Safflower provides a solid crop rotation for Montana wheat growers

In considering a viable rotational crop for the winter wheat grown in Montana, a farm near Broadview depended on safflower as a viable staple.

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

“We started growing safflower in the 1990s and have rotated it for the past 15 years. We think it breaks down some of the hard shell of the grain kernels because it’s a deep-rooted plant and we usually plant it after winter wheat,” Keith said.

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

According to the company’s website, STI is finalizing the seeds for both oil and birdseed purposes. Using a seed developed by Montana State University, STI sells the white-skin-enriched birdseed, which has a 30 percent higher fat content than traditional safflower.

The harvest is also used to make a high-oleic, low-saturated safflower oil called Healthola, which contains less saturated fat and more oleic acid than olive, canola or other available safflower oils, the company said.

“Healthola Safflower Oil is a natural, non-GMO safflower oil made in the United States by Dr. Jerry Bergman and published by Montana State University. Healthola safflower oil contains zero percent trans fats, an important health attribute,” the company noted. “STI has acquired the foreign patent and marketing rights for this premium safflower oil and owns the marketing rights in Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia and other countries.”

The company contracts with farmers like the Schotts to make “identity-preserving oils.”

“STI ties the oilseed to the grower through an intensive agronomic program and then separates the genetics from the field to processing the seed into oil,” the company said. “These identity-preserving protocols include targeting key growing regions and a sophisticated agronomic program that produces consistent seed and oil to meet end-use demands.”

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

In addition to being able to contract safflower, growers also have the option to sell their harvest on the open market, where it is measured in pounds.

The Schotts said that the yield of their safflower is highly dependent on terrain and humidity.

“We measure yield in pounds, so we can get anywhere from 850 to 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, which really impacts yield.”

Safflower is also harvested late in the year, generally after the first frost, to reduce moisture. Most buyers will not accept safflower with a moisture content above eight percent. The late harvest can worry growers.

“We harvested around September 20 this year and the plants were dry and brown with some greenery, but this year has been quite dry with about six percent moisture,” he said. “We’ve been dealing with snow for a number of years.”

Since the Schotts grew safflower, Keith said he learned some growing techniques 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 use some nitrogen in the spring.”

One of the main benefits of harvesting is that it can save or reduce the cost of leaving the ground fallow between wheat harvests.

“We expect to save $15 to $25 per acre in fallow land costs because weeds are kept down and we are growing a crop that can be marketed,” concluded Keith.