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The Dirt on Dirt

Published: 12/5/2009
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Why pH is more important for your Hay than your Hair!

[To read previous article on Field and Soil Review, click here!]

By Maddy Butcher

So I got my soil test back. Now what do I do?
That’s the question I was asking myself before meeting with Dick Brzozowski, University of Maine Cooperative Extention agent.

A few months ago, Bryzowski visited my neighbor’s field, about 16 acres of decent grass with some weeds. My neighbor lets me fence in about three acres for the horses to graze. The rest is for hay.

Brzozowski zigzagged the field and took samples using a coring device. The samples were then sent to the University of Maine and analyzed in a lab for pH, macro nutrient, and micro nutrient levels.

I got the test results and stared at the numbers, the bar graphs and recommendations. It was Greek to me. So I called Bryzowski to help me make sense of it. This guy is a PhD and I was beginning to realize that soil science IS a bit like rocket science.
I got the test results and stared at the numbers, the bar graphs and recommendations. It was Greek to me. So I called Brzozowski to help me make sense of it. This guy is a PhD and I was beginning to realize that soil science IS a bit like rocket science.
Brzozowski is also a farmer and his business is helping farmers. He does a marvelous job of breaking down the complicated, explaining the perplexing, and charting a course for improved fields.

We sat and looked at the results. He reminded me that I had sent away the soil with two “crop code” requests. Crop codes
 direct the lab to analyze the soil with specific uses in mind.

I had asked for Crop Code #154 and Crop Code #105. Those are codes for plowing and reseeding with new grass (154) and, alternatively, harvesting two cuts of hay (105).
How you treat the ground depends on how you intend to use it. I could have sent away with Crop Codes to grow Christmas trees or potatoes, for instance. Then the lab would have sent me different recommendations.
Brzozowski also pointed out the three parts of my report: the graph, the narrative, and the numerical. Each part reviews the same results but in different ways.
The graph noted levels ranging from “low” to “medium” to “optimum” of pH, organic matter, phosphorus, potassium, and several additional nutrients.
The narrative recommended how I should treat the soil vis a vis the requested crop code.
The numerical results noted specific levels of pH and nutrients compared to the optimum range for the given crop code.

In general, grasses grow best and compete best against weeds when the pH is 7.
My pH for the horse pasture was 5.8. The hay field registered at 5.9. So I wasn’t far from 7, right?
Wrong.
Each pH unit represents a tenfold change in acidity or alkalinity. So budging the soil up a few tenths of a point is a BIG deal.
(When you are thinking about the pH scale, you might consider how aquatic life suffers or thrives with the slightest variance in pH. That’s because a slight variance is actually a very significant fluctuation.)
Anyway, raising the pH is also a BIG deal in terms of money and material. Bryzowski pointed to the narrative section: “To raise soil pH to 6.0, apply 1,500 pounds lime per acre. To raise soil pH to 6.5, apply 4,500 pounds lime per acre.”
If I wanted to raise the pH to 6.5 (remember, that’s not even the optimal pH level), I would have to apply a total of 72,000 pounds (36 tons) of lime! Holy Cow!
My neighbor and I haven’t taken the next step to get a price – but I can tell you right now – It ain’t gonna happen.
We will apply lime next year, but getting to 7 would be like me winning the Versatile Horse & Rider championship! It’s a bit out of reach for next year.We will apply lime next year, but getting to 7 would be like me winning the Versatile Horse & Rider championship. It’s a bit out of reach for next year.
What’s the big deal with pH anyway? Why does it matter to plants?
Think of 7 as the point of Wide Open Gates. 7 is when nutrients flow most freely from soil to plant. If the soil is acidic, the nutrients in the soil are locked up and unavailable to the plant. The closer you get to 7, the more available nutrients become.

Coming next: What the heck is Cation Exchange Capacity? And why our dreaded clay gets a bum rap.


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