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Back After a Quarter Century

Monday, December 1, 2008
filed under: Harvest/Storage

by Bruce Hagen

I raised sunflower for eight years in the latter 1970s and early 1980s on my east central North Dakota farm. My last year in ’flowers was 1982, after which I dropped them from my rotation due to significant disease problems (mainly Sclerotinia) and a desire to expand my soybean acreage. Soybeans were doing quite well in our area at the time, and their acreage in Cass County has grown tremendously since then.

For the first time in 26 years, I decided to give sunflower another try in 2008. Why? Well, contract prices were very attractive, so that was obviously a big factor. Another important consideration was the existence of an Act of God clause in many sunflower production contracts. The availability of an AOG was really attractive — especially considering the number of hailstorms that have passed through our area the past couple years. So the bottom line was that I contracted to produce 310 acres of high-oleic sunflower on my farm during the ’08 season.

While some aspects of producing sunflower today are very similar to raising this crop 26 years ago, a lot has changed, too. The choices and quality of hybrid seed is one area where the difference is very notable. Sunflower seed companies have made huge strides in the range of hybrids available, as well as the characteristics of those hybrids. One item I really appreciate is the high oil content today’s hybrids are capable of — and the two-for-one market premium on oils over 40%.

Weed control is another area where the options have definitely increased. In the ’70s and early ’80s, we basically had Treflan and Prowl for grass control and not much at all for broadleaves. Multiple cultivations were the rule then rather than the exception.

I did not cultivate my 2008 sunflower ground even once. For weed control, I relied on a pre-emerge tank mix application of Spartan and Prowl H2O. The result was very good control of both grasses and broadleaves.

We planted in 22” rows this year — as compared to 30” rows in the “old days.” That resulting tighter plant canopy likely helped suppress weed growth as well.

The ability to use glyphosate as a “de facto” late-season desiccant is another nice tool sunflower growers now have. I did apply glyphosate this fall to hurry up plant drydown and hopefully lessen the effects of late-season winds and birds. Unfortunately, we had a cool and generally wet October, so the glyphosate didn’t work nearly as quickly as desired.

So how did my “re-entry season” into ’flowers end up?

Well, despite not having planted this crop for a quarter century, I still had a fair amount of Sclerotinia head rot in my high-oleic fields. That was probably due to the amount of moisture we received this summer/early fall, and to the presence of soybeans in the rotation on a regular basis in recent decades.

Despite the Sclerotinia, we ended up with an average yield of around 1,800 lbs per acre. Though I haven’t received all the reports as of this writing, oil content of our high-oleic seeds to date has been around 47-48%. That’s definitely going to help the bottom line, with the two-for-one premium.

I’ve already contracted to produce high-oleic sunflower again in 2009. I’ll have a few less acres next year, as contract prices aren’t as strong as for the ’08 season. All in all, I’m glad to be back in ’flowers — and hoping the good yields and profits will continue for years to come.

Bruce Hagen produces wheat, corn, soybeans and sunflower near Ayr, N.D., located in northwestern Cass County. He is a member of the North Dakota Wheat Commission, representing wheat producers in the southeast district of the state. A marketing graduate of the University of North Dakota, Hagen also has worked as a commodity broker.
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