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My 2008 Sunflower Plan

Wednesday, April 2, 2008
filed under: Marketing/Risk Management

Note: This is the fifth installment of the “In My Experience” column. We invite farmers to submit their thoughts on an aspect of production in a written format to

By Ron Aberle

I farm near Menoken in south central North Dakota’s Burleigh County. We’ve been raising sunflower since 1979 and are in a three-year rotation with corn and wheat. In 1984 we moved into a minimum-till cropping system; as of five years ago we went strictly no-till with all three crops.

I call sunflower my “staple crop.” While price levels obviously have moved up and down through the years, ’flowers have been a consistent winner for us — agronomically and economically.

This year, we’ll actually increase our sunflower and wheat acreage while reducing corn acres considerably. Two months ago I was looking at about 2,000 acres of corn this year; now, after a lot of pencil scratching, it’s closer to 600, with sunflower picking up most of the difference.

Why? There are two main reasons. First, we’ve been quite dry in our area. We had about seven inches of subsoil moisture as of the spring of 2007; now we’re probably at around two inches. So that ‘s a big factor: negative for corn, positive for sunflower.

The second reason is federal crop insurance. Out here in south central North Dakota, we did not have a good corn history built up on some of our farm units. So we end up with a T yield of around 50-55 bushels on those units. Crop insurance costs around $50 an acre. So 55 bushels multiplied by 65% leaves us about 35 bushels at a price selection of $5.40. That comes out to a gross coverage of $180-190 per acre on some of those units — but the premium is running $50-55. That’s key for me.

We do have some farm units that carry a 90- to 100-bushel corn yield history, and those will work with federal crop. Their premium is about half that of a unit that doesn’t have the history. So it ends up being a $25 premium for about $300 of coverage.

We’ve raised sunflower on all of our farm units through the years, with yields averaging between 1,600 to 1,800 pounds per acre. By buying that price selection at 70%, our coverage is $300 to $350 an acre for a $25 premium. With a decent yield history, you can cash flow your sunflower in a year like this.

Another big plus for ’flowers is the Act of God clause in many contracts. If you’re selling cash corn, you don’t have that. I haven’t contracted any of my ’08 sunflower crop as of this writing, but I will do some. Last year, I did not contract any ’flowers — which, in hindsight, was obviously the right thing to do. Sometimes it pays more to be lucky than smart!

We usually set a 2,000-lb yield goal for our sunflower; for wheat, it’s around 40-45 bushels; for barley, it would be 60-65 bu/ac. If we go for a top-end sunflower crop — plenty of fertility, keep the field real clean, do whatever we can for the crop — we’ll spend about $200 an acre. Doing the same with wheat or barley would run about $170 in inputs. So it’s not a big difference. Right now, I’m not sure what yield goal I’ll set for my 2008 wheat. It depends on how much moisture we get prior to planting. If we receive a significant amount of rain, we’ll bump up the fertility.

I solid-seeded sunflower for a number of years, but we’ll be planting them in 30” rows this year. While we did fine under solid seeding, I just think the seed placement, timing of emergence and plant head size is more consistent in rows. We bought a 24-row planter, and that’s what we’ll use for the ’flowers this spring.

We’ll do an early burndown with Spartan and then plant. Within one or two days of planting, we’ll come back for a late burndown with Roundup. We’ll also spike the Roundup with Warrior for cutworm control. Since we’re in a 100% no-till system, we seem to be getting hit harder and harder each year by cutworms, likely due to all that residue.

I’m also going to modify our sunflower fertilizer application approach if we stay on the dry side this spring. Rather than spread urea on the soil surface, I’ll probably inject it with our two no-till wheat drills prior to planting the ’flowers. Given the price of urea, I don’t want any of it volatilizing on the soil surface.

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