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What's the buzz with oilseed crops?

Dr. Russ Gesch, research plant physiologist at the Soils Lab in Morris, talks to Field Day attendees about a research project to use oilseeds for jet fuel. Gesch is partnering with scientists across the United States to look at the best growing conditions for oilseed crops. (Kim Ukura/Sun Tribune)

MORRIS, Minn -- Scientists at Morris' Soils Lab are working to save honey bees, turn local crops into military grade jet fuel and help farmers improve soil nutrition.

More than 80 participants visited the USDA-ARS North Central Soil Conservation Research Lab's research farm near Swan Lake to learn about these research projects at the lab's annual Field Day on Thursday, Aug. 15.

Oilseeds helping farmers and pollinators

Honey bees and other pollinators are involved with about 75 percent of the food we eat, but these insects are struggling. A report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture released this spring found multiple factors for the decline including parasites, disease, genetics, pesticide exposure and poor nutrition.

Scientists at the Soils Lab are in the middle of a project to help improve honey bee nutrition. This is especially important in our region because, over the summer, one third of the nation's honeybee colonies call Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota home. Unfortunately, the three most common crops in the region -- corn, soybeans and wheat -- are not a good source of food for pollinating insects.

"While they're coming back here to get stronger, we're not offering them a lot as far as food that they can eat," said Dr. Carrie Eberle, a post-doctorate researcher at the Soils Lab.

A study being conducted in conjunction with an ARS lab in Brookings, S.D., is looking at how to introduce different agricultural crops, like oil seed crops, that have a value for farmers and a rich, consistent food source for insects.

Over the summer, Eberle and Dr. Frank Forcella have looked at the flowering patterns of a variety of oilseed crops -- pennycress, canola, flax, camelina, borage and others -- to suggest a series of plants that could provide food for insects throughout the spring, summer and fall.

Oilseeds for jet fuel

Scientists in Morris, partnering with researchers across the country, are hoping to help the United States military and other commercial aviation partners increase their use of biofuels by figuring out the best ways to use oilseeds for jet fuel and bioproducts.

"The overall goal of the project is to develop a reliable, economic seed oil source for making aircraft fuel, in particular, hydrotreated renewable jet fuel using a commercial process already developed by Honeywell," said Dr. Russ Gesch, research plant physiologist at the lab.

The commercial process can use any vegetable oil to make fuel, but one of the biggest limiting factors of the process is bringing the cost of feedstock down so it's competitive with petroleum.

Approximately 10 percent of the cost of oil made from oilseed plants -- canola, mustard, rapeseed and camelina, for example -- comes from the conversion technology itself. The remaining 90 percent of the cost is the feedstock cost.

There are three major phases of the project: feedstock development (a priority for the Morris lab); biofuel development and coproduct identification to bring value to the crops, and economic development.

The Soils Lab is collaborating with other ARS and university researchers at nine locations across six regions of the northern and western United States on the field phase of the research.

Across the sites, researchers are looking at which varieties of oilseeds grow best in each region, oil content and quality, the environmental impacts on crop performance and best management for the oilseed crops.

At the same time, agricultural economists like David Archer at the USDA-ARS lab in Mandan, N.D., are looking carefully at the economic side of using oilseeds for fuel to find out what needs to happen to make oilseeds as profitable as what farmers are currently growing.

Navy and commercial aviation partners are also interested in understanding what other issues may impact whether farmers will grow oilseed crops.

Cover crops improve soil health

Farmer Carmen Fernholz looked at using cover crops on his organic cash grain and forage farm around 1993 when researchers with the Soils Lab helped him plant between his rows of corn.

This year, researchers at the Soils Lab are looking closely at two new potential cover crops -- daikon radishes and annual ryegrass -- to assess their effectiveness. They hypothesized that the corn yield on a plot with a cover crop would be higher than on a plot without it, or that a plot with a cover crop would need less nitrogen fertilizer to achieve the same yield as a plot without it, Chad Rollofson, a field technician at the Soils Lab, explained.

The bacteria in soil like to have a soil environment with about 24 times more carbon than nitrogen. When corn residue is left on a field, bacteria will pull as much nitrogen as they can from the soil, depleting the nutrients that corn needs to grow, said Rollofson.

A good cover crop will offer bacteria the nutrients they need so they can return nitrogen to the soil while the cover crop is on the field.

"We want something growing in that ground as many months out of the year as possible. What we're doing is collecting carbon but we're also feeding the livestock in that soil, the soil microbes," said Fernholz.

When the daikon radishes were planted last fall, researchers noticed that the plants showed a lot of unexpected root growth above the soil, contributing to the soil structure in the field. But by the spring, the plants were completely dead, leaving a clean field for the corn to be planted in. In contrast, not all of the annual ryegrass died during the winter, which could be a problem for organic farmers like Fernholz.

Throughout the year, scientists have been taking readings on different plots to assess the levels of nitrogen in the soil as the various cover crops and corn were planted. Once the data is analyzed, they'll be able to suggest which of these plants make an effective cover crop and what benefits they can offer to farmers.

"The tale will be told on yield, and I'm excited to see that happen," said Rollofson.