Cacao Fertilization and Nutrient Requirements

cacao fertilization
Cacao tree

Benjamin Akane

Agriculturist specialized in the Ghanaian Cocoa system

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Modern cocoa farming aims to maximize early growth and achieve high initial yields and later sustained peak yields. To achieve this, one must have a good understanding of the factors that affect cocoa growth and yield and apply the necessary management practices in a timely manner as required by the cocoa crop. An essential component of most cacao farming situations is high fertilizer use. However, the agronomy of cacao is much more complex than other crops, such as oil palm, and there is a very strong interaction between nutrition and other agronomic factors such as shade, planting density, pests, diseases, etc. Therefore, to achieve high yields, these factors should not be limiting.

The cacao plant in its original habitat on the first floor of the Amazon jungle is heavily shaded and grows slowly with very low yields. Under these circumstances, nutrient requirements are likely to be very low. The cacao takes up nutrients to grow and yield. Nutrients may be immobilized in the plant or recycled as leaf litter when the plant is mature, and nutrients are exported with the pods that are removed from the field.

Management factors, soil, climate, and the availability of nutrients for growth and yield primarily determine cocoa’s growth and yield potential. I order to accurately assess nutrient requirements, a good evaluation of growth and yield potential under prevailing soil and climate conditions and expected management inputs are required.

The most important management factors are likely to be the:

  • types of planting materials that affect yield potential and growth
  • nutrient uptake characteristics,
  • nursery practices that affect seedling quality, early growth, and yield,
  • shading systems that interact very strongly with most other factors, and determine growth and yield,
  • weed control practices, which affect the extent of competition for nutrients and soil moisture,
  • plant density, which determines total yield and immobilized nutrients,
  • pests and diseases, which affect total dry matter production and growth rates and, thus, nutrient requirements.

The shade regime and type of shade trees used are essential because growth rates are significantly affected. The extent of shade tree competition could be very significant, for example, in the cocoa/coconut cropping system compared to monococoa with a nitrogen-fixing shade tree such as Gliricidia. In general fertilization has more significantly positive effects in lightly shaded cacao trees compared to heavy shaded plantations.

The most important climatic factors affecting nutrient requirements are likely to be rainfall, which affects soil moisture; temperature, which affects overall growth; and the degree of moisture stress and available light, which determines the energy available to the plant for dry matter production and which also affects plant soil moisture requirements.

The soil is the third crucial element. The ability of the soil to supply and store moisture and nutrients for the plant, as well as its qualities as a medium of growth for the roots and root activity, which in turn determine its ability to exploit the soil’s moisture and nutrients, are all factors that can be measured and determined for individual soil properties.

The growth and yield potentials for cocoa in a region are determined by the parameters mentioned up to this point. The nutrients needed by the cocoa plant for growth and yield must now be estimated. The nutritional needs of cocoa have been estimated by several authors, including Thong and Ng (1978) and Teo and Chew (1984). These results are based on the growth and yield anticipated under the current growing conditions. However, it is vital to make these assumptions to attempt to quantify the necessary nutrients and the significant nutrients assimilated by the plant.

In general during the first year, the farmer may perform one fertilization application pre-planting and complementary ones every 2 months after the cacao seedlings have developed 2-3 pairs of leaves (an 12:24:12 N-P-K fertilizer can be used). Later on and until the 3 year of plants’ growth, the cacao farmer may apply 0.2 kg or 0.5 lb of an 30:10:10 NPK fertilizer per tree, twice a year. Finally, cacao trees that have reached reproduction maturity should receive 0.4-1.2 kg (1-3 lb) of an 16:8:24 NPK fertilizer per tree, twice a year (1) Except of the basic 3 nutrients (N, P, K) cacao trees also require micronutrients like Ca, Mn, Mg, and Zn. All fertilizers that will be applied as granules on the ground, should be placed in a circle, 1 m (3.3 ft) away from the tree trunk (irrigate or incorporate the fertilizer manually).

Further reading

Cacao production: Challenges and Management Strategies
Cacao Variety Selection and Propagation
Cacao Soil requirements and Planting distances
Water needs and Irrigation of Cacao
Cacao Fertilization and Nutrient Requirements
Cacao Plant Protection – Major Stresses, Disease and Pest of Cacao
Cacao tree Pruning
Yield, Harvest, Handling and Storage of Cacao
Sales, Trading, and Shipping Cocoa Beans



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