Pennycress as a cover crop

Field pennycress (Thlaspi arvense L.) is a new winter annual cover crop that produces an oilseed feedstock for industrial uses.

pennycress plants with seedpods
Field pennycress (Thlaspi arvensis L.)

As a cash cover crop for the Upper Midwest, field pennycress can provide economic return with yields up to 990 pounds per acre (1,109 kilograms per hectare), and a seed oil content ranging from 26 to 36 percent.

When to plant it

You can plant field pennycress in the fall and harvest in the spring, prior to summer annual crops grown in a relay or double crop system. This intensifies the production system.

In the relay system, the summer annual crop is planted in the spring at a near-normal time between rows of pennycress. In the double cropping system, the summer annual crops are planted after pennycress harvest.

Benefits

Similar to traditional cover crops, field pennycress has the potential to increase the ecosystem services without negatively influencing crop yields. This is conveyed in Figure 1, which shows normalized values for 11 ecosystem services and two economic metrics averaged across the three-year rotation of cropping systems.

spider chart of various ecosystem services of cover crops and no cover crops
Figure 1: Normalized values for crop rotations with (CC) and without (NoCC) cover crops. Higher numbers indicate better performance.

Pennycress prevents soil erosion and nutrient leaching, suppresses weeds and creates suitable conditions for beneficial insects and pollinators.

Evaluating a new crop

Despite field pennycress’ multiple benefits, it’s a new crop species, which limits its adoption.

Consequently, growing recommendations for the crop’s optimum agronomic performance are needed. Researchers at University of Minnesota and United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) at Morris are currently testing and developing these recommendations.

Pennycress possibilities in the cropping system

Researchers have tested pennycress in double and relay cropping systems in the Upper Midwest.

Double crop system

When analyzing field pennycress production and weed control in a double crop system, researchers found that combined pennycress and soybean seed crop yield was greater.

This suggests low risk of using pennycress prior to soybeans. The researchers noted that, by including pennycress in double cropping systems, producers can potentially increase total seed yield and reduce early-season weed pressure.

Double and relay cropping systems

A follow-up study explored the yield trade-offs and soil nitrogen (N) changes between pennycress and soybean in double and relay cropping systems.

Results indicated that adding pennycress to the system increased total oilseed production when integrated with soybean in double and late-relay cropping systems (Figures 2 and 3).

Researchers analyzed the N soil content throughout the pennycress and soybean growing seasons, and concluded that the presence of pennycress reduced the N soil content in the soil profile. This reduces the risk of nitrogen leaching and water contamination.

Bar chart showing pennycress outperforming camelina in grain yield
Figure 2: Camelina and pennycress yield as influenced by cropping strategy and oilseed cover crop harvest timing in St. Paul in 2015.
bar chart showing yield of soybeans with camelina, penny cress and no cover crop, each in a double crop, relay early harvest and relay late harvest treatment.  There was no statistical difference between cover crops, no cover out-performed covers in relay harvest treatments
Figure 3: Soybean yield as influenced by cropping strategy and oilseed cover crop harvest timing in St. Paul in 2015.

Future pennycress research

Currently, the University and USDA-ARS have several ongoing research projects assessing the performance of pennycress in Minnesota cropping systems. These include:

  • Determining optimal oilseed planting dates, harvest time and management for improved oilseed yield and quality.

  • Evaluating pennycress for nitrogen use efficiency and optimal fertilizer rates.

  • Exploring alternative summer annual crops for new double cropping system opportunities.

New research into market and product development is underway in collaboration with researchers from the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, the University’s Department of Food Science and Nutrition and the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute.

Rubí Raymundo; post-doctoral associate, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS); Ratan Chopra, post-doctoral associate, CFANS; Katherine Frels, researcher, CFANS; Maninder K. Walia, post-doctoral associate, CFANS; M. Scott Wells, Extension agronomist; James Anderson, wheat breeder, CFANS; M. David Marks, plant and microbial biologist; Frank Forcella, research agronomist, USDA Agricultural Research Service; Russell Gesch, research plant physiologist, USDA Agricultural Research Service; and Donald Wyse, agronomist, CFANS

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