At Home in Nature

  (Agate, Colorado)
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Sunflowers as animal feed

Sunflowers make excellent animal feed, requiring no irrigation and providing both grain and forage. 

According to Dairy Specialist Alvaro Garcia of the South Dakota State University Extension ( , “Sunflower silage contains slightly more crude protein (12.5%) and considerably more fat (7.1 to 10.7% depending on the variety) and calcium than corn silage on a dry matter basis.  On the negative side, sunflower silage contains 1.5 to 2 times more fiber and up to 3 times as much lignin (indigestible) compared to corn silage. Due to this lower energy content it is important to feed sunflower silage to lower producing dairy cows, dry cows, or growing heifers.  Milk production decreased by 8% in dairy cows fed sunflower silage in substitution for corn silage, according to research conducted at SDSU, but milk fat was 12% higher.  At the University of Wisconsin, for cows producing 60 pounds milk, the substitution of corn silage with up to 66% sunflower silage did not affect milk and protein yields.”

When seeds are also fed to the animals, there is a superior food than corn. 

But, if the seeds are to be retained for human consumption, sunflowers still make excellent food for meat producing animals, or for those animals which need to be sustained through the winter and will be encouraged towards better dairy production in the spring with higher quality hay. 

Oregon State University ( ), though, believes that corn and sunflower silage is equivalent, but warns that “crude protein content of plants also decreases as plants mature. If sunflowers are ensiled at early maturity the resulting silage has been found to have a crude protein content of about 10 percent, which is about equal to that of good corn silage.”

Grazing on sunflower fields is definitely an option for ranchers.  If they have a farmer friend willing to let the animals tromp and stomp on their field.  Or planted their own.  The sunflower head contains the most feed value, followed by the top, middle, and bottom thirds of the stalk. If residue cannot be collected behind the combine, grazing will afford some use, although the time before snow cover is usually limited. Sunflower seeds are high in energy (due to the high oil content) and a good source of protein. Consequently, downed heads in the field are a highly nutritious residue.

When water is a constraining issue, and in Colorado it always has been – even after Colorado’s Governor Eaton invented modern irrigation – sunflowers present a nutritious crop for both human and animal alike, able to produce easily 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of seeds per acre, and about 2 to 5 tons of hay per acre – more than alfalfa!  And, with nutritional values just under that of alfalfa, sunflower is not a significantly inferior feed.

While some farmers reach for millet when planning a low-water year, remember that sunflower is less drought sensitive than millet because of its long taproot.  And, sunflowers improve your soil better because of that same taproot! 

Sunflowers may be companion planted with grass for a double harvest of grass hay and sunflower hay, with the bonus of harvesting sunflower heads for animal feed as well.  Beans, pumpkins and other crops may be hilled with the sunflowers and still allow grass harvests.

Tillage is always good, and would increase the yield more than the loss of grass is worth.  However, some farmers either lack the ability to till large areas, or require a grass crop for their animals and resort to hilling.  Grass crops are required for grazing animals, who might be injured by dirt patches and the resulting sanitation risks.

With 3-4 pounds of sunflowers required per acre, it is unlikely that this year a farmer will spend more than $160 per acre on seed using boutique seeds from breeders.  A similar cost is faced for pumpkins and beans. 

Instead of tilling in aisles, the aisles are not tilled.  The beds are raked or dethatched, and mounds constructed.  Into the mound is planted a sunflower, a pumpkin and a bean – not the three sisters of fame, but at least two sisters and a very good friend.  Between mounds, sunflowers are planted regularly at 1 or 2 feet, and only in intervals of 6-8 feet, a mound of pumpkins and beans and sunflowers is planted. 


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