Adjusting high soil pH and salinity with sugar beet-processing spent lime

The sugar beet processing industry uses large quantities of fine-ground, high-grade calcium carbonate (lime) to purify sucrose in the sugar extraction process. The by-product spent lime retains high reactivity and purity, making it an attractive liming material for acidic soils. Application of spent lime is a common practice through the sugar beet producing areas of the upper Midwest and northern Great Plains, where its primary function is the suppression of the soil-borne disease Aphanomyces root rot of sugar beet. The spent lime also contains about 20 lb P2O5 per ton, mostly as organic phosphorus impurities gained from sugar refining.

We often get questions about correcting high soil pH and salinity with spent lime. Salt-affected soils, saline and sodic, are a common problem across the northern Great Plains. These soils have high soil pH and present numerous agronomic and soil management problems. The soil amendment gypsum (calcium sulfate) is often applied to sodic soils (those with high sodium) to combat soil swelling and dispersion. The spent lime (calcium carbonate) also contains calcium, but it is very insoluble at high soil pH.

Each year, we get many questions about applying spent lime on soils with high pH and salinity. To answer these questions, AGVISE Laboratories installed a long-term demonstration project in 2008 to evaluate adjusting high soil pH and salinity with spent lime. We applied multiple spent lime rates and tracked soil test levels over seven years. There were no significant changes or trends in soil pH (Table 1) or salinity (Table 2). This is no surprise because the initial soil pH was high and buffered around 7.8-8.2, indicating the presence of natural calcium carbonate. If the soil already contains naturally occurring lime, what is the good of adding more lime? Moreover, calcium carbonate is very insoluble, so there is no expectation that more lime will decrease or increase salinity.

Since soil test levels did not change over seven years, we terminated the project in 2014. The research question was a conclusive dud. While spent lime is useful to amend acidic soils and suppress Aphanomyces root rot of sugar beet, it does not help on soils with high pH or salinity.

 

 

Table 1. Soil pH (1:1) following sugar beet-processing spent lime application on high pH soil.
Spent Lime Year Average
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
ton/acre
1 7.8 7.7 7.9 7.8 7.7 8.0 8.0 7.80
2 7.9 7.9 8.1 7.9 7.9 8.0 8.0 7.94
3 7.9 7.9 8.1 7.9 7.9 8.1 8.1 7.95
4 7.8 7.8 7.9 7.7 7.8 8.1 8.0 7.85
5 7.8 7.8 8.0 7.9 7.9 8.0 8.0 7.90
6 8.0 7.9 8.2 8.0 8.0 8.1 8.1 8.00
Spent lime applied and incorporated September 2008. Soil sampled in fall.

 

Table 2. Soil salinity (electrical conductivity, EC 1:1) following sugar beet-processing spent lime application on moderately saline soil.
Spent Lime Year
2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
ton/acre ——————— dS/m ———————
1 1.5 1.2 1.8 1.1 1.6 1.2 1.8
2 1.9 2.1 2.3 2.5 2.3 2.0 2.0
3 1.9 2.2 2.6 2.5 2.4 1.9 1.9
4 1.0 1.3 1.4 1.2 1.5 1.9 1.9
5 1.7 2.2 2.2 2.3 2.2 1.7 1.7
6 2.6 2.1 2.1 2.9 2.5 1.9 1.9
Spent lime applied and incorporated September 2008. Soil sampled in fall.

Adjusting low soil pH with sugar beet-processing spent lime

The sugar beet processing industry uses large quantities of fine-ground, high-grade calcium carbonate (lime) to purify sucrose in the sugar extraction process. The by-product spent lime retains high reactivity and purity, making an attractive liming material for acidic soils. Application of spent lime is a common practice through the sugar beet producing areas of the upper Midwest and northern Great Plains, where its primary function is the suppression of the soil-borne disease Aphanomyces root rot of sugar beet. The spent lime also contains about 20 lb P2O5 per ton, mostly as organic phosphorus impurities gained from sugar refining.

AGVISE Laboratories installed a long-term demonstration project in 2014 to evaluate adjusting low soil pH with spent lime. The project site was located near our Northwood Laboratory. Northwood lies along the beachline of glacial Lake Agassiz, where well-drained coarse-textured soils with low pH are common. We located a very acidic soil with soil pH 4.7 (0-6 inch), which was the perfect site to evaluate lime application. In May 2014, spent lime was applied and incorporated with rototiller. The spent lime quality was very high at 1,500 lb ENP/ton. In Minnesota, lime quality is measured as effective neutralizing power (ENP), which measures lime purity and fineness. Soil pH was tracked over three years (Table 1).

The lowest spent lime rate (2,500 lb ENP/acre) increased soil pH above 5.5. This soil pH reduced aluminum toxicity risk, but it did not reach the target pH 6.0, appropriate for corn-soybean rotation. The highest spent lime rate (10,000 lb ENP/acre) increased soil pH above 7.0 and maintained soil pH for several years. Spent lime is a fine-ground material with high reactivity, so its full effects were seen in the first application year. The project showed that spent lime is an effective liming material for low pH soils.

Table 1. Soil pH (1:1) following sugar beet-processing spent lime application on low pH soil.
Spent Lime Year
May 2014 Sept 2014 July 2015 June 2016
lb ENP/acre
0 4.8 4.8 4.7 5.1
2,500 4.8 5.5 5.2 5.4
5,000 4.8 5.6 5.7 5.5
10,000 4.8 7.4 7.0 7.4
Spent lime applied and incorporated September 2008. Soil sampled in fall.

High soil pH and calcium carbonate inflate base cation saturation and cation exchange capacity (CEC)

Soil pH is a soil chemical property that measures soil acidity or alkalinity, and it affects many soil chemical and biological activities. Soils of the northern Great Plains and Canadian Prairies often have high soil pH (>7.3) and contain calcium carbonate (free lime) at or near the soil surface. It is the calcium carbonate in soil that maintains high soil pH and keeps it buffered around pH 8.0. The calcium carbonate originates from soil formation processes since the latest glacial period.

Soils with high pH and calcium carbonate create analytical challenges in determining cation exchange capacity (CEC) and subsequent base cation saturation ratio (BCSR) calculations. Cation exchange capacity is the amount of positive-charged cations (e.g. ammonium, calcium, hydrogen, magnesium, potassium, sodium) held on negative-charged soil particles, like clay and organic matter. Fine-textured soils (high clay content) and organic soils (high organic matter content) have high CEC, while coarse-textured soils (low clay content) have low CEC. The BSCR is the relative proportion of base cations in soil.

The routine laboratory method to determine CEC is the summation method, where all extractable cations on soil particles are added together. The assumption is that all positive-charged cations extracted are held on negative-charged exchange sites on soil particles. The assumption falls apart in soils with pH > 7.3 because the soil test method also extracts calcium from the naturally occurring soil mineral calcium carbonate, which is not held on cation exchange sites. The resulting amount of extractable calcium is inflated. The summation procedure still sums together the inflated calcium result, producing an inaccurate and inflated CEC result. Any subsequent base cation saturation calculations are similarly flawed.

To illustrate the inflated CEC problem, AGVISE Laboratories conducted a laboratory experiment. The experiment showed that more calcium carbonate in soil increased the amount of extractable calcium (Table 1). Furthermore, the inflated amount of extracted calcium also inflated the CEC because all the extractable cations are summed together. The correct CEC is 24 cmolc/kg, yet the inflated CEC could be 150 to 200% higher with increasing calcium carbonate content. Adding calcium carbonate to soil did not increase the inherent CEC sources, i.e. clay and organic matter, yet the laboratory CEC result increased. In reality, the ability to hold more cations did not change. This highlights the analytical challenge in determining CEC via summation method on soils with high pH and calcium carbonate.

Table 1. Effect of calcium carbonate addition on extractable cations and cation exchange capacity.
Calcium carbonate equivalent (CCE) pH EC Ca Mg K Na CEC
% dS/m —————– ppm —————– cmolc/kg
0 7.5 0.43 3350 730 220 45 24
1 7.6 0.51 6150 730 220 50 37
5 7.7 0.52 7480 720 215 45 44
10 7.8 0.50 7240 650 180 40 42
Abbrev.: pH (1:1); EC, electrical conductivity (1:1); Ca, calcium; Mg, magnesium; K, potassium; Na, sodium; CEC, cation exchange capacity via summation of cations.

The subsequent base cation saturation calculations were also affected, showing much lower percent potassium saturation as calcium carbonate content increased (Table 2). This presents a major challenge in using the base cation saturation ratio (BCSR) concept to guide soil fertility and plant nutrition on soils with high pH and calcium carbonate. Without an accurate analytical method, the BCSR concept loses its grounding and any practical application.

Table 2. Effect of calcium carbonate addition on base cation saturation ratio and cation exchange capacity.
Calcium carbonate equivalent (CCE) Ca sat. Mg sat. K sat. Na sat. CEC
% ————————– % ————————– cmolc/kg
0 71 26 2.4 0.8 24
1 82 16 1.5 0.6 37
5 85 14 1.2 0.4 44
10 86 13 1.1 0.4 42
Abbrev.: Ca, calcium; Mg, magnesium; K, potassium; Na, sodium; CEC, cation exchange capacity via summation of cations.

In general, the routine CEC method via summation of cations is quite accurate on soils with pH less than 7.3 and no calcium carbonate. However, the routine method has clear challenges on soils with pH greater than 7.3. The resulting CEC and subsequent base cation saturation calculations are inflated and/or flawed. This is why the BCSR concepts is extremely misleading on soils with high pH.

Adjusting high soil pH with elemental sulfur

Soil pH is a soil chemical property that measures soil acidity or alkalinity, and it affects many soil chemical and biological activities. Soils with high pH can reduce the availability of certain nutrients, such as phosphorus and zinc. Soils of the northern Great Plains and Canadian Prairies often have high soil pH (>7.3) and contain calcium carbonate (free lime) at or near the soil surface. It is the calcium carbonate in soil that maintains high soil pH and keeps it buffered around pH 8.0. The calcium carbonate originates from soil formation processes since the latest glacial period.

An unfounded soil management suggestion is that soil pH can be successfully reduced by applying moderate rates of elemental sulfur (about 100 to 200 lb/acre elemental S). Elemental sulfur must go through a transformation process called oxidation, converting elemental sulfur (S0) to sulfuric acid (H2SO4), a strong acid. Sulfuric acid does lower soil pH, but the problem is the amount of carbonate in the northern region, which commonly ranges from 1 to 5% CCE and sometimes over 10% CCE. Soils containing carbonate (pH >7.3) will require A LOT of elemental sulfur to neutralize carbonate before it can reduce soil pH.

To lower pH in soils containing carbonate, the naturally-occurring carbonate must first be neutralized by sulfuric acid generated from elemental sulfur. You can visualize the fizz that takes place when you pour acid on a soil with carbonate. That fizz is the acid reacting with calcium carbonate to produce carbon dioxide (CO2) gas. Once all calcium carbonate in soil has been neutralized by sulfuric acid, only then can the soil pH be lowered permanently. It is important to note that sulfate-sulfur sources, such as gypsum (calcium sulfate, CaSO4), do not create sulfuric acid when they react with soil, so they cannot neutralize calcium carbonate or change soil pH (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Soil pH following gypsum application on soil with high pH and calcium carbonate.

In 2005, AGVISE Laboratories installed a long-term demonstration project evaluating elemental sulfur and gypsum on a soil with pH 8.0 and 2.5% calcium carbonate equivalent (CCE). The highest elemental sulfur rate was 10,000 lb/acre (yes, 5 ton/acre)! We chose such a high rate because the soil would require a lot of elemental sulfur to neutralize all calcium carbonate. Good science tells us that 10,000 lb/acre elemental sulfur should decrease soil pH temporarily, but it is still not enough to lower soil pH permanently. In fact, this is exactly what we saw (Figure 2). Soil pH declined in the first year, but it returned to the initial pH over subsequent years because the amount of elemental sulfur was not enough to neutralize all calcium carbonate.

Figure 2. Soil pH following elemental sulfur application on soil with high pH and calcium carbonate.

A quick calculation showed that the soil with 2.5% CCE would require about 16,000 lb/acre elemental sulfur to neutralize all calcium carbonate in the topsoil. Such high rates of elemental sulfur are both impractical and expensive on soils in the northern Great Plains. The only thing to gained is a large bill for elemental sulfur. While high soil pH does lower availability of phosphorus and zinc, you can overcome these limitations with banded phosphorus fertilizer and chelated zinc on sensitive crops. All in all, high soil pH is manageable with the appropriate strategy. That strategy does not involve elemental sulfur.

Soil Science Review: Soil pH, Acidity, and Alkalinity

Soil pH is a basic soil property that affects many biological and chemical processes in soil. Simply knowing if a soil is acidic or alkaline can tell us a lot about how it behaves and how we can manage it. This is why soil pH is often called the master variable of biological and chemical reactions.

Soil pH is the activity of hydrogen ions (H+) in the soil solution, expressed on a logarithmic scale. A neutral soil has pH 7.0 and contains equal parts hydrogen (H+) and hydroxide (OH) ions. An acidic soil has more H+ ions. An alkaline soil has more OH ions. The relative acidity or alkalinity is shown in Table 1. In the laboratory, soil pH is analyzed using the 1:1 soil:water ratio routine method. Other soil pH methods include CaCl2, KCl, and saturated paste.

Table 1. Relative soil acidity or alkalinity range from soil pH.
pH (1:1) Relative Acidity or Alkalinity
≤ 4.4 Extremely acidic
4.5-4.9 Very strongly acidic
5.0-5.4 Strongly acidic
5.5-5.9 Moderately acidic
6.0-6.4 Slightly acidic
6.5-7.5 Neutral
7.6-7.9 Slightly alkaline
8.0-8.4 Moderately alkaline
8.5-8.9 Strongly alkaline
≥ 9.0 Very strongly alkaline

 

The optimal pH range for most plant species is near neutral or slightly acidic. In the optimal pH range, most plant nutrients are at or near their highest solubility in the soil solution. If soil pH is too low or too high, the availability of plant nutrients decreases; therefore, soil pH may be corrected with soil amendments or other strategies to mitigate reduced nutrient availability.

To demonstrate the importance of soil pH, let’s look at soil pH and aluminum. Aluminum is a natural component of soil clay particles, and it is insoluble above pH 5.5. In strongly acidic soils (pH < 5.5), aluminum solubility increases, so aluminum begins to dissolve and enter the soil solution. Soluble aluminum is very toxic to plant root growth and development, and it may cause reduced plant production or plant death. Soluble aluminum also binds with phosphate in the soil solution to create insoluble aluminum phosphate compounds, which then reduce soil phosphorus availability and plant uptake.

Soil acidity and aluminum toxicity is often the primary limitation of crop production in tropical and subtropical regions. Acidic soils are frequently amended with lime (calcium carbonate) to increase soil pH, improve nutrient availability, and increase crop production. On the glaciated plains of North America, soil acidity is not a common phenomenon. However, some localized areas of long-term no-till crop production on coarse-textured soils has produced more soils with very low pH (<5.0) and new aluminum toxicity problems.

Soil alkalinity similarly reduces the availability of plant nutrients in soil. In moderately alkaline soils (pH > 8.0), phosphorus binds with calcium to create insoluble calcium phosphate compounds, which then reduce soil phosphorus availability and plant uptake. Similarly, the micronutrients iron and zinc are less soluble. To improve nutrient availability in alkaline soils, farmers apply fertilizer in narrow bands. These bands decrease the volume of soil with which the fertilizer can react, thus keeping more nutrients available in the soil solution. It is generally uneconomical to lower alkaline soil pH to the optimal pH range in crop production.

Soil pH goes beyond inorganic soil chemistry. It also controls the biological activity of soil microorganisms that help create soil structure, cycle organic nutrients, and fix nitrogen in the nodules on legume roots. Soil pH also controls the degradation of many pesticides in soil. If there is something going on in soil, it probably starts with pH.

Molybdenum: The Micro-est of Micronutrients

Molybdenum (Mo) is an essential plant nutrient, necessary for nitrate assimilation and biological nitrogen fixation. Legumes, relying on symbiotic nitrogen fixation, have greater Mo requirement than non-legumes. Nevertheless, the Mo requirement of plants is the lowest among all micronutrients, with critical deficiency concentrations ranging from 0.1 to 1.0 ppm in plant leaves. The very low Mo concentration lies near the detection limit for most laboratory instruments used in commercial soil and plant analysis, so you may see Mo concentration reported as “below instrument detection limit.”

Plant-available Mo in soil is present as molybdate (MoO42-). Unlike most other micronutrients, molybdate availability in soil increases with soil pH. On soils with pH greater than 6.0, Mo deficiency is exceptionally rare. In the northern Great Plains and Canadian Prairies where most soils have high pH, Mo deficiency is virtually unknown, and background plant Mo concentration in legumes ranges from 4 to 8 ppm, indicating that plants obtain sufficient Mo from soil naturally. In the upper Midwest where low pH soils are more common, crop response to Mo fertilization has been limited to legume crops grown on strongly acidic, sandy or peat soils.

Since Mo deficiency is so uncommon and most soils are limed above pH 6.0, no reliable plant-available soil test method for Mo has been developed in the region. The acid ammonium oxalate method was infrequently used in the southeast United States, but the prediction of crop response to Mo fertilization aligns more closely with soil pH than soil test Mo. If soil pH is less than 6.0 and Mo fertilization is necessary, a molybdate fertilizer seed treatment or foliar application is usually sufficient. Overapplication of Mo fertilizer is not a concern for grain production. In forage production however, overapplication is a serious concern because excessive Mo in forages can cause Mo-induced copper deficiency (molybdenosis) in ruminant livestock.

5 Things You Should Know About Calcium

1. Calcium (Ca) is abundant in soils of the upper Midwest, northern Great Plains, and Canadian Prairies; calcium deficiency in agronomic crops is rare

Calcium makes up about 3.6% of the Earth’s crust, and it is relatively abundant in agricultural soils across the region. In soils with pH greater than 6.0, Ca is the dominant cation (positively charged ion) on the cation exchange capacity (CEC). Since most soils in the region have a pH of 6.0 or above, calcium is very abundant and soils with low soil test Ca (less than 500 ppm) are rare (Figure 1).

Soil samples with soil test calcium below 500 ppm in 2020

Figure 1. AGVISE regional soil test summary. AGVISE has created regional summaries for the past 40 years. You can find more soil test summary data, including Montana and Canada, here.

Potential calcium deficiencies are most common on sandy soils with strongly acidic pH (pH less than 5.0). Luckily, the fix for low soil pH also fixes potential Ca deficiencies. To correct soil pH, agricultural limestone is applied to raise soil pH to 6.0 or 6.5, if growing sensitive crops like alfalfa or clover. When limestone (calcium carbonate) is applied in tons per acre, more than enough calcium is also applied and sufficiently increases soil test Ca, providing ample calcium for optimal crop growth and development. Throughout the region, soils with low soil pH are more common in the higher rainfall areas to the east and south (Figure 2), and liming is a standard practice to correct soil pH and provide calcium.

Soil samples with soil pH below 6.0 in 2020, for 5 things you should know article

Figure 2. Soil samples with pH below 6.0 in 2020, where lime application may be required. The number of fields with low pH has increased over time and will continue to do so because soil acidification is a natural process. Keep watch for low soil pH, especially in western North Dakota and South Dakota. You can find more soil test summary data, including Montana and Canada, here.

2. Multiple calcium fertilizer sources exist; some increase pH, others do not

Agricultural limestone is the most common lime source and is available in two flavors: calcitic (calcium carbonate, <5% magnesium) or dolomitic (calcium-magnesium carbonate, >5% magnesium). Limestone quarries exist in southern Minnesota and Iowa, but the northern Great Plains is virtually devoid of mineable limestone. Industrial waste lime (spent lime) is another good lime source and available from sugar beet processing plants and water treatment plants throughout the region. Any of these liming materials will supply enough calcium to increase soil test Ca if soil pH is increased above pH 6.0.

Gypsum (calcium sulfate) is another calcium source, but it does not change soil pH. Gypsum is sometimes used to increase soil test Ca if the producer does not want to increase soil pH with lime application. This situation is common in irrigated potato production where increased soil pH may increase soil-borne diseases like common scab of potato. Gypsum is not a lime source, so it will not increase soil pH.

3. There is no “ideal” base cation saturation range or ratio for calcium

Suggestions that Ca and other base cations (magnesium, potassium) are required in a certain percentage or ratio in soil are not supported by modern science. Recent research done at several universities shows a wide range of base cation ratios in soil will support normal crop growth (see links below). What is important is that a sufficient soil test amount of each base cation (Ca Mg, K) is present in soil to support plant growth and development.

4. Soils with pH greater than 7.3 will have falsely inflated soil test Ca and cation exchange capacity (CEC) results

Soils with pH greater than 7.3 will contain some amount of naturally occurring calcium carbonate (CaCO3), shown on the soil test report as carbonate (CCE). The calcium soil test method will extract Ca on cation exchange sites and some Ca from calcium carbonate minerals, resulting in an inflated soil test Ca result. Starting with inflated soil test Ca, the routine cation exchange capacity (CEC) calculation is also inflated. For example, a soil with pH 7.8 and 3.0% CCE may report CEC at 60 meq/100 g, but the correct CEC is only 27 meq/100 g. To obtain accurate CEC results on soil with pH greater than 7.3, a special displacement CEC laboratory method is required. For soils with pH less than 7.3, the routine CEC calculation method will provide accurate soil test Ca and CEC results. High soil salinity (soluble salts, EC) can also inflate CEC results.

5. Calcium is not an environmental risk to surface or ground water

Calcium is one of the major dissolved substances found in surface and ground waters, especially in the northern Great Plains and Canadian Prairies. In fact, water hardness is determined from the amount of dissolved calcium and magnesium in water. There is already so much calcium found in natural waters in the region that calcium fertilizer additions to soil are negligible. Water hardness does affect the effectiveness of some herbicides and may cause tank-mixing issues, but is not an environmental concern.

Bonus: Just because your tomatoes have had blossom-end rot does NOT mean your soil is Ca deficient!

If you are a backyard tomato grower, you may have experienced blossom-end rot before, where the blossom-end of developing fruits turn brown and mushy while still on the plant. Yes, the problem is caused by low calcium in the tomato plant, but not necessarily because the soil has low soil test Ca. Blossom-end rot is primarily caused by inconsistent soil moisture. Adequate soil moisture is required to maintain a consistent supply of calcium moving to the plant root, which might run short if watering is inconsistent. To keep blossom-end rot away from your garden, just try to be more consistent with watering, especially during dry periods.

Resources on Base Cation Saturation Ratios

Cation Exchange: A Review, IPNI

Soil Cation Ratios for Crop Production, UMN

A Review of the Use of the Basic Cation Saturation Ratio and the “Ideal” Soil, SSSA Journal