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Extension > Agriculture > Nutrient Management > Micronutrients > Copper for crop production

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Copper for crop production

Apurba K Sutradhar, Daniel E Kaiser, Carl J Rosen and John A Lamb

Copper (Cu) is one of eight essential plant micronutrients. Copper is required for many enzymatic activities in plants and for chlorophyll and seed production. Deficiency of copper can lead to increased plant susceptibility to disease, one example being ergot which can cause significant yield loss in small grains. Most Minnesota soils supply adequate amounts of copper for crop production. However, copper deficiency can occur in high organic matter and sandy soils.

Copper deficiency is more likely to occur in cereal grains in Minnesota when grown on copper deficient soils. Wheat is the most sensitive to copper deficiency. Barley and oat are less sensitive to copper deficiency. Some vegetable crops such as onions, lettuce, and carrots are sensitive to copper deficiency.

Copper Deficiency

The amount of copper available to plants varies widely among soils. Copper in the soil is held with clay minerals as a cation and in association with organic matter. Some silicate minerals and carbonate contain copper as impurities. Research at the University of Minnesota as well as other universities has identified soil conditions where a response to copper fertilizers is expected. These conditions are:

seven wheat heads showing increasing signs of melanosis

International Plant Nutrition Institute

Healthy to severely copper deficient wheat heads, showing signs of melanosis.

Copper Deficiency Symptoms

corn showing yellow striping of leaves

Michigan State University

Copper deficiency in corn.

Copper deficiency symptoms vary by crops. Copper is relatively immobile in plants and deficiency symptoms first appear in younger plant tissues.

Lettuce plant on left is healthy while plant on right has curled leaves

International Plant Nutrition Institute

The plant on the right is showing copper deficiency in lettuce compared to a non-deficient plant on the right.

In Minnesota, evidence of copper deficiency has appeared when small grains are grown on organic soils. Copper deficiency symptoms are characterized by a general light green to yellow color in the small grain crop. The leaf tips die back and the tips are twisted. If copper deficiency is severe, growth of small grains ceases and plants die after reaching the Feekes 3.0 growth stage (tiller formation). Wheat will not produce grain in the head. In mature stands, copper deficiency can be visible by characteristic purplish brown patches, which are signs of melanosis.

In corn, deficiency first appears on new leaves as they come out of the whorl and develop a bluish green tint. New leaves may emerge from the whorl as spiraled. Necrosis may occur on older leaf-tips and edges and may die.

In vegetable crops, young leaves may turn bluish-green before turning yellow. The upper portion of the plant wilts; the growing point is stunted and eventually dies. The plants often fail to flower.

Diagnosing Copper Deficiency

Soil and plant tissue tests are recommended to determine copper deficiency in soils. Soil tests may be correlated to plant response for specific soil types.

Crop Response to Copper in Minnesota

Trials with hard red spring wheat grown on mineral soils have been conducted in northwestern Minnesota. Copper fertilization produced an increase in yield of hard red spring wheat only at one site. Corn response to copper has not been documented in Minnesota. Corn is only moderately sensitive to copper deficiency. Copper deficiency is rare in soybeans. Soybean response to copper has not been verified in Minnesota. Vegetable crops such as onion or carrots are more likely to respond to copper fertilizer on some soils.

Fertilizer Management

Copper sulfate is the preferred source of copper fertilizer because of low cost compared to chelated sources. Soil application of copper before seeding is most common. Copper fertilizer can be broadcast or banded with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium fertilizers. Copper use efficiency is improved if the fertilizer is water soluble and the particle size of the fertilizer is small. A single application of copper can last for many years. Foliar application of copper can also be an effective way to correct copper deficiency in small grains and vegetable crops.

Copper Toxicity

There is a narrow range between copper deficiency and toxicity. Proper care should be taken during application of copper fertilizer. Repeated application of copper fertilizer, swine and dairy manure, and sewage sludge can develop copper toxicity. Copper toxicity can persist for an extended period of time and is difficult to correct because the low solubility of copper in water. Toxic concentration of copper in soil affects seed germination, root system development, and plant vigor. Fields that routinely receive fertilizers containing copper and manure require regular monitoring for copper toxicity.


Fertilizing with copper is an important consideration when growing small grains on peat soils in Minnesota. Yield response to copper when crops are grown on mineral soils in Minnesota has not been measured, so copper is not recommended for mineral soils. The soil tests for copper on organic soils and plant tissue tests are reliable in determining copper deficiencies and the need for fertilizing with copper. Copper can be broadcast or incorporated before planting and can also be applied as mixtures with other fertilizers.

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