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11 February, 2022

Safflower, the future of plant-based engine oils

The prickly crop safflower may just be the newest sustainable, plant-based alternative to petroleum-based engine oils.

By Emily Middleton

But what is it like to have in your paddock?

Used for years as birdseed, or as a break crop for cot- ton, the safflower crop has recently been ‘reinvented’. With the world moving towards a carbon-neutral future by 2030, CSIRO have altered the crop to produce saf- flower seed oil that contains over 92 per cent oleic acid, called Super High Oelic (SHO). This type of safflower has the highest level of purity present in any currently available plant oils.

Andrew Mudford’s paddock is one of around 30 other paddocks from northern NSW to the Victorian Mallee chosen to collect data from to learn more about the crop in general.

“I only planted the crop because it got too wet to fin- ish planting winter crops and was mid-August before you could get back on paddocks,” said Mr Mudford.

“I didn’t know about it at the time when I planted it that I would be part of this trial. But I got a phone call from an agronomist. They surveyed about four times during the growth of the crop and then just before har- vest she came out again.”

Mr Mudford said that the crop has taken a bit to get used to but is overall quite self-sufficient.

“You still harvest as normal, but it’s a bit slower. You don’t want to block the header, it’s a bit spikey to unblock.

“It’s an easy crop to grow, the only thing you have to worry about is planting depth which is about half an inch deep. Any more than an inch deep it will struggle, depending on soil type and rainfall following sowing.

“It grows just as good on saline or sodic soils.”

The crops yield has come as a pleasant surprise to Mr Mudford. “I have two paddocks of it, and I have only

finished one paddock. The first paddock has averaged 2.1 tonnes per hectare. I was hoping for one or one and a half tonnes per hectare.

“It was sown in mid-August at 13-14 kilograms per hectare, with 50 kilograms MAP, and I haven’t needed to go back into paddock until now to harvest. There’s also been no herbicides, insecticide, or fungicides used post sowing.

“Where the crop all came up, the highest elevation of paddock it is yielding up to three tonnes per hectare. However, some areas got too wet and died, or there was patchy germination as it was sown too deep.”

The grain is on the lighter side, with a test weight of 50 kilograms per hectolitre, compared to wheat at around 80 kilograms per hectolitre.

“It's been my highest value crop by double the next best crop this harvest.”

Another advantage of the is that you can spread out harvest of safflower, to avoid the risk of a wet harvest.

“I started harvesting on January 20 this year, and although there were rain delays, there was no damage done to the crop itself.”

Mr Mudford has plans to put wheat back in the pad- dock this year and is interested to see how it goes after safflower.

“I believe there is a future in the crop because it's not competing with most other grains, as it's used to make oils such as engine oil, hydraulic oil, transformer oil, used in cosmetics, and pacemakers.

“It’s been proven in US labs to be the equivalent or better than current oils, and I’ve read that all of the US has mandated all government departments, including the military, must move to plant-based oils by 2025.”

Mr Mudford explained that after harvest, the seed is stored at Temora, to be later crushed at Cootamundra, with the oil to be made in Australia. 

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