Phosphorus (P) is the most importlllit nutrient element (after nitrogen) limiting agricultural production in most regions of the world. It is extremely chemicallyreective, and more than 170 phosphate minerals have been identified. In all its natural forms, including organic forms, P is very stable or insoluble, and only e. very small proportion exists in the soil solution at anyone time. Plant-available P ID&Y be considered in either its quantitative or intensive dimension. The quantity of available P is time-specific and crop-specific, because it is the amount of P that will come into the soil solution and be taken up by the crop during its life cycle. The intensity of available P (availability) is most easily identifie? with its concentration in the soil solution.
The soil property controlling the relationship between the solid phll8e P and its concentration in solution is known as the buffering capacity. The solid phllSe P involved in this relationship is only a small proportion of the total P, lIlid is known as labile P. It is usually measured by isotopic exchange, but this exchangeable P component doea not include the spB.ringly soluble compounds that also replenish the soil solutiOn as its concentration is deplcled by plant uptake. The buffering capacity is the ability of the soil solution to resist a change in its P concentration as P is removed by plant uptake or added in fertilisers or orgllliic materials.
Buffering capacity is synonymous with sorptivity, which is a preferable !;erm in the context of the reactivity of P fertiliser with soil. It is usually measured from an adsorption isotherm. By fitting a suitable equa.tion, such as the Langmuir, the total sorption capacity as well as the sorption strength can be determined. Both parameters are important in understanding P availability in soils.
Buffering capacity has a major effect on the uptake of labile p. because it is inversely related to the ease of desorption of solid phase P and its diffusion. Available P therefore is a direct function of the quantity of labile P and an inverse function of buffering capacity. This has been demonstrated in plant uptake studies. Similarly, the most effective methods of measuring e.vaiJable P (soil tests) are those which remove a proportion of labile P tha.t is inversely related to buffer capacity. SoU tests which measure the concentration of P in solution actually measure availability rather than available P, and their efficacy on a range of soils will depend on the uniformity of the soils' buffer capacities.
The most effective soil test usually consists of an anionic extractant. Acidic lactate or fluoride have been found most effective in New South Wales, on a wide range of soils, except calcareous soils which neutralise the ecidic component (usua.lly hydrochloric or acetic acid) of the extractant. Sodium bicarbonate (pH 8·5) has been found effectiVe on calcareous soiia and is widely used throughout the world. It has proved unreliable on NSW soils, and may need more thorough evaluation on non-calcareous soils .in other parts of Australia.