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Biochar as livestock feed supplement

 
pollinator
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I discovered today that feeding biochar to livestock is apparently a widespread practice!!
Not just as a treatment for an acute poisoning event, but as a regular supplement either mixed in with their feed or available free-choice.

Here is a link to a scientific studyhttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6679646/

To me this is a real game-changer and seems like such a permie thing to do. I make biochar from clean and nontoxic branches found around the property, in a cookie tin in the woodstove so now it may have all these functions:

1. Reduces the fire fuel on our land,
2. Heats the house,
3. Feeds the livestock, reduces ammonia emissions,
4. Adds carbon to the soil, pre-mixed and inoculated with gut flora in manure and distributed around the pastures by the livestock.

 
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The link is not working for me, I think the word "study" affected it.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6679646/
 
Andrea Locke
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Sorry! Try this:


https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6679646/

Also, I realized after I posted that this was not news to everyone, there were already a few relevant threads. You know, how permies lists other relevant threads at the bottom? They hadn’t come up when I searched using ‘biochar’ and ‘livestock’ keywords because I think the word livestock was not mentioned but relate to chickens etc. and people’s own experience - well worth reading. I think the paper I linked is new, though.  
 
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I'm working to increase the uptake of biochar in animal feeding, as all the controlled and anecdotal evidence coming in says it's a good thing. So far, these are some data points I've gathered, either directly or via colleagues:

* My chickens love the stuff. When I used to let them free range, they would peck away at pieces in the area where I make and store biochar. I throw a shovelful into their pen every few days and they eat it up. I also use it in the bedding in their coop, where it cuts ammonia formation and allows me to go longer between changing the wood shavings.

* I've fed it to some of the cattle we've kept here, usually by mixing it with molasses and hay chaff. A few of them liked it and would eat it plain, while some others never developed a taste for it.

* I've offered it to the sheep, but so far only the matriarch ewe has shown any willingness to eat it unless it mix it with nuts. Meh. We'll keep trying.

* One of the biochar proponents I've worked with over the past few years did a stint managing a farm in the Far North. It's nearly at the tip of the narrow peninsula and has beaches on either side. The soils are either sand or peat, and the former dries out pretty badly in the summers. The farm runs beef cattle and has a lot of pine forestry, so they started making biochar from the timber slash and offcuts to apply to the pasture on the sandy side. Then they decided to try feeding it to the animals. They split a group of heifers into two: one to feed biochar and one as control, and grazed them on adjoining paddocks. They fed the biochar mob 300 g per day, initially mixed with molasses, but soon skipped that. When the heifers saw the quad bike coming with the trailer each day, they would come running and jostle one another out of the way to get at the trough.

Preliminary results from the trial: The animals that got biochar grew faster, with average weight gain 25% higher than the control mob. They also had no intestinal parasites (fecal egg counts close to zero) and were healthier in general.

* An organic dairy farmer in my region had a bunch of replacement heifers get into trouble with parasite burdens last autumn. Under our organic standards, you're allowed to do one acute anthelmintic drench per year if it's to save your animals, so he bit the bullet and treated them. As they recovered, he started offering them biochar ad lib and they took a liking to it. When I caught up with him before the holidays, he told me he had just run them over the scales, hoping that they would have recovered enough that their weight gain would be back at normal for their age and genetics. They were 30 kg heavier on average.

So far, everything looks really positive for the critters that eat it. Farmers have observed for decades that when they burn stumps or slash piles, cattle always eat whatever fragments of charcoal remain. We've also found that they tend to like bigger chunks as opposed to finely ground material, and that they prefer hardwood biochar to pine (presumably because the higher mineral content makes it tastier).

 
William Bronson
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I'm curious as to the why of improved weight gain.
What is happening that leads to this?
If it is inoculated with bacteria beforehand,  I suppose  it could be the bacteria being digested?
 
Phil Stevens
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The biochar was not pre-inoculated as far as I know. We have a few hypotheses as to the cause of the weight gain. The main one is the reduction in internal parasites...those little worms eat quite a bit and that's nutrition that the cattle aren't getting. Then there's the secondary effect of removing the parasite burden, which is less stress and better health in general.

Other possibilities we think might be at play are mineral nutrients, and the pore structure of the biochar facilitating better digestion in the rumen. We have some studies claiming a reduction in methane production, which says to me that the carbohydrates that aren't being converted anaerobically might instead be getting absorbed by the animal.
 
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I haven’t read the whole link, but like that type of reading. This an exert from link, dealing with microbial life and extreme conductivity of biochar, in the gut.

Inside the gastro-intestinal tract, nearly all feed-degrading reactions are facilitated by microorganisms (mostly bacteria, archaea and ciliates). Within those reactions, bacterial cells may transfer electrons to biofilms or via biofilms to other terminal electron acceptors (Richter et al., 2009; Kracke, Vassilev & Krömer, 2015). However, biofilms are rather poor electric conductors and the electron-accepting capacity is low. Hence, microbial redox reactions can be optimized by electron shuttles, such as humic acids or activated biochar whose electrical conductivity is 100–1,000 times higher than that of biofilms (Aeschbacher et al., 2011; Liu et al., 2012; Saquing, Yu & Chiu, 2016). Although the conductivity of non-activated biochar is lower compared to activated biochar, it has been shown that it can efficiently transfer electrons between bacterial cells (Chen et al., 2015; Sun et al., 2017). Bacteria were shown to donate an electron to a biochar particle while other bacteria of different species took up (accepted) an electron at another site of the same biochar particle. The biochar acts here like a “battery” (or electron buffer) that can be charged and discharged, depending on the need of biochemical (microbial) reactions (Liu et al., 2012). Moreover, as biochar can be temporarily oxidized or reduced by microbes (i.e., biochar is depleted or enriched in electrons), it can buffer situations with a (temporary) lack of electron donors or terminal electron acceptors (redox buffering effect) (Saquing, Yu & Chiu, 2016). A principal aim of feeding biochar to animals could thus be to overcome metabolic redox limitations by enhancing electron exchange between microbes, and between microbes and terminal electron acceptors.

I also thought it was interesting that low temp biochar acted like a battery, high temp acted as a conductor. I wonder if it’s low enough temp while burning leaves into charcoal?
 
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Oh, this is interesting!

Andrea, Phil, what do you inoculate the charcoal with to make the biochar?

What comes to the ”some of the animals eat it but others do not”, could it be that those that don’t eat it are just not in need of it? Cravings are there for a reason!

..not the cinnamon roll craving tho, but those oranges I have been thinking a lot lately.. (And the pregnant lady wanting to eat mud, it’s the minerals her body craves!)

Just a thought!
 
Andrea Locke
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I think the form that is generally fed to livestock is uninoculated (so, not yet technically biochar) when it goes into the feed and comes out the other end of the animal as biochar inoculated with gut flora. Normally the inoculation process if not intended for feed would be to mix the char with compost, or soil, or soak it in a compost tea, etc, and I can’t see that being palatable to all livestock. My goats would turn their noses up at it, I am pretty sure. I do think chickens would enjoy scratching it into the compost or soil, though, and then eating the somewhat inoculated char and completing the inoculation as it passes through them.
The beauty of feeding it directly to livestock is they can do the inoculating and also spread the biochar through the field for you. I also read that it may be effective against some parasites. Tapeworms and coccidiosis in particular. I wonder if that is part of the explanation of why animals fed biochar may grow faster and be healthier. Hard to untangle that from the inactivating and removal of toxins a by char, and some experiments are unclear because they mixed char and molasses to make it more palatable but there are enough without molasses to show an effect.
 
Adam Hackenberg
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That’s the one thing I was disappointed with that ncbi article. It dealt nothing with parasites, they have all these tests they run, but much of their positive result could be due to to less parasitism, which they did not check for anywhere during the tests, or at least it does not appear that way.
 
Phil Stevens
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To clarify something regarding terminology...when I refer to biochar I am using the IBI definition ( see https://biochar-international.org/faqs/) and I consider any high-quality charcoal made from renewable biomass source material and destined for long-term incorporation in soil, water, or the built environment to be biochar. Whether or not it's inoculated is just an application detail.

I know that there is a sizable community who call it charcoal until it's has some microbial life added to it. I'm going off prior art here and since it's intentionally produced for its climate mitigation attributes plus all the amazing things it does in literally hundreds of real-world applications, I use the term coined for the purpose.
 
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