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Sunflowers Fitting the Bill for Growers

For Manitoba’s Ian Pritchard, changes in both climate and markets are making this crop an eye-catcher for farmers.

Ian Pritchard MB Distributor
Ian Prichard, Pritchard Brothers Ltd
Treherne, MB

As a seed seller, Manitoba’s Ian Pritchard says he wants his customers to feel secure in their purchasing decisions. Anything he can do to guide them into growing crops that are right for their farm helps ensure their success as growers during a challenging time when climate and market changes are top-of-mind for many.

It just so happens that sunflower is a good fit and has become a powerful tool in helping his customers make money and grow a crop that can be reliable year after year.

“The past two years have been dry. 2020 started out with excess moisture actually, but the growing season was dry, and harvest was dry. 2021 was exceptionally dry with drought conditions, but in both cases, sunflower has been excellent,” says Pritchard, based in Treherne. He’s a co-owner of Pritchard Brothers Ltd.

“Some growers are telling me that the only crop they’re not collecting crop insurance on in 2021 is sunflower. That’s a huge benefit of this crop. It can be less expensive to grow than some other crops, too. My customers are very happy with it.”

He notes that many contracts have an Act of God clause, so if disaster strikes, there’s no costly buyout.

“As much as 80% of the sunflower seed I sold was confection type at one point, and now it’s about 75% oil sunflower. The market for bird food has surged and my growers are also making good money from growing sunflower. Between that and the drought tolerance of this crop, it’s a big win.”

A reduction in sunflower acres began in southern Manitoba after 2010, when growers faced some very wet growing seasons and wet harvests. Quality issues with the confection sunflower crop meant growers were
looking for an alternative.

“Quality is king with a human consumption crop and the oil sunflower hybrids just came out on top with a number of growers, and it really took off. You had a situation where the climate was driving growers to look for an alternative, and they sure found one.”

As demand for bird food went up as a result of the pandemic, growers had even more reason to grow oil-type sunflower seed.

Pritchard’s advice for growers wanting to get into sunflower is to treat it like a specialty crop.

“Test your soil for your nutrients. Sunflowers root deep and can reach nutrients deeper in the soil than shallower-rooted crops. Weed control is big and can be an issue as sunflowers don’t compete well with weeds early on. On the oil side, we have Clearfield tolerant hybrids and Express tolerant hybrids, so we do have more weed control options than we have with confection sunflower.”

Still, his most popular confection sunflower hybrid is 6946 DMR, which is conventional with no herbicide tolerance but preferred by many processors.

“Weed control is just a good all-around practice to have on a farm, even if you do use herbicide tolerant hybrids. My number one tip for growers is to plant on a clean field regardless of the hybrid they use, as even herbicide tolerant systems aren’t perfect.”

He also recommends the use of a desiccant harvest aid for sunflower. “We just can’t depend on getting an early hard frost anymore in Manitoba. Years ago we often got a hard frost in mid-to-late September that would dry down the crop for harvest, but that hasn’t happened for quite some time.”

Looking to 2022, Nuseed is offering the new N4H161 CL high oleic hybrid. This ultra-early hybrid is the perfect hybrid for Northern climates with short growing seasons. With a shorter plant height, N4H161 CL has excellent root strength and late-season plant health. “That’s a great option for growers concerned about late planting,” he says.