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December 16, 2006

Corn and soybeans are the current biofuel darlings, but farmers in the Nebraska Panhandle are grooming their own set of entries in the biofuel derby.

They're "saddling up" three new oilseed crops adapted to Panhandlegrowing conditions: canola, brown mustard and camelina. There is a market for the oilseeds with Blue Sun Biodiesel, a Westminster, Colo.-based cooperative that makes and sells biodiesel.

Farmer cooperative

Several Panhandle farmers have formed Progressive Producers Nonstock Cooperative,

and many of them sell oilseeds to Blue Sun. They recently received a USDA grant to study the feasibility of locating a small oilseed crushing plant somewhere in the Panhandle.

According to President Dan Laursen of Alliance, the plant they have in mind would be a "cold-press" facility to squeeze the oil from small oilseeds and sunflowers. That technique doesn't use chemicals to extract the oil, and it can be operated on a smaller scale, perhaps one or two semiloads per day.

The seed residue, which would include some oil, could be used as cattle feed in the area.

Crops have potential

The University of Nebraska is working with growers as they test how best to grow the three crops. The small-seeded oilseed crops have potential as a cash crop for the Panhandle, says David Baltensperger, who worked with the farmers prior to leaving for a Texas A&M post in October. Farmers are looking for crop rotations with more income potential than wheat-fallow, he told participants at a summer field day. Producers would like to have a spring-growing, cool-season broadleaf crop they could use in rotation with warm-season crops of corn, sunflowers and proso millet.

Small-seeded oilseeds must be planted shallow. They are easier to establish with no-tillage systems, which save soil moisture.

A little water at the right time when the crops are getting established can boost yield. They need less water than irrigated wheat, so they have potential for areas where wells dry up in late summer or total pumping is limited.


Baltensperger says the small-oilseed crops are usually harvested in early August. That would give the field four to six weeks to catch some late-summer rains before winter wheat. The small oilseeds don't leave a lot of crop residue, so it is best not to summer fallow behind them.

Baltensperger suggests three possible crop rotations:

■ winter wheat, corn or proso millet, spring oilseed

■ winter wheat, spring oilseed, proso millet, fallow

■ winter wheat, corn, proso millet, spring oilseed

Recommended practices

The seedbed needs to be firm and well packed. No-till works well for planting and conserving soil moisture, but there aren't any no-till weed-control options for brown mustard or camelina.

A pound of canola or brown mustard seed contains about 96,000 seeds; camelina produces about 600,000 seeds per pound. Seeding rate is 3 to 6 pounds per acre dryland, 5 to 8 pounds per acre if under irrigation. Use the lower end of the appropriate range for camelina.

The crops need about 125% of the nitrogen rate the grower would use on wheat, and 200% of the sulfur rate for wheat or barley, Baltensperger says. They need about 150 pounds of N to produce 3,500 pounds of seeds. Phosphorus and potassium requirements are similar to what the grower would use for wheat.

The oilseed crops will not do well where there are residual levels of several broadleaf herbicides, so check with your chemical representative or Extension specialist. Weeds and volunteer crops need to be destroyed before planting the oilseed crops. Weedy mustards need to be controlled elsewhere in the crop rotation.

There aren't many registered herbicide options, so check with your chemical representative. Postemergence grasses can be controlled with tillage or herbicides Select or Prism. There are Clearfield, Liberty-resistant and glyphosate-resistant varieties of spring canola.

Several insects can infest the small oilseed crops, but the biggest threat in western Nebraska is probably flea beetles, or possibly early season cutworms.

Water requirements

Canola and brown mustard can use as much as 17 to 19 inches of water if it is available; slightly less water is best for camelina. Peak time for watering is from flowering in late May through early July, when pods are set.

The crop can be direct-harvested with a combine using a reel head. It can also be swathed and combined. With such small seeds, growers may need to duct-tape any gaps and openings through which the seeds could trickle. In order to get the best price, Panhandle farmers say it's best to join Progressive Producers and have a contract with Blue Sun.

By Ann Toner; Nebraska Farmer; December 2006 back to top