SUNFLOWERS are defying the handicap of a domestic market devoid of a large-scale crusher to attract renewed interest from growers looking for a summer-cropping option with agronomic benefits.
While domestic sunflower demand is currently confined to use for birdseed, horse feed and specialist human-consumption markets, signs are afoot that monounsaturated sunflower oil will again be produced in volume in eastern Australia in the next two years.
Industry sources say price and supply-chain shocks delivered by first COVID, then the drought-reduced Canadian canola crop, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine war have sparked an interest from Australia’s sunflower-oil users and wholesalers in switching into a domestic supply.
Australia’s sunseed-crushing capacity has fallen from more than 100,000 tonnes to almost nothing since 1990, but the big seed looks like it is on the comeback trail as growers, agronomists and potentially crushers show it more love than it has so far seen this century.
In its July Crop Report, the Australian Oilseeds Federation (AOF) said a strong interest in growing sunflowers is being seen as the Ukraine conflict continues.
“Seed-production companies (Barenbrug and S&W) have advised that all seed has now been all sold/contracted for the coming season, with hybrid seed production being increased for subsequent seasons,” the AOF report said.
“However, crushing capacity for non-canola is limited and AOF is working with the relevant crushers to ensure crushing capacity is available ahead of growers commencing seeding.”
Southern interest high
The delivered up-country site price for sunflower seed is roughly $950 per tonne, and production is centred in Central Queensland, southern Queensland’s Darling Downs and the Liverpool Plains of north-west NSW.
Yields vary from 1.5t-3.5t/ha to average around 2t/ha, and while growers in these key summer-cropping regions are mostly revisiting sunflower production, a number of growers in south-west NSW are keen to try them for the first time.
In response to this wave of interest, the Australian Sunflower Association, a sub-committee of the AOF, is hosting two one-day courses for growers, agronomists and advisors, one at Coleambally on August 23, and one at Griffith on August 24.
Following the 2017-19 drought and strengthened oilseed prices, regional consultancy Summit Ag has noticed a surge in interest in sunflowers, and has been involved in setting up the events.
Summit Ag co-principal Emma Ayliffe said sunflowers were attracting some serious interest as a double-cropping option as a partner for durum grown over winter.
“They’ve got a beautiful fit in our irrigation system,” Ms Ayliffe said.
“Due to the later planting window, they fit in really well with durum.
“The biggest challenge is going to be around marketing; the main player that was buying it has confirmed they won’t be accumulating for next year.”
That buyer was Riverina Oils & Bio Energy (ROBE) near Wagga Wagga, which last month did a trial crush of sunflowers as an aside to its canola operation.
“The decision has been made to not proceed with a crush in 2023,” ROBE acting commodity manager Alex Littlejohn said.
“We’re highly committed on canola; we are a canola facility.”
As domestic demand for canola oil and meal and the export call for oil remain buoyant, you can understand why, especially with another bumper crop shaping up nationally.
ROBE is one of Australia’s four biggest oilseed crushers, and the other three – Cargill, GrainCorp and MSM Milling – also have no room for sunflowers in their crushing regime.
However, interest from at least one smaller crusher, Cootamundra Oilseeds affiliate Energreen Nutrition, is high.
Energreen is expected to later this year start building a plant to crush cottonseed and sunflowers at Yamala near Emerald in Central Queensland.
It is one of several smaller companies said to be interested in crushing sunflowers for oil in NSW.
Broad program for 1-day courses
The Coleambally and Griffith courses will include presentations from four visitors from southern Queensland: independent plant pathologist Sue Thompson; Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries entomologist Hugh Brier; Barenbrug Australia northern breeding manager Chris Haire, and Pulse Australia’s northern agronomist Paul McIntosh.
NSW Department of Primary Industries’ Tamworth-based summer grains research agronomist Loretta Serafin will also be presenting, and growers, agronomists and advisors will get the chance to hear about gross margins and rotational benefits of sunflowers.
Summit Ag co-principal Heath McWhirter said with a growing season of 90-100 days, sunflowers’ speed and reduced water use when compared with cotton and rice added to their appeal.
He said indications were the Murray and Murrumbidgee valleys combined could grow around 10,000 tonnes of sunflower seed per annum.
“Sunnies have a big taproot, and you can harvest them and go straight back into wheat,” Mr McWhirter said.
They provide a disease break from crown rot, always on the radar for durum, and root-lesion nematodes.
Barenbrug’s release last year of its first IMI-tolerant variety has further enhanced agronomic appeal for in-crop control of broadleaf and grass weeds.
Production rebuilds from low base
ABARES data indicates Australian sunflower production has fluctuated wildly in recent years, with the biggest crop of the past 30 years being 218,000t from 193,000ha produced over the summer of 1998-99.
The smallest was the drought-depleted 9200t from 11,000ha in 2018-19, and last summer 29,800t from 19,400ha was grown.
This is forecast to rise in the coming season to 37,000t from 25,100ha, but is still a long way behind the crops mostly in excess of 50,000t produced up to 2008-09.
Australian sunflowers are largely used in equine and bird mixes, and for specialist human-consumption markets.
Industry estimates say Australia imports around 60,000t of sunflower oil per annum, with polyunsaturated oil going into margarine, and monounsaturated oil being used by makers of high-end potato chips and some other snack foods, as well as cafes, restaurants and households.
“Australia has become reliant on imported oil, and that became an issue with price and freight,” Mr Haire said.
“End users don’t want to change away from sunflower oil if that’s what works for them, and it’s given them a fright not being able to source what they want at a price and time they want.“
“That has met with an increasing demand from growers for rotational options, for something they can plant as a summer crop that’s not a grass.”
“It would be great to have someone crushing them in NSW.”
Australia now crushes around 1 million tonnes of canola per annum, nearly all of it in NSW and Victoria, up from zero in 1990 to reflect canola’s arrival as the main winter crop grown in rotation with cereals across southern Australia.
Behind canola, cottonseed has the second-biggest crush of any oilseed in Australia.
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