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Oilseed crops a good habitat for pollinators

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 05/20/2013 9:32 AM

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MORRIS, Minn. — The oilseed crop plots at the USDA-ARS North Central Soil Conservation Lab's Swan Lake Research Farm are alive in more ways than one.

Researchers at the Morris-based lab are not only seeing good plant development, they also see and hear bees and other insects at work pollinating the crops.

"You walk into the fields and you hear this buzzing," said research agronomist Frank Forcella.

It's a win-win for the crops, which need pollination, and for the pollinators in need of good habitat and food sources. It's led to another layer of the lab's oilseed research. The Soils Lab is collaborating with others to develop and study pollinator habitat and the health of bees and insects in the area.

Russ Gesch, a plant physiologist, has been at the Soils Lab for more than 12 years and has seen a decline in pollinator numbers at the research farm and the general area.

It's a nationwide problem that gained notoriety almost a decade ago with the discover of Colony Collapse Disorder.

"There was this 'ah-ha' moment," said Gesch. "Part of the reason for CCD is poor nutrition for pollinators. A lot of their natural area has been taken out. CRP land is coming out of the program and going into row crops."

While bees may receive a supplemental diet of high-fructose corn syrup and a soybean cake for protein until plants bloom, it isn't enough to keep the pollinators strong and healthy.

That's where the oilseed crops enter the picture.

Pollinators love oilseed crops' showy flowers, Forcella said. The insects are a busy lot moving from plant to plant pollinating as they go.

A post doctorate student at the lab will monitor pollinator types and numbers while the USDA-ARS North Central Agricultural Research Laboratory in Brookings, S.D., study pollinator health. Jonathan Lundgren, a research entomologist at Brookings, will study the pollinators' gut and protein content.

Pollinators are important to plant development, Gesch said. And the majority of the pollinator population, about 75 percentto 80 percent, is located in the Northern Plains r plains.

The pollinator research is one part of the Soils Lab's oilseed project. The project started around six years ago when Gesch studied cuphea. Gesch was among researchers throughout the country who planted the crop and compared its growth in different soil, temperature and rainfall conditions.

Cuphea proved to be a promising crop in west central Minnesota. The researchers found a direct response to bumblebee populations near the fields, Forcella said.

The oil from cuphea holds a lot of promise due to its small and medium chain fatty acids. It's good for jet fuel production, Gesch said. He participated in a renewable fuels jet fuel project using cuphea oil, but, from an economic stand point, the crop's yields aren't high enough at this time to make it feasible.

Aveda Corporation, a Minnesota company, is interested in oilseed crops for its products.

Meanwhile researchers are striving to improve oilseed plants.

"We are doing our own amateur breeding work to develop new and better agronomic traits in the plant," Gesch said.

Forcella has worked on increasing seed size and Gesch with mutations of the plant.

As their thoughts turn to spring planting, the researchers consider how oilseed crops can fit in cropping systems. Some varieties, like winter camolina, can be planted in the fall and bloom in spring to provide early pollinator habitat. The plants can also reduce soil erosion. A spring-planted canola can be harvested early and followed by a short-season soybean.

Oilseed crops could be another cash crop for farmers. Gesch has worked with oilseed crops as part of a jet fuel project. The Soils Lab is working in conjunction with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and other ARS labs and universities on mustard plant varieties. The research will detail howthe plants fare in different soils and growing conditions and which will be best suited as a biofuel feedstock.