Extension service of the land grant university system is often the first source of public information for emerging soil amendments such as biochar. Biochar is a charcoal product made by heating plant biomass via pyrolysis and is increasingly marketed as an organic soil amendment. As energy-producing pyrolysis industries expand, there is increasing opportunity to utilize locally produced biochar for its potential value in sustainable agriculture. However, the highly variable properties of biochar materials and their effects on plant growth and soil nutrient supply make it difficult to objectively study the effect of this soil amendment and provide guidance to users of locally sourced biochar materials. Therefore, preliminary screening studies are needed to identify potentially beneficial ranges of biochar properties and their effects on soils and plants that can then be rigorously tested in field research. The role of extension in conducting such screening studies is invaluable to providing both guidance to researchers in developing sound study methods, and in educating the public on biochar and the myriad of uncertainties surrounding its use; thereby establishing the need for rigorous research on its properties. In 2014, a simple, yet informative screening trial was performed to identify optimal biochar pyrolysis production temperature, conditioning (that is, degree of crushing) and soil application rate for future field experiments. Lettuce (Lactuca sativa, var. Parris Island Cos) chosen for its short growth period and rapid biomass development, was grown in 9-L pots filled with silt loam field soil amended with biochar and/or fertilizer (or none) made from Utah-sourced cherry wood. The pots were uniformly drip irrigated once daily to keep them near field capacity throughout the study period, thereby eliminating any influence of differential soil-plant-water relations. Three biochar products created from the same cherry wood source, but resulting from three different pyrolysis temperatures (375, 475 and 575°C) and either powder ground (P) or masticated (M) texture were applied to soil at three application rates (1, 2 and 3% by weight). Variation in plant dry weight at harvest within and among treatments was high. Lettuce growth with the addition of biochar was decreased as compared to control treatments in all cases, except for biochar produced at the lowest temperature, 375°C. Results indicate that masticated biochar produced at 375°C and applied to soil at the rate of 2% by mass offers the best combination of beneficial response and ease of handling for future field evaluations. This case study’s benefit for demonstrating the value of preliminary screening trials to inform both future research and public outreach education is discussed.
Key words: Biochar, soil amendments, pyrolysis, plant growth, high temperatures.
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