Cash crop or cover crop?
New rotational option may offer growers the benefits of both
There’s a new cash crop growing in MFA territory this fall, one that not only gives farmers a different rotational option but also doubles as a cover crop to provide soil health and conservation benefits.
And it was once considered a weed.
This novel crop is CoverCress™, derived from the winter annual pennycress, a Brassica related to mustards and cabbages. The plant’s transformation into CoverCress occurred over nearly a decade of advanced breeding, gene editing and field testing to develop a crop that is valued for both its oil and grain.
CoverCress fits into existing corn and soybean rotations in the Midwest, allowing farmers to grow three crops in two seasons, said Dale Sorensen, chief commercial officer for the company, which was founded in 2013 by three former Monsanto employees. With a high oil content—about 50% higher than a soybean—pennycress was an ideal candidate to be cultivated into a cash crop aimed at the renewable fuels market, Sorensen explained.
“For agriculture to become more sustainable and produce more food, farmers are going to need another set of options,” he said. “We can only grow so many soybeans and so much corn on the acres we have. How do we capture more oil that has the ability to go into biofuels without taking away from the food supply? That question is what got me into this.”
Sorensen is also a former employee of Monsanto, where he worked with DeKalb, Asgrow and regional seed lines for many years and helped the company integrate tech brands such as Precision Planting and FieldView. He retired from Monsanto in 2016 prior to its acquisition by Bayer and joined CoverCress Inc. (CCI) in 2021.
“After spending 25 years at Monsanto, I know about being on the bleeding edge,” Sorensen said. “That experience prepared me well for working with CoverCress, which is one of the most exciting products I’ve ever been involved with.”
The first CoverCress fields were planted in 2019, and four years later, the product is on the cusp of full commercialization, Sorensen said. More than 8,000 acres are in production this fall, mainly in eastern Missouri and southern Illinois, with plans to expand into Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio. Currently, CCI provides farmers seed, agronomic support and marketing services. Growers are responsible for planting and caring for the crop.
“This year, we contracted about 3,200 acres of grain production with about 30 or so farmers, and we’ll have right at 5,000 acres of demonstration fields with another 50 to 60 farmers,” Sorensen said.
Among those growers is Alan Weber, who farms part time with his father, Jerry, in Pettis County near Nelson, Mo. In addition to its dual-purpose as cash crop and cover crop, the promise of CoverCress as a source of renewable fuel was attractive to Weber, who works full time as a founding partner of MARC-IV, a consulting company that fosters the development of bio-based innovations.
In late September, Weber planted 33 acres of CoverCress into corn stubble to serve as a demo plot. It’s the second time he’s had CoverCress on the farm, having hosted another trial two years ago to help CCI evaluate different varieties and seed treatments.
“My father and I have used cover crops for a number of years to reduce erosion, provide grazing potential for our cows and increase water-holding capacity in our soils,” Weber said. “With CoverCress, we can now incorporate a cash crop between corn and soybeans that essentially fills most of the ecosystem benefits of a cover crop plus the opportunity to diversify our rotation and harvest the crop for an additional revenue stream.”
What makes CoverCress fit so well into Midwest crop rotations is its winter growth cycle and earlier harvest, Sorensen explained. It is planted in the fall, goes dormant over the winter, flowers and sets seed in the spring, and is harvested from mid-May to early June. This allows growers to get double-crop soybeans—or even corn—planted earlier than if they were following winter wheat.
“We haven’t planted winter wheat on our ground for quite a few years because there’s a lot of risk in having a profitable soybean crop planted in late June, at least on our soils,” Weber said. “Getting CoverCress harvested the third week of May would allow me to plant a soybean crop with full yield potential. That’s what really excites me about incorporating this into the rotation.”
Sorensen said there is demand for the crop, and major companies are getting on board. In April 2022, Bunge and Chevron formed a joint venture to take CoverCress grain for processing into renewable diesel and aviation fuel. In August 2022, CCI announced that Bayer had expanded its investment to 65% ownership in the company, with Bunge and Chevron owning the other 35%.
“Long term, they want us growing a million tons a year,” Sorensen said. “And they’d like us to be there by 2030.”
With an energy-dense nutritional profile similar to canola, CoverCress also has potential as livestock feed in both whole-grain and meal form. CCI is working with a large-scale chicken producer to develop those markets, with a commitment to deliver 1,000 tons of grain to feed broilers in the summer of 2024.
To help meet the market demand, Sorensen said he expects to have 300 to 350 farmers growing CoverCress by next fall. New producers will enter under CCI’s “farm adoption program,” which allows them to plant the crop at no cost to see how it works in their operation before making a commitment.
“Right now, our business model is to give away the seed and let farmers experiment on their farm to learn how to grow it before they ever sign a contract with us,” Sorensen explained. “This is a new crop, so farmers need to learn how to manage it. There’s a lot of hand-holding the first couple of seasons.”
While CoverCress is a fairly low-input, low-maintenance crop, stand establishment is critical, Sorensen said. CCI recommends planting as soon as possible after harvest of the preceding corn or soybean crop—ideally early September to mid-October—to take advantage of heat, light and moisture needed to ensure good emergence. Planting depth should be shallow, less than 0.25 inch, on lightly disturbed soil.
“We need a minimum of four plants per square foot,” Sorensen said. “Getting the stand established is the biggest learning curve for farmers. After that, the rest is pretty easy.”
On his farm, Weber said he planted CoverCress with the same methods he uses to sow cover crops. “We worked the corn stalks with a vertical tillage tool and spread the seed on top,” he said. “Then we firmed it up with some rolling baskets.”
After planting, crop maintenance is minimal until it comes out of dormancy the following spring. If the crop is economically viable, CCI recommends side-dressing with nitrogen.
“Most of the rapid growth occurs in the first half of spring, so we want to apply 40-50 pounds of nitrogen per acre before or when the plants begin to bolt,” Sorensen said. “We prefer not to put on any nitrogen in the fall. Typically, behind corn or beans, there’s enough nitrate there to carry the crop through winter.”
The harvest window opens when 95% of the pods have turned to bright tan, with the rest being some shade of yellow, typically May 20-30. Sorensen said a combine draper head is recommended to reduce shatter loss compared to a conventional grain head.
In this startup phase, CCI provides transportation of the grain to market. Eventually, as demand and production grow, Sorensen said he envisions a larger network of handling facilities for CoverCress every 50 to 60 miles so growers can haul their own grain.
“There are three things growers usually want to know before they get on board,” Sorensen said. “How do I grow the crop? What am I going to make for the crop? And where do I haul it? Until we get a full-scale grain-handling process in place, I don’t want our farmers to worry about where it’s going. We’ll pick it up and take it from there.”
As for what a farmer can make by growing CoverCress, CCI estimates potential revenue ranging from $150 to $200 per acre, based on Chicago Board of Trade prices for soybeans. The final value will be included in a grower’s contract before fall seeding.
“For example, with $13 beans, at 1,300-pound yields of CoverCress, that’s about $155 in revenue per acre,” Sorensen explained. “I think we’ll get better as we get farther along. We know the varieties can surpass 1,500 pounds per acre when managed well. If we get up to 2,000 pounds, that starts to push beyond the $200-per-acre range.”
Even with tough growing conditions over the past two years, Sorensen said farmers have shown tremendous interest in CoverCress, and CCI plans to open signups for grain production and demo programs in January for the fall of 2024. The company is also seeking new “authorized agents” to help recruit farmers and provide customer support.
“You have to think about whole-farm economics—how do you maximize revenue across the farm rather than just looking at how to maximize yields,” Sorensen said. “With its unique opportunity as both cash crop and cover crop, CoverCress can be an important piece of that picture.”
For more information, visit covercress.com.
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