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Soil Balancing: Does It Work?

By   /  June 23, 2014  /  20 Comments

Soil balancing, or BCSR, and William Albrecht have a big following, and you’d think that that many people couldn’t be wrong. But it turns out, this theory just doesn’t hold up and is costing folks time and money they could better use elsewhere.

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The concept of “ideal” soil and soil balancing seems to have started with Oscar Loew
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About the author

Author and editor emeritus

Rachel's interest in sustainable agriculture and grazing has deep roots in the soil. She's been following that passion around the world, working on an ancient Nabatean farm in the Negev, and with farmers in West Africa's Niger. After returning to the US, Rachel received her M.S. and Ph.D. in agronomy and soil science from the University of Maryland. For her doctoral research, Rachel spent 3 years working with Maryland dairy farmers using management intensive grazing. She then began her work with grass farmers, a source of joy and a journey of discovery.


  1. Having invested some time, but not yet any money, investigating soil balancing and being interested in but not committed to the concept I was very interested in this article.

    What the author is presenting may be valid but I found her presentation off putting. Whatever one concludes about Albrecht’s hypothesis that came from a life time of research, the dismissive tone, in essence comparing him to a scientist who concludes a legless frog can’t jump because it’s deaf and characterizing the concept as ‘cute’ because a study didn’t show an increase in yield, makes me less open to the authors arguments.

    Through out my fairly long life I have seen numerous reports of studies that proved or disproved something that latter either turned out not to show what was claimed, or had to be reversed because of flaws in methodology. This has especially been the case in studying living systems where in attempting to limit variables, vital factors are sometimes removed from the phenomena being studied. It would be very helpful if references were provided so the reader could make his/her own judgement about what a study did or didn’t show and how that conclusion was reached rather than depending on another article that in effects says ‘studies have shown (just take our word on it)’.

    On a related note. It seems that the studies cited were looking at yield. Were other factors such as nutrient profile of the crops considered in any of these studies? It strikes me that that was a key question in Albrecht’s work.

    Again, I am not saying that the author’s conclusions are necessarily wrong and I am glad that you are willing to take on controversial questions, for example the critique of some of Temple Grandin’s ideas and key line plowing; I only ask that enough references be provided so one can reach one’s own conclusion and that the material be presented as an open forthright attempt to exchange ideas in an attempt to discern the truth rather than dismissing the other side of the argument out of hand.

  2. Greg Lobel says:

    Getting rid of the toxic elements in soil is a top priority. Even that has become a form of mad science in itself. When you add pH issues and other conditions, the myriad of opinions becomes dizzying.

  3. Chip Hines says:

    There is way too much fussing about what is perfect soil from man’s perspective and not enough concentration how to bring it back naturally, and that is cover crops grazed by cattle. This is the recognized method based on the same recognition that the wild animal herds built soil fertility on grasslands.

    The proper covers and grazing management will build SOM and everything will begin to fall in place. What the balance is then in the soil should be close to right. The thing to concentrate on is the proper management above ground. If that is done it is not necessary to quibble over differences of philosophy. Nature laid it out. Follow her lead.
    Chip Hines

  4. Doug says:

    What does fullness of the cow, her body condition, her manure appearance, the plants she selects , and her frequency of visitation to the mineral feeder tell you she needs?

    What does the visual health score of soil core in the fence row vs the pasture tell you the soil needs?

    Cation addition may or not play a role depending on soil parent material and/or past management.

    Arguing the science of cations is trivial compared to merit of visual evaluation.

    What many may fail to grasp is that an initial enhanced soil fertility program can be maintained for decades of profit in a pastoral system under well managed grazing….yielding more rapid plant recovery once that fertility stabilzes in soil. Failure to fully supplement a nutrient deficiency can result in poor economics if plant recovery is too slow or hinders plant diversity.

    The cow is the best land management tool available but her form is not to function in all ecosystems. Plants on the other hand are more widely applicable in land management, but rooting potential must be realized to preclude excess nutrient loss. In short, cation issues may be inherent or man made via management.

    The main problem we have is that few undisturbed soils several hundred years old now remain…that makes it difficult to access true soil potential, true soil fertility, and true vegetation character and animal performance on such.

    If you read all of Albrecht….beyond cations….then you will realize he knew more about SOM and animal health/performance than modern pundits purport. Reread all of Albrect….consider what you are reading is a lifetime of research condensed into a few writings…by default some necessary detail was omitted….then begin to read between the lines for bits and pieces and associations applicable to your operation. A few Albrecht students are still practicing agronomy….take the time to become friends with one for your personal knowledge gain.

    Shouldn’t cow access to diverse plants growing on fertile soils negate need for cation/element supplementation?…yes IMO. I can say one thing as fact…the cow knows more about her daily needs than most lifetime research will reveal. Science is nice to try and explain nuances of production but try to spend more time watching the cow…life will be less complex and knowledge gained invaluable…regardless if the underlying details are known!

    One comment about frogs…here…leopard frog often are found in pastures with healthy populations of black cricket which are known weed seed predators. Science linking members of the soil food web….is….quite interesting! We like to see frogs in pasture!

  5. Contrary to Chuck’s opinion, biology is not everything, though it is a contributor.

    Trying to “fix” the biology without changing other management practices is an exercise in futility. Soil is a complex and interdependent ecosystem comprised of abiotic and biotic factors.

    Factors other than agricultural practices control most soil biological processes. The aerobic soil organisms found in “healthy” soils have basic needs: oxygen, water, an energy source (food), and shelter (an undisturbed place in which to exist). Statements such as “biology is everything” make assumptions about the limiting factors that are not true in many situations.

    Some research has suggested the main response to nitrogen fertilizer is due to a reduction in soil organic matter that decreased the size of the nitrogen pool in the soil available to cycle. Increasing organic matter levels in these soils will improve certain soil functions.

    Tillage decreases soil organic matter levels, and subsequently affects structural stability, erosion susceptibility, plant water availability, water movement through soil, and earthworm populations, among other things. Stopping or reducing tillage begins to reverse these trends.

    “Fixing” the biology by adding plant residues through cover crops or green manures only works if food is the limiting factor to soil biological activity.

    Adding microbial inoculants is generally unncessary. Organism diversity and abundance are seldom the problem. Typically food, water, or shelter are much more limiting. If food or water are limiting, the organisms will die soon after application.

    In semiarid and arid regions, water, and not food, is the limiting factor to organism activity (biology). In no-till production, wheat, corn, and sorghum residues may persist on the soil surface with little decomposition for 2 to 3 years because there is not enough precipitation to allow biological activity on the soil surface to decompose plant residues. Biological activity in such soils occurs in short bursts when soil water is available.

    Reduced tillage, especially no-till, decreases the decomposition of organic matter, and decreases the disturbance to “shelter”. This reduces the disturbance to earthworm channels, and decreases the destruction of aggregates, leaving organisms less exposed to ambient environmental conditions. More food is available for biological organisms. But “fixing” the soil [micro]biology was not responsible for soil structure improvement; reduced tillage and plant roots were. The biology followed, and nutrient availability will follow as soil organic matter increases.

    Enhancing soil biology will not “fix” saline or sodic soils, as the organisms cannot remove salts or sodium from the soil. In fact, when soil salinity levels are high enough, only halophytes can survive; other organisms die. Soil pH determines which microbes will be more abundant and active; organisms have little effect on soil pH.

    So, when considering how to “fix” a soil, begin by considering which factors most limit soil function.

    • We’ll have to agree to disagree Clay.
      I knew that statement would get sticky with the chemistry folks.

      Every soil property is affected by soil biology and soil organic matter, even those considered “inherent” such as texture.
      Soil biology is absolutely responsible for soil structure. Reducing tillage and adding plant roots is doing what? – you guessed it, nurturing soil biology through habitat enhancement and root exudates that feed that biology which in turn produce massive amounts of biofilm and biomass which enhance structure. Structure is mainly a function of the “active” carbon fraction of SOM and can come or go very quickly depending on management practices.

      In a row cropping system where your residues are hanging around too long I would suggest a high legume and/or brassica component in your cover crop mix. It’s not moisture, per se, that is the limiting factor. It’s likely the lack of soil cover and high nitrogen microbial “food” (Why would anyone practice no-till but not plant cover crops?)

      Adding inoculants speeds up the process. Of course you don’t have to add them. They will come in time but the slow process will test your patience.

      We make things too hard on ourselves. Working with nature is far easier than thinking we can subdivide it, compartmentalize it, and then add the “missing” ingredient. This approach can and obviously does work in degraded soils but at what cost the original, natural carbon & mineralization cycles not to mention our wallets when we pay for those inputs that are already in the soil and potentially available through a healthy biological food web.

      While I would agree that you cant “fix” a saline soil simply by adding biology you definitely can make it better by incorporating high carbon material (straw) and animals over time. Maybe not so much for crops, but certainly for a range/pasture situation. Usually extreme saline/sodic soils have an unlimited source of those salts. It is what it is in that case. If you want it to support something other than halophytes your going to have to manage it accordingly (high animal impact and organic matter inputs). Organic matter can bind salts. But if the incoming salt stream is too high there not a lot you can do about it even with tons of inputs.

      • Chuck,
        I agree with you in general, but disagree on the sequence and goal.
        Additionally, there are three points that should be clarified.

        Soil texture is the relative proportion of sand, silt, and clay, by definition. Biology has no influence on soil texture, it merely interacts with it to enhance or develop structure.

        Cover crops and other practices that enhance soil biology are impotent (in some regions), if tillage continues. Soil structure will not recover in those areas as long as tillage continues, no matter what happens with biological activity.

        On cover and why practice no-till without planting cover crops:
        In the western Great Plains and the Southern High Plains, precipitation is less than 20 inches per year. Lake evaporation may be 80 to 100 inches per year. When converted to evapotranspiration, the plants want 4 to 5 times as much water as they receive in precipitation. It is not possible to grow an annual crop on growing-season precipitation alone. Fallow is practiced to increase soil water storage because it is possible to grow a crop on growing season precipitation plus stored soil water.
        No-till in these climates increases soil water storage. It is in no-till in these regions that soil cover may be 70 to 100%, while the residues remain on the surface without decomposing for 2 to 3 years.
        Water (moisture) IS the limiting factor. People in this region are not having favorable results with cover crops.

        If you are interested, the American Society of Agronomy is having a webinar series on Cover Crops in the Western Great Plains next month, noon to 1 p.m., July 16, 23, 30. Each webinar will feature a researcher and a producer from the region to talk about principles and application. Registration details are available here: https://www.agronomy.org/education/online-courses/covercrops2.

        • Clay, yes, we see things a bit differently.

          I worked in a soil testing lab for 5 years much of which focused on PSA (Particle size analysis). I know what “lab” texture or particle size is. Real “field” texture, with iron oxides, carbonates, and… organic matter, most certainly can be modified by soil biology. It may be a matter of semantics when you consider the lab vs. real life. But I’m thinking that’s what this article is reflecting on. Real life vs. what we’ve been indoctrinated with from laboratory study for decades – focused on system of inputs that is/was dependent on cheap energy and, as a by-product, it became highly vulnerable to environmental hazards & changes.

          Regarding covers, I understand in dryland farming in the really dry areas of the south and southwest it’s really tough to make that work. But there are some in eastern CO and western KS that are making it work. Maybe those really dry areas that can’t be irrigated would be better suited to holistic planned grazing (range/pasture) rather than row crops & grain. Just a thought.

          • Chuck,
            There was an journal article from the 80s that addressed true vs. natural texture, given that pre-treatments remove organic matter and carbonates prior to particle size analysis for texture determinations.
            My argument is biology affects the behavior of those particles in forming and altering structure.
            There are also producers and researchers in those same areas of Colorado and Kansas that are trying to make it work without success.
            I talked with a Colorado farmer this week that told me he has greater wind erosion problems after his “cover” crop because it produces less residue than wheat, and the residue is more fragile and decomposes more quickly.
            Farmers that have not gone to no-till production lose much water to evaporation during the fallow period, and are finding benefits to cover crops, as the cover crops use the water that would otherwise be lost.
            I agree that the most ecologically-friendly agricultural systems in those regions of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Kansas, and Wyoming are integrated crop-livestock systems. Those systems are not as economically lucrative, but will become more common as irrigation water becomes more limiting.

          • Chip Hines says:

            Contrary to the discussion, there are success stories from Eastern Colorado and western Kansas using cover crops. It will take time to figure out what went wrong and what worked. Do not automatically write off cover crops in our arid areas. Now to upset more people. Some of the best work in cover crops has come from farmers and ranchers, not research stations. Or from Ag scientists. This concept has been proven with pasture and range grazing management.

  6. G Timmons says:

    The soil balancing folks will say the general prescription loses its applicability with higher or lower CEC soils. If nothing else, I like it because it is an alternative to narrow, conventional methods- and we can always use more of those. In general, I think it also leads to more learning about soil/plant function and micronutrients.

    Putting blinders on and following one methodology is a sure way to get into trouble, be it soil balancing, NPK, whatever. Same thing with picking sides and reading anything “scientific” without a healthy dose of skepticism- it’s all biased.

    Thanks for the article and follow-up comments. I got something from all of it, and it’s strengthened my resolve to keep an open mind and learn from everyone. At least we can all agree organic matter and soil biology fix everything. Well, I guess there are people that might disagree with that too! “Do the best you can, and don’t take life to serious.”

  7. Paul Nehring says:

    I am not a believer in the soil balancing theory, as I have seen many soils that produce good yields aren’t even close to ideal ratio, as well as seen soils at the ideal ratio not producing good yields. However, I do believe that added calcium and sometimes magnesium to soils can make a difference in yield and forage quality in some situations, even when pH is adequate, and there is a study that I mention below that suggests the same thing.

    First, though, Univ. of Wisc. research trials showed that varying the ratios made no difference in forage yield. Yet, I knew both of the two researchers and they were both vehemently against soil balancing or the idea that soils that had adequate pH might benefit from added calcium or magnesium. Was there bias in their research? Maybe, maybe not.

    One study these same researchers did using Midwestern Bio-Ag’s products–a company that is a proponent of soil-balancing–was so fraught with errors that they could not get it published, yet they presented it at the annual WI conference held for agronomists, which I attended. Even my local extension agent, who was no fan of Midwestern Bio-Ag, or of soil balancing, was embarrassed by the poor quality of the study. The only thing they managed to demonstrate was how a biased group of researchers could alter the outcome of any study.

    Again, I would suggest that some soils seem to benefit from applications of calcium and magnesium even when the soil tests suggest that there are sufficient amounts. The local technical college teachers who work with farmers, both of whom have over 30 years of experience, are now big believers, because so many farmers have showed them improvements in forage quality when they used applications of calcium, even when pH was sufficient.

    Also, not all research or researchers would agree with your opinion…and lets not forget that accepted beliefs, even those of scientists, are still merely opinions. When we state that “Science says” it just means that most scientists are of the opinion about something, not that it 100% correct. Scientific research has it’s value in that when it is properly done it can help keep us from fooling ourselves with our observations, most of the time. As an example, almost the whole scientific community fooled themselves for decades about the role of saturated fat in our diets, and are now, finally, reversing their opinions.

    With all that said, what is your opinion of Cindy Daley’s research on UC Chico’s Organic Dairy Farm, which showed both increased yield and improved forage quality when soils, with 6.6 pH, were amended with Gypsum, Hi-Cal lime, and micronutrients. The cost of the treatment was relatively high, but it payed off with the improved yield and quality.

  8. I’ll just add my 2 pennies worth (opinion, take or leave it).

    Excellent article and good food for thought again.

    I think you’re on the right track but you’re still promoting a “chemistry set” approach (or NRCS is) using salts( gypsum & lime), which work against what should be our real target regarding “healthy soils”…

    Soil biology is everything, period. Soil organic matter (SOM) is the universal buffer (pH, nutrients, moisture, etc.). Plants do “know” what nutrients they need and they work with the soil biology (if it’s present and thriving) to get those nutrients. Trying not to be absolute, virtually all soils already have the mineral nutrients needed for plant growth. What most agricultural soils are missing is the soil biology to make those nutrients available. The dominant element in most mineral soils is Silicon. But in many ag soils there is a positive growth response when we add silica. What’s this telling us? Do we really another expensive input when that mineral is already there (albeit an unavailable form)? How do we make it available? Yup, soil biology, specifically fungi.

    When we are sick from a “bug” is it because we are missing an anti-biotic? No. It’s because the environment in our body is more beneficial to pathogens than it is to beneficial organisms. It’s the same principle in soil. (Who’d a thunk it?) We need to stop killing the beneficial soil biology and make that environment more hospitable for the “good guys”.

    Having said that, in extreme situations of salinity or acidity, gypsum or lime can help jump start that system back towards a healthy biology but you have to focus on getting the biology back. Otherwise what’s the point? (Unless you like spending money on inputs year after year.)

    Extreme situations are the only time this NRCS soil scientist would recommend gypsum or lime. Otherwise, judicious use of cover/companion crops, composting, mulching (with cover crops or otherwise) and inoculation by compost teas or extracts depending on how scalable (practical) these are to your operation. The same principles apply to cropland, pasture, & rangeland. Holistic management/planned grazing focused on plant recovery, increasing soil cover, and plant diversity accomplishes the same thing.

  9. As a former soils professor who taught soil fertility, the perspective Rachel provides is based in real science, not on agribusiness data.
    Soil pH affects nutrient availability by potentially altering microbial activity and nutrient solubility.
    The BCSR method has been widely used in humid regions, but only addresses basic cations. Increasing the calcium concentration in a neutral pH soil actually could decrease phosphorus availability as the calcium may form insoluble calcium phosphates.
    The BCSR does not address acidic cations, which include all the micronutrient metals: iron, manganese, copper, and zinc. Increasing the concentration of basic cations present in the soil solution decreases the fraction of the micronutrient cations and may decrease their availability to the plant. The availability of micronutrient metals decreases as pH increases above 6.0.
    In drier regions where the calcium concentrations are very high, the BCSR could result in excessive and expensive applications of potassium and magnesium with no yield response because the concentration of those nutrients in the soil and soil solution is sufficient to meet plant requirements.
    Adding lime to acidic soils is not about balancing cations, but about lowering the activity of hydrogen ions in the soil solution. Magnesium (in dolomitic limestone) is more effective than calcium (ag lime) in raising soil pH. Raising the soil pH reduces toxicities (when pH < 5.5) and improves the availability of the basic cations, generally by increasing the concentration in the soil and soil solution. Basic cations are generally the first to be leached from soils in humid regions, leading to the development of acidic soils.
    If Brent is observing positive benefits from using a BCSR approach, soil tests likely will show that one or more of the nutrients is deficient. Adding that nutrient results in an increase in plant productivity. He likely could realize the same benefit using the SLAN recommendation.
    Perhaps some producers need not worry about the economics of production, but if SLAN resulted in equal or better yields with fewer fertilizer inputs, the farm just became more profitable.

  10. Chip Hines says:

    Interesting article, along with the discussion from both sides. I am not a farmer, but with cattle research I have seen research lead of on a false tangent. It is a waste to try doing everything perfectly if production is not increasing but costs are. Net profit will tell you which direction is best.

  11. Brent Wills says:

    You lambaste balancing soil cations in one sentence then go on to herald the importance of soil acidity and liming, which is nothing more than balancing soil cations. As a soils consultant (and farmer) who uses many tools available to me to assist my clients, I have found that balancing soils proves to be far more beneficial to my clients than any advice they have gotten from agribusiness, extension or NRCS personnel, Ray Archuleta excluded. I read this blog for the unbiased opinion previously provided. Please keep it factual and not based on agribusiness data. Remember, test plots are not actual farms and should not be regarded as such.

    • Rachel Gilker says:

      Brent, thanks for your perspective and the chance to discuss this some more. The difficulty with the concept of balancing soil is that the idea of reaching a certain cation ratio is seen as more important than the idea of sufficient nutrients or pH. Yes, pH is based on the ratio of H+ and OH- ions, but it is not based on the ratio of calcium to magnesium to potassium ions, the fundamental concept behind balancing soil.
      In a soil with a very low CEC, having cations at the so-called ideal ratio might not address the fact that there still may be insufficient supplies of certain nutrients. Meanwhile, in soils with higher amounts of magnesium and potassium than the ratio would call for, a farmer may supplement with additional, and unnecessary, calcium to reach the target ratio. The lack of sufficient sources of fertility in the former and the expenditure on unneeded amendments in the latter are both causes for concern. To achieve healthy soil, we suggest working toward sufficient nutrients and the target pH, usually between 6.0-7.0. This is usually possible through judicious use of amendments and practices that promote organic matter accumulation.
      We thank you for reading, and for your appreciation of what we strive to deliver. In no way are we basing our writing on anything other than scientifically valid research. Test plots, I agree, are not farms, and the information coming from research needs to be adjusted to the real world. We make every effort to do that without bias, but with honesty and clear eyes and minds.

      • Edmund Brown says:

        Albrecht was big on animal feeding trials to demonstrate a soil’s fertility and health promoting properties.

        I suspect few of the studies that show the SLAN approach are financially superior fed animals on the produce, but I hope I’m incorrect about that. Can you point me to some that do?


      • Brian A. Kaczor says:


        You stated: “We make every effort to do that without bias, but with honesty and clear eyes and minds.”

        But in the article you state: “Soil balancing does not increase microbial activity, because, as researchers found, almost all soil organisms subsist on organic matter, not the minerals being balanced as part of BCSR.”

        But when you look at the other point of view you state: “The proper pH is well-known for improving microbial activity, soil structure, nitrogen fixation, and forage palatability.”

        Sorry, but bio activity is dependent on organic matter as an energy source and also the right pH that has been stated in the last statement, but the presence of minerals will encourage different biological organism so that a proper nutrient balance is also needed and will also result in benefits like when you balance pH.

        There is many sources of calcium to balance a soil. If pH is low you work with calcium carbonate, if pH is high you work with calcium sulphate, if phosphorus is low and you are concerned with it being tied up by calcium, then you use calcium phosphate which releases the phosphate as the calcium comes into solution. If the scientist are not well educated in balancing soil chemistry, they most likely used the wrong form that would cause damage by bringong other parts out of balance.

        Results are not good if you do not know that they used the proper procedures.

        There is also the caveat that the greatest benefit comes from the first pound and not the last one. If one system applies the minimum, they are viewed as profitable short term. BCSR is looking at balancing, which will take higher numbers at first, but afterwards, it should stay balanced unless there is is greater forces that does not allow you to maintain balance. If balance cannot be maintained with minimum inputs, than I suggest supplying minimum to get your crop and not worry about balancing. Sell your ground and get new ground that is easier to balance and you will not tie yourself to fertilizer dependency.

        • Kathy Voth says:

          Hi Brian,

          Rachel is away from her computer this week so she can’t respond. There might be other members of the Community who have thoughts on this in the meantime.

          Thanks for writing!


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