DEADWOOD - New research shows how regional changes can influence the yield on a particular sunflower hybrid - either for better or worse. The study is especially important because of the shift of sunflowers from the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota farther west in North Dakota and into South Dakota.

At the National Sunflower Association’s 2014 Summer Seminar in Deadwood last month, North Dakota State University master’s student Alison Stone spoke about a “genotype by environment” study she’s conducted in the past two years.

Stone said farmers should make sure hybrids they choose are tested in their own growing region. She noted that North Dakota alone has four sunflower growing regions ranging from the Red River Valley, Drift Prairie, Missouri Coteau, to the Missouri Slope in the southwest.

This kind of study has been done for other crops - notably corn, wheat and dry beans - but not sunflowers, Stone said. Sunflower hybrid breeding only started in the Red River Valley in the 1970s because that’s where the acres were. More than 70 percent of the nation’s sunflowers are in the Northern Plains.

Stone said her study indicates the importance of widespread geographic testing by seed companies in the Red River Valley. The study also helps federal and state breeding program officials see the importance of geographically dispersed test plots, which can be dropped to cut costs.

177 hybrids tested

Stone’s study tested 177 hybrids, including 16 commercial hybrids. She analyzed yield and oil data against 43 other factors, including maturity, flowering, lodging, height, bird damage and stalk disease. Other key factors were air temperatures at key growth stages, elevation, latitude, longitude, rainfall, planting date and soil temperature at planting.

Among the study’s conclusions is that elevation has a big effect on how the hybrids rank among each other in different environments. Generally speaking, the higher the physical elevation, the lower the minimum air temperatures are in May and June, which is a critical period for early plant development. Elevation generally gets lower from west to east in the region, so the westward movement of the crop has an effect on yield.

Farmers in the region can expect wetter conditions, with temperatures normal or below normal, and a return to El Niño conditions, South Dakota State University Climatologist Dennis Todey said. El Niño is when Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures are sustained at 2 degrees Fahrenheit above average, among other conditions. That will mean a warmer winter with perhaps less snow.

Food safety act

Sandra Morar, a Washington, D.C., attorney and food law expert, spoke about her work for NSA to exempt sunflowers from the Food Safety Modernization Act. Sunflower seeds - technically “a fruit of a plant” - should be regulated like other oilseeds and is rarely eaten raw. The FDA’s proposed produce regulations, designed to protect consumers from such illnesses as e-coli, would, among other things, require that producers keep wildlife out of their fields and sterilize their combines.

Dale Thorenson, of Gordley Associates, and an NSA lobbyist, said the proposed rule was “silent on sunflowers.” He said if sunflowers aren’t exempted and other grain crops are, it “would be the end of the sunflower industry.”

Plant pathologists Sam Markell of NDSU and Bob Harverson of the University of Nebraska, said they are in the process of collaborating on a worldwide academic book - a Sunflower Compendium - that collects photographs and facts on various diseases of sunflowers.

The NSA, since last winter, circulated a survey asking farmers and annual sunflower field survey crews about their preferences for field diagnostic aids for identifying sunflower diseases and pests. Most respondents said they’d like printed publications and field guides, in lieu of smartphone apps or videos. Markell and Harverson acknowledged that younger farmers want the internet sources.

Erik Heggen, Archer Daniels Midland director for North American Refined Oil, said U.S. consumers are looking for “cleaner labels” with fewer, healthier ingredients. High-oleic sunflowers offer a good functional product, lower in saturated fats than other oils on the market, and can be used in many products and product areas. High-oleic sunflower acres increased to 25 percent to 30 percent of the crop in 2014, with the rest being in mid-oleics. The high-oleics were up from 15 percent to 20 percent last year, said John Sandbakken, NSA executive director.

At the event, Gerhardt Fick was awarded the NSA’s Gold Award for extraordinary service. Fick started as a sunflower breeder for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1971 and was a key person in developing techniques for making sunflower hybrids through male sterility. He was a co-founder of SIGCO Research in 1977 and SEEDS 2000 in 1992. In retirement, Fick continues with projects with Richland Organics and Blue Corn Co., with a longtime partnership with Breckenridge, Minn., entrepreneur Jay Schuler.