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Can charcoal close the door on antibiotics?

Andrea Haines for Progressive Dairyman Published on 14 August 2018
Fine powder charcoal

As consumer visions of agricultural-related products become continually skewed toward using fewer chemical inputs, the need for more natural alternatives to prevent the illness of livestock and support healthy environmental habitats grows stronger.

The regulations surrounding medication use in animal feed changes at the end of this year for Canadian farmers. Avenues to access medications will become strained, and producers are looking to alternative and natural options to aid herd health.

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While the livestock industry’s primary focus has been on nutritional benefits, extensive research has been conducted in Canada, Australia, Europe and the U.S. on strategies to also reduce methane emissions from dairy and beef operations.

Titan Carbon Smart Technologies President Jamie Bakos says he has seen great strides made with the use of activated charcoal within the cattle industry. He adds, “There are many benefits to using this product in other species, too. The addition of carbon in agricultural feed has enormous potential.”

As producers are stacked with growing regulations to battle against antibiotic, hormone and steroid additives in animal feed, the use of carbon supplementation is a likely choice for producers of any orientation.

“Since [activated charcoal] is a natural element, producers who farm either conventional or organically can both use it with ease of mind,” Bakos says. “The concept isn’t really so foreign, as natural carbon (biochar) has been used for over thousands of years as an accepted remedy to combat ailments and balance soils. Since carbon isn’t a chemical; when used correctly, producers can offer a byproduct that withstands public scrutiny.”

0918ca haines chips to charcoal

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Putting it to work

Essentially, the concept is simple. Animals (and humans) ingest and retain toxins that have a negative effect on the gut. Activated charcoal absorbs and excretes these toxins and, combined with a high-quality diet, can show improvement in animals.

A 2010 poultry study by scientists Kana, Tequia, Mungfu and Tchoumboue found, “Toxins such as dioxin, glyphosate, mycotoxins, pesticides and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are efficiently bound by the biochar, thereby removing any adverse effects on the digestive system and intestinal flora. The health, activity and balance of the animals was also improved, as well as meat and egg production. With animals’ immune systems stabilized, the risk of infection from pathogenic micro-organisms decreased.”

For Thomas Murray, a dairyman from western Stratford, Ontario, the benefits of adding the activated charcoal to his TMR have been fruitful.

“I’ve been using the product for a little over a year now, and the cows seem to take to it well,” he says. “It’s interesting to see which animals seem to need it and watch them bounce back. I’ve seen an uptick in my production levels and a little in fat percentages, too.”

The 58-head Holstein farm, Poelman-Murray Ltd., started incorporating the supplement into feed rations when they sensed a toxin load in their corn silage.

“As we fixed the silage issue, we wanted something to help our animals recover from the setback. Of course, the idea is to combine the product with a good-quality feed, using it as a preventative measure.”

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Murray further cautions while biochar does an exceptional job of ridding the body of toxins, it’s not intended to be a replacement of good-quality feeds.

“Since it’s not a chemical, you can’t really overdose anything on it,” he says. “We’ve found it’s an asset to our herd because when used as a supplement alongside good feed, it can act as a good preventative measure for your herd.”

Results were similar for Vern Luther, a purebred Red and Black Simmental breeder of Craik, Saskatchewan, who owns and operates Riskan Hope Farm. He began using activated charcoal on his bulls in 2014.

“I was interested in the product because I knew charcoal can be used in human ailments; it was also widely used in Europe in animal feeds. I figured it was safe to use since it’s a natural product, and we also used it in the past in bolus form when a cow seemed out of sorts,” he says. “Not long after I added it to the feed, I began to see improvement in my bulls’ coats looking healthier and shiny. The semen tests came back convincingly sound, and they just seemed overall healthier from the year before.”

Luther liked the product enough to add it to his calf-creep feed and improved their prior issue with coccidiosis.

“The calves seemed admittedly stronger,” he says. “I would ultimately like to see biochar put into a lick-block. I think the animals [that] really need it are drawn to it. My veterinary bill has also gone down since we’ve not had the issues with the calves.” Luther also says he believes there has been a distinct odour reduction among his herd’s manure.

A cleaner alternative

While the product is still subject to study in the U.S., many in the agriculture community are looking at the benefits of biochar in animal feeds as well as its effects on the environment.

Kathleen Draper, the U.S. director of the Ithaka Institute for Carbon Intelligence, has dedicated much of her research to helping colleagues and producers find ways they can incorporate biochar into their operations to ultimately enrich the environment.

“Since biochar has been used for years in Europe, our team has been interested in the benefits it can have on our soils and with animal agriculture,” she says. “I was recently in Austria, where I toured a large poultry farm that uses biochar in their feeds. The animals love it, the producers are able to eliminate antibiotic use, and the odour of the litter has been significantly decreased.”

According to Draper, biochar is a positive resource for livestock producers to fight against odours, decrease environmental impacts and improve the general health of animals.

“Benefits have been found in adding biochar for various animal species like hogs, poultry, cattle and even fish,” she says.

Of all research, the most extensive continues to be on soils. “We already know biochar enhances the quality of soils,” Draper says. “Reducing nitrogen leaching into groundwater, possible nitrous-oxide emission reduction, beneficial microbe numbers, and serving as a binder for molds and mycotoxins are all factors that can reduce environmental strain.” Draper says she and her team believe biochar can “improve almost any soil. Areas with low rainfall or nutrient-poor soils will most likely see the largest impact from addition of biochar.”

Maren Oelbermann of the University of Waterloo says the use of animal waste in the improvement of environmental factors is essential for accurate performance in temperate soils.

“There is really no other way than to combine the biochar with animal waste (manure) or mineral (nitrogen) fertilizers,” Oelbermann says. “Adding only biochar – no matter what the feedstock and pyrolysis (decomposition) temperature – typically will not result in much improvement to the [temperate] soil.” This concept suggests the producers who are supplementing their feeds and then re-incorporating the animal waste into their fields are one step ahead of typical soil management practices.

The cattle industry is well aware of the significance for their animals to drive methane emissions upward due to the process of their digestion.

“Recent studies show if cattle consume carbon as part of their diet, it can help reduce the amount of methane they produce,” suggests Titan’s website. “The true extent of carbon’s usefulness in our lives is just now being explored.”  end mark

PHOTO 1: Fine powder activated charcoal is an available feed ingredient to naturally absorb toxins from within a cow’s digestive system. Photo provided by Ron Bricker, PMT Inc. 

PHOTO 2: Biochar is made from a carbon source, such as wood chips, decomposed by being heated at a high temperature, a process known as pyrolysis. Photo courtesy of Titan Clean Energy Projects Corporation.

Andrea Haines is a freelance writer from Union Bridge, Maryland

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