Alan Weber spends much of his career working to commercialize biodiesel and renewable diesel. That is where he first learned of a new winter oilseed crop with the potential to boost his farm’s soil health and bottom line while providing oil for the biofuels market space.
Weber works full time as a founding partner of MARC-IV, a consulting company that fosters the development of bio-based innovations, but he also farms part time alongside his father in Pettis County.
He started following CoverCress Inc. (CCI), a company that through breeding and gene editing converted a common winter annual weed, field pennycress, into a new crop whose oil works as a renewable fuel source.
“This is the first opportunity in more than a decade to add a new crop into our farm’s rotation that offers an additional revenue stream, improves soil health and also helps mitigate risks by diversifying my rotation,” the sixth-generation farmer explains.
The CoverCress crop fits into existing corn and soybean rotations in the Midwest, allowing farmers to grow three crops in two seasons, says Dale Sorensen, chief commercial officer for the company. He says CoverCress seed is bred to increase yield. “This adds to the bottom line of farms looking at a third crop option,” he says.
There are about 10,000 acres planted to CoverCress this fall with plans to expand acres to 50,000 acres by 2023, Sorensen explains. These acres will come from more locations in Missouri and Illinois.
Crop management considerations
Weber and his family operate a traditional corn and soybean farming operation. At one time, they raised oilseed sunflowers for the birdseed market, but that market went by the wayside about 14 years ago because of freight costs.
For more than a decade, the farm incorporated cover crops. After harvest, every corn acre plants to cover, Weber explains. Typically, that is cereal rye or a cereal rye mix. But now instead of planting rye, Weber plans to sow a portion of those acres to CoverCress as delivery locations in the state become available.
He started planting CoverCress in a trial plot on his farm a couple of years ago. “We can use the exact same equipment and seeding techniques currently used for cover crops,” he explains. That includes a pendulum spreader and vertical tillage.
From a crop management perspective, Weber notes there are a couple of minor tweaks.
First is planting date. “Cereal rye is very forgiving as a cover crop,” he says. “You could seed it in mid-or-late October, whereas with CoverCress you really would want to seed that by that first week of October or before as a target date.”
Second is greater attention to herbicides when planning your corn spray program. “Whenever we post the corn, we would not want to use HPPDs and minimize use overall,” Weber says. “But as a grower, if you are wanting to plant cover crops in the fall, you would look for similar residual effects between chemicals and the cover crop."
Better revenue in crop rotation
Currently, CCI provides farmers the seed. Weber’s responsibility is to plant and care for the crop.
The following spring, a company representative scouts the crop to determine if it is an economically viable crop. If so, Weber will topdress it with nitrogen.
The total amount of nitrogen is less than wheat, he says, about 50 units. After that, he waits.
CoverCress harvest is around the May 15-20 window. He will follow the CoverCress crop with no-till soybeans. From that perspective, Weber says, it’s a nice fit for his farm — and he believes others as well.
Many Missouri farmers have often planted winter wheat with the chance to plant double-crop soybeans. But the risk of getting the wheat crop off late and planting soybeans in mid-to-late June overtook the profit potential, Weber says.
“We know that the yield potential of soybeans with June plant dates drops off on a daily basis,” he explains. “By being able to plant in May, we have the potential of having a full yield soybean crop. So now we have this opportunity to have three crops in two years, but more importantly, three crops will full yield potential in two years. And that’s really the reason I'm excited about the chance to incorporate CoverCress into our rotation.”
Market options for growers
Sorensen says there is a demand for Weber’s crop.
CCI announced a joint venture with Bunge and Chevron for use in the biofuel market. “We are pleased to invest in this business that provides farmers with a tremendous opportunity to address global climate challenges by growing new crops that help lower carbon emissions,” says Nanda Kumar Puthucode, Bunge Ventures chief investment officer and managing director. “The CoverCress crop is an exciting new regenerative non-GMO cover crop that offers many potential applications as fuel, feed and food.”
It will take the next couple of years to get those plants set up to handle and crush CoverCress grain, Sorensen explains. In the meantime, there is an immediate market as a whole grain for feed in the broiler industry. “They are using it as a replacement for fat in the broiler diet,” he says.
He adds that long term, Bunge will be able to crush it and use it for meal as well.
Sorensen says growing markets call for more farmers such as Weber to raise CoverCress, so the company plans to add delivery locations in Missouri and Illinois.
“It’s my 41st crop year working with farmers,” he notes, “and I’ve never seen something hit as fast as this. But we are working with farmers directly to help them find financial benefits in growing the crop, while supplying the market with product. It’s an exciting time for agriculture.”