A multi-pronged research project based in Alberta aims to assess whether feeding biochar in backgrounding and finishing rations could be a way to reduce methane emissions created during enteric fermentation in the ruminant digestive system.
Biochar can be manufactured from any type of feedstock with a fibre component — wood waste from saw mills, coconut or other nut hulls, and even bio-wastes that typically go into composting systems are a few examples — says Alberta Agriculture beef and forage specialist Barry Yaremcio.
The pyrolysis process involves controlling the burning temperature and oxygen supply to prevent complete combustion of the feedstock. This produces raw biochar, which is further processed into a consistent product.
In May, InnoTech Alberta at Vegreville was close to finishing analyses of six types of biochar derived from nut or wood sources and submitted by the U.S. manufacturer, Cool Planet. Samples were tested to detect any toxic substances that could be harmful to animals, people or the environment, as well as the suitability of biochar as an animal feed supplement. This information will be needed to establish standards for biochar products and for Canadian Food Inspection Agency approval for its use as a cattle feed ingredient rather than simply as a colourant in minerals.
Another large part of this study will determine whether any reduction of methane or hydrogen emissions, or improvement in feed efficiency or average daily gain depends on the inclusion rate of biochar in the ration.
A team at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Lethbridge Research Centre will carry out a 200-head, 200-day trial involving three inclusion rates in the feeding program to take calves from approximately 500 pounds to finished weight.
Differences in methane and hydrogen production will be measured in metabolic chambers where individual animals can be housed and fed the three levels of biochar in their rations.
Manure and urine samples from cattle fed in the chambers and manure samples from the outdoor trial pens will be analyzed for methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions. They will also look at differences between the use of straw and shavings for bedding.
A University of Alberta team will be studying the effect on soil structure, nitrogen retention and water retention in plots where manure from the calves in the control and each of the three biochar groups has been spread.
Crops will be grown on the fertilized plots for three years because it takes approximately that long for nutrients to be released from manure. Quality and yield measurements will be collected to evaluate effects on nutrient cycling, microbial activity and carbon sequestration.
Likewise, a University of Manitoba team will carry out in vitro rumen studies to investigate why and how biochar affects concentrations of the various types of microbes in the rumen, overall rumen efficiency and methane emissions.
The final economic analysis will consider any differences in growth rates, days on feed, total yardage costs, feed costs and crop production efficiency.
Alberta Agriculture’s main role will be delivering project results to producers to put the findings into practice.
The University of Lethbridge is the co-ordinating body for all of the project components made possible with $1.75 million from the federal Agricultural Greenhouse Gasses Program.
Yaremcio says recent results from the Leng et al. feeding trials in Laos and Australia are very encouraging. The group reports a 20 per cent reduction in methane emissions corresponding with a 20 per cent improvement in average daily gain without an increase in feed consumption when biochar was included in the rations for growing steers.
The current Alberta study will tell if biochar proves out in the Canadian environment when fed with locally grown feedstuffs. If so, he sees this as the first research step in a real game changer for all sectors of the beef and dairy industries, not only as a way of reducing methane emissions and improving feed efficiency with the possibility of protocols for carbon credits, but for potential animal health benefits yet to be fully explored as well.