Charcoal made from forestry offcuts has huge potential for farmers to mitigate the effects of climate change, according to Parengarenga Incorporation's general manager Jon Brough.
And an 11-month research project on the trust's Far North property is already showing promising results.
The project is a co-investment between Parengarenga Incorporation and the Ministry of Primary Industries and aims to find out if the potentiated charcoal, called BioChar, will work on Northland soils and livestock.
The MPI's Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures programme has contributed $100,000 to the project, which started late last year.
BioChar is created when organic matter is charred under controlled high temperatures of between 400 and 450 degrees.
Brough says the use of charcoal in farming is an ancient practice which was used by the Aztecs and Incas in South America.
It can be blended with natural organic matter and added to pasture to enrich the topsoil. It can also be fed to animals in the ultimate recycling process to return carbon to the soil.
He says the project was prompted by concern about the high level of waste in the Northland forestry industry, combined with the challenging sandy soils of the region.
He became excited by the possibilities for New Zealand farmers and foresters after reviewing more than 80 overseas research papers.
With Brough's ideas and initial research, former station manager Kathryne Easton and project supervisor Koa Gower put their agricultural science knowledge into making the project happen.
"While the bark and raw wood of pinus radiata on its own can't be applied to soil, we knew from overseas research that if it's turned into BioChar it has potential to hold the pH and soil nutrients way better than before," he says.
The pasture trials at Parengarenga have already showed the benefits, with ground-up Biochar spread on test strips and compared to control sites to observe differences over time.
"After a couple of days in the rain, Biochar still feels dry but is three times the weight. It returns extra carbon to the soil, holding back the moisture so that the nutrients are more available to the soil."
While not in the scope of the MPI-funded research, the researchers are also excited by the potential benefits for animal health.
A 90-day trial of feeding BioChar to a mob of heifers showed the number of worm eggs plummeting to zero.
"They love it. We mixed up a slurry of crushed BioChar and added some molasses for the first few days to sweeten the deal.
"They race each other to get to it. Even after removing the molasses, they still try and beat each other to eat it," he says.
The BioChar changes the gut environment to flush out the worms, he says.
Another effect is to reduce the amount of methane produced by the animal by about 18 percent per day, according to Australian researchers.
Brough says the animals treated with BioChar have had a noticeable improvement.
Between three mobs of 25 heifers, over 91 days the control mob gained 36kg or 300 grams per day, the second mob farmed on improved pasture gained 40kg or 450 grams per day while the mob fed BioChar gained 88kg or 1kg per day.
"It was a huge turn around, so we are repeating the trial."
The process of creating BioChar could have another side benefit – power generation.
"Our carboniser machine is a baby – it just makes charcoal – but the next size up can trap the gases that come from the pyrolysis of wood and turn this into electricity.
"Getting people thinking differently about farming methods could have multiple benefits for New Zealand," he says.
Once the research is completed, Brough says he would like to see larger trials undertaken near forest harvesting areas and alongside the domestic wood processors throughout New Zealand, with the potential for employment opportunities.