A true balancing act: Early season plant health

Picture a circus performer on a wobbly tightrope. That’s your crop in the early season, trying to balance rapid growth with a limited root system. At AgroLiquid, we understand this delicate balancing system and the role nutrients play in keeping crops where they need to be. By making sure the right nutrients are readily available from the beginning, you can help your crops find their footing and deliver their best performance.

A strong start

In the early stages, plants need phosphorus and micronutrients. They’re not readily available at the start, but they play a large role in early plant development.

“While all essential plant nutrients are known to be required at all stages of a plant’s life, early on, the focus is primarily on phosphorus and micronutrients,” said Reid Abbott, an AgroLiquid agronomist in the Great Plains region. “Phosphorus is immobile in the soil and often slowly available early in the growing season, yet it’s essential for establishing a strong root season and seedling vigor.”

Phosphorus has a role in photosynthesis, energy storage, respiration, transfer, and other plant processes. Not only does phosphorus improve the quality of fruit, vegetable, and grain crops, but it’s also important for seed formation. During the active growth period of plants, phosphorus uptake is a continuous process.

Though it’s absorbed during the entire growing season, much of a crop’s phosphorus needs happen during periods of fast vegetative growth and fruit production.

“Phosphorus is an example of a nutrient that may be plentiful in the soil, but until the soil temperature warms to 60 F it won’t be available to those young plants,” added John Leif, AgroLiquid agronomist.


Micronutrients are essential for plant growth, but they are only needed in small amounts.

“Micronutrients, as the name suggests, are often available and needed in small quantities and so can be problematic for young plant roots to explore and seek out in the soil during development,” said Abbott. “To secure a good start, many growers look to apply these nutrients close to the seed row to maximize their effects in those early growth stages.”

In general, plants need 16 nutrients to achieve their full potential. Plants absorb carbon (C), hydrogen (H), and oxygen (O) through water and air. The other nutrients mainly come from the soil, and three of these are primary or macro nutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). The next three are secondary nutrients; sulfur (S), calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg). The remaining nine nutrients are micronutrients: boron (B), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni), and zinc (Zn).

“Fledgling crops don’t require a large amount of any particular nutrient, but they do require a small amount of all the essential nutrients,” said Leif. “It’s important to provide nutrients that are readily available to germinating plants to get them off to a great start.”

Stay vigilant

Keeping a close eye on your crops is important for early detection of potential problems. Watch out for:

  • Stunted growth
  • Deformed plants
  • Yellowing leaves
  • Purplish leaves
  • Wilted leaves
  • Spots of necrosis
  • Younger leaves turning pale while veins stay dark

For more info, check out our plant nutrient deficiency cheat sheet.

Failing to address nutrient deficiencies early in the season can have a significant impact on your yield. Risks include reduced yield, lower quality of crops, and increased susceptibility to disease.

“When crops aren’t healthy they begin to show various deficiencies, and these can include pale color, striping, necrotic leaves, slow or student growth and lack of flowering or fruit development,” said Stephanie Zelinko, AgroLiquid sales agronomist. “However, it’s important to remember that by the time you start to see these visual signs, crop yield is in jeopardy. It is critical to address these deficiencies early – before they show signs of stress.”

Taking a cue

Once you’ve identified a nutrient deficiency, you can decide on your next steps.  Is the deficiency related to inconsistencies with the planter fertilizer application, drainage, timing, or something else?

“Starting with a soil test to know your nutrient bank so you can apply nutrition accordingly is the best way get a good start,” said Zelinko.

(Interested in learning more about soil testing? Our video series walks you through soil testing, step by step. Watch Back 2 Basics.)

Depending on the deficiency, foliar applications with liquid fertilizer is a great way to quickly solve a problem. Since the nutrient is applied directly to plant leaves and absorbed through the plant’s stoma, foliar applications can move quickly through the plant, improving crop health.

Getting it right

By making sure the right nutrients are readily available from the very beginning, you can help your crops find the right footing, get the right balance, and deliver a spectacular performance.

As always, AgroLiquid representatives are happy to talk to you and help figure out your crop issues, no matter where you are in the season. Here’s to a great year!