Thinking Sustainably: The power of biochar


by Oliva Woolman ('24)

Boswell and Brown working in lab

As the demand for organic and sustainably raised poultry continues to rise, so does the need for innovative solutions to improve poultry farming practices.

Integrated Science and Technology (ISAT) students Ian Buswell and Timothy Brown, under the guidance of ISAT professor Wayne Teel, partnered with Shenandoah Valley Organics (SVO), a local poultry company in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and two of their participating growers.

SVO is a collective of farmers committed to organic methods and adheres to stringent standards that ensure their chicken feed and supplements are free from antibiotics and harmful GMOs. Their approach prioritizes humane treatment of the birds while maintaining a financially and environmentally sustainable operation.

Working closely with two SVO farmers, Brown and Buswell are researching a more sustainable farming technique involving biochar – a form of charcoal derived from plant matter and integrated into the soil. The material, commonly used as a soil amendment, promotes cleaner, organic farming methods. In this setting, SVO uses biochar as an additive to the bedding in the poultry houses, where it absorbs nutrients from the poultry manure, enhancing its value as an organic fertilizer and significantly improving soil quality.

“Biochar has the advantage of this porosity, meaning it has a high surface area with tiny pores,” explains Teel. “In turn, the biochar captures the nutrients from the manure and holds them against the flow of water and other particles. It reduces leaching and increases the nutrient-holding capacity of the soil.”

“We are focusing on the management of nutrients, which we have an overabundance of, “says Teel. "Localized nutrient cycling is the goal here, so we must have organic certification to feed the birds and transition to this farming method."

The project has been in the development and research phases since January. Once a bird cycle, which takes less than 50 days, is complete, they can evaluate data, but the team needs several subsequent cycles to confirm their findings. “Future cycles of birds are needed to study the interaction between the poultry, the litter, and the biochar,” notes Teel.

Teel acknowledges the ongoing challenges, mentioning the need for coarser biochar due to dust issues. "The first biochar we used produced too much dust and irritated the farmers, if not the birds, so we switched to a newer, coarser biochar to make it work," Teel explains.

The supply of biochar is also problematic. “We need to produce biochar closer to home," Teel adds. Currently, SVO sources its organic feed from overseas and biochar from Georgia and aims to transition to local production for both.

Brown and Buswell are gaining valuable experience working with farmers to understand the complex variables in growing chickens, such as feed, temperature, and air quality. “The most interesting aspect of this project so far has been going to various farms and observing how the data has been collected,” says Brown.

As the project enters its final year, the team hopes for healthier bird conditions and a better margin for farmers.

"The biggest rewards are still to come, but it is progress, and the best part is that we are learning, along with the farmers, as we seek better ways to manage poultry waste," Teel said.

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Published: Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Last Updated: Friday, December 1, 2023

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