Farmers searching for drought-tolerant crops this season should consider sunflowers. Missouri producers can grow sunflowers as a single crop or a double crop. Compared to double crop soybeans, sunflowers mature more quickly and are somewhat more drought tolerant.

Sunflowers, the fifth largest oilseed crop in the world, are typically marketed to the sunflower oil industry or the birdseed market.

"A feature of sunflower that gives it an advantage over other Missouri specialty crops is the in-state market," says John Gardner, associate dean of Extension at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

In Missouri, the easiest market to access is the growing birdseed market. There are several in-state buyers for birdseed with delivery points in southeast, southwest, and northeast Missouri. Processing capacity does not exist in Missouri for either the oil or confectionery markets.

"Price is determined by the Dakota acreage and the distance from major markets," said Gardner, who came to Missouri from North Dakota. "Since sunflowers are low in test weight, hauling distance is a major determinant in the net return. This provides a transportation advantage to Missouri producers selling to in-state buyers."

Kenny Tevis, Sedalia, Mo., who farms 1,200 acres in Pettis County, has grown both first and double crop sunflowers for several years. Tevis usually plants between 130 and 150 acres of sunflowers. "Sales to the birdseed market have helped diversify my farming operation," said Tevis. "Sunflowers have provided diversity because they break up soybean rotation, and have performed exceptionally well in dry years."

Sunflowers are suited for double-crop in Missouri because of their relatively short growing season--generally 90 to 100 days from planting to maturity. Most Missouri farmers can safely plant into the third week of July; however, north Missouri farmers should finish by the second week of July, said Rob Myers, executive director of the Jefferson Institute in Columbia

"Sunflowers can be planted using existing equipment, and can be combined with a platform header or a soybean row crop head," Myers said. Producers considering sunflower production should be conscious of nitrogen levels to maximize yield and oil potential, Myers said. Nitrogen needs depend on various factors, but around 80 to 100 pounds per acre following corn, and 50 to 60 pounds per acre following soybeans should be adequate. Crop insurance is currently unavailable for sunflowers in Missouri, however, other risk management tools exist. Sunflowers are eligible for nonrecourse marketing assistance loans and loan deficiency payments, similar to other crops, such as corn and soybeans.

The Jefferson Institute, funded primarily by the USDA, helps farmers interested in crop alternatives. It works jointly with the MU agricultural scientists to research alternative crop options for Missouri producers. For more information about sunflower production and marketing, including varieties and seed suppliers, contact Rob Myers at 573-449-3518.

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