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Agronomy Fact Sheet Series Fact Sheet 22

Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC)


Cations are positively charged ions such as isomorphous substitution, and the result is
calcium (Ca2+), magnesium (Mg2+), and clays with negative surface charge.
potassium (K+), sodium (Na+) hydrogen (H+), Since the soil as a whole does not have
aluminum (Al3+), iron (Fe2+), manganese electric charge, the negative charge of the clay
(Mn2+), zinc (Zn2+) and copper (Cu2+). The particles is balanced by the positive charge of
capacity of the soil to hold on to these cations the cations in the soil. The negative charges
called the cation exchange capacity (CEC). associated with isomorphous substitution are
These cations are held by the negatively considered permanent, that is, the charges do
charged clay and organic matter particles in not change with pH changes.
the soil through electrostatic forces (negative
soil particles attract the positive cations). The
cations on the CEC of the soil particles are
easily exchangeable with other cations and as
a result, they are plant available. Thus, the Mineral Soil Particles
CEC of a soil represents the total amount of Sand Clay
exchangeable cations that the soil can adsorb.
The cations used by plants in the largest Si2O4 SiAlO4-
amounts are calcium, magnesium, and
potassium. In most soils within humid regions
such as in New York, sodium is not present in No charge. Negative charge.
sufficient quantities to occupy a significant Does not retain Attracts and retains
amount of the CEC. However, in dry climates, cations. cations.
sodium can occupy an important portion of the
CEC. Other cations that can occupy cation Figure 1: Substitution of silica by aluminum in soil clay
particles causes clays to have a negative charge. Because
exchange sites in New York soils are hydrogen,
of this negative charge, the soil can hold on to positively
aluminum, iron and manganese. Cations such charged cations such as calcium (Ca2+), magnesium (Mg2+)
as zinc and copper are typically present in the and potassium (K+).
soil in too low a concentration to occupy much
of the CEC.
Organic matter can have a 4 to 50 times
Why do soils have a CEC? higher CEC per given weight than clay. The
Soils have a CEC primarily because clay source of negative charge in organic matter is
particles and organic matter in the soil tends different from that of clay minerals; the
to be negatively charged. New York soils have dissociation (separation into smaller units) of
silicate clay minerals (clay minerals that organic acids causes a net negative charge in
contain silica). Each silicate clay particle is soil organic matter, and again this negative
made up of individual layers or “sheets”. If the charge is balanced by cations in the soil.
mineral was pure silica and oxygen (silica- Because organic acid dissociation depends on
oxide more commonly referred to as quartz), the soil pH, the CEC associated with soil
the particle would not have any charge. organic matter is called pH-dependent CEC.
However, clay minerals common in New York This means that the actual CEC of the soil will
agricultural soils, contain aluminum as well as depend on the pH of the soil. Given the same
silica. They have a net negative charge amount and type of organic matter, a neutral
because of the substitution of silica (Si4+) by soil (pH ~7) will have a higher CEC than a soil
aluminum (Al3+) in the mineral structure of the with e.g. pH 5, or in other words, the CEC of a
clay. This replacement of silica by aluminum in soil with pH-dependent charge will increase
the clay mineral’s structure is called with an increase in pH.

Department of Crop and Soil Sciences 1 College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
Units decomposition of organic matter and leaching
The CEC of a soil is expressed in cmolc/kg of cations, but also by human actions such as
(centimol positive charge per kg of soil) or application of acidifying nitrogen fertilizers
meq/100 g (milli-equivalents per 100 grams of and/or liming materials. Most laboratories
soil). Both expressions are numerically approximate the CEC from regular soil test
identical (10 cmolc/kg = 10 meq/100 g). results. So, the CEC value listed on regular soil
test report is the results of a calculation, not
Common CEC ranges in New York an actual measurement. See Agronomy Fact
Sandy soils low in organic matter have a very Sheet #23: Estimating CEC from Cornell Soil
low CEC (less than 3 cmolc/kg) while heavier Test Data, for more details.
clay soils or soils high in organic matter
generally have a much higher CEC (greater Implications
than 20 cmolc/kg). Table 1 gives an estimate o The higher the CEC the more clay or organic
of a typical CEC of soils of each of the five soil matter present in the soil. This usually
management groups in New York (see means that high CEC (clay) soils have a
Agronomy Fact Sheet #19: Soil Management greater water holding capacity than low CEC
Groups, for more detailed descriptions of the (sandy) soils.
five soil management groups). o Low CEC soils are more likely to develop
potassium and magnesium (and other
Table 1: Estimated cation exchange capacity (CEC) of soils cation) deficiencies, while high CEC soils are
typical for New York State agricultural land (modified from:
less susceptible to leaching losses of these
Cornell Field Crops and Soils Handbook, 1987).
cations. So, for sandy soils, a large one-time
CEC addition of cations e.g. potassium can lead
SMG* General Description
(cmolc/kg soil) to large leaching losses (soil isn’t able to
hold on to the excess K). More frequent
Fine-textured soils developed from additions of smaller amounts are better.
clayey lake sediments and o The lower the CEC, the faster the soil pH will
1 25
medium- to fine-textured soils
decrease with time. So, sandy soils need to
developed from lake sediments.
be limed more often than clay soils.
Medium- to fine-textured soils o The higher the CEC, the larger the quantity
developed from calcareous glacial of lime that must be added to increase the
till, medium-textured to moderately soil pH; sandy soils need less lime than clay
2 fine-textured soils developed from 20
soils to increase the pH to desired levels.
slightly calcareous glacial till mixed
with shale, and medium-textured
soils developed in recent alluvium. Additional Resources
o Cornell University Agronomy Fact Sheet #5: Soil pH for
Moderately coarse textured soil Field Crops; #6: Lime Recommendations; and #19: Soil
developed from glacial outwash Management Groups; and #23: Estimating Cation
3 and recent alluvium and medium- 18 Exchange Capacity from Cornell Soil Test Data:
textured acid soil developed on nmsp.css.cornell.edu/publications/factsheets.asp.
glacial till. o Lime Guidelines for Field Crops in New York:
nmsp.css.cornell.edu/publications/articles/extension/Li
medoc2006.pdf.
Coarse- to medium-textured soils
4 formed from glacial till or glacial 16
outwash. For more information

Coarse- to very coarse-textured


soils formed from gravelly or
5 12
sandy glacial outwash or glacial
lake beach ridges or deltas.
*
SMG = soil management group.
Nutrient Management Spear Program
http://nmsp.css.cornell.edu
For New York soils, it is better to measure the Cornell Nutrient Analysis Laboratory
CEC rather than use the values reported in http://www.css.cornell.edu/soiltest/
Table 1, as the CEC will change with soil pH Quirine Ketterings, Shaw Reid, and Renuka Rao
(i.e. is pH dependent). Soil pH changes can be
caused by natural processes, such as 2007

Department of Crop and Soil Sciences 2 College of Agriculture and Life Sciences