Research and anecdotal evidence among farmers indicate that incorporating biochar into the diets of livestock leads to many benefits. The ecosystem of guts in animals is much like the ecosystem of soils. Animals (and humans) need gut bugs to digest food and absorb nutrients. Much like soils, the bugs in animal guts also need to be diverse so that harmful bugs are kept in check by beneficial bugs.
Poor gut health of an animal can reduce the efficiency of feed, with the animal requiring more feed to meet their nutrient requirements. Ruminants are particularly inefficient at digesting and absorbing nutrients compared to other animals and produce huge quantities of methane that divert energy that would otherwise go to the animal. The use of biochar as an additive in feed has been shown to increase feed efficiency and increase weight gain of animals via various mechanisms:
1. Biochar increases the habitat surface area of the gut on which beneficial microbes attach and get to work digesting and cycling nutrients to be absorbed by the animal;
2. Among these beneficial microbes colonising the biochar are the bugs that feed on methanogens (the energy intensive bacteria that produce methane);
3. The biochar adsorbs toxins in the gut (e.g. aflatoxins, which readily accumulate on hay feed, are stored in the fat of grazing livestock - and subsequently consumed by humans) and other compounds in the digestive tract that impact the health of animals, and the quality of the products they produce (1)(2).
In terms of improving the health of both animals and soils, the use of biochar in animal feed ‘kills two birds with one stone’. In pasture systems, manures rich in biochar and laden with nutrients and beneficial bacteria are incorporated deep into the soil profile by soil bugs. This improves the quality of pasture, reduces the input requirements of nutrients and water, and maintains a healthy balance of soil bugs.
One farmer experimenting with 60 head of cattle found that incorporating biochar into feed at 0.4-0.6% of feed weight significantly decreased the total costs of feed, fertilisers and cattle drenching (which he found wasn’t required as soil and animal health improved with the use of biochar). He combined biochar powder with molasses in feed trays, of which the animals reportedly developed a real taste for. You can read more about how the biochar was prepared as well as a detailed break-down of the farms cost-benefit analysis here.
Other research and trials have incorporated biochar with the feed and litter of chickens which has shown that it significantly helps control ammonia, footpad disease, improves animal health and other issues related to manure production, among other benefits.
The proven use of biochar as an improvement in animal feed is an exciting and immerging trend, particularly in agricultural industries which demand for high-quality produce, cost-efficiency and improved environmental management.
If you discover any other interesting ideas or research regarding how biochar can be incorporated in farming systems, we’d love to hear about it!
(1). Joseph, S., Doug, P.O.W., Dawson, K., Mitchell, D.R., Rawal, A., James, H.O.O.K., Taherymoosavi, S., Van Zwieten, L., Joshua, R.U.S.T., Donne, S. and Munroe, P., 2015. Feeding biochar to cows: An innovative solution for improving soil fertility and farm productivity. Pedosphere, 25(5), pp.666-679.
(2). Leng, R.A., Inthapanya, S. and Preston, T.R., 2012. Biochar lowers net methane production from rumen fluid in vitro. Livestock Research for Rural Development, 24(6).
1). “The use of biochar in cattle farming” – The Biochar Journal
2). “Whole-farm biochar system boosts productivity, stores carbon, cuts inputs and emissions”