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Planting in 60” Rows

Thursday, December 1, 2011
filed under: Planting Systems

In south central South Dakota, growers often search for ways to deal with dry soils and find the best crops to cope with the conditions. Todd County producer Bill Huber says that with the lack of moisture in his area, he was looking for a miracle.

He turned to planting his sunflower and corn in 60-inch rows. While some might consider this on the “crazy” side, when Huber explains the benefits, it becomes apparent the ultra-wide rows may just be the miracle he was looking for.

The Idea’s Genesis

A few years ago, Huber had a chance to meet with some agronomists from South Africa about planting in wide rows. “At first it didn’t make sense to me; but for them it’s a matter of survival there in the arid regions,” Bill explains.

The primary benefit of the wide rows is water management. “First of all, we’re farming here in the desert,” quips Huber who farms near the town of Parmalee, S.D. “Our first concern is to conserve moisture. And what better way [to do that] than to have fewer plants competing for that precious moisture?”

This same concept of optimizing available moisture has been researched in skip-row planting, primarily for corn but also in sunflower. “Moisture utilization lies at the heart of how skip rows can benefit sunflower and other crops under dry conditions,” points out Joel Schneekloth, Akron-based regional water resource specialist with Colorado State University. “As the plant roots down, it will also root out away. If we have a larger space for the plant to root away from the row, we can utilize moisture at a later date when it’s critical — like during the reproductive stage.

“Whereas if you have planted in standard 30-inch rows, once those rows meet, that’s the end of the moisture between the rows,” Schneekloth continues. “So all the plant can do then is go down; and if there’s no moisture left going down, it’s ‘out of gas.’ ”

All of Huber’s 12,000 acres are in a no-till system — and have been for many years. This year he had 2,000 sunflower acres (all confection). He usually plants into corn stubble or occasionally after wheat, typically applying 60 to 80 lbs of ammonium nitrate fertilizer to start. He also adds 50 lbs of ammonium sulfate, which he says seems to help with what some might call the “sunflower hangover” to replenish the soil health.

Rebuilding the Planter

Huber’s planter, set for 30-inch rows, required a little ingenuity to adapt to the 60-inch row width. At first they tried to simply shut off alternating row units; but that wasn’t ideal, so they ended up disassembling the planter. “Our corn planter was getting worn out; and we’re the frugal type, so we rebuilt it,” Huber explains. “We reconfigured it and took half the units off and centered the planter on the 60-inch spacing — 12 rows, 60 feet.”

The wide row setup also has advantages from a mechanical standpoint, Huber says. “It’s a very simple planter, really, with 12 rows. Now we have half the row units and half the parts to mess with fixing and maintaining.”

Most of this year’s crop was planted in mid-June. Another half section was planted on July 11. “They actually made it,” he says happily. “I knew I was pushing it, but the planter was sitting there full of seed, so I gave it a shot.”

In his first year in the 60-inch rows, Huber was shooting for about 14,000 seeds per acre and ended up with a population of 12,500-13,000. This year he dropped it to 10,000 per acre with a projected in-row plant spacing of eight inches. Being in the wide rows, the plants have plenty of room to grow; and it’s evident by the robust plants that sunflower uses every inch it’s given to flourish.

Weed Management & Plant Health Benefits

This year’s crop was eight feet tall with a big, leafy canopy and huge, healthy stalks. The plants were as healthy as Huber has ever seen. “Plant health was excellent,” he says. “The seed fill and seed size looked good.” Since beginning to plant sunflower in 60-inch rows, his yields have averaged between 1,200 to 1,500 lbs/ac.

A healthy canopy also helps with weed control. “It’s kind of amazing — with the plants denser in the row, they get more leaves,” Huber explains. “We had complete row canopy this year.” To help with weed management before that canopy develops, Huber applies Spartan preplant or pre-emergence and then comes back with a postemergent grass herbicide usually tank mixed with an insecticide. They haven’t had an issue with insects in recent years, but in defense of the seed weevil, they are very adamant about regular treatment.

Crowded plants make for little air movement. And lack of air movement fosters disease. Huber credits the 60-inch row spacing with allowing more air movement between the rows. This, he says, has resulted in fewer fungicide applications. Huber reports few issues with rust or other diseases in his sunflower.

Planting on 60-inch rows and at a plant population of about 10,000 would accomplish two things that would help minimize disease, according to Tom Gulya, USDA-ARS sunflower plant pathologist. “One, the air flow through the canopy would lead to less dew formation, and thus fungal spores would be less likely to germinate and infect,” he explains. “Two, the stalk diameter would be significantly greater, and the stalks would be slower to succumb to stalk-rotting pathogens.”

Some might question whether it takes longer for such large, robust plants to dry down for harvest and pass through the combine. Huber says it’s not a problem with his all-crop header. As an added benefit, the healthy plant is stronger and better able to sustain fall wind and rain storms. “We had a terrible wind come through here [this fall],” he notes. “I plant my ’flowers in a north-south direction so the heads hang off to the east. This helps to cut down on the heads rubbing against neighboring plants, so there’s less shatter loss. Those huge stalks [allow them] to survive in the strong winds we get in the fall.”

This is the fourth year Huber has also planted his corn in 60” rows, and he’s

“absolutely, hands-down convinced it’s the way to go.” It’s difficult to argue with someone who has such conviction — especially when he is able to back it up with numbers.

“We’ve cut as good as 150-bushel or better corn,” Huber says. “Sure, we’ve had some around 80 bushels some years in some areas. But I’m convinced it’s the best for corn in my dry environment.”

Farming in a no-till system in a very dry area brings many challenges and often requires unconventional approaches — like this one. Bill Huber emphasizes they are doing whatever they can to be sustainable. “Sunflower may be more difficult to grow, but in the end they are worthwhile,” he remarks. “They pay you well.”

— Sonia Mullally
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