Sunflowers as a methionine source for organic poultry production, sunflower hulling processes, and sunflower variety trial

Final Report for FNE05-540

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2005: $9,419.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
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Project Information



Catherine Albert
Jalko Farm
261 Gagnon Road
Madawaska, ME 04756
(207) 728-3150
[email protected]


This is a three-part research project. The heart of this project is a feeding trial that looked at alternative sources of methionine. Synthetic methionine is only allowed in organic poultry feeds on a temporary basis. Methionine is the limiting amino acid for poultry; without it, egg and meat production is severely compromised. Natural sources of methionine include fish, duckweed, and sunflowers. Originally, all diets were supposed to include some type of sunflower product. Before the feed trial started, we determined that sunflowers alone, in their whole state, could not economically be used as a methionine source. The percentage needed in the diet was too high and the availability too low. With the permission of NE-SARE, we changed our feed trial to evaluate the use of fishmeal, crab meal mixed with fishmeal, and whole black sunflowers mixed with fishmeal as natural sources of methionine.

Part two researches efficient ways for the large and small-scale farmer to hull sunflowers. Hull-less sunflowers are more nutritionally valuable to poultry than whole sunflowers. They are much higher in protein and energy, and lower in fiber. We identified efficient ways to de-hull sunflowers.

Part three involves a sunflower variety trial. No variety trials have been done for gray-striped sunflowers in Maine. Most trials were done in the Dakotas or Colorado. We identified appropriate varieties and rate their performance. Organic crop farms are in need of another sustainable rotation crop; sunflowers could be it.


The original goals of the project were as follows:

A. Research hullers and alter our oat-huller so that we can de-hull sunflowers for a feeding trial.

1. Provide directions on how to alter a Roskamp (large-scale) oat huller to hull sunflowers.
2. Research other lower cost, smaller, scale pieces of equipment that could be used by small fanners to hull a small amount of sunflower seeds.

B. Conduct a feeding trial using the sunflowers harvested in Fall 2004. Evaluate egg production using varying percentages of sunflowers in the feed.

1. Randomly assign numbers to each bird in the flock. Affix leg bands to birds for identification.

2. Divide the available square footage (162 sq. ft) into four pens, each with 40.5 square feet. Set up automatic waterers, hanging feeders, and nesting boxes in each pen. Cover all windows. Provide 14 hours daily of artificial lighting on timers. The temperature will remain as constant as possible. The heat is set at 60 degrees, but no cooling devices are present in this area.

3. Create four separate feeding rations to try: a. hull-less sunflowers to meet the standards exactly as given in The Nutrient Requirements of Poultry; b. hulled sunflowers (with the shell) to meet the standards as nearly as possible (this ration will have higher fiber, but will have the same methionine as the first ration; c. the control feed minus the synthetic methionine; d. the control feed.

4. Make one batch (400#) of each feed at the beginning of the trials. Freeze all feed, and keep all feed frozen throughout the trials. Feed will be fed to all birds in all trials frozen, as feed cannot be made in small enough batches to have available fresh through the trials.

5. Conduct a Randomized Block ANOVA statistical test.

C. Continue our field trial of organic sunflowers.

1. Research several varieties of gray-striped sunflowers to evaluate which is best suited to Maine climate,

2. Rent appropriate planting and cultivating equipment so that no plants are damaged

3. Rent a grain dryer to dry the end product.

D. Create a pamphlet that reports the following information:

1. Instructions on how to hull sunflowers

2. Information on sunflower amount/percentage that needs to be in the diet for optimum egg production

3. Performance records of different varieties of sunflowers grown in Maine.


We (my husband Ben, son Luc, and I) currently operate a 214-acre farm, plus we rent 70-100 additional tillable acres. We have a cow-calf operation, raise laying hens, turkeys, organic grains, and timber. All of our tillable acres are in organic production. All poultry are raised on organic feeds.

The farm has been in operation for well over 30 years by family. We have been managing the farm for the past 8 years. In December 2003 we opened a small organic feed mill (Northern-Most Feeds, LLC). This mill uses Jalko Farm's grains, contracts grains from other local farmers, and purchases grain from New York. We rely on the farm and mill for about 70% of our income.


Cooperators on this project included:

Justin Jamison, Technical Advisor - Supervisor,
J.F. Witter Teaching and Research Farm: RR2 Box 2570 / Old Town, ME 04468

Dr Fred Servello, Associate Professor and Chair of Wildlife Ecology: University of Maine / Orono, ME 04469

Ben Albert - Jalko Farm: 261 Gagnon Rd / Madawaska, ME 04756

Justin Jamison provided assistance in choosing sunflower varieties. He also visited the field in September 2005. He examined the varieties and discussed performance with Ben Albert.

Fred Servello assisted in developing the experimental design of the feed trial. Dr. Servello studied poultry as a graduate and doctorate student. He currently studies wildlife ecology, specifically feeds.

Ben Albert, part owner of Jalko Farm, manages the crops. He plans and implements all planting activities. Ben also is in charge of all equipment maintenance and alteration. Ben has a degree in Bio-resource (agriculture) Engineering Technology.




The feed trial itself was delayed until the winter of 2006-2007. Initially, we elected to wait until after de-hulling research was completed (in order to obtain sunflower kernels). During the summer of 2005, unscheduled equipment repairs took priority over revamping the Roskamp huller for sunflowers. By the time Ben could work on the Roskamp, the chickens had gone into molt and could not be used for a feed trial. I wanted to use younger, more productive chickens for the feed trial. Due to childbirth, I was unable to order new chicks in the fall of 2005. Chicks are unavailable in the winter. I purchased chicks in March 2006, which should start laying in September 2006. The feed trial started once the chicks were in full production (December 2006).

The original grant proposal was going to look exclusively at sunflowers as an organic methionine source. Sunflowers are naturally high in methionine. Amino acid profiles were obtained for four varieties of sunflowers: Dahlgren, Colonel, Kodiak, and 6946. Feed rations were made using the Dahlgren black oil profile. We determined that using whole sunflower seeds to provide the methionine was not economical. Too large of a percentage of the diet needed to be sunflowers, and feed grade organic sunflowers are not plentiful on the market. Organic sunflower meal, fat extracted, with hulls, is plentiful on the market. The high fiber content of the meal, due to the hulls remaining, makes it unusable in large quantities. A high fiber diet (>7%) will decrease growth and egg production. The only sunflower product that would work to replace synthetic methionine is sunflower meal that had hulls removed prior to fat extraction. This product is not commercially available on the organic feed grade market.
With permission from NE SARE, we altered our study to compare the use of fishmeal, crab meal, and whole sunflowers as a methionine replacement. Fish and crab meal are both currently allowed in organic feeds on a trial basis, so long as they contain only natural preservatives. All diets (including the control) were balanced to make total methionine, cystine (a related amino acid), calcium, phosphorus, protein, and energy to have as identical as possible values. The fish diet contained 5% fishmeal. The crab diet contained 2.5% fishmeal and 5% crab meal. The sunflower diet contained 2.5% fishmeal and 6.38% black oil sunflowers. All diets contained fish because it was not practical to use just crab or just sunflowers to meet the methionine needs; the concentration of methionine was not high enough (1.78% fish meal, 0.46% crab meal, 0.34% black oil sunflowers). Complete amino acid profiles and proximate analyses of all three ingredients are provided in appendix A. A control diet was provided by Northern-Most Feeds, LLC. Percentages of feed ingredients in each diet can be found in appendix B. All feed was frozen after grinding, to ensure that all birds in all blocks of time received the same quality feed.

Twenty-four one-year-old laying hens were randomly divided into four pens of six birds each. All birds were banded with a number so that in case the birds somehow got loose they could be resorted. Five extra birds were kept to replace any casualties. Birds received 14 hours of daylight per day and the ambient temperature was 40 - 45 degrees throughout the study. Each pen was 4-1/2 ft by 9 ft. Two nesting boxes were provided in each pen. Water was provided via automatic fountain waterers. Feed was fed in 5-gallon bucket-style feeders. Each pen received a different diet for three weeks. This was followed by one week on the control diet to flush out their systems and return their intestines to a control state. Feed can change the shape and structure of intestines (Servello, personal communication). Without reverting the guts to a control state, it would not be known whether differences were due to diet, or due to the effect of a series of diets. Each pen received a second diet for 3 weeks, followed by a 1 -week flush, etc until all pens received all diets. No pen received any diet twice. All pens received diets in a different order. In no case did diets follow each other consequently (Diet 2 was only fed after Diet 3 once, etc). Data taken included eggs laid per day, average weight of a dozen eggs sampled weekly, and feed consumption. Anecdotal remarks on bird conditions, shell thickness, and yolk quality were also taken.

Feed Trial Results / Discussion / Conditions

Egg production, egg weights, and feed consumption amongst diets and time periods were analyzed using a statistical test called a Randomized Block ANOVA Without Replacement. Data sheets and statistical computations can be found in Appendix C-l through C-3.

No statistical difference in egg production rates was found amongst the different diets (P > 0.25) or amongst the different periods of time (P > 0.25). This means that diet had no significant effect on egg production rate. At the same time, egg production rates did not significantly change from the beginning to the end of the study. Each pen of chickens laid a statistically equal number of eggs on each diet. Average eggs laid per day are listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Average eggs laid per day on each diet and during each block of time

Block of time....Fish....Crab....Sun....Control

No statistical difference in egg weight was found amongst the different diets (P > 0.25) or amongst the different blocks of time (0.10 < P < 0.25). This means that diet had no significant difference on egg weight, and egg weight did not statistically change among the blocks of time or pens. We did note, anecdotally, that egg weights were consistently down in pens 2 and 3. The chickens stayed in the same pen in each study. Presumably, some chickens laid larger eggs than others did; and the diets tried did not have a huge effect on this. Pen 3's weights rose during time block 3. One chicken became ill and died during this time block, and was replaced by a chicken that presumably laid larger eggs. Table 2. Average weight in ounces of a dozen eggs on each diet during each block of time Block of time....Fish....Crab....Sun.....Control

No statistical difference in feed consumption was found amongst the different diets (0.10 < P < 0.25). Feed consumption did statistically differ amongst the blocks of time and/or pens (0.0025 < P < 0.001). This means that overall feed consumption did not change between diets, but that some pens of chickens consumed more feed then others. Each pen contained a hanging style 5-10 gallon feeder. Two were commercial metal feeders. Two were plastic feeders made in-house out of 5-gallon pails and round plastic trays. The in-house feeders had larger openings to access the feed (larger space between the pail and the tray). More feed was observed wasted in these pens. Additionally, you will note that feed consumption rates are higher during block 3 than the other blocks. Due to a methodology error, more feed was fed daily during this block. Hypothetically, birds waste more feed when more feed is provided and don't produce more eggs in return. Table 3. Average pounds of feed consumed per day during each block of time Block of time....Fish....Crab....Sun.....Control

Anecdotal remarks on chicken health and egg quality: As previously noted, one bird in pen 3 died during time block 3. The cause of death in unknown, although she became "broody" and hid in a nesting box for several days before expiring. She was on the control diet at the time. She was replaced at the start of time block 4 with a spare bird that had been on the control diet throughout. Another bird in pen two was broody from time to time. Whenever she brooded, less eggs were collected from pen 2. No other variations in bird health or feather picking were observed.

Eggshell thickness was consistently thinner on the crab meal / fish meal diet. Less supplemental calcium was added to the crab meal diet, because crab meal contains 12% calcium. The rations were balanced to provide equal calcium levels in the finished feeds. We hypothesize that the crab diet produced thinner shells for one of the following reasons: calcium found in crab meal may not be as absorbable as the supplemental calcium, or the crab meal calcium was lost in the mixing process. Crab meal is very dry and dusty. The entire mill became filled with a powdery crab dust when the feed was in the mixer.

The fish meal diet had the strongest yolk membrane. The crab/fish and the sunflower/fish had moderate yolk membranes. The control diet had the poorest yolk membrane. We hypothesize that there are trace minerals, provided in fishmeal, that are not present in the vitamin premix used (Fertrell). This warrants further investigation, and would be a good topic for a future study.

Recommendations for Organic Producers

The original goals for this study were to try and find a non-meat replacement for synthetic methionine. After taking amino acid profiles of the most likely candidate (sunflowers), we decided that it isn't possible to create a complete diet using just grains. De-hulled sunflower meal would work, but it isn't available on the organic commercial market. The methionine requirements can be met by using a super-high protein diet. However, this diet also provides excess amounts of all the other amino acids. This results in increased nitrogen excretion, which is a huge environmental concern.

No significant differences were found in egg weights, egg production rates, or feed consumption amongst the trial diets and the control. Using fishmeal in the diet improved the yolk membranes in all three trial diets, more so in the 5% fish meal diet than in the crab/fish or the sunflower/fish diets. Crab meal was very powdery and unpleasant to work with. It also made a very smelly feed. The sunflower / fish diet was acceptable.

We recommend using either the 5% fishmeal diet or a sunflower/ fish meal combination diet. Fishmeal must be chosen with much care, as using a low quality fishmeal can result in a rancid flavor in the eggs or meat. Also, not all fishmeals are currently allowed. This depends on breed offish and types of preservatives used in the meal.



During the summer of 2005, amino acid profiles and proximate analysis were obtained for all sunflowers planted in the field trial. These profiles are located in Appendix A. A complete proximate was also obtained for a sample of hand-hulled gray striped sunflowers. These were sunflowers that had been harvested on farm the previous season.

The Field Variety Trial was been completed during the summer of 2005. Four varieties were planted: Seeds 2000 varieties 6946, Kodiak, Colonel, and Dahlgren variety Oil Seed 4421. Varieties 6946 and Kodiak were gray-striped. Colonel was an oil-gray hi-bred, and Dahlgren is an oil seed. These varieties were chosen because they were the only ones available. Seed must be untreated for use in organic production. In order to have a good selection of untreated sunflower seed, one needs to order by January. The grant was only confirmed in March.

Twenty acres of sunflowers were planted on June 9, 2005. Four acres each of 6946, Kodiak, and Colonel were planted. Eight acres of 4421 was planted. After 4 acres of each were planted, we realized we still had 4 acres left unplanted. Instead of planting equal areas of all four varieties, we elected to just plant 4421. We didn't think we had enough of the three Seeds 2000 varieties to replant them, and the 4421 came in a larger seed-count bag.

Variety locations were marked with orange field flags. Plant date was later than ideal due to difficulty obtaining a sunflower planter. We looked for vacuum style corn and vegetable planters. The only available planters we found were in need of repair. We eventually found a vacuum style Noudet Gougis vegetable planter that only needed its gears to be freed. This planter plants seeds in rows. Both the row width and the seedling spacing can be altered to suit the crop. The field was harrowed with a soil-conditioner the same day as planting in order to remove weed competition.

We obtained a tine cultivator to remove weeds in the first two weeks after planting. After two weeks, the sunflowers are too large and would be damaged by cultivation. Ideally, the sunflowers should have been cultivated before immerging (3 days) and at 10 days.

Results and Conditions

Due to wet weather conditions, we were unable to cultivate until June 23rd, 14 days after planting. To monitor the effectiveness of such late cultivation, we left 8 rows of each variety uncultivated. By visual estimation, the uncultivated rows had more than double the weeds as the cultivated rows. Earlier cultivation would have removed more weeds during their tender cotyledon stage. The late cultivation allowed more weeds to be too mature to be effected by tine cultivation.

Our crop was severely hampered by predators. Crows and Ravens ate about 25% of the 6696 and Kodiak seedlings during the cotyledon stage. Most of the predation occurred by US Route 1 and along the east edge of the field. Predation problems again occurred as the sunflowers were maturing. Crows, Ravens, and Bears ate 20 - 50% of all matured sunflower kernels. We were unable to harvest before predation due to an unacceptably high moisture level, and variations in maturity time within each variety. Additional animal damage occurred during flowering. Birds sat on the sunflowers, breaking the stalks below the flower (see attached pictures). Due to weather patterns, the sunflowers grew thin stalks and large heavy blossoms. The thin stalks were due to an unusually dry summer. The heavy blossoms occurred due to a period of moderate rainfall just prior to flowering. This damage occurred primarily on the west side of the field. We hypothesize that damage was worse on the west side due to drift from potato desiccants sprayed on a neighboring field. In addition to being thin, the stalks on the west side showed signs of necrosis where-as any damaged stalks on the east side were simply snapped. Bear damage occurred primarily in the extra 4 acres of the 4412 variety. The 4412 was located in closest proximity to bear habitat (woods) of the 4 varieties.

When the crop reached maturation, we handpicked samples from each variety to test for moisture. During this process, we discovered that most (60-80%) of the kernels were empty in varieties 6946, Kodiak, and 4412. The Colonel variety was the only successfully pollinated variety. In our 2004 trial, we noted several varieties of bees that pollinated our single 4-acre sunflower field. We only noticed low amount of bumblebees pollinating the 2005 field. Varieties 6946, Kodiak, and 4412 all reached peak blossom within a week of each other. Colonel variety peaked a full 10-14 days after the other 3 varieties. We hypothesize that there simply were not enough wild bees to pollinate 16 acres of sunflowers. The Colonel variety likely experience increased pollination because a) all available bees were already on-site from servicing the other 3 varieties and b) there were only 4 acres of sunflowers that needed pollinating instead of 16. Another hypothesis is that the Colonel variety could be better at self pollinating than 6946, Kodiak, and 4412. It is known that some varieties self-pollinate to some degree.
Varieties 6946, Kodiak, and 4412 reached peak blossom during the week of August 17-24th. Colonel reached peak flour during August 31st-Sept 3rd. Since temperatures and weather were conducive to field drying, we allowed them to dry until the second week of October. At this time, we collected samples for moisture testing and determined that the crop was a failure (no pollination). We elected to harvest only the Colonel variety, as there was little to no feed value in the empty hulls of the other varieties. We did not record moisture levels of the three failed varieties.

Justin Jamison, Technical Advisor, visited the field on September 4l , 2005. He and Ben discussed animal predation problems, stalk-snapping problems, and general vigor of the plants. They concluded that (prior to bear damage), 4421 had the best bloom rate and the least stalk-snap, likely due to their smaller blossoms. Lodging was also the least in the 4421, due to their short height. The lodging was the worse in the 6946 and the Kodiak varieties, which were the tallest. Lodging was significantly worse in the wet sections of the field (by springs). The extra water caused the sunflowers to grow taller in these sections. Plant height was directly correlated to lodging.
We did purchase a small grain dryer with the capital funds allotted. We used it to dry the Colonel variety to 15% moisture content.


Activities / Results / Conditions

A third section of this grant looked at various ways to de-hull sunflowers. This first section looks at small-scale methods. Ben found Internet references that reported that an old-fashioned corn meal grinder would remove the hulls from sunflowers. We found such a grinder at a flea market. We set it up and ran sunflower through it. We found that it ground 25% of the seeds, de-hulled 40% of the seeds, and did nothing to the other 35% of the seeds. The large seeds were ground, the small seeds passed through untouched, and the medium sized seeds were de-hulled. If the seeds were sorted by size ahead of time, the corn meal grinder could be adjusted to hull each size of seed. Then, the project would be separating the hulls from the kernels. We tried using air to blow the hulls out of the kernels, but the hulls and kernels are about equal weight and this did not work.

The best information we found on de-hulling sunflowers on a small scale is an article by Jeff Cox written in 1979 and published in Organic Gardening, by Rodale Press. The article is titled "The Sunflower Seed Huller and Oil Press." It may be viewed on the website . This article looks at several old-fashioned grain grinders, and goes into how to separate the hulls from the kernels. Cox also determined that sunflowers needed to be sized before hulling. His article reviews ways to size sunflowers, compares different types of grinders for de-hulling, and then looks at various methods to winnow the hulls out of the kernels. This is a good article and we saw no reason to re-visit this task.

We also looked into using a large-scale Roskamp Oat Huller to de-hull sunflowers. We discovered that the Roskamp Oat Huller would successfully de-hull sunflowers with no modifications to the machine! This was a pleasant surprise. Only minor settings needed to be tweaked. This is a large and expensive piece of equipment, and thus this is not a practical solution for the small-scale producer. For the medium scale producer, this would be a good option as there are some available on the used market. For the large producer, there are several new (and very expensive) machines on the market dedicated solely to de-hulling sunflowers.


This project did not change our average farm expenses or net farm income. We were hoping that sunflowers would provide a good rotation crop, and that its seeds could be used to provide methionine for poultry feeds. Since the crop was a failure, and using un-pressed sunflowers as a feed was a failure, no net gain was achieved. The feed trial itself was a success, as it showed us that there are ingredients out there that will successfully replace synthetic methionine in poultry diets. This will be economically useful to organic poultry flocks throughout the region.


We will not be planting sunflowers again in the near future. They are too dependent on bees for successful pollination. We would have to hire hives to pollinate our crops. Additionally, they are too borderline of a crop (as to whether they will grow and do well in Maine) to depend on for income. The improvement of egg quality via the use of fishmeal was an incredibly valuable piece of information. Fish meal can both provide the methionine and dramatically improve egg quality. We will definitely be using fishmeal when synthetic methionine is no longer available for organic use.

Due to being short on time, we altered our outreach plan from the initial proposal. We could not attend the annual Maine State Agricultural Trade Shows to discuss our findings because the trade show was in January and we only finished this project in March. Here is what we did:

We distributed summaries of this final report to numerous poultry farmers in the state. We concentrated on those with an interest in organic. Paper copies were mailed to 115 customers of Northern-Most Feeds, LLC. Electronic copies were emailed to roughly 300 farmers in the state. We submitted a copy to the Maine Alternative Poultry Association. They will print it in either their April or May newsletter. A copy of this final report was sent to Diane Schivera, of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. She will forward the findings to the NOP (National Organic Program) review committee that is reviewing methionine use in organic poultry feeds. A copy of the summary sheet is attached to this report in Appendix D. As per the original proposal, we did host a farm tour. While the tour technically was before the feed trial, we did discuss the upcoming trial and we discussed the results of the sunflower project.


The purpose of this project was to assess the merits of sunflowers as an organic methionine source for poultry feeds. This three-part project included a variety trial, a feed trial, and an analysis of sunflower de-hulling methods. In the variety trial, the crop was a failure due to lack of pollination and uncooperative weather. Before the feed trial started, we mathematically decided that whole sunflowers could not economically be used as the sole methionine source. We altered the feed trial to compare the use of fishmeal, crab meal, and sunflower meal as methionine sources. No significant differences in chicken production and health were found among the methionine sources. An anecdotal improvement in egg quality was noted in all diets containing fishmeal. We had limited success de-hulling sunflowers. Literature citations and methods tried are included.

Catherine Albert
April 20, 2007


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.