If you surface apply nitrogen, then surface apply the lime. That’s a simple but effective rule. But remember that surface-applied lime will likely only neutralize the acidity in the top 2-3 inches of soil. So if a producer hasn’t limed for 20 years of continuous no-till and has applied 100 to 150 pounds of nitrogen per year, there will probably be a 4-5 inch thick acid zone, and the bottom half of that zone may not be neutralized from surface-applied lime. So, if a producer is only able to neutralize the top 3 inches of a 5-inch deep surface zone of acid soil, would that suggest he needs to incorporate lime? Not really. Research has shown that as long as the surface is in an appropriate range and the remainder of the acid soil is above pH 5, crops will do fine.
Liming benefits crop production in large part by reducing toxic aluminum, supplying calcium and magnesium, and enhancing the activity of some herbicides. Aluminum toxicity doesn’t occur until the soil pH is normally below about 5.2 to 5.5 and KCl-extractable (free aluminum) levels are greater than 25 parts per million (ppm). At that pH the Al in soil solution begins to increase dramatically as pH declines further. Aluminum is toxic to plant roots, and at worse the roots would not grow well in the remaining acid zone.
This implies that the acid zones from ammonia or banded UAN are probably not a major problem. We have monitored ammonia bands in the row middles of long-term no-till for many years and while the pH dropped very low, we never saw any adverse impacts on the crop that would justify liming and using tillage to incorporate the lime. In fact, some nutrients such as zinc, manganese, and iron can become more available at low pH, which can be an advantage at times.
Yield enhancement is not the only concern with low-pH soils, however. Herbicide effectiveness must also be considered. The most commonly used soil-applied herbicide impacted by pH is atrazine. As pH goes down, activity and performance goes down. So in acidic soils, weed control may be impacted. We do see that happen in corn and sorghum production. Applying N fertilizer to soil will cause the soil to become acidic over time. Make sure your soil testing program is focused on the area in the soil becoming acidic, and apply the lime accordingly.
By: Ryan Flaming, Harvey County Extension Agent, Agriculture and Natural Resources