Biochar for soil and livestock health

Biochar is a potentially useful soil and feed amendment for increasing yield and health of livestock, crops and soil. This group of farmers are interested in looking at the effects of small-scale produced biochar on their farming systems.

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Field Lab Timeline

    11/28/2017 12:00:00 AM
  • Initial idea discussions

    Initial idea discussions
  • 1/22/2018 12:00:00 AM
  • Methods discussion

    Methods discussion
  • 2/5/2018 12:00:00 AM
  • Methods finalisation

    Methods finalisation
  • 3/12/2018 12:00:00 AM
  • Trial Phase 1 start

    Trial Phase 1 start
  • 5/6/2018 11:00:00 PM
  • Progress review

    Progress review
  • 6/3/2018 11:00:00 PM
  • Phase 1 Data collection

    Phase 1 Data collection
  • 7/4/2018 11:00:00 PM
  • Phase 1 Data analysis

    Phase 1 Data analysis
  • 9/2/2018 11:00:00 PM
  • Phase 1 results review

    Phase 1 results review
  • 10/31/2018 12:00:00 AM
  • Phase 2 Proposal submission

    Phase 2 Proposal submission
  • 2/10/2019 12:00:00 AM
  • Pre-trial monitoring of ammonia emission levels

    Pre-trial monitoring of ammonia emission levels
  • 2/23/2019 12:00:00 AM
  • Phase 2 trial starts

    Phase 2 trial starts
  • 3/23/2019 12:00:00 AM
  • Phase 2 initial data collection completed

    Phase 2 initial data collection completed
  • 9/19/2019 11:00:00 PM
  • Phase 2 pot trials complete

    Phase 2 pot trials complete
  • 10/7/2019 11:00:00 PM
  • Phase 2 data analysis

    Phase 2 data analysis
  • 10/10/2019 11:00:00 PM
  • Phase 2 results review

    Phase 2 results review
  • 2/21/2020 12:00:00 AM
  • Final report published

    Final report published
For further information hover over the above milestone marks
  • Discussion

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  • Achievements

    February 2020

    Final report published

    The final report can be found in the 'Field Lab Documents' section of this page. Please log in to view it.

    Key conclusions include:

    - Adding biochar to the diet of cattle was an easy and manageable intervention for the farmer
    - In the biochar-fed cattle, there was no discernible reduction in ammonia emissions, manure ammonium, pH, worm burden and resultant impact on grass growth
    - Nitrate content of manures from biochar-fed cattle reduced, which might indicate that there was improved nitrogen assimilation in the gut
    - Anecdotal evidence from other studies indicates potential benefits of biochar for livestock health and carbon storage
    - Further trials are recommended, to involve more farmers and stock animals, monitor weight and analyse manures for other soil health parameters

    Milestone: Final report published

    August 2019

    Results meeting and next steps

    There will be a meeting in early October in Abergavenny to review the results of this field lab, with a chance to hear from the host farmer and Donna Udall, researcher at CAWR who has been working on this trial. There will also be a discussion about the opportunity to join in a follow-up trial for those who are interested.

    Further details will be confirmed shortly, but if you would like to register your interest please contact .

    Milestone: Phase 2 results review

    July 2019

    Pot trials and worm burden

    Phase two of this trial is currently under way, looking at the effect digested biochar has on rye grass growth through pot trials.

    The final phase of this trial starts in mid July and will assess whether feeding biochar to cattle decreases worm burden in young stock. Using the same approach as phase one of the trial, a split herd with one group fed biochar and a second control group, the farmer will use a FECPAK kit to monitor the worm burden in the herd.

    Milestone: Progress review

    June 2019

    Phase 2 initial results: ammonia and nitrates in manure

    Initial analysis of nitrate and ammonia in the manure from the two teams of cattle, is now complete. Although the methodology was not sensitive enough to pick up any changes in ammonia emissions, findings show that the cows that were fed biochar excreted less nitrate in their manure than those that were not fed biochar. The reasons for this are not clear, and the researchers are currently working on future bids and projects to find out more about this process.

    Milestone: Phase 2 data analysis

    March 2019

    Phase 2 data collection: manure samples,worm burden and pot trials

    Manure samples were collected for the duration of the trial from both sections of the herd, and have been sent to the researcher who will carry out lab-based analysis looking at ammonia volatilisation, manure ammonium levels and dry weights. There had also been plans to compare worm burden using faecal egg counts during this trial, however this was not possible as the cattle did not have any worms. A worm burden assessment will be carried out later in the year when a base level of worm burden is identified in the herd, using the same split herd method with half fed biochar and half as the control.

    Pot trials growing rye grass will be used to determine the impact of digested biochar on plant growth, and will be underway shortly.

    Results from the lab-based analysis will be presented at a meeting in September, details tbc.

    Milestone: Progress review

    March 2019

    Data collection for Phase 2 starts

    Phase 2 of this trial, with a larger sample size and longer feeding period, has started. Cattle from the herd have been split into two teams, the "Bio team" who will be fed 300g of biochar per day for 28 days; and the "Non Bio" team who will have no change to their diet. Manure samples will be collected from the two teams every other day throughout the trial, and will be analysed and compared in laboratories at the University of Coventry.

    Milestone: Phase 2 trial starts

    February 2019

    Pre-trial benchmark monitoring complete

    Manure samples have been taken every other day for a week from the selected cattle taking part in Phase 2 of the trial. This will establish a benchmark for natural ammonia emission levels prior to the experiment. Phase 2 of the trial will commence at the end of February and run for 28 days.

    Milestone: Pre-trial monitoring of ammonia emission levels

    July 2018

    Initial results - Phase 1

    The initial results of this Phase 1 short-term trial have not been able to verify the effects of biochar on cattle health, however they have shown that cattle will consume the biochar incorporated feed (for further informationsee "Initial results" under Field Lab documents on top right of this page).

    The researcher is working with the triallists to develop and expand the methods for Phase 2 of the trial, which will take place over a longer duration.

    Milestone: Progress review

    May 2018

    Data collection Phase 1

    For the shorter-term trials mentioned below (farmers giving biochar-incorporated feed to cattle) some initial data is being collected and will be analysed soon.

    Milestone: Phase 1 Data collection

    April 2018

    Trial start - Phase 1

    Triallists doing the Phase 1 short-term trials on incorporating biochar into cattle feed are already practicing this method. However, for the purposes of this field lab this will run as a trial starting this spring, with data being sent off to the University of Coventry for initial analysis.

    Milestone: Trial Phase 1 start

    March 2018

    Second group meeting

    The group met again in March to discuss methods and costs for the trial ahead. One triallist is already experimenting with biochar and added value to the practicalities of the methods discussed. The group are looking to put biochar on fields sown with corn and then combined in summer. The corn will be weighed against a control to check for differences. Other members of the group are planning to mix biochar with feed for cows for more short term trials. This is expanding on previous research, which may set some questions for the following year of trials.

    Milestone: Methods discussion

    March 2018

    Previous research discussion

    Donna Udall talked through the work that has been done at Coventry University on Biochar including a citizen science project on vegetable crops.
    In the Citizen science trial, 80 vegetable growers were sent seeds and biochar which was applied at an equivalent of 2 kg/m2. The results showed a significant (p=0.026%) increase in cabbage yield but no significant increase in carrot or beetroot yield.

    In soil incubation trials adding biochar and digestate showed an increase in total nitrogen mineralisation compared with no application, with different soils types responding differently. Biochar was not so effective on clay soils, implying perhaps that it slowed down the release of mineralised N.

    A similar result came when comparing soil types in a pot trial with ryegrass yield, with sand showing a higher yield, and also less difference between a premix biochar and separate applications of biochar and digestate. Higher rates of Biochar also showed lower mineralisation.

    In a field trial comparing biochar treatments along with digestate and fertilizer treatments the biochar showed slightly lower yields in both treatments. Although leaf chloroyphyll readings, which are a measure of nitrogen uptake, were lower during the early growth stages of the digestate treatment there was no final significant yield difference between the 4 treatments. The significance of this agriculturally is that Biochar could modify the availability of nitrogen, making nitrogen available to the plant longer during the year and reducing the potential for loss.

    The evidence seems to be that biochar may slow mineralisation of nitrogen, but there is a soil type effect which may be due to soil microbial action, changes in cation exchange capacity and labile carbon availability.

    Milestone: Initial idea discussions

    December 2017

    Initial meeting continued

    Of the 7 members in the group 4 are biochar producers all using the same kiln, but using different materials. All the farmers are looking at improving soil health using biochar either as a soil additive or via animals as an animal and soil health improver. Issues with commercial production companies, particularly due to the inherent variability of the raw material meant that they all supported small farm scale production rather than using a commercial product.

    The group would like to understand the effects of biochar in relation to waste utilization, methane reduction, carbon sequestration, potential long-term soil health improvement and sustainability.

    On direct use on the soil, one of the group was using biochar on arable crops as a trial with 2 rates on whole tramline widths. He was planning to use combine yields to assess any impact.

    The conclusion of the discussion that there were 4 areas of interest that could be looked at and these were:
    1- effect of biochar/charcoal on health and yield in a group of dairy cows
    2-effect of manure from above cows on pot grown plants in a greenhouse
    3- effect of Charcoal/Biochar on growth rate of a group of weaned cattle
    4- effect on yield of arable crops of biochar.

    Numbers 1.3 and 4 are simple field/barn scale projects with farmers in the group being able to monitor with existing data collection.
    Number 2 would require specialist knowledge and is consistent with trials being run currently at Coventry University.

    This is a new group open to interested farmers, please contact us to find out more on how to get involved.

    Milestone: Initial idea discussions

    November 2017

    Initial ideas meeting

    The group of 7 farmers met with SA Soils Advisor Jerry Alford and researcher Dr Francis Ryans to discuss current research on biochar and possibilities for field lab trials. Dr Ryans gave an introduction to biochar including some of the historic and more recent uses of biochar. He related that biochar is complex and still undefined - with raw materials, heating temperature and duration, particle size and aging all being variable.

    Different production systems using different kilns were also highlighted, although there is a Biochar Quality Mandate which is aimed to get some standards into the UK, as well as UK and worldwide Biochar associations and foundations. He finished with some trial results demonstrating some of the trials he and his colleague Donna Udall have done.

    He then listed a range of areas where there are questions about biochar:
    • These were comparisons of different biochar’s including the raw materials used (hard or soft wood waste wood etc.) heating temperature and duration during production.
    • Effect of application rate and frequency
    • Effects in combination with fertilizers
    • Comparison on different soil types and cropping
    • Long-term effects

    The use of charcoal and biochar products was discussed and a US trial result showing that a 0.03% (3 kg/tonne) addition of charcoal in chicken feed led to 16% weight gain improvement and a +6% improvement in feed conversion rate was mentioned. Biochar has been seen to be actively selected by cattle, and the self-medication tendency of animals was raised as a cause of this. Some research has been done on methane reduction by adding biochar to cattle.

    The stable nature of Biochar meant that it would not be broken down by animal digestion and so it was felt that feeding biochar to cattle might be worth looking at with a view to effect on animal health, with a secondary benefit of the resultant manure being a charged biochar with additional soil health properties.

    Milestone: Initial idea discussions

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