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Study: Adding sulfur may boost wheat yields, quality

K-State scientists studying use of key nutrients in Kansas wheat fields

April 25, 2019


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.

A recent project funded by the Kansas Wheat Commission and Grain Craft is exploring the role of nitrogen and sulfur with numerous wheat varieties, many of those common to Kansas wheat fields.

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 lollato@ksu.edu.

“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.

More information about Kansas wheat is available from the Kansas Wheat Commission and the Kansas Wheat Alliance.

At a glance

K-State researchers have been looking at safe ways to add sulfur in conjunction with nitrogen to avoid wheat yield losses.

Notable quote

“…There has been a lesser amount of sulfur in the rainfall. We have less pollution going out in the air, and therefore we have less sulfur coming back to the crop.”

— Romulo Lollato, wheat production specialist, K-State Research and Extension


Romulo Lollato

Written by

Pat Melgares

Other research by Lollato: 

Dual-purpose wheat management for forage and grain production


KSRE logo
K‑State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the wellbeing of Kansans.
Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county extension offices, experiment fields, area extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K‑State campus in Manhattan.