The United States Department of Agriculture approached Western Illinois University’s Win Phippen in 2009 with a simple bottle of seeds. The USDA thought those seeds had some big potential.
The seeds were field pennycress. Phippen, a professor of plant breeding and genetics, has been studying the crop ever since. WIU created a plant breeding program specifically for pennycress in 2009. They are focused on developing varieties of pennycress.
The University of Missouri Greenley Research Center, in Novelty, Mo., is planting some of those varieties, with an emphasis on learning more about the production characteristics of the crop.
“As we conduct more field research, that’s going to help us better understand the fit of pennycress in our cropping systems,” said Kelly Nelson, research agronomist. “As they develop new and improved lines of pennycress, we’ll move those into production. As we learn more about the production characteristics, we develop improved management practices.”
Pennycress is a winter annual crop planted and harvested within the corn-soybean rotation. This is the second year Greenley has planted pennycress. They overseed it in their corn crop in June and July and drill seed it following corn harvest. Pennycress was harvested during the first week of June – and a full season of soybeans were planted after the pennycress harvest.
Pennycress gives growers another revenue crop that doesn’t harm the corn or soybean yields. Phippen said they’ve consistently averaged three extra bushels of soybeans with the pennycress present. Nelson said yields were solid for Greenley in 2015 and 2016.
“We had very good yields last year with some of the new lines that are being evaluated,” Nelson said. “Getting stands established this year was a little bit different because of a dry fall. But where we were overseeding into corn, we had good stands. There will be some variability from year to year with environmental factors.
“The pennycress didn’t have an effect on corn yield last year, which is a good thing. Soybean yields also weren’t affected by the pennycress. The pennycress will also provide some winter cover as a cover crop as well.”
Pennycress is a fuel crop, not a food crop. Pennycress seed is 30 to 32 percent oil, whereas soybean seed is about 20 percent oil. The oil-rich seed shows a lot of potential as a biofuels crop and for use in aviation fuel.
“The main focus for us was the oil seed potential,” Nelson said. “From a biofuels perspective, there’s tremendous potential there.”
Nelson added that Greenley uses pennycress lines proven to be successful. They are the lines with the most stable yields.
Phippen’s group continues to work on strengthening pennycress varieties as well. He said they collect pennycress varieties from across the world, looking at the genetics of each variety. They breed the plants to find the best-performing lines.
“We have around 180 lines right now,” Phippen said. “We’ve collected varieties from around the world. We’re diagnosing all of them.
“We’re working on several other things, too. We’re looking at weed control, crop rotations, herbicide usage, and soil temperature and moisture.”
Pennycress also shows potential as a cover crop. Growers raise cover crops to help with the enrichment of the soil, control pests and diseases and smother weeds.
“The cover crop side of things – it’s just an added benefit,” Nelson said.
Research continues on pennycress as well. Greenley conducts fertility research on the crop and looks at its fertilizer potential.
“We’re doing several different things,” Nelson said. “Some of that is looking at the herbicides we put on corn. Does that affect pennycress? We’re also looking at other winter annual weeds, such as chickweed and henbit, which are competitors with pennycress. How do we manage other winter annuals so we can maximize pennycress production?
“There are a lot of questions that we’re looking at.”
Greenley also collaborates with Arvegenix out of St. Louis, Mo., on pennycress-related research.