JUST as dogs with bad breath are given charcoal tablets to chew on, future sheep flocks and cattle herds may be fed organic biochar as a methane burp-busting supplement.
A stable, carbon-rich form of charcoal, organic biochar has potential to outperform Asparagopsis seaweed - also being investigated as a potential ruminant feed supplement to cut methane emissions - in terms of net environmental benefit, its proponents claim.
Unlike seaweed, biochar passes through a four-stomach ruminant digestive system relatively unchanged and, as part of manure, is ultimately buried by dung beetles.
Benefits of adding biochar to soil are well documented - its lattice formation harbours microbes and enables a disproportionate ability, relative to size, to absorb and hold moisture and nutrients.
Studies on a Manjimup farm where biochar has been fed to cattle since 2012, have shown more productive paddocks no longer require regular nitrogen and phosphorous fertiliser applications.
Animals are more productive too on the same feed volumes - an important indicator biochar cuts animal methane emissions.
According to science, every methane burp is energy escaping and essentially wasted by not being converted into growth.
Biochar's ability to reduce methane emissions in ruminant livestock has not yet been quantified, but may well prove its greatest environmental and economic benefit to agriculture.
A new Federal government greenhouse gas target of a minimum 43 per cent reduction from 2005 emissions levels, in the next eight years, will likely focus a spotlight on agriculture as the nation's third biggest greenhouse gas emitter.
Proliferation of rooftop solar, wind generators dotting rural landscapes and electric cars making the top-10 best-seller lists for the first time, are seen as visible examples of the energy industry - top emitter - and transport industry - second top emitter - working towards reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
Examples of agriculture's progress towards reduced emissions are not so obvious, particularly to people outside the industry who see methane - of which agriculture is a significant emitter - as a climate change driver, being more than 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Kochii Australian Eucalyptus Oil is hoping to change public perception on the way to creating a rural industry producing organic biochar in commercial quantity and helping Australia meet environmental targets.
Over the past 18 months it has invested about $3 million buying a degraded 1200ha former cropping and sheep property at Kulja in the northern Wheatbelt, which it is setting up as its base and a location for field trials and which it ultimately hopes to develop as a showpiece for its products.
It has moved eucalyptus oil production and a small mountain of semi-dried biomass waste from its operation at Kalannie, to the Kulja property and installed a pyrolyser to begin second and third product lines using the same oil mallee biomass as raw material.
Pyrolysis is a process of high temperature degradation in a minimum oxygen environment so charring, rather than combustion to ash, occurs.
Kochii intends pyrolysing waste biomass from oil production to turn it into organic biochar.
It has also adapted the pyrolyser exhaust to condense wood vinegar (pryoligneous acid) from the smoke - another byproduct often used as a biostimulant to enhance seed germination and plant propagation, particularly in horticulture.
Named after an oil mallee variety native to the Wheatbelt, Kochii has planted 40,000 oil mallee trees and has 80,000 more to plant this winter on 300ha of the Kulja property under a Clean Energy Regulator-approved scheme which will generate Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCU).
Each ACCU represents one tonne of carbon dioxide-equivalent net abatement, either by carbon sequestration or by emissions reduction.
A new boiler unit for producing steam to extract oil from harvested green oil mallee biomass has been set up with a generator and fuel and water tanks on a semi trailer, so Kochii's oil-making capability is now portable.
It was successfully tested for four months at another 1200ha property at North Bodallin, before returning to Kulja.
The genesis of the company that is now Kochii Australian Eucalyptus Oil was a carbon plantation business that block-planted oil mallees between 2008 and 2011 at North Bodallin as a certified organic operation that continues to generate and sell ACCUs into the local market, said Kochii's chief operating officer Steve Meerwald.
While the pyrolysis plant is not transportable, he estimates they have enough semi-dried biomass stockpiled at Kulja and still at their former Kalannie site, to operate the plant to produce organic biochar for two years without having to harvest trees.
As previously reported in Farm Weekly, for the past five years Kochii has been harvesting stands of oil mallees planted throughout the Wheatbelt since the mid 1990s under a scheme to minimise wind erosion and rising ground water salinity, originally set up by a group of farmers called the Kalannie Oil Distillers.
The trees are cut off near ground level - known as coppicing - to harvest a biomass of leaves and branches for oil production, but they reshoot from tubers below ground and regrow in an indefinite sustainable cycle that allows biomass to be reharvested every two to three years.
"We've got about 2000ha of coppice from mature trees that we harvest, that will come here (Kulja) and oil from it will be distilled and the biomass waste product from the distillation (semi-dried eucalypt branches and leaves that have had the oil removed by steaming) will be left to dry further, until it's within the range required for pyrolysis," Mr Meerwald said.
"We pyrolyse that directly into biochar which is 75pc organic carbon - our biomass resource is unique in that it is very consistent and very clean.
"But it burns very hot and that created some challenges for the designers of the pyrolysis unit and our own people here in how we deal with that heat - the fire box on the unit operates at between 500 and 700 degrees Celsius and the thermal oxidiser that is handling the exhaust is operating at about 1200-1400 degrees, so they are pretty extreme temperatures.
"It has taken some time to set it up to operate efficiently and reliably.
"We've probably produced about 150 cubic metres of char at this point, which has been sold to the Eastern States, but with the plant operating at capacity, we should be producing about 4000 cubic metres a year, which is our intention.
"We've been looking at what the highest and best value uses (of biochar) are.
"Our perspective is the best commercial outcome and also the best environmental outcome, is if it is used as a supplement in ruminant animal stock feed.
"We've seen and read reports where there are benefits in terms of the char increasing the efficiency of the rumen and that has two immediate benefits.
"One is the animal converts more efficiently so it grows quicker on the same volume of feed and second, because it is more efficient, it produces less methane with environmental benefits and probably also commercial benefits from carbon credits.
"Feeding biochar in a feedlot situation, the manure with biochar could be spread on paddocks or go into compost where biochar enhances both the composting process and the compost quality itself because it is carbon enriched.
"Either way, you are putting carbon back into the soil which is a great benefit for the soil and for its future productivity."
Mr Meerwald said Kochii hoped to set up commercial organic biochar trials with feedlot and cattle and sheep production partners.
"We want to get biochar out into the field and to get some real feedback on what the effects and benefits are from using it," he said.
"We think there will be suffi ient evidence gained from those trials to make animal production benefits self evident.
"The more scientific trials to deal with methane reduction will need to be done in controlled environments and with partners like universities - I know Meat and Livestock Australia is particularly keen on this aspect.
"But it will take longer and require more rigour."
About 400 mixed-breed sheep are run at Kulja and sheep are run at North Bodallin as part of an integrated properties management plan to mitigate weed and biorisk among the trees.
Kochii operations supervisor Richard Leitch said he had filled feed troughs at Kulja with biochar they had produced, as their own simple trial.
"The sheep came up and ate it without any problems," Mr Leitch said.
"They ate only as much as they needed, then went back to grazing."
Mr Meerwald said Kochii would also like to trial its wood vinegar product "in a broadacre situation here in WA and see if it can add value in either the way crops react in terms of their growth cycle or, alternatively, as an enhancer of existing products".
"There's a lot of upside - it's all natural and comes from the same sustainable cycle as our oil and bio?char," he said.
"Once the efficacy of the biochar and wood vinegar products are proven and the pyrolyser is running at maximum effi ciency and reliability, the next step would be to increase production.
"Our intention is to have this (pyrolyser) machine running 24/7 and once that is underway, our intention is to commission a second and third machine to produce enough biochar to meet what we think the future demand for biochar - particularly for animal feed supplement - will be."
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