USDA-ARS Soils Lab studying oilseed crops

MORRIS, Minn. — The 1960s term "flower power" got a new twist at tlast week's Morris USDA-ARS Soils Lab’s field day.

Flowering oilseed crops, like the marigold-looking calendula, camelina and cuphea, have potential as sources for energy development and industrial uses. The crops are among the research projects at the Soils Lab and its Swan Lake Research Farm.

The Soils Lab is taking a broader look at the oilseed crops, said Soils Lab plant physiologist Russ Gesch. Besides studying the agronomics and oil capacity of the plants, the lab is also tracking production costs.

Patricia Peterson is interested in what the oil crops can bring to her company. Peterson is vice president of research and development for product development at Aveda, a Minnesota-based personal care product firm. The company is striving to reduce its dependence on foreign oil by using plant-based oils in its products, she said.

The company uses coconut and palm oil, but wants to look at locally grown oils. They are looking at the feasibility of cuphea. They started the project in 2009 with the soils lab and are  working with their first harvest, she said.


Cuphea contains lauric acid, which is an important ingredient in personal care products, Gesch said. Small amounts of cuphea are being produced at the lab but they are "at a standstill in terms of crop agronomics."

The Barnes-Aastad Association, the support organization for the Soils Lab, is attempting to get increased funding for the lab. The funds would help create a new oil seed crop breeder position.

A four-year study of cuphea has shown no negative effects in the crop rotation. It is beneficial to wheat when that grain follows cuphea, Gesch said. The wheat gets a good stand established and the grain has higher protein levels. Additional studies on cuphea in Illinois has shown it helps with corn rootworm problems.

Calendula is related to the marigold family and is grown in Europe, Gesch said. The essential oils are extracted from the plant’s flowers and are used in paints and pesticides. The oil is fast drying and sought after to replace volatile chemicals that  are being used.

The crop is easy to manage and is planted early like spring wheat. Evidence suggests that residue from calendula can reduce nematode growth.

Calendula offers a good yield at 2,000-pounds per acre.

Camelina can be planted in the fall in September or October, Gesch said. In spring, soybeans can be interseeded on the field. Camelina grows fast and bolts above young soybeans, making it easy to harvest.

The Soils Lab is also researching corn and its non-grain biomass removal. Corn cobs or stover can be a carbon-neutral biofuel and add income for producers.


Jane Johnson, a research soil scientist at the Soils Lab, has looked at residue management when cobs and stover are harvested.

The recommendation is to have 30 percent of the soil covered, she said. Farmers should monitor the fields for evidence of increased erosion and practice conservation tillage methods.

Reduction of the intensity and frequency of tillage will help maintain soil organic matter. Perennials can be added in the rotation to aid the organic matter, she said.

Donnelly farmer Greg Fynboh is working with Johnson on an on-farm cob and stover harvest study. He farms under 1,000 acres.

Collecting the stover is an income source for his farm. It offers an opportunity to manage residue, however residue is a challenge on his wet soils.

"If we can get the residue off the field without plowing, that’s great," he said.

Stover collection helps the local economy, he said. Harvest is slower because of the baling and cob collection.

The cobs are taken to the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Cooperative in Benson where they are used as fuel for the plant’s biomass burner.


Sharon Papiernik, a research soil scientist, has been working with farmer-cooperator Karl Retzlaff on his farm fields. They have worked on a soil-landscape rehabilitation project.

Retzlaff has used alfalfa terraces, but stopped  when moving bales became more difficult, Retzlaff said. He now uses no-till practices and, with Papiernik, has studied the affects of moving the eroded soils back to the top of the slope.

He has a scraper and has moved about six inches of the soil to the hill top. He’s seen a 25 to 50 percent yield advantage using the practice, he said.

The cost of the practice, including depreciation and equipment cexpenses, is about $800 per acre , he said. The payback is realized in eight years.

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