Monday, September 12, 2011

Biochar as Chicken Feed Supplement

It has been a fair while since I posted anything on biochar.  This article will allow readers to refresh themselves on the basic details.  As usual the science is poorly expained and adsorption is never understood.

Yet we get something of great value in the comment were we receive a first hand report on the application of biochar as a one percent component of the feed.

This has comparables in the application of zeolites to pig feed in Cuba in the eighties.  It worked then for the same reasons.

The take home is that all livestock operators need to adopt an in-house bio char kiln to convert surplus plant waste into biochar.  This can be used to supplement the feed and produce a superior manure product.  We already know that this is excellent practice for chickens and pigs, while cattle references need to be seen yet.

It certainly justifies the small batch production of biochar whil providing an interim step for introducing the biochar back to the soils.

What's the big deal with biochar?

Heating up crop production with this ancient soil amendment.

By Dr. Robert M. East, Ph.D.

The term 'biochar' refers to black carbon formed by heating biomass (plant wastes, feedstocks, etc.) in an oxygen-free or low oxygen environment so it does not combust. The technical term for this process is pyrolysis. Traditional charcoal is one example of biochar produced from wood. However, the term 'biochar' is much broader than this, encompassing black carbon produced from any biomass feedstock.

Biochar is high in organic carbon, largely resistant to decomposition, and is intended to be used as a soil amendment. A widely-held view is that the best biochar is formed by relatively low temperature pyrolysis, ideally at about 500 degrees Celsius. This is a high enough temperature to achieve maximum surface area but also low enough temperature to retain some biological oils that would normally burn off. Commercial charcoal, which is manufactured at higher pyrolysis temperatures and intended solely as an energy source, typically contains chemical additives rendering it unsuitable as a soil amendment.

Many soils contain some naturally occurring charcoal which was produced from natural/prescribed fires. Where human population sizes allow, smallholder farmers in developing countries practice “slash and burn” cultivation which relies on the production of charcoal and its ultimate incorporation back into the soil for fertility. For thousands of years charcoal has been used by traditional cultures as a soil amendment and there is evidence that it positively benefits crop yields. The most well-know example is the fertile Terra Preta soils

in Brazil. Crop yields on these soils have been shown to be much greater than on nearby soils which were not enriched with charcoal; this despite the soils having recently evolved in a similar environment. Japan also has a long tradition of using charcoal in soil, a tradition that is being revived and has been exported via agricultural technical assistance over the past 20 years to countries such as Costa Rica.

For farmers and gardeners within the Northern Hemisphere, biochar produced from woody plant slash and animal manure can provide a sustainable source of soil amendments which help close the loop in the carbon cycle. However, biochar materials can vary widely in their characteristics and so can soils. Biochar has potential to offset humanity’s contribution to carbon dioxide emissions by sequestering the embodied carbon as well as altering nitrogen transformation rates within the soil. Examples of nitrogen fluxes and transformations affected by biochar addition include inorganic-nitrogen leaching, ammonia volatilization, nitrogen fixation, and N2O emissions.

Biochar improves soil by three critical services: First, it acts like a sponge to soak up water, hold and slowly release it to soil. This can be an important characteristic in drought prone areas and/or on soils low in organic matter. Second, biochar acts as a storehouse adsorbing nutrient ions for exchange to soil biology. Third, biochar is a substrate which provides habitat and refuge for soil microbes. As a soil amendment, biochar creates a more stable soil carbon pool that serves as a net withdrawal of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The enhanced nutrient-retention capacity of biochar-amended soil not only reduces the total fertilizer requirements but also the climate and environmental impact of croplands.

Biochar-amended soils have shown ranges of 50-80 percent reductions in nitrous oxide emissions, reduced runoff of phosphorus into surface waters, and reduced leaching of nitrogen into groundwater. As a soil amendment, biochar can significantly increase the efficiency of and reduce the need for traditional chemical fertilizers, while potentially enhancing crop yields. Furthermore, renewable oils and gases co-produced in the pyrolysis process can be used as fuel or fuel feedstocks, thus helping close that loop.
Data on the effect of biochar on crop yields is still rudimentary – only a limited number of crops grown on a limited number of soils have been investigated. The interactions between crop, soil type, local conditions, and biochar feedstock, production method and application rate should be studied in far more detail before large scale deployment of biochar as a soil amendment is contemplated. Nonetheless, there is evidence that at least for some crop/soil combinations, addition of charcoal may be beneficial.

Field trials using biochar have been conducted in the tropics over the past several years. All showed neutral or positive results on yields when biochar was applied to field soils and nutrients were managed appropriately. Large scale field trials have recently begun on highly fertile Iowa soils by the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service. First year results are positive, yet it will take several years before definitive results are available.

Existing evidence suggests that raising soil pH may be biochar's most important documented contribution to influencing soil quality. Soil pH mostly influences the relative availability of nutrients.  At low pH, aluminum toxicity is particularly harmful to plant growth.  Aluminum toxicity is an extensive and severe soil problem, and biochar can be an easily available solution to combat it. Soil phosphorus availability is highly dependent on soil pH range, and thus biochar can be used to substantially increase phosphorus availability in soils that are below the ideal pH range (6.5 to 7.0). Used alone, or in combinations, compost, manure, and/or synthetic fertilizers are added to soils at certain rates every year.

Application rates of these inputs may potentially be reduced when biochar is used as a soil amendment. 

Currently, many biochar producers are seeking to become USDA “Bio Preferred”. While this is not the same as certified organic, it does ensure that the product is bio-based and not synthetic. Such certification also facilitates easier business transactions with state and federal procurement agents. The ultimate goal to make biochar compatible with organic farming will be achieved by instituting a set of quality control and environmental standards that are acceptable to the Organic Materials Research Institute. It has been suggested that criteria related to the feedstock used, the method of pyrolysis, the properties of the biochar, and the application of biochar should be met for the use of biochar in organic farming.

Dr. Robert M. East, Ph.D. is Associate Professor and Director of the Environmental Studies Program at Washington & Jefferson College, Washington, PA. Beginning in June, 2011 and continuing for the next five years, Dr. East is leading a collaborative research effort between Washington & Jefferson College and the Rodale Institute to quantify the effects of biochar on soil biology/fertility and crop yields on the Rodale Institute’s Kutztown farm. The first crop harvest is expected to occur in October and we’ll be reporting our initial observations this fall/winter

here at www.rodaleinstitute.orgSign up for the monthly e-newsletter to be kept abreast of project developments and updates.

Submitted by JP Daugherty (not verified) on Wed, 09/07/2011 - 16:10.

I thought you'd be interested in knowing that I have been feeding my chickens charcoal I produced from an outdoor wood burning stove (100 percent natural, no additives that are not natural in even starting the fire) which heats this house in the winter here in NE Missouri.

I was browsing for biochar amendments to chicken litter in composting when I came across a very interesting article on how a particular scientist found that adding the chicken manure to biochar significantly decreased the amount of ammonia nitrate out gassing by converting the ammonia into the more stable ammonium. He wondered if he could do it inside the chicken rather than mix afterwards so he started supplementing his chicken food with around 1-3 percent ground to kitty litter sized particles of biochar. Within the chickens the biochar is automatically binding the ammonia into the ammonium form before excreted resulting in very little nutrient out gassing loss.

No ammonia smell or any other smell for that matter!!!

I can testify to this since I have been feeding my chickens around 1-3 percent ground charcoal for over six months. Their manure does not smell. Nor is it runny or even gross. It comes fresh out of the chicken full of plant material with a dark green to green black coloration. Even when picking it up and examining it, it broke apart like a well aged horse manure/fibrous texture and was wet but not even close to being runny. Like the proper moisture level you'd want for growing your own mushrooms. (Will test that later in vermiculite and rice flower cakes and shitake)

With the manure you could tear it apart in your hands and feel it was properly moist but after dropping it to the ground to go and wash hands there is no residue nor moisture that gets on them. They remain clean with no smell. Naturally I wash my hands anyways because it was still poop lol.

The chicken coop never smells. Accidental contact made with their waste is not gross or messy like before. Easy to scoop and add to the compost pile. Their bedding which is straw and hay is primarily what is composted with random rotten vegetable or over ripe material from the garden results in a constant PH of 6.0-7.0, is much easier to turn, and gets better air and water distribution throughout requiring minimal effort to wet, and seems to be breaking down non-shredded material in 2-3 times the rate of time as it would take before when non-shredded material was added with gypsum and every layer had to be wet.

Other things I have seen is that I do not have to add any charcoal to the compost pile. As a matter of fact, my free range chickens around the house are biochar distribution workers that are helping to rebuild the lawn and garden and they do not even know it. lol I only get to gather their roost droppings from the evenings. When you accidentally step on a pile of chicken poop out in the yard it doesn't stick to your shoe and just mashes flat and disappears relatively easy with a light rain. So I am never tracking chicken crap into the house on accident.

Another thing of note is that I can now use fresh chicken manure in rather sizable quantities earlier than before the use of biochar. Normally I would have to let it age (In other words out gas and leach) down to the point of being barely a fraction of the size of what it originally started at. With biochar you end your composting with what seems like a larger pile. The char that came within the manure is absorbing most of the ammonium nitrate and doesn't seem to be reaching its entire absorbing capacity which means I might have to cut back just a tad bit by staying at 1 percent biochar used as feed for the chickens. When testing the final product (At least to me it looks like black rich dirt)for nutrient NPK values I landed at indications saying I would need to use 12/12/12 (Not a large amount surprisingly) to bring it up to its max for this area.

The compost pile retains water for long periods of time. The initial watering took less time than when biochar was on incorporated into the chickens diet. We have been in a drought here for around two months. The pile is open and exposed to the sun. When we were near flooding at the beginning of the summer, I noticed no water pouring out of the downhill side of the pile telling me that its water holding capacity is fairly high. When I attempted making compost tea after reaching the holding capacity of the allotted sample of five gallons of the soil/compost very little brown to black colored water would leach out telling me that it is doing well to trap the organic available phosphate and Nitrogen but I did not test the water sample so that is just speculation.

Freshly composted to dirt with high organic small particulates that only required less that what seemed 4 months worth of decay with minimal wetting or turning. This was applied directly to out door plants which were failing late in the summer due to drought. Removed them from the ground and placed them in pots with my new dirt. Energy hungry plants like columbine took off from 3 leafs to more than I can count in less than a month. It has not burnt anything else I have tested it on. Not a completely controlled and documented process as you might tell by my description . Next year will be.

Here is the website where I stumbled upon this idea.

Also of note before I go, when dressing chickens and examining their gizzard and craw contents, I would see black pieces of charcoal that were used for grinding the food. In the gizzard they were ground smooth to being almost oval with rounded ends and shiny like a river stone. So the biochar is being introduced before the main intestinal digestion. Like they are chewing their food with charcoal teeth if you will. So nutrient absorption starts immediately. I no longer feed my chickens oyster shell since they are smart to pick up small limestone rocks of their own around the driveway round about. So they are still getting their calcium. They are not just entirely using charcoal to grind up their food but if I had to venture a guess just through visual observation of the gizzard contents 50 or more percent of the inorganic substance within that organ was charcoal. Maybe accounting for near 10 percent overall stomach content but without proper measure, those numbers may not be near exact.


Unknown said...

very useful content

Unknown said...

Nice content and useful too, i also have these feed supplement