Sunflowers provide healthy snacks, oil

Farm Forum

When consumers pick up a bag of sunflower seeds or a container of oil, it may very well have come from fields of gold in South Dakota.

In 2013 South Dakotans planted 617,000 acres of sunflowers. No other state came close to this number of acres according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Sunflowers are produced primarily in the central and western region of South Dakota under no-till crop production systems. Sully and Hughes counties generally plant the most acres, according to National Agriculture Statistics Services.

These fields of yellow provide a good return for farmers. “In 2011 gross sales or receipts for sunflowers in the state totaled $192,000,000,” said Ruth Beck, SDSU Extension Agronomy Field Specialist.

There are two types of sunflowers planted in South Dakota, Beck explained; oilseed types used for birdseed or crushed to make sunflower oil and confection types or those grown for human food markets.

She added that seeds of the two types are easily differentiated. The oilseed type has small black seed and a thin hull or shell that adheres to the kernel. The confection or nonoil seed types have a thicker, larger, hull and a larger seed that is easily separated from the hull. The shells are usually a lighter shade and have some white striping. Typically the confection plants produce seed that has lower oil percentage and test weight.

“Oilseed types are the most popular in South Dakota, being grown on about 86 percent of acres in 2013. They average around 42 percent oil content and are marketed into the oil and the birdseed markets,” Beck said.

For consumers, the appeal of sunflower kernels is apparent in the popularity of those purchasing “seeds” as a snack. The sunflower kernel is the ‘meat’ of sunflower seed. When you buy sunflower kernels, it means the processor has mechanically removed the hull, according to the National Sunflower Association. The kernel can be sold raw, roasted for snacking, or used as an ingredient. When you buy sunflower seeds, this means the seed is left intact with the ‘meat’ of the seed still in the shell. It is normally roasted and seasoned and eaten as a snack by cracking the shell with one’s teeth, discarding the hull and eating the kernel.

Healthy oils are in big demand with consumers. Sunflower oil is generally considered a premium oil because of its light color, high level of unsaturated fatty acids and lack of linoleic acid, bland flavor and high smoke points. The primary use is as a salad and cooking oil or in margarine.

According to the National Sunflower Association, the growth of sunflower as an oilseed crop has rivaled that of soybean, with both increasing production over 6-fold since the 1930s. Sunflower accounts for about 14% of the world production of seed. The oil accounts for 80% of the value of the sunflower crop, as contrasted with soybean, which gets most of its value from the meal.

• Shelf life: High oleic sunflower oil (over 80% oleic acid) was developed commercially in 1985 and has higher oxidated stability than conventional oil. It has expanded the application of sunflower oils for frying purposes, tends to enhance shelf life of snacks, and could be used as an ingredient of infant formulas requiring stability.

• Meal: Non-dehulled or partly dehulled sunflower meal has been substituted successfully for soybean meal in diets for ruminant animals, as well as for swine and poultry feeding. Sunflower meal is higher in fiber, has a lower energy value and is lower in lysine but higher in methionine than soybean meal

• Non-oilseed: The use of sunflower seed for birdfeed or in human diets as a snack has grown consistently over the past 15 years. Varieties used for non-oilseed purposes are characterized by a larger seed size and require slightly different management practices. During processing, seed is divided into 1) larger seed for in-shell roasting, 2) medium for dehulling, and 3) small for birdseed.

Dan Forgey, farm manager at Cronin Farms, believes that the thousands of acres of prevent plant in North Dakota made a big impact on why South Dakota surpassed North Dakota in sunflower acres in 2013.

And poor winter wheat stands in South Dakota were torn up and planted to flowers.

“We lost our winter wheat going into spring,” Forgey said. “With dry conditions and the price of sunflowers with contracts around 27 to 30 cents, it made sense. In our area, the sunflowers fit into the rotation well. It gives us more diversity to plant spring wheat, winter wheat, corn then sunflowers. In Sully, western Potter and Hughes counties, it really isn’t an area where soybeans do well. We need to get something under the cornstalks and so we use sunflowers.”

Forgey explained that sunflowers are planted later than corn or soybeans, generally in June, so by the time it was time to put seed in the ground in North Dakota, there was too much moisture in those fields. With the corn market in flux this year, some acres may go into sunflower production, but it will depend on spring conditions.

When selecting seeds for planting, Beck said selections are chosen to reflect desirable yields; high oil percentage for oil types, proper maturity, proper seed size for confection types, insect tolerance, and disease resistance. Standability and head position after flowering are also selection criteria.

A Frankfort farmer who didn’t want to be identified said that sunflowers are cheaper to plant than corn and they like drier weather and poorer soils. The plants have a deep taproot that mellows out the ground and works well in a rotation with other crops. A good year will produce 1700 to 2500 lbs. per acre. A fallow period is often recommended following sunflowers to replenish depleted soil water reserves.

This farmer is in a 3-year rotation of crops. Since the sunflower fields are planted later, there is some weed growth and burn down with chemicals is necessary before planting. Having a clean field to begin the year makes a big difference in controlling weeds. Sunflowers are reliant on rainfall to fill the head.

Black birds can create quite a problem. It’s well known that the birds can eat a lot of seeds from the sunflower heads if they decide to target the fields. If the field is close to an area with cattails in a slough, it’s a good place for the birds to gather and move in flocks to feed.

“Oil is the last thing that a sunflower plant produces; therefore, late planted fields are dependent on moisture late in the season to improve their oil content,” Beck said.

Forgey noted that Potter County grows a tremendous amount of confectionary sunflowers.

With sunflowers, diseases can remain in the soil. It’s best to wait two years before putting the crop on that acreage. “This last year when we had a humid July, that caused problems with plant stalks becoming weak and then high winds created problems,” Forgey said. “In an area with 18 inches of rain in a year, the sunflower root can go down to get the needed moisture. They are a scavenger, no doubt, and it fits our rotation.”

Visit the National Sunflower Association website at

Sunflower production

In 2013 South Dakotans planted 617,000 acres of sunflowers. No other state came close to this number. North Dakota was second, planting just under 500,000 acres.

Top sunflower producing counties in South Dakota in 2012

County Oil seeds Non-oil seeds

(in lbs.) (in lbs.)

Sully 125,250,000 20,000,000

Hughes 63,670,000 –

Potter 61,821,000 24,200,000

Corson 55,250,000 –

Campbell 28,240,000 –

Walworth 18,425,000 –

Faulk 10,500,000 –

McPherson 7,500,000 –

Source: S.D. office of the National Agriculture Statistics Office, Sioux Falls