During a recent visit to my farm on Norfolk Island, where I wrote this issue of Nutrition Matters magazine, I received an email from a NZ consultant who was concerned about the validity of the Albrecht soil balancing approach. He had just received a copy of an article from an English soil science journal where the cation balancing philosophy was questioned. The author of this article concluded that the many thousands of growers and consultants who have embraced this approach are seriously misguided. I wrote back with a detailed response, which I have decided to share in this edition of Nutrition Matters. Here it is:
Nice to hear from you and I understand your concern. It is difficult to know whom to believe when you hear such conflicting information. I offer the following observations and thoughts in defense of Albrecht.
The reason that the cation balancing approach is gaining popularity is because it works. It is common sense that, if it was fallacious – as some of these ‘old school’ consultants keep insisting – it would surely have died out decades ago.
There are thousands of farmers around the globe who can attest to the changes and benefits they have seen when addressing cation balance.
This guy doesn’t even have the ratios right (i.e., it should be 68% Ca, 12% Mg and 3 – 5% K). It is so common, when you analyse the negative research, that the scientists involved have completely misunderstood the premise and simply asked the wrong questions. It was interesting to see Dr Doug Edmeads, from New Zealand, leading the last charge of the dinosaurs! He has a long history of defending the simplistic and unsustainable, high input, NPK philosophy that still prevails in the NZ dairy industry.
Here are some of the common misunderstandings that you will find in a review of the negative studies:
- The ratios are not applicable in light sandy soils. In that scenario, the standard rule of thumb, in our experience, is to aim for a minimum 500 ppm of calcium and 120 ppm of both magnesium and potassium.
- The desirable ratios are less significant in very heavy soils with a CEC of 40 to 60. For example, it is unlikely that there will be an appreciable difference by applying more lime, to play the numbers game, when you already have 10,000 ppm of calcium in your heavy, clay soil.
- Albrecht conducted his research in soils with CECs between 10 and 25, and this is where the ratios really seem to work. However, there are still some soils with clay types that give up their calcium more readily. In this context, we never assume that there will be a benefit in liming up to 68% calcium. The simple guideline is to tissue test for calcium and, if there is sufficient Ca present in the plant, there is no point in wasting money on liming.
- Albrecht taught that the correction of cation balance and the provision of minimum levels of micronutrients took care of the chemical (mineral) part of his equation for soil productivity and health. He talked about the relationship between the chemical, physical and biological components of soil health. When you correct cation balance, you have addressed soil chemistry, which improves the physical structure of the soil (through flocculation etc). That, in turn, improves the living conditions (including oxygen delivery to the root zone) for soil microbes and plants. The essential understanding involves a recognition that the purpose of cation balancing is to stimulate soil biology, and much of the beneficial response relates to firing up this workforce. The critical thing here is that there must be a viable workforce in place to achieve this impact. That was much more likely in 1955, when Albrecht was working, than it is today. Many millions of tonnes of agricultural chemicals and salt fertilisers have degenerated our soils in the subsequent sixty years.
I was once at a conference where a soil scientist presented his work debunking the cation balancing concept. He had corrected everything and achieved the desired ratios, but saw no appreciable response. When I enquired about where he had conducted this research it turned out to be on a reclaimed mine site. We have done some work on these sites and they are invariably biologically challenged, to say the least. None of these negative studies have recognised that the goal of cation balancing is to improve the response of soil life. They don’t even do basic things like measuring soil life, before and after the correction. Albrecht was an exceptional soil scientist who would have rolled in his grave if he saw how often he is misrepresented by a group of scientists who have never even read his work. The scientist that wrote the article in the English soil science journal cited “The Albrecht Papers” as references, but he had very obviously never read them!
The whole argument of the anti-Albrecht brigade is moot if you are consistently matching leaf analysis to soil analysis. We have worked with side-by-side soil and leaf tests for two decades, as have many other consultants around the globe. There is absolutely no doubt that, when you perfect your ratios in relevant soil types, you see luxury levels of cations uptaken as a result. There is no debate about this. It is a reliable outcome and will happen every time there is active soil biology present to ensure the desired response.
About 19 years ago, in the very early days of NTS, we did a small trial on a broadacre property in Victoria. We perfected the cation balance and trace mineral levels on a single hectare of this property and waited with great excitement to see the expected yield increases. There were none! When we looked a little deeper we found that years of triazine herbicides (atrazine and simazine) had been very harsh on soil life. When we fired up the biology with humates, specialist inocula and compost tea, the mineral-treated hectare really shone. We had only addressed half of the equation and this is what many of these misguided detractors are doing.
The other common misunderstanding relates to an appreciation of the critical role of calcium in the soil health equation. It was very apparent that the scientist who has written this most recent negative article did not understand calcium or Albrecht. He mentioned the role of calcium in modifying soil pH and that is where it stops for most of these guys. Calcium is the master mineral in the soil. It is the first thing to address when setting up a productive soil, as it has such an impact on the uptake of other minerals. The Ca/Mg ratio determines the efficiency of gas exchange. This movement of oxygen into the soil and CO2 out of the soil is the single most important factor influencing photosynthesis, which, in turn, is the most important process on the planet.
I recall talking at a dairy field day where a team of scientists stood in a soil pit and argued about the relevance of pH in dairy production. We were on a dairy research farm and the evidence of calcium deficiency surrounded them. There were over 30 weed varieties that are linked to a shortage of calcium, the brix levels in the pasture were low and the line on the refractometer looked like that created by a freshly sharpened pencil (a classic indicator of low plant calcium). The sap pH was acidic due to a lack of calcium, so the plants were less resilient. The penetrometer revealed poor flocculation and the livestock looked calcium deficient. The herd manager also spoke of problems with milk fever. The pH issue was a minor consideration in relation to these other factors.
- The final insult to the revolutionary research of Dr William Albrecht is a complete misunderstanding of how to work out CEC or milli-equivalent figures based on soil test data. I have seen attempts where both calcium base saturation and magnesium base saturation are determined to be low, and yet the soil pH is between 6.5 and 7.0. This is simply not possible, as these are the two main minerals that determine soil pH. Unless there were massive amounts of sodium and potassium present (which was not the case) it is impossible to have a high pH in the absence of these two minerals. If you are conducting research based on the wrong starting figures, you are hardly likely to see good results.
As you are aware, we are working with a team of agronomists in over 45 countries. We continue to expand our influence and achieve impressive results, and cation balancing is an integral part of our strategy. How could we still be forging forward, if our entire approach was based on a faulty premise? There are thousands of agronomists working with these concepts around the globe and I have never met anyone who has understood the system and worked with the principles, and abandoned them because they did not work. This can not be said of the conventional chemical approach, because scientists are recognising its unsustainability and abandoning this extractive nonsense in their droves.
I am hoping that you will be similarly enthusiastic and equally dismissive of the detractors once you have worked with these principles as part of our Nutrition Farming® approach.
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