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Sunflower crop shines through for Saskatchewan farmer


November 30, 1999
By Shirley Byers

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If the summer of 2010 was the ultimate stress test for Saskatchewan farm crops, Blake Brownridge’s sunflowers passed with flying colours. They were dry in the bin seven to 10 days earlier than usual. “We usually figure we’ll be starting to harvest sunflowers around October 25th to the fifth of November,” the Arcola, Saskatchewan-area farmer says. “This year, we were done before Halloween, which was a really nice change.”

Sunflowers will tolerate more rain than the average Saskatchewan growing season provides but the lower temperatures that tend to accompany continuous rain can be an issue. It is no accident that they are called sunflowers, as they love the sun and they need a lot of heat.

Early in the growing season, things did not look good for a sun-loving crop. Brownridge’s sunflowers were in the ground by May 17, but the rains came in June and continued into the first part of July. For most of the province they persisted through the summer.

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But from about July 10 to August 5, Brownridge’s sunflowers managed to avoid the deluge that fell elsewhere, and those 20-plus rain-free days accelerated maturation and shaved at least 10 days off the other end of the growth cycle. Sunflowers are classified as either oil or confection-type. Confection type seeds are marketed for human consumption.

Oilseed sunflowers are used in both the birdseed and crushing industry. Brownridge grows an oilseed sunflower and markets it into the birdseed market. “There’s not an overabundance of sunflowers in Canada and we really have no crush market,” he says. “Our only crush market is in the US and then you get into freight issues and customs. We used to haul to Fargo but it’s just too much work.”

Production parameters and considerations
Brownridge buys seed treated with Cruiser and goes light on the fertilizer. “We don’t load it right up as they might east or south of us as far as fertilizer. We run about 50 lbs of nitrogen (N) per acre, 10 to 15 lbs of phosphorus (P) and then we might have 10 lbs of sulphur (S),” he says.

Sunflower has a long taproot, capable of growing to a depth of 6.5 feet to find nutrients and moisture. “My thinking is with no till and with the crops we grow here, most of our fertilizer and stuff is maybe trapped about two feet down so we might access nutrients that are in the ground from previous crops,” he says.

Various pests, including cutworms, wireworms, lygus bugs and sunflower beetles, can plague sunflower crops but so far, most of these pests have not been a problem. That is likely because Brownridge’s fields are relatively isolated, with no other sunflower growing within a 40-mile radius.

In a cool spring there is some cutworm activity though. In 2007, Brownridge estimates he lost half of his crop to that particular pest, and if more wet years follow this last one he suspects diseases such as sclerotinia and white mould could be a concern with canola-sunflower rotations.

But he definitely plans to continue growing sunflower. It is a good fit on his farm, he says. “We have probably three different types of land: blacker soil, sandier soil and rockier sandier soil. Generally, we’ll put sunflower in on land we predominantly wouldn’t grow a pulse or even a canola crop on but even our better land gets sunflowers once in a while. I think it’s just good for breaking up our land, and just having a different crop provides a whole different environment for that land.

“They grow taller than the rocks,” he says with a smile, “And if it turns hot and dry in July I know I’ll still get something. I’m relatively confident I’ll get a better yield than if I had seeded canola.”

He follows a spring wheat-flax-spring wheat-sunflower rotation.  

In 2010 Brownridge harvested 450 acres of sunflower at 2000 lbs per acre. The test weight was a bit light, he says, from normal to slightly below normal, probably due to the September rains. He contracts his sunflower crop to a couple of Canadian companies, with the seeds going to processors in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. He does well financially but when it comes to growing sunflowers, growers need to be prepared to hold on to them sometimes, he says.

A strong economy drives the market. Cold weather, which encourages people to feed backyard birds, is also a factor. On the other hand, “last year (2009-10) was probably one of the slower years on record for the birdseed movement. Money was tight, the Olympics provided a distraction and the incredibly warm winter on the West Coast really slowed everything down,” he says. “So far this winter it seems to be moving along not too bad but it’s definitely one of those markets that the consumer dictates where it’s headed.”

Sunflower facts
Sunflower is the only oilseed native to the northern Great Plains of North America. First Nations peoples from Mexico to southern parts of Canada domesticated it. Sunflower thought to have entered Europe through Spain and then spread throughout Europe and into Russia.

Russian research increased oil content from 28 percent to almost 50 percent. These high-oil lines, reintroduced into North America after the Second World War, sparked a renewed interest in the crop.

Sunflowers are a heliotropic species, which means that in the bud stage the little heads will track the sun from east to west during the day and return to face the east during the night.

They are no longer heliotropic in the blooming stage, but most flower heads will face east.
Sunflowers pack a nutritional wallop. They contain almost every vitamin except vitamin C, as well as magnesium, iron, copper and zinc, and they are also high in protein.