Avoid extremes in your fertilizer strategy to achieve optimal soil health and drive profitability


Does going to the extreme in fertilizer application overcome yield limitations? When it comes to plant development and yield, imbalance is more likely to threaten soil health, production and your pocketbook. Instead, achieving nutrient balance is crucial to crop success. 

With that in mind, we reflect on the often-perceived conflicting theories – Liebig’s Law of Minimum and Mitcherlich’s Law of the Maximum – and instead use them as complementary tools that guide the way to maximizing yield and profit. ¹

“These two laws are intertwined,” said Garth Donald, Manager of Agronomy and Founder at Decisive Farming by TELUS Agriculture. “To use them beneficially, we must have an understanding. What are we trying to do? What’s the goal for the grower? And, what are the risks to applying and partaking in either law?” 

So, let’s weigh in. 

Don’t tip the scale: recapping the Laws of Minimum and the Maximum

As we’ve recently and more deeply discussed each law, here’s a quick overview to differentiate them. 

  • Liebig’s Law of Minimum. Plant growth, quality and yield depend on your soil’s least available nutrient. That limitation is a bigger determinant in yield than the totality of all other nutrients.² This principle stresses the importance of identifying and addressing nutrient deficiencies using tools such as comprehensive soil testing and variable rate applications to increase production.
  • Mitcherlich’s Law of the Maximum. This principle reminds us that increasing levels of a particular nutrient may not improve yield, and is often detrimental. A crop’s specific growth response should be related to the precise application reduction you can make while still reaching your production goal.³

Let’s reimagine these laws as a scale to visualize how they complement one other. On the Law of Minimum side, each nutrient is a weight. If that nutrient is deficient, its weight is heavier and imbalances fertility, limiting crop development. On the Law of the Maximum side, excess in any nutrient adds weight, disrupts nutrient balance, can limit plant development and decrease your return on investment. 

Put simply, the Law of Minimum requires no nutrient be deficient. Meanwhile, the Law of the Maximum means excess in any nutrient will tip the scales against your yield and shrink your profits.⁴

“The Law of the Maximum, for the majority, is used to talk about nitrogen. It’s the feel-good visual product farmers love. When you add more nitrogen, you can very quickly see its impact on the plant,” said Donald. “However, now the Law of Minimum comes into play because if you don’t have the right balance of nutrition, you’re creating a deficiency in your plant. You’ve basically given the plant two shots of adrenaline without giving it water, so to speak. Now, you’ve starved that plant.”

Using agronomy to put the Laws to work in your field

Here are just three of many ways you can use these concepts to drive yield and profit

  1. Identify and address limiting factors. With regular soil testing, the Law of Minimum supports you to pinpoint nutrient deficiencies in your soil and correct them with precise application and investment into the right source, in the right rate, at the right time and in the right place. When your crop’s nutritional needs are met using 4R Nutrient Stewardship as your foundation, it has the best chance to reach your yield goals.
  2. Balance nutrient inputs. While the Law of Minimum prioritizes addressing nutrient deficiencies, it’s equally important to use the Law of the Maximum to avoid overapplication of any single nutrient, which creates inefficient nutrient uptake. By considering the optimal rates and interactions between different nutrients, you can tailor your fertilizer strategy to promote balanced crop nutrition and healthy growth.
  3. Monitor and adjust. Precision agtech, particularly soil testing and data analytics, empower you to monitor nutrient levels and crop response in real-time using the Law of Minimum. Then, you can fine-tune your fertilizer applications using the Law of the Maximum to ensure nutrients are being applied solely at the right time and place to increase yield and decrease fertilizer costs.

By integrating the Laws of Minimum and the Maximum into your crop nutrient strategy, you can maintain balanced soil nutrition to better meet your quantity and quality production goals. 


Is your soil health scale balanced across your fields? We can help. Let’s talk today.


¹ Ferreira, Zocchi and Baron. “Reconciling the Mitscherlich’s law of diminishing returns with Liebig’s law of the minimum. Some results on crop modeling.” Science Direct, Mathematical Biosciences
Volume 293, November 2017, Pages 29-37.

² Dhanoa et. al. “Overview and application of the Mitscherlich equation and its extensions to estimate the soil nitrogen pool fraction associated with crop yield and nitrous oxide emission.” Science Direct, Advances in Agronomy Volume 174, 2022, Pp. 269-295.

³ Dhanoa et. al. “Overview and application of the Mitscherlich equation and its extensions to estimate the soil nitrogen pool fraction associated with crop yield and nitrous oxide emission.” Science Direct, Advances in Agronomy Volume 174, 2022, Pp. 269-295.

“Liebig’s Law of the Minimum.” Nutrien Ekonomics.