Camelina, soybean double-crop offers food and fuel

Camelina, soybean double-crop offers food and fuel

American Society of Agronomy reports new research on camelina-soybean double crop has benefits for Midwestern growers

Friday, the EPA released its latest plans that indicate how much renewable fuel must be blended into the United States' fuel supply for the next two years.

Monday, a study appearing in the Agronomy Journal focused on an option for improving crop production on the same amount of land – double cropping a biofuel crop with food crop – was highlighted by the American Society of Agronomy.

Related: Inventors Seek Ways To Seed Cover Crops Early

"Should fuel or food grow on arable land?" the Society of Agronomy asks – but the research shows farmers can "successfully, and sustainably, grow both."

Newly emerged soybean seedlings between rows of camelina in the relay-cropped treatment. Note that the camelina has already begun to flower. Photo Credit: Russ Gesch.

Russ Gesch, a plant physiologist with the USDA Soil Conservation Research Lab in Morris, Minn., found encouraging results when growing Camelina sativa with soybean in the Midwest.

Camelina is a member of the mustard family and an emerging biofuel crop. It is well suited as a cover crop in the Midwest.

"Finding any annual crop that will survive the [Midwest] winters is pretty difficult," Gesch says, "but winter camelina does that and it has a short enough growing season to allow farmers to grow a second crop after it during the summer."

Additionally, in the upper Midwest, soils need to retain enough rainwater for multiple crops in one growing season. Gesch and his colleagues measured water use of two systems of dual-cropping using camelina and soybean. They compared it with a more typical soybean field at the Swan Lake Research Farm near Morris, Minn.

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Harvesting camelina from one of the camelina-soybean relay-crop treatments. Photo Credit: Russ Gesch.

First, researchers planted camelina at the end of September. From there growing methods differed. In double-cropping, soybean enters the field after the camelina harvest in June or July. Relay-cropping, however, overlaps the crops' time. Soybeans grow between rows of camelina in April or May before the camelina plants mature and flower.

In the study, relay-cropping used less water than double-cropping the two plants. Camelina plants have shallow roots and a short growing season, which means they don't use much water.

"Other cover crops, like rye, use a lot more water than does camelina," Gesch says.

Conveniently, the extra water use during dual-cropping takes place in the spring. "We tend to have an excess of moisture in the soil in the spring from the melting snow pack," Gesch says. Growing camelina as a winter cover crop can help farmers take advantage of spring's extra moisture.

Gesch points out the need for more water use does mean camelina dual-cropping may not be the best option in all areas.

Related: Soils aren't damaged from cover crop grazing, USDA research finds

Newly emerged soybean seedlings between rows of camelina in the relay-cropped treatment. Note that the camelina has already begun to flower. Photo Credit: Russ Gesch.

"As you get further west and precipitation drops off and soils get lighter with lower water-holding capacity, crop yields may start to go down," Gesch says.

Growing camelina as a winter cover crop can also have other benefits, according to Gesch. "We had greater soybean yields with the relay-cropping system than when double cropping," Gesch says, referencing a previous study. The earlier planting date during relay cropping allows for a longer growing season and contributes to the higher yield, according to Gesch.

In addition, camelina plants flower early in the spring, providing a vital food source for pollinators, like bees, when little else is available to them. As a cover crop, camelina may also help prevent erosion and build soil carbon content. Gesch and his colleagues are working to measure these ecological benefits of dual-cropping.

"We wanted to find alternative crops that could be integrated into the Midwestern corn/soybean cropping system in a sustainable way that also makes economic sense for farmers," Gesch says.

TAGS: Soybean USDA
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