How much phosphorus is in dairy farm soil?

How much phosphorus is there in farm soils?

I’m in the process of carrying out a quick assessment of soils on a dairy farm in West Gippsland. Phosphorus use is an increasingly important topic from a $ cost as well as environmental perspective.

In this study samples were taken from the same sites previously tested for soil organic matter. One sample was taken at each site in a core between the surface and 10 cm. One subsample was prepared after mixing the soil for each core. Phosphorus was extracted using Mehlich 3 extractant.

Mehlich 3 is a widely used extractant for several nutrients suitable for alkaline as well as neutral to acidic soils. It will extract a proportion of the inorganic forms of phosphorus. Mehlich 3 extractable P has been found to correlate well with a number of other indicators for more readily ‘plant available’ or potentially available phosphorus (Moody et al 2013).


Site Colour Organic matter pH Phosphate ppm
1 Grey low 5.5 27
2 Red-brown medium 6 36
3 Red-brown high 6 632

Phosphate measurements at other locations taken by Apps Laboratories (using Mehlich 3) have ranged from 23 ppm for Gembrook pasture through to 385 ppm for a well composted garden soil. Generally phosphate levels around 30 ppm are considered low and levels around 150 ppm high. The phosphate levels at sites 1 and 2 are low but the phosphate level at site 3 is very high. Some further tests might be useful to find if this applies to the whole paddock. Information on fertilizer history could also be helpful.

Dairy cows grazing on mixed species pasture in West Gippsland. Levels of more readily available phosphorus can vary widely between paddocks.
Dairy cows grazing on mixed species pasture in West Gippsland. Levels of more readily available phosphorus can vary widely between paddocks.

In soils, phosphorus is thought to be present in around 4 ‘pools’. Readily available P is dissolved ready for plant uptake. This amount can last between 1/2 to 3 days for average crops. Some P is temporarily attracted to and held by soil minerals (called adsorbed P). Some P is held in organic forms in the soil organic matter. Adsorbed and organic P form moderately available P and phosphorus moves slowly between these pools and soluble P. Up to 70% of the available P can be held in organic form. However some P finds its way into more permanent ‘bound up’ or ‘occluded’ pools in the soil minerals. This phosphorus is only released again very slowly so is in effect ‘lost’. The total amount of P in soils may be much larger than the amount recovered by extractants like Mehlich 3. Much of this is in the ‘occluded’ pool.

Challenge problem: A pasture contains 30 ppm Mehlich 3 extractable phosphate – a low value. This is close to 9.8 ppm phosphorus (P). This part is done – each hectare contains approximtely 9.8 Kg of P (down to 10 cm). Is this amount of P adequate for the milk produced in a year assuming that 1000 L of milk contains approx 1 Kg of P? For the non dairy farmers some approximate figures that will help are stocking rate 2 cows / ha, production 6000 L / yr / cow. What assumptions have to be made and what factors are missing in this calculation?


Moody, P.W. et al. 2013. Soil phosphorus tests I: What soil phosphorus pools and processes do they measure? Crop and Pasture Science 64(5) 461-468.

Phosphorus fertility. Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Downloaded from Nov, 2013.

Phosphorus fractions in soil diagram.

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