Sustainable Oil Palm Farming / Fertiliser application—Background

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Download: Module 4: Fertiliser Application

Oil palms require sufficient nutrients, in the right balance, to produce good yields and to stay healthy in the long term. While the soil provides some nutrients, it is often not in the right balance and there are generally not enough nutrients to sustain oil palm growth and productivity. Nutrients are also lost when the fruit is harvested and carried away, and immobilised in growing oil palm trunk and roots.

Table 1: Removal and immobilisation of nutrients on mineral soils

Nutrient name Compound Nutrient removal (kg/ha/year) at two yield levels
18—24 t/year FFB > 24 t/year FFB
Nitrogen N 80—110 1 > 110
Phosphorus P2O5 (43.7% P) 30—37 1 > 37
Potassium K2O (83% K) 150—180 1 > 180
Magnesium MgO (60% Mg) 20—30 2 > 30
Boron B Trace Trace

To provide sufficient nutrients for good oil palm growth and fruit production, it is necessary to apply fertilisers. Some important things to understand in relation to oil palm production and the application of fertilisers are:

  • Key nutrients which all oil palms need are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and magnesium (Mg).
  • Oil palms often also need small quantities of boron (B).
  • On peat soils, it is usually necessary to fertilise with copper (Cu) and zinc (Zn).
  • Other nutrients, such as calcium (Ca), sulfur (S), manganese (Mn), iron (F) and chlorine (Cl) are important but it is usually not necessary to supply them as fertiliser.
  • If present in too large quantities, nutrients can poison the oil palm.
  • Soil organic matter can be increased through good management, and is very important for soil quality and the efficient use of fertiliser (see Section 2).
  • Fertilising oil palms is very expensive; it takes up about 60 percent of overall costs!
  • If fertilising is done in the wrong way, up to 50 percent of the nutrients can be lost, which means a lot of money is spent on fertilisers that don’t reach the palms and don’t increase the yield.
  • Fertilisers should be applied efficiently and effectively, according to the ‘4 R’ principle:
- Right type
- Right amount
- Right time
- Right place
  • Palms of different ages need different amounts of fertiliser. The fertiliser needs of palms not only depend on the palm’s age, but also on:
- Soil type (especially mineral or peat soils)
- Soil fertility (nutrients and organic material in the soil)
- Planting material
- Current yields
  • When deciding on how much fertiliser to apply, it useful to get advice from one or more of the following:
- Extension workers;
- Cooperative experts;
- Excellent farmers in the area;
- Nearby plantation companies (while estate fertiliser rates may be very high, they can give a good idea of the ‘nutrient balance’ needed under the local conditions, which is the ratio between N, P, K and Mg. Companies may also be able to give information about the best type of fertilisers and the best timing of application);
- Handbooks and other available materials;
- By conducting your own experiment.
Conducting your own experiment to assess fertiliser needs

Yield increase after fertiliser application can be tested on small plots with at least 36 palms.

Early effects can usually be seen after six months to one year and should include:

  • Larger bunches
  • Different colour of ripe bunches
  • Nutrient deficiency symptoms reduced/disappeared
  • Denser canopy (larger leaves)

If the experiment is continued for 3 years, full effects can be seen which should include:

  • Better yields
  • More bunches
  • Larger bunches
  • Nutrient deficiency symptoms disappeared
  • Denser canopy (larger leaves)
  • Taller palms with bigger trunks at the top

It is necessary to keep good track of the fertiliser applications and the yield to decide if the experiment is successful! If the fertilisers are effective, they can be used in the entire plantation.

Before applying fertilisers it is necessary to make sure that the following plantation conditions are in order:

  • Drainage and soil conservation are fully done;
  • Maintenance is up to standard;
  • Noxious weeds have been removed.

The information in this chapter will help you decide which type and what quantities of fertilisers you need to apply to your plantation and how to do it correctly.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 K.J. Goh, R. Hardter, General Oil Palm Nutrition, (2003).
  2. I. Rankine, T.H. Fairhurst, Management of phosphorus, potassium and magnesium in mature oil palm, Better Crops International, 13 (1999) 6.


The material from Fertiliser application—Background is sourced from Smallholder Oil Palm Handbook and put together by Lotte Suzanne Woittiez (Wageningen Universit) and Haryono Sadikin, Sri Turhina, Hidayat Dani, Tri Purba Dukan, and Hans Smit (SNV) in August 2016. See Module 4: Fertiliser Application for more information.

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