Biochar in poultry farming

by Henning Gerlach und Hans-Peter Schmidt

The poultry industry is struggling more and more with livestock disease. Often this can be traced back to microbial pathogens and ammonia in the litter. The addition of highly porous biochar can serve to reduce toxic ammonia pollution in the coops and regulate the moisture level of the litter. The biting coop odour and foot pad dermatitis in the poultry can be prevented within just a few days. If biochar is included in the feed, toxins can be deactivated already in the digestive system. The intestinal flora is positively activated, and the vitality of the animals improves rapidly and markedly.

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Industrial poultry farming places extremely high demands on hygiene of the coops, of the air in the coops and of the feed, as well as of waste and faecal matter. High animal densities increase the pathogen pressure as the immune response of stressed animals is weakened, with the result that more pathogens are excreted. The smaller the area in which the animals are kept, the more the microbial environment in the coop is dominated by microbes that live off the animal itself and its excretions. This produces a significant risk of spreading germs, which is exacerbated by poor coop and feeding hygiene.

If, in addition, the poultry is treated with anti-infection and antibacterial agents, this creates an environment that selects pathogens that are resistant to the drugs being used. Because these events depend on the quantity of pathogens (pathogen pressure), it is all the more important to control the coop environment in a timely manner so that pathogen pressure is reduced.

Due to the loose housing of poultry, animals in coop systems inevitably live in constant contact with their excrement. The extremely nutrient-rich and humid faeces create ideal conditions for the multiplication of pathogenic microorganisms. Added to this, the microbial decomposition of the excrement leads to significant emissions of ammonia. The pungent-smelling gas is harmful to the animals because it irritates the mucous membranes, attacks the lungs, weakens the immune system and even accumulates in the blood. Besides the effect on animal welfare, animal performance also deteriorates seriously. Last but not least, ammonia emissions are environmentally harmful. Via nitrogen return in rain, they produce highly climate-damaging emissions of nitrous oxide, soil acidification and eutrophication of water bodies.

The use of biochar as a feed additive and as litter can significantly minimize the problems described both with regard to animal health and in terms of environmental performance.


Instructions for the use of biochar in litter

Biochar has a very high water holding capacity and can absorb up to 5 times its own weight of water. Biochar adsorbs very efficiently both organic molecules such as amino acids, fatty acids, proteins and urea and also mineral compounds such as ammonium, ammonia and nitrate. Used in litter, biochar locks in moisture and organic and inorganic nitrogen compounds. The nitrogen adsorption and the continuous drying of the litter deprive the microbial pathogens of their nutrient base and reduce toxic emissions of ammonia. After just a few days, a significant reduction in coop odour can already be noticed.

With the lowering of the moisture content and ammonia contamination the risk of footpad diseases decreases. Existing infections begin to heal. Animals’ resistance increases, with a positive effect on their vitality, egg production and final body weight.

Biochar’s high adsorption capacity makes it possible to reduce the use of lime in the litter, thereby reducing the pH of the litter and manure, which in turn reduces ammonia emissions.


Footpad diseases

Turkeys and broilers frequently suffer from leg weakness syndrome, which last but not least is economically disastrous. To this should be added footpad inflammation, known as footpad dermatitis (pododermatitis). The causes of these inflammation reactions are multifactorial, but the main causes are high levels of ammonia (NH3) and overly damp litter. Particularly important in this respect are the structure and hardness of the litter, both of which are improved by the use of biochar.

The effects of footpad diseases include pain, reduced physical activity, reduced feed and water intake, growth depression, feather pecking/cannibalism, reduced carcass quality and increased mortality.


Application of biochar

The biochar should, depending on the type of litter, be mixed 5-10 vol % with the usual litter. The char is first moistened in order to prevent dust formation. Ideally it is applied in the form of lactic acid biochar bokashi. When using straw pellets as litter, the char is best added already at the pelleting stage.

If silage is used as litter, the char can already be added at the ensiling stage. In this way, dust formation can be avoided entirely, and the low pH of the silage kills off pathogens. Mixed into silage, the char is bound very well and no longer rubs off onto the animals’ feet. This is particularly important in egg farms, since coal can rub off from the hens’ feet onto the eggs.


Use of biochar in feed

In addition to its use as a litter additive, biochar, and in particular biochar bokashi, is also used as a feed supplement. Biochar promotes digestion, improves feed efficiency, and thus in particular energy absorption via the feed. Toxins such as dioxin, glyphosate, mycotoxins, pesticides and PAHs are efficiently bound by the biochar, thereby obviating any adverse effects on the digestive system and intestinal flora. The health, activity and balance of the animals will also be improved, as will meat and egg production. With animals’ immune systems stabilized, the risk of infection from pathogenic micro-organisms decreases.

The huge economic impact of diarrhoeal diseases in poultry is well-known. The causes of these diseases are often of an infectious nature and are caused by, among others, E. coli, clostridia, coccidia and mycobacteria. Of particular importance are salmonella and campylobacter germs; while rarely causing disease in poultry, they can do so in humans. Non-infectious causes of disease are in particular poor feed quality and biocide contamination of the feed, as when herbicides are used to siccate feed grain or to treat weeds during the growing of GMO corn or soy feed. The consequences are an increased susceptibility to disease, growth depression, infertility and digestive disorders.

Numerous factors are responsible for the stabilization of the intestinal milieu. Of particular importance here are the stabilization of the intestinal barrier and the functionality of the liver. Numerous bacteria such as lactobacilli and enterococci, but also non-pathogenic yeasts play an indispensable role here. Feeding biochar and biochar bokashi can stimulate the activity of these desired microorganisms in the digestive system. The benefit of the biochar lies therefore not least in its ability to relieve in particular the liver-intestinal circuit.

The charging of the biochar with specific lactobacilli to direct the symbiosis in the gastro-intestinal tract of farm animals can further potentiate the effect of the biochar. Biochar bokashis produced as ready-made feed on the basis of a fermented biochar, wheat bran and herbs are an important feed supplement for maintaining and enhancing performance in animal production.

According to studies by Van (2006), the addition of up to 0.6% biochar in the feed improves growth in young animals by an average of 17%. Similar results are confirmed by Kana (2010) and Ruttanvut (2009) for ducks and broilers. No systematic scientific studies of long-term effects exist as yet.

It is recommended to mix 0.4% – 0.6% biochar to the usual feed. With laying hens the feed supplement should be suspended for 2-3 days every 10-15 days. Biochar bokashis, such as Carbon-Feed from Swiss Biochar, should be added 2% – 3%% to the usual feed. If biochar is already used in the feed, the amount of biochar in the litter can be reduced accordingly.


Using biochar to improving manure quality

The above-mentioned effects of biochar for storing moisture and nutrients also mean that the poultry manure is better degraded microbiologically. Carbon and nitrogen losses are significantly reduced and with them the emission of greenhouse gases (Steiner 2010). The fertilizer quality of the poultry manure increases strongly as a result of the biochar and the odour pollution can be reduced significantly, which increases the marketing potential of poultry manure.

If biochar is used neither in the litter nor in the feed, it is advisable to sprinkle it in a ratio of 10 vol % on the manure belt.

If the poultry manure is used for energy production in biogas units, the addition of biochar both increases the methane yield and improves the fertilizing quality of the digestate. Poultry manure can also be directly pyrolyzed to produce biochar and energy.

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Kana, JR, Teguia, A, Mungfu, BM, Tchoumboue, J 2010, ‘Growth performance and carcass characteristics of broiler chickens fed diets supplemented with graded levels of charcoal from maize cob or seed of Canarium schweinfurthii Engl’, Tropical Animal Health and Production 43(1):51–56.
Steiner C, Das KC, Melear N, Lakly D, Reducing nitrogen loss during poultry litter composting using biochar, J Environ Qual. 2010 Jul-Aug; 39(4): 1236-42
Van, DTT, Mui, NT & Ledin, I. 2006, ‘Effect of method of processing foliage of Acacia mangium and inclusion of bamboo charcoal in the diet on performance of growing goats’, Animal Feed Science and Technology 130: 242-56.

Ithaca comments

Certainly, the use of biochar can partially mitigate the catastrophic situation in mass animal husbandry. Infectious diseases are slightly reduced, feed intake slightly improved, meat weight increases and there are less greenhouse gases. But do we really want to help making this outrageous contempt for the life of mass-farmed animals even more efficient? The statement that the animals would thus suffer less should be seen as bitter sarcasm.
Should we not expect that the properties of biochar will be used precisely to allow the use of poorer and even more contaminated feed, because the char fixes the toxins? Feed manufacturers will certainly very soon be mixing the biochar directly into their pellets, making it almost impossible to measure dioxins and PAHs any longer with the traditional analysis tools. Will not the better coop environment following the use of biochar in the litter be used precisely in order to increase animal density even further and build the sheds even larger?
In the corn pellets with which the chickens are fed, the level of glyphosate (RoundUp herbicide) is allowed to be 200 times higher than in other foods. This herbicide is eliminated not only via the droppings, but especially via the eggs, of which the highly bred hens lay one every day. However, the usual analytical methods for the detection of herbicides in foods work only in low-protein foods. It is not even possible to estimate the magnitude of herbicide contamination in the eggs…
Is it right for us as ecologists and veterinarians to propagate solutions that extend the continuance of this farming system, even if the environmental damage is reduced in the medium term? Can we talk our way out of this by saying that factory farming is a societal problem that can only be solved by society? I really do not know. I only can attempt to publish the information as completely as possible and from different points of view.
But one thing I do know: healthy chickens that run free in green fields and have access to uncontaminated feed would need biochar only in exceptional cases as a remedy. All the diseases that we write about in the article would be eliminated with a free-range grazing system, as shown in the following movie, and this even without biochar. Should the first step in the above-mentioned dilemma not be rather to eat eggs from chickens that are allowed to run daily in the grass?”

On the manure belt of this chickenmobile biochar makes sense for enhancing the fertilizing properties of manure in the overall system. If we think further such innovative models and ideas, other unimagined possibilities such as a combination of vegetable, fruit and wine growing with poultry farming open themselves up.

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8 Responses to “Biochar in poultry farming””

  1. Jochen Binikowski

    Ich habe den Artikel im Landtreff-Forum zur Diskussion gestellt und es sind einige interessante Kommentare geschrieben worden:

  2. Jorge

    Der Ithaka-Kommentar trifft zwar den Nagel auf den Kopf. Solange aber die Verbraucher Junk-Food einkaufen nur mit Blick auf den billigen Preis, wird sich an diesen himmelschreienden Produktionsmethoden leider wenig ändern.

  3. hps

    Ich habe noch eine Frage zur Bindekraft der Kohle, für Toxine und Nährstoffe. Gibt es darüber Untersuchungen? Schwindet die Bindekraft während der Lagerung durch Oxidation?

    Durch Oxidation der Kohle nimmt deren KAK zu und damit auch die Bindekraft. Zur Bindekraft der Kohle gibt es bereits zahlreiche fundierte Untersuchungen.

    Wie lange dauert dieser Vorgang? In wie weit ist die Struktur der Kohle wichtig?

    Die Struktur ist entscheidend, wobei die höchsten Bindungskräfte bei höheren Pyrolysetemperaturen (900°C) entstehen, jedoch ist das für den Boden nicht unbedingt erwünscht, da dann auch die Pflanzenverfügbarkeit der Nährstoffe und damit auch die biologische Einbindung in die Bodenmatrix sinkt. Hier muss man einfach einen Kompromiss suchen.

    Es gibt ja z.B. Vergaserkoks, der staubfein ist. Hat ein solcher Koks noch ein großes Porenvolumen mit ähnlichen Eigenschaften wie Meilerkohle? Würde das Besprühen mit antioxidativ wirkende Substanzen (EM, Kanne, Sauerkrautsaft, AM+, etc.) Abhilfe schaffen können? Gibt es da Erfahrungen?

    Holzvergaserkohle ist in der Regel zu stark mit PAK belastet, um in den Boden eingebracht werden zu dürfen. Die Aromatizität ist relativ hoch und damit auch die Bindungskraft, aber die Oberflächen sind geringer und aufgrund der hohen Pyrolysetemperaturen auch die biologische Einbindungskapazität. EM usw. hilft da dann auch nicht mehr viel. Allgemein lässt sich aber sagen, dass die Fixationsleistung bei niedrigen pH-Werte, wie sie durch EM erreicht werden, verbessert wird.

  4. Iris

    Ich bin sehr froh, dass ihr den Film zum Hühnermobil angehängt habt. Es ist wirklich eine gute und sinnvolle Alternative zur Massentierhaltung.
    Kostet den Verbraucher nur wenige Euros pro Jahr mehr für die Eier (ca 10,- €). So können die Hühner mit täglichem Auslauf artgerecht und umweltfreundlich gehalten werden. Das ermöglicht auch einen guten Einkommensbeitrag für bäuerliche Betriebe und stärkt diese, nachhaltig erhalten zu bleiben und die Lebensmittel zu erzeugen, die gut zum Leben sind. Für alle.

  5. Charmaster Dolph Cooke

    Great and usefull article. I am emailing this to my 6 friends who have huge chicken business in Australia. This is easy to read and I love that you included easy to follow instruction.
    This is worth a lot thankyou for sharing
    Charmaster Dolph Cooke

  6. Wilson Vasquez
    Title: Agronomy Professor

    Dear Ithaks members.
    This article is very, very important for Animal health and animal feet, is a new form for the poultry company.
    I live in amazon of peruvian and I work with Biochar since 2007. I want more information about animal feet/biochar.

    Wilson Vasquez

  7. Thom Sørensen

    In reference to the commentary by Ithaca:

    I agree that if biochar can be seen to somewhat remedy a bad situation in terms of using low grade feed or more densely populating an already crowded growing chamber or, as you say; “the use of biochar can partially mitigate the catastrophic situation in mass animal husbandry” then it has not only the potential but even the likelihood of being abused.

    Having said that, the facts are that anything that can be used to make the “product’s” life better and healthier for whatever lifetime it has available, is a positive reaction for all, the creature, the producer and the consumer.

    The aspect of biochar being used to mitigate many of the environmental impacts of raw or improperly composted litter is also an additional positive.

    It might not be a “totally humane” answer but animal production and consumption is not actually an industry that lends itself to “totally humane” realities. I think that we want to focus mainly on the benefits possibly derived and leave the abuse question to those who will abuse anything regardless of its inherent or potential goodness.

  8. John mower

    I very much enjoyed all that I have read about the many positive attributes of biochar .I currently raise cattle, hogs and chickens on pasture .I have only fed biochar for one month , but I am already seeing significant results .less odor, and seemingly better disposition .mostly in my hogs .the cows have a better consistensy in the manure well done , I will continue my experiments, thank you for the great info

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