In the form of ashes, marl or chalk, lime has been used as a fertilizer for thousands of years. It serves two very important purposes: to correct the acidity of sour soils and to supply calcium and sometimes magnesium as plant food. Burned lime has also been much used, but in more recent years the development of machinery for crushing and pulverizing rock—especially in cement manufacture—has made possible the production of pulverized natural limestone, and at much less expense than for caustic lime made by burning and slaking. Where ground limestone can be easily procured it takes the place of burned lime, and it produces better results at less expense, even though 1-3/4 tons of ground limestone are required to equal 1 ton of quicklime in calcium content and in power to correct acidity.
Furthermore, ground limestone can be applied in any amount with no injurious results, while caustic lime destroys the organic matter or humus of the soil, dissipates soil nitrogen, is disagreeable to handle, and may injure the crop unless applied in limited amounts or several months before the crop is to be planted.
The most valuable and trustworthy investigation on record in regard to the comparative value of burned lime and ground limestone has been conducted by the Pennsylvania Experiment Station. A four-year rotation of crops was practiced, including corn, oats, wheat and hay (clover and timothy) on four different fields, each crop being represented every year. After twenty years the results for the four acres showed that the land treated with ground limestone had produced 99 bushels more corn, 116 bushels more oats, 13 bushels more wheat and 5.6 tons more hay than the land treated with about an equivalent amount of burned lime. At the end of sixteen years the analysis of the soil showed that the burned lime had destroyed 4.7 tons of humus and had dissipated 375 pounds of nitrogen to the acre, as compared with the ground limestone, this loss being equivalent to 37-1/2 tons of farm manure.
Other trustworthy experiments by the Maryland and Ohio Experiment Stations confirm the Pennsylvania results in showing better crop yields when unburned lime carbonate was used; and more extensive experiments by the Tennessee Experiment Station also agree with the Pennsylvania data in regard to the destruction of organic matter and loss of soil nitrogen from the use of burned lime. If dolomitic limestone is used, magnesium as well as calcium is thus added to the soil.
Limestone need not be very finely pulverized. If ground so that it will pass through a ten-mesh sieve it is amply fine, assuming that the entire product is used, including the finer dust produced in grinding, and it is very possible that final investigations will show that the entire product from a quarter-inch screen is even more economical and profitable in permanent systems.
Limestone is quite easily soluble in soil water carrying carbonic acid. It is thus readily available; in fact, it is too available to be durable if very finely ground; and in humid sections the loss by leaching far exceeds that removed by cropping. In practical economic systems of farming about two tons an acre of ground limestone should be applied every four years, or corresponding amounts for other rotation periods.