Canola trials show plant has promise in Nevada
Initial studies being conducted at Main Station Field Lab and the Newlands Research Center and funded in part by CIBUS, LLC. are showing that cellulosic biofuel products would grow well in Nevada. That said, the production costs and great distance to processing facilities means that it may be some time before Nevada farmers plant rapeseed (canola) or other biofuel grasses in their alfalfa fields. "The bottom line is that we can grow it here just fine but because the value of the crop is so low I wouldn't recommend a farmer produce it; it just doesn't make sense," said University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Alternative Crop Specialist Jay Davison, who is conducting the field trials on NAES field labs.
The research is being funded by CIBUS, LLC, a company that specializes in manipulating plant genes in a way that make the resultant seed more resistant to drought and pesticides. Normally, crossing the seeds of plants exhibiting desired traits painstakingly develops these qualities, but gene manipulation speeds up the process and brings pesticide-resistant or drought-resistant seeds to the market more quickly.
Davison, who in recent years has helped foster a commercial market for teff, a low water-use crop that produces a gluten-free grain and has been planted on more than 1,000 acres in northern Nevada, initially planted seed from CIBUS in three locations - in Fallon, at the Newlands Center; at the Main Station Field Lab in Reno; and at a private ranch in Lovelock. He planted five varieties of canola in a randomized complete block design and harvested the crop in the fall of 2012.
A second round of crops were planted last fall in Fallon, Susanville and the Main Station Field Lab. Those crops will be harvested in June.
Canola at Main Station Field Lab
The first round of crops grew vigorously, Davison said, but production was limited because these were spring varieties and the company wanted them planted even though it was already July. The flowers aborted because it was too hot and the plants didn't set seed. The fall trials were planted at the right time, however, and Davison expects them to be even more productive.
Canola is grown for its oil, but a byproduct of the oil extraction is a mash that is valued as cattle feed. Canola meal is more nutritious than soybean meal, which is considered high quality cattle feed, Davison said.
The effort to study canola and perennial grasses stems from the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which mandates a minimum of 36 billion gallons of renewable transportation fuels be produced in the U.S. by 2022. The act also mandates that 16 billion gallons must be from cellulosic feedstocks, such as perennial grasses and related plants.
Canola and other cellulosic feedstock crops won't become economically feasible until market conditions change for Nevada farmers, Davison said. Growers here would have to pay to transport the crop to a facility to extract the oil and create the canola mash.
"I don't think the price it's at right now is high enough, when you consider we don't have a crushing plant," he said. "I doubt seriously we can grow it and make money. But you never know what will happen with this biofuel in the future. Our business is to try to get in and get information before a farmer has to put thousands in and not get anything back."
Still, that could change. Seeds for the experimental lines of canola that Davison planted are in very short supply. Nevada's isolation may make it a good place to grow these varieties of canola because there would be less risk that plants would be crossbred by pollinating insects visiting fields with separate strains. This isolation could put Nevada in the business of growing the seeds for market.