Harvest losses bedevil sunflower growers

Sunflowers pose challenges during harvest as drier conditions lead to increased shatter and seed loss

Drier temperatures can help once sunflower seeds are in the bin, but are a challenge when they’re still in the fields.

“It’s getting to be more of an issue every year,” Bud Pittenger told producers during the annual Special Crops Symposium in Winnipeg.

“The sunflowers are drying down so much faster nowadays … there is a lot of header loss at the combine.”

Lower U.S. production has pushed up prices, increasing the incentive to reduce harvest losses, said Pittenger.

“One thing you can do, is to try and combine them a little on the wetter side,” said the veteran sunflower grower. “With higher moisture content you get less shatter.”

That trick helps in another way, too, said Marcel Vallotton, who farms southeast of Brandon.

“I usually do them a little wetter anyways because of the birds,” he said. “If I can, I try to get to them before the birds do.”

Devin Toews uses a regular header with pans attached to reduce losses, but it’s not always the perfect fit for his 600 acres of confection sunflowers.

“It’s an issue, whether it’s feeding problems, or losses, there are always issues when it comes to harvesting,” said the Portage la Prairie-area farmer.

“Every year is a little different, the last couple of years have been a little tougher.”

Using a regular all-crop header with pans is more affordable than the alternative — investing in a specialized sunflower header for his combine, he said.

Harvest losses can range from six to 30 per cent, said Pittenger, who works for Sheyenne Tooling & Manufacturing, which makes sunflower headers.

Investing in specialized equipment is “a balancing act” that requires each producer to look at their operation and decide what course of action is best for them.

Harvesting seeds when their moisture content is higher also has associated costs, said producers at the symposium.

After harvesting his 500 to 600 acres of confection sunflowers each year, Vallotton uses a dryer to avoid excess moisture in the bin and prevent spoilage.

No matter how dry seeds are at harvest, you still want to take care during the storage period, said Luke Remillard.

“This fall was an exceptional fall, most of the crop went in dry to overdry,” he said. “But it never hurts to take a look now and then, or pull a load or turn it. But so far so good.”

He said sunflower farmers also need to exercise caution in the spring.

“Take that cold air out of there and bring them back to a sort of normal outside temperature,” he advised.

Buyers of confection sunflowers are very particular about the presence of fungus and spoilage issues, said Remillard.

Despite the challenges of growing sunflowers, yields have been high this year, with 2012 growing conditions benefiting the crop.

“Sunflowers thrive in the dry, warm weather,” said Toews. “We’ve really done well with them in the dry years for sure. They tap down and they don’t wilt up like corn, canola or wheat. They’re green all year.”

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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