Growing Camelina (Camelina sativa) in Western South Dakota

Final report for FNC20-1256

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2020: $9,641.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Walker Farm
Region: North Central
State: South Dakota
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Our farm consists of approximately 630 acres in Butte County, South Dakota, lying in two separate units. The north unit contains 200 acres of center-pivot irrigated cropland which is included in the Belle Fourche Irrigation District. A 160-acre dryland parcel lies adjacent to the irrigated fields. Soils on this unit are diverse and intermingled, including fine sandy loams, silty clay loams, loams, and clays. The lighter-textured soils are located in the irrigated fields. Cropping history has primarily consisted of forages, including alfalfa, alfalfa-grass mixes, sorghum-Sudangrass, millet and oats, as well as corn for silage. Occasionally, grains have been combined. The south unit consists of 168 acres, of which approximately 100 acres are irrigated with a flood system using gated pipe. Irrigation water is supplied by the Redwater Irrigating Association. Soils on this unit are predominantly clays, with various small inclusion areas of other soil types. Crops have included corn, wheat, oats, alfalfa and alfalfa/grass mixes. This unit is intersected by approximately ¼ mile of the Belle Fourche River, and consists of several small fields. Both units have been intermittently grazed by livestock, almost exclusively during the winter season.

The farm is owned and operated by Arthur and Jennifer Walker, who have been farming in Butte County since purchasing the south unit in 1993. Art has a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture from New Mexico State University and an Associate’s Degree in Forestry from Northern New Mexico Community College. His work history includes forestry as well as full-time farming. Jenny is currently employed as Geospatial Ecologist with the U. S. Bureau of Land Management, where she has been employed since 2009. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Range Science from New Mexico State University, a Master of Natural Resources from the University of Idaho, and a PhD in Atmospheric and Environmental Science from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Her work history also includes ten years as a middle school science teacher.

Summary:

Camelina is a crop with a long history of cultivation, which has attracted attention as a source of oil for biofuel.  More recently, as the importance of omega-3 fatty acids in human health have been recognized, the favorable ratios of these lipids in camelina oil have caused an increased interest in the crop.  In addition to these market factors, the unique characteristics of the camelina plant suggest that it could provide soil health and agronomic benefits in sustainable agricultural systems.  The development of winter varieties of camelina add to its attractiveness in addressing important needs for farmers in western South Dakota.  This project will explore the potential role of winter camelina as a rotational crop in western South Dakota by evaluating its compatibility with existing cropping systems, investigating its contribution to selected ecosystem services, and comparing its agronomic niche with that of winter wheat.  Metrics evaluated will include soil health effects, plant phenology relative to suitability for rotation with locally important crops, and use by pollinators and wildlife.

Project Objectives:

Short term

  1. Test the suitability of winter camelina for growing in western South Dakota.
  2. Compare winter camelina with winter wheat for of soil health objectives and suitability for rotation with other planned forage crops
  3. Evaluate the use of winter camelina by pollinators and wildlife
  4. Document costs and yields of local camelina production

Long term (well beyond the life of this grant)

  1. Explore the potential profitability of establishing a small oil pressing facility in western South Dakota
  2. Explore the potential for commercial production and marketing of aquaculture feeds (specifically for rainbow trout and Atlantic salmon) using camelina oil and camelina meal

Cooperators

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Research

Materials and methods:

The objective of the project is to evaluate the performance of winter camelina as a cover crop for western South Dakota, and its value as a complement to winter wheat.  Therefore, test plots of each crop will be planted adjacent to one another, ensuring soil conditions are as uniform as possible.  Paired plots will be placed in irrigated and dryland fields.  Sub-plot will be approximately 5 acres in size, for a total of 10 acres of camelina and 10 acres of winter wheat (20 acres total) on the Walker farm, and 10 acres of each (20 acres total) on the Durr farm.  Plots will be mapped using ArcGIS, which will also be used to establish locations for soil sample collection and transects for growing-season observations to ensure non-biased sampling results. GPS will be used to navigate to GIS-generated locations. 

  • Variety will be Joelle, assuming seed availability
  • Seeding rate will be 8 pounds per acre. 
  • Irrigation is by center-pivot sprinkler system, and will be done as needed throughout the season on the irrigated plots.
  • Planting will be accomplished with a no-till drill, leased from the Butte Conservation District.  The no-till seedbed preparation will consist of pre-plant weed control using glyphosate herbicide.
  • Field day will be held prior to harvest, showing all plots
Research results and discussion:

Objective I: Test the suitability of winter camelina for growing in western South Dakota.

The camelina grew well, despite an unusually challenging season due to drought and insect troubles. Weather station near the form reports less than 4" of precipitation during January-September of 2021.

Some farmer observations:

  • This crop was planted in a field with center-pivot irrigation, and included the dry corners. Growth in these non-irrigated portions of the field was minimal.
  • The crop was no-till planted into previous year's crop residues. Half of this was corn, the other half was no-tilled barley.

Objective II: Compare winter camelina with winter wheat production

This camelina crop was planted adjacent to a crop of winter wheat. They were planted at the same time, and neither crop was treated for weeds. Some comparisons from the season are:

  • Winter wheat appeared to do a better job with weed control. Weeds observed included wild lettuce (Lactuca spp.), redroot pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus), and lambsquarter (Chenopodium album)
  • Camelina matured much earlier than the winter wheat. Camelina maturation date was recorded as 6/28/2021 though it may have been mature a little earlier. The winter wheat was harvested on 6/22/2021, earlier than would have been ideal even for forage, due to drought. It was not anywhere near maturation.
  • Nitrogen use by the camelina was much lower than by the wheat. The post-harvest soil test showed residual nitrate-N was 9.1 ppm N on the camelina and 4.5 ppm N on the winter wheat.

Objective III: Evaluate the use of winter camelina by pollinators and wildlife

Wildlife, bird and insect behaviors were a bit anomalous this year due to the extreme drought in the area. Mule deer, white-tailed deer, and other animals were observed in the irrigated fields throughout the season. Some specific observations:
  • Early in the season, the canada geese spent a lot of time in the winter wheat and left bald spots in the field due to their foraging. They were never observed in the camelina.
  • Deer appeared to enjoy the cover of both crops.
Pollinators (specifically honeybees; domestic hives are located about 3/4 mile from the field:
  • Insect scouting was done with sweep nets 3 times during the season, beginning when camelina flowering was noted, 5/22/2021. This first sweep showed a dramatic difference: More than 60 bees were observed in the net from the camelina (count was approximate because the bees were numerous and angry), compared to 3 in the winter wheat. The intended comparison with an adjacent alfalfa crop was not successful because the alfalfa flowers had all been destroyed by weevils; no bees were captured in that sweep. Subsequent sweeps (post-bloom) found 3 and 4 bees, respectively, in the camelina and none in the wheat. Diversity of other insects was greater in the camelina.

Objective IV: Document costs and yields of local camelina production

Yields:

  • The harvested camelina is still on the truck, waiting to be taken to the mill for cleaning, at which time it will be weighed and yields reported.
  • The harvested yield was less than it would otherwise have been due to difficulty of finding a combiner willing to take on such a small crop. There was a breakdown, a storm, etc.
  • Camelina is difficult to combine, due to its tendency to shatter. Our partner farmer commented "it looks like most of the camelina ended up on the ground". Increasing the efficiency of harvest would be a great area of further research on this crop

 

 

Participation Summary
2 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Other educational activities: Website (http://www.walkerfamilyfarms.org)

Participation Summary:

1 Farmers
1 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Outreach activities have been difficult to pursue due to the pandemic and drought concerns.  However, we have personally networked with other agriculture professionals including several at South Dakota State University, and other farmers.  Also, I created a website to communicate about winter camelina, including this specific project.  It is to be featured in outreach by South Dakota State University Extension.  This public outreach is initiated but has not yet reached the point of public visibility, so its reach and uptake is not known.  The URL of the website is http://www.walkerfamilyfarms.org 

Learning Outcomes

2 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

This project has taught us a lot about growing camelina, much of which is described in the Project Outcomes section below.  But to focus on the specific questions above:

  • The issue of harvesting is a challenge.  A combine is an expensive piece of specialized machinery, and camelina requires further specialization due to its small seed size and shatter potential.  With a research project like this, which involves such a small number of acres, it is hard to find a custom combiner who is willing to make the necessary adjustments and can prioritize being available during the very brief time window for most effective harvest of such a finicky crop.  Similar considerations apply to cleaning the seed and pressing for oil and meal.  
  • Marketing the crop is also a work in progress.  Although camelina oil and meal are high value products, there is not a well-developed market chain. 

The bottom line is that at the moment, the decision to grow camelina is a decision to be involved in some level of experimentation.  Before making this decision, our advice is to think through the whole life cycle of the crop, from fitting it into your rotations in a way that makes sense for your farm, making sure it will be successfully harvested, cleaned and pressed, and  planning what to do with the products once you've got them.

These are the reasons a grant such as the SARE Farmer Rancher Grant are so important.  These funds help alleviate the stress of attempting something experimental by eliminating the risk of the crop not paying for itself during the period of learning how to produce, process, and market it.  I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to gain real-world experience with this crop, and make real progress toward helping it become a profitable part of our farm.  I am more convinced than before beginning this project that it will prove worth the effort.

Project Outcomes

2 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant received that built upon this project
1 New working collaboration
Success stories:

Both farmers participating in this project plan to continue working with this crop.  Its early emergence and fast maturation did prove valuable in rotation.  Some of the things we noticed (both positive and negative) from this year's experience:

  • Positive
    • In a year when almost nothing bloomed at all to provide for pollinators, the camelina was in full flower very early.  The flowering season was short, but the bees were busy and enthusiastic!
    • Camelina grows and matures very quickly, allowing for the a second crop.  In the future we plan to experiment with relay cropping:  interseeding the second crop before maturation of the camelina.
    • Soil tests indicate that camelina does not have a high nutrient demand; it removed less nitrogen, organic matter, and moisture than the winter wheat.  This makes sense, since the biomass it produces is much less, and only the seed is removed.  Although I did not perform quantitative tests to prove it, I observed that the second crop (triticale) grew taller and more quickly in the camelina stubble than in the wheat stubble.  It would be interesting in the future to test for differences in tissue protein content in the second crop.
  • Negative
    • Weed control was not as good as expected.  We had heard that camelina was an aggressive competitor against weeds, but we did not find that it did noticeably better than the winter wheat against wild lettuce or cheatgrass. 
  • Useful
    • Although camelina may be relatively drought tolerant, the extremity of drought in our area this year was beyond its ability to withstand.  On the dry corners of the field where the irrigation pivot did not reach, there was notably poorer performance. However, this is hardly surprising considering that during the life of this crop, less than 3 inches of precipitation was received.
    • Harvesting camelina seed is a challenge.  The seeds are very small, and the pods open easily, so scatter is an issue.  Our collaborating farmer stated that, "Most of the camelina ended up on the ground." We plan to work to find ways to improve harvest efficiency, which will drastically effect measured yields.

Aside from the growing experience, an important aspect of working with camelina has been experimenting with the products of the crop.  This was not an explicit part of the work for this grant, but it is worth reporting as an indicator of the potential market value of camelina. We have been learning about uses of camelina oil and meal, and are extremely impressed with the attributes of these.  We have been using camelina oil for including as an ingredient for skin lotion and lip balm, leather conditioner, and as a nutritional supplement for our elderly dogs.   I have shared these products with many people and received overwhelmingly positive feedback about them.  In fact, several of the people with whom I shared lip balm made with camelina oil and beeswax have contacted me for more, stating that they did not want to run out.  Another expressed that her dog waits for camelina oil to be added to its food before it starts eating.  While these diverse uses may seem surprising, they all depend on the high fat content, the beneficial ratio of amino acids (Omega-3s) in the oil, and the inclusion of other nutrients.  We are looking forward to investigating the use of camelina meal as a supplemental feed for poultry and livestock.  

Recommendations:

I definitely recommend future work with camelina.  Since it is not a well-researched crop, there are many areas of knowledge surrounding it that need to be better understood. For example:

  • Variety trials to document agronomic attributes (drought tolerance, maturation dates, soil type compatibility, etc) and product characteristics (palatability for livestock, fatty acid ratios, fat content, protein content, glucosinolate content, other nutrients) of different varieties.
  • Harvesting methods to decrease loss to shatter.
  • Best methods of handling, storage and processing.
  • Livestock and aquaculture feed trials.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.