This small-scale retort can produce five to 10 litres of biochar from one burn, which takes about two hours. (Jim Hilton photo)

Forestry Ink: Some practical uses of biochar

Regular columnist Jim Hilton shares information about making biochar

Jim Hilton

Observer Contributor

It is that time of year to start thinking about making New Year’s resolutions.

One of my resolutions is to clean up my yard to make it more fire-proof and pleasant to look at, as well as use the residual material to make biochar. After making biochar, it is important to inoculate it (add nutrients) before adding it to your garden or pasture.

For those who may be interested in this topic, a good place to start is an article in the 2016 B.C. Organic Grower Journal by Marjorie Harris. She attributes a lot of the information to Zbigniew Wierzbicki of Elderberry Lane Farm, who is a strong advocate for the appropriate on-farm use of biochar and its correct production techniques. As Mr. Zbigniew notes, “the fresh biochar must first be ‘activated’ by absorbing nutrients. Scattering a light layer of biochar on the barn fioor will let it absorb the nutrients from the straw-manure litter while keeping the barn floor sweet and protecting livestock feet from diseases. Biochar can also be charged by soaking it for two to four weeks in any liquid nutrient (urine, plant tea, etc.). If the biochar is not properly activated before being applied to the soil, it will absorb the available soil nutrients to fill its absorptive capacity, depleting the soil.”

Biochar could also be scattered on any paddock where domestic animals are concentrated for any length of time. The animals’ hooves will gradually incorporate the biochar into the soil, along with the natural urine and manure. It has also been used in trenches or earth mounds where its high absorption properties helps keep manure from contaminating streams or ground water.

I have provided a pail of biochar to my daughter, who is using it on the floor of her chicken house. Negotiations are ongoing regarding the end use of the “super charged” biochar. Some research has shown biochar may be useful for larger animals. “According to Gerlach and Schmidt, who quote a test performed by the Central Laboratory of German Pharmacists, who compared commercially available activated charcoal with biochar, found that cattle fed with biochar-treated feed showed a number of positive outcomes, which included: generally improved health and appearance and improved vitality.”

Biochar will have the most positive results on marginal soils with poor soil structure and low nutrient storage capacity. Research has shown that addition of biochar to productive well-drained soils may show little if any increase in plant production but will still be a valuable soil carbon sequestration strategy which would also provide long-term water and nutrient holding properties.

There is lots of information on how to use lawn clippings, deciduous leaves and other compost for adding to biochar, as well as time frames for the best inoculation results. For those wanting to experiment who don’t have access to local biochar sources, you can go to Amazon, were a five-pound bag will cost about $30. Hopefully local material will start to be available at a more reasonable price. I am working on an article about the use of our abundant forest residual material as one source of biochar production.

Jim Hilton is a professional agrologist and forester who has lived and worked in the Cariboo-Chilcotin for the past 40 years. Now retired, he volunteers his skills with community forests organizations.

READ MORE: Forestry Ink: Choices for a better future



editor@quesnelobserver.com

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