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Not Simple, Not Cheap

Tuesday, December 1, 2009
filed under: Hybrid Selection/Planting

Craig Gnos’ introduction to growing sunflower came as a young boy in the late 1970s, “knocking down the males and dodging bees” in the seed production fields managed by his father, Herman. Today, the Dixon, Calif., farmer is a hybrid seed producer himself, contracting fields with Pioneer Hi-Bred and Eureka Seeds in their respective production areas.

Planting, nurturing and harvesting seed fields in California’s Sacramento Valley simultaneously has similarities and differences with growing sunflower elsewhere in the country. Like commercial producers in the Upper Midwest and High Plains, Gnos shoots for early planting, proper fertility, good weed control and timely treatment for insects. But he also has to undertake some management steps quite different from his Great Plains counterparts — like planting certain rows on a different date than others, placing beehives throughout the field, and removing some of the rows once the bloom period is finished.

Along with sunflower, the Solano County producer’s rotation includes tomatoes, wheat, alfalfa, dry beans, corn for silage, and vine seed crops like watermelon, cucumber and squash. He won’t plant sunflower closer than every third year. Wheat is a preferred preceding crop, in part because it provides a good opportunity to kill any volunteer sunflower plants. But he’ll also commonly follow one of the vine seed crops. The sunflower is grown on 60-inch beds — two rows per bed, with irrigation furrows along both sides of the bed.

What’s the standard preseason and in-season management regimen? “If we’re following a wheat crop, we’ll disk two or three times [in the fall], run the tri-plane across to smooth it out, and put up the beds,” Gnos explains. “The beds will sit over winter, during which time we’ll also spray them (with a glyphosate product) to keep the weeds down.”

Planting typically occurs in April. The seed company decides which inbreds a grower will plant and supplies the seed, along with any necessary instructions on row configuration and timing of planting. “Depending on the variety, usually it’s the male first with a female delay of 10 days,” Gnos says. “So we’ll plant two rows of males and wait — depending on what the company wants — until it’s time to plant the females.” Sometimes, if the male is a mediocre pollinator, the grower may be asked to plant one male row first, wait several days, and then plant the second male row. That’s done to spread out the male bloom period to make sure there’s sufficient pollen available when the females are blooming.

“Usually Pioneer has us run a 2:10 (two rows of males and 10 rows of females),” Gnos indicates. That’s his preferred pattern since he owns two six-row Monosem precision planters. He’ll block off one row on each unit to plant 10 rows. (He uses a two-row Monosem to plant the male rows.)

Planting can stretch into May — even June, occasionally. When the sunflower plants are six inches to a foot in height, he’ll cultivate and simultaneously sidedress fertilizer (a starter will already have been applied), and then furrow irrigate. “We like to plant to moisture,” Gnos relates. If pre-irrigation is necessary prior to planting, he’ll form the ditches, run the water, generate weed emergence, work the beds and apply his preplant herbicide (Sonalan). In-season irrigations are usually two or three in number, depending upon the field and summer temperatures. A typical irrigation "set" is between 12 to 24 hours, depending upon the field. "About 1,000 feet is as long as we want to go," Gnos says. “If it’s longer than that, we’ll split the field and run a ditch down the middle.”

Arranging and paying for bee hives in the field is the grower’s responsibility. The typical contract calls for 1.5 hives for every acre. “As soon as the bees are ready to go, we’ll put traps in to see how many head moths we’re getting,” Gnos adds. “If the counts are high enough, we’ll spray before the bees [are placed in the field].” Sunflower head moth is the primary insect pest in California seed fields.

The bees remain in the field until bloom is completed and seedset is underway. That’s also the time when Gnos does the final irrigation.

The last field operation, prior to harvest, is to take out the male rows so they do not go to seed. Gnos uses a small tractor and disk for this task; other growers mow them down or drive through with a heavy roller. Harvest is again the grower’s responsibility, with the combine (axial flow is the preferred type) typically set to thresh as slow as possible to avoid seed damage. The crop is delivered directly to the seed company’s receiving/processing facility.

If the sunflower field is going back into tomatoes, Gnos works the ground right after harvest. If it will be planted to a vine seed crop like watermelon, he runs a stalk chopper through the field and lets the beds sit intact over winter.

Like other Sacramento Valley sunflower seed growers, Gnos is paid on a pounds-per-acre basis. Some inbreds and row configurations can be expected to produce more seed yield than others, so contracts are structured accordingly.

How do the economics of sunflower production compare with Craig Gnos’ other rotational crops? “It’s been very competitive the past few years,” he says. In 2008, for instance, tomatoes were Gnos’ most profitable crop, followed by alfalfa and then sunflower. Sunflower moved up to the number-two spot this year, after tomatoes.

Pete Knight can attest to both the rewards and challenges of raising hybrid sunflower seed. Knight, who farms near Hamilton City in Glenn County, has included sunflower in his rotation for about 25 years. Ten years ago, he figured he needed $700 an acre to break even with ’flowers (direct and indirect costs). As of 2009, that figure was closer to $950. The good news is, he’s been able to exceed that and make a reasonable profit.

With 16 crops in his portfolio, Knight is definitely a diversified farmer. Under that umbrella are corn, lots of vine seeds (watermelon, squash, cucumber, cantaloupe, pumpkin), and sometimes wheat and alfalfa. His biggest shift has been into more tree crops — a definite trend in his area. While it takes a lot more capital and time to establish a tree crop, the income from them is very attractive. Plus, one doesn’t have to plant a new crop each year.

While he is a self-confessed “row cropper at heart,” Knight emphasizes that he needs a minimum of three crops to make a rotation work. “And at least two of the three need to make economic sense in order to carry that third year. I’ve grown a lot of sunflower through the years, but I’ve also cut back from time to time, depending on what was good for the rotation,” he says.

Like Craig Gnos and other Sacramento Valley growers, Knight initiates the coming year’s planning and field preparation in the fall. “I’m making decisions in October: Is ‘this field’ going to be in corn, sunflower, vine seeds? I need to get all my seed prep work and bedding done prior to winter.” So when he pulls out of a field in October, “it’s ready to plant.” During the early winter months, “you’re putting on herbicides, keeping the beds clean — maybe take the Lilliston out there and work the beds a bit.”

On average, Knight will conduct six or seven field operations in the fall prior to bedding up. Along with two disking passes, he’ll chisel plow once, tri-plane once or twice and then furrow up. If, for some reason, that work can’t be completed in the fall, it likely will result in a delayed spring planting. Those preparation steps will still have to be accomplished — and there’s a good chance they’ll be interrupted by early spring rains.

“So in March, if everything has been prepped and we’ve had the right rains, I’ll plant to moisture,” Knight remarks. Not having to pre-irrigate saves time and money and also aids weed control.

Year in and year out, what are Pete Knight’s biggest challenges in growing hybrid sunflower seed? “The weather — just getting the crop established,” he answers. “We have the five- to 10-day splits on the male and female plantings, and Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate [in March or early April].

“Once you get a stand established early, you have a good shot at a good crop. Then it’s up to the ‘nicks’ (i.e., how well the male and female bloom periods mesh). One year the nick will work well at five-day splits; then the next year the weather changes and it’s 10 days.

“That’s our biggest hassle: getting the nicks right — especially on the new varieties.” — Don Lilleboe

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