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Plant analysis for testing nutrient levels in corn
Corn tissue testing can help with quality control.

Plant analysis is an excellent in-season “quality control” tool. It can be especially valuable for managing secondary and micronutrients that do not have high-quality, reliable soil tests available, and for providing insight into how efficiently you are using applied nutrients.

Plant analysis can be used by Kansas farmers in two basic ways: for diagnostic purposes, and for monitoring nutrient levels at a common growth stage. Diagnostics can be done any time and is especially valuable early in the season when corrective actions can easily be taken. Monitoring is generally done at the beginning of reproductive growth.

General sampling guidelines:

• Plants are less than 12 inches tall: Collect the whole plant; cut the plant off at ground level.

• Plants more than 12 inches tall and until reproductive growth begins: Collect the top fully developed leaves (those which show leaf collars).

• After reproductive growth starts: Collect the ear leaves (below the uppermost developing ear), samples should be collected at random from the field at silk emergence.

Plant analysis for nutrient monitoring - for general monitoring or quality control purposes, plant leaves should be collected as the plant enters reproductive growth. Sampling under stress conditions for monitoring purposes can give misleading results, and is not recommended. Stresses such as drought or saturated soils will generally limit nutrient uptake, and result in a general reduction in nutrient content in the plant.

What nutrients should be included in the plant analysis? In Kansas, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), sulfur (S), zinc (Zn), chloride (Cl), and iron (Fe) are the nutrients most likely to be found deficient. Recently, questions have been raised concerning copper (Cu), manganese (Mn), and molybdenum (Mo), though widespread deficiencies of those micronutrients have not been found in the state. Normally the best values are the “bundles” or “packages” of tests offered through many of the labs. They can be as simple as N, P and K, or can be all the mineral elements considered essential to plants. K-State offers a package which includes N, P, K, Ca, Mg, S, Fe, Cu, Zn, and Mn.

What will you get back from the lab? The data returned from the lab will be reported as the concentration of nutrient elements, or potentially toxic elements, in the plants. Units reported will normally be in “percent” for the primary and secondary nutrients (N, P, K, Ca, Mg, S, and Cl) and “ppm” (parts per million) for most of the micronutrients (Zn, Cu, Fe, Mn, B, Mo, and Al).

Most labs/agronomists compare plant nutrient concentrations to published sufficiency ranges. A sufficiency range is simply the range of concentrations normally found in healthy, productive plants during surveys. It can be thought of as the range of values optimum for plant growth. The medical profession uses a similar range of normal values to evaluate blood work. The sufficiency ranges change with plant age (generally being higher in young plants), vary between plant parts, and can differ between hybrids. A value slightly below the sufficiency range does not always mean the plant is deficient in that nutrient. It is an indication that the nutrient is relatively low. Values on the low end of the range are common in extremely high-yielding crops. However, if that nutrient is significantly below the sufficiency range, you should ask some serious questions about the availability and supply of that nutrient.

To read the full article on how to how best take and ship the plant leaves, more about plant stress and nutrient uptake, extreme levels of nutrients and the range of nutrient contents considered “normal” or “sufficient” at two growth stages in corn go to 

Stacy Campbell is an Agriculture and Natural Resources agent for Cottonwood Extension District. Email him at or call the Hays office, 785-628-9430.