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Grassroots Experiment Wonders: Can Cover Crops Provide Enough Nitrogen for Winter Wheat?

Carl Coleman, Dillon, South Carolina, is conducting cover crop research on his farm using university protocols. The project’s funding source the long-term no-till is using, however, is unusual: the crowd-funding website,

Coleman has used cover crops on his farm for three years in combination with commercial fertilizers and cash crops. He notes rapid and dramatic improvements in soil texture and the earthworm population has exploded.

This year, he wanted to see if cover crops could suppress weeds after corn harvest. He first applied a burndown herbicide treatment to kill a flush of pigweeds and morning glory, then planted a cover crop blend of sunn hemp, sorghum sudangrass and buckwheat. The hope is that the blend would keep weeds at bay until he planted winter wheat this fall. 

The cover crops worked great at suppressing weeds. Yet Coleman wondered just how much nitrogen (N) from the cover crops could the wheat crop use?  Moreover, could commercial fertilizer applications be reduced on the wheat and provide more net income per acre?

"I wanted to see if the roots could capture the nutrients and see what kind of return per acre we could generate," Coleman says. "Yield doesn't pay the bills, but return per acre does." 

Enter Buz Kloot, research associate professor at the University of South Carolina. 

"We started talking and decided to perform a test. Why don't we do a real scientific test, to see whether we can grow a wheat crop with much less fertilizer than what the commercial recommendations call for?" Kloot explains. "The premise is, the cover crop would release minerals in the soil, and make nitrogen in the soil."  

Coleman chose a 10-acre site along a state highway on which to conduct a test plot. He selected four treatments: no fertilizer, 30 pounds per acre of starter; 30 pounds per acre of N and 20 pounds of phosphorous, and a full rate of fertilizer based on pre-plant soil test results. There are 40 different plots divided into two experiments. E experiment has five plots of four treatments each.

The winter wheat will be planted next week.

Kloot is one university scientist overseeing the project; Clemson University researcher Dara Park created the experiment protocol. What sets this experiment apart from others, however, is the funding. The website collects donations from interest parties to fund the project; in turn, the donors receive periodic updates of the project's status. Crowd-funding is as the name implies; interested third parties provide the money to conduct scientific projects. This site is intended to let scientists perform research instead of writing grants and research proposals.  

At just $6,305, the project's budget is modest. But, it is important to use the crowd-funding approach for a couple of reasons, Koot and Coleman agree. First, the idea materialized so quickly that there was no way a university could fit it into its budget. Second, the thirst by farmers for information about cover crops and soil health gives producers across the country a chance to take part in this research project. 

What Coleman believes will happen is that as the soil health of his farm improves, microbial activity and earthworms more efficiently use nutrients already in the soil, reducing the need for commercial fertilizer. 

"I believe cover crops have a place on our farm. I know they help with hardpan and water infiltration. The big question is fertilizer," he says. "If a healthy soil environment helps us reduce our fertilizer use, that's where the value is. 

"What can I do that makes me money or saves me money. That's what we're trying to find out," he explains. 

Keep track of Coleman and Kloot's experiment online at

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