Sunflower silage may be a potential forage option for many producers as they search for alternatives during the drought.

“A lot of people are interested in examining their sunflower crop and examining whether they should let it go to harvest or consider it for forage, much like a lot of crops have been considered this year,” said Zac Carlson, North Dakota State University Extension beef cattle specialist.

Sunflower silage is a great protein source, coming in around 10 to 12%, whereas corn silage protein falls around 8%. Sunflowers make a good silage because it is similar to corn silage in some aspects. However while sunflower silage offers a solid source of protein for livestock, producers should keep a careful eye on the plant's oil content. Typical silage from corn has an oil content of 2%, while sunflower silage has an oil content of 10 to 11%.

“Oil is something to consider because when we look at forage based diets, mostly in cow-calf operations, we want to maintain and control how much oil we introduce into the diet, as it has negative impacts on the fermentation and the ability of the microbes to maximize their potential in generating energy in the ruminant animal,” Carlson said.

In addition to its potentially high oil content, sunflower silage is also known to have a high moisture content as well. A way to combat this is for producers to leave the sunflower plants in the soil until the hard first frost of the season. This will help with the drying process. In addition, adding dry feed to the sunflower silage will help absorb some of the additional moisture.

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“It still makes a great silage as long as you manage that moisture content appropriately and keep an eye on the oil content in the plant itself,” Carlson said.

Like all forages that are harvested during the drought, producers should test for nitrates in the plants.

“Many drought-stressed plants accumulate nitrates,” said Miranda Meehan, North Dakota State University Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist. “Before feeding, test your drought-stress sunflower silage for nitrates. Although proper ensiling will reduce nitrates, it does not guarantee the forage will contain ‘safe’ levels of nitrates.”

In addition to testing for nitrates, it is important for producers to look over their pesticide labels if their sunflower crop was sprayed.

“Producers should just make sure that any pesticides that they have applied to these crops when they weren’t intending to harvest them as forages should check those labels,” Carlson said.