Serving the Farming Industry across East Anglia for 35 Years
Sunflowers offer UK farmers an untapped opportunity to supply a growing market this season – and avoid high input costs. ‘Golden opportunity’ to grow UK sunflowers

• Good alternative arable break crop

• Low inputs, including fertiliser and sprays

• Market is mainly for bird feed to public

Sunflowers offer UK farmers an untapped opportunity to supply a growing market this season – and avoid high input costs.

Suffolk seed merchant Grainseed reports significant interest in sunflowers due in part to Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine. Both countries are major growers of the crop but production has fallen.

In a normal year, Russia would produce about 16.5m tonnes of sunflowers, with Ukraine accounting for 10m tonnes. But conflict between the two countries has limited both production and processing capabilities.

Demand could support 40,000ha of sunflowers in the UK – but so far only 300ha are currently grown here. “With climate change and increasing temperatures, the area will undoubtedly expand,” says Grainseed seed specialist Angus Fox.

“Sunflowers can be successfully produced south of a line from the Wash to the Bristol Channel but now there are more favourable areas to the north and west which can be considered too,” explains Mr Fox.

The best-selling sunflower variety in Europe is Grainseed’s Es Bella – with more seed available for 2023. The crop typically yields about 2.3t/ha in the EU but UK growers should expect to achieve about 1.6-3t/ha.

Even at this reduced level, the crop is profitable, says Mr Fox.

Profitbility

“With climate change we can produce good yields of good quality sunflower seed for the bird seed market. Of [all the] spring crops, sunflowers are an attractive crop for UK growers in terms of profitability.”

Bella is an early maturing sunflower variety with a high oil content of 48-50%. It has performed consistently well in trials and commercially in England, with good standing ability, disease resistance and high dry matter yield.

Nicholas Watts, of Vine House Farm in Lincolnshire, is one of the UK’s longest established sunflower growers. He planted his first crop in 1988 and grows about 40ha annually for bird seed sold to the public.

Mr Watts started growing sunflower seed to help improve wild bird populations. “As a farmer, I was able to do something about it,” he says. His advice is simply to “get the crop established – there are no short cuts.”

Agronomist and farmer Brian Fletcher has a wealth of experience of growing sunflowers and oilseed rape. “It is important to get the crop off well,” he says, and doing so will pay dividends at harvest (see panel).

“There are quite a few similarities between these two crops, but it is always attention to detail in all aspects of growing – particularly in establishment – that sets the tone for a good crop,” he explains.

How to grow sunflowers

Drilling

Sunflowers grow well on potash rich clay and clay loam soils with an optimum pH of 6.5- 7.5, says Brian Fletcher. Drill into a moist seedbed from the end of April to mid-May when soil temperatures are above 7°C at a depth of 5cm.

Sunflowers are sown at 110,000-120,000 seeds/ha to achieve a  population of 100,000 plants/ha on a 35-45cm row width when established. This ensures smaller, faster drying heads  at harvest.

Crop inputs

Sunflowers have a low nitrogen requirement. Land with a high nitrogen content should be avoided. Potash levels are more important. Fertiliser if necessary is applied to the seedbed.

To prevent disease, sunflowers should not be grown more than one year in four. Seed is fungicide treated to protect from damping off and blight. Some crops need slug pellets and pigeons can be a problem until the crop has two cotyledons.

Harvest

The crop is desiccated when seed is at 30% moisture. This is when the flower rays brush off the head easily. Harvest occurs when seed moisture is 15-20% dry matter, normally mid-September to October.

The crop takes 140 days to reach maturity. Tines on the combine reel should be removed to prevent impaling the heads.

Seed can be dried on cold air-drying floors down to 15% moisture. The dryer should be monitored while seed is being dried to prevent over-heating.

Marketing

Many growers sell sunflower seed as bird feed directly to the public via farm shops. There is a ready and plentiful market with strong domestic demand. The market for crushing into oil is less developed in the UK due to the small quantity grown.