Cold brew coffee phenomenon producing possible turfgrass fertilizer

By: Kay Ledbetter

Contact: Ben Wherley – b-wherley@tamu.edu   979-845-1591

coffee grounds research plots

Texas A&M AgriLife Research is conducting a two-year study to determine if spent coffee grounds can serve as a replacement for some of the currently used top-dressing fertilizers and soil amendments in turfgrass. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

From the coffee maker to the lawn, investigators in a Texas A&M AgriLife Research study are scattering spent coffee grounds on turf plots to see if the beverage leftovers can give the grass a jolt like the drink does for its consumer.

Dr. Ben Wherley, Texas A&M AgriLife Research turfgrass ecologist in College Station, said the two-year study will determine if the used coffee grounds can serve as a replacement for some of the currently used top-dressing fertilizers and soil amendments.
Wherley and his master’s student Garrett Flores will compare fresh and composted grounds to other organic and synthetic fertilizers and sphagnum peat moss, which is commonly used as a soil amendment in sand-based sports fields and golf course putting greens.

The work has been partially supported through a seed grant from the United States Golf Association Green Section as well as GeoJava, a new eco-friendly company started by Chad McNair, CEO of Aspen Beverage Group in San Antonio.
“We think this might provide a nice alternative by using a spent resource and not cutting into a non-renewable resource like peat moss,” he said.
What’s really brought increased interest in this is the explosion of cold-brew coffee, Wherley said.

He said Aspen Beverage Group is providing a substantial supply of spent coffee grounds for the project, which is trying to find uses both as a surface application, perhaps as a fertilizer or compost, but also as a soil root-zone amendment in sand-based systems.
Aspen Beverage is a cold-brew coffee company, one of the largest in North America, and produces about 40 cubic yards a day of spent coffee grounds. That’s enough to fill a dumpster 22 foot long by 7.5 feet wide by 8 feet high.

men looking at coffee grounds research plots

Dr. Ben Wherley, Texas A&M AgriLife Research turfgrass ecologist in College Station, and Garrett Flores, master’s student, look over turfgrass plots where spent coffee grounds are being tested as a fertilizer. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

“And they expect to be up to 250 cubic yards a day by next year,” Wherley said. “We are trying to help them find an environmentally friendly and economical way to use these coffee grounds.”
“Cold brew is all the rage because college students find it doesn’t have the acidity of normal coffee and they like the texture and flavor,” Wherley said. “So people who haven’t been drinking coffee in the past are now drinking it, and it is replacing the energy drinks.
“The sheer volume being provided by not only Aspen but other cold brew extractors around the U.S. provides a new material we need to look at a little more closely for agronomic systems. There’s a need to use these or get rid of them in some fashion.”
He said a second benefit in determining their nutritive value to turfgrass and keeping them from going to the dump is the reduced amount of synthetic fertilizer used on lawns.
Flores said they have 10 different treatments under study, including an untreated plot. Coffee grounds tested are both fresh and composted. The composted coffee grounds analysis indicates they have a slightly higher nutrient level.

reseasrcher Garrett Flores

Garrett Flores is studying the feasibility of using spent coffee grounds as a fertilizer and soil amendment as part of his Master’s thesis. Photo by Beth Ann Luedeker

The spent coffee grounds have about a 2.5-3 percent nitrogen content, and a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about 20 to 1, which could theoretically make them fairly desirable for fertilizer application, Wherley said.
Flores said in the study they are comparing the coffee grounds to both slow- and quick-release fertilizers to determine how they compare. Varying rates of poultry litter-based organic fertilizer, ammonium sulfate and sulfur-coated urea are being tested.
“We are primarily evaluating growth, turf quality and color,” Flores said. “We will evaluate turf color using digital imaging software. We will also take clippings to determine growth rates, as well as the amounts of nutrients that are absorbed.
“We are also tracking soil moisture in the plots,” he said. “We are going to see whether coffee grounds increase the moisture retention ability of the soil.”
Flores said additionally they will be evaluating changes in the soil microbial biomass due to spent coffee grounds as well as other fertilizer treatments.
“The coffee grounds provide considerable organic matter and we will be determining how readily the microbes are able to break it down into a usable form of fertilizer for the plants to take up,” he said.
“We’ll be following this study over the next two years to evaluate turf health and performance and see whether there is potential for a marketable end-use for spent coffee grounds,” Wherley said. “As we see an increased use of cold-brew coffee around the country, it would be nice to be able to utilize these in an agronomic setting.”

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