The Biofuel Cover Crop – B. carinata

The Biofuel Cover Crop – B. carinata

Varietal trials for screening germplasm suited to Florida conditions are close to harvest in Live Oak. Along with with 15 other sites, UF/IFAS was awarded a 5-year, $15 million dollar grant from NIFA to research and understand the potential for carinata, the biofuel cover crop. Touted as a money making cover crop in the winter, this combination could be just the alternative to weedy fallow. As we collect data on the disease, yield and economics of this new crop, growers will be interested to learn how best we can grow it in our area. With 4 more years of funding, we hope to learn more and share it with you.

To learn more about its production, click on the state where you live for a complete production manual: http://growcarinata.com/Carinata/Map

Here is a recent Suwannee Democrat article I wrote:
Florida farmers have always been experimenters in planting a wide variety of crops, back as far as the Timucuan Indians (the predominant northern tribe) when self-sustaining corn, beans, and squash were widely grown. With the arrival of the Spanish in 1565, Juan Ponce de Leon and Pedro Menendez de Aviles augmented these with indigo and cochineal (the crimson bug-dye) as cash crops to encourage trade and processing. Citrus, cattle, and tobacco became popular in the 1820’s. Citrus almost went bust with prolonged freezes in both 1835 and 1895 which made towns like Frostproof and the county of Citrus almost misnomers. Industrialists Henry Flagler and Napolean Broward (the rural populist governor from 1905-1909) valued agriculture and proclaimed Florida as a “Land of Great Potential”. Two things they could not change were the weather and pest problems. Farmers continue today to modify and adapt their production systems to stay competitive.

The University of Florida’s land grant mission considers new crop choices as a way to meet the needs of farmers today. One such crop being researched for its potential in North Florida is an oilseed crop called Brassica carinata (similar to canola). With a higher energy output (in BTUs) than refined gasoline per gallon, it can be processed into biofuels that are clean burning for commercial jets. In addition, by-products from processing yield a high protein seed meal that is valuable for animal feed. Holland and other European countries have made commitments to alternative fuels in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint. Commercial production is expanding in north Florida, southern Alabama and Georgia for these jet fuel markets. To address yield improvements and variety selection for local growers, agronomic and variety testing is underway at four University of Florida research locations, including UF/IFAS Suwannee Valley Agricultural Extension Center near Live Oak.

Carinata’s research history in Florida is only a few years old, but results so far are promising. Agronomic trials to best determine its range of temperatures, fertility needs, insect pressures, and optimal harvest started in 2010, testing Canadian summer-grown varieties. Initially, the first introduced cultivars were susceptible to heavy frost, especially if planted in late winter. As such, breeders began a wider search for winter-hardiness and higher yield. The two experiments in Live Oak include a commercial planting and 24 new varieties, selected for our local climate and sandy soils. One of the greatest potential side benefits may be in carinata’s soil building properties. As many fields are left fallow in winter, carinata can create soil organic matter and structure with its extensive rooting system while scavenging previous crop nutrients, otherwise lost to leaching. Touted also as a potential non-chemical bio-fumigant, early signs are that resident nematode and fungal pathogens can be reduced. Likewise, as we learn more about optimal production, early forecasts suggest carinata has the potential for net returns of over $100/acre. Economic analysis at the end of the season will scrutinize agronomic inputs to create specific crop budgets for northern Florida profitability. Although it may take six months to mature (from seeding in November to harvest in May), one of the quesrions UF is looking to answer is, “can we really produce two cash crops in one season?”

We really need cover crops that benefit the ecosystem as the sandy soils can be a particular challenge throughout the Suwannee Valley region. Farmers are being asked to be more efficient with inputs of nitrogen to protect our waterways. Some are reviving historic rotations. Oats, rye, and bahiagrass are not new, but underutilized. When planted in longer and strategic sequential plantings with cover crops, row crops (of cotton, corn, peanut) have proven to sustainable. Certainly more winter options would help improve the soil, and pull farmers through the current poor pricing situation.

What are other viable choices? What can build soil fertility and carry-forward to the next crop? Aside from the carinata, UF/IFAS plans to conduct wider cover-cropping trials on local farms. Hopefully, successful experiments along with constant feedback from innovative farmers will help everyone remain profitable.

To get a first hand look at carinata and its economics, come out to one of our field days or for our harvest in late May (date TBD). You can also check the SVAEC website (www.svaec.ifas.ufl.edu) or call to schedule an appointment: UF/IFAS Suwannee Valley Agricultural Extension Center, 7580 County Road 136, Live Oak, FL 32060, Phone: 386-362-1725 X112.

UF/IFAS Extension Suwannee County is an Equal Opportunity Institution

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