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Sunflower Rounds Out Kansan’s No-Till Rotation

Thursday, November 1, 2007
filed under: Minimum Till/No-Till

By Larry Kleingartner

It was a quiet mid-August Sunday afternoon as I drove along I-70 in western Kansas. I felt very comfortable in my air-conditioned car, somewhat oblivious to the 102°F heat outside.

I was heading eastward to WaKeeney to visit Kevin Struss. As I got of the car, the 20-mph south wind hit me like a furnace. “Nothing can withstand this kind of heat unless it is irrigated,” I reasoned.

I rang the doorbell, hoping the door would soon open so I could get out of the heat. Kevin invited me into his office, which was pleasantly cool. I opened by saying, “You have to very concerned about this weather and the impact on your late-seeded crops like sunflower and corn.” Kevin replied with a smile, saying “I have a good profile of moisture, a great canopy and lots of crop residue to keep my soils from drying up.” He was as confident as a fish in water that his no-till production system would ride out this weather.

Struss started no-tilling exclusively when generic glyphosates generated more-competitive pricing. His dryland farm is dependent on rainfall with no irrigation. He operates on a four-year rotation, starting with winter wheat, then corn, sorghum, sunflower and back to winter wheat. Struss drills his wheat right into the sunflower stubble as soon as he’s finished harvesting the ’flowers. He targets his sunflower planting for mid-May so harvest can be completed in September to allow for the timely wheat planting.

Struss is a real stickler for controlling weeds. Rotating chemicals is as important to him as rotating crops. For the wheat, he relies on Finesse and Ally. Corn is strictly Roundup Ready. Lariat (Alachlor/atrazine) is used on the sorghum.

The Trego County grower uses a combination of chemistry on his sunflower, with Spartan and Prowl H20 being the mainstays. About two weeks before planting the ’flowers, he applies a half rate of Spartan along with 22 oz of glyphosate and 8 oz of 2,4-D. He also uses 2 oz of spray activator. At planting, he applies 2.5 pints of Prowl H20 and another 22 oz of glyphosate. The cost of that herbicide program is about $20 an acre. If necessary, he’ll return with a grass herbicide after emergence; but that’s generally only an occasional spot-spray pass.

Struss’s two biggest weed problems are kochia and sandbur. Palmer amaranth is an issue as well due to its resistance to a number of chemistries and its prolific and competitive nature. That’s the reason for his rotation of crops and chemistry. He also likes the potential of Express Sun™ sunflower. “It would be great to clean up the border rows where we always have escapes of several broadleaves, and to be able to go back in if our preplant herbicides didn’t work because of a lack of moisture for incorporation,” Struss said.

Kansas growers have long been advised to plant sunflower later to avoid insects such as the stem weevil and head moth. For Struss, however, a June planting would likely impact his ability to drill winter wheat right after he cuts his sunflower. To counteract the insect issue, he sprays Furadan in the late vegetative stage for the stem weevil and Lorsban in the R-4 to R-5 (late bud) stage for the head moth. He likes these insecticides because they are systemic and possess reasonable longevity.

The temperature had “cooled” to 95° by the time we went to the field later that afternoon to cut open a few stalks. His ’flowers were in the R-7 stage (petals dropped). The stalks were massive and nearly impossible to cut. I had concerns about blood in the field, but when Struss finally got the stalks split open they were clean and healthy. This is an area of Kansas that has consistent populations of the stem weevil; but it appeared his Furadan application was working.

No Fallow

As mentioned earlier, Struss has eliminated fallow from his four-year rotation. “Fallow is too expensive,” he affirmed. “Fallow is going to cost me at least $70 acre — and there’s no income for a year. I simply can’t afford it!”

With his intensive rotation of deep-rooted crops, he does experience about an eight-bushel yield lag on his wheat. At $5.00 a bushel, that’s $40. But it’s still more profitable than fallow. By continuous cropping in a no-till system, Struss has qualified his acres for carbon sequestration credits, which adds another $4 per acre — and his soil and moisture stay put.

Struss likes his mid-May sunflower planting window. “My bloom time will usually miss this mid-August hot weather, which can be limiting to pollination,” he pointed out. “I also have to get the ’flowers off in time for wheat planting. But I also like to take advantage of the lack of truck lines at the ADM crush plant in Goodland, about 150 miles away.” He does not store his crops, instead preferring to forward contract the majority prior to harvest. For sunflower, he contracts with a fleet of trucks and keeps them moving to Goodland. “We don’t want those trucks sitting empty for more than half an hour; and with only limited harvest in mid-September we can empty the trucks real quick,” he noted.

As for any grower, one of the yield keys for Struss is getting a good plant stand. He shoots for 18,- to 20,000 plants per acre, and he wants those plants evenly spaced. He starts with Cruiser-treated seed. “I wouldn’t plant a sunflower seed without it.” He also puts down his 70 lbs of nitrogen and 20 lbs of phosphorus at planting in bands two inches from the seed. That avoids runoff, and the nutrients are quickly available to the growing plant.

What’s the best thing to happen to the sunflower industry of late? Kevin Struss replies with two words: Frito-Lay. “That (the demand for NuSun®) has given us market stability right here at home. Plus, I love to see the sunflower petals on the front of their package. I know I am producing what the market wants.”

Kevin Struss was getting to the end of his sunflower harvest by the mid-October. His yields were running just over 1,500 pounds; but especially pleasing were the oil contents. Most loads were in the 44-47% range, adding a very nice premium to his pre-contract price. “I’m netting 20-plus cents a pound on those high oils,” he effused. Struss received substantial rains right before starting the sunflower harvest, so his winter wheat planted into the fresh stubble was already four inches tall by mid-October.

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