Before sitting down to enjoy a meal of sweet corn and hot dogs at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ annual corn boil, about 100 people traveled on a tour of the University of Georgia’s J. Phil Campbell Sr. Research and Education Center in Watkinsville to learn about the corn they were about to eat.
Over the past two years, researchers at the center have been experimenting with a living mulch system to grow the corn.
The living mulch system uses a cover crop — in the case of the UGA corn a clover plant — that acts as protection and enrichment for the soil of the crop that is grown for harvest, the corn.
The researchers chose to use clover for their living mulch system because of the amount of nitrogen that it produces.
“We plant white clover which is a legume,” said Nick Hill, a professor in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “White clover can fix its own nitrogen. So it takes atmospheric nitrogen, and it puts it into the plant which means that it’s a great source of nitrogen if we can utilize that some how.”
The clover that grows between and under the rows of the corn will drop its leaves as the corn begins to grow tall and shade the clover, which releases nitrogen for the corn plant to use, Hill said.
“With the living mulch [system] we don't have to apply any additional nitrogen fertilizer which is a big cost saver,” said Zack Sanders, a graduate student in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
Sanders said the living mulch system saves about $1 per bushel of corn, with the costs to produce corn in the living mulch system being between $2.11 and $2.50 and for the conventional system being about $3.50.
This is because of the reduction in nitrogen fertilizer as well as herbicide usage, he said.
“There are things to be concerned about trying to grow both together,” Hill said.
One of these concerns Sanders said is water usage and efficiency.
“With the living mulch system you can see we are having increased water use due to the clover being living in between the crop rows in addition to the corn using water itself,” he said.
But, compared to traditional methods, the living mulch system does not have less corn yield or decreased water efficiency, he said.