Is biochar a wonder material? Only farmer-led science will tell

Can biochar reduce livestock farming’s impact on the environment? Can it at the same time be used to build soil health and benefit animal health? These are the questions being asked by a field lab that is investigating the benefits of feeding biochar to livestock.

More and more farmers are using biochar as an amendment for mulching or soil health but there is a growing movement of people wanting to test its benefits to livestock farming as well. Until now Biochar, a form of charcoal, has scarcely been tested as a livestock feed. The list of potential benefits have yet to have gained the scientific rigour necessary to be taken seriously by the industry. So the setting up of a farmer-led field lab in Lincolnshire is an important step.

The implications of this research could be sector changing. Biochar, when used as a livestock feed is heralded as being able to bind with the methane releasing compound, ammonia, in cattle’s stomach and then make it available in the manure for soil organisms. This means less methane escapes into the air, reducing the impact livestock has on contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Locking away a portion of the ammonia that is excreted from cattle also means less will leach into the environment when their slurry is used as a fertiliser in the field. This could have knock on benefits to river health as it will decrease the likelihood of eutrophication, a phenomenon that has been very costly for water companies and wildlife alike. Not only this but some suggest biochar could have health benefits to the cattle themselves. Absorbing harmful toxins and contributing to a reduction in parasitic worms.

The question is, can biochar live up to its reputation? That is why farmers and researchers have come together to investigate.

Meet the trialists

One of the trialists is tree surgeon and cattle farmer Richard Copley. He became interested in biochar as a way of utilising the waste coming out of his tree surgery business, Manor farm Tree Services. He says “The last five years I’ve had an interest in charcoal and its effect for cattle farming. I wanted to see if it benefits the animals, whether it reduces ammonia emissions, and once passed through whether it sequesters carbon into the soil”.

He adds “The idea of the research made sense. But I’ve wanted to test it further because it’s so unknown. There needs to be more knowledge about the use of biochar in livestock. And this was a great opportunity to start getting some quantitative data.”

Donna Udall a researcher from the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) is working with Richard on this field lab*. She told us “I come from a farming family and my intention throughout my PhD is always to bring what I learned back to the farmer. Because otherwise I don’t see the point of it. As a scientist, when you’re in your lab it’s really easy to get so into the detail that you forget the repercussions. So working with farmers means I am constantly aware of all the pressures farmers are under.”

For her the research is about creating a cyclical way of farming, “CAWR is really interested in the cyclical nature of using biochar. As you grow the wood it absorbs carbon, then you stabilise that carbon in a form that won’t break down for millennia, so you’ve sequestered and stored all that carbon, but if you can use it for other means on the way through then that is a more efficient way of using carbon in a way that benefits the whole planet and not just us.”

How the biochar trial works

Donna explains the trial “We are trying to find out three things. One, if you include biochar in cattle’s diet does it reduce ammonia emission from the manure. Two, does it increase the ammonium retention in the manure and three does this result in improved plant growth (in our case grass) if you use the manure.”

The cattle from the herd have been split into two groups, 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 are being collected from the two teams every other day throughout the trial, and will be analysed and compared in laboratories at the University of Coventry. These samples will be used to carry out pot trials to investigate differences in growth rates of grass. 

What next

Although this trial is relatively small scale it is hoped that the data and information gathered can be used to scope out a larger scale project which will engage more farmers and give them the confidence with the data collected to try this approach with their herd.

Richard wants to see more support for this kind of research. He tells us “I think it’s fantastic what Innovative Farmers are doing. The benefit of farmer-led research is the joining of farmers and scientists together. We need to look at farming from a scientific point of view and involve farmers in doing this”.

But on-farm research isn’t always easy. “The challenges of doing research on-farm is that a couple of the cows in the trial are calving right now so they are being quite protective which can make it rather tricky to take a sample! But it’s worth it as it’ll be brilliant to see what I’m doing on the ground translate into results in the science lab”.

To keep informed of how this field lab and others are progressing sign up and become a member of the Innovative Farmers network. Got your own idea for a field lab? Then contact the team to find out how to get involved.

       Richard helping Donna with the manure samples destined for the lab for testing. 

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*Also working with Donna on this project at CAWR is Dr Francis Rayns and Peter Hollings.

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