Electrical Conductivity of Soil as a Predictor of Plant Response
Plants require nutrients to grow, and if we fail to supply the proper nutrients in the proper concentrations, plant function is affected. Fertilizer in too high concentration can also affect plant function, and sometimes is fatal.
Most of us have had the experience of fertilizing some part of a lawn too heavily, perhaps by accident, and killing grass in that part of the lawn. Generally, it isn’t the nutrients themselves that cause the damage, it is their effect on the water. Salt in the water reduces its water potential making it less available to the plant. The salt therefore causes water stress in the plant.
Salt in soil comes from the fertilizer we apply, but also from irrigation water and dissolving soil minerals. Relatively small amounts are removed with the plants that are harvested, but most leaches with the water out of the bottom of the soil profile. When water evaporates at the soil surface, or from leaves, it is pure, containing no salt, so evapotranspiration concentrates the salts in the soil. If more salt is applied in the irrigation water than is leached or taken off in harvested plants, the soil becomes more saline and eventually will cease to support agricultural production. Thousands of acres have been lost from production in this way, and production has been drastically reduced on tens of thousands of additional acres.
Soil Salinity and Electrical Conductivity
Soil salinity has been measured using electrical conductivity for more than 100 years. It is common knowledge that salty water conducts electricity. Whitney and Means (1897) made use of that fact to measure the concentration of salt in soil. Early methods made measurements directly on a soil paste, but the influence of the soil in the paste on the measurement was not fully understood until recently, leading to uncertainty in the measurements. By about 1940 the accepted method for determining soil salinity was to make a saturated paste by a specified procedure, extract solution from the paste, and measure the electrical conductivity of the solution (Richards, 1954). The measurement is referred to as the electrical conductivity of the saturation extract. These values were then correlated with crop response.
Richards (1954) defined 4 soil salinity classes, as shown in Table 1. Crops suitable for these classes are also listed by Richards, but a much more extensive list is given by Rhoades and Lovejoy (1990). For example, bean is listed as a sensitive crop. It can only be grown without yield damage in soils with EC below 2 dS/m. Barley is a tolerant crop. It can be grown without much yield reduction in any soil up to EC of 16 dS/m.
Two other columns are shown in the table. The “salt in soil” column shows how much salt is required to salinize a soil. In terms of the total soil mass, only a small percentage change is needed to make a big difference in salinity, but this would still represent a large addition of fertilizer. A 200 kg/ha addition of fertilizer would represent a fairly high rate. If this were incorporated into the top 15 cm of soil, it would represent
This wouldn’t cause much change in soil salt percentage.
The other column shows osmotic potential of the saturation extract. To give some reference for this number, remember that the nominal permanent wilt water potential of soil is -1500 kPa. Osmotic potentials of plant leaves vary widely depending on species, but -1500 kPa is a kind of median value. The values in the table may seem small compared to the permanent wilt (PW) value, but remember that these are values at saturation. When a soil is saturated, water quickly drains to a “drained upper limit” (UL) water content which is around half the saturation value. The useful water storage of the soil is between the UL and the PW or lower limit water content, which, again, is about half the UL. The concentration of salts at the UL is about the same as at saturation because the water drained away, but the water loss between the UL and PW is typically by evapotranspiration, so little or no salts are lost. The concentration at the lower limit is therefore twice that shown in Table 1, which is significant compared to the permanent wilt water potential. Likewise the osmotic potential of the soil solution after fertilizing with 200 kg/ka and mixing wouldn’t change much, but the same amount of fertilizer concentrated in a band near seed would have a much larger effect.
Understand EC sensor readings
Understanding the difference between electrical conductivity readings in water and in soil can help you make better use of your EC readings. Watch the video to answer questions such as “Why does water that’s 1.9 dS/m not read 1.9 dS/m when it’s in the soil?
Watch the webinar: “Using electrical conductivity measurements to optimize irrigation”—>
Next Week: Read part 2 of Electrical Conductivity as a Predictor of Soil Response.
Take our Soil Moisture Master Class
Six short videos teach you everything you need to know about soil water content and soil water potential—and why you should measure them together. Plus, master the basics of soil hydraulic conductivity.