The leaching of applied nitrogen (N) fertilizer from agricultural fields to the waterways is one of the major environmental issues that lead to algal blooms or eutrophication. The changing climate with warmer winters and increasing precipitation in wintertime further exacerbates the N leaching problem, leading to increased N leaching to the Baltic Sea in Nordic conditions unless new methods to reduce N leaching are developed and put to practice.
We measured N leaching in the soil amendment field experiment maintained by Soilfood Oy () at Qvidja farm (Päästösäästö project site) in Parainen, south-western Finland ( ). There, we tested the effectiveness of two types of biochars produced from spruce and willow, and a ligneous nutrient fiber (pulp and paper mill side stream) in reducing the leaching of N during the growing season of 2017 and the following winter. We used resin bags placed under the plough layer to collect the dissolved inorganic nitrogen passing through the soil column. The resins were collected at frequent intervals and extracted to measure the amount of leached ammonium and nitrate.
Field experiment of PäästöSäästö project in Qvidja
We found that only the studied spruce biochar significantly reduced nitrate leaching by 68% during the growing season of 2017 compared to the corresponding fertilized control. The results were similar during winter, but differences between treatments were less clear because of high variation. Such reduction in nitrate leaching could be mainly due to the physical entrapment of water and dissolved nitrate inside the biochar pores.
Measurement of leachate from the field.
The spruce biochar (328 m2 g-1) had much higher specific surface area than the willow biochar (1.3 m2 g-1). This means that the spruce biochar had more small pores. Such small pores can withhold the percolating water, eventually retaining the dissolved nitrate. This was further supported by increased soil nitrate concentration in the spruce biochar treatments. However, the willow biochar and the nutrient fiber did not clearly reduce the leaching of either ammonia or nitrate. Therefore, the reduction in nitrate leaching is attainable in boreal conditions by applying appropriate type of biochar with a reasonable application rate (21 tons ha-1). The detailed mechanisms of nitrate retention by biochar requires further study. Investigating the pore structure characteristics of biochars produced from a wide range of feedstock with different pyrolysis techniques and combining such characteristics to nitrate leaching measurements would be needed to facilitate the development of tailored biochars that can efficiently retain nitrate for plant availability and keep it safe from leaching.
See more: Kristiina Karhu, Subin Kalu, Aino Seppänen, Barbara Kitzler, Eetu Virtanen,
Potential of biochar soil amendments to reduce N leaching in boreal field conditions estimated using the resin bag method, Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 2021, 316, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2021.107452. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167880921001560).