Science Edition: Fertility Management

Foliar-applied P can help with in-season deficiency

While this Saskatchewan study did show a yield response for foliar-applied phosphorus (P) when compared to a control without any P fertilizer, the best practice is still to meet crop needs with fertilizer applications before or at the time of seeding.

“Crop response to foliar-applied phosphorus fertilizers,” Jeff Schoenau, University of Saskatchewan (with Masters student Stephen Froese)

Saskatchewan Agriculture Development Fund, SaskWheat, SaskCanola, SaskPulse

This study evaluated the response to foliar phosphorus (P) fertilization of canola, pea and wheat grown in Brown, Dark Brown and Black soils in Saskatchewan.

In controlled environment (growth chamber) and field trials, all treatments received equivalent P fertilizer rates of 20 kg of phosphate (P2O5) per hectare. Mono-ammonium phosphate (MAP) was used for seed-placed treatments. Mono-potassium phosphate (KH2PO4) was used for the foliar applications.

KH2PO4 was used for foliar applications because it is more soluble than MAP and has been used in previous studies of foliar P nutrition (e.g. Green and Racz, 1999). With higher solubility, KH2PO4 produces a solution of reasonably high concentration so that huge volumes of liquid do not have to be applied. Any potential effect of K in the foliar treatment was assumed to be negated by high available K content of soils at the sites, with soils deemed not deficient in K according to soil test. Further, a blanket application of K fertilizer was made to override possible influence of the treatments on K nutrition and yield.

The five treatments were: (1) control with no added P; (2) 20 kg/ha of phosphate as seed-placed; (3) 15 kg/ha seed placed and 5 kg/ha foliar applied; (4) 10 kg/ha seed placed and 10 kg/ha foliar applied; and (5) all 20 kg/ha foliar applied.

Foliar treatments were made at canopy closure, which was the rosette stage for canola. Controlled environment studies were conducted with two soils (Echo and Krydor soil associations) and field studies with four soils (Echo, Krydor, Sutherland and Weyburn soil associations) in 2016 and 2017.


Uptake of nutrients through leaf tissue is a passive process where nutrients will diffuse from areas of high concentration (such as from a droplet on the leaf surface) to areas of low concentration (such as inside a P-deficient leaf). While yield results for canola do suggest some uptake of P through leaf material, foliar P application did not effectively balance off the yield lost when rates of seed-placed MAP fertilizer were reduced. Foliar P applied mid-season appeared most effective as a top-up rather than a replacement for seed-row applied P.

Of the three crops, canola was the most responsive to P fertilization in terms of yield and P uptake response, followed by wheat and pea.

In conclusion, the foliar option for P fertilizer is not a good alternative to seed placed – unless the field is known to be highly deficient (less than 10 parts per million of P in the top 6” of soil) and no other applications were made to address this deficiency.

The better approach for these fields would be to apply phosphate fertilizer in the soil at a time when the crop can access early on in its growth cycle. This could be done with a combination of seed-row placement (at safe rates, like those used in this study) and side-band or spring-band placement to achieve the recommended application rate as dictated by soil tests.

Phosphate rates totalled 20 kg/ha for all treatments (except the control). For each column, yields that share a letter are considered statistically the same. *Soil test P levels are based on Modified Kelowna extractable P, given as mg per kg of soil (or parts per million) in the top 15cm.



PilgerCentral ButteRosetownMawer
Black Soil ZoneBrown Soil ZoneDark Brown Soil Zone
Figure 1. Grain yield (kg/ha) for all five treatments at four Saskatchewan trial locations.
All of these soils tests would be considered ‘low’ for P. In general, the yield response for canola decreased as the proportion of seed placed MAP decreased and proportion of foliar P increased. But you can see that results were not consistent for all locations and all years.
Soil test P levels* (ppm)76119128
Control (no added P)1,322 c1,365 b4,470 a863 ab4,956 a1,792 a
Seed-placed only4,966 a1,856 a3,656 ab851 ab3,474 b1,495 ab
Foliar 25%, seed-placed 75%2,184 b1,877 a3,069 b1,072 a4,463 ab1,502 ab
Foliar 50%, seed-placed 50%2,181 b1,646 ab4,680 a835 ab4,770 a1,325 b
Foliar only2,177 b1,590 ab4,658 a727 b4,544 ab1,783 a