Cation Exchange Capacity

CEC, as reported by nearly all soil testing laboratories, is a calculated value that is an estimate of the soils ability to attract, retain, and exchange cation elements. It is reported in millequivalents per 100 grams of soil (meq/100g).

In order for a plant to absorb nutrients, the nutrients must be dissolved. When nutrients are dissolved, they are in a form called “ions”. This simply means that they have electrical charges. As an example table salt is sodium chloride (NaCl), when it dissolves it becomes two ions; one of sodium (Na+) and one of chloride (Cl-). The small + and – signs with the Na and the Cl indicate the type of electrical charges associated with these ions. In this example, the sodium has a plus charge and is called a “cation”. The chloride has a negative charge is called an “anion”. Since, in soil chemistry “opposites attract” and “likes repel”, nutrients in the ionic form can be attracted to any opposite charges present in soil.

Soil is made up of many components. A significant percentage of most soil is clay. Organic matter, while a small percentage of most soil is also important for several reasons. Both of these soil fractions have a large number of negative charges on their surface, thus they attract cation elements and contribute to a higher CEC. At the same time, they also repel anion nutrients (“like” charges).

Some important elements with a positive electrical charge in their plant-available form include potassium (K+), ammonium (NH4+), magnesium ( Mg++), calcium (Ca++), zinc (Zn+), manganese (Mn++), iron (Fe++), copper (Cu+) and hydrogen (H+). While hydrogen is not a nutrient, it affects the degree of acidity (pH) of the soil, so it is also important. Some other nutrients have a negative electrical charge in their plant-available form. These are called anions and include nitrate (NO3-), phosphate (H2PO4- and HPO4–), sulfate (SO4-), borate (BO3-), and molybdate (MoO4–). Phosphates are unique among the negatively charged anions, in that they are not mobile in the soil. This is because they are highly reactive, and nearly all of them will combine with other elements or compounds in the soil, other than clay and organic matter. The resulting compounds are not soluble, thus they precipitate out of soil solution. In this state, they are unavailable to plants, and form the phosphorus “reserve” in the soil.


Larger CEC values indicate that a soil has a greater capacity to hold cations. Therefore, it requires higher rates of fertilizer or lime to change a high CEC soil. When a high CEC soil has good test levels, it offers a large nutrient reserve. However, when it is poor, it can take a large amount of fertilizer or lime to correct that soil test. A high CEC soil requires a higher soil cation level, or soil test, to provide adequate crop nutrition. Low CEC soils hold fewer nutrients, and will likely be subject to leaching of mobile “anion” nutrients. These soils may benefit from split applications of several nutrients. The particular CEC of a soil is neither good nor bad, but knowing it is a valuable management tool.

Soil pH and Buffer pH

Soil pH: This is a measure of the soil acidity or alkalinity and is sometimes called the soil “water” pH. This is because it is a measure of the pH of the soil solution, which is considered the active pH that affects plant growth. Soil pH is the foundation of essentially all soil chemistry and nutrient reaction and should be the first consideration when evaluating a soil test. The total range of the pH scale is from 0 to 14. Values below the mid-point (pH 7.0) are acidic and those above pH 7.0 are alkaline. A soil pH of 7.0 is considered to be neutral. Most plants perform best in a soil that is slightly acid to neutral (pH 6.0 to 7.0). Some plants like blueberries require the soil to be more acid (pH 4.5 to 5.5), and others, like alfalfa will tolerate a slightly alkaline soil (pH 7.0-7.5).

The soil pH scale is logarithmic, meaning that each whole number is a factor of 10 larger or smaller than the ones next to it. For example if a soil has a pH of 6.5 and this pH is lowered to pH 5.5, the acid content of that soil is increased 10-fold. If the pH is lowered further to pH 4.5, the acid content becomes 100 times greater than at pH 6.5. The logarithmic nature of the pH scale means that small changes in a soil pH can have large effects on nutrient availability and plant growth.

Buffer pH (BpH): This is a value that is generated in the laboratory, it is not an existing feature of the soil. Laboratories perform this test in order to develop lime recommendations, and it actually has no other practical value. There is no “GOOD” nor “BAD” buffer pH.

In basic terms, the BpH is the resulting sample pH after the laboratory has added a liming material. In this test, the laboratory adds a chemical mixture called a buffering solution. This solution functions like extremely fast-acting lime. Each soil sample receives the same amount of buffering solution; therefore the resulting pH is different for each sample. To determine a lime recommendation, the laboratory looks at the difference between the original soil pH and the ending pH after the buffering solution has reacted with the soil. If the difference between the two pH measurements is large, it means that the soil pH is easily changed, and a low rate of lime will suffice. If the soil pH changes only a little after the buffering solution has reacted, it means that the soil pH is difficult to change and a larger lime addition is needed to reach the desired pH for the crop.

The reasons that a soil may require differing amounts of lime to change the soil pH relates to the soil CEC and the “reserve” acidity that is contained by the soil. Soil acidity is controlled by the amount of hydrogen (H+) and aluminum (Al+++) that is either contained in, or generated by the soil and soil components. Soils with a high CEC have a greater capacity to contain or generate these sources of acidity. Therefore, at a given soil pH, a soil with a higher CEC (thus a lower buffer pH) will normally require more lime to reach a given target pH than a soil with a lower CEC.

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