Growing and Pressing Sunflowers for Organic Livestock Protein Supplements

Bullridge Farm SARE Project

Written by Stephanie Sosinski, former UMaine Sustainable Agriculture Student

The Farm

Upon meeting Henry Perkins, the first things to notice are his sharp wit, captivating stories of trial and error, and his direct and blunt manner of answering questions. However, the longer you spend with Henry listening to his humorous anecdotes, the more questions you have as he describes his methods of unique innovation and success. Henry is an organic dairy farmer, and has been for 30+ years. Located in Albion, ME, Bullridge farm is a plot of land where Henry raises a herd of 70 cows and heifers and grows his own feed grains consisting of silage corn, soybeans, and more recently, oilseed sunflowers. Why sunflowers you might ask? As it turns out, sunflower oilseeds are not only excellent for oil extrusion but also as a rich protein supplement for livestock feed. What began as a pursuit to find an alternative to exorbitant purchased grain bills has culminated into a way for Henry to not only save money, but also make money by selling the sunflower oil by-product as a food-grade quality item.

At the time when petroleum prices were skyrocketing, Henry was originally interested in extruding the sunflower oil to use as biodiesel to fuel his farm equipment. In classic anecdotal form, Henry describes his early attempts at making biodiesel using the somewhat complex biodiesel reaction process in the confines of his kitchen. This he says, only ended in disaster, and pushed him to almost give up on the idea entirely. “I nearly blew the room up,” Henry says as he refers to his kitchen lab experiments. It was only after he took a trip out to the Midwest that one farmer recommended that he simply put the raw oil in his diesel tanks. Without all the hassle of mixing explosive concoctions, Henry filled up with 70% sunflower and soybean oil, and began seeing savings on his fuel bills. But then Henry says, the price of petroleum diesel went back down, which made him question how else he could profit off of all the sunflower oil he was now extruding. Thanks to a helpful suggestion from organic vegetable farmer Mark Guzzi of Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont, ME, Henry turned his attention to refining his oil to organic food-grade status. In fact, just recently Henry’s oil processing station was organically certified and licensed, allowing him to officially sell his food-grade sunflower oil on the open market.

Besides being an established dairy farmer who is concurrently the President of the Maine Organic Milk Producers (MOMP) and the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA), Henry Perkins is also considered to be an agricultural trailblazer who has a zeal for trying unconventional ideas. Prior to receiving the SARE grant in 2008, Henry independently planted two trial acres of sunflowers as a starting point to simply see if he could grow them and produce an oil yield from the seeds. The first year he says, didn’t go so well, as he lacked the experience, knowledge, and proper equipment of growing, harvesting, and pressing sunflowers and their seeds. However, rather than give up on the prospect of a successful sunflower oilseed operation, Henry decided to continue tinkering with the process by learning from his mistakes. He also recognized that by applying for a SARE grant, he could receive financial and professional support for his undertaking, as well as have the proper resources to expand his business operation if the results proved to be worth investigating further.

The SARE Project

Henry jointly received a SARE grant in 2008 with Mia Morrison, Executive Director of the Maine Organic Milk Producers (MOMP) and owner of Clovercrest farm of Charleston. Rick Kersbergen, Extension Educator from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension served as technical advisor to the project, and also carried out replicated trials on the University of Maine Rogers Research Farm. Since sunflowers had never been traditionally grown for oilseed and protein animal feed in Maine, there was very little information available regarding growing techniques, conditions, and integration with current crop rotations. Therefore, the goals of the SARE grant were to expand knowledge of how to grow oilseed sunflowers on a dairy-farm scale specific to Maine, and how to efficiently and profitably extrude the oil for human consumption while also producing a high-protein feed for livestock.

Growing aspects that were investigated in the project included comparing different planting locations, seeding rates, and planting dates. Sunflowers were grown on Bullridge, Clovercrest, and Rogers farm, with each site testing the differences amongst planting in early or late May, at seeding rates of 20,000, 30,000, and 40,000 seeds/acre. By having experimented two years prior in his pilot trials, Henry discovered that the easiest way to plant sunflowers was with a regular corn planter at 30-inch row spacing. Although calibrating for the proper seeding wasn’t exact due to the variable seed size, the corn planter was much more effective than planting with a grain drill, which is what Henry first attempted. In addition, Henry realized that harvesting dried sunflower heads with a six-row crop combine worked best, after first experiencing mixed results with a grain table and a modified corn header. Fertilization methods included about 10 tons/ac of solid cow manure prior to planting, and soil pH on all three farm sites was between 6.0 and 6.2.

One unexpected challenge for Henry and Rick was sourcing organic sunflower oilseed, even though there were quite a few non-organic oilseed varieties to choose from. Fortunately, a farm in North Dakota had one organic hybrid variety available called Defender, which resulted in Henry buying as much as he could in order to stockpile for future plantings.

Harvested seed was cleaned and dried down to 12-13% moisture, and was and still is stored in a silo next to the processing house. The seed is then sent through an auger up to a bin on the third-floor loft of the house. The bin can hold up to a ton of seed at a time, and gradually releases seed down a gravity fed chute to a hopper on the actual press. Henry said that the first year, he invested in a small Swedish Täby Pressen, of which he thought was inadequate since he got very little oil out of the seeds upon inspection. As a result, he bought a larger Täby Pressen model, of which he said was considerably more expensive but hoped would be worth the investment. Henry, however, realized (post-purchase), that the real reason the seeds didn’t produce much oil was because he failed to warm the seeds to the optimum temperature of about 80° F. Although he bought a larger press based off of a false assumption, Henry saw the investment as a determination against giving up. The upside to the purchase is that now Henry has the capability of pressing more oil than he has a need for, being able to press up to 300 tons/yr of seed, if left on 24 hours a day.

The seeds that go into the press are run through a screw chamber to be de-hulled and the oil that is extruded is separated into two grades; non-filtered raw oil that is collected in a containers underneath the press, and a more refined oil that passes through a smaller dye to remove more impurities. This refined oil undergoes further processing including being centrifuged in order to be acceptable for human consumption. The excess seed meal is pushed out of a narrow tube and collected in a bin in the garage of the building to be transported to feed his cows at later point. The raw oil is saved and further filtered to either be used in his oil heaters to heat the building, or as a supplement to diesel in his farm equipment.


Based off of the observations from Bullridge, Clovercrest and Rogers Farm, the ideal seeding rate seemed to be 30,000 plants/ac., in order to reduce sunflower head size variability, which can complicate harvesting later on. There were no significant differences in yield when comparing the two planting dates in early and late May, however, planting in early May proved to be beneficial for the heads to dry to a harvestable moisture content sooner than planting in late May. Sunflowers are frost sensitive, but as is evident, seem to do well when planted earlier. The mean seed yield of lbs/ac averaged over planting dates and farm locations was 2,066, 2,364, and 2,047 for low, medium and high seeding rates.

The average oil yield in gal./ac was 62, but could range higher or lower depending on dry matter of the seed, temperature of the seed, and level of experience with the press. The average protein content in the seed meal was between 23 and 25% crude protein. Sunflower meal, in general, contains high amounts of fiber and amino acids including Lysine and Methionine, making it not just an ideal protein feed for livestock, but also chickens, which are usually limited in those amino acids if fed a typical feed of corn.

The major threats to sunflower production are pests such as birds, which can cause considerable damage, and disease such as white mold. Rick Kersbergen recommends growing sunflowers away from other susceptible crops to white mold such as beans among many other crops, and removing all residue including stalks off the field to get rid of potential inoculum. Henry also grudgingly mentioned that humans were another source of yield decline, as he noticed numerous cut stalks that had been stolen by admiring passersby over the course of the summer.

Conclusively, the results of the SARE study proved to Henry and Extension Educator Rick Kersbergen that sunflower oilseed production has great potential for providing not only a cheaper protein-rich feed supplement to dairy livestock, but also an alternative way for dairy farmers to bring in extra income by producing either biodiesel or food-grade oil. Henry Perkins has shown that sunflowers are relatively easy to grow based on nutrient inputs and weather conditions, but need further consideration relating to planting and harvesting equipment, as well as investments towards oil processing equipment. However, through his numerous struggles and sheer perseverance, Henry Perkins has creatively found a way to not only make his organic dairy farm more self-sufficient and cost-efficient by growing more of his own feed, but also diversified by producing another type of marketable product, all in one.