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'Plan B' Pays Dividends

Saturday, March 1, 1997
filed under: Planting Systems

How many cash flow options are available to east central Colorado dryland producers whose winter wheat crop is already stressed by drought — and then gets slammed by a late spring frost?

Not many. Fortunately for brothers Sam and Jack Mitchek, however, there was at least one viable option when they faced that particular situation on 2,200 acres near Cheyenne Wells in 1996: plant sunflower. A few months later, their payoff came in the form of 1,800- to 2,000-pound average yields and a handsome cash flow from otherwise idle acres.

After their wheat froze, the Mitcheks worked those 2,200 acres with sweeps and were ready to seed their oil-type ’flowers by mid-June. Most of the acreage was planted with their 60-foot John Deere 9400 Series press wheel drill. Plugging alternate rows gave them 24-inch row spacings. A gear reducer sufficiently slowed the seed feed, and their in-row plant spacing ended up being quite consistent. Sam estimates the sunflower seed drop at around 13,000 per acre. That was slightly higher than their original intent, but timely summer rains nursed the crop along nicely.

The Mitcheks hadn’t applied a preplant herbicide to the wheat ground; nor did they use any pre- or post herbicides on the ’flowers. Even so, weed pressure was so light that there was no need for cultivation. Sam credits the lack of weed problems in the ’flowers to three main factors: (1) going in on fields that were already quite clean; (2) having the wheat cover on the soil surface up until sunflower planting; and (3) achieving excellent stand establishment, with the field’s resulting plant canopy having a suppressive effect on late-germinating weed populations.

Though they also have some sunflower acreage under center-pivot irrigation, prior to 1996 the Mitcheks followed a basic wheat/fallow rotation on their dryland ground. Last year’s secondary plan, forced upon them by the failed wheat crop, produced such good results that they’ll plant a sizeable portion of their dryland acreage to sunflower again in 1997.

They’ll utilize their John Deere drill on the ’flowers again this year, too — with one modification. Instead of plugging the alternate rows, Sam says they’ll leave all of them open, thereby seeding the sunflower in 12-inch rows. The Mitcheks will be counting on that narrow-row plant canopy to play a key role in weed suppression.

The eastern Colorado brothers gained an introduction to narrow-row sunflower last year when they used a Case IH 8500 air hoe drill to sow a portion of those 2,200 dryland acres in 12-inch rows. Those stands also were very satisfactory.

The pace at which they were able to seed their ’96 sunflower crop also was important to the Mitcheks, given the amount of ground they had to cover and the late planting date. That’s another reason for keeping the JD 9400 grain drill in action at sunflower seeding time in 1997. “When you can do 60 feet at six miles per hour, you can plan on getting things done,” Sam Mitchek affirms. — Don Lilleboe
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