LEXINGTON, Ill. — The financial and environmental benefits of growing cover crops were the meat and potatoes of Illinois State University’s Cover Crop Field Day at the research farm in Lexington April 16.
As farmers, students and researchers walked through the colorful fields, ISU crop scientist Nicholas Heller highlighted cereal rye as a weed suppression tool.
“Weed suppression is real,” he said, noting the cost savings in weed control help cover planting costs.
But while cover crops have received plenty of attention in recent years, a minority of farmers are using them here. Today, 2-3% of fields get cover crops in central Illinois, and even less than that, between 1-2%, are successful, Heller said.
“It is still a learning curve,” he said.
For another cover option, Chris Aulbach, agronomist for CoverCress Inc., a Missouri company commercializing pennycress, told farmers they could earn about $50 net per acre by growing CoverCress on contract. It can be grown in the middle of a corn-soybean rotation, he said.
There are 10,000 questions still to be answered about growing pennycress, Aulbach said. He compares the development of CoverCress to flying at high speeds while building the plane in air.
The plane is more fully constructed for cereal rye as these crops have a longer history here.
“Planting date is a big issue in cover crops,” Heller said in a field of cereal rye planted in the second week of November. Planting early is beneficial to cover crops, he said.
Despite the benefits in improving soil health, preventing erosion and weed suppression, cost has restricted use. The cost of seed and planting is between $15 and $20 per acre, he said. At the same time, the crop is not harvested, so there is no instant return on investment.
Further, some farmers who cash rent land on a yearly basis say they may not benefit from the long-term value of cover crops, Heller said.
That’s where CoverCress has the advantage, as it is harvested with a potential profit for a farmer, Aulbach said.
Pennycress’ journey from weed to crop started when a USDA Agricultural Research Service researcher in Peoria saw its potential as a cover crop, biofuel source and eventually feedstuff.
Where the white-flowering pennycress mingles with purple henbit in the Lexington research fields, it is easy to see the crop’s origins as a weed. However, henbit is truly a weed that farmers don’t want because it is a host to soybean cyst nematodes. Heller said as the season progresses, pennycress will get the upper hand.
In recent years, $23 million in federal and business grants has been invested in pennycress research to make it a viable commercial crop, said Win Phippen, project director of the pennycress project at Western Illinois University in Macomb.
The multi-year project the professor leads, in cooperation with several other institutions, received $10 million in federal USDA grants. While the crop is new to many, Phippen has been working with it as a crop for eight years.
To be considered a CoverCress variety, the crop must yield 1,500 pounds of seed per acre and have at least one of the following traits, explains John Sedbrook, Illinois State University professor:
- low erucic acid seed oil for better edibility and lower viscosity for biodiesel and renewable diesel production
- reduced seed fiber content improving the nutritional value of the seed meal
- or reduced seed glucosinolate content improving the nutritional value of the seed meal.
The domesticated variety also has a yellow seed coat and germinates better than wild pennycress with its black seed coat, Phippen said.
“The research at the ISU and WIU farms involves testing these and other performance traits including seed germination, pod shatter, early maturity, and seed oil composition and quantity,” said Sedbrook, who heads up a biofuels project with $13 million in funding assistance from the Department of Energy.
On another Illinois State University pennycress breeding plot located in nearby Normal, Nikhil Jaikumar, a post-grad Illinois student, used equipment to test the photosynthesis traits of the crop. These 10 replicated plots will be ready to harvest later this month, he said.
Aulbach, the CoverCress agronomist who leads farmer relations, said the company plans to have its first 50,000 acres of CoverCress planted in the fall of 2022. Farmers will have a contract and know the recipe for planting, fertilizer and harvest, the price they will get for the crop and where to deliver it.
Phippen said he sees great potential for the multi-use CoverCress crop as a source of extra income for farmers.