Short-term influence of biochar and fertilizer-biochar blends on soil nutrients, fauna and maize growth

  • Solomon KamauEmail author
  • Nancy K. Karanja
  • Fredrick O. Ayuke
  • Johannes Lehmann
Original Paper


Use of inorganic fertilizers in smallholder cropping systems in Africa is often becoming inefficient due to increasing unresponsiveness to fertilizer application. A study was conducted for 2 years (four seasons) to assess the effects of biochar made from Prosopis juliflora (Sw.) DC. biomass on nutrients, fauna abundance and subsequent influence on maize planted in a nitisol. There were 12 amendments comprising: (i) biochar applied alone at a rate of 5 and 10 Mg ha−1; (ii) three fertilizer types applied separately (di-ammonium phosphate (18:46:0), urea (46:0:0) and composite NPK (23:23:0)); (iii) six fertilizer + biochar blends of the three fertilizer types and two biochar rates (0.05 and 0.1 Mg ha−1); and (iv) a control with no inputs. Treatments were replicated four times in a randomized complete block design. The amendments were applied in the first two seasons, while the last two were used to assess residual effects. At the end of the first two seasons, total C and N were higher in soils where biochar or fertilizer + biochar was applied, with more than 15.0 g C and 1.9 g N kg−1, compared to 10.4 g C and 1.0 g N kg−1 in control plots. Available P and exchangeable K were over 200% and 100% higher in biochar or fertilizer + biochar amended than control soils, respectively. Application of biochar had no effects on macrofauna such as beetles, centipedes, millipedes, termites and ants, but attracted earthworms. Soil that received 10 Mg biochar ha−1 recorded twice the number of earthworms (207 individuals m−2) compared to soil with 5 Mg biochar ha−1 (105 individuals m−2) and control (97 individuals m−2). Soils which received biochar, with or without fertilizer, had higher taxonomic richness (7.0 species) compared to soils which received DAP (2.8) or NPK (3.8). Nematodes, particularly bacterivorous groups, decreased by more than eight times with biochar application. In the first and second seasons, 5.6 Mg maize grain yield ha−1 was obtained from plots amended with biochar (without fertilizer), which was about six times higher than that harvested from unfertilised control at 0.9 Mg ha−1. Yield differences in plots where fertilizer was applied with or without biochar were not significant. Yield in the third and fourth seasons declined to 3.2 and 1.5 Mg ha−1, irrespective of fertilizer type or biochar amounts.


Biochar Fertilizer + biochar blends Soil macrofauna Soil nematodes Maize yield 



This work was supported financially by MEA Ltd. Staff time for the first author was supported by the Fondation des Fondateurs, Biochar for Sustainable Soils (B4SS) (ST2F-1166), a Global Environment Facility (GEF) funded project. We wish to thank Andrew Thuo for his assistance in nematode identification, John Kimotho for soil analyses and Dr. Harun Gitari for proofreading this manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Akhtar M, Malik A (2000) Role of organic soil amendments and soil organisms in the biological control of plant parasitic nematodes: a review. Bioresour Technol 74:35–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson JM, Ingram JSI (1993) Tropical soil biology and fertility: a handbook of methods. CAB International, WallingfordGoogle Scholar
  3. Ayuke FO, Brussaard L, Vanlauwe B, Six J, Lelei DK, Kibunja CN, Pulleman MM (2011) Soil fertility management: impacts on soil macrofauna, soil aggregation and soil organic matter allocation. Appl Soil Ecol 48:53–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bates D, Maechler M, Bolker B, Walker S (2015) Fitting linear mixed-effects models using lme4. J Stat Softw 67:1–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bationo A (2008) Integrated soil fertility management options for agricultural intensification in the Sudano-Sahelian zone of West Africa. Academy of Science Publishers, NairobiGoogle Scholar
  6. Bremner JM, Keeney DR (1965) Steam distillation methods for determination of ammonium, nitrate and nitrite. Anal Chim Acta 32:485–495CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Chan KY, Van Zwieten L, Meszaros I, Downie A, Joseph S (2008) Using poultry litter biochars as soil amendments. Aust J Soil Residues 46:437–444Google Scholar
  8. Chen JH, Sun X, Zheng JF, Zhang XH, Liu XY, Bian RJ, Li LQ, Cheng K, Zheng JW, Pan GX (2018) Biochar amendment changes temperature sensitivity of soil respiration and composition of microbial communities 3 years after in-corporation in an organic carbon-poor dry cropland soil. Biol Fertil Soils 54:175–188CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cheng J, Li Y, Gao W, Chen Y, Pan W, Lee X, Tang Y (2018) Effects of biochar on Cd and Pb mobility and microbial community composition in a calcareous soil planted with tobacco. Biol Fertil Soils 54:373–383CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. De Groote H (2002) Maize yield losses from stem borers in Kenya. Insect Sci Appl 22:89–96Google Scholar
  11. Domene X, Hanley K, Enders A, Lehmann J (2015) Short-term mesofauna responses to soil additions of corn stover biochar and the role of microbial biomass. Appl Soil Ecol 89:10–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Forge TA, Kimpinski J (2007) Nematodes. In: Gregorich EG, Carter MR (eds) Soil sampling and methods of analysis, 2nd edn. CRC Press, Boca Raton, pp 415–425Google Scholar
  13. Fungo B, Lehmann J, Kalbitz K, Thiong’o M, Tenywa M, Okeyo I, Neufeldt H (2019) Ammonia and nitrous oxide emissions from a field ultisol amended with tithonia green manure, urea, and biochar. Biol Fertil Soils 55:135–148CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Gaskin JW, Speir RA, Harris K, Das KC, Lee RD, Morris LA, Fisher DS (2010) Effect of peanut hull and pine chip biochar on soil nutrients, corn nutrient status, and yield. Agron J 102:623–633CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gitari H, Gachene CKK, Karanja NN, Kamau S, Nyawade S, Schulte-Geldermann E (2019) Potato-legume intercropping on a sloping terrain and its effects on soil physico-chemical properties. Plant Soil 438:447–460CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Glaser B, Lehmann J, Zech W (2002) Ameliorating physical and chemical properties of highly weathered soils in the tropics with charcoal - a review. Biol Fertil Soils 35:219–230CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Glaser B, Wiedner K, Seelig S, Schmidt H-P, Gerber H (2015) Biochar organic fertilizers from natural resources as substitute for mineral fertilizers. Agron Sustain Dev 35:667–678CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Guerena D, Lehmann J, Hanley K, Enders A, Hyland C, Riha S (2013) Nitrogen dynamics following field application of biochar in a temperate north American maize-based production system. Plant Soil 365:239–254CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Guerena D, Kimetu J, Riha S, Neufeldt H, Lehmann J (2016) Maize productivity dynamics in response to mineral nutrient additions and legacy organic soil inputs of contrasting quality. Field Crop Res 188:13–120CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Hagemann N, Joseph S, Schmidt HP, Kammann CI, Harter J, Borch T, Young RB, Varga K, Taherymoosavi S, Elliott KW, McKenna A, Albu M, Mayrhofer C, Obst M, Conte P, Dieguez-Alonso A, Orsetti S, Subdiaga E, Behrens S, Kappler A (2017) Organic coating on biochar explains its nutrient retention and stimulation of soil fertility. Nat Commun 8:1089. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Ippolito JA, Spokas KA, Novak JM, Lentz RD, Cantrell KB (2015) Biochar elemental composition and factors influencing nutrient retention. In: Lehmann J, Joseph S (eds) Biochar for environmental management: science, technology and implementation, 2nd edn. Routledge, New York, pp 139–163Google Scholar
  22. Isaac RA, Johnson WC Jr (1998) Elemental determination by inductively coupled plasma atomic emission spectrometry. In: Kalra YP (ed) Handbook of reference methods for plant analysis. CRC Press, Boca Raton, pp 165–170Google Scholar
  23. Jaetzold R, Schemidt H, Hornetz B, Shisanya C (2006) Farm management handbook of Kenya, vol II/B2. Ministry of Agriculture. Kenya and German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), NairobiGoogle Scholar
  24. Jeffery S, Verheijen FG, van der Velde M, Bastos AC (2011) A quantitative review of the effects of biochar application to soils on crop productivity using meta-analysis. Agric Ecosyst Environ 144:175–187CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kamau S, Barrios E, Karanja NK, Ayuke FO, Lehmann J (2017) Spatial variation of soil macrofauna and nutrients in agricultural landscapes dominated by historical charcoal production. Appl Soil Ecol 119:286–293CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kaur R, Gonzales WL, Llambi LD, Soriano PJ, Callaway RM, Rout ME, Gallaher JT, Inderjit (2012) Community impacts of Prosopis juliflora invasion: biogeographic and congeneric comparisons. PLoS One 7:e44966CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kimetu J, Lehmann J, Ngoze S, Mugendi D, Kinyangi J, Riha S, Verchot L, Recha J, Pell A (2008) Reversibility of soil productivity decline with organic matter of differing quality along a degradation gradient. Ecosystems 11:726–739CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lehmann J, da Silva JP Jr, Steiner C, Nehls T, Zech W, Glaser B (2003) Nutrient availability and leaching in an archaeological Anthrosol and a Ferrasol of the Central Amazon basin: fertilizer, manure, and charcoal amendments. Plant Soil 249:343–357CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Lehmann J, Gaunt J, Rondon M (2006) Bio-char sequestration in terrestrial ecosystems – a review. Mitig Adapt Strateg Glob Chang 11:403–427CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Lehmann J, Rillig MC, Thies J, Masiello CA, Hockaday WC, Crowley D (2011) Biochar effects on soil biota – a review. Soil Biol Biochem 43:1812–1336CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Lehmann J, Kuzyakov Y, Pan G, Ok YS (2015) Biochars and the plant-soil interface. Plant Soil 395:1–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Liang B, Lehmann J, Solomon D, Kinyangi J, Grossman J, O’Neill B, Skjemstad JO, Thies J, Luizão FJ, Petersen J, Neves EG (2006) Black carbon increases cation exchange capacity in soils. Soil Sci Soc Am J 70:1719–1730CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Major J, Rondon M, Molina D, Riha S, Lehmann J (2010) Maize yield and nutrition during 4 years after biochar application to a Colombian savanna oxisol. Plant Soil 333:117–128CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Mao J-D, Johnson RL, Lehmann J, Olk DC, Neves EG, Thompson ML, Schmidt-Rohr K (2012) Abundant and stable char residues in soils: implications for soil fertility and carbon sequestration. Environ Sci Technol 46:9571–9576CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Mbaabu PR, Ng W-T, Schaffner U, Gichaba M, Olago D, Choge S, Oriaso S, Eckert S (2019) Spatial evolution of Prosopis invasion and its effects on LULC and livelihoods in Baringo, Kenya. Remote Sens 11:1217CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Mbau SK (2012) Evaluating quality of composts made from organic agro-wastes and their influence on maize yield and soil fauna in Western Kenya. MSc. Thesis. University of NairobiGoogle Scholar
  37. Mbau SK, Karanja N, Ayuke F (2015) Short-term influence of compost application on maize yield, soil macrofauna diversity and abundance in nutrient deficient soils of Kakamega County, Kenya. Plant Soil 387:379–394CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. McCormack S, Ostle N, Bardgett RD, Hopkin DW, VanBergen AJ (2013) Biochar in bioenergy cropping systems: impacts on soil faunal communities and linked ecosystem processes. Glob Change Biol Bioenergy 5:81–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Mehlich M (1984) Mehlichs-3 soil test extractant: a modification of the Mehlich 2 extractant. Commun Soil Sci Plant Anal 15:1409–1416CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Miller RO (1998) Microwave digestion of plant tissue in a closed vessel. In: Kalra YP (ed) Handbook of reference methods for plant analysis. CRC Press, Boca Raton, pp 69–73Google Scholar
  41. Mwangi E, Swallow B (2008) Prosopis juliflora invasion and rural livelihoods in the Lake Baringo area of Kenya. Conserv Soc 6:130–140CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Novak JM, Busscher WJ, Laird DL, Ahmedna M, Watts DW, Niandou MAS (2009) Impact of biochar amendment on fertility of a southeastern coastal plain soil. Soil Sci 174:105–112CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. O’Neill B, Grossman J, Tsai M, Gomes J, Lehmann J, Peterson J, Neves E, Thies J (2009) Bacterial community composition in Brazilian Anthrosols and adjacent soils characterized using culturing and molecular identification. Microb Ecol 58:23–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Rahman L, Whitelaw-Weckert MA, Orchard B (2014) Impact of organic soil amendments, including poultry-litter biochar, on nematodes in a Riverina, New South Wales, vineyard. Soil Res 52:604–619CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. R-Core Team (2016) R: a language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, ViennaGoogle Scholar
  46. Schimmelpfennig S, Glaser B (2012) One step forward toward characterization: some important material properties to distinguish biochars. J Environ Qual 41:1001–1013CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Shiferaw H, Bewket W, Alamirew T, Zeleke G, Teketay D, Bekele K, Schaffner U, Eckert S (2019) Implications of land use/land cover dynamics and Prosopis invasion on ecosystem service values in Afar Region, Ethiopia. Sci Total Environ 675:354–366CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Topoliantz S, Ponge JF (2003) Burrowing activity of geophagus earthworm Pontoscolex corethrurus (Oligochaeta: Glossoscolecidae) in the presence of charcoal. Appl Soil Ecol 23:267–271CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Uzoma KC, Inoue M, Andry H, Fujimaki H, Zahoor A, Nishihara E (2011) Effect of cow manure biochar on maize productivity under sandy soil condition. Soil Use Manag 27:205–212CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Van Zwieten L, Kimber S, Morris S, Chan KY, Downie A, Rust J, Joseph S, Cowie A (2010) Effects of biochar from slow pyrolysis of papermill waste on agronomic performance and soil fertility. Plant Soil 327:235–246CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Vanlauwe B, Kihara J, Chivenge P, Pypers P, Coe R, Six J (2011) Agronomic use efficiency of N fertilizer in maize-based systems in sub-Saharan Africa within the context of integrated soil fertility management. Plant Soil 339:35–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Ventura M, Alberti G, Panzacchi P, Vedove GD, Miglietta F, Tonon G (2019) Biochar mineralization and priming effect in a poplar short rotation coppice from a 3-year field experiment. Biol Fertil Soils 55:67–78CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Verheijen F, Jeffery SL, Bastos AC, van der Velde M, Diafas I (2010) Biochar application to soils: a critical scientific review of effects on soil properties, processes and functions. European Commission, LuxembourgGoogle Scholar
  54. Wakie T, Evangelista P, Laituri M (2012) Utilization assessment of Prosopis juliflora in Afar region, Ethiopia. Pastoral Livelihoods Initiative II Project (PLI II), US Forest Service, USDA Office of International Programs, USAID. Accessed 28 June 2019
  55. Wang K-H, McSorley R (2005) Effects of soil ecosystem management on nematode pests, nutrient cycling, and plant health. APSnet Features.; Accessed 05 Sept 2018
  56. Warnock DD, Lehmann J, Kuyper TW, Rillig MC (2007) Mycorrhizal responses to biochar in soil – concepts and mechanisms. Plant Soil 300:9–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Waters D, Van Zwieten L, Singh BP, Downie A, Cowie AL, Lehmann J (2011) Biochars in soil for climate change mitigation and adaptation. In: Singh BP, Cowie AL, Chan KY (eds) Soil health and climate change. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, pp 345–368CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Zhang A, Liu Y, Pan G, Hussain Q, Li L, Zheng J, Zhang X (2012) Effect of biochar amendment on maize yield and greenhouse gas emissions from a soil organic carbon poor calcareous loamy soil from Central China plain. Plant Soil 351:263–275CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Zhang XK, Li Q, Liang WJ, Zhang M, Bao XL, Xie ZB (2013) Soil nematode response to biochar addition in a Chinese wheat field. Pedosphere 23:98–103CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Solomon Kamau
    • 1
    Email author
  • Nancy K. Karanja
    • 1
  • Fredrick O. Ayuke
    • 1
  • Johannes Lehmann
    • 2
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Land Resource Management and Agricultural Technology, College of Agriculture and Veterinary SciencesUniversity of NairobiNairobiKenya
  2. 2.Soil and Crop ScienceCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  3. 3.Atkinson Center for a Sustainable FutureCornell UniversityIthacaUSA

Personalised recommendations