This article is written by Dr. George Rehm, University Minnesota, Soil Fertility Specialist (retired).
See more of Dr. Rehm’s blogs at www.agwaterexchange.com
Various products and/or concepts that pertain to crop production seem to cycle with time. I’m never surprised. There are foo-foo juice products that have disappeared only to appear sometime later under a different name. Likewise, there are concepts that have been proven by research to be bogus. Yet, they don’t die. There appear again. It seems that there are always some who attempt to make money from farmers by selling revived foo-foo juice products or bogus concepts. To paraphrase a line from a once-popular song: “everything old is new again”.
Recently, there has been a revived promotion of CATION EXCHANGE CAPACITY (CEC) and CATION RATIOS. The CATION RATIO concept has sometimes been referred to as “BALANCED SOIL FERTILITY”. So, some review of what we know about CEC and balanced cations is probably appropriate at this time.
The concept of CEC and it’s relationship to crop production was first researched in New Jersey in the mid-1940’s. At that time, researchers measured the CEC of soils as well as the exchangeable cations (Ca++, Mg++, K+). The CEC is a nearly constant property of soils that is directly related to soil texture. Sandy soils have relatively low CEC values. BY contrast, fine textured soils have high CEC values. The exchangeable cation values (Ca++, Mg++, K+) vary with other soil properties — mainly soil pH.
In the New Jersey soils, the researchers measured the exchangeable cations in a “productive soil” and a “non-productive” soil. They calculated the ratios of one cation to another. For example, the ratio of Ca++ to Mg++ was 6.5 to 1. Alfalfa was the test crop. So, it was thought that a “productive” soil should have a Ca to Mg ratio of this value. These researchers neglected one important piece of information. This was that lime had been used on the “productive” soil but not on the “non-productive” soil and the sandy soil had an acid pH. The lime supplied Ca++. Do you suspect that productivity of the alfalfa crop was a consequence of the use of lime rather the magic ratios? In the years that followed, numerous research projects were conducted through the Midwest for the purpose of investigating the effect of cation ratios on crop production.
There were the comparisons of fertilizer recommendations provided by various Soil Testing Laboratories. Some followed the cation ratio concept. Others Used the sufficiency approach based on the response of crops to measured levels of available nutrients by standardized, routine analytical procedures. Although costs of fertilizer recommended by these approaches varied considerably each year for extended periods of time (14 years in Nebraska), crop yield was not affected. Fertilizer recommendations based on the cation ratio concept were much higher than those that were based on the sufficiency approach.
The results of the Midwest research led to the conclusion that the ratio of one cation to another in soils had no effect on crop production. Crop response to fertilizer was the result of the nutrient supply in the soil — not ratios. Nutrient supply is measured by the standard analytical procedures. The crop has no interest in ratios. Given the uniformity of the conclusions of these research projects, it appeared that the “ideal ratio” or “balanced nutrient” concept was dead and had disappeared from our knowledge base that pertained to soil fertility and fertilizer use.
Land Grant universities in the northern and western Corn Belt have published reports that document the bogus nature of the ideal cation ratio concept. Staff at Agvise Laboratories have worked hard and listed the links to these reports on the Laboratory web site. The web address is: agvise.com if anyone is interested in the detailed reports.
The concept of IDEAL CATION RATIOS has been thoroughly research for several crops. There is consistency in the results of this research. This concept is not in any way related to effective and economical fertilizer recommendations. In fact, use of this concept has a high probability of producing less than optimum recommendations for use of potash fertilizers on sandy soils.
The concept of IDEAL CATION RATIOS as a basis for fertilizer recommendations is truly bogus and has no place in agriculture. Please use this ratio concept if you want to waste money on fertilizer purchases in 2015. Those who advocate the use of this concept are not up to date in their understanding of modern principles of soil fertility. They’re still working in the 1940’s. It was WRONG THEN and it’s WRONG NOW.
Dr. George Rehm,
University of Minnesota
Nutrient Management Specialist (retired)