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Biochar-mediated changes in soil quality and plant growth in a three year field trial

TitleBiochar-mediated changes in soil quality and plant growth in a three year field trial
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsJones, D. L., Rousk J., Edwards-Jones G., DeLuca T. H., and Murphy D. V.
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
Date Published11/2011

While many laboratory studies have focused on the short term effects of biochar addition to soil), there have been comparatively few tracing its longer term effects in the field. This study investigated the multiyear impact of biochar on crop performance and soil quality with specific emphasis on carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) cycling over a 3 y period. Biochar was added to an agricultural field at 0, 25 and 50 t ha-1 and planted with maize (year 1) and grass (years 2 and 3). Biochar addition affected plant performance in the grass crop with significant increases in foliar N (year 2) and above-ground biomass (year 3). Below-ground, biochar increased soil respiration, fungal and bacterial growth rate and turnover in year 2. This change coincided with a shift toward a bacterial dominated decomposer community, suggesting a decrease in the potential for microbially mediated C sequestration. Biochar did not affect dissolved organic C (DOC) and N (DON), NO3- or NH4+ pool sizes. Similarly, biochar addition had limited effects on the turnover of 14C-labelled SOC (plant litter), DOC (sugars and organic acids) and DON (amino acids) and no long term effect on N mineralization, NH3 volatilization, denitrification and NH4+ sorption. After 3 years in the field, the alkalinity associated with the biochar had been fully neutralized and biochar lost most of its cations (K, Na, Ca) but had built up an associated microbial community. We conclude that biochar addition to soil causes small and potentially transient changes in a temperate agroecosystem functioning. Importantly, many of the short-term effects of biochar on plant growth and soil behavior reported from laboratory studies were not observed in the field emphasizing the need for long term field trials to help inform agronomic management decisions involving biochar.