Pioneering Didn't End with the 19th Century
Wednesday, January 2, 2002
filed under: Optimizing Plant Development/Yields
Pioneering Didn't End with the 19th Century
Horace Greeley's famous 19th century exhortation to "Go West, Young
Man!" may have influenced some Easterners of his time to head out to the
Great Plains and establish farms in a new land. Suffice to say, though,
it wasn't high on the minds of the Anderson family when they relocated
their own farming operation a century and a half later. Nor did they
follow Greeley's geographic instructions very closely.
In 1999 this three-generation Colorado family sold their farm at Nunn
(near Fort Collins), moved east about 110 miles, and established a new
farm in the northeastern corner of the state, near Haxtun. Their
primary reason for moving - rapidly increasing urbanization in the Nunn
area - also provided the economic opportunity for their relocation. An
acre of dryland farm ground around Nunn was worth about two and a half
times that of an acre in the Haxtun area at the time, despite being only
two-thirds as productive.
Add in the opportunity to establish center-pivot irrigation on part of
their new farm along the Logan-Phillips county line, and the Andersons
were convinced the decision would be the right one. Brothers Dave and
Dan and their families - along with parents Leonard and Jean and uncle
Martin - made the move across a several-month period in 1999, putting in
their first Logan County crop that same year.
While they're all pleased with their new home, Dave says his father,
who had lived and farmed in the Nunn area virtually his entire life,
was - and still is - the most excited. The only downside in the whole
experience for 69-year-old Leonard has been the knowledge that his
working career is winding down. Both he and Martin are semi-retired,
which, Dave jokes, translates to "we don't pay them as much but we
expect just as much work!"
Sunflower After Corn
Sunflower was a key component in the Andersons' crop rotation at Nunn;
and if anything, it's even more important on their new farm. Their
first experiment with 'flowers was in 1985 on Roundup-treated wheat
stubble. That crop averaged 1,500 pounds per acre - a very impressive
level for the arid locale just off the eastern slope of the Rockies.
"After that, we thought sunflower would be a 'no-brainer' " Dave quips.
But they found out otherwise. Farming in an area where annual
precipitation averages just 12 to 13 inches, their average yield over
the next 13 years ran around 900 pounds.
Along with more-productive soils, their Haxtun crops benefit from
another four inches of annual precipitation - most of which arrives as
rainfall during the growing season. Dryland sunflower yields the past
three seasons have run in the 1,200- to 1,400-pound range, with
irrigated 'flowers (all confections) yielding between 2,500 and 3,000
pounds and 80 to 90% "plump."
They've also been pleased with their corn yields - a crop they
couldn't raise successfully at Nunn due to lack of moisture. While
their standard dryland rotation at Nunn was wheat-proso
millet-sunflower-fallow (or wheat-sunflower-fallow), they've now
replaced the millet with corn and likewise reduced the percentage of
Sunflower also follows corn on the Andersons' irrigated ground. In
fact, their plan calls for four years of corn, followed by the
confection 'flowers, a year of winter wheat, and then back to corn.
Depending on a given season's rainfall, they'll typically need to apply
just five or six inches of irrigation water to the confections, compared
to 15-18 inches on the corn.
In the past couple years, their irrigated confection sunflower has
provided more gross income than 200-bushel corn while requiring about
$100 lower inputs (water, fertilizer, herbicide) per acre. That doesn't
necessarily mean the irrigated 'flower acreage will increase, however.
Limited on-farm storage capacity for the confections will be a dictating
factor, Dave indicates.
With the exception of a ripper pass across most of their irrigated
acreage, the entire Anderson farm is under no-till. In 2001, they
didn't even rip ahead of planting the irrigated 'flowers, although
achieving a good sunflower stand following 200-bushel corn "is fairly
difficult if you're not disking the heck out of it," Dave allows. The
Andersons simply ran a rolling stalk chopper through the corn residue
and followed with a split-row sunflower planting 15 inches off the
30-inch corn centers.
Critical to their successful stand establishment, Dave emphasizes,
was the 1770 John Deere 12-row air unit they bought for planting into
heavy-residue conditions. "We lead with JD single-disk fertilizer
openers (for liquid N) and run 13-wave coulters behind them," he says.
They were very satisfied with the seed placement and seed-to-soil
contact the system gave them last year.
Winning the Weed War
Along with solid stand establishment, the other primary area of
emphasis for the Andersons is weed control.
The foundation of that control for sunflower lies in the preceding
corn crop. "We'll designate where we want the sunflower to go a year
beforehand so we can plan the corn herbicides accordingly," Dave notes.
While they won't use atrazine products the year prior to dryland
sunflower, they can go with a moderate rate of atrazine in the irrigated
corn and still rotate to 'flowers "simply because we're putting 15 to 18
inches of extra water on that field." Strong weed control in the
irrigated corn, coupled with the weed-suppression effect of the heavy
corn residue, sets the stage for a very clean sunflower seedbed.
Following corn rather than wheat also has paid off in the Andersons'
dryland rotation, Dave says, because the weed seed population has been
greatly reduced by two successive years (wheat, then corn) of effective
herbicide programs. "With wheat, you have to kill weeds in the stubble
before they make seed; that's why you have a bigger broadleaf problem
putting sunflower back into wheat stubble," Dave observes. "In this
country, the main problems you'll have in sunflower following corn are
volunteer corn and foxtail. And that can be taken care of with Select
A Colorado State University engineering graduate, Dave put his skills
to use to construct a dual-purpose sprayer (above photo). Originally an
eight-row unit and later modified to 12 rows, the sprayer can band over
the row and also apply Roundup under hoods between rows. One pump feeds
the banding nozzles and a second pump supplies the nozzles beneath the
hoods. There are two 200-gallon tanks with center fill. "It's plumbed
so we can pump out either tank through either system," Dave explains.
That way, if using the sprayer only for banding, they can cover twice
the acreage without stopping to refill; and vice versa if using only the
The sprayer - which is used mainly for between-row treatment of
volunteer corn in their irrigated corn ground - originally was intended
to also spray Roundup postemergence in sunflower (under the hoods) and
to band insecticide over the rows for stem weevil control. With the
labeling of Spartan for use in sunflower, however, the Andersons
abandoned the idea of using Roundup postemergence.
They still use Roundup preplant and pre-emerge in their sunflower
fields. In 1999 the Andersons tank mixed the pre-emergent Roundup and
Spartan, but noticed some antagonism. So they've split the treatment
since then. They use a moderate rate (3.0 oz.) of Spartan to avoid
sunflower injury on higher pH soils. "Our philosophy has been to keep
the rate high enough so that on the 90% you don't 'ding,' you get good
weed control. And you're not going to grow much on the light hillsides
anyway," Dave quips.
Since all their sunflower acreage is confection, the Andersons budget
for at least one seed weevil treatment every year. "When the timing is
right, it takes about 30 seconds to make the decision to spray," Dave
laughs. Stem weevil and sunflower head moth are more sporadic and often
do not reach economic levels.
Learning Curve Never Ends
The learning curve on raising irrigated sunflower has been a quick one
for the Andersons. "We've had some expensive lessons," Dave affirms,
"but we've learned a lot - especially about working with irrigated
One management category where they're still doing some experimenting is
plant population. Their 2001 seed drop on the irrigated confections -
around 23,000 - was quite high. But Dave was looking for a slightly
smaller head size and quicker drydown to allow harvesting in time to
come back and drill winter wheat. Given the excellent yield and high
plump percentage of their '01 irrigated crop, it appears they
accomplished that goal without sacrificing seed size. Still, they'll
probably run some trials in 2002, with populations ranging from 18,000
all the way to 30,000. (Their dryland confections are planted at 12,-
to 14,000 per acre.)
While the Andersons feel confident in their ability to raise
consistently profitable sunflower crops on their Logan County farm, Dave
likewise learned a long time ago that this crop is not the "no-brainer"
he foresaw after his first harvest back at Nunn. "I've been growing
sunflower for more than 15 years now, and they teach me something new
every year," he concurs.
Yet like his brother, father and uncle, facing "something new" is a
challenge Dave Anderson welcomes. When a three-generation family
uproots and moves lock, stock and barrel to a new farm in a new area,
you know seeking opportunities and meeting challenges ranks high on
their list of priorities.
Horace Greeley would nod in approval - even if for the Andersons
opportunity pointed east, not west. - Don Lilleboe