A US agricultural startup has developed a cover crop derived from field pennycress that produces an oil for use in sustainable fuel and animal feed, Des Moines Register reported on 31 March.

St Louis-based CoverCress has attracted investment from agribusiness giants including Bunge and Bayer, and planned to make its “cash cover crop” available on limited acreage in Illinois later this year before expanding to commercial-scale acreage next year, Des Moines Register wrote.

Cover crops such as cereal rye and oats are planted near the autumn corn harvest, putting roots in the ground to anchor the soil and nutrients during winter and spring, then harvested in May before soyabeans are planted, according to the report.

The use of cover crops also helped sequester carbon in the soil, preventing it from combining with oxygen and adding to greenhouse gas emissions that contributed to global warming, Des Moines Register wrote.

While cover crops offer soil and environmental benefits, they offer few commercial opportunities, according to the report, although many livestock producers graze cattle on cover crops, reducing their feed costs.

CoverCress said its cover crop, which was derived from field pennycress, produced an oilseed that could be harvested and processed to produce a “low-carbon intensity oil” for use in the production of renewable diesel, biodiesel and sustainable aviation fuel.

Farmers could reap US$50/acre from the crop, according to the company, which had attracted US$8M in investment to date. In addition to St. Louis-based Bunge, investors include the Renewable Energy Group, an Ames-based producer of biodiesel and renewable diesel.

CoverCress said it could be a “few years” before the crop was available for Iowa farmers, saying it currently did not mature soon enough to be harvested in time to make way for a full-season soyabean crop.

“We do plan to get to Iowa, but for now our top breeding lines are not early enough to perform really well for the farmers at that latitude,” CoverCress spokesperson Cristine Handel was quoted as saying by Des Moines Register.

“We expect to get the CoverCress model to Iowa in the next few years as the breeding lines become earlier and earlier,” she said.

Scientists had used plant breeding to increase yield and to accelerate the maturity of the cover crop along with advanced gene editing tools to improve the oil and meal quality, the company said.

“The CoverCress crop generates revenue as animal feed, either as a whole-grain feed ingredient, or when processed, as a high-protein meal in addition to the low-carbon intensity oil,” the company said.

The new round of investment had indicated “downstream” demand from companies that would buy the crop’s oil and meal, CoverCress chief operating officer Mike DeCamp said in a statement.

Founded in 2013, CoverCress anticipates farmers will plant the cover crop on up to 1.6Mha (4M acres) by 2030.