If you don't regularly work in the dirt, be it for gardening, lawncare, or as a farmer, you probably don't give much thought to soil acidity.

Science class refresher

If it's been a while since middle or high school science class, here's the basics.


The acidity or alkalinity of a substance is measured on what is called the pH scale.  The scale goes from zero to fourteen.  Seven, in the middle of the scale, is neutral, and is usually equated to water that is safe to drink.  Anything with a pH lower than seven is acidic, anything higher is alkaline or basic.

More information is available from the US Geologic Service here.

What does this have to do with anything?

Soil acidity is a problem for anyone that grows plants or crops.  It can be caused by prolonged use of nitrogen-based fertilizers year after year in the same area and not resting the land sufficiently to allow the soil to recover naturally.

If the pH of a given piece of land reaches 5.5, issues begin to become visible, such as poor root development or stunted growth.

Researchers from MSU's Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences are working on the issue.  One thing they are taking a look at is the current testing processes.  The current method is to take samples from one or more fields, analyze them, and combine the results to produce an average value of acidity.

The researchers point out two issues with this.  One is that a patch of acidic soil can be surrounded by otherwise normal soil, so if the sample doesn't come from the acidic spot, it won't show up in the tests.

The other issue is with creating the average acidity measurement.  A sample of acidic soil could be balanced out by multiple samples of normal soil, hiding the problem.

What can be done?

Obviously, the researchers want to find solutions.

One thing they're looking at is using drones to inspect fields.  It turns out that drones can be used to rate normalized difference vegetation index or NDVI, or more simply, how green a particular field is.  Yes, they can look a field of growing crops and judge if they are too green or not green enough for how long they've been growing.

The researchers also want to investigate different crop rotations to see if the acidity can be managed that way.  Perhaps adding a crop to the rotation can have an impact.

I don't need to tell you that ag is important to Montana.  I hope to have more to report on this as the research progresses.

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