A new research project could help red meat producers improve productivity and decrease greenhouse gas emissions by adding custom designed biochar to cattle and sheep rations. 

The project aims to define biochar production processes that will  produce fit-for-purpose biochar for inclusion in ruminant feeds and then quantify and validate the effects on animal productivity and emissions.

The project is one of 13 new on-farm research, development and adoption (RD&A) projects to receive Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) investment of $6.2 million in levy funds in 2018-19. This investment in industry driven R&D is a result of  MLA’s regional consultation process, which enables producers to have input into the direction of RD&A funding most relevant to them. 

The biochar research will be led by Dr Rob Kinley, a Livestock Systems Scientist with CSIRO Agriculture and Food, in consultation with Professor Phil Vercoe of the University of Western Australia (UWA).

Biochar is a charcoal that is generally associated with carbon sequestration, adsorption of gases, and soil enrichment. 

The use of biochar as an ingredient for improved livestock productivity has so far indicated promotion of a more efficient rumen. Dr Kinley says there is huge diversity in biochar types, but no biochars have been designed to be fit-for-purpose for ruminant production, which is a primary objective of this project.

“We know that producers are also interested in feeding biochar to cattle and sheep because there is evidence that soil health is improved through distribution of biochar in the soil, with help from dung beetles,” Dr Kinley said.

“We also have some on-farm evidence that liveweight gain is improved in Angus-cross cattle fed biochar, with producers and scientists showing interest in its potential.

“It’s about filling a knowledge gap and ensuring resources are directed towards a supplement specifically designed to enhance production with a co-benefit of decreased methane emissions.”

As part of the research, CSIRO will partner with producer groups across Australia to customise the process and parameters of biochar production to optimal feed supplement techniques and rations that maximise productivity and minimise emissions from livestock systems.

Researchers will use a range of parent materials to generate the biochars, including various woody plants and fodder, with emphasis on industry and agriculture waste streams.

MLA General Manager – Producer Consultation and Adoption, Michael Crowley, said the project was an exciting and important piece of work for the red meat industry’s broader sustainability agenda.

“CSIRO’s biochar research strongly aligns with MLA’s commitment to the CN30 initiative which is Australia’s red meat industry ambition of being carbon neutral by 2030,” he said.

“It is important that efforts to achieve carbon neutrality have the dual objective of improving profitability for red meat producers and this research is a great example of this: it has the potential to boost productivity and profitability in red meat production systems while reducing emissions.”