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Phosphorous (P) is a plant essential macronutrient which is vitally important for plant establishment and growth. Plants access phosphorous from the soil solution in its soluble form, phosphate. A lack of phosphate could result in poor rooting, slow establishment and delayed spring growth.

Macronutrient contributing to 3-6% of a a plant's nutritional makeup​

Promotes successful crop establishment and early spring growth

Deficiency symptoms include poor rooting and purple discolouration of older leaves

Phosphate run-off is the most likely loss pathway

Best applied during early stages of growth, close to the seed if establishing a crop

Phosphorous containing fertilisers include Superphosphate (16%), Di-ammonium phosphate (20%), GRP (12%) and Granuphos (11.5%)



Phosphorus is essential for the general health and vigour of all plants. It is required for plant respiration and photosynthesis as well as cell division and growth.

Phosphorus is a key component of Adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP) – a compound which combines with sugars to generate energy for all living things. This energy is crucial for establishing a strong root network and to promote early shoot growth in young plants, which is why phosphorous is often applied around the time of crop establishment.

Like nitrogen, phosphorous is also a component of several plant proteins including DNA and RNA – the molecules which carries the cell’s genetic code.

In legumes, phosphorus is important for the development and function of nitrogen fixing root nodules called rhizobia which recover nitrogen from the atmosphere.


Phosphorus fertiliser advice for mineral soils is based on increasing the soil P reserves to a level at which the amount of available soil P supports the production of herbage of optimum quantity and quality.

This is referred to as “soil P build-up”. Once this soil P level has been achieved, the objective is to maintain the soil P level by replacing the P removed in animal products or in hay or silage. This is called “soil P maintenance”. Where the soil P level is greater than that required, there is an increased risk of P loss to the environment. In such cases, P application should be avoided so that the soil P level will decline to the optimum level, so that this risk is reduced. It is advised that wherever possible, animal manures should be recycled to minimise chemical fertiliser needs.

Phosphorus fertiliser advice for grazing is based on the following 6 steps:

  1. Determine P required for soil P build up
  2. Determine P required for soil P maintenance
  3. Take account of P in slurry and farmyard manure
  4. Take account of P in concentrate feed used
  5. Calculate chemical fertiliser P requirements

Determine maximum P allowance, and confirm that the P fertiliser requirement of the holding is compliant with SI 31 of 2014.

Step 1: determine P required for soil P build up

P fertiliser rates advised for build-up to soil P index 3 are presented below. Note that application of build-up rates may be required over a number of years for P-deficient soils to move from Index 1 to 2 and from index 2 to 3. At very extensive stocking rates, or in areas governed by specific legislation such as national heritage areas (NHAs) or special areas of conservation (SACs), it may be appropriate to fertilise soils to a level such that index 2 is maintained.

Available P rates (kg/ha) for build-up on mineral soils

Soil P indexMineral soils
4Do not apply chemical P

Step 2: Determine P required for soil maintenance

Each year, P is removed in either animal produce (meat, milk) or as silage or hay. This P must be replaced by applying “maintenance rates” of P as recycled P from concentrate feeds used, recycled animal manures or chemical fertiliser P. Soil P maintenance rates advised for grazed pasture should be equal to the amount of P that leaves the holding as product. In general, 1 kg of P is required to replace the P removed in either 1000 litres of milk or 100kg of liveweight gain.

Example maintenance rates of available soil P to replace grazing offtakes (kg/ha) (taken from Teagasc Green Book)

Grassland stocking rate
(kg/ha Org N)
≥210 2316

Rates of P fertiliser based on concentrate feed usage level of zero.

Step 3: take account of P in slurry and farmyard manure

To calculate the available P contained in slurry and farmyard manure, multiply the quantity of each material that is applied to grassland by the P content of that material.

Typical P levels in organic fertilisers¹´²

Organic fertiliser typeTotal P contained in 1 tonne³ (kg/t)
Cattle slurry0.8
Pig slurry0.8
Sheep slurry1.5
Dungstead manure (cattle)0.9
Farmyard manure1.2
Slurry (layers 30% dry matter)2.9
Broilers/deep litter6.0
Layers (55%) dry matter 5.5
  1. Values for P are those that must be used for compliance with SI 113 of 2022
  2. Dry matter and nutrient contents can vary widely between farms
  3. 1 tonne of slurry=1m³. 1000 gallons=4.5tonnes. 1000gallons/acre=11tonnes/ha

Step 4: Take account of P in concentrate feeds

Concentrate feed must be considered as a source of P for grassland since most of the P consumed will be recycled in animal excreta to the soil. A deduction of 5kg P should be made from the total P advice for each tonne of concentrate feed that is used on the farm. A deduction for concentrate feed used can be made across the entire grassland area as follows:

Step 5: Calculate chemical fertiliser P requirements

Annual maximum fertilisation rates of phosphorus for grassland (grazing plus silage) where no additional P- Build up is allowed

Grassland Phosphorus Index stocking rate (kg/ha/year)Index 1Index 2Index 3 Index 4
Available Phosphorus (kg/ha)
Grassland stocking rate greater than 170 kg/ha/year
  1. Total annual nitrogen (kg) excreted by grazing livestock averaged over the net grassland area (grazing and silage area). Stocking rate refers to grassland area only.
  2. The fertilisation rates for soils which have more than 20% organic matter shall not exceed the amounts permitted for Index 3 soils.
  3. Manure produced by grazing livestock on a holding may be applied to Index 4 soils on that holding in a situation where there is a surplus of such manure remaining after the phosphorus fertilisation needs of all crops on soils at phosphorus indices 1, 2 or 3 on the holding have been met by the use only of such manure produced on the holding.
  4. The maximum phosphorus fertilisation of grassland shall not exceed that specified for stocking rates less than or equal to 170 kg/ha/year unless a minimum of 5% of the net area of the holding is used to grow crops other than grass or a derogation applies in respect of the holding.
  5. This table does not imply any departure from Article 20(1) which prohibits the application to land on a holding of livestock manure in amounts which exceed 170kg Nitrogen per hectare per year, including that deposited by the animals themselves (or 250kg in the case of a derogated holding).
  6. An additional 15 kg of phosphorus per hectare may be applied on soils at phosphorus indices 1, 2, or 3 for each hectare of pasture establishment undertaken.
  7. Additional P build-up application rates may be applied for which permit an extra 30kg/ha of P to be applied on Index 1 soils and an extra 20kg/ha of P to be applied to Index 2 soils


Phosphorous is often described as the ‘lazy nutrient’ due to its severe lack of mobility in the soil. Unlike other nutrients which can move several millimetres once dissolved into the soil solution, phosphorous typically travels around one millimetre and so is very reliant on roots retrieving it.

On applying phosphorous to the soil surface, up to 75% can become fixed or ‘locked up’ within the same season and so a large proportion of the phosphorous within the soil is unavailable for plant uptake.

While this is partly due to phosphorous being highly reactive within the soil, the problem can be worsened where the soil pH is too high or too low. In acidic conditions, phosphorous becomes less available due to strong bonding with iron and aluminum and in alkaline conditions, phosphorous becomes less available due to reactions with calcium and magnesium ions.

Phosphorous which is ‘locked up’ contributes to the soil phosphorous reserves and should become available at a later date, providing the soil conditions allow.


Plants deficient in phosphorous appear dark green in colour with purple pigmentation. Since phosphorus is mobile in the plant, the bottom leaves are always affected first and show the earliest signs of deficiency

Where is the risk of deficiency highest?
  • Heavy soils
  • Acidic or high pH soils
  • Where there is limited root structure

To help prevent phosphorous deficiency, soil testing should be completed at least every 3-5 years.

Maximum grass yields are typically reached in soils which contain 5.1 - 8.0mg/litre phosphorous while maximum cereal yields are typically reached in soils which contain 6.1 - 10.0mg/litre phosphorous– otherwise known as index 3.  Where soil phosphorous levels are below this threshold, farmers should work to build soil reserves towards the target index, which can take several years.

While leaf analysis can be used to give an indication of plant phosphorous levels at a point in time, it is not useful in predicting the nutritional requirement of a crop over an entire season and so should be used in conjunction with soil analysis rather than in isolation.

Loss Pathways
Run-off/soil erosion

Most phosphorous is removed from the soil by plant uptake, but a small amount – around 5kg/ha on average – can be lost through soil erosion and run-off into water courses.

Because phosphorous is very immobile in the soil, where there is a history of phosphorous application, the concentration of phosphorous tends to be highest in top few centimetres.

When soil particles move - either due to soil erosion or run-off - there is potential for phosphorous to be lost from the system.

Phosphorous run-off from soil into water courses can cause eutrophication – algal blooms – which are very damaging to aquatic ecosystems. 

 This risk of run-off and soil erosion is heightened where there is lack of ground cover, poor soil structure, on sloping ground and where there is strong winds or heavy rainfall.

Right Product

Avail can help prevent phosphate lock up, meaning more phosphate is taken up by the plant and is less vulnerable to run-off and erosion losses. This can be particularly useful on soils with a sub-optimal pH.

GRP is an ideal phosphate fertiliser for low P, acidic soils in areas of high rainfall where a steady release of P is required to maintain productive pasture, crops or trees.

Right Time

The timing of phosphorous applications is dependent on the phosphate index. Generally, phosphate is most effective when applied during early stages of growth.

Right Place

Placing phosphorous close the seed has been shown to improve crop performance, particularly for crops like potatoes which have a weak root system.

Right Rate

Where the phosphorus index is at target, enough phosphorous should be applied to meet the demands of the growing crop – otherwise known as maintenance. Where the phosphorus index is below target, maintenance levels of phosphorus should be applied, plus additional phosphorus to help build soil reserves closer to the optimum level.

Farmers should also take into account crop offtakes -  the amount of phosphorous which is expected to be removed in crop material (E.g. straw, grain, silage) - when considering phosphorous requirements.

Contained Within...
Granuphos11.5%P + 7.5%Mg + 32.2%CaThe world’s most reactive soft rock phosphate in granular form, which provides sustained release phosphate
Ground Rock Phosphate (GRP)12%PThe world’s most reactive soft rock phosphate in powder form, which provides sustained release phosphate
Superphosphate16%PA water soluble, granular phosphate
Avail1-16%Phosphorous containing grades with an Avail coating to prevent phosphate fixation or ‘lock-up’