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Biochar In Situ Decreased Bulk Density and Improved Soil-Water Relations and Indicators in Southeastern US Coastal Plain Ultisols

Walters, Robert D.1; White, Jeffrey G.2

doi: 10.1097/SS.0000000000000235

ABSTRACT Biochar may improve soil physical properties for crop growth, but multiyear, multicrop field studies are lacking. To determine the effects of biochar on soil physical properties, we applied 0, 10, 20, 40, and 80 Mg ha−1 biochar with/without NPK fertilizer to the surface 15 cm of 1 × 1 m2 plots in a single association of fine-loamy, siliceous, subactive, thermic Oxyaquic and Aquic Paleudults under a 2-year corn-winter wheat–double-crop soybean rotation. After 3 years, we sampled soil to 7.6 cm, measured bulk density and water retention, and then derived pore-size distribution and related physical and water retention model parameters. Fertilizer had little to no effect. Among the statistically significant results, biochar increased structural porosity (3- to 59-μm effective pore diameter [EPD]) but neither matrix- (0.2- to 3-μm EPD) nor macro (EPD >59 μm) porosity. Biochar ≥40 Mg ha−1 decreased bulk density 16%; 80 Mg ha−1 increased total porosity 14%. However, it also increased water content at −1,500 kPa 22.5%. Biochar ≥40 Mg ha−1 increased the drained upper limit (DUL) by 15%; relative field capacity, 3%; and total and structural plant-available water (PAW: held between the DUL and −1,500 kPa), 7 and 18%, respectively. Increases were greatest at −10 kPa and least at −33 kPa. At −10 kPa, 80 Mg ha−1 biochar increased total PAW 4.0-mm equivalent depth compared with 5.7 mm for structural PAW, approximately 0.5-day demand for actively growing corn. Modeled saturated water content increased with total porosity. Biochar improved plant-soil-water relations, but required high rates.

1Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA.

2Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina.

Address for correspondence: Robert D. Walters, Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, North Carolina State University, Campus Box 7613, Raleigh, NC 27695, USA. E-mail:

Financial Disclosures/Conflicts of Interest: None reported.

Received March 26, 2018.

Accepted for publication November 7, 2018.

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