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Effect of fertilizer in soil

xA question often asked is, if fertilizer in soil will have an effect on the measured concentrations of radionuclides. Fertilizer has elevated concentrations of radionuclides and adding fertilizer to soil could have an effect on the concentrations that are measured by a gamma-ray spectrometer. Whether an increased concentration of radionuclides can be measured from fertilizer added to soil, depends on the background concentration of radionuclides in soil, the concentration of radionuclides in the fertilizer and the amount of fertilizer added to farmland.


Background in soil

The concentration of Potassium (K) in soils depends on the provenance and composition of the soil particles and the type of weathering. Most clay-rich areas have higher concentrations K than areas that contain mostly quartz minerals. In typical northern hemisphere (non-tropical) soils, the concentration of Potassium (K) ranges between 0.5%-2% (which is 0.005-0.02 kg K/kg soil). However, tropical soils can be weathered to a state where the concentration of K is extremely low.

This potassium present in the soil is the total potassium within the crystal structure, only a small amount of this potassium (<5%) is available for uptake by pants.

Concentration in fertilizer

Different types of fertilizer exist, but the fertilizer with the highest concentration of potassium is Potash, containing 50% of K.

Amount of fertilizer added to farmland

the amount of fertilizer that is added to farmland depends on the fertility of the soil, but typical amounts are 100 kg fertilizer/ha. This fertilizer is added to the entire tillage layer of 30 cm. With the assumption that the soil has a density of 1500 kg/m3, a hectare of soil has a weight of 4.5 x106 kg. The 100 kg fertilizer/ha (with 50% K) results in ±1x 10-5 kg K/kg soil. The added fertilizer with the concentration of 1 x 10-5 kg K/kg, is much lower than background concentration from the crystal structure (500-2000 x 10-5 kg K/kg) and this difference in smaller than variations due to changes in clay content of soils. For typical northern hemisphere (non-tropical) soils, changes due to the addition of fertilizer can not be measured. Only in soils that are by nature devoid of K, the addition of fertilizer can be measured.

Field studies

In a field experiment (Dierke, et al, 2013), plots were treated with different amounts of fertilizer and mapped with a gamma spectrometer. These measurements did not reveil changes in the measured 40K concentration.

A paper by Pätzold (Pätzold,  et al 2023) assesses the effect of fertilizer on the concentrations of 40K with a gamma-ray spectrometer. They measured

plots that have been treated for a long period of time with and without potassium fertilization. They found that K fertilization does not significantly impact measured K-40 content in the soil. Based on these results, they conclude that when predicting soil texture using mobile proximal GS in agricultural land, such as for precision farming purposes, there is no need to consider the history of potassium fertilization. This implies that the GRS method can be reliably applied without accounting for the fertilization background, simplifying the process and making it more practical for field applications.

Does the addition of fertilizer affect measurements wit a gamma -ray spectrometer?

The concentration of added fertilizer is significantly lower than the background concentration of potassium in the soil. This difference is smaller than variations caused by changes in clay content. Therefore, in typical northern hemisphere soils, the effects of fertilizer addition cannot be measured. Only in soils naturally lacking potassium, effects of fertilizer could be observed.

When predicting soil properties using a gamma-ray spectrometer in agricultural land, there is no need to consider the history of potassium fertilization. This simplifies the analysis and makes the gamma-ray spectrometer more practical for field applications, particularly in precision farming.


Dierke, C., Werban, U., 2013. Relationships between gamma-ray data and soil properties at an agricultural test site. Geoderma 199, 90–98. doi:10.1016/j.geoderma.2012.10.017

Pätzold, S., Ostermann, M., Heggemann, T., & Wehrle, R. (2023). Impact of potassium fertilisation on mobile proximal gamma-ray spectrometry: case study on a long-term field trial. Precision Agriculture.

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