November 19, 2014 at 8:00 am

How Do You Harvest a Sunflower?

straight from the farmers mouth

Straight From the Farmer’s Mouth shares stories about farming as told by farmers. Plucked from the countless blogs tirelessly kept by the people who grow and make our food, this series shows food from the other side of the table.

How Do You Harvest Sunflowers

Without a doubt, our favorite crop on the farm is sunflowers. Everyone loves their bright sunny petals and big almost smiley heads. And certainly, sunflowers are something that has sort of been branded into our lives, my husband is even known as the @Sunflowerfarmer. But we don’t grow sunflowers on our farm simply for their beauty, we grow sunflowers because they work perfectly in our crop rotation.

On our farm we grow four different crops. And we grow these crops because we have the opportunity to do so. Planting a variety of crops for our operation lowers our risk. What I mean by that is that in our area we can have a great short season and a bad long season or vice versa. In turn, we utilize a variety of short season AND long season crops. Our climate and seasons simply aren’t set up for a full season crop such as corn all the time.

We plant sunflowers on the farm because it is a good warm season broadleaf that utilizes the leftover nitrogen in the soil from the previous corn crop. The flowers are planted in between the previous year’s corn rows. We are fortunate in our area to be able to plant sunflowers as many places around us are too wet or have a problem with black birds.

But even outside of all of this, the number one question we get asked about sunflowers is how do you harvest them?

So how do you harvest sunflowers?

It is hard to believe that our sunflowers go from looking like this in August:

Sunflowers & Crops-22

To this by late October:

Sunflower Harvest 2014-1

We harvest sunflowers with a combine (harvester) that has a specialty sunflower header attached to it. This header we have retrofitted with modified lifters that attach onto the snouts. This helps pick up any sunflowers that may have fallen down as well as help guide them into the header, as you can see in the photo below it works well. You can also use a pan header or all crop header to harvest flowers. We harvest sunflowers after they have physiologically mature and begin to dry out. Sunflowers are physiologically mature when the back of the flower head is yellow and are ready to harvest when the head turns brown. Ideal seed moisture for harvest is around 10% or less.

Sunflower Harvest 2014-11The sunflowers we grow are an oil-based crop and fine fibers (dust) from sunflower seeds pose a constant fire hazard during harvest. Fires during sunflower harvest can be extremely common, especially during dry years with low humidity. During harvest, we have to take steps to ensure that the combine is free of dust by blowing it off daily (sometimes more than 1x a day) as well as keeping a water tank in the field in case of a fire. SDSU has actually researched and developed a cover for certain parts of the combine to help deter harvest fires from starting.


So what are the seeds you grow used for?

The seeds we grow can go to two different uses that depends on the year and market. First, the seeds can go towards birdseed or they can be crushed for oil. In both instances, we contract transportation for our seeds so they are picked up from our farm and usually travel east towards Fargo. If our sunflower seeds are for oil, they will end up at ADM in Enderlin outside Fargo to be crushed.

Sunflower Harvest 2014-10We grow NuSun varieties on our farm. NuSun is a specific type of oil known as a mid-oleic oil. NuSun oil is most notably used in Frito-Lay’s Sun Chips. NuSun oil is lower in saturated fat than other sunflower oils and it doesn’t need hydrogenation which eliminates trans fat. Besides NuSun oil, there are two other types of sunflower oil available: linoleic and high oleic. All sunflower oils are touted for their light taste, frying performance, and health benefits compared to other oils.

Screen Shot 2014-11-07 at 10.54.37 AMSunflower oil can be found in a variety of products from food to beauty products. In the food industry, often times sunflower oil is used as a frying oil. In cosmetic applications, sunflower oil is used as an emollient or moisturizer. One of my favorite lip balms, Burts Bees, contains sunflower oil.

To see out our combine in action harvest sunflowers, check out the video below!


For more information on sunflower farming, you can visit the Sunflower Q&A Part 1 and Part 2 over on my blog Prairie Californian.
Originally published on Ask The Farmers.
-Jenny Rohrich