Biochar may be the eventual answer to reducing methane emissions in cattle, but not yet, and possibly not soon

By Tim Kalinowski


Greenhouse gas emissions are of particular concern to the cattle industry, and if the last federal election revealed nothing else— it revealed that “progressive parties” on the left have Canada’s beef producers and feedlots squarely in their sights as a target for future climate change policies.

Under the shadow of this circumstance, and under the broader shadow of social licence for ag in Canadian society, researchers are working in a concerted way to come up with a scientific solution to reduce cattle emissions before being mandated to do so by powers unattached and far away.

The beef industry has had some success in recent years in doing just that, but more still needs to be done to avoid future political interference.

One avenue being seriously considered by researchers to help reach that goal is biochar feed additives. A team of research scientists from across the Prairies are working different aspects of this question on a four-year research effort set to end in 2021, says Abby-Ann Redman, project manager of the biochar experiment.

“We are based out of the University of Lethbridge, but we work with partners at the Lethbridge Research Centre as well as the U of A and the University of Manitoba,” she explains. “Each place has scientists that work on different aspects of the biochar project, and we really start from the very beginning looking at what biochar is, and how it is produced, to what happens when we feed it to cattle. Also what happens when it comes out in the manure, and then through composting that manure, and field application.”

Just considering the natural greenhouse gas-reducing properties of biochar on a purely objective basis, there is grounds for optimism it might eventually have a real impact, says Redman.

“You can make biochar from numerous different products,” she explains. “This one that we are testing is made from pine. It’s pine wood heated to a very high temperature up to 600 C. It’s produced in an anaerobic environment; so it’s not burnt. It is just heated to extreme temperatures with low oxygen, and it makes a product that looks like charcoal, but it is its own product.

“This is pretty much pure carbon,” Redman adds, “and is very highly porous; so this is one of properties we thought would make biochar an active product when fed. Biochar has been used in soil application for many years, and it does bind nutrients in soil.”

The first stage of the current trial was considered a huge success, she says— as the biochar seemed to perform as expected.

“In the first paper we published, there was a 28 per cent decrease in methane production,” Redman says. “However, we did that one in something we call a Rusitech, which is replicating the rumen but is not actually in a cow’s stomach.”

The second stage of the experiment, unfortunately, she says, did not live up to the success of the initial experiment.

“The next paper we published was the metabolism trial, and that was in a cow,” explains Redman. “We did use actual cows for that one, and we put them in respiration chambers so we could measure the breaths the cow was taking in and the breath coming out so we could see how much methane was being produced. That one showed no decrease in methane production compared to the control.

“Thus; the biochar does not seem to reduce methane in cattle feed,” she concludes.

Given these disappointing results, Redman says with two years left to go in the study the research team will now be pivoting toward the manure end of problem instead the feed side of the issue.

“It is not only methane, but the biochar actually binds to different minerals like nitrogen and phosphorous as well,” she says. “So in looking at the compost and the soil, there may be differences with the biochar manure compared to the regular as well.

“If that manure binds to nitrogen and phosphorous better than regular manure then it would be a more valuable product to apply to a field than your regular compost,” she states.

While her team did not help solve the issue of methane emissions in cattle with this type of biochar, Redman says some members will likely be undertaking independent research outside of this current project to hopefully identify other sources of biochar other than pine to move the issue forward on another front.

The climate may be rapidly changing according to some, but for scientists, Redman says, they must take a step by step, rigourously tested approach to come up with the best, not just the most expedient, answer to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in cattle herds. There is simply too much as stake for farmers and the beef industry as a whole, she says, if scientists bungle this vital research.

“Through our studies, we’re hoping we can maybe find a product that would work better,” Redman confirms. “We can’t change to another product for this project, but we’re hoping the information we gather here will in the future allow us to do more trials with different products.”