The multi-year study has received $1.1m Canadian from the federal government’s Agriculture Greenhouse Gases Program, reported the University of Lethbridge. It also has received funding from industry.
The feeding study is part of a larger project – Assessment of the Potential of Biochar Added to Beef Cattle Diets to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Agriculture, the university said. Agencies involved in the project include Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, Cool Planet, Blue Rock Animal Nutrition and the universities of Manitoba and Alberta.
The initial idea was to assess biochar as a feed ingredient with an eye toward reducing the generation of methane by a cow and improving feed efficiency, but the project has expanded from initial conception, said Barry Yaremcio, beef and forage specialist with the Ag-Info Centre and corresponding researcher.
“This is a good opportunity for producers to improve efficiencies and reduce the impact of livestock production on greenhouse gas emissions and global warming,” he added.
Early steps in the process will include feeding trials evaluating diets with different levels of the ingredient in an attempt to repeat earlier findings generated by researchers in Vietnam and Australia, he told FeedNavigator. Work also included a safety study for the ingredient.
“Previous work saw a 20% reduction in methane emissions and 20% improvement in average daily gain,” he said. “It could make a big difference in making it a greener cow.”
The larger project has taken almost five years to put together, he said.
What is biochar?
Biochar is a charcoal-rich ingredient generated from pyrolysis of biomass, reported the University of Lethbridge.
The research team is working with Colorado-based Cool Planet to source the biochar used in the trials, said Barry Yaremcio, beef and forage specialist with the Ag-Info Centre. The product can be generated from multiple sources, including lumber industry by-products like scrap lumber and banana leaves.
Initial work with biochar in cattle diets includes a feeding trial examining different levels of the potential feed ingredient, said Yaremcio. In addition to the varying levels of biochar, diets in the initial feeding trial are set to include barley silage and barley grain.
“What we’ve got now is a 200 day, 200 steer feeding program,” he said. The trial is set to start in the spring meaning will be October or November of 2018 before hard numbers are available, he added.
“We also want to find out what is happening in the rumen of the animal,” he said. In vitro work has found that use may alter the amount of available hydrogen in the rumen and prevent it from moving to the small intestine, he added.
Currently, cows generate a large amount of the methane produced during the animal production cycle, he said.
“If we get good results, the next step is to study beef and dairy cows,” said Yaremcio. “The final step will be looking at cows on pasture – we do have equipment available where we can train cows to go into a feeding station where they’ll get a pellet and we can have the biochar put into the pellets.”
“This is the first baby step and if we get the results that we want, then this could be a big change in how people consider feeding cattle,” he added.
In addition to potentially reducing the amount of greenhouse gases released during cattle production, the feed ingredient may offer a way to also shorten the amount of time an animal is on feed, he said. “If you get a 20% increase in feed efficiencies instead of gaining 3lb a day they gain 3.6lb a day in the finishing phase,” he added.
Starting with a 500lb cow and adding 3.6lbs a day instead of 3lb cuts days on feed by about 27 days, he said. “If you can slaughter that animal 27 days earlier, you get less methane emissions, 27 days less manure production and efficiency goes up all around you – can’t segregate one from the other.”
If days can be cut from the production period, then less feed and water are needed and less land may be used for feed crop production, he said.
“In Canada, we’ve got a carbon offset opportunity so there is a possibility for the feedlot operators if we can quantify the differences in methane production they could qualify for a carbon credit,” said Yaremcio.
Once the feeding trial is completed another portion of the project will be to assess the nitrogen vitalization coming from the manure generated to see if nitrogen remains in the fecal matter, he said.
Both forage and annual crops are set to be grown in soil fertilized with the manure to check for structure changes, he said.
If results from initial feeding trials are positive, additional trials with other types of cattle production like dairy and field-raised are expected to follow, said Yaremcio.
“This trial is going to take five years,” he said. “But if we get good results with the cattle on feed, then we move across to cows on the wintering pen. We don’t have to wait for five years to see what the cropping [experiment reports] – we’ll move to the cows as quickly as we can get funding.”
In Europe the feed ingredient has been examined as a way to reduce the amount of antibiotic used, he said. That element is not part of the current research project, but could be explored in the future.
In addition to the on-going work in Canada, there are researchers from several other countries interested in the findings, he said.
“They want to know what we’re doing as we go along,” said Yaremcio. “It’s not just for Alberta, or Canada or the North American continent.”