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Pocket of Productivity

Saturday, November 1, 2008
filed under: Rotation

The southwestern Minnesota community of Canby sits 10 miles east of the South Dakota state line and about 80 miles from the border with Iowa. Yellow Medicine County is definitely corn and soybean country, with most area farmers historically viewing sunflower as much more of a weed than a crop.

Within the past few years, however, several local producers have entered the sunflower camp — and, for the most part, they’ve been rewarded handsomely. While yields (all dryland) obviously vary from year to year, field averages of 2,600 to 2,800 lbs/acre have been quite common, with 3,000 lbs exceeded on several occasions.

Dave Dybsetter, seed sales manager with Helena Chemical Company’s Canby office, says the recent infusion of sunflower acreage — which has fluctuated somewhat from year to year — has been due to two major factors: competitive prices and the desire for an expanded crop rotation. "Traditionally, corn has been number one in this area, with soybeans second and wheat a distant third," Dybsetter relates. "Last winter, as we penciled things out, sunflower was number one in terms of revenue." Oil-type (NuSun®) varieties used to comprise most of the area’s sunflower crop, but conoils* offered the best pricing opportunity this year — and that’s what growers planted.

While most sunflower across the Dakotas and northern Minnesota is planted in late May to early June, Canby area growers typically have been able to get their crop in by early May — and sometimes even the latter part of April. “If guys get done with corn planting, they’ll sometimes go to sunflower before soybeans, depending on the type of spring we have,” Dybsetter says. Oil contents on such early plantings have been strong (upper 40s, with some test plots above 50%), as have yields. And if a field is desiccated, it allows the product to enter the market stream earlier than other Minnesota/Dakota sunflower. That’s a real plus with the conoils, most of which is currently contracted with SunOpta of Breckenridge, Minn.

Dan and Eric Dybsetter, Dave’s brother and nephew, have been producing ’flowers since 2005 on their farm near Porter, which is about six miles southeast of Canby. “The first year we planted them, we wrapped up everything — corn, beans and ’flowers — by the first of May,” Eric affirms. This year, however, a wet spring pushed them back toward the latter part of the month. Seed drop on their conoils was 20,000; emergence was exceptional, and they ended up with a plant stand of around 19,000.

The Dybsetters follow a four-year rotation: corn/sunflower/corn/soybeans. “Most of our fields are pretty clean,” Eric notes. “We’ve had a corn and soybean rotation with Roundup Ready® for several years, and that has certainly helped with weed management in the sunflower.” Their ’08 weed control in sunflower consisted of preplant incorporated Prowl and a single cultivation. Dave Dybsetter says all of his sunflower customers apply either preplant Prowl or Sonalan for grass control. Some now also use pre-emerge Spartan to manage ALS-resistant broadleaf populations.

Stretching out rotations is also helping growers manage the soybean cyst nematode. “We have a pretty big problem in this area with cyst nematodes in beans,” Eric says. “You reduce those numbers in the years you’re not raising beans, so adding the sunflower should help us bring down [cyst populations] and hopefully bump up our bean yields.” Dave says planting a cyst-resistant soybean variety can cut populations by as much as 50% annually, whereas planting a non-host crop like sunflower can reduce nematode numbers by about 20%. “However, we’re now dealing with new races of cyst nematodes, and a given variety may not be resistant to a new race,” he adds. “That’s where sunflower can help us.”

Sunflower can also help area growers with high chlorosis soils, which are not conducive to soybeans. “Because of pH over 8.0 in some situations, soybeans do not do well and yields can be very low,” Dave points out. “[But] sunflower grows ‘like it’s on steroids’ on that kind of ground.”

Dan and Eric Dybsetter sidedress nitrogen on sunflower, whereas most other Yellow Medicine County producers apply their all fertilizer preplant — often impregnated with their grass herbicide. When following corn, a typical nutrient package would be 110-120 lbs of nitrogen , 40-50 lbs of phosphate and about 30 lbs of potash. If following soybeans (which is not common), the applied N is usually lowered by 30-35 lbs.

Being a new production area, insect and disease problems were rare for the first few years. Now, however, the banded sunflower moth has reached economic levels, and in 2008 one area grower suffered a severe infection of Sclerotinia head rot. Following significant banded moth damage in 2007, all of the county’s sunflower acreage was sprayed for the moth this year.

Even with very attractive prices and a history of strong yields, increasing the area’s sunflower acreage remains challenging. Some growers simply cannot move past the “weed” connotation. Crop insurance has been another stumbling block. “That’s a big item,” confirms Steve Yackley, manager of Helena Chemical’s Canby office. “They can take out crop insurance on corn and guarantee themselves $700-800 an acre. They can’t do that with sunflower because our [current] ‘T’ yields in Yellow Medicine County are just 1,100 pounds.” (That proven yield level apparently was based on a few years in the latter 1970s when some sunflower was grown in the area.)

Given 2008’s wet spring and delayed sunflower planting dates, the Yellow Medicine harvest was running later than normal. As of early October, about 700 acres of desiccated conoils had been harvested, according to Dave Dybsetter. Those four fields averaged about 2,900 lbs/acre (clean seed basis). “Yield monitors, properly calibrated, showed yields into the 4,000-lb range where better soils and moisture were prevalent,” he adds. Yields ran in the upper ’teens on lighter, drier soils.

Will this year’s prices and yields translate into more sunflower acres in the area in 2009? It’s early, of course, but Dybsetter doesn’t believe so. “At this time I think 2009 acres will be the same or slightly less than 2008,” he suggests. “Two current producers have indicated they [do] not plan to raise ’flowers in 2009. [But] this could change if markets of corn and/or soybeans are not as favorable as the contract price of sunflower.” — Don Lilleboe

* The term "conoil" refers to sunflower hybrids developed using both oil-type and confection parentage. Conoils tend to have higher oil content than traditional confection varieties and likewise tend to yield better. The main market for conoils is for use as kernels in the baking industry."
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