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Biochar in Agriculture

(Bio)char, biomass-charcoal, a charcoal for biological purposes. Use of the word biochar in agriculture is new, but the material has been around as long as land plants and lightning co-existed. It is a naturally occurring element of soils and the use of biochar in agriculture has been adopted by various cultures worldwide for thousands of years.

Ancient in practice, yet also brand new. New in that world around it has changed. Globally, our resources of water, nutrients and arable land are finite yet the demand for produce is growing – thus forcing the need for increased productivity and increased efficiency. Processing facilities of wood and produce have created such large piles of biomass that it is referred to as waste in some places – thus steps in biochar production – a way to use waste biomass in the creation of powerful and long lasting material that can dramatically improve agricultural productivity for generations to come.

Whether in the field, the nursery, or the barn, there are many ways to gain benefit by using Soil Reef’s biochar products in your agricultural practices. Here is a brief overview on three of the most important ways that biochar can enhance productivity:

Water

Biochar is very porous and can hold several times it’s weight in water. Where biochar has been applied plants show less drought stress and water savings of 10%-50% are not uncommon. It has been shown to increase water holding capacity and availability across a wide spectrum of soils and potting media. The benefits are especially pronounced on sandy soils.

"Biochar application increased growth, drought tolerance and leaf-N- and water-use efficiency of quinoa despite larger plant–leaf areas." (Kammann, 2011)

"The main purpose of this study was to determine the effect of woody biochar amendment (yellow pine from pyrolysis at 400°C) on the water holding capacity of loamy sand soil with different mixture rates. Results show a doubling in water holding capacity by mass using a 9% mixture of biochar..." (Ok-Youn Yu, et al., 2013)

Clay soils, which naturally have a high water holding capacity, are much more susceptible to compaction. Biochar, which is light textured and highly porous, can relieve issues of compaction while also adding to the total water holding capacity – leading to an increased ability for water to quickly percolate into to the root zone and stay there.

Nutrients

Soil Reef biochar acts like a filter to hold nutrients in the topsoil where they’re needed. It has a high surface area with a variable surface charge lending a great ability to retain and release nutrients. It maintains this ability far beyond our lifetimes. Where applied, biochar has been observed to significantly increase fertilizer efficiency.

"...biochar treatments consistently decreased N2O emissions, cumulatively by 14 to 73% from the Alfisol and by 23 to 52% from the Vertisol, relative to their controls."

"...the leaching of ammonium was reduced by 55 to 93% from the [same respective soil types]" (Singh, et. al, 2010)

Microbial activity

Biochar is often described as microbial housing and with one look at this picture and it is easy to see why. The general observations have been consistent – greater microbial activity and diversity where biochar has been applied.

"Biochar application increased microbial abundance, which nearly doubled at the highest addition rate" (Domene et. al 2014).

Biochar in Agriculture, A Soil Reef - biochar close-upBiochar’s highly porous physical structure provides refuge for the microbes. It’s affinity for nutrients and water provide the microbes with sustenance – food, water and shelter. Biochar can serve as a refuge in which microbial populations can flourish.

It has also been proposed that the microbes make use of the electrically conductive nature of the biochar itself, which can help explain why it has been observed that biochar can facilitate processes such as denitrification (Cayuela et. al, 2013).