Comparing Biochar Application Methods for Switchgrass Yield and C Sequestration on Contrasting Marginal Lands in Pennsylvania, USA
To avoid competition with food crops, biofuel feedstocks may need to be produced on economically marginal lands where yields are limited and replacement of existing vegetation will reduce soil C, foregoing some CO2 emission savings. Therefore, our first goal was to determine whether biochar application to marginal lands could improve switchgrass yield while sequestering sufficient soil C to eliminate the negative impact of cultivation. Because it may be difficult to obtain large quantities of biochar, our second goal was to compare small, incremental and large, all-at-once biochar applications. Our third goal was to determine whether biochar had any negative effects on earthworms, mycorrhizal fungi, soil bacteria, soil fungi, and soil enzyme activity. We grew switchgrass at two sites with poorly drained soils and two sites with excessively drained soils. Irrespective of site, biochar significantly increased yield when we rototilled in the entire amount before planting but not when we applied it incrementally between crop rows using a chisel plow. Biochar increased soil C stocks, in some cases increasing it beyond that found in soils of intact marginal land vegetation. Nevertheless, mixing biochar with soil had little or no impact on earthworm activity, mycorrhizal colonization, soil bacterial and fungal communities, and soil enzyme activities. We conclude that biochar may be part of an effective strategy for producing switchgrass on marginal lands, but the choice of application method depends on the relative importance of several considerations including biochar availability, switchgrass yield, C sequestration, soil erosion, and ease of application.
KeywordsCrop yield Soil C Mycorrhizal fungi Root growth Soil enzymes Soil microbes
We thank Dennis Bookhamer, John Everhart, Jeffery Gonet, Steve Lamar, Bart Moyer, Matthew Myers, Matthew Peoples, Melissa Rubano, and Robert Stout for expert technical assistance.
This research was supported by The Pennsylvania State University, the USDA/ARS, Brigham Young University, and by a grant from the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Program of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (No. 2011-67009-20072). Mention of trade names or commercial products in this publication is solely for the purpose of providing specific information and does not imply recommendation or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.
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