of burning
wood in large pots and using the ashes as fertilizer and making soap, gunpowder and glass.
"Potash" is defined as K2O and is used to express the content of various fertilizer materials
containing potassium, such as muriate of potash (KCl), sulfate of potash (K2SO4), double sulfate of
potash and magnesium (K2SO4 ·2MgSO4), and nitrate of potash (KNO3 ). Frequently, the
expressions "K" and "K2O" are used interchangeably, although technically incorrectly.

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Potassium in Plants
While potassium is not a constituent of any plant structures or compounds, it plays a part in many
important regulatory roles in the plant. It is essential in nearly all processes needed to sustain plant
growth and reproduction. Potassium plays a vital role in:

· Photosynthesis
· Translocation of photosynthates
· Protein synthesis
· Control of ionic balance
· Regulation of plant stomata and water use
· Activation of plant enzymes
· And, many other processes

It is known to activate at least sixty enzymes involved in plant growth. And, this may be its most
important function in the plant. Plants deficient in potassium are less resistant to drought, excess
water, and high and low temperatures. They are also less resistant to pests, diseases and
nematode attacks. Potassium is also known as the quality nutrient because of its important effects
on quality factors such as size, shape, color, taste, shelf life, fiber quality and other quality
measurements.

Potassium increases crop yields because it:

· increases root growth and improves drought tolerance


· builds cellulose and reduces lodging
· enhances many enzyme actions
· aids in photosynthesis and food formation
· helps translocate sugars and starches
· produces grains rich in starch
· increases protein content of plants
· maintains turgor, reduces water loss and wilting
· helps retard crop diseases and nematodes

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Potassium Uptake by Crops
Crop Yield Uptake (K2O) Note: Potassium content of fertilizers is
expressed as K2O, although there is no
Alfalfa 10 ton/acre 600 lb/acre such compound in fertilizers, nor is it
Banana 31 ton/acre 1286 lb/acre absorbed by or found in the plant in that
Clover-grass Mixture 6 ton/acre 360 lb/acre form. Soil and plant tissue analyses
Coastal Bermudagrass 10 ton/acre 480 lb/acre values are usually expressed in terms of
percent potassium (K) but fertilizer
Coffee 2233 lb/acre 160 lb/acre recommendations are expressed as K2O.
Corn 200 bu/acre 266 lb/acre To convert from K to K2O, multiply K2O by
Corn Silage 32 ton/acre 266 lb/acre 0.83. To convert from K2O to K, multiply
K2O by a factor of 1.20.
Cotton 1500 lb/acre lint 210 lb/acre
Grain Sorghum 8000 lb/acre 240 lb/acre
Time of potassium uptake varies
Oil Palm 11 ton/acre 268 lb/acre
with different plants. However,
Peanuts 4000 lb/acre 185 lb/acre
plants generally absorb the
Soybeans 60 bu/acre 205 lb/acre
majority of their potassium at an
Wheat 80 bu/acre 162 lb/acre earlier growth stage than they do
Source: PPI
nitrogen and phosphorus.
Experiments on potassium uptake by corn showed that 70-80 percent was absorbed by silking time,
and 100 percent was absorbed three to four weeks after silking. Translocation of potassium from the
leaves and stems to the grain was much less than for phosphorus and nitrogen. The period during
grain formation is apparently not a critical one for supply of potassium. Cotton takes up about 30
percent of its potassium during the first twelve to fourteen days of blooming. At this peak period of
potassium uptake, 3-4 lb/acre are taken up daily. Sixty-six percent of the total potassium is rapidly
translocated from the leaves and stems to the bur of the boll during boll fill. Nitrogen and
phosphorus are translocated to the seed.

Plant requirements for potassium differ widely. Amounts of potassium utilized by several
agronomically important crops are given in Table 7.1. More detailed nutrient utilization data is
presented in the Appendix.

Potassium Removal by Crops


Crop Removal (K2O) Nutrient uptake or utilization is an important
Alfalfa 60.0 lb/ton consideration but crops take up far more
Coastal Bermudagrass 50.0 lb/ton potassium than they remove with the harvested
Corn 0.29 lb/ton portion. For example, a 200 bu/acre corn crop
Corn Silage 8.30 lb/ton takes up or utilizes about 266 lb/acre of potash
Cotton 20.0 lb/bale (K2O). But when the corn is harvested as grain,
Grain Sorghum 0.38 lb/bu only 0.29 lb/bu is removed, or 58 lb/ton K2O is
Peanuts 17.0 lb/bu harvested and removed from the field. However,
Rice 0.18 lb/bu
if the crop were harvested as silage, then 8.3
lb/ton K2O are vested and removed from the
Soybeans 1.4 lb/bu
field. Therefore, a 32 ton/acre silage crop would
Sugarcane 3.50 lb/ton
remove 266 lb/acre K2O. Harvest management is
Tall Fescue 52.0 lb/ton
the major consideration in developing a potash
Tobacco (Burley) 4.70 lb/cwt
fertilization program. Crops harvested where the
Tobacco (Flue-cured) 5.20 lb/cwt whole plant is removed from the field, like alfalfa
Wheat 0.34 lb/cwt hay, must have more potash applied than crops
Source: PPI where only grain, lint or fruit are removed. Often
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with hay and silage crops, removal is an excellent guide for planning the potash fertilization
program. With other crops, such as grain, soil tests offer the best guide.

Potassium Deficiency Symptoms


Plants absorb potassium as the potassium ion (K+). Potassium is a highly mobile element in the
plant and is translocated from the older to younger tissue. Consequently, potassium deficiency
symptoms usually occur first on the lower leaves of the plant and progress toward the top as the
severity of the deficiency increases. One of the most common signs of potassium deficiency is the
yellow scorching or firing (chlorosis) along the leaf margin. In severe cases of potassium deficiency
the fired margin of the leaf may fall out. However, with broadleaf crops, such as soybeans and
cotton, the entire leaf may shed resulting in premature defoliation of the crop.

Potassium deficient crops grow slowly and have poorly developed root systems. Stalks are weak
and lodging of cereal crops such as corn and small grain is common. Legumes are not strong
competitors for soil potassium and are often crowded out by grasses in a grass-legume pasture.
When potassium is not sufficient, winter-killing of perennial crops such as alfalfa and grasses can
occur.

Seeds from potassium deficient plants are small, shriveled, and are more susceptible to diseases.
Fruit is often lacking in normal coloration and is low in sugar content. Vegetables and fruits
deteriorate rapidly when shipped and have a short shelf life in the market.

Potassium deficiency symptoms in corn and soybeans.

Corn: Firing or scorching appears on outer edge of Soybeans: Firing or scorching begins on outer
leaf, while midrib remains green. May be some yellow edge of leaf. When leaf tissue dies, leaf edges
striping on lower leaves. (Sorghum and most grasses become broken and ragged…delayed maturity and
also react this way.) Poor root development, defective slow defoliation…shriveled and less uniform beans,
nodal tissues, unfilled, chaffy ears, and stalk lodging many worthless.
are other symptoms in corn.

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Potassium deficiency symptoms in alfalfa.

Alfalfa: With classical symptoms (shown at top right), first signs of K deficiency are small white or yellowish dots
around outer edges of leaves…then edges turn yellow and tissue dies and becomes brown and dry. However,
for alfalfa grown on soils high in sodium (Na), the K deficiency symptoms has a different appearance, as
indicated in the photo at left above.

Potassium deficiency symptoms in cotton.

Cotton: Cotton “rust” …first a


yellowish or bronze mottling in
the leaf. Leaf turns yellowish
green, brown specks at tip
around margin and between
veins. As breakdown progresses,
whole leaf becomes reddish
brown, dies, sheds prematurely.
Short plants with fewer, smaller
bolls or short, weak fibers. In the
past, K deficiency symptoms
have been described as occurring
on older, mature leaves at the
bottom of the plant. In recent
years, symptoms have been
observed at the top on young
leaves of some heavily fruited
cotton varieties.

Potassium deficiency symptoms in


wheat.
Wheat: Frequently, no outstanding hunger
signs on leaf itself (no discoloration, scorching,
or mottling), but sharp difference in plant size
and number, length, and condition of roots.
Lodging tendency. Smaller kernels. In
advanced stages, withering or burn of leaf tips
and margins, beginning with older leaves.

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Potassium deficiency symptoms in potatoes, apples, rice and sugarcane.

Potatoes: Upper leaves, usually smaller, crinkled Apples: Yellowish green leaves curl upward along
and darker green than normal with small necrotic entire leaf…scorched areas develop along edges
patches…middle to lower leaves show marginal that become ragged. Undersized and poorly
scorch and yellowing. Early indicator: dark green, colored fruit may drop prematurely. Poor storage,
crinkled leaves, though varieties differ in normal shipping and canning qualities in fruit.
leaf color and texture.

Rice: Rice deficient in K may show symptoms as Sugarbeets: The first sign of K deficiency appears
stunted plants, a slight reduction in tillering, and as tanning and leathering of the edges of recently
short, droopy, dark green upper leaves. Yellowing matured leaves. When the soil solution is very low
may appear in interveinal areas of lower leaves, in Na, a severe interveinal leaf scorch and crinkling
starting from the top and eventually drying to a light proceeds to the midrib. Under high Na conditions,
brown. Long thin panicles and black, deteriorated tanning and leaf scorch lead to a smooth leaf
roots may be related to K deficiency. surface.

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Potassium deficiency symptoms in canola, peanuts, coastal bermudgrass and grapes.

Canola: Potassium deficiency reduces growth, Peanuts: Because K is easily redistributed from
resulting in smaller leaves and thinner stems. mature to younger organs, deficiency symptoms
Plants are more easily lodged and may wilt. Under are first observable in the older, lower leaves.
severe deficiency, the edges of older leaves Deficiency is expressed by chlorosis of the leaves,
become yellow, or scorched and may die beginning at the leaf margin. Potassium deficiency
completely, but remain attached to the stem. occurs frequently in acidic soils, and symptoms
usually appear within five weeks of planting.

Coastal Bermudagrass: Potassium plays an Grapes: Potassium deficiency symptoms typically


important role in heat, drought and cold tolerance of appear in early summer on leaves on the middle
forage grasses. Leafspot diseases may be the first portion on the shoots. The leaves fade, becoming
symptom of K deficiency recognized in Coastal and chlorotic beginning at the leaf margin, while the
other hybrid bermudagrasses. Yellowing of older center portion of the leaf and veins remain green.
leaves, followed by leaf tip and leaf margin The leaves tend to cup downward. In white wine
chlorosis, can occur with severe deficiency. varieties (such as Chardonnay, shown in photo) the
Reddish-brown to purple spots, caused by fungal leaves become mostly yellow or yellow bronze.
infection, may also be scattered over younger leaf
blades. Thinning stands and reduced growth,
followed by death of older leaves, are frequent
symptoms.

Visit back-to-basics.net for more deficiency information

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Occurrence of Potassium in Nature
Potassium is abundant in nature, comprising about 2.4 percent of the earth’s crust. The potassium
content of soils varies widely, ranging from only a few hundred pounds per acre (furrow-slice 6"
depth) to over 50,000 pounds per acre or more in fine-textured soils formed from rocks that are high
in potassium-bearing minerals. All naturally occurring potassium contained in the soil originated from
the disintegration and decomposition of potash-feldspars (orthoclase and microcline) and micas
(muscovite and biotite). Much of the natural potassium occurring in soils is not available to plants
and crops; therefore, soils containing relatively large amounts of total potassium usually respond to
potassium fertilization.

Relatively Unavailable Potassium

From 90-98 percent of the total potassium present in soils is found in insoluble primary minerals
such as feldspars and micas. These minerals consist of potassium-aluminum silicates which are
resistant to chemical breakdown. They release potassium slowly, but in small quantities compared
to total needs of growing crops.

Slowly Available Potassium

This form comprises 1-10 percent of the total potassium supply and may originate from dissolved
primary minerals or from potassium fertilizers. This potassium is attracted to the surface of clay
minerals where it may be firmly bound or fixed between the clay layers in a form slowly available to
plants. The actual amount available depends on the type and amount of clay present.

Readily Available Potassium

Readily available forms of potassium


comprise only 0.1 to 2 percent of the total
potassium in the soil and consist of
potassium dissolved in the soil solution
and held on the exchange positions of the
clay and organic matter. This potassium is
referred to as "exchangeable" because it
can be replaced by other positively-
charged ions (cations) such as hydrogen,
calcium, and magnesium. This exchange
happens rapidly and frequently. The
potassium in the soil solution may be
taken up by the plant or lost from the soil
by leaching, especially on sandy coarse-
textured soils.

The Potassium Cycle

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Potassium Interactions with Other Nutrients
Adequate supplies of other plant nutrients are required to obtain maximum responses to potassium
fertilization; however, there are several unique relations between potassium and other nutrients, due
to the complementary ion effect (other cations held on the cation exchange positions of the clay)
that are important in plant nutrition.

High potassium fertilization can decrease the availability of magnesium to the plant and may result
in magnesium deficiency of crops grown on soils that are already low in magnesium. This problem is
often encountered with crops grown on sandy soils, particularly in the Coastal Plain soils of the
southern United States. Conversely, crops grown on soils high in magnesium can suffer potassium
deficiency, especially if the soils are high in phosphorus and low in potassium. This problem is
especially severe in the soils of the Mississippi River flood plain.

Correct these deficiency problems by adding the deficient nutrient through a well-planned soil fertility
program. High levels of potassium fertilization along with ammoniacal nitrogen (NH4+) also depress
the magnesium content of forage grasses and may result in grass tetany (hypomagnesemia) of
cattle consuming the forage.

Sodium is an element similar to potassium in its chemical properties. Sodium has been shown to
substitute partially for potassium in some crops.

Leaching of potassium on acid, sandy soils may be reduced by liming the soil to a pH of 6.2 to 6.5;
however, applications of high rates of limestone to a soil low in potassium may induce potassium
deficiency of crops growing on those soils. This problem occurs more on soils with predominantly
2:1 type clays (such as montmorillonite clays) rather than the 1:1 type (such as kaolinitic clays).

Placement of Potassium Fertilizers


The common potassium fertilizers are completely water-soluble and, in some cases, have a high
salt index. Consequently, when placed too close to seed or transplants, they can decrease seed
germination and plant survival. This fertilizer injury is most severe on sandy soils, under dry
conditions, and with high rates of fertilization—especially nitrogen and potassium. Some crops such
as soybeans, cotton, and peanuts are much more sensitive to fertilizer injury than corn. Placement
of the fertilizer in a band approximately three inches to the side and two inches below the seed is an
effective method of preventing fertilizer injury. Row placement of potassium fertilizer is generally
more efficient than broadcast application when the rate of application is low or soil levels of
potassium are low.

Broadcasting and mixing with the soil before planting is usually a convenient and effective method of
applying potassium fertilizers. Fertilizer injury is minimized by this method but on deep sandy soils
some potassium may be lost by leaching, especially if considerable time elapses between
application and planting and heavy rainfall occurs. In some soils that contain clay minerals (2:1 type)
that fix potassium, some fertilizer may become unavailable.

Split application of potassium fertilizers on long season crops such as alfalfa or grass crops that are
harvested several times during the growing season is often recommended. This practice prevents
the crop from absorbing more potassium than is needed for maximum growth during the early
growing season (luxury consumption) and provides adequate available potassium during the latter
part of the growing season.
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Broadcast application of potassium under minimum tillage results in much of the applied potassium
remaining in the top 1 to 2 inches of the soil; whereas with conventional tillage it is distributed
throughout the plow layer. Corn usually absorbs sufficient potassium under no-till due to its
extensive root system in the surface layer of the soil. Leaf analysis of corn shows a lower potassium
content under minimum tillage than with conventional tillage due to either the location of the applied
potassium or to poorer aeration. Sufficient potassium can be supplied by using a higher rate of
potassium fertilization with no-till systems.

Potassium Fertilizers
Elemental potassium (K) is not found in pure state in nature because of its high reactivity. It can be
purified, but must be kept in oil to retain its purity and prevent violent reactivity. Potash deposits
occur as beds of solid salts beneath the earth’s surface and brines in dying lakes and seas.

Potassium is mined from a number of minerals. Sylvinite, sylvite, and langbeinite are the most
important mineral sources.

Sylvinite

Sylvinite is composed primarily of potassium chloride (KCl) and sodium chloride (NaCl) and the
unrefined ore contains 20-30% K2O.

Sylvite

The mineral sylvite is composed mainly of muriate of potash (KCl) and the refined ore contains
about 60-62% K2O.

Langbeinite

The langbeinite mineral is composed largely of potassium sulfate (K2SO4) and magnesium sulfate
(MgSO4). The chemical formula is K2SO4 ·2MgSO4. It contains about 22% K2O, 11% Mg and 22% S.
In addition to the mineral name, it is called potassium magnesium sulfate, double sulfate of
potassium and magnesium, and either K-Mag® or Sul-Po-Mag®. K-Mag is marketed within the
United States, whereas K-Mag or Sul-Po-Mag may be used internationally. The product is 100%
water-soluble and essentially chloride-free.

Mining Potash

Potash is mined three major ways:

1. Conventional shaft mining method similar to coal mining. This technique undercuts the face,
drills, and blasts.
2. Continuous mining method. This shaft mining technique uses specially developed machines
that take the ore directly from the vein.
3. Solution mining. This process pumps hot water down to the potash ore bed, dissolves the
salts and returns the potash brine to the surface for refining.

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Potassium Chloride

Muriate of potash, potassium chloride, or KCl accounts for more than 90 percent of the potassium
used in the United States. It is water-soluble and contains 60-62% K2O. Most muriate of potash is
produced from sylvinite, but some comes from brines. The raw impure ore is refined to fertilizer by
crystallization or flotation processes. Most agricultural KCl is produced by the flotation processes.
Fertilizer grade KCl is available in five particle sizes: white soluble, special standard, standard,
coarse, and granular. Granular is very well suited to bulk blending. The white soluble grade is ideal
for the manufacturing of clear liquid fertilizers.

Potassium Sulfate

Potassium sulfate, sulfate of potash or K2SO4 contains about 50% K2O and 18% sulfur (S). Because
the chloride content is below 2.5%, it is used for chloride-sensitive crops (such as tobacco, fruits,
and some vegetables) to supply sulfur as a crop nutrient. It accounts for about four to six percent of
total agricultural potassium sales. Potassium sulfate can be used where chloride buildup becomes a
problem.

Double Sulfate of Potash and Magnesium

Double sulfate of potash and magnesium, potassium magnesium sulfate, (Sul-Po-Mag®, K-Mag®)
K2SO4· 2MgSO4 are names used to describe the mined and processed mineral langbeinite. It
contains about 22% K2O, 11% magnesium (Mg), and 22% sulfur (S). The typical chloride content is
2.5%. K-Mag/Sul-Po-Mag is a naturally occurring mineral that is a good source of water-soluble
magnesium, potassium, and sulfur...all in the sulfate form.

Potassium Nitrate

Potassium nitrate or KNO3 contains little or no chloride or sulfur. It can supply both nitrogen and
potassium nutrients to chloride sensitive crops. It contains about 44% K2O and 13% nitrogen (N).

Various Potassium Fertilizer Materials and Their Percent Nutrient Content

Chemical
Material Formula N P2O5 K2O S Mg
Potassium chloride KCl 60-62
Potassium sulfate K2SO4 50-52 18
Potassium magnesium K2SO4 22 22 11
sulfate ·2MgSO4
Potassium nitrate KNO3 13 44
Potassium sodium nitrate KNa(N03)2 15 14
Potassium hydroxide KOH 83
Potassium carbonate K2CO3, <68
KHCO3
Potassium orthophosphates KH2PO4, 30-60 30-50
K2HPO4
Potassium polyphosphates K4P2O7 40-60 22-48
Potassium metaphosphate KPO3 55-57 38

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LINKS TO OTHER EFU CHAPTERS
• Appendices • History of Fertilizer • Phosphorus • Soil Defined
• Authors • MEY – Maximum Economic Yields • Potassium • Soil Testing
• Environment • Micronutrients • Soil Sampling • Tillage Systems
• Fertigation • Nitrogen • Secondary Nutrients
• Fluid Dry Fertilizers • pH • Site Specific Farming

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