An interview with Ruth McCabe and Emery Davis, conservation agronomists at Heartland Co-op, an agricultural co-op based in Des Moines, Iowa with over 70 locations around Iowa. Emery also farms with his family in southeastern Iowa.
JASON FISCHBACH 0:00
This is a podcast about new crops. You’re gonna love it. Join us on The Cutting Edge, a podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin.
Emery Davis 0:10
I’m just gonna put it out there that this is the next big cover crop in Iowa after cereal rye. So I think there’s millions of acres that are gonna see winter camelina in the future..
Steffen Mirsky 0:39
Welcome to another episode of The Cutting Edge, a podcast in search of new crops for Wisconsin. I’m Steffen Mirsky, Outreach Specialist for emerging crops with UW-Madison Extension. In this episode, I interview two guests with expertise in growing winter camelina as a cover crop, rather than an oilseed crop. Ruth McCabe and Emery Davis work as conservation agronomists at Heartland Co-op in Des Moines, Iowa. Emery also farms with his family in southeast Iowa. Thanks for joining me, Ruth and Emery. Could you get us started by telling us a little bit more about yourselves, starting with you, Ruth.
Ruth McCabe 1:18
Yeah, sure. Thanks for having us on this podcast. Steffen. It’s exciting to be able to talk about this new and emerging cover crop option. Heartland Cooperative is, we’re an agricultural retail cooperative, based in Iowa. But we have locations that run pretty much across the central strip of Iowa, river to river into Nebraska and then down into Texas. So we’re a pretty large ag co-op for the Midwest especially. And we do everything that an ag cooperative does, right. So we buy and sell grain. We have a fuels team. We have an agronomy department. We do feed and hay. We also have a conservation department, which is really exciting. And so both Emery and I are on the conservation team. So I am a conservation agronomist and I’m the lead for our team. And I work out in central Iowa actually, and Emory is in eastern Iowa and we have another conservation agronomist in western Iowa. And so we provide conservation farming services to our farm farming customers who want to adopt a conservation practice whatever that looks like. Simple things like you know improved nutrient management, cover crops, switching to no-till, putting in a bioreactor or saturated buffer all the way up to wetlands and putting in CRP. So across the spectrum of conservation practices, we provide knowledge technical assistance field know-how to the farmers that want to adopt those practices on their farms. I have a specialty in helping our team build public-private partnerships across the state. So we try to inject private industry money into rural and local landscapes so that landowners or farmers who want to adopt a conservation practice can find a way to fit it into their business plan.
Emery Davis 3:06
All right, great. Thanks, Ruth. Emery. Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
Yes, definitely. Thanks for having me. Yeah, so I’m Emery Davis. I farm in southeast Iowa. So I believe I’d be the seventh generation on our family farm. And recently, I started renting a piece of ground so I could make some of the agronomic decisions on that piece. I farmed with my dad for a long time on the home farm and now I’m renting a piece of ground. We raise corn and soybeans. We also do cover crops and no-till. I’ve tried camelina on that farm. I’ll talk a little bit about that experience coming up. But we also raise small grains like cereal rye for cover crop seed and made small square bales for the straw. And then this year I’m growing wheat for grain to send down the river on a barge. And then we’re going to make small straw bales again this year. So a lot of the conservation practices that we talked about I’ve tried on the farm and I like to have that firsthand experience in addition to working with other farmers. So I am a conservation agronomist. So I met Ruth and I think I was working at the NRCS at the time and then she helped me get started with with camelina and then after I started with camelina they ended up having an opening so I I got to work with Ruth. So that’s that’s how we met each other. My experience with camelina, so I was recommending cover crops to farmers. And at the time, the NRCS specifications only allowed rye wheat and triticale as overwintering cover crops. And of course, those are all grasses. And then, you know, two or three years ago, they added winter camelina to that list. And I just thought that was a huge opportunity to add diversity to a mix, if a mix was required, or to have an alternative to rye ahead of corn, which we’ll talk about some more. But so I was excited about that just to have something that wasn’t a grass as the cover crop. But I didn’t have any idea what it was. So I got my hands on a little sample of camelina. And I grew, I just grew some in a pot. And then, you know, just working with Ruth, she helped me get 50 acres of it planted in the fall of 2021. So I grew it for one season as a cover crop. And we can talk about those experiences later or now, I guess that’s up to you. But I I did enjoy having it as a cover crop and I see a lot of potential for camelina going forward on on acres going into corn especially.
Okay. Ruth, what’s been your experience with winter camelina? And what have you seen so far in terms of adoption of this crop among the farmers that you work with through Heartland Co-op?
Ruth McCabe 6:22
So I got clued into winter camelina a few years ago. And I began to explore it with some of my former customers, particularly as an alternative to cereal rye ahead of corn as an overwintering cover crop. So depending on where your listeners are located in the Midwest, they will or won’t have access, if they’re a farmer, to cover crop cost-share dollars. So if they have access to cover crop cost share dollars, there’s usually some sort of stipulation about what type of cover crop they plant and the rules associated with that. So here in Iowa, if you’re going to do an overwintering cover crop, your options are really limited to cereal rye, or maybe winter wheat. And that’s about it. So ahead of soybeans, if you’re a grain farmer, ahead of soybeans, that’s not a big deal, but ahead of corn that is a big deal, because those grasses are very high and carbon to nitrogen, and they can tie up nutrients in the soil, which corn does not like competition for anything. So ahead of corn, that’s a problem. So camelina, that’s a brassica. And it doesn’t, you know, it decomposes very quickly when it’s killed. And it doesn’t tie up nitrogen in the soil. So I thought, well, this could be an option as an overwintering cover crop instead of right. So anyway, I partnered with farmers who decided to grow it and try it out on their fields for the last two years as an overwintering cover crop ahead of their corn to see what happens, did it have a detrimental effect on their corn, or anything like that?
JASON FISCHBACH 7:53
Oh, in my experience, I planted it in late October, and I was skeptical, I guess I was curious if it would survive the winter in southern Iowa. I planted that late. I planted it by the end of November. You know, it had germinated and I could just see the cotyledons, you know, little itty-bitty, eighth-inch cotyledons growing. But it turned out to be really pretty darn tough, and winter hardy, so by the end of February, I could see little rosettes that were about an inch across. And then the rosettes got bigger going into spring. And then, you know, towards the end of April, we planted our corn. So we just terminated that a few days ahead of time. And the camelina terminated very well ahead of corn, so I wasn’t concerned with nutrient tie up at all. And it died really well, you know, deader than a bag of hammers. So in four days that went from green and growing to brown and gone. That low carbon and nitrogen ratio was very apparent. So the cereal rye was you know, is pretty tough and fibrous, and you can see it’s going to stick around a while. And the winter camelina just would crumble and disappear. So not a lot of super impressive biomass, but ahead of corn, it’s a living root that goes away pretty quick and doesn’t have nutrients ahead of the big cash crop. It terminates really well with just any broadleaf herbicide. So I use 2-4 D, it was a Round Up 2-4 D mix. So I I actually seeded the camelina with a grain drill in a mix with cereal rye. So I planted 45 pounds of cereal rye and then two pounds of camelina in the small seed box so I put the rye in the regular grain box and then the the camelina in the small seed box. The seed is so small, I don’t know if we’ve touched about that. But I think it’s something along the lines of 450,000 seeds per pound. So it’s, it’s very, very tiny. So you have to have your drill really tightened down. So I, I couldn’t go off of any chart. You know, it’s just off the charts on the small side. So I basically shut the small seed box all the way shut and open it just enough to where seeds could come out. And that’s where I set it. And I just got really lucky and it worked out to two pounds an acre, which is what I was going for. So I planted it in a mix, and it came out. It competed pretty well with cereal rye. So in the spring, I thought that roughly half of the ground cover was camelina. And I totally expected the cereal rye just to smother it out and not even see the camelina in the spring. So it turned out to be very winter hardy, and they wanted to compete and grow in the spring. So I was impressed with it that way.
Emery Davis 11:10
Did you get a pretty uniform stand of the rye and winter camelina? Or was it like patchy in places?
JASON FISCHBACH 11:17
So like I said, roughly half. Half of the ground cover was probably winter camelina by my eye, but it wasn’t every other plant, you know, one rye, one camelina in a row, it seemed to be, you know, two feet of camelina, to feet of rye in the same row. And it would just kind of establish that way.
Emery Davis 11:39
Thanks, Emery. Ruth, did you want to add something to that?
Ruth McCabe 11:43
I will say that we’re talking about camelina from the perspective of a cover crop. So we’re talking about seeding rates, like two pounds an acre if you’re going to mix it with something like cereal rye or if you’re going to put it down straight, again. NRCS cost share, so the Natural Resource Conservation Service has some cost share programs in Iowa, as does the Iowa Department of Ag, but they require that you do a minimum of four pounds per acre of camelina. So in reality, I’ll just say Emery planted his camelina together with cereal rye, so he had a mixture. I had farmers who just planted it straight, so they didn’t mix it with anything. And I will tell you that four pounds an acre is the bare minimum. I mean, if you if you are used to the biomass that grows in the fall in the spring from using a cover crop like cereal rye, you’re going to be very underwhelmed by camelina as it really doesn’t put a ton of biomass in the fall. And even in the spring, it grows, but it’s nothing like rye. I mean, camelina doesn’t hold a candle to rye when it comes to biomass. So Emery, when he said what we’re really looking at is getting a living root in the soil over winter with camelina, that’s really the big goal with camelina ahead of corn, which a lot of farmers who use cover crops, they’ll only use cover crops ahead of their soybeans, and so, I mean, we have millions upon millions of acres of corn, you know, that don’t have cover crops ahead of them. So if the big criticism about using rye is that it ties up nutrients, and it’s difficult to kill and ahead of corn, it’s just a pain in the butt to manage, then camelina is a fantastic alternative. It’s something, and something in the ground over winter ahead of corn is better than nothing. So that’s where camelina I think could be a game changer on all of our corn acres. The downside to it is as Emery said it is minuscule seed. I mean, it’s tiny, it’s smaller than a freckle. For those listeners in Wisconsin, you guys will know it’s half the size of an untreated alfalfa seed. Stuff is miniscule. So seeding it is complicated. I would say, you know, if you aren’t using a drill, try to get it in that eight to 10 pound range. And you’ll have a very nice looking stand ahead of your corn and it is very easy to kill regardless of the seeding rate that you use this stuff turns crispy and dead in a matter of days, if the temperatures are good. I’ll say one other thing. If somebody wanted to grow this as an oilseed crop, there’s something Emery and I aren’t even talking about, which is fertilization requirements. If you’re going to be growing this, first of all, you’re going to use a minimum seeding rate of 10 pounds an acre if you’re going to grow camelina as an oilseed crop, you would harvest the seed in the spring, because it’s an overwintering plant. So you planted in the fall, and then you would harvest it in the spring. And there are some folks who are trying to relay crop their soybeans with camelina, meaning the camelina grows in the spring, they plant their soybeans into the standing living camelina. And then a few weeks later, they harvest the camelina seed once it’s mature, and then they let their beans grow through that. Okay, and then they harvest their beans in the fall. But if you’re going to do a system like that, or if you’re just going to grow camelina, you’re not even going to try relay cropping it, but you want to grow it as an oilseed crop. You’re gonna have to plant it at much higher seeding rates, probably in that 10 to 12 pounds per acre range, and you’re going to need to fertilize in the spring, because you’re harvesting an oil seed, which is high in protein, so it’s you’re taking a lot of nitrogen off your ground and phosphorus and potassium. So you do need to put some fertilizer down because you’re taking those nutrients away from your soil by harvesting that seed.
Emery Davis 15:15
Great. Well, I want to talk a little bit about the seed, like, where can you find it? How much does it cost? Are there actually different varieties? Can when you speak to that a little bit?
Ruth McCabe 15:29
There are a few there are a few different cultivars, and they and the Forever Green Project at the University of Minnesota is developing another cultivar. Oh, and I don’t remember the name of it. It’s just something you can harvest a little bit earlier than the current dominating winter camelina cultivars, which is called Joelle. So that’s the current contender. And then of course, there’s VNS, camelina variety, not stated camelina which is most likely Joelle. But like I said, the University of Minnesota is developing a new variety that should be you can harvest it a little bit earlier here in the Upper Midwest, which again, if you’re somebody who wants to try relay cropping, that’s very attractive. Right now, camelina comes to maturity around the end of May or beginning of June. So in terms of finding it, you know, it’s actually, it’s really exploded in popularity these last couple of years. Most of it comes out of the Dakotas, there have been some mix ups with seed companies sourcing camelina from like Idaho or Washington. And that stuff winds up being spring camelina. So that’s a problem because it’ll just die if you planted in the fall. Price for it right now is anywhere from $3.50 a pound up to $5 a pound depending on what the seed company that you’re buying it from, you know, depending on their markup, unless you’re buying it straight from the farmers, you know, so like I said, most of the farmers I know of that I’ve talked with I did a lot of interviews early on and I talked with seed producers in the Dakotas who grow it and they sell to all the major suppliers here in the Midwest, so Millborn, Albert Lee, are two biggies. And those are companies that you know, you can order seed from, and they can ship it to you. Those are the companies that Heartland has bought our seed from.
Emery Davis 17:05
So are there different cultivars for using it as a cover crop versus oil seed crop?
Ruth McCabe 17:11
No, no, there’s no difference right now between the two. Although I will say if you’re going to try to grow it as an oilseed crop, you’re probably going to want to raise something that is a certified variety like Joelle. If you’re just trying to grow it as a cover crop, you don’t care if something is variety not stated or VNS. And maybe eventually I don’t know if there’s a price difference between the two right now, but my guess is in the future, there will be a price difference between VNS camelina and a certified named variety. So if somebody was going to grow it as a cover crop, I would tell them to go with the cheapest one, which would just be like a VNS.
Emery Davis 17:43
Okay, well, just to start wrapping things up. I’m curious, what do you think the potential is for this crop? Do you like what you see so far? Are you going to keep recommending it to growers? Either one of you just feel free to jump in?
JASON FISCHBACH 17:56
Yeah, I I’m really excited about I. I’m just gonna put it out there that this is the next big cover crop in Iowa after cereal rye. So I think there’s millions of acres that are gonna see winter camelina in the future.
Ruth McCabe 18:11
Yeah, I can speak to this real fast. I’m excited about it just because I think from a conservation perspective, I drive around in the winter, and I see so many acres that I know are going to corn and they have no cover crop on them. Because the big criticism here is well, we need a cover crop we can plant late in the fall, that will survive and isn’t going to be difficult for me to manage in the spring. Well, cereal rye could be planted super late in the fall. It’ll definitely survive over winter, but it’s also a giant pain to manage in the spring, depending on the landowner, depending on the farmer, they just don’t want to deal with it. And I’m excited about camelina because it is not a pain to deal with. It’s very easy to kill, you can plant it late here in Iowa. I would say planting it mid to late October is ideal here in central Iowa. So I’m excited about it as something we can get in the ground ahead of our corn acres especially.
Emery Davis 19:01
Well, I want to thank you both again for your time and insights today on winter camelina. It’s hard not to get excited about it. And it sounds like this crop has an important role to play on our landscape, both as a cover crop and an oilseed crop. And thank you all for listening. This has been another episode of The Cutting Edge.
JASON FISCHBACH 19:34
Brought to you by the University of Wisconsin Madison Division of Extension.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai