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6 things to consider about biochar

Biochar’s multiple benefits can improve soils and manure management on farms and ranches.

Jennifer M. Latzke, Editor

April 20, 2023

3 Min Read
Ashes and embers of bonfire
BIOCHAR: Biochar, a charcoal produced from plant materials, has been used for centuries to improve soils in the Americas.photovs/Getty images

Biochar is not a new concept in agronomy. For thousands of years, humans have used it to amend soils to improve water-holding capacity and fertility.

Today’s farmers, though, may also be looking to biochar to remediate other challenges around their fields and livestock facilities. Kim Slezak is a forest products specialist with the Nebraska Forest Service. She works with the Great Plains Biochar Initiative, a partnership among the NFS, Kansas Forest Service, Wilson Biochar Associates, and High Plains Biochar LLC whose purpose is to improve biochar education and market development in the Great Plains.

Here are six things Slezak says farmers should know about biochar and how it may be useful on their farms and ranches.

1. Source material matters. Biochar is charcoal produced from plant materials. Slezak says making biochar from dead woody materials from forest or pasture cleanup is ideal. It’s a way to turn that biomass into a value-added product that still sequesters carbon. Hard or soft woods are both fine, she says, and biochar is one way to repurpose invasive eastern red cedars. She warns against making biochar from walnut trees, though, due to the allelopathic, or growth-suppressing, properties that can carry over into your crop field. There’s a reason the ground under walnut trees is so clear, she says, and that property of walnut trees isn’t exactly conducive to improving your soil fertility.

Related:Biochar brings soil, climate and productivity benefits

2. It can increase soil water-holding capacity. Farmers who are concerned about stretching their available water resources might want to explore using biochar as a soil amendment. Some soils respond better than others to added biochar, Slezak says. Farmers should look to the Natural Resources Conservation Service Web Soil Survey or talk with their local NRCS office to get more advice for their individual soil needs, she advises.

3. It can reduce your fertilizer bill. The U.S. Biochar Initiative (USBI) explains that biochar captures carbon, and when it’s introduced to some soils, it can improve soil organic matter and boost the carbon cycle. In order to get the best return, though, Slezak warns that you should use “charged” or “inoculated” biochar rather than raw biochar. “Raw biochar is what you get after the initial burn,” she explains. “Charged biochar is what you get when you mix that charcoal with manure or compost and let it set for a couple of weeks before you apply it to your soils. You can even float biochar in a lagoon so it can soak up those nutrients before you apply it.”

4. Apply it at any time. Biochar can be applied any time that you would normally be doing fieldwork, Slezak says. Incorporating it into the soil is best, she says. But if you can’t do that because of no-till systems, you might consider applying it when you apply your dry fertilizer. Some people also make a slurry of extra-fine biochar and lagoon water and apply that through liquid fertilizer applications.

5. You can make your own. The simplest way to make biochar at home is to use a burn pit, for the pyrolysis process, Slezak says. “You make a pile out of your wood in the pit,” she says. “Then, start a fire at the top of the pile. The heat from that fire at the top makes a cap that holds embers and gases and creates a cleaner burn. Then, just before the pile reaches the ash stage, quench the fire with either water or soil, and you have your biochar.” There are also kilns that you can make that provide more control over your pyrolysis. You can find plans at wilsonbiochar.com.

6. It’s a manure management tool. Slezak says adding a layer of biochar in cattle pens can bind manure, making it easier to remove that manure from the pen without taking too much soil with it. This combination can then be further composted or applied to fields, bringing the benefits of biochar and manure to soils.

The Great Plains Biochar Initiative will have more resources available for farmers and ranchers at nfs.unl.edu/great-plains-biochar-initiative. More information is also available at the USBI site, biochar-us.org.

About the Author(s)

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

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