by Britt Fossum | Agronomy and Horticulture
Compared to other soil amendments, biochar stands out. This material, produced by pyrolysis of waste wood or other organic waste material, can reliably increase soil organic matter content in the long-term without needing repeated applications and has exciting potential to enhance carbon sequestration in soil. Despite receiving increased attention both from researchers and the public, biochar is still relatively new and the effectiveness of this treatment for larger-scale agricultural operations remains underexamined.
A University of Nebraska–Lincoln research team led by Michael Kaiser, assistant professor of agronomy and horticulture, in collaboration with the City of Lincoln and with biochar sourced from Oregon Biochar Solutions, identified this knowledge gap and sought to bridge it by expanding upon previous research efforts involving biochar and regenerative agricultural practices such as cover cropping and no-till. While Kaiser has previously led projects involving biochar, the size of this experiment — 16 acres in total, of which eight acres were applied with biochar — was a step up in scale and represents the largest biochar field trial in Nebraska and is among the largest in the United States.
The trial began in April and consists of 16 acres of City of Lincoln-owned farmland in northeast Lincoln. It is innovative not only in scale but also in the system studied. The experiment is designed specifically to probe the effect of biochar in combination with biosolids, a form of organic fertilizer sourced from urban wastewater treatment and recycling. Combining biochar and biosolids may help maximize the benefits of both. More than 64 tons of biochar, enough to fill eight truckloads, was applied using a manure spreader and disc tiller — techniques familiar to many Nebraska producers.
Funding for this project comes from the University of Nebraska Center for Energy Sciences Research and the Nebraska Forest Service, with biochar provided by Oregon Biochar Solutions and biosolids sourced from the City of Lincoln’s biosolid program. Researchers on the project include Kaiser; Arindam Malakar, a research water scientist with the Nebraska Water Center; Katja Koehler-Cole, a soil health management extension educator; and Britt Fossum, an agronomy doctoral student.
Applying biochar to an acreage requires significant logistical coordination. Department of Agronomy and Horticulture’s Jenny Stebbing, Joshua Reznicek, Ronnie Janssen and TJ McAndrew contributed technical expertise with agronomic equipment. David Smith, Biosolids coordinator, and the staff of the Northeast Treatment Plant assisted with the transport and delivery of biosolids. The site is managed by Adam Thien of Thien Farm Management.
The project is embedded in the Lincoln Biochar Initiative, which is a collaboration of the City of Lincoln, University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Nebraska Forest Service and other stakeholders in the development of a biochar production facility in Lincoln. Results from this project will be used to support the use of biochar in Nebraska and the project represents an important milestone in the development of a nascent biochar industry in the Midwest.