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Global Farmers Consider Oilseed Alternatives to Soybeans

Safflower is gaining attention as an oilseed choice.

Low commodity prices are an issue that farmers will always have to face from time to time. On the other hand, there are alternatives that some farmers may consider for the purpose of rotation and to diversify risk.

The current season is definitely not the best for a lot of farmers in the Midwest, especially if you grow either wheat or corn. For Kansas analyst Mike Zuzolo, director at Global Commodity Analytics & Consulting, there has never been so much interest in replacing crops.

“I’ve never seen so many customers interested in alternatives as they are today. They want to learn about different oilseeds, especially for the winter,” said Zuzolo in a conversation with Agriculture.com.

There is not a national study indication which is the best crop to grow for each region. A good strategy could be to grow an oilseed that has same purposes of soybeans, so the price could be similar. But most experts do not have a clear recommendation because of the number of factors involved: usual climate, a climate for the specific season, geography (a nearby processing establishment), soils, costs, etc.

“I can say that many crops have been touted as the next best thing to grow and then, invariably, fail to reach their expected potential. Though we do have cases like canola in Canada that have become a great success as an alternative to traditional crops,” assesses Bill George, an analyst in Oilseeds Markets and Trade at the USDA.

The Marketing Talk participant with a handle of hwr247 likes planting canola on his farm in northeastern North Dakota, but says the costs to grow it range from $500 to $700 per 50-pound bag with average yields of 50 pounds per acre. “Canola is a cool-season broadleaf crop well suited for northern North Dakota, Minnesota, and Canada, where summer temps seldom hit 100°F. In fact, it only hit 90°F. twice this summer. Canola also requires very good fertilization of N, P, and lots of sulfer! It is susceptible to sclerotinia and a seedling disease called blackleg,” says hwr247.

In the case of the sunflower, there was a reduction of acres in the 1980s with the popularity of soybeans, but the crop rebounded again in the 1990s with marketing support programs from the U.S. government. This year, the sunflower surface in the U.S. dropped 30%. Some participants of Marketing Talk weigh in on the difficulties in growing the oilseed.

For elcheapo, some issues with sunflower are the price of seed, logistics, and insects. “It had a dramatic rise in the last couple of years. Last time it was around the $300 a bag. I would say the biggest challenge would be if there is processing available,” elcheapo comments.

User sw363535 says that the margin is low, underscores the importance of logistics, but is concerned about the lack of herbicides. “Few herbicides work well, so weeds are a problem... since sunflowers are a broadleaf weed, relatively. […] Freight to processing can be 250 miles. Not impressive for Brazil but sizeable on a crop with limited profit,” he affirmes. Yet, he also highlights that it could be a good option for some Southern states. “They are occasionally used as a second crop in the southern U.S. since they have a very short growing season and can provide some extra income and beat frost dates... Questionably worth the investment,” he analyzes.

One of the key decisions in growing any oilseed has to do with its ability to compete with soybeans and its use as a cooking oil, feed meal, or fuel. In the opinion of Francisco Morelli, former commercial grain and by-products export director at Cargill for Argentina, the only other major oilseed is palm oil, which is ideal for tropical climates.

The assessment of Morelli is that the soybean makes the most efficient crop for vegetable proteins, palm oil for oils, and corn for energies. He considers the oilseeds markets in general very important because the demand has grown by 5% annually from 2002 and 2014 and will grow “erratically” by 3% in the coming years.

“The focus of the research and development for crops will be on the ones that are already very efficient. The safflower, for instance. I see it with the same potential of sunflower as a healthy oil, but its liquids are hard to be used by the industry,” analyzes Francisco Morelli in an interview with Agriculture.com.

The view about the safflower is shared by John Gyulai, president of San Francisco-based Oilseeds International: “Geographically, the safflower is limited to dry areas like California. The same happens in Argentina. And I don’t see much research going on to boost it,” Gyulai explains for Agriculture.com.

But some initiatives go in the opposite direction of those assumptions. An Argentinian biotechnology company developed a safflower seed that allows cheese production from the chymosin, looking into a market of chymosin of 1.1 billion liters just considering Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

In Brazil, the Agronomic Institute of Paraná (Iapar), the second-largest soybean producing state in the country, has had several experiences importing safflower seeds from California-based SeedTec. Contrary to traditional thought, the crop was used in the winter in the state and had better yields in areas with more moisture (in the western and southwestern parts), like Ponta Grossa and regions close to Cascavel. The average yields in the field were close to 2.6K pounds per acre.

“The huge advantage of the safflower is that you don’t have much spending, there are not plagues. It is very low cost. But the big challenge remains on the part of cooperatives and industries. They need to receive the safflower in the same places that they receive soybeans,” researcher Pedro Mário de Araújo tells Agriculture.com.

In the U.S., after California, there is a large growth and use of safflower for grazing in states like Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Montana, or even Nebraska. There is a growing use of the safflower for feed meal. Recognized sheep rancher in Montana, the Hollenbeck Farms, is using the crop to feed their animals.

“Since we are starting to grow the Baldy spineless variety, we are seeing a significant increase in safflower being utilized in grazing mixes because of increased palatability due to the lack of spines on the plant. The plant, the flowers, and the seed heads are all highly palatable and nutritious for cattle. The deep taproot of the safflower plant makes it a valuable tool in building up soils and breaking up compaction layers, but the spineless type is also a good grazing plant,” says Keith Berns, owner of the Green Cover Seed business.

Perhaps the most important authority on research into the safflower in the U.S. is Stephen Kaffka, an Extension agronomist at the University of California at Davis. He reminds that the business with the oilseed came with the end of World War II and exports to Japan. Initially, a growth program started in Nebraska, but then moved to California.

“The crop is very suitable for California. It does not need any water. It gets moisture from the soil from the rain drops of the winter. It is harvested in August without any irrigation,” explains Kaffka.

The impediments to more growth of the flower in nondry regions is the appearance of some diseases. “Anywhere east of the Mississipi, you will have problems with red rot. But it’s definitely good for a very dry year,” said.

Kaffka believes there is huge potential for the safflower if more research is applied, though there was not any breakthrough yet that boosts the yields that can range around 2,000-3,000 pounds per acre. Most of the investigations were related to bird seeds. The key, for him, is an adaptation of the industry.

“Perhaps a good solution for the safflower is blending. It is very similar to olive oil, but without the taste. It could be either sunflower with safflower or safflower with olive,” suggests the California researcher.

According to Kafka, the average cost to grow the safflower ranges from $300 to $500 per acre with more costs for tillage, nitrogen, and postharvest. In the Golden Coast, it is usually grown in areas with tomatoes and sunflower. It can also rotate with cotton, dry beans, sugar beets, or short-lived perennials.

Fritz Durst farms in two properties, one is 20 miles north of Sacramento and another is 35 miles northwest of the California capital. He grows barley, rice, and decided to no longer grow safflower after over 30 years because the price dropped below $300 per ton. Alongside, the combined costs of labor, machinery, and nitrogen have substantially grown. Durst used to grow 500 acres with the oilseed and intends to grow it again as soon as possible.

“In a rotation process, it is very good for the cereals and benefits the grass. But I believe the market will recover soon. Before, the export market was stronger with Japan buying a lot, but now there is more soybean oil going. It is always a good crop to have here,” explains Durst.

Arthus Weisker, researcher director at SeedTec, concludes that the safflower is an interesting niche market and it is good for rotational purposes, but it generates more costs with the use of foliar fertilizers.

The safflower surface harvested in the U.S. dropped from 170,200 acres in 2014 to 154,400 acres in 2016, according to the USDA. The volume, on the other hand, has jumped from 208,643,000 pounds to 220,090,000 pounds in that period with boosted yields. California has more than half of the overall production with 135,330,000 pounds.

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