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Biofuel crops show promise

Someday travelers may be flying cross-country on airplanes powered by oil extracted crops grown on the windy West Side of the San Joaquin Valley.

Possibly grasses grown in the same region may be the source of biofuel that helps reduce the nation’s dependency on foreign oil.

Whether either of those becomes reality, another possibility was emphasized at a field day at West Side Research and Extension Center near Five Points, Calif.: This could be a banner year for garbanzo beans in some regions.

Growers and others gathered at the center to hear presentations on subjects that included biofuel crops; alfalfa salt tolerance; garbanzos; and trials on wheat, triticale and barley grain.

University of California Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor Carol Frate, Tulare County, cut short her presentation on garbanzo diseases that included white mold from sclerotinia or ascochyta blight.

The diseases, notably sclerotinia, were not problematic this year. In short, she said, “There was not enough disease to make a good presentation. It’s out there, but it has been worse in wetter yields,” Frate said.

Steve Temple, UC Davis agronomy Extension specialist, said white mold is problematic from Sacramento north, but there are a number of resistant varieties that have been developed for that.

As for the central San Joaquin Valley and its West Side, he said, “These are beautiful conditions for garbanzos. I think we’ll be looking at yields of around 3,000 pounds per acre.” In a typical year, it’s 2,000 to 2,200 pounds.

Temple said garbanzos have a lot going for them: They fix their own nitrogen biologically; they use less water than many plants; and they’re a good rotation crop.

Frate said there can be special problems for garbanzos in Tulare County. One is large alfalfa fields that neighbor smaller parcels – perhaps 40 acres – of garbanzos. Aphids form the alfalfa carry viruses harbored there into the garbanzo fields.

Among crops showcased at the field day were three that are being grown in biofuel trials: canola, camelina and meadowfoam. Jack Kiser, a research manager with Sustainable Oils in Davis, and Steve Kaffka, with the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences gave growers updates.

“You can fly an F-15 about a half hour on the biofuel you could get from the camelina,” Kaffka said. “That’s if you go slowly and don’t push it too much.”

Kiser said an F-15 was flown using a refined form of camelina oil in a 50 percent blend with standard petroleum-based jet fuel. The oil came from camelina grown in Montana, North Dakota and southern Canada.

He said biodiesel is now in use by the military and 13 commercial air carriers have signed memoranda of understanding showing interest in using the product that comes from renewable feedstock.

Kaffka termed camelina “a brand new crop” that shows some promise. Meadowfoam is a native annual in California. He said both could be used during orchard establishment to keep weeds down.

Among the appeals of camelina is that it uses little nitrogen and water. It’s a cool season crop that is often grown with little tillage.

“It can be good on marginal lands as an alternative to wheat,” Kaffka said.

In Australia, canola has been grown for 30 years. It can be grown where annual rainfall varies from 12 to 30 inches, but is thought to be less tolerant of drought than wheat. Production costs in California are similar to or slightly higher than safflower.

The researchers are also studying sweet sorghum, which was to be planted shortly after the field day. One challenge there is how to get enough of the crop to provide five months of daily harvest for any processing facility. Kaffka said one solution is planting over a range of time to get “cascading” harvests.

Dan Putnam, a UC alfalfa and storage specialist, talked of other biofuels high in cellulose. He said questions still remain on whether the crops can work economically in California. One way to hedge is to grow the crops for two purposes: as livestock feed and biofuels.

Switchgrass, for example, can provide forage if it is cut early. Yields per acre can range from 8 tons to 18 tons.

Putnam has studied several potential sources of biofuel, including alfalfa, switchgrass, miscanthus and elephant grass. He continues to look at whether deficit irrigation can be used, nitrogen use, and salt tolerance.

He said it is not known how long switchgrass will persist once planted. His trials in California were begun three years ago.

Putnam also showcased various alfalfa varieties and cautioned growers to take care in choosing — not doing so based on promotion, price or habit. “There are some very good ones and some that you should get paid to plant,” he said.

“It takes less than one-tenth of a ton to justify even a $2 increase in the price of seed."

Some varieties may also be chosen to help cope with diseases or insects.

Putnam said varieties can vary in their performance from one field to another, and he recommends farmers do strip trials on their own land to measure performance.

Small grain variety tests were also done, taking a look at resistance to stripe rust. Growers were advised to pick varieties with good resistance along with high yield potential and to use fungicides in a timely manner.

In 2003 there were a high number of varieties susceptible to wheat rust, said Steve Wright, a UC farm advisor for Tulare and Kings counties. “Now, it may be 3 percent to 4 percent of varieties planted statewide that are susceptible." Gene Askland, marketing manager with Syngenta Seeds Inc. in Goshen, said Blanca Royale is a popular white variety of wheat commonly used in tortillas. He said some favored varieties have been improved to have better stripe rust resistance, including Blanca Grande and Summit.

Other popular varieties include Cal Rojo and Redwing.

TAGS: Management
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