Satisfying birds’ appetites steals confection premium

A cold, snowy winter last year sent birds to the city looking for food. People responded, sending bird food prices skyrocketing.  |  File photo

Manitoba Ag Days | Feathered friends send black oil sunflowers prices up

After years of planting confection sunflowers, Manitoba growers are shifting toward black oil sunflowers because the price gap between the two commodities has narrowed.

Manitoba sunflower growers have historically received a premium of seven cents or more per pound for confectionery sunflowers compared to black oils.

However, the premium has narrowed because the bird food market has been hot recently, said Earl Schnellert, a trader with AgriTel in Beausejour, Man.

Schnellert said during Manitoba Ag Days in Brandon that new crop black oil sunflowers are being contracted for 28 to 30 cents per lb, while new crop confectionery sunflowers are going for 32 cents per lb.

As a result, Manitoba growers will likely seed more black oils because confection contract standards are more rigorous for sclerotinia and oil content.

“This year the oils are commanding virtually the same prices as confecs,” Schnellert said. “So you’re probably going to see the acreage split closer to 40-60, rather than 20-80.”

Mike Marion, a trader with Roy Legumex in Manitoba, agreed with Schnellert’s assessment, noting an acreage shift toward black oils makes economic sense.

“I would also consider that, if I was a grower,” he said.

“If we’re talking a three cent spread or even a four or five cent spread, oils are probably a better (option).”

Last year, demand for black oil sunflowers was off the charts as a long and snowy winter in North America forced more birds to urban feeders.

As a result, bird food buyers drove black oil sunflowers to unheard of prices in 2011, said John Sandbakken, U.S. National Sunflower Association executive director.

“For a while … bird food prices were higher than confection prices,” said Sandbakken from his office in Mandan, North Dakota.

“That bird food went crazy for awhile. At one point they were paying $50 (per hundredweight) for bird food (sunflowers) and confections were at $35 to $40.”

Prices leaped to those levels last summer because buyers were concerned about the small crop in North America. Only 1.54 million acres were planted across the U.S. in 2011, which was the smallest acreage since 1976.

Sandbakken said sunflower acres in the U.S. should return to normal levels in 2012 because prices are good and flooded out acres in North Dakota should be back in production.

Schnellert predicted that sunflower acreage in Manitoba would bounce back in 2012. Last year was a disaster for sunflowers as growers harvested only 25,000 to 30,000 acres across the province, down substantially from 2010 when 135,000 acres went into the ground.

Drowned out fields in southwestern Manitoba partially explained the acreage decline, but many Manitoba sunflower growers were frustrated by a few years of sclerotinia pressure leading up to 2011, Schnellert said.

“Everybody was (coming) off the head rot problem and they didn’t want to take a look at sunflowers.”

The robust prices will likely increase sunflower acres to 100,000 acres or higher this year, he added.

Marion agreed, but he cautioned that acreage could be lower because it’s hard to convince producers to grow sunflowers when canola is selling for $12 per bushel.

  • Manitoba produces 90 percent of Canada’s sunflower crop.
  • Southern Manitoba with its balanced soil fertility and long, dry growing seasons is ideal for sunflowers. The region is known as Manitoba’s sunflower belt
  • Manitoba producers harvest about 250 million pounds of sunflower seeds each year.
  • All varieties are hybrids and are classed either as oil or confectionery types.
  • Sunflower seeds grown for oil are black and are one of three types based on their oil profiles: traditional, mid-oleic and high oleic.
  • Oilseed sunflower seeds can be used for either oil or birdfeed.
  • Confectionery sunflowers have striped hulls and are used for human consumption.
  • Some smaller confectionery sunflowers also go to the birdfeed market, but 85 percent of birdfeed sunflowers are from oil types.

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