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Nicholas Heller

Mentor Department



Cover crops have been identified as a key practice for environmental conservation in agriculture. Despite the benefits of cover crops, such as reduction of nutrient leaching, decrease of soil erosion, and improved soil organic matter, few farmers have adopted the practice. This is primarily due to the cost of implementation. The adoption of field pennycress into crop rotations could be a solution to this problem. Pennycress, a winter annual plant and formerly considered a weed, has been bred for its oil content and is intended for use in biofuels. As demand for biofuels grows, the additional revenue source from implementation of pennycress as a cover crop could incentivize farmers to adopt an environmentally beneficial practice while not displacing the corn or soybeans grown during the summer. Although a profitable yield threshold for pennycress has been identified and successfully achieved in breeding plots, challenges such as late corn harvest and massive amounts of corn stover arise when trying to introduce a small-seeded cover crop like pennycress into a typical Illinois crop rotation. Therefore, two studies have been initiated to identify best practices for the fall establishment of pennycress following corn. One study will examine the tradeoffs between different corn hybrid maturities and their influence on the following pennycress establishment. Hybrids with a shorter CRM, or Corn Relative Maturity, often have lower corn yields but mature earlier in the fall, which is beneficial for pennycress. An additional study will examine different approaches to manage the residue left behind after corn harvest. If this remaining biomass can be broken up in a way that allows improved seed to soil contact, pennycress establishment may improve. The identification of best practices is important when introducing a new crop like pennycress into Illinois cropping systems. For the environmental benefit and additional profitability to be seen, pennycress needs to be successfully and profitably grown in a typical crop rotation.

Pennycress Establishment Following Corn Harvest