Growing and pressing sunflowers for organic livestock protein supplements

Final Report for FNE08-643

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2008: $9,273.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
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Project Information

Final Report

Note to readers, attached is the complete final report for FNE08-643

Goals : The goal of this project was to further our knowledge about growing sunflowers, extruding the oil (as a niche marketed product for human consumption or use) and producing a high protein meal for livestock.

We are organic dairy farmers who are continually trying to find protein and energy concentrates to feed our cows and heifers. The high cost of purchased feeds has been identified as the largest single expense (up to 40% of gross income) on organic dairy farms and a major obstacle to profitability. In 2007, concentrate prices were 200-300% of conventional grain prices and increased over 50% from prices in 2006. Unfortunately, the price we receive for organic milk has not increased substantially since early 2006.

Many organic dairy farms in Maine and the Northeast have investigated growing small grains as energy supplements for their cattle. Several of these farms are also looking to expand their income base with value added products such as wheat for the artisan baking industry. SARE grants to researchers in Maine and Vermont (Kersbergen, Darby and Griffin LNE06-240 Expanding grain production and use on organic dairy farms in Maine and Vermont) are providing good cultural information and yield data.

Protein supplements for organic rations are more difficult to source and grow. We have investigated soybeans as a crop, but have had problems with weed control, harvest (too many beans near the ground after row cultivation) and also extrusion and/or roasting necessary for feeding to our cattle.

Heather Darby has started research on growing sunflowers as an oil and protein crop for dairy farms. We worked with Rick Kersbergen this past year to grow and harvest a two acre plot of organic sunflowers at the research farm in Orono and a small plot at Bullridge farm. While we did learn a lot from our mistakes, we still need to do some more trials to be able to include sunflowers as a possible crop in our rotations. We also purchased an oil press this past year to experiment with extrusion.

This project looks to further our knowledge about growing sunflowers, extruding the oil (as a niche marketed product for human consumption) and production of a high protein meal for our livestock. The diversification into the sunflower oil market would potentially help improve profitability during more difficult years in the organic dairy business.

3. Farm Profiles : This project will involve two organic dairy farms. Clovercrest farm has a herd of 60 Jersey dairy cattle in Charleston, Maine. Henry Perkins, who will be a partner in this project, runs an organic dairy farm (Bullridge Farm) in Albion Maine. We are also the Executive Director (Mia) and President (Henry) of the Maine Organic Milk Producers (MOMP). Henry Perkins is President of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA). Both of our farms ship milk to Horizon Organic. We have been active participants in many research projects, including two integrated organic projects with the University of Maine and Universities of Vermont and New Hampshire. We have also received previous SARE grants investigating small grain production (Winter Barley and Spelt).

As party of our MOMP initiatives we have began a cooperative that is in its infancy stage with the goal of potentially being a grain purchasing agent to try and reduce the cost of grain supplements for our membership.

Last year, we purchased a small oil press to use in our research into alternative crops. We will use this mill as a pilot project for the first few years if sunflowers become a more viable organic crop.

Both our farms have harvest and storage capabilities for grain crops. We have access to a dryer and cleaner through a community based project in our region (Unity Barn Raisers). A lot of the equipment for growing sunflowers is already on our farms (corn planter, sweep cultivators and combines).

4. Rick Kersbergen, Extension Educator from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension was the main technical advisor in this project. We have worked with Rick on many projects and he is familiar with both farms. Rick also replicated the trials on the Rogers Farm organic research plots.

5. Sunflower was planted at 3 locations: Clovercrest Farm, Bullridge Farm and at the University of Maine’s Roger’s Farm. The variety Defender was used as it was the only organic variety that could be found. 3 different seeding rates were attempted (20,000, 30,000 and 40,000 plants per acre) as well as 2 different planting dates, early and mid May at all 3 locations. There were 3 treatments in each block, Two blocks (planting date) with 3 replications of each treatment. While we attempted to calibrate seeders as best we could, we used John Deere corn planters on 30 inch rows and had a difficult time as seed size was extremely variable. Plant counts at harvest revealed that we had populations of 17,946, 21100 and 43,669 plants per acre for the low, medium and high seeding rates at the Rogers farm and 17,366, 28401 and 36997 plants per acre for the low , medium and high treatments at Bullridge farm in Albion. Plant stands were erratic at Clovercrest farms and populations were not measured. Planting dates for Bullridge farm were May 12th and May 28th. The Rogers Farm site was planted on May 9th and May 27thth, while Clovercrest farm was planted May 15th and May 30th. The Rogers farm field and the Bullridge farm fields received solid cow manure (about 10 tons/acre) prior to planting while the Clovercrest field did not receive any fertility treatment. All fields had pH ranges form 6.0-6.2. The prior crop at Rogers farm was organic vegetables, while the Bullridge farm and Clovercrest farm has corn as the prior crop.

6. Sunflower Data Results There were no interactions among the treatments of location, seeding rate, and seeding date. Results are presented for each factor.

Yields of sunflowers, lbs per acre

Rogers Farm

Populations Early planted Late planted
Low 2436 2546
Medium 2554 2473
High 2316 2628

Bullridge Farm

Populations Early planted Late planted
Low 1987 2776
Medium 3301 2922
High 1604 2462

Clovercrest Farm

Populations Early planted Late planted
Low 1165 1110
Medium 1102 1423
High 1182 1635

Seeding Rate: Seeding rate did not have a significant effect on wet weight yields, at either planting date or at any of the three locations. Mean yields in lbs/acre were 2066, 2364, and 2047 for low, medium and high seeding rates respectively, averaged over planting date and location. Lack of significant differences in plant populations between high and medium seeding rates at Bullridge farm and between medium and low at Rogers may contribute to lack of significant effects on yield.

Level Least Sq Mean
Rogers,high A 43668.764
Perkins,high A B 36996.960
Perkins,medium B C 28401.120
Rogers,medium C D 21100.225
Rogers,low D 17946.067
Perkins,low D 17365.920

Seeding rate also had no significant effect on weed biomass, as measured in late July. Mean weed biomass in g/m2 was 90.9, 60.0, and 72.6 at low, medium, and high sunflower seeding rates, respectively.
Planting Date: Planting date did not have a significant effect on sunflower yield or weed biomass, averaged over location and seeding rate. Early planting had a mean yield of 2028 lbs/acre while late seeding had a yield of 2290 lbs/acre. There was also no significant effect on weed biomass. It is important to notice that planting date did impact the dry matter of the sunflowers at harvest. At Bullridge farm, the early planted sunflowers were at 9.7% dry matter as compared to 13.6 % dry matter for the late planted treatments. (see attached analysis) Harvest for Bullridge farm and Rogers farm was in late September while we had to wait until November 13th for the sunflower heads to dry sufficiently for harvest at Clovercrest farm.
Location: Location was responsible for the only significant treatment effects. Sunflower yields (lbs/acre) were significantly higher at Rogers and Bullridge farm (2513 and 2492, respectively) than those at Clovercrest (1472). There were also significant differences in weed biomass between location, with higher weed biomass at Bullridge (95.8 g/m2) then at Rogers (53.2 g/m2). However, sampling was performed two weeks apart.
Oil Yield: On average, oil yield from the sunflowers averaged about 62 gallons per acre. Variations in dry matter of the seed, experience with the press and temperature of the seed as it enters the press all influenced oil yield. Extraction measurements ranged from 88-132 pounds of seed yielding 2.6-4.2 gallons of oil.
Protein Meal: An analysis of the meal is attached. Analysis varies, but averaged about 23-25% crude protein. Bullridge farm has been feeding the meal along with soybean meal that was alo extruded at the farm to dairy cows in his organic herd. Bullridge farm has also recived numerous requests for purchasing sunflower meal from local organic poultry farms who are looking to find feeds high in Lysine and Methionine, two limiting amino acids in organic poultry rations.
7. The yields at Clovercrest were disappointing and made for questionable harvesting economics. The yields at Bullridge and Rogers were higher. The seed was collected from all 3 sites and pressed at Bullridge Farm (and continues to be). The oil is being used raw in skidsteers as well as being sold for up to $10/gallon to local markets for use as a food grade sunflower oil. We are still working on pressing, cleaning, and marketing the oil. We believe there is potential but have not had the time to fully explore this arena.
We will definitely continue researching and exploring marketing potentials. Sunflower production also needs some work – planting dates and seeding rates need to be explored for a few years before any definite conclusions can be drawn. Both Bullridge and Clovercrest Farms plan to try and grow sunflowers again this year. Pressing and refining also needs more exploration. This project was a pilot study to garner the initial understanding necessary to determine whether or not further investigation was worth the money and risk. We have determined that further production and education is worth it.

8. An article will be written for the Northeast Organic Dairy Alliance newsletter as well as discussion at the next MOMP/Extension Forage Conference, with a farmer panel and power point presentation. There will also be a presentation at the Maine Organic Milk Producers annual meeting. An article is attached that was published after an organic grain conference at Unity Maine (Spring Growth), on March 15th , 2009. Rick Kersbergen has also presented the results of this trial at the Northeast regional training for Agricultural Service Providers in Portsmouth NH in January of 2009.

9. This project was designed as a pilot study to investigate the efficacy of growing sunflowers on organic dairy and resulting meal. We hoped to further our knowledge about production, extrusion, the high protein meal, and potential interaction with the human oil or fuel market. Seeding rates and planting dates seemed to have less effect than weed seed and location. Extrusion and refining were crude and further exploration is necessary to examine profitability. Marketing seems hopeful but also needs more networking and time to develop relationships.


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  • Rick Kersbergen


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.