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Pennycress establishes new harvest season in Central Illinois

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Pennycress harvest takes place in Normal in June.

NORMAL — Typically in the Midwest, the second week in June isn’t a busy time for planting or harvesting for corn and soybean farmers, unless weather delays farmers or replanting is needed.

But the seasons may look a little different going forward as some corn and soybean farmers add CoverCress, the commercialized version of pennycress, a former weed. In early June or late May, pennycress harvest could be followed by corn or soybean planting.

On June 9, it was harvest time for researchers at Illinois State University for their plots here in Central Illinois.

When the harvest was completed in Macomb, Arrenzville and Normal, combine driver Win Phippen, director of the Integrated Pennycress Research Enabling Farm and Energy Resilience project, moved on to harvest the variety trials, seed and research plots in Ohio and Wisconsin.

John Sedbrook, Illinois State University professor, said the researchers had hoped to harvest the crop in Normal earlier, but the cool, wet spring delayed the plant’s maturation.

“But at the same time we were pleased with stand establishment of the yellow-seeded varieties (low fiber, higher oil and protein) and their yields,” he said.

He said the initial feedback on field trials was promising.

In recent years, $23 million in federal and business grants has been invested in pennycress research in the Midwest to make it a viable commercial crop for feed and fuel, Phippen said. The IPREFER director has been growing pennycress at Western Illinois University in Macomb for eight years, and more farmers have become interested in the potential of growing the crop in the last three years as research has progressed.

While harvesting the crop, Phippen works closely with a team on the ground that ensures the combine header is cleaned after each plot to ensure purity. Ross Sousa, a summer intern in the IPREFER program, bags and labels the seed from each plot.

As in Normal, at Western Illinois University, the domesticated yellow-seeded varieties did well without adding costly seed treatment, said Sousa, who studied this aspect.

The more weed-like black seed varieties needed seed treatments for more consistent germination, Phippen said.

“Our breeding programs are continuing to develop earlier season pennycress varieties,” Sedbrook said.

The plan is to plant corn or soybeans after the harvested pennycress to have additional income from the cover crop in a traditional rotation. So when combines were harvesting pennycress in Normal, researchers at the Illinois State University fields in Lexington were planting the new row crop.

“We are still trying to document different agronomic strategies to best incorporate pennycress into what Illinois farmers are already doing,” said Nicholas Heller, ISU assistant crop sciences professor.

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They have no-tilled soybean into pennycress (early and late maturities), no-tilled corn into pennycress (very wide range of corn maturities), and tilled after pennycress before planting early-maturity corn. All three of these options were planted between June 4 and June 8 in Lexington this year.

Heller said he would be comfortable planting the typical corn hybrid in early June in central Illinois. For soybeans, similar to double-cropping with wheat, growers will plant a variety of soybean that suits their area and planting date.

ISU has several studies looking at planting dates.

“We have had great success planting pennycress in early September following silage corn harvest, and other plots were planting in standing soybeans and after grain corn from late September to early October, “ Heller said.

Some fields will include pennycress in the rotation annually. However, for the establishment studies, researchers don’t want any volunteer pennycress influencing the results and thus will use a field that has not had pennycress in it before, Heller said.

At a field day in Lexington in April, Chris Aulbach, agronomist for CoverCress Inc., a Missouri company commercializing pennycress, told farmers they could earn about $50 net per acre by growing CoverCress on contract.

Aulbach said the company plans to have its first 50,000 acres of CoverCress planted in the fall of 2022 and is looking for more growers.

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