All About Rapeseed: Liquid Gold

All About Rapeseed: Liquid Gold

A piercing odour and delicate yellow flowers turn the landscape into a golden wonderland. Blooming rapeseed fields truly are a beautiful sight. 

The journey from its domestication to becoming one of the world most important oilseed crops started ca 2000 B.C.E in India. By ca 35 B.C.E, it had made its way to China and Japan. Not too late after that, in 13 C.E European farmers too started cultivating rapeseed and with great success. Compared to other oilseed crops, rapeseed can grow in rather cold temperatures making it a go-to crop for farmers living in the northern hemisphere. However, during the Middle Ages in Europe, the use of the crop was quite limited. Rapeseed, which was grown for its oil, was mainly used for cooking and improved upon light sources. Especially in the early middle ages, candles were generally made out of rendered animal fat. Though the candles served their purpose, they produced a dark smoke and foul smell since they were made out of fat. On the other hand, rapeseed oil produced a bright white light and could illuminate a larger area than tallow candles. However, the most significant benefit may have been that rapeseed oil does not produce dark smoke when burned and spares the consumer of rancid animal smells. Finally, In 17 C.E, the use of rapeseed and its oil expanded into the industrial sector, making it a highly sought after product to this day. 

Between 1698 and 1765, the Steam Engine was invented and improved upon independently by several engineers. As given by its name, a steam engine is dependent on steam to produce power through which a vehicle, e.g. an old locomotive, can move forward. This steam is created by boiling water which is stored in a so-called boiler compartment. Old locomotives, for example, burn coal underneath the boiler to vaporise the water. Once the steam has been created, it travels to the so-called piston engine. Piston engines convert chemical energy into mechanical energy. In the case of a locomotive, the engine moves the wheels by pressuring a driving rod that is connected to the wheels themselves. As the pressure in the motor enters and exits, the rod is moved backwards and forward, turning the wheels. But where does rapeseed some in? Water and oil are known not to mix well and but in the case of rapeseed oil, it had some valuable properties. A motor has many moving parts that need to remain lubricated to property function, precisely what rapeseed oil was used for. Compared to other alternatives at the time, rapeseed oil can coat and adhere to the metal surfaces of the engine parts much longer, even as they got washed by hot steam. A few years after the engine was invented, engineers began incorporating it into other machinery to improve everyday life, specifically within transportation. Locomotives, as exemplified above, were one such use case. Steam-driven boats also became popular both for the transport of goods and people. In 1903 the use of rapeseed oil was taken to a new level and quite literary so. 

The Wright brothers were the first to construct a functioning aeroplane successfully, and a steam engine powered it. As the use cases of rapeseed oil diversified and the general demand for the oil, e.g. for vehicles, increased, so did its cultivation. Today, the world’s biggest cultivator of rapeseed is Canada, with over 19 million metric tons produced between 2019 and 2020. The second-largest producer is China, metric tons who between the same years produced 13 million tonnes. What made Canada the largest cultivator of rapeseed? During World War 2, the production of aeroplanes but also naval ships increased heavily, and all of the motors required rapeseed oil. The leading producer and supplier of the oil were Canada, and they had to rapidly increase their cultivation which before the war was virtually non-existent. 

Cultivation and Harvest

Rapeseed is a member of the mustard family and has, through various breeding programmes, produced many different cultivars with the selected properties such as producing extra high levels of oil. 

The cultivation of rapeseed can begin in both autumn or springtime, with specialised seeds available for both. As mentioned earlier, one reason why rapeseed has gained wide popularity, especially in regions with a colder climate, is its ability to germinate and grow regardless. Rapeseed seeds can germinate in temperatures as low as 5 degrees celsius. Other reports documented crop growth continuing even at 0 degrees celsius. Soil conditions for rapeseed don’t need to be too specific, and the plants grow well even if they are very saline. For optimal growth, the soil should be well-drained and requires between 40-45 cm of water during the entire growing season. 

Once the seeds have been spread, it takes between 4-10 days for sprouting to occur. However, variation between fields and seasons can be expected. Factors such as the depth at which the seeds have been planted, temperature and moisture level all impact the growth speed. During the early stages of the seedlings and young plants, extra care has to be taken as they are more vulnerable to the attacks of diseases and other best such as the flea beetle that likes to snack on the young plants. Flea beetles can also become a problem and feast on the crops later on in the season and are especially destructive during dry and sunny weather. The Diamondback moth larvae is another self-invited dinner guest on rapeseed fields. This moth takes a particular liking to the flowers and pods during the early stages of their development. Another major threat to the harvest of rapeseed is white mould that affects the stem. Infestations generally occur right after flowering, and the weather has become cold and wet. As the petals of the flowers are no longer required, they fall to the ground but bring the spores of the white mould with them. On the way down, petals may brush against the steam and leave spores of the mould behind. An infected stem will have white lesions across it. The mould continues to grow both inside and outside the stem. Ultimately the plant starts withering. So how can farmers minimise crop damage? Canadian farmers, for example, prepare for potential fungus infections by preventatively applying fungicides in spring rapeseed. However, with many pests and diseases, a cautious eye has to be kept on the fields. Precision agriculture can be a big help. Whether farmers want to optimise the application of their outputs or just monitor the health of their plants, precision farming instantly sends all the information to farmers devices of choice. 

After several weeks of growing, a more extensive leaf area index and warmer weather, the buds and flowers of the crops begin to form. Earth rapeseed plant is adorned by many flowers, which each have four petals. After blooming, which lasts between 14-21 days, the flowers turn into a pod containing several tiny black seeds (much like a miniature version of peas). It takes between 35 to 45 days for the pods to fill. At this point, the plants have reached their maxim height with is bout 30 cm above the ground. When between 30-40% of the crops seeds have turned from green to black, and the stem is brown to red, the crop is ready for so-called swathing. Like many other crops, rapeseed needs to achieve a specific moisture level before being harvested. This is important to ensure that the crops can be handled and store without distorting, e.g. by rotting. Swathing is a way to speed up and even the drying crops to achieve the desired moisture level. Swathing is achieved by cutting the crop and dividing them into rows, and leaving them to dry. Once the harvest is completed, the rapeseed seeds can be processed and become many different products, such as frying oil in kitchens worldwide. Rapeseed is approximately 40% oil and has a high protein content of around 23% protein. Due to its high protein content, rapeseed is also widely used as animal feed. 

 

Frequent questions about rapeseed

Q: Are rapeseed and canola the same plant?

A: Yes! The term canola is mainly used in the United States.

 

Q: Is canola a vegetable oil?

A: Yes! Vegetable oils is an umbrella term that includes all plant-based oils. Since canola is a plant, it falls under that category. 

 

Q: Where does the word rapeseed come from?

A: The name rapeseed is derived from the Latin species name it belongs to Brassica rapa. Rapa means turnip.

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Fertilizer Practices: Natural vs Chemical Fertilizers

Fertilizer Practices: Natural vs Chemical Fertilizers

As we discussed in our introduction post, all fertilisation aims to provide plants with nutrients. We also walked through how farmers can apply fertiliser to their fields. You may recall that the application method depends on the kind of fertiliser used (granular, liquid and gas). However, fertilisers can additionally be divided into four different categories: natural, human-made, organic and inorganic. Understanding their differences is equally important to keep in mind when planning the annual fertilisation strategy. Let’s take a look at why. 

Natural Fertilizers

When discussing fertiliser, the correct terminology is key as different terms may describe similar characteristics. In this blog post, we will be defining plant -and/or animal-based fertilisers as ‘natural fertilisers’. Another term that is commonly used to describe fertilisers from a natural process is ‘organic’. However, the term ‘organic’ is also often used to describe that something is ecological, being free from additives such as pesticides. Though things that are ‘organic’ tend to be ‘natural’ inherently, the reverse is not always the case (as we discuss later on in the post). 

So what are natural fertilisers?

As mentioned above, natural fertilisers can be based on plant or animal products that contain the specific nutrients that the farmer or grower wishes to add to their crops. A key characteristic that sets natural fertilisers apart from synthetic fertilisers is the process by which they are made. As given by their name, natural fertilisers come about naturally. They are predominantly the result of an independent process. Manure is an excellent example of such as animals produce their droppings autonomously. Leaves collected in the autumn time or food compost are other examples. 

The process that defines natural fertilisers also impacts the levels of nutrients they contain. Virtually all nutrients that a plant needs can be derived from natural fertilisers, but a farmer may need greater quantities. Comparatively, natural fertilisers contain lower levels of nutrients than synthetic ones. Additionally, the levels of nutrients also have a greater variation in natural fertilisers than in synthetic. For example, the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in raw bone meal can vary between 2-6% and 15-27%, respectively. There are numerous causes for such a variation, including how and when the fertiliser has been applied, how old it was at the time of application, even its internal moisture level or exposure to the sun has an impact. 

A plant that is nourished with natural fertiliser also needs to wait longer until they reach its cells. This is because plants are not able to directly and independently absorb the nutrition in, e.g. manure. Instead, they rely on bacteria and fungi in the soil to break down the natural anatomy of the fertiliser into a chemical one. Only then can the plants freely take it up from the soil. Therefore natural fertilisers can also be referred to as ‘slow-release’ fertilisers. Depending on other organisms to chew your food takes time. Thus farmers that use natural fertilisers need to be aware of their impact on the timeline of the fertilisation strategy. The weather may also slow down nutrition release. Bacteria and fungi operate best in a warm and moist environment while cold weather slows them down. If a farmer fertilises too early or late, it may take even longer for the fertiliser to be broken down. However, this can be considered an advantage. With slow-release fertilisers, farmers can better avoid so-called nutrient leaching. This is because plants absorb and/or hold all the fertiliser spread. Another advantage of natural fertilisers is that they can improve soil structure by providing an environment for bacteria and fungi to grow, though this process may take a long time. Compared to synthetic fertilisers, the natural ones tend to be more expensive and contain high salts. Manure that has not gone through a composting process may contain too much salt, harming the crops. 

Synthetic Fertilizers

Synthetic plant nutrition, especially in a granular format, may be the first to mind when thinking about fertilisers. Similar to natural fertilisers, synthetic ones are readily available for private consumers and farmers alike. However, these kinds of fertilisers are not inherently created through a natural process. Instead, they are made through targeted human effort and according to specific criteria based on their final use case. Therefore, being able to develop and tailor nutrition based on particular requirements gives some key advantages. 

Alike the natural ones, any kind of nutrition can be manually synthesised but with greater precision. Synthetic fertilisers not only contain much higher levels of nutrients but also don’t degrade as quickly. Hence, farmers don’t need to worry whether their fertilisers actually contain the required % of nutrition and can buy lower quantities. Another advantage of such fertilisers is their absorption rate. Natural fertilisers depend on the metabolic process of bacteria and fungi to break down the nutrients into chemical components that the plants can absorb. Synthetic fertilisers have been designed to already be in this format and can also be referred to as ‘chemical fertilisers’. This means that as soon the fertiliser is spread, the nutrients it contains are readily available for the plants to consume. This fertilisation process can be a tremendous advantage for farmers who can precisely time when they need specific nutrients to be available in the soil. However, as synthetic fertilisers contain higher levels of nutrition, farmers need to be cautious not to over fertilise which would damage both the crops and the environment. How much fertiliser needs to be applied can be difficult to determine, but this becomes much easier using precision farming technologies. Through, e.g. soil health analysis and prescription files, farmers know exactly how much fertiliser each part of the field requires. Combining this with synthetic fertilisers makes this a precise and rapid process. 

Can synthesised fertilisers be natural?

Though natural and synthetic fertilisers are different from one another due to the process in which they are made, they can overlap. As we have established, the nutrients plants need are naturally occurring in the soil and as plants grow, absorbing these nutrients, their levels in the soil decrease. However, over time and with the proper environmental conditions, large deposits of these nutrients can form. These are generally referred to as ‘mineral deposits’ and even include our everyday table salt source. Many fertiliser producers use these naturally occurring mineral deposits as the origin for the components of their fertilisers. Once the minerals have been derived from the deposit, they are processed into the desired format and can even be mixed with other naturally occurring nutrients. To the plant, synthetic fertiliser in the soil is like table salt on our pasta, it may not be derived from manure, but the result is the same. 

Organic Fertilizers

Organic fertilisers are natural, but the origin and creation process has additional regulations. The regulations vary depending on whether the fertiliser is based on plant or animal products and the state or country in which they will be used. The general goal of these regulations is to keep the fertiliser as ecological as possible. For example: in Oregon in the United States, fertiliser based on plant products such as meals made from cottonseed may not contain any pesticides. This means that the farmer who produces cotton and intends to produce organic fertiliser from the seeds may not spray any pesticides over the cotton plants. Similar rules cover manure. If cattle farmers in Oregon want to use the manure by-product from their animals, it needs to remain raw. That means the manure cannot undergo a composition process, whether it is broken down. Hence, just because the fertiliser in question is natural doesn’t mean it is considered organic. 

Organomineral Fertilizers

Innovative solutions and optimising practices is a cornerstone of successful agricultural production. Yet, combining natural and synthetic fertilisers may come as a surprise. The so-called ‘organomineral fertilisers’ have the potential to bring farmers the best of both worlds. 

But why combine them in the first place?

Natural and synthetic fertilizers have many pros and cons. One reason why using natural fertilizers is preferred is its active contribution to the wellbeing of microbes in the soil. Synthetic fertilizers generally do not have such abilities. Yet, in some ways, they can be considered more reliable. As mentioned before synthetic fertilizers have a much lower variation in their nutritional levels. They are also cheaper and easier to apply. By combining aspects of both natural and synthetic fertilizers we have the potential to create even better fertilizers. Fertilizers which directly tend to the well-being of plants and soil. Organomineral fertilizers can contain any variation and combination of nutrition needed and are commonly available in a solid format such as pellets. The core of the pellet is made up of the natural aspect of this fertilizer. This core can also be referred to as ‘biosolid’ which is a naturally derived material from plant and/or animal products. The pellet is covered in an outer layer in the synthetic material of choice, for example, a urea and potash mixture. 

Determining the correct fertilisation strategy is enormous work. Not only do farmers have a plethora of kinds of fertilisers to choose from, but different crops also have different needs. These needs can, in turn, be affected by current weather conditions to what crop was grown on the field the previous year. Therefore, making it easier for farmers to fertilise and do so correctly is vital. Precision farming makes plant nutrition easier on the farmer and planet.

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All About Soybeans: From Your Tofu to the Statue of Liberty

All About Soybeans: From Your Tofu to the Statue of Liberty

In the 28th century BCE, the great emperor Shennong (ENG: Divine Farmer) was born. According to this Chinese mythology, Shennong paved the foundation for the agricultural society that China was to become. He shared many things with his people, including an extensive list of beneficial and poisonous herbs. Shennong also named five sacred crops which we remain dependent upon today. Among these, the soybean has a special mention and understandably so. Today no other bean in the world has a more significant economic impact than the soybean. 

Though their exact country of origin still carries some uncertainty, it is believed to have already been cultivated around 7000 BCE in today’s China. Similarly, Korea and Japan have a long history of growing this crop. However, after residing in Asia for thousands of years, it was destined overseas to America and arrived in 1804. By the 1950s, the United States became the largest grower of soybeans in the entire world, a title they carried until 2020 when Brazil overtook them. Though its consumption was not instantly widespread among the American population, its popularity increased as a coffee substitute during the American Civil War (1861- 1865). Among the soldiers, the soy substitute was commonly referred to as “coffee berries”. By World War 1 (1914-1918), other use cases for the crop were investigated. Here the goal was for it to replace rare commodities such as meat. However, soybeans were not only of interest to the food and agricultural sector. Henry Ford, the founder of Ford’s automotive company, envisioned a bright future for the little bean. In his vision of “from farm to Ford”, future car parts would be produced our of plastics made from soy. Unfortunately, this development was ended at the beginning of World War 2. During the Great Depression (1929-1933), soybeans were processed to oil which was used to enrich food. Soybean oil can still be found in a wide variety of products today. 

 

How are soybeans grown?

Soybeans are a part of the pea family and are an annual crop that can be over 2 meters long, depending on its variety. Its flowers are self-pollinating, and the beans it produces can have a large variety of colours from yellow to black and even multicoloured. Typically one soybean pod contains between one and four beans. Though it generally is not as picky compared to others crops, its ideal growing conditions are on the warmer side of the spectrum. Hence the majority of soybean cultivations in the United States are found in the south. The United States produced ca. 113.5 million metric tonnes of soybeans in 2020. Brazil and Argentina have a similar climate and are the other most prominent producers with 133 and 50 million metric tons. In addition to enjoying warmer weather, soybeans grow best in well-drained soil (so-called sandy loam) that is made up of a mixture of sand, clay and slit. Soybeans need a lot of nitrogen, yet in soils where these beans grow, finding nitrogen deficiencies is not as common as other crops. Smal bacteria live in the root nodules of the soybean plants and are brilliant nitrogen fixators. They help take nitrogen from the air and convert it so that the bean plant can use it. 

When the field has been prepared and time for seeding has come (May-June), the farmer will plant the seeds in ca 18 cm wide rows. Here farmers can use larger planters or tractors that can reach over several rows at once. Between four and seven days after the seeds have been planted, the first seedlings emerge from the soil. On their way to becoming large crops, farmers must watch out for many threats that may damage the fragile seedlings, including worms, insects and diseases. When the farmer has evaluated that the infestation threatens the plans wellbeing substantially, action must be taken. The process of evaluating damage or predicting its severity is complicated, and getting it wrong can lead to great economic losses. Using precision farming technologies, farmers can easily survey their fields and receive concrete evaluations of their plant health. Whether it relates to waterstress, pest infestations or a nutrient deficiency, precision technology help farmers detect problem areas on time. Whether the harvest is threatened should not be difficult to determine but done fast and accurately. 

In June-September (depending on the temperature and field location), the soybeans begin to flower. During this period, the fields look especially beautiful and are covered by hundreds of thousands of flowers. This is because the soybean plant produces many more flowers than what, in the end, grow pods. Around the end of September, the beans are ready for harvest. The number of matured pods determines this. How can the farmer tell? When the soybean pod has matured, it changes colour from golden to gray depending on the variety. When about 95% of the pods have such a colour, the leaves have fallen of the plants, and the moisture content of the pods is around 13%, it is time to prepare machinery. If there is a sudden shift in weather conditions that prevent the farmers from going to the field, the moisture levels may fall below 13%. Too little moisture in the plant leads to increased risk in crop losses, e.g. through shattering:

1. Pre-harvest shatter = When the pods open up and the bean contents fall onto the ground before the farmers have had the chance to harvest them. It is impossible to retrieve them from the ground.

2. Sickle-bar shatter = When the weakened pods open up during harvest. Before the harvester has the chance to gather the beans, they are scattered cross the field by merely touching the pods.

Additionally, low moisture levels decrease the weight of the beans. Farmers sell soybeans based on weight hence if conditions become too dry they loose valuable income. 

The easiest way to harvest soybeans is using a Combine Harvester, and as we learned in the previous posts, it makes the lives of farmers a whole lot easier. Upon harvest the soybeans can either be stored, or directly shipped to factories that process it further. What can a soybean be processed into? Anything imaginable, truly. 

Soybean Products

Soybeans are one of the best sources of protein at a much lower price. About 77% of all soybeans end up as animal feed, and the remaining majority is made into oil and fuel. A mere 7% is used directly in human consumption.

Roughly 17% of the bean is made up of oil. 63% is made up of so-called meal and 50% of it is made out of protein. The beans also don’t contain any starch making them a perfect component of meals for diabetic people. It is even possible to bake bread using ground soybeans. The three most common soy products that come to mind are usually soymilk, soy sauce and tofu. Other favourites include edamame (young soybeans – boiled for safety), tempeh and miso. Soybean oil is commonly used in producing vegetarian cheeses and even margarine. However its use cases go beyond the world of food. Its oil can also be used in paints, fertiliser and clothes. Henry Ford used to wear a suit out of soybean fibres. It is even possible to produce fire-extinguishers that contain soybean. In the United States, one of the most famous landmarks takes soybeans to a whole different level, literally. The elevators of the Statue of Liberty are lubricated using soybean oil! 

The soybean truly is a crop that can do it all. Soy while you may not like the taste of tempeh, chances are your favourite product still contains a bit of soy. 

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