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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

Pays Dividends

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

or Poast."

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

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