The sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.) is an annual herbaceous plant of the Asteraceae family that has a compound inflorescence about 15-30 cm in diameter and produces seeds known as sunflower seeds. The sunflower seeds are actually a fruit with a hull about 20 mm long and 15 mm wide that contains an oleaginous seed inside. There are two types of sunflower: those with high oleaginous aptitude (40% oil) and low oleaginous aptitude (<30% oil) but, because they are of interest to the oil extraction industry, >90% of the seed production is of the high oleaginous type since they produce oil of high nutritional value. As a co-product of oil extraction, sunflower meals or cakes are obtained, which are a good source of protein for animal feed.
The quality of sunflower meal is highly variable and depends mainly on the type and the extraction process used. It must be noted that the hull represents >25% of the fruit, which hinders both the extraction yield and the final quality of the meal, so in many cases a dehulling is done prior to extraction. The whole seeds are crushed and then about 10-12% of the fibrous fraction of the hull is separated by physical or pneumatic methods. The partially dehulled seed fraction is pressurized by expeller pressing resulting in an extraction cake with up to 15% oil content. But in many cases the process continues with solvent extraction to improve the oil extraction yield, resulting in a final meal with <2% fat content and higher protein concentration. Solvent extraction does not disqualify the use of sunflower meal in swine feed except for EU organic production, where its use is prohibited.
Like other vegetable protein sources, its value for use in swine feed depends on its quality and protein content, which determine the different categories on the market. Indirectly, the fiber and fat content also determine the quality of the product and affect the appearance and color of the ingredient, so that one can see at a glance a gradation from gray to black depending on the amount of hull contained in the meal. It is an ingredient with lower protein content than soybean meal and it is more fibrous, but it has a good amino acid profile for pigs (although poor in lysine, the content of sulfur, tryptophan, and arginine is interesting) and, despite its fiber content, it is palatable. Although it is mainly recommended for finishing pigs and sows in gestation and lactation, very good quality meals could also be considered for nursery piglets.
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