Demand buoys alternative oilseed potential
The oil-producing seeds of crops like sunflower, canola and camelina not only produce oil for human consumption, but can be used for producing biofuels and byproducts for livestock.
In areas like the Panhandle of Nebraska, the crops provide an alternative crop in wheat rotations, helping diversify production, says Bill Booker, University of Nebraska (UNL) Extension educator in Box Butte County, Nebraska, in a university report.
"That's what got us through these tough times," Booker says. "These crops can help us continue to do that. Remaining diversified improves sustainability for the farming economy."
In addition, a crusher plant to process the seeds would bring economic development in rural communities, says Loren Isom, technical coordinator for UNL's Industrial Agricultural Products Center.
"If enough producers collaborate, they could develop a local crushing market for several communities across Nebraska," he says.
Sunflowers are a common alternative crop in Nebraska, Booker says. Canola and camelina are not as common and are being researched now at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff for adoption to Nebraska's climate. Sunflower and canola produce two to two-and-a-half times more oil per acre than soybeans. Regular soybean oil is 85% of the vegetable oil market. However, to make soybean oil a stable cooking oil, it must go through a process called hydrogenation. This creates transfats which raise bad cholesterol, or LDL, and lower the good, or HDL.
NuSun, or mid-oleic sunflower oil, and low-linolenic soybean oil are naturally stable and can be used extensively without being hydrogenated. In addition, NuSun sunflower oil has a longer shelf life. Frito Lay eliminated its transfats and drastically lowered saturated fats using NuSun sunflower oil.
"That is why there is such a huge demand right now for sunflower oil," Booker says. "Its difficult to find sunflower oil as a cooking oil in the stores right now."
This demand also has raised sunflower prices, making it an even more viable alternative crop option.
"Sunflowers have been grown for a long time in Kansas and South Dakota, so there is no reason why we shouldn't be able to grow these crops in Nebraska," Booker says. He adds, with better production knowledge, sunflowers are now easier to raise.
"Hybrids are so advanced," he says. "The hybrid selections withstand rust and diseases so much better now."
When it comes to production costs, most producers already have the equipment to plant these crops. They can be grown with traditional planting and harvest equipment. However, Booker and Isom agree the state does face some limiting factors when it comes to oilseed production, mainly processing and transportation. Also, producers typically do not understand the revenue potential of oilseed crops and stick with traditional corn/soybean rotations.
Potential yields of irrigated sunflowers could reach 3,000 to even 4,000 pounds per acre. At current and new-crop prices of 20 plus cents per pound, the return is high, Booker says. They also use less water than corn.