Feeding biochar to cows: an innovative solution for improving soil fertility and farm productivity
Addition of biochar produced through thermal decomposition of biomass has been seen as a strategy to improve soils and to sequester carbon (C), but wide scale implementation of the technology requires to devise innovative profitable solutions. To develop biochar utilisation with an integrated system approach, an innovative program was implemented in 2012 on a 53-ha farm in Western Australia to determine the costs and benefits of integrating biochar with animal husbandry and improvement of pastures. Biochar was mixed with molasses and fed directly to cows. The dung-biochar mixture was incorporated into the soil profile by dung beetles. We studied the changes in soil properties over 3 years. Biochar extracted from fresh dung and from the soil to a depth of 40 cm was characterised. A preliminary financial analysis of the costs and benefits of this integrated approach was also undertaken. The preliminary investigation results suggested that this strategy was effective in improving soil properties and increasing returns to the farmer. It was also concluded that the biochar adsorbed nutrients from the cow's gut and from the dung. Dung beetles could transport this nutrient-rich biochar into the soil profile. There was little evidence that the recalcitrant component of the biochar was reduced through reactions inside the gut or on/in the soil. Further research is required to quantify the long-term impact of integrating biochar and dung beetles into the rearing of cows.