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MSU is helping develop oilseeds that may one day change the world

He’s standing in a field of the prickly plants under a surprisingly blue sky. The dried plants are mostly a spineless variety (better for picking and forage), but they still rake at his pants as he walks through.

Wichman, CARC’s superintendent, hops onto the Wintersteiger small plot combine and mows down a few rows of safflower. Mountains surround him–the North and South Moccasins, Judiths, Snowies, Little Belts, Highwoods and the peaks of the Bear Paws. Three deer–two does and a little buck–stand and walk nonchalantly away from the low roar of the combine. Grasshoppers pop up from beneath the drying heads of orange and yellow-blossomed safflower.

From safflower and other oilseeds come biofuels. And industrial lubricants. And jet fuel, cooking oil and omega-rich beef. They are coaxed from the earth by sun and science and transformed into useful products through technological advances mixed with the trial and error of the scientific process. Researchers in MSU’s College of Agriculture and Montana Agricultural Experiment Station are working on growing oilseeds adapted to Montana’s harsh, dry conditions that just might make a better world.

According to the 2010 Montana Agricultural Statistics, published by the Montana Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the production of oilseeds in Montana added $13.6 million to the U.S. economy in 2009.

MSU’s safflower–grown on the plot–and other oilseeds such as camelina, flax, sunflowers and canola are becoming cash crops good for Montana farmers with the added benefit that they are potentially good for the planet. They can promote human and livestock health, while providing a rotational crop for small grain farmers. As a biofuel–a fuel derived from plant material and animal waste–oilseeds could reduce our reliance on petroleum-based oil and have other value-added uses that add revenue to Montana’s coffers.

“Our work with oilseeds at MSU and MAES is improving cultivated plants that can expand the crop repertoire of Montana producers,” said Jeff Jacobsen, dean of MSU’s College of Agriculture and director of the MAES. “New end products provide a more diverse marketplace for the producers. All of Montana wins when that happens.”

Safflower: Plant with many purposes

Wichman is growing three dozen safflower varieties for Jerry Bergman, safflower breeder and superintendent at the Eastern Agricultural Research Center. Depending on the oil content in the seeds, which give oilseeds their name, safflower has a variety of uses. It may be used as an edible oil, birdseed or meal for livestock. The deep-rooted plant can also be used as a way to manage and prevent saline seeps. The plants’ deep roots use water that would otherwise move underground, gather up salts and then leach out on a hillside or other area. In such places where salty water comes to the surface and evaporates, the soil becomes unusable for crops, so safflower can help prevent that.

The two fatty acids found in oilseeds that researchers are most interested in are oleic and linoleic acids.

Oleic acid is a mono-unsaturated omega-9 fatty acid. This fatty acid is the predominant fatty acid in olive oil. As a replacement for other saturated fats, it can lower total cholesterol levels and raise levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) while lowering low-density lipoproteins (LDLs), also known as the “bad” cholesterol, according to Bergman. Vegetable oils with a high content of oleic acid can be used to make biodiesel. However, the value of such oils in culinary and health markets precludes their use as commodity feedstock for biodiesel production.

Linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid that human bodies cannot produce; it must be obtained from diet. It is an unsaturated, omega-6 fatty acid. However, there is scientific disagreement over the extent of its health benefit–related primarily to the appropriate quantities that should be in a diet. Currently, linoleic acid is found in a number of vegetable oils, including sunflower, safflower and corn oils. Linoleic acid is also used in making soaps, emulsifiers and quick-drying oils.”You could consider safflower as two different oil crops because varieties are either high in oleic acids or high in linoleic acids,” said Bergman. “Farmers can grow the variety of safflower with the oil type they want, depending on the market and use.”

Through his breeding and research program in Sidney and around the state, Bergman is producing safflower varieties that are higher yielding, higher in oil content, more disease resistant and with an improved fatty acid profile. His laboratory staff analyzes 20,000 oil samples each year looking for improved fatty acid and antioxidant profiles.

Safflower also has industrial uses, such as a motor oil lubricant, marine oil or as biodiesel. However, until the price of petroleum increases greatly and makes biodiesel the more affordable choice, farmers are likely to make more profit selling safflower for edible uses, birdseed or high-end lubricants.

“The other problem with using safflower as a biofuel is that the car smells like popcorn and it makes you thirsty for a beer,” Wichman joked.

Safflower normally has an oil content of 36-39 percent, but through breeding, Bergman has developed a variety, called Nutrasaff, with up to 50 percent oil content. Through his test plots at several agricultural research stations (EARC, CARC, Northern ARC, Southern ARC and the Arthur Post Agronomy Farm in Bozeman), Bergman has found that safflower is well adapted to semi-arid eastern and central Montana and has even yielded well at the Post Farm.

Currently there are about 150,000 acres of safflower grown in the Montana-Dakotas region. Montana is number two in safflower production nationally, after California, with Montana farmers harvesting 23.5 million pounds of the bright-blossomed oilseed in 2009, according to the 2010 Montana Agricultural Statistics. Montana’s farmers harvested 160,000 bushels of flaxseed and 10.8 million pounds of canola, putting the state in third and sixth place for those crops nationally.

Safflower is an excellent rotational crop with wheat and barley, according to Bergman, as it can help control grassy weeds and break small-grain disease and insect cycles.

While safflower is a bit of a wonder-plant in its own right, it is another oilseed that gets most of the media attention–camelina.

The case for camelina

Camelina, a member of the mustard family, is a plant which has by-products that can feed livestock and is touted as a partial cure to the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Camelina–a new-to-Montana crop–has created a flurry of activity at MSU. The MAES started working on camelina in 2004. In 2009, Montana farmers planted 20,000 acres of camelina and harvested over a million pounds, according to the Montana 2010 Agricultural Statistics.

Research on all fronts, from how to best grow it and harvest it, to developing end-use products of the oil and meal of the seed, has been a focus of MSU’s research, according to Jacobsen.

“MSU and MAES are leading camelina research in the region. In the less than 10 years that this crop has been grown in Montana, we have gained a much greater understanding of how camelina can become a routine crop for Montana,” Jacobsen said.

Like safflower, camelina grows well in Montana. It has demonstrated high drought tolerance and spring freezing tolerance. Camelina is resistant to most Montana diseases and pests.

At MAES research centers across the state, researchers are studying the agronomic–or the soil management and crop production–properties of camelina. Varieties bred at one research station are grown around the state at other research centers to test their yield in different weather and soil conditions.A time to reap, a time to sow

At the Southern Ag Research Center in Huntley, trains rumble past throughout the day and night. The Yellowstone River, lined with cottonwoods and well divided here, flows beyond the train tracks. Kent McVay, Extension cropping systems specialist, is finding that camelina uses less water than winter wheat. This means that using camelina may provide some benefit to the winter wheat planted after it since camelina won’t use up the deep-soil moisture that wheat needs.

Near another river–the Milk River–the Northern Ag Research Center is stationed on the rolling plains of north central Montana. There, agronomist Peggy Lamb has worked on issues such as the best depth and time to sow camelina seeds. She and other researchers at NARC grow trials for private companies that are trying to develop varieties with high seed production potential and oil characteristics that match the end product use, such as bio-diesel, lubricants or something else. They’ve also looked at whether camelina could be used as forage in case of a failed crop–their data suggests, probably not–and running trials rotating camelina with winter wheat, spring wheat, barley, canola and peas.

“Ultimately, all of the camelina research is done to help the growers of Montana produce the best crops they can,” Lamb said. “We have the basics like seeding date, seeding rate and seeding method figured out, but because it is such a new crop for Montana, farmers are growing camelina and asking questions that researchers haven’t been able to answer yet.”

We do know that camelina oil has unique properties. The oil contains about 64 percent polyunsaturated, 30 percent monounsaturated, and 6 percent saturated fatty acids. Importantly, camelina oil is very high in alpha-linolenic acid, the omega-3 fatty acid essential in human and animal diets that has important implications for human health. The oil also contains high levels of gamma-tocopherol (vitamin E), which confers a reasonable shelf life without the need for special storage conditions.

Fuel for thought

The unique properties of camelina oil could lead to development of a wide array of high-value markets for the oil and its components in foods, feeds, cosmetics, industrial products, such as biolubricants, and as a biofuel.

According to Scott Johnson, president of Sustainable Oils, a biofuel company with an office in Bozeman, the Navy has purchased about 260,000 gallons of camelina oil from Sustainable Oils since September 2009. More than 80 percent of the camelina seed from which the oil was pressed was grown in northern Montana. All of the seeds were crushed at a Great Falls plant to produce the oil and then processed and refined in Iowa and Texas. The Navy used a blend with traditional jet fuel to power their jets–part of their commitment to reduce their overall energy consumption.

“Since we are doing this as a demonstration, the Navy paid $30-$60 a gallon for the oil,” said Johnson. “We expect the cost of camelina oil to be competitive with petroleum diesel in five years or so.”Camelina was selected, in part, because it works well in rotation with wheat or other cereals and isn’t a food crop.

“No one is going to grow camelina instead of wheat because they’ll make more money growing both,” said Johnson. “It’s a complement to wheat production.”

According to Johnson, camelina biodiesel has been proven to reduce carbon emissions by more than 80 percent, and has already been successfully tested in a commercial airline test flight. Fourteen commercial U.S. airlines have also expressed interest in purchasing camelina-based fuel, he said, meaning Montana’s camelina acreage is set to grow.

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer’s energy policy for Montana also has a biofuel component. By developing a Montana biofuel industry, he hopes to create new markets for Montana’s agricultural products, reduce the state and nation’s dependence on foreign oil, attract investment and create jobs in economically distressed rural Montana.

“Montana is an integrated energy state–we produce energy with the wind above, the hydrocarbons below and the crops that grow on the prairie,” Schweitzer said. “These sources help us decrease our dependence on foreign oil, add value to our Montana crops and create homegrown energy and jobs.”

Oilseed-based biofuel is considered greener than petroleum because it releases carbon pulled from the atmosphere during the plant’s growth, rather than releasing new carbon as is the case when petroleum is burned. It also doesn’t require fuel additives.

Weed to feed

Biofuel may be an important market for camelina, but David Sands, MSU plant sciences and plant pathology professor, sees camelina’s real value in nutrition.

“My number one job is to feed the world nutritious food,” Sands said. “Protein, antioxidants and omega-3s in camelina meal can enter the food chain through animals and thus lead to healthier people.”

Sands and Alice Pilgeram, assistant research professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology, have worked on adding camelina oil to baked goods, such as breads and spreads, including peanut butter. They studied the results of feeding camelina meal to dairy goats and cows, chickens and trout to produce milk, eggs and fish oil high in omega-3s. While the stems and leaves probably cannot be fed to livestock, the meal, made from ground seeds, can.

“The omega-3s from camelina stay in eggs a lot longer than omega-3s from flax oil,” Sands said. “That’s because there are more antioxidants in camelina to preserve the omega-3s.”

MSU researchers are finding a range of uses for the weedy plant with tiny orange seeds. They are evaluating the potential health benefits of omega-3 from camelina oil in a breast-cancer study for overweight or obese postmenopausal women. They have converted camelina oil to a wax ester that can replace more expensive and less available jojoba waxes in a range of industrial and cosmetic products. Researchers have found that the gum layer that surrounds camelina seeds can be used to coat other seeds to improve their germination in challenging environments.

Darrin Boss, researcher at NARC in Havre, is testing whether camelina meal can be added to beef cattle diets. Using camelina in lieu of some supplemental hay would cut costs–because it is a by-product, not a primary crop–for producers. It could create an omega-3 beef product that brings in more money.

“Preliminary work suggests that low levels of camelina meal, up to 10 percent of the diet, in finishing beef cattle appear to produce equal average daily gains to soybean meal. Although not FDA approved, initial trials on post-calving diets of beef cattle with low amounts of camelina meal added to their diets showed no negative effects when compared with traditional protein sources on calf weights and re-breeding of the cows,” Boss said.

At this point there are many more questions than answers when it comes to camelina production and use, Jacobsen points out. Early experience in Montana has shown that with good management, and timely planting, good crop yields can be attained. As a broadleaf cool season crop, camelina could become a complementary crop to wheat, providing a quality rotational crop. Crop rotation can reduce disease, weed and insect pressure for any crop and especially for Montana wheat systems.

Weed control is a major limitation to camelina production. Currently, there are no broadleaf weed control herbicides registered for use with camelina, which means rescuing a field that becomes infested with weeds is difficult.

Back at CARC, Wichman is looking out over rows of safflower plants. He can distinguish color variations in the leaves and stems that most people would never notice. He and other ARC staff are breeding and testing oilseeds that could be part of Montana’s agronomic future.

“The ultimate goal is to have diversity for Montana farmers,” Wichman said.

More at MSU News Service

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