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Safflower provides solid rotation for Montana wheat farmers

Safflower provides solid rotation for Montana wheat farmers

Safflower harvest in south central Montana was met with ideal conditions this year, which included a hard frost and the absence of snow.

When considering a workable rotational crop to the winter wheat grown in Montana, one farm near Broadview has been depending on safflower as a profitable staple.

Keith and Karen Schott have been growing the broadleaf plant as a rotational crop for their winter wheat over the last 15 years.

“We started growing safflower in the 1990s and have been rotating it in for the last 15 years. We think it breaks up some of the hardpan from the cereal grains because it is a deep-rooted crop and we usually plant it after winter wheat,” Keith said.

Once harvested, the safflower seeds can be sold under contract to companies like Safflower Technologies International (STI) or on the open market.

STI contracts the seed for both oil and bird seed purposes, according to the company’s website. By using a seed developed by Montana State University, STI sells the white hulled-enriched birdseed that has a 30 percent higher fat content than traditional safflower.

The crop is also used to produce a high-oleic, low-saturate safflower oil called Healthola, which is lower in total saturates and higher in oleic fatty acid than olive oil, canola, or any other available safflower oils, according to the company.

“Healthola safflower oil is a natural, non-GMO safflower developed in the U.S. by Dr. Jerry Bergman and released by Montana State University. Healthola safflower oil contains zero percent trans fatty acids, an important health trait,” the company noted. “STI has acquired the foreign patent and marketing rights for this premier safflower oil, and holds marketing rights in Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia and other foreign countries.”

The company contracts with farmers like the Schotts to produce “identity-preserved oils.”

“STI contracts the oilseed through an intensive agronomic program with the producer, then segregates the genetics all the way from the field through the processing of the seed into oil,” the company explained. “These identity-preserved protocols include targeting key growing regions and an elaborate agronomic program that produces consistent seeds and oils to meet end-use requirements.”

Safflower is currently being grown in several areas in Montana, including outside of Billings near Molt, Broadview, and Rapelje

In addition to being able to contract safflower, producers also have the option of selling their crop on the open market where it is measured in pounds.

The Schotts said the yield for their safflower depends largely on the terrain and the moisture.

“We measure the yield in pounds, so we can get 850-1,000 pounds per acre, depending on the field,” Keith said. “In some areas, we have 18 inches of topsoil and 10 feet in others, so that really affects the yield.”

Safflower is also harvested late in the year, generally after the first frost to help reduce moisture. Most buyers won’t accept safflower that is over eight percent in the moisture content. The late harvest can be a concern to producers.

“We harvested around Sept. 20 this year and the plants were dry and brown with a little green, but it was plenty dry this year with around six percent moisture,” he said. “Some years we are already dealing with snow.”

As the Schotts have grown safflower, Keith said he has learned some growing methods that have helped their overall yields.

“Safflower doesn’t use a lot of fertilizer,” he said. “It doesn’t like a lot of phosphorus and too much will burn the seed, but we do use some nitrogen in the spring.”

One of the primary benefits of the crop is how it can save or reduce the costs of letting the ground lie fallow between wheat crops.

“We figure we are saving $15-$25 per acre in fallow costs because the weeds are being kept down and we are growing a crop that can be marketed,” Keith concluded.

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