Soil and water

Alternative cover crop bringing progress for researchers

Researchers from Western Illinois University, Illinois State University and several other institutions are studying the viability of pennycress as a commercial cover crop for farmers.

Win Phippen, director of the alternative crops research program at Western, is excited about the progress being made.

“It’s amazing the amount of change we’ve made to this crop to produce a viable commercial crop for Illinois,” said Phippen, who is also a professor of plant breeding genetics at WIU’s School of Agriculture. . He has been with Western for 22 years and started working with pennycress in 2009.

Phippen said he used gene editing to create a new cover crop called CoverCress.

Cover crops are planted in the fall, grown over the winter and harvested in the spring. They are beneficial because they help prevent soil and water erosion and improve soil health.

But there is no market for most cover crops, so they are thrown away.

However, Phippen said CoverCress can make money for farmers.

“Growers are actually very excited to grow something new – especially a crop that can provide certain ecosystem services – and grow it in the off-season without affecting their current production cycle, which is maize. or soybeans and sometimes wheat,” he said.

Phippen said CoverCress will initially be sold as a whole seed for broiler chicken feed, but the ultimate market is for sustainable aviation fuel.

This will involve grinding the seeds and extracting the oil to make the fuel.

The remaining seed cake would be used to feed livestock.

Phippen said CoverCress will be one of the first cash crop cover crops.

Part of the research funding comes from a five-year, $10 million federal research grant awarded in 2019.

Now is the time for researchers to take pennycress to the next level, Phippen said. They’ve used it in small research plots, but need to see how well it works on larger real-world farms.

And Phippen said the producers are both realistic — they understand they need to help researchers work through the problems — and optimistic about CoverCress’s success.

What is Pennycress?

Pennycress is a temperate oilseed crop found throughout the world and grown in every state in the United States.

Wild pennycress is a black-seeded variety that has germination issues. “It’s supposed to be a roadside weed,” Phippen said.

On the other, he said, “CoverCress is a variety of golden-seeded pennycress that has improved traits to improve germination, durability, harvestability, and improve the quality of oil and fiber that actually lies in seed for oil markets and for food. markets”.

The oil is currently not edible for humans, but it could be modified into an edible oil.

“So if somebody was interested in salad dressing and things like that, you could easily enter that market,” Phippen said.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story. TSPR relies on the financial support of our readers and listeners to provide coverage of the issues that matter to West Central Illinois, Southeast Iowa and Northeast Missouri. As someone who enjoys content created by TSPR’s news department, please consider making a financial contribution.