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MORE THAN A PENNY: Western Illinois University announced in mid-September that ag professor Win Phippen will receive a $10 million federal grant for pennycress research.

Quick Take: Cash cover crop, STAR program, cattle feeding

WIU wins grant to research pennycress. STAR conservation program grows to 42 counties. U of I research says limit-feeding cattle maximizes profits.

WIU wins grant to improve cash cover crop

The Western Illinois University School of Agriculture recently announced that agriculture professor Win Phippen is the recipient of a $10 million federal grant to investigate the use of the pennycress as a new cash cover crop in the Midwest.

The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant will allow Phippen to further refine pennycress as a new winter-annual cash cover crop for use by the biofuel industry.

Researchers from Illinois State University, Ohio State University, University of Wisconsin-Platteville and University of Minnesota will join Phippen’s team to refine this high-yield oilseed crop. Phippen has been growing pennycress and investigating its uses as a biofuel alternative for 10 years.

“Pennycress is unique among cover crops, as it can generate income, which incentivizes farmer participation,” Phippen says. “Integration of pennycress into existing corn-soybean rotations extends the growing season on established cropland and avoids food crop displacement, all while yielding up to 2 billion gallons of oil annually.”

The goal is to produce 50 billion gallons of biofuel in the next 25 years. The pennycress crop program will work toward commercializing the crop within five years. Research will focus on improving pennycress genetics for plant breeding and preservation, agronomic management, ecosystems, and supply chain management for postharvest seed control.

STAR grows presence in Illinois

Forty-two Illinois counties have joined Champaign County in its STAR program, also known as Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources. Founded in 2017, the STAR program scores fields on their conservation practices.

In 2018, there were 180 participants on 438 fields, for a total of 27,418 acres in Illinois. Of those 438 fields, 382 received three stars or higher on a five-star scale.

According to Bruce Henrikson, STAR program coordinator through the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District, opportunities are growing for sustainable growers to fetch higher premiums. To date, STAR ratings receive support from Farm Credit Illinois, ADM Cares and Kellogg Co. The program will accept applications until March 1. For the 2019 crop year, the science committee is placing more emphasis on cover crops and crop rotation in the evaluation of STAR fields.

STAR participants complete a field form that is scored by a local reviewer, which then assigns points for everything from the cover crops used on acreage, to the kinds of fertilizer used for nutrient management at different points before and during the growing season, to various possible conservation practices used on that field to prevent runoff into nearby water sources.

Maximize cattle profits with progressive limit-feeding

Beef cattle producers could see greater profits in the finishing period with progressive limit-feeding, according to research from University of Illinois scientists.

To help keep cattle healthy as they enter a feedlot, producers often feed less, or “limit-feed,” for a short time to allow the animal to adjust to the feedlot diet. The new research looks at the concept of progressively reducing feed intake throughout the diet-transition period, with the goal of maintaining a constant body size.

Feeding previously growing animals this way causes their internal organs to shrink, which reduces their maintenance requirement. This means they require less feed and cost less. When animals are transitioned back to ad libitum feeding, compensatory growth allows them to grow more on less feed, ultimately saving producers money.

“Producers commonly lower intake when animals come into a feedlot anyway, but no one knew how this should be done to maximize profit. What we’ve done is quantify how much and how long they should limit-feed to maximize their return at slaughter, using real dollars and cents for feed and beef prices,” says study co-author Michael Murphy, an emeritus professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at U of I.

Murphy and co-author Bruce Hannon, emeritus professor in the Department of Geography and Geographic Information Science at U of I, applied a custom-built mathematical formula to a real dataset of beef cattle growth in a feedlot. They determined that progressive limit-feeding could save enough money that producers could market cattle at a slightly lighter weight but with greater profit.

“When people limit-feed, they often feel they have to keep animals in the feedlot an extra week or two until they get to the size they wanted,” Murphy says. “But that incurs an opportunity cost because they’re not bringing a new group of animals in during that time, and they’re also delaying their income. So, even if they get a slightly lower price for a lighter-weight market animal, they make it up by avoiding that opportunity cost and spending less on feed overall.”

Murphy says the length of time that producers should use progressive limit-feeding to maximize profit will depend on the market prices for feedstuffs and carcasses. Read more in the journal Animal Science.

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