By Dorivar Ruiz Diaz, Nutrient Management Specialist
One question that commonly comes up with continuous no-till operations is: “How deep should I sample soils for pH?” Another common question is: “How should the lime be applied if the soil is acidic and the field needs lime?”
Sampling Depth in Continuous No-Till
Our standard recommendation for pH is to take one set of samples to a 0-6 inch depth. On continuous no-till fields where most or all of the nitrogen (N) is surface applied, we recommend taking a second sample to a 0-3-inch depth. We make the same recommendation for long-term pasture or grass hayfields, such as a bromegrass field that has been fertilized with urea annually for several years.
Nitrogen fertilizer is the primary driving force in lowering soil pH levels, so N application rates and methods must be considered when determining how deep to sample for pH. In no-till, the effects of N fertilizer on lowering pH are most pronounced in the area where the fertilizer is actually applied. In a tilled system, the applied N or acid produced through nitrification is mixed in through the action of tillage and distributed throughout the tilled area.
Where N sources such as urea or liquid UAN solutions are broadcast on the surface in no-till system, the pH effects of the acid formed by nitrification of the ammonium will be confined to the surface few inches of soil. Initially this may be just the top 1 to 2 inches but over time, and as N rates increase, the effect of acidity become more pronounced, and the pH drops at deeper depths (Figure 1). How deep and how quickly the acidity develops over time is primarily a function of N rate and soil CEC (cation exchange capacity), or buffering capacity.
Where anhydrous ammonia is applied, or liquid UAN banded with the strip-till below the surface, an acid zone will develop deeper in the soil. As with long-term surface applications, these bands will expand over time as more and more N fertilizer is placed in the same general area. The graphic below (Figure 1) illustrates the effect of repeated nitrogen and phosphorus application with strip-till in the same area in the row middle on a high CEC soil for more than 12 years.
Figure 1. Soil pH stratification after 25 years of no-till and surface nitrogen fertilizer application, and the effect of repeated fertilizer application with strip-till in the same area after 12 years.
Liming Application Methods in Continuous No-Till
Where do you place the lime in continuous no-till?
If you surface apply N, then surface apply the lime. That’s a simple but effective rule. But remember that surface-applied lime will likely only neutralize the acidity in the top 2-3 inches of soil. So if a producer hasn’t limed for 20 years of continuous no-till and has applied 100 to 150 pounds of N per year, there will probably be a 4-5 inch thick acid zone, and the bottom half of that zone may not be neutralized from surface-applied lime. So, if a producer is only able to neutralize the top 3 inches of a 5-inch deep surface zone of acid soil, would that suggest he needs to incorporate lime? Not really. Research has shown that as long as the surface is in an appropriate range and the remainder of the acid soil is above pH 5, crops will do fine.
Liming benefits crop production in large part by reducing toxic aluminum, supplying calcium and magnesium, and enhancing the activity of some herbicides. Aluminum toxicity doesn’t occur until the soil pH is normally below about 5.2 to 5.5 and KCl-extractable (free aluminum) levels are greater than 25 parts per million (ppm). At that pH the Al in soil solution begins to increase dramatically as pH declines further. Aluminum is toxic to plant roots, and at worse the roots would not grow well in the remaining acid zone.
This implies that the acid zones from ammonia or banded UAN are probably not a major problem. We have monitored ammonia bands in the row middles of long-term no-till for many years and while the pH dropped very low, we never saw any adverse impacts on the crop that would justify liming and using tillage to incorporate the lime. In fact, some nutrients such as zinc, manganese, and iron can become more available at low pH, which can be an advantage at times.
Yield enhancement is not the only concern with low-pH soils, however. Herbicide effectiveness must also be considered. The most commonly used soil-applied herbicide impacted by pH is atrazine. As pH goes down, activity and performance goes down. So in acidic soils, weed control may be impacted. We do see that happen in corn and sorghum production.
Liming Products for No-Till
When choosing a liming product, is there any value to using dolomitic lime (which contains a large percentage of magnesium in addition to calcium) over a purely calcium-based lime product?
Most Kansas soils have high magnesium content. So as long as we maintain a reasonable soil pH, there normally is enough magnesium present to supply the needs of a crop. Calcium content is normally significantly higher than magnesium, so calcium deficiency is very, very rare in Kansas. The soil pH would need to be below 4.5 before calcium deficiency would become an issue. Before calcium deficiency would occur, aluminum toxicity or manganese toxicity would be severely impacting crop growth. So producers really don’t have to worry about a deficiency of calcium or magnesium on most Kansas soils.
What about the use of pelletized lime as a pH management tool on no-till fields?
The idea has been around for a while to use pel-lime in low doses to neutralize the acidity created from nitrogen and prevent acid zones from developing. . Pel-lime is a very high-quality product, normally having 1800 to 2000 pounds of effective calcium carbonate (ECC) per ton, and can be blended with fertilizers such as MAP or DAP or potash easily. Therefore, if you apply enough product this can be an excellent source of lime. Lime can be from various sources and with different qualities. Consecutively, to ensure a standardized unit of soil-acidity neutralizing potential, we use units of ECC.
Applying N fertilizer to soil will cause the soil to become acidic over time. Placement of the applied N and the level of soil mixing done through tillage determine where the acid zones will develop. Make sure your soil testing program is focused on the area in the soil becoming acidic, and apply the lime accordingly.