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New Oil Fields | Industrial Oil Crops for the Northern Corn Belt are on the Horizon


Russ Gesch is prospecting for oil.

The Minnesota plant physiologist leads research on several promising oilseed crops that could fit into Upper Midwest corn and soybean rotations. The new crops, including calendula and winter camelina, produce specialized oils for biofuels and other industrial uses.

“These dedicated energy crops could be quite profitable,” says Gesch, a scientist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Morris, MN, “and that’s what will be required to add diversity to corn-soybean cropping systems.”

Here’s a quick look at some of the new industrial oil crops under development:



A traditional herbal plant, calendula produces a fast-drying oil that can be used in paints and varnishes, surface coatings, lubricants, pesticides and cleaning solvents. Calendula oil is a safe substitute for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which have been banned or restricted in California, Europe and elsewhere. “The demand for VOC alternatives has greatly increased,” says Gesch, who is part of a national team developing management practices for the new crop.

The plant: Annual oilseed with bright yellow flowers, 20-30 in. tall, with a strong taproot; seeds contain about 17% oil.

Equipment: Conventional.

Production: Plant in very early spring as soon as hard frost risk has passed; harvest 100-120 days after planting.

Yield: In Midwest, 1 ton/acre or more.

In a corn-soybean rotation: Harvest window falls after spring wheat, before soybeans; residue may suppress soybean cyst nematode reproduction.

Winter camelina

is a cover crop that also shows promise as a cash crop. Its low cost of production and high oil content make it an ideal feedstock for biodiesel, Gesch says. Camelina oil can also be used to make jet aircraft fuel.

The plant: Cool-weather annual oilseed, 12-36 in. tall; seeds contain 30-40% oil, 25% protein; oil is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids; meal can be used for poultry feed.

Equipment: Conventional.

Production: Plant in late-September or October, broadcast or drill; harvest in mid-June; low inputs, no herbicide needed.

Yield: In Midwest,1,300 lbs./acre.

In a corn-soybean rotation: Excellent weed suppression.

Double crop camelina + soybean

Winter camelina’s short life cycle makes it a good choice for double cropping with soybeans.

In the Midwest, winter camelina produces about 63 gal./acre of oil. Double cropping with soybeans boosts total oil production to around 110 gal./acre, Gesch says. “This looks very promising in terms of economics.”

In a double cropping system, winter camelina would be seeded in late fall, following soybean or corn harvest. The plants emerge in very early spring and are ready for harvest in mid-June. After harvesting, you could plant a short-maturity soybean variety or another crop such as sunflower or millet.

But more promising, Gesch says, is interseeding soybeans between the rows of camelina in May. Fast-growing camelina quickly overtops the soybean plants, allowing the camelina to be harvested without damaging the young soybean plants. The combine runs on the camelina stubble. “Total oil yield exceeds either crop alone,” Gesch says.

The plant: Winter camelina produces seeds primarily at the top of the plant, allowing harvest over the top of young soybean plants.

Production: Camelina seeded in late fall; no-till soybeans seeded between camelina rows in spring; glyphosate application in early June to dry down camelina; camelina harvested mid-June; soybeans harvested as usual.

Yields: In Midwest,1,200-lb./acre winter camelina, plus 35-bu./acre soybeans.

In a corn-soybean rotation: Doubles the amount of oil per acre, compared to soybeans alone.


Cuphea oil is an alternative to imported tropical oils such as palm and coconut oil. Cuphea is being grown now on a small scale for cosmetics companies, including Aveda. The potential market for cuphea oil is very large, Gesch says, but commercial production will require improved varieties. Current varieties tend to shatter.

The plant: Annual oilseed with purple flowers, about 36 in. tall; tiny, disc-shaped seeds contain up to 30% oil.

Equipment: Plant with a drill; straight combine with a soybean head, or swath.

Production: Seed into a well-groomed seedbed in early May; harvest mid-September to October.

Yield: In Midwest, about 900 lbs./acre, but seed shattering in the field can approach 30%.

In a corn-soybean rotation: Cuphea in rotation with wheat and corn boosts wheat yields and protein and suppresses corn rootworm.


December 2010

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