How does biochar impact soils and crops in a semi-arid environment? A 5-year assessment

How does biochar impact soils and crops in a semi-arid environment? A 5-year assessment
26 April 2024

Long-term field data on the effects of biochar application are limited, especially in semi-arid environments where its potential benefits could be significant. Researchers sought to fill this gap by investigating the soil and crop responses to wood biochar in a no-till millet-pea-winter wheat-sunflower rotation over a period of five years.

The study aimed to evaluate the effects of different levels of biochar application and nitrogen fertilizer on soil properties and crop yields in a silt loam soil in the western U.S. Great Plains.

An ongoing experiment involving five levels of biochar (ranging from 0 to 25 Mg ha−1) and three levels of nitrogen fertilizer (0, 84, and 168 kg N ha−1) was conducted. Nitrogen fertilizer was applied only in three out of the five years, depending on the crop rotation. Soil properties were assessed in years 1, 3, and 5, while crop yields were measured annually.

Biochar application showed some effects on soil properties and crop yields, but there was no significant interaction between biochar and nitrogen fertilizer. High rates of biochar application (12.5 and 25 Mg ha−1) increased soil pH, organic matter concentration, and available phosphorus. However, the impact of biochar on soil properties diminished over time, with more pronounced effects observed in the first year compared to subsequent years. Crop yields also varied depending on the biochar application rate and the type of crop grown each year.

The study found that biochar had limited effects on soil physical properties but had a more significant impact on soil chemical and fertility properties. High rates of biochar application consistently improved soil pH and nutrient availability. However, the efficacy of biochar diminished over time, suggesting that its benefits may be short-lived.

Wood biochar application, especially at higher rates, demonstrated positive effects on soil properties and crop yields in the semi-arid U.S. Great Plains. While biochar improved soil fertility, its effects were more pronounced in the short term. The study highlights the potential of biochar as a soil amendment in water-limited environments but emphasizes the need for further research on its long-term efficacy and optimal application rates.

The findings underscore the importance of considering biochar as a potential strategy for improving soil health and crop productivity in semi-arid regions. Continued research and experimentation are crucial to fully understand the long-term impacts of biochar application and its suitability for large-scale agricultural practices.

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