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2019 marks the 350th anniversary of Henning Brand’s discovery of phosphorus, making this the perfect opportunity to reflect on our relationship with the element: what was our farming like without it, how did it change our current farming practices and how should we manage it to preserve its sustainability?

Known as “the Devil’s element”, phosphorus is the 13th element to be discovered and the first element discovered since ancient times.

Brand, a German alchemist, discovered phosphorus in 1669 while pursuing his quest for the Philosopher’s Stone; a legendary alchemical substance that could turn base metals into valuable gold. He called his discovery “cold fire” because the substance was luminescent and glowed in the dark. He later named it phosphorus, taking the name from the Greek word phosphoros, meaning “bringer of light.”

Brand’s method is believed to have consisted of evaporating urine to leave a black residue that was then left for a few months. The residue was then heated with sand, driving off a variety of gases and oils which were condensed in water. The final substance to be driven off, condensing as a white solid, was phosphorus.

Phosphorus was produced by this method until the 1770s when Swedish scientist Carl Wilhelm Scheele – the discoverer of chlorine and one of the independent discoverers of oxygen – found that phosphorus could be prepared from bone.

Today, phosphorus is one of the key essential elements in agriculture. Below is a blog post from our “Know Your Nutrients” series, which explains the vital role that phosphorus plays in plant growth and how to ensure your crops have sufficient supplies, from seeding to maturity.


Phosphorus (P) is a primary (macro) nutrient needed for plant development and growth throughout the entire life cycle – from seedling to maturity.

A macronutrient, phosphorus is necessary for cell formation and division, and plays a key role in photosynthesis and energy transfer in the plant. Phosphorus also stimulates root development and improves plant strength, seed production and overall quality.

All crops are sensitive to phosphorus deficiency due to its restricted mobility in the soil and its ability to get tied-up with calcium, aluminum or iron, depending on soil pH.

Watch for reduced growth; crops are sometimes stunted in the early stages, showing shortened internodes, smaller leaves and reduced shoot growth. Dull, dark green leaves are often an indication of phosphorus deficiency, while purpling of the leaves is an indication of an extended deficiency. A phosphorus deficiency can result in poor tillering, and delayed maturity and seed development in cereal and oilseed crops. Pulses are also very responsive to phosphorus.

Prairie soils are often low in phosphorus, a problem compounded by poor availability when soils are cold or poorly aerated. Availability of phosphorus can also be limited in soils with a high clay content, soils with a pH less than 5.5 (Fe2+, Al3+) or greater than 7.0 (Ca2+), and mineral soils low in organic matter.

The Solution

Getting your crop off to a good, strong start will pay off throughout the growing season, with better vigor, increased disease resistance and earlier maturity. If your soil tests indicate a phosphorus deficiency, or conditions are less-than-ideal at seeding, consider a starter fertilizer.

A liquid starter fertilizer can help you combat early season stress, particularly when seeding into cold, wet soils, by providing seedlings with a source of easily accessible phosphorus. Starter P, can be used in-furrow to encourage early root growth and development, allowing seedlings to build a strong root system able to tap into water and side-banded fertilizer.

If you are using a granular fertilizer for your starter, treat it first with TPA to protect phosphorus from tie-up and enhance its availability to the emerging seedlings.

To improve germination and provide phosphorus early in the season, use Primer Zn to strategically place phosphorus close to the growing point of the new seedlings. When plants are fully matured, a whole suite of foliars are available to supplement phosphorus in-crops, including C3; Nutriboost; uPtaKe IC 5-25-5; uPtaKe IC 8-32-5; Zintake 0-26-4-9Zn; and PK Bulk 0-29-5-4Mg.

Talk to your retailer or OMEX sales representative for more information on how to manage phosphorus to get your crop off to the best possible start this year.