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Biochar: Prepping it for Soil

Biochar can benefit your soil, but only if properly prepared prior to application. In November 2007, scientists at the USDA National Laboratory for Agricul­ture and the environment (NLAE) in Ames, Iowa, began multi-year field trials to assess the effects of biochar on crop productivity and soil quality. Scientists amended almost 8 acres with biochar made from hardwood. Twelve plots re­ceived 4 tons per acre; 12 were treated with 8 tons per acre.

Author David Yarrow helps install a biochar test plot at Subterra in Kansas.

They found no significant difference in the three-year average grain yield from either treatment. Other USDA field and laboratory studies in Idaho, Kentucky, Minnesota, South Carolina and Texas showed hardwood biochar can improve soil structure and increase sandy soils’ ability to retain water. But soil fertility response was more variable.

USDA scientists violated four key principles for biochar use: 1) bulk char, in one large load 2) raw, uncharged char 3) sterile, uninoculated char, with only a tad of microbial life 4) synthetic salt fertilizer, tillage and other antibiotic practices.

After all, soil may get 25 or more inches of rain a year, but not all at once in a single event. Biochar, like water, is best added in a series of small doses so soil has adequate time to distribute and digest it. We already know from research in the Amazon that dumping five, 10, even 20 tons of raw char all at once into poor soil retards plant growth for one year and maybe two. But after that, plants erupt in impressive, vigorous growth.

But a dip in yield isn’t acceptable for production agriculture. Farmers can’t wait a year or two to harvest a profit­able crop. Professional growers need fast response and strong stimulus to growth. Economics and handling logistics require convenience and low cost, with vigorous growth from minimal applied material.

Fortunately, we are learning how to prepare char for optimum results in soil and on crops. Biochar research in America is hardly 10 years old, but solid research shows that properly prepared, intelligently applied biochar has dramatic effects on soil structure and plant growth at as little as 500 pounds per acre.

To prepare biochar for optimum effec­tive use in soil, there are four fundamen­tal steps: moisten, mineralize, micronize and microbial inoculation. Continue Reading →

Biological Farming: Customizing Methods for Large-Scale Operations

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JR Bollinger in his corn, head-high by Fourth of July.

Biological farming is not just limited to small plots. Take the story of one Missouri farmer, who through holistic approaches to farming, managed to improve his yields and the size of corn on the stalk.

At the end of 2015, I talked to Missouri boot-heel farmer David “JR” Bollinger about his experiences growing corn, soybeans and milo using carbon-smart farming principles and practices. In his first year fully committed to biological agriculture, Bollinger cut conventional fertilizers by 50 percent and applied blends of biocarbons, minerals and microbes. Soils, plants and yields are all showing positive results.

Bollinger is the fourth generation to farm on 3,500 acres in the southeast Missouri Delta, with the family’s main crops being corn, soybeans, wheat and milo.

“In 2012, I first dabbled in biological farming on a reclaimed coal mine,” he said. “A gentleman with microbial products first tickled my brain about dead soil. He challenged me to find an earthworm. I went looking, and … none. I noticed there wasn’t much life. The soil looked like moondust, vacant of life.”

Continue Reading →

Biochar as Substrate for Hydroponic Tomatoes

tomatoes USDA photoAs the use of soilless, hydroponic growing methods becomes more prevalent among crop producers, researchers are looking for new materials that can help growers save money, produce healthy plants and contribute to sustainable practices. The authors of a study in HortScience say that biochar, a charcoal-like material produced by heating biomass in the absence of oxygen, can help “close the loop” when used as a substrate for soilless, hydroponic tomato production. “This method could provide growers with a cost-effective and environmentally responsible green-waste disposal method, and supplement substrate, fertilizer and energy requirements,” said the study’s corresponding author Jason Wargent.

This article appears in the February 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.

The Soil Solution

The Soil Solutionby Graeme Sait

The UN has named 2015 International Year of Soils, and we should embrace this initiative with open hearts and willing hands. It is an incredibly timely focus in light of a series of serious challenges impacting our future and perhaps our very existence. Soil health directly affects plant, animal and human health. It also impacts topsoil erosion, water management and ocean pollution. Most importantly, it is now recognized that climate change is directly related to soil mismanagement. I believe a global soil health initiative can help save our planet.

The Top Five Threats

While in the UK, I met with a professor who shared some deeply concerning findings. He informed me that a recent survey of leading British scientists revealed that as many as one in five of the best thinkers in the country believe that we will be extinct as a species by the end of this century, or perhaps much earlier. This information should serve to spur meaningful action from every one of us. There are five core threats that need to be urgently addressed, and they all relate back to the soil. Continue Reading →

Biochar: Helping Everything from Soil Fertility to Odor Reduction

Biochar is seen as a valuable soil amendment and much attention has been placed on using biochar to boost soil fertility and microbiology, upgrade soil structure and accelerate plant growth. Amid a rising tide of research and trials, what was once mostly fuel or water filtration media suddenly sprouted dozens of innovative applications and benefits.

Biochar in Poultry Farming

Farmer Josh Frye with his gasifier.

New biochar uses are being discovered, including:

  • Stormwater management and treatment;
  • Phosphorus traps to reduce water pollution;
  • Nitrogen traps to reduce ammonia and nitrate pollution;
  • Reclamation of mine tailings;
  • Building material blended with cement, mortar, plaster, etc.;
  • Electronic microwave shielding;
  • Electron storage and release as a “super-capacitor”;
  • Carbon fiber textiles for odor-absorbent clothing; and
  • Carbon nanofibers to replace plastic and metal.

Livestock farming is offering a new and growing area of unexpected uses for biochar. Animals from earthworms to chickens, cattle and even monkeys, show shrewd interest in biochar added to their food. Farmers and scientists around the globe have investigated the use of biochar in livestock production. In the European Union, biochar is carefully defined and approved for use in agriculture. Currently, most is fed to livestock and then spread on land with manure.

This article mainly addresses poultry production, but similar issues and opportunities face other livestock producers. Research from several countries shows that adding 1 to 3 percent biochar to cattle feed improves feed efficiency by 28 percent, reduces methane by 25 percent and increases rate of weight gain by 20 percent. Continue Reading →

Biochar Alters Water Flow

Vincent Mina demonstrates biochar production in Maui.As more gardeners and farmers add ground charcoal, or biochar, to soil, a new study by researchers at Rice University and Colorado College could help settle the debate about one of biochar’s biggest benefits — the seemingly contradictory ability to make clay soils drain faster and sandy soils drain slower. The study, published in PLOS ONE, offers the first detailed explanation for the hydrological mystery.

“Biochar is light and highly porous,” said lead author Rebecca Barnes. “When biochar is added to clay, it makes the soil less dense and it increases hydraulic conductivity, which makes intuitive sense. Adding biochar to sand also makes it less dense, so one would expect that soil to drain more quickly as well; but in fact, researchers have found that biochar-amended sand holds water longer. … By adding our results to the growing body of literature, we show that when biochar is added to sand or other coarse-grained soils, there is a simultaneous decrease in bulk density and hydraulic conductivity, as opposed to the expected result of decreased bulk density correlated with increased hydraulic conductivity that has been observed for other soil types.” The study was summarized in the January 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.