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Alternative cover crop yielding progress for researchers

 Win Phippen
Rich Egger
Win Phippen

Researchers at Western Illinois University, Illinois State University, and several other institutions are in the midst of studying the viability of pennycress as a cash cover crop for farmers.

Win Phippen, Director of the Alternative Crops Research program at Western, is excited about the progress they’re making.

“It’s amazing the amount of change we’ve done to this crop to produce a viable commercial crop for Illinois,” said Phippen, who is also a Professor of Plant Breeding Genetics in the School of Agriculture at WIU. He has been at Western for 22 years and started working with pennycress in 2009.

Phippen said they have used gene editing to create a new cover crop called CoverCress.

Cover crops are planted in the fall, grow over the winter, and are harvested in the spring. They’re beneficial because they help prevent soil and water erosion and improve soil health.

But there’s no market for most cover crops so they’re discarded.

However, Phippen said CoverCress can bring in money for farmers.

“The producers are actually very excited about growing something new -- especially a crop that can provide some ecosystem services – and growing it in the offseason without impacting their current production cycle, which is corn or soybeans and occasionally some wheat,” he said.

Phippen said CoverCress will initially be sold as a whole grain seed for feeding broiler chickens, but the ultimate market is for sustainable aviation fuel.

That will involve crushing the seed and extracting the oil to make the fuel.

The remaining seed meal would feed livestock.

Phippen said CoverCress will be one of the first cash cover crops.

Part of the funding for the research comes from a five-year, $10 million federal research grant awarded in 2019.

Now it’s time for researchers to take pennycress to the next level, Phippen said. They’ve worked with it in small research plots, but need to see how well it works on larger farms in the real world.

And Phippen said the producers are both realistic – they understand they must help researchers work out the kinks – and optimistic that CoverCress will be successful.

What is pennycress?

Pennycress is a temperate oil seed crop that’s found all around the world and is grown in every single state in the U.S.

Wild pennycress is a black seeded variety that has germination issues. “It’s meant to be a roadside weed,” Phippen said.

On the other, he said, “CoverCress is a golden seeded pennycress variety that has improved traits to improve germination, sustainability, harvestability, and improve the quality of the oil and the fiber that’s actually in the seed for the oil markets and for the feed markets.”

The oil is currently not edible for humans but it could be altered to make it an edible oil.

“So if someone was interested in salad dressing and things like that, you could easily go into that market,” Phippen said.

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