Intensive 3-crop rotation may boost biofuel economics

04/06/2012 11:18:00 AM
Vicky Boyd

sunflowersGrowing a biofuels crop on old citrus ground or rotating it with vegetables just doesn’t pencil out, even with today’s high fuel prices.

But add in a legume cover crop and another short-season oilseed crop, and an intensive rotation may make financial sense, according to trials led by Dan Chellemi, a research plant pathologist with the Agricultural Research Service in Ft. Pierce.

He stressed that the data are very preliminary and are only from one year of trials.

But Chellemi says the results are promising enough to warrant continuing the trials this season.

“It’s not a system that I’m going to recommend yet,” he says. “It’s something that looks good enough that I’m going to try it again.” David Neill, a tomato grower near Ft. Pierce and a trial cooperator, says the rotation is worth looking at.

“You basically have to have $4 a gallon or better fuel for the economics to work out,” he says. “It’s viable if fuel is north of $4 a gallon and is going to stay north of $4. If we get into and stay at $5 or $6 a gallon, I’d devote part of my farm to growing my own fuel.”

Rotations as pest control

With tighter soil-fumigation rules looming, Chellemi in 2007 began looking at how crop rotations might help break pest cycles caused by growing the same crop season after season.

“What we’re trying to do is incorporate management of soilborne pests into the overall crop management system,” Chellemi says.

But the question remained, how do you entice growers to take land typically planted to a high-value crop out of production?

“The light bulb went off about five years ago,” Chellemi says. “Maybe if they made money on their rotational crops, they would be more inclined to [rotate].”

Several trials had been conducted with sunflowers in North Florida during the 1970s and 1980s as part of an active oilseed research program.

More recently, researchers in Mississippi looked at yield potential of mid-oleic sunflower hybrids in several locations in 2008. After a literature search, Chellemi says he determined that dwarf hybrid sunflowers would be a good candidate, because the crop had relatively good oil yields per acre and required low inputs outside of fertilizer.

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