The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) have developed several web-based tools to help users of biochar make the best use of it.
Support for biochar adoption is no longer an underground phenomenon. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) have developed several web-based tools to help users of biochar make the best use of it. There are different soil types, different biochar types and traits and different application rates. All of this may sound complicated but here we’re going to talk about the new online applications that can help you navigate these variables. This type of support is part of the effort to back wider adoption of biochar. Additionally, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office now have financing programs (incentives in the form of payments) for agricultural producers in order to help them implement sustainable practices on their lands. In other words, the use of biochar will have financial support. And this is not going away anytime soon.
However, proper use of biochar and even what it is or does are still not widely known. Even those of us who have some knowledge and experience with biochar are often forced to re-learn and adjust practices based on new research and case studies. Nevertheless, the best thing to do is to get in there and do it. But to do this you still need the best informational foundation you can get. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) have compiled a number of handy and sometimes amazing, free online tools that can support biochar projects of any size. This article will give you a run-down and brief introduction to them.
One of the best ways to get the most benefit out of biochar for soil application is to know your soil type. Therefore, it only makes sense that the first tool highlighted by the USDA would be the Web Soil Survey (WSS). This application is truly cool. The National Cooperative Soil Survey (NCSS) produces soil data and information, which is made available by Web Soil Survey (WSS). It offers access to one of the biggest natural resource information systems in the world and is run by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). At the time of this writing it offers data from US and US territories but there is a plan stated to eventually cover the whole world. More than 95% of the counties in the country have soil maps and data available online, and NRCS anticipates having 100% in the near future. The website is regularly updated and maintained online as the only reliable source of data on soil surveys. It can give you more than soil type data including geological information, cropland and more. The best thing to do is just try it. You can specify which soil location you’re considering adding biochar to. The WSS tool will generate detailed soil-type data. From here you can use another tool, the Biochar Selection Tool which we will discuss next. These tools when used together can help you decide if and which type of biochar can help the soil region you are examining.
Web Soil Survey (WSS) (Link)
The second tool is the Biochar Atlas (Link) which is actually a set of individual and interlinked tools. The organizations that developed these are the USDA Agricultural Research Service, USDA Northwest Climate Hub, Northwest Climate Action Science Center, and Oregon State University.
The stated purpose of the Atlas is to provide advice to farmers, gardeners, and other end users regarding the possible advantages of biochars, together with decision-support tools to choose the types and amounts of amendment. The institutions that created the tools wanted to support biochar implementation through scientific evidence joining efforts from people who specialize in biomass utilization, engineers, economics, soil scientists, and agronomists. As well as experiences from end users who have had good results in terms of biochar use such as in drought adaptation. It is also to help biochar producers by disseminating assessments of current research and market conditions and provide examples from early adopters.
Let’s have a look at them:
Soil Data Explorer > Biochar Selection Tool (Link)
The Soil Data Explorer is coupled with the Biochar Selection Tool where you get your soil analysis from the former and then submit the data to the fields into the later. The Soil Data Explorer is at this time limited in terms of the locations where information is available. Therefore, we suggest using WSS mentioned above. Use the data generated from the WSS to fill out the fields in the Biochar Selection Tool.
Here is a breakdown of the steps to take to make use of the tool.
- After getting the soil data from the WSS, fill out the information into the Biochar Selection Tool fields on your soil that was generated by the WSS regarding soil carbon content, fertility levels, acidity, and moisture, among others.
- Find out the potential deficiencies that biochar can help to overcome based on the properties of your soil specified in step (1).
- You can prioritize biochar goals such as sequestering carbon, increasing plant nutrients, increasing soil microbial activity, and quite a lot more. This is a fantastic set of parameters which can really help make the most of biochar as a soil amendment.
- From the previous step you can get the biochar type recommendations based on your priorities.
Biochar Property Explorer (Link)
You can use this tool to compare the characteristics of biochars made from various types of feedstocks. Also, if you have laboratory test results for your own biochar, you can use it to determine the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) categorization for biochars in the database. Currently, the database contains 23 biochars made from 11 distinct feedstocks, including both lab and commercially produced biochars. It is worth even just playing around with it to see how biochars differ from one another which is quite a lot.
Biochar Cost-Benefit Analysis Tool (Link)
This tool helps users estimate the revenues that can be obtained from using biochar as well as conduct a cost-benefit analysis to see whether biochar would be a sound financial investment. When used properly biochar will increase crop yields which in turn leads to higher earnings from sales. Also, you can save money on fertilizers because with biochar you will need less of it to achieve the desired results. The Biochar Cost-Benefit Analysis Tool is a handy little calculator that first asks you to enter the cost of the biochar you’re thinking of using, then how much and any transportation involved. Then you must add the values of the crops you will grow followed by some fairly detailed fields that ask for the costs and changes in Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, Lime and irrigation. From here the tool will generate a five-year table that displays biochar costs, changes in crop margins and net benefit.
An informative table provided by the USDA shows crop values and yield rates. You can use the data from this table to help you fill in the fields in the Crop Value section. The next section, Other Crop Inputs requires detailed data on your soil as well as the biochar you may be planning to use. It is an optional step but it can increase the accuracy of the final results. We were able to generate a positive value, that is increased income from biochar use over a five-year period. But the best way is to try it on your own.
It may take some experimenting with these tools as well as discussions between peers to make the most of them. We very much welcome comments being left on this blog page as a start. We also encourage people making Youtube videos or otherwise documenting their use of the tools and of course helping to guide and optimize their capabilities.
While not put forward by the USDA, an honorable mention in online apps to help in biochar use could be the Biochar Application Rate Calculator made by Pacific Biochar (Link). When biochar is present in soil it can be very difficult to distinguish between other types of organic matter in the soil. The Biochar Application Rate Calculator was developed to help determine percent organic matter (% OM) equivalent applied in the volume of treated soil. This tool allows users to calculate how much biochar is needed to achieve the correct increase in % OM for a specific project. The app includes information for both broadcast and in-row applications.