June 10, 2023

Pennycress research showcased at WIU field day

MACOMB, Ill. — Western Illinois University’s School of Agriculture will host its fourth annual Pennycress Field Day on May 25 at the Agriculture Field Laboratory.

The field day highlights the ongoing work conducted through the Integrated Pennycress Research Enabling Farm and Energy Resilience project.

The event is open free to the public and no registration is required. The field laboratory is located north of the Harry Mussatto Golf Course.

This year’s Pennycress Field Day will introduce the new winter annual crop of field pennycress to local producers.

The event will feature researchers and industry representatives discussing the short season crop and the results from the previous year.

A goal is for pennycress to be used not only as a winter cover crop but then harvested and provide additional farm income before the regular cash crop is planted.

“The IPREFER project focuses primarily on the commercialization of pennycress.”

—  Win Phippen, plant breeding and genetics professor, Western Illinois University

The event will also introduce the IPREFER National Institute of Food and Agriculture-Coordinated Agricultural Projects, which is infusing $10 million toward the development and commercial launch of pennycress, along with the $13 million U.S. Department of Agriculture-Department of Energy’s Integrated Pennycress Resilience Project focused on the abiotic stresses impacting pennycress production.

Additional research projects funded by the Illinois Soybean Association, the Nutrient Research and Education Council and CoverCress Inc., looking at soybean planting dates, inter-seeding and impact of cover crops on water and soil health will be discussed.

The Pennycress Field Day is set up as a guided tour of the WIU pennycress plots. Attendees should wear walking shoes and snacks and water will be provided.

WIU Field Research

Win Phippen, WIU agriculture professor of plant breeding and genetics and IPREFER project director, spoke of the research work during a Cover Crop Field Day at the Illinois State University Farm on April 21.

WIU and ISU, along with the University of Minnesota and CoverCress, are research partners in the IPREFER project.

“Pennycress is a high-yielding oilseed crop that can be grown as an ecosystem benefiting winter cash cover crop throughout the U.S. Corn Belt. Pennycress is unique among cover crops in that it can generate income, which can incentivize farmer adoption,” according to IPREFER.

“Integration of pennycress into existing corn-soybean rotations can extend the growing season on established croplands and avoid food crop displacement. Pennycress could yield up to 2 billion gallons of oil annually towards the USDA-NIFA 25-year goal of 50 billion gallons of biofuels.”

Phippen planted his first research in-field research trials in 2009 on the Macomb campus.

“The IPREFER project focuses primarily on the commercialization of pennycress,” Phippen said.

“So, we’re dealing with more agronomic work, agronomic studies on planting dates, planting rates, crop rotations, herbicide programs — what can follow what. And we’re sort of studying to fine-tune our recommendations on when to plant, seeding depths, seeding rates and things like that.”

The USDA-DOE IPReP projected, hosted by ISU, focuses on finding ways through genetics for pennycress to adapt to a changing climate.

“We’ve been growing pennycress for 13 years and we still are having inconsistent results. One year we get beautiful stands and the next year we did the exact same things and we don’t get the same results,” Phippen noted.

“So, we need to develop a plant that can adapt to these changing environments, one that will germinate under drier conditions or germinate in really wet conditions and things like that. The IPReP project is looking at identifying different genes that will allow pennycress to be more resilient on the landscape so we can get a consistent harvest year after year.

“One of the first things we want to look at is when you adapt a plant to the environmental conditions, it’s the root system that really important.”

Seed Collection

WIU has about 436 different lines of pennycress that have been collected from around the world and are being grown in Macomb in replicated plots.

“All spring we’ve been sampling those plants, digging the plants ups, looking at the root structure, we’re looking at the organisms that associate with the roots — the microbiome around the plant — seeing perhaps there’s an interaction that’s going on there,” Phippen explained.

“We’re even looking at leaf morphologies. So, we’re harvesting leaves, we’re scanning them, looking at the veining in the leaves and seeing if there are other traits that we could be selecting for to make the plant a little bit more resistant.”

Heat stress is one of the factors researchers at studying in the pennycress trials.

“We’re trying to move pennycress farther and farther south. This is a winter annual. It likes cold weather, but the commercialization zone at this point is St. Louis and across, so it’s pretty warm,” Phippen said.

“Pennycress will go sterile above 92 degrees, so we’ve got to make sure this crop goes through its complete lifecycle without getting into the 90s. So, we need to start building some heat-resistance genes if we want to try to expand that commercialization, especially if you’re going farther south into Kentucky, Arkansas or even down to Texas.

“The other trait is this is a winter cover crop and it has to have good freeze tolerance. So, we want it to germinate in the fall — create a rosette in the fall — and that rosette has to last through freeze/thaw cycles, being buried under snow, ice and what have you.

“Some of the spring varieties that we’re dealing with don’t do that very well. So, we can easily identify those particular varieties. We want heat resistance, but we don’t want to lose our freeze and cold weather resistance.”

Commercialization

The main goal of the IPREFER project aims at the many facets of the commercialization of pennycress.

“We need everything from ecosystem services that are being done by Bill Perry (ISU professor of aquatic ecology), Rob Rhykerd (ISU soil scientist professor) and those folks to even the supply chain. Once we get growing seed, how do you start moving that material around and how do you handle its — seed cleaning, seed storage and things along those lines,” Phippen noted.

“Then of course the agronomy studies like crop rotations. Our rotations here in central Illinois are slightly different than in southern Illinois where they have wheat involved, and then as you move farther north into Minnesota where there’s a much different cropping systems and much different growing seasons.

“We recognize that we’re going to have to have varieties adapt to specific regions. We can’t just do one variety that fits all regions.”

Cash Crop Benefits

Pennycress also provides benefits to the cash crop that’s planted in the spring.

“The ecosystems services that’s also part of the IPREFER project is looking at what the benefits are. So, not only are you getting a winter cover that helps with erosion from wind and water and keeps the soil stabilized, but it’s also helping with the soil textures,” Phippen said.

“Now I have a root system there and maintaining the biome of my field over those winter months. Where a fallow field typically doesn’t have any living, live tissue in it to keep those organisms running. So, we are seeing benefits on the primary or the cash cover crop that follow pennycress.”

The native pennycress is known as a weed, but through genetics this newest version that can be used as a cover crop and extra income opportunity does not develop a seed bank in the soil.

“That’s where the technology has come in to play. All our original work was done on black seeded pennycress which we now call undomesticated. It has a really thick seed cover and that allows the seed to persist in the soil,” Phippen said.

“By introducing through gene editing a trait called TT8, which is called a transparent testa, it makes the seed coat very thin and it makes it golden in color. That allows the seed to germinate very uniformly for us and that really helps with stand establishment in the fall.

“It also helps us with seed persistence. Those seeds do not last in the soil. If some do fall out of the back of the combine or shatter out on the ground, those seeds are not going to regerminate and lead to a seed bank.”

If You Go...

Pennycress Field Day will be 10 a.m. to noon May 25 at the Western Illinois University Agriculture Field Laboratory on Tower Road, north of the Harry Mussatto Golf Course, Macomb.

For more information, visit http://www.wiu.edu/pennycress/field-days. If you have any questions or would like to bring a large group, contact Win Phippen at wb-phippen@wiu.edu.

Tom Doran

Tom Doran

Field Editor