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Chicory Is a Biological Plow and Sponge, All in One

By Don Comis
June 24, 1999

Chicory, a hardy plant that can survive the sidewalk jungle, may be just the thing for pastoral rigors as well, according to a scientist with the Agricultural Research Service, USDA's chief scientific wing.

With its carrot-like taproot, chicory can plow its way down to great depths through hard, marginal soils--and even cracks in a sidewalk. In a pasture, it relentlessly recycles excess soil nitrogen into protein for livestock before the nitrogen can pollute groundwater. The deep rooting could also explain how chicory stays green and leafy in hot, dry summers--to keep feeding sheep and cattle after most pasture plants have stopped growing.

Chicory's nitrogen appetite seems endless. ARS agronomist David P. Belesky found that this biological sponge can soak it up even at commercial fertilizer rates as high as 425 pounds an acre.

At ARS' Appalachian Farming Systems Research Center in Beaver, W.Va., Belesky and colleagues have been testing three varieties--Grasslands Puna, Forage Feast and Lacerta--on Appalachian pastures for the past four years.

Now they're checking the plant's appetite for nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients in composted turkey litter cleaned from turkey houses. It could become the preferred fertilizer for pastures in West Virginia, because it is inexpensive and readily available from nearby turkey farms. British United Turkeys of America, a turkey-production firm with breeding operations in southern West Virginia, is helping with the tests.

Belesky and colleagues are testing the chicory in a pasture mix of orchardgrass and white clover. They want to see whether the deep-rooting chicory and orchardgrass can soak up any nitrogen and water missed by the shallow-rooting clover. A story about the research appears in the June issue of ARS' Agricultural Research magazine and on the web at: