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Ten Factors to Help Bank High Yields

Thursday, December 15, 2005
filed under: Optimizing Plant Development/Yields

Exceptional harvest yield and quality, combined with a good price, resulted in sunflower as the most profitable crop on the farm for many growers in 2005.

A couple examples put profit performance of sunflower at various yield and oil premium combinations into perspective. A typical yield benchmark is 2,000 lbs/acre. Growers who harvested 2,000 lb sunflower with 43% oil sold at $12/cwt grossed just over $250/acre this year. There were numerous reports this year of yields around 3,000 lbs/acre with oil in the upper 40s, resulting in a gross return upwards of $400/acre.

Obviously, jackpot yields are few and far between. Duane Berglund, extension agronomist at North Dakota State University, points out that the average sunflower yield in North Dakota typically runs around 1,500 lbs/ac. Only about 25% of the state’s sunflower acreage meets or exceeds a 2,000 lb yield goal. This year, reports of 3,000 lb sunflower were common, but Berglund guesses the 3,000 lb Club still comprised less than 10% of the state’s entire crop.

The basic recipe for high yields is simply the right genetics in the right environment, coupled with timely management. More specifically, here are ten factors that can influence yield. Optimize these, says Berglund, and you’ll go a long ways to optimizing your sunflower yield potential.

1) Field selection – watch crop rotation history and potential weed control problems. Sunflower will tolerate a wide range of pH soils, although a soil pH range of 6.5 to 7.5 is ideal, and high moisture holding soils will equate to higher yields. Take advantage of weed control offered by a previous Roundup-Ready corn or soybean crop. A number of broadleaf herbicides labeled for wheat and corn have excellent activity on kochia and other weeds that can be a problem in sunflower. But keep herbicide carryover in mind, as some broadleaf weed control products have residual activity that may not allow sunflower as a subsequent crop.

2) Hybrid selection – There are no “miracle” hybrids for achieving high yields; good hybrids are generally adapted to a wide range of environments. Of course, high yield and quality are must considerations, as are hybrids needed for specific situations in your area, such as standability, tolerance to rust, downy mildew, Sclerotinia, and other diseases, and Clearfield™ hybrids to help with specific weed problems such as marshelder and common cocklebur.

3) Adequate fertility management – Nitrogen is the key nutrient, and the number one nutrient yield limiting factor. Sunflower is a very deep rooting crop, and will scavenge down to 6 ft. depths and further in search of soil moisture and nutrients that other more shallow-rooted crops won’t utilize. Use previous residual N to the sunflower crop’s advantage.

The only way to know for sure how much fertilizer your sunflower crop will need next spring is by soil testing. It’s generally recommended that you’ll need 5 lbs of N for every 100 lbs of yield, or 50 pounds of soil N plus fertilizer N in the top 2 feet of soil for every 1,000 pounds of expected sunflower yield. Thus, you’d need 100 lbs/ac of total N for a 2,000 lb/ac yield goal, and 150 lbs/ac for a 3,000 lb/ac yield goal. It’s advised to soil sample to the 4 ft depth to determine N needs of sunflower.

Phosphorus (P), the second major element needed for sunflower nutrition, aids in faster emergence and plant energy. It’s needed in rates similar to wheat; for medium testing soils, add additional P at a rate of 20 lb/ac for a 2,000 lb yield goal and 25 lb/ac for 2,500 lb yield. Banding by the seed results in the most efficient use of P. It’s not recommended to put N or K (potassium/potash) in-furrow with the seed, but if you do, keep it to a maximum of 10 lbs/ac total.

Applying micro-nutrients may increase yield potential if soils are low on these nutrients; soil test and consult with an agronomist for recommendations.

4) Planter and seedbed preparation – Doubles and skips can reduce yields by 400 to 500 lbs. Factor in stand uniformity for treatments later in the growing season, and one can see how planter calibration can pay big dividends at harvest, easily a yield variable of $50/ac or more. Adjust trash whippers and furrow closers, check seed placement and adjust seed drop as needed, and repeat when changing hybrids and seed sizes.

5) Plant timely with adequate plant populations and strive for good seedling establishment – If you want sunflower to be the star performer of your crop mix, then manage it accordingly in the spring, planting as timely as possible. Mid to late May is ideal for many parts of the Northern Plains, extending into June further south. Consider a seed treatment for early season insect and disease control. Manage plant populations based on potential seasonal rainfall, stored soil moisture and soil type for the growing area.

6) Weed control – Again, field selection can make a difference. An early glyphosate burndown of weeds as a virtual prerequisite to growing sunflower. Keep timing and moisture requirements needed for activation of soil-applied herbicides in mind. Planting sunflower in rows leaves the door open for cultivation.

7) Monitor for insect problems and disease –Know economic thresholds, when and what to scout for. Consider working with a professional agronomist if needed.

8) Manage the birds – It may be worthwhile to harvest the crop early and dry it down for storage if birds look to be a problem. In the off-season, look into products and USDA Wildlife Service programs that may be available in your area to help manage black birds.

9) Harvest in a timely fashion – It’d be a shame if the heads of that 2,000 to 3,000 lb sunflower crop stand too long and begin to shatter seed, or yield is lost from stalks going down. Seed size could suffer if it gets too dry and heads shell out, with larger seeds tending to shell out first (particularly an issue with confections, where seed size is premium). If bird pressure is expected, disease levels are high, or lodging problems are occurring, the use of a harvest-aid desiccant for sunflower may be considered when the crop is mature and an early harvest would be an advantage.

10) Harvest and post-harvest handling – That 2 to 3K crop doesn’t count until it’s sold or in the bin. Take steps to minimize harvest losses and dockage. Address inadequacies with combine settings or harvest attachments, dryers, and storage this winter, when improvements that need to be made are still fresh in mind, and there is more time to accomplish them. – Tracy Sayler

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