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No-Till 'Flowers Spell Success

Wednesday, January 1, 1997
filed under: Minimum Till/No-Till

We always say ‘we built this house with sunflower,’ ” Dave and Jeannie Schields smilingly inform a visitor at the kitchen table inside their new rambler north of Goodland, Kan. Not only has their sunflower success afforded them the opportunity to construct their farm home, the Schields attest; it also has, quite literally, kept them on the farm.

That’s a strong testimonial. But their achievements with this crop over the past several years back it up. While helping them steadily reduce the summer fallow portion of their traditional wheat/fallow rotation, the Schields’ dryland sunflower crops have consistently met their ambitious yield goal of a ton per acre — and, in some years, surged as high as 2,400 to 2,600 pounds.

A relatively smooth transition into a no-till production groove has been an important ingredient in that track record, Dave Schields affirms. Nearly 100 percent of the Schields’ 1,200 northwestern Kansas sunflower acres and another 700 acres of corn were under no-till in 1996 — the culmination of a row-crop switch which began in 1993.

Why move from conventional tillage into no-till sunflower? Dave’s answer is a common one: to minimize soil erosion and maximize moisture retention in this often-windy, typically dry corner of Kansas. He had been producing sunflower convention-ally for several years prior to 1993, but then decided to experiment with no-till on a limited basis. Results of that season’s comparison of side-by-side no-till and conventional fields fueled his interest. “It turned dry in August and early September,” he recalls, “and we could really see the difference on those no-till ’flowers. They never suffered — and the yield was much better.”

As with many producers, weed control was a primary concern for the Schields as they delved further into no-till sunflower. “We’d been raising corn (under no-till),” Dave recounts, “and could control the vegetation pretty easily with atrazine. But with sunflower, we knew it would be more of a problem. We’d always been incorporating Prowl and Treflan under conventional tillage and had quite good control.”

Given sunflower’s shortage of postemergent weed treatments (especially for broadleaves), Schields has relied on a tri-pronged strategy: (1) one to two burndown treatments with Roundup between the preceding year’s wheat harvest and sunflower planting; (2) a preplant application of Prowl, which can be incorporated by rainfall if received within a seven- to 10-day period; and (3) the weed-suppressing effect of tall, heavy wheat stubble — and, for later-germinating weeds, that of the eventual sunflower plant canopy.

“As long as that field is clean when we plant, there’s a pretty good chance of not having significant weed problems during the season,” Schields points out. Also, “with the moisture advantage we have in the no-till ground, we can probably stand a few weeds taking a little more of that moisture.”

Like other no-till producers, Schields looks upon his sprayer as a vital tool. And given the speed with which it travels in — and to — the field, its name is appropriate: the “White Lightning” spray system.

Modeled upon an Australian concept, Schields’ sprayer was built by a Colorado farmer. It features an 80-foot boom suspended from cables between the tank trailer and Schields’ 4x4 pickup which he uses to pull the spray unit. Though he commonly travels at 12 to 15 miles per hour in the field, “the boom never bounces as much as one mounted on the back of a rig,” he notes. “That’s one reason I can spray faster than most: that boom stays real steady.” A Raven direct-inject system optimizes spray pattern efficiency and allows on-the-go adjustment of rates, while overhead lights facilitate night spraying.

Schields says he has no trouble pulling the sprayer with his 2500 Series Chevy diesel tandem-axle pickup — even with the sprayer’s filled 1,000-gallon tank. Some initially advised him he couldn’t pull a sprayer equipped with a tank larger than 500 gallons; others said he’d never get by with an automatic transmission. They were wrong. Along with his rapid in-field speed, Schields says he tows the sprayer, fully loaded, to the field at up to 55-60 mph. “It’s like pulling a fifth-wheel trailer,” he remarks.

A second essential tool for Dave Schields’ no-till sunflower program has been his eight-row JD MaxEmerge II planter, modified for efficient penetration of his often-heavy wheat residue. Wave coulters and Yetter Residue Managers “cut and clear” residue, followed by standard double-disc openers.

Preceding it all, though, is the single-disc opener for his 2x2 starter fertilizer placement. “The fertilizer opener does the first job in cutting that stubble,” Schields notes. “The trash whipper separates it; and then the wave coulter moves some of the residue and also works about an inch of soil.”

Schields went with a Yetter-developed fertilizer extension bar to mount his fertilizer openers and accompanying depth gauge wheels. So the planter units ride independently of the residue-cutting openers. These openers are set at a slight angle; so even though they’re offset two inches from the seed row, they do provide residue-slicing activity that assists the trailing trash whippers.

The system worked very well in 1996 — despite heavy residue from a 1995 wheat crop that averaged 70-plus bushels and ran up to 80 in some spots. Schields even found time to custom plant between 500 to 600 acres of ’flowers this past spring for neighbors whose planters weren’t set up for no-till.

Like other successful no-till producers, Dave Schields emphasizes that proper management of the sunflower crop begins at the time of the preceding wheat harvest. Each of his combines is equipped with straw and chaff spreaders. “No-tilling sunflower into wheat stubble starts with distributing the straw evenly,” this Kansan emphasizes. “That’s the first step.” - Don Lilleboe
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