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Effect of biochar on aerobic processes, enzyme activity, and crop yields in two sandy loam soils

Abstract

Biochar added to agricultural soils may sequester carbon and improve physico-chemical conditions for crop growth, due to effects such as increased water and nutrient retention in the root zone. The effects of biochar on soil microbiological properties are less certain. We addressed the effects of wood-based biochar on soil respiration, water contents, potential ammonia oxidation (PAO), arylsulfatase activity (ASA), and crop yields at two temperate sandy loam soils under realistic field conditions. In situ soil respiration, PAO, and ASA were not significantly different in quadruplicate field plots with or without biochar (20 Mg ha−1); however, in the same plots, volumetric water contents increased by 7.5 % due to biochar (P = 0.007). Crop yields (oat) were not significantly different in the first year after biochar application, but in the second year, total yields of spring barley increased by 11 % (P < 0.001), though the increase in grain yield was not significant. Field plots with cumulative biochar rates of up to 100 Mg ha−1, applied during two consecutive years, substantiated that biochar was not inhibitory to PAO and ASA as reference plots consistently showed lowest activities. For PAO, it was found that soil pH, rather than biochar rates, was a driving environmental variable. For ASA, the methodological approach was challenged by product sorption, but results did not suggest that biochar significantly stimulated the enzyme activity. Crop yields of maize in field experiments with 10–100 Mg biochar ha−1 were unaffected by biochar except for a negative effect of the highest annual rates of 50 Mg ha−1 in the first year after application. In conclusion, the present wood-based biochar poorly affected the measured microbial processes and generally resulted in similar crop yields in reference and biochar-amended soil plots.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Michael Meyer for access to the Kalundborg field site. This study was funded by the Danish Research Council for Technology and Production Science under the auspices of the Soil Infrastructure, Interfaces, and Translocation Processes in Inner Space (Soil-it-is) project and sponsorship for the first author from the China Scholarship Council. The contribution of L.E. was supported by funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for research, technological development and demonstration under grant agreement no. 289785 (REFERTIL, http://www.refertil.info). This research was also funded by the North Sea Region Programme IVB through the project “Biochar: climate saving soils.” We gratefully acknowledge the technical support of Stig T. Rasmussen, Anette Andersen, and Palle Jørgensen. Also, helpful comments from journal reviewers and editor are acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Zhencai Sun.

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Sun, Z., Bruun, E.W., Arthur, E. et al. Effect of biochar on aerobic processes, enzyme activity, and crop yields in two sandy loam soils. Biol Fertil Soils 50, 1087–1097 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00374-014-0928-5

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Keywords

  • Arylsulfatase
  • Biochar
  • Crop yield
  • Nitrification
  • Respiration
  • Soil enzyme