Ignite Ingenuity February 2020 – Featuring: High Plains Biochar, LLC

Celebrating Innovation in Albany County

By Melissa Ross, Marketing & Membership Director

In 1869, Mormon pioneers built five beehive-shaped charcoal kilns in Piedmont, WY. In their peak, the charcoal production reached 100,000 bushels per month. Now, as the agricultural industry is both threatened by and contributing to climate change, the use of biochar, a plant-based form of charcoal is helping to reduce carbon emissions. Laramie business owner, Rowdy Yeatts, of High Plains Biochar, is one of the pioneers in biochar production in the U.S.

Biochar is created when plant matter such as wood chips, cannabis waste, and rice husks, are exposed to high temperatures, creating a black, brittle substance. This causes the carbon from dead plants which would normally be released into the atmosphere when the plant decomposes to become trapped for thousands of years.  “I’ve been working with sawmills and take their waste. There are certain situations where places are desperate to get rid of their wood chips.”

Bags of biochar sit in the High Plains Biochar lot.

Research is showing that by adding small amounts of biochar to cattle feed can reduce methane emissions by 10%. Just for the 1 million-plus cattle in Wyoming that would equate to removing over 25,000 cars from the road in one year while utilizing nearly 100,000 tons of woody biomass.  With 6 million more cattle in neighboring states like Nebraska and Kansas, the potential impact is huge. “A lot of people think methane comes out the back from cows, it comes out the front when the cow burps.” After the cows have excreted, dung beetles help transport the biochar deep underground. “It’s kind of the whole sustainable farm system that we are seeing from overseas,” added Yeatts.

The University of Colorado and CSU have been researching for over 15 years and have legislative support for biochar. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is heading a study on how biochar added to cattle feed affects steers. “We have a Western SARE grant in with the animal sciences here at UW that we will find out in a month for a local feed study.”

Research is showing that adding small amounts of biochar to cattle feed can reduce methane emissions by 10% and reduce the use of antibiotics by as much as 75%.

In addition to reducing the carbon footprint, biochar has a huge application in soil. “Biochar can provide a house for microbes,” explained Rowdy Yeatts. “This helps the soil retain nutrients so beneficial microbes can thrive.” He added, “Many soils in Wyoming have less than 1% organic matter, so there is nowhere for the microbes to live.” By increasing microbial activity, nutrient uptake is increased which reduces fertilizer needs. Research is showing it can improve cold tolerance in plants and increasing drought resistance which improves survival rates.

High-value crops use biochar in the soil to increase microbial activity and nutrient uptake.

“There is a lot of application for biochar in soil, such as reclamation for oil and gas projects or forest service roads where they want to reduce compaction. For agricultural applications, the highest value crops are where you are going to see biochar used in the soil – such as cannabis, hemp, strawberries, and farmer’s market crops that are grown in a greenhouse.”

Biochar can also be used in water purification such as for fertilizer run-off going into creek beds. Yeatts commented, “You can capture nitrogen and phosphorus and things like that. We did a green roof study in Lincoln where we were testing the green roof for the capture of the contamination from the run-off. The water coming off the roof had significantly less of those elements. Biochar also attracts heavy metals – it is essentially a blank carbon sponge.”

Biochar is essentially a blank carbon sponge.

Biochar is already commonly used in Europe, Australia, and Canada; however, the US is just catching on.

“Biochar is not yet approved by the FDA for animals that are used for human consumption, so we had to get a waiver for this trial that we are doing now,” he added, “It does fall under the USDA National Organic program – so if farmers follow that program, it is approved.”

“We are trying to get our ducks in a row before those large markets open up,” Rowdy said that they were doing another study to see the effects on how much faster the animals who are fed biochar grow. “We are seeing from dairy farmers that the cows that are fed biochar are producing more milk. It’s interesting to learn the health benefits of animals eating biochar.” “We are going to have the first biochar lick tub in the states which we think will be a solution for the free-range animals.”

Biochar (black substance) is mixed into a salt supplement for cattle.

Some studies show the health benefits of biochar including in poultry and swine. “One of the things I think would be interesting for Wyoming is in Big Horn Sheep who are dying of pneumonia,” added Yeatts, “because there is a big immune system boost.” “Some of the feedlots where we are using this, they are seeing a 75% reduction in the use of antibiotics,” remarked Yeatts.

The next round of testing will focus on the weight gain and health benefits of biochar in cattle feed. “The study we start next month in Nebraska is 100 animals where they will monitor their weight gain all the way through and they will get sent to the packing plant where they will do meat testing.”

Rowdy Yeatts in his office in Laramie, WY.

High Plains Biochar sells most of the biochar that is produced to researchers in Nebraska and Colorado, however, Wyoming hasn’t shown much interest. “I’m from Wyoming and would like to stay in Wyoming. We have the timber here and are off of I-80 which is a straight shot to half of the feedlots in the country,” remarked Yeatts, “I have tried everything in this state. We have a couple of challenges here in Wyoming. In Colorado and Nebraska, they have dedicated teams, initiatives, and funding for biochar at the state level.” “It’s been a little surprising there hasn’t been much interest here in Wyoming. We get a lot of national interest, just not in the state.”

The American Association for the Advancement of Science recently published a featured article and video on howwerespond.aaas.org on Rowdy Yeatts’ biochar production and how using biochar can reduce carbon emissions.

“That’s what we do – we feed charcoal to cows and make them a little greener.”

High Plains Biochar, LLC

108 Howe Rd, Laramie, WY 82070