Soil calcium and magnesium levels

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Is it important to have the proper ratio of calcium (Ca) and magnesium (Mg) in the soil? Many producers ask this question when they have their soil tested for nutrient levels. This question also arises at the moment of lime purchase, which can be an important source of Ca and Mg.

Calcium and magnesium are plant-essential nutrients. All soils contain Ca and Mg in the form of cations (positively charged ions, Ca++ and Mg++) that attach to the soil clay and organic matter; these are also the forms taken up by crops. The relative proportion of these elements, as well as the total amount in the soil, depends mainly on the soil parent material. In Kansas soils, the levels of Ca and Mg are typically high and crop deficiencies are rare.

Soils typically have higher Ca levels than Mg. Table 1 gives the amount and ratios of Ca and Mg for some soils in Kansas. Both nutrients are present in large quantities. Unusual cases of Ca or Mg deficiencies may be found in areas of very sandy soils. 

Table 1. Calcium, magnesium, and Ca:Mg ratio for several Kansas soils.

Soil

Ca

Mg

Ca:Mg ratio

 

- - cmol kg-1 - - -

 

Canadian-Waldeck

42

11

3.7

Carwile

22

4

5.2

Chase

198

30

6.7

Crete

111

29

3.8

Harley

202

15

13.2

Harney-Uly

200

12

16.1

Keith

127

38

3.3

Las

176

37

4.8

McCook

35

8

4.5

Onawa

163

28

5.8

Ortello

19

6

3.3

Parsons

80

23

3.5

Tully

158

38

4.2

Why would the ratio of Ca to Mg be important? The concept of an optimum Ca:Mg ratio started in the 1940s under the “basic cation saturation ratio” theory. The theory is that an “ideal soil” will have a balanced ratio of Ca, Mg, and K. According to this theory, fertilization should be based on the soil’s needs rather than crop’s needs. This concept of an ideal Ca:Mg ratio has been debated by agronomist over the years. The suggested ideal ratio according to the theory is between 3.5 and 6.0, but this has never proven to be of significance.

There is very little research evidence to support any effect, either positive or negative, of the soil Ca:Mg ratio on crop production and yield. Several research studies conducted in the laboratory and in the field show no effect of Ca:Mg ratio on crop yield. Despite this, the promotion of the ratio concept persists today. Furthermore, the initial work that derived this concept did not differentiate between crop response (alfalfa) due to the change in Ca:Mg ratio and the improvement in soil pH from lime application. It is reasonable to conclude that crop response can be expected from changes in soil pH rather than any change in the ratio of Ca:Mg.

One example of research conducted on this topic over the years is shown in Table 2. In that experiment, McLean and coworkers demonstrated the lack of relationship between Ca:Mg ratio and crop yield for several crops. The range of Ca:Mg ratios observed for the highest yields were not different from those observed for the lowest yields. The conclusion from that study was that to achieve maximum crop yield, attention should center on providing sufficient levels of these nutrients rather than attempting to find an adequate ratio.

Table 2. Ratio of Ca:Mg for five crop-years comparing the highest and lower yields obtained

 

Corn

Corn

Soybean

Wheat

Alfalfa

Alfalfa

Yield level

   - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Ca:Mg ratio - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Highest five

5.7 - 26.8

5.7 - 14.2

5.7 - 14.9

5.7 - 14.0

5.7 - 26.8

6.8 - 26.8

Lowest five

5.8 - 21.5

5.0 - 16.1

2.3 - 16.1

6.8 - 21.5

8.2 - 21.5

5.7 - 21.5

Adapted from: McLean, E.O., R.C. Hartwig, D.J. Eckert, and G.B. Triplett. 1983. Basic cation saturation ratios as a basis for fertilizing and liming agronomic crops. II. Field studies. Agronomy Journal 75: 635-639.

Conclusion

There is no reason to use the Ca:Mg ratio concept for a nutrient application or liming program. The center of attention should be the level of Ca and Mg in the soil rather than trying to manage the ratio. The relative concentration of Ca and Mg in commercial ag lime can be highly variable, and application should be based on the effective calcium carbonate (ECC) to achieve a target soil pH.


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Marvin Miller    
Nampa, Idaho  |  May, 19, 2013 at 04:39 AM

Magnesium and calcium ratios are important. HIgh magnesium in soil causes a crusting and sealing on top of the soil. It cuts off air to the plant roots and soil microbes responsible for nutrient availability. High magnesium also can be associated with higher sodium levels. Magnesium holds moisture 4 times longer than calcium. Magnesium is associated with clay particles. High CEC is always the result of some higher magnesium levels. When calcium is high in soil in the base saturation percent you can have high lime levels. This leads to cementation of soil and can cause a hard crust about 2 inches thick on top of the soil. Calcium soils hold less water and disperse it. Calcium soils hold water about 1/4 as long as high magnesium soils. High calcium blocks uptake of magnesium in the plant. High magnesium blocks uptake of calcium. My theory of soils is called the "Dominant Cat" theory. The dominant cation is the one you have to work against to achieve good crop and soil balance. The Dominant Cation always has a laundry list of things that it causes in soil. The major cations in my theory are potassium, magnesium, calcium, hydrogen and sodium. Good balances in soil are rare. Soil is usually always out of balance and only foliar feeding can correct the imbalances in crops caused by soil imbalances. It is not economically feasible to add enough gypsum to correct the low calcium or lime to correct low pH. It is not economically feasible to add enough sulfur to lower the effects of high calcium and lime in the soil. Balance of all cations in the soil is important but rarely within reach to obtain. Marvin Miller, President, Integrated Biological Systems, Inc. Nampa, Idaho


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