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Switchgrass Biochar Effects on Plant Biomass and Microbial Dynamics in Two Soils from Different Regions

Charlene N. KELLY, Francisco C. CALDERÓN, Verónica ACOSTA-MARTÍNEZ, Maysoon M. MIKHA, Joseph BENJAMIN, David W. RUTHERFORD, Colleen E. ROSTAD
Pedosphere 2015 v.25 no.3 pp. 329-342
Alfisols, Aridisols, Panicum virgatum, Triticum aestivum, application rate, biochar, carbon, clay soils, community structure, dry matter accumulation, electrical conductivity, fatty acid methyl esters, growth chambers, microbial activity, microbial biomass, microbial communities, mineralization, nitrogen, nitrogen content, nutrient availability, phosphorus, potassium, shoots, soil amendments, soil microorganisms, soil nutrients, soil pH, wheat, Colorado, Great Plains region, Midwestern United States, Virginia
Biochar amendments to soils may alter soil function and fertility in various ways, including through induced changes in the microbial community. We assessed microbial activity and community composition of two distinct clayey soil types, an Aridisol from Colorado (CO) in the U.S. Central Great Plains, and an Alfisol from Virginia (VA) in the southeastern USA following the application of switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) biochar. The switchgrass biochar was applied at four levels, 0%, 2.5%, 5%, and 10%, approximately equivalent to biochar additions of 0, 25, 50, and 100 t ha−1, respectively, to the soils grown with wheat (Triticum aestivum) in an eight-week growth chamber experiment. We measured wheat shoot biomass and nitrogen (N) content and soil nutrient availability and N mineralization rates, and characterized the microbial fatty acid methyl ester (FAME) profiles of the soils. Net N mineralization rates decreased in both soils in proportion to an increase in biochar levels, but the effect was more marked in the VA soil, where net N mineralization decreased from −2.1 to −38.4 mg kg−1. The 10% biochar addition increased soil pH, electrical conductivity, Mehlich- and bicarbonate-extractable phosphorus (P), and extractable potassium (K) in both soil types. The wheat shoot biomass decreased from 17.7 to 9.1 g with incremental additions of biochar in the CO soil, but no difference was noted in plants grown in the VA soil. The FAME recovery assay indicated that the switchgrass biochar addition could introduce artifacts in analysis, so the results needed to be interpreted with caution. Non-corrected total FAME concentrations indicated a decline by 45% and 34% with 10% biochar addition in the CO and VA soils, respectively, though these differences became nonsignificant when the extraction efficiency correction factor was applied. A significant decline in the fungi:bacteria ratio was still evident upon correction in the CO soil with biochar. Switchgrass biochar had the potential to cause short-term negative impacts on plant biomass and alter soil microbial community structure unless measures were taken to add supplemental N and labile carbon (C).