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Posted by on May 25, 2017 in Tell Me Why |

Why Are Fertilizers Used on Farms?

Why Are Fertilizers Used on Farms?

Fertilizers are used on farms to increase crop yields by ensuring that soils contain the chemical elements required by growing plants. These chemical elements include oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulphur, calcium, magnesium, and iron. If soils are lacking in any of these, the deficiency can be made good by the right fertilizer.

A fertilizer is any material of natural or synthetic origin (other than liming materials) that is applied to soils or to plant tissues (usually leaves) to supply one or more plant nutrients essential to the growth of plants. This goal is met in two ways, the traditional one being additives that provide nutrients. The second mode by which some fertilizers act is to enhance the effectiveness of the soil by modifying its water retention and aeration. Fertilizers typically provide, in varying proportions:

Three main macronutrients:

    • Nitrogen (N): leaf growth;
    • Phosphorus (P): Development of roots, flowers, seeds, fruit;
    • Potassium (K): Strong stem growth, movement of water in plants, promotion of flowering and fruiting;

Three secondary macronutrients: calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S);

Micronutrients: copper (Cu), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), zinc (Zn), boron (B), and of occasional significance there are silicon (Si), cobalt (Co), and vanadium (V) plus rare mineral catalysts.

The nutrients required for healthy plant life are classified according to the elements, but the elements are not used as fertilizers. Instead compounds containing these elements are the basis of fertilizers. The macronutrients are consumed in larger quantities and are present in plant tissue in quantities from 0.15% to 6.0% on a dry matter (DM) (0% moisture) basis. Plants are made up of four main elements: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen.


Carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are widely available as water and carbon dioxide. Although nitrogen makes up most of the atmosphere, it is in a form that is unavailable to plants. Nitrogen is the most important fertilizer since nitrogen is present in proteins, DNA and other components (e.g., chlorophyll). To be nutritious to plants, nitrogen must be made available in a “fixed” form. Only some bacteria and their host plants (notably legumes) can fix atmospheric nitrogen (N2) by converting it to ammonia. Phosphate is required for the production of DNA and ATP, the main energy carrier in cells, as well as certain lipids.

Micronutrients are consumed in smaller quantities and are present in plant tissue on the order of parts-per-million (ppm), ranging from 0.15 to 400 ppm DM, or less than 0.04% DM. These elements are often present at the active sites of enzymes that carry out the plant’s metabolism. Because these elements enable catalysts (enzymes) their impact far exceeds their weight percentage.

Until the 19th Century, farmers relied mainly on the application of natural fertilizers to put “goodness” back into the land. They used manure from the stock-yards and, in the case of coastal areas, seaweed from the shore. Lime was also applied to prevent acidity. This method of soil rejuvenation went a long way to maintain the presence of chemical elements. But it often did little to improve soils already lacking in certain chemicals.

Nowadays soils are analyzed to find out deficiencies which can be made up by the application of the appropriate chemical fertilizers. Of course, the chemicals alone do not guarantee a successful crop. The continued application of the natural fertilizers, such as manure and humus (decayed vegetable matter) is also essential.

Content for this question contributed by Elisa McArthur, resident of Umatilla, Umatilla County, Oregon, USA