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Is Sunflower a Good Fit for CRP Acres?

Sunday, April 1, 2012
filed under: Rotation

As the familiar saying goes, land is always valuable because they aren’t making any more of it. With the recent increases in commodity prices, farmers are eyeing land in the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) with expiring contracts to be converted back to crop production. In many cases, this might make economic sense. But there are a number of factors to consider.

About 30 million acres currently are enrolled in the CRP program — and contracts on an estimated 6.5 million acres will expire on September 30, 2012. Nearly 3.5 million of those acres are within the seven sunflower-producing states located in the central part of the country.

North Dakota will have the most land coming out of the program with an estimated 838,223 acres, followed closely by Texas at 827,750 acres. Among other key sunflower production states, the acreage numbers are: South Dakota — 224,863; Minnesota — 290,064; Kansas — 517,577; Colorado — 569,560; and Nebraska — 201,309.

Each state’s situation may be different. In North Dakota, for instance, officials estimate that roughly 25% of the land with expiring CRP contracts in 2012 will be re-offered with land owners reapplying for the program. And of those acres, not all will be accepted. At one point in 2007, the state had more than 3.3 million acres in CRP. Once contracts expire this year, the total will likely be less than half that amount statewide. So a vast amount of land has come back into production over the past five years.

“With high commodity prices, our rental rates have not been able to keep up with the land rental rates,” says Jay Hochhalter, state conservation specialist with the North Dakota office of USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Renters are willing to pay higher rates than what the CRP payments offer the land owner — and not just in North Dakota. Many other states also have renters willing to pay top dollar looking for land to farm.

With crop prices at high levels and demand for more cropland acres increasing, producers have the potential to benefit greatly by bringing a significant amount of land back into production. With contracts expiring this fall, the land will be ready for production for the 2013 crop year.

Will sunflower have a shot at gaining any of these acres?

Farmers say it would depend on a number of factors, including rotation and prices. It also would depend on the condition of the land pertaining to the reason it went into CRP in the first place.

Byron Richard, a western North Dakota farmer who has broken up thousands of acres of CRP land, says he has tried sunflower on some of those acres with a great deal of success. He says success is dependent on the prep work regarding burndown. Another reason he likes sunflower in CRP ground is the option for a post-plant application for grass control.

“One of our main problems was probably getting all that alfalfa out of there,” Richard explains. “But we go in with a high rate of glyphosate – around two quarts. We do a good summer burndown in June, and, thanks to the leftover root system, there’s good moisture retention over the next several months.”

Hans Kandel, North Dakota State University extension agronomist, says sunflower would be a good fit for land coming out of CRP. He, like Richard, says it boils down to the preparation work that lays the foundation for success.

Probably the most important factor when going onto CRP ground is for the farmer to ask, “Why was this piece of land put into CRP?” If the land was placed into CRP because it was subpar, then it will probably still have those same problems. So any particular problem initially will need to be addressed as that land is converted back into production.

Once the background of the land is understood, current issues can better be dealt with moving forward. Kandel was a contributing author on a publication released by the NDSU Extension Service in June of 2008 titled, Bringing Land in the Conservation Reserve Program Back Into Crop Production or Grazing. The publication is online at: at Bringing Land Back from CRP.

It’s important to note, the publication states, how sunflower fits with the three major agronomic factors that should be considered when deciding on which crop would be the best fit after CRP. They are: (1) residue, (2) weed control and (3) soil water. The publication offers a concise synopsis of the pros and cons associated with different crops considered on CRP acres. The pros associated with sunflower are: (1) It allows time for spring weed control. (2) Planting is later, compared with other crops. (3) It is not susceptible to grass diseases. (4) It is a deep-rooted crop.

• Spring Weed Control — Since most CRP land has a grass cover crop, Kandel recommends seeding a broadleaf crop like sunflower because there are more options for controlling grassy weeds. Sunflower with Clearfield® or ExpressSun® traits would be the best option in this case. Pretreating this ground with a fall application of glyphosate and a repeat application in the spring is recommended to kill the top growth prior to planting. Postemergent grass herbicides offer better control of volunteer CRP grasses during the growing season.

• Later Planting — Cool soil temperatures are associated with heavy residue. Since sunflower is planted later in the season, the soil would have a chance to warm up. A later planting date would also allow sufficient time to apply a glyphosate burndown in the spring prior to planting.

• Not Susceptible to Grass Diseases — As a broadleaf, sunflower would not be prone to grass diseases that could be present in CRP.

• Deep Rooted — In the fall, soils in CRP ground generally have low levels of stored moisture because the established plants (mostly grasses) have been using soil water during the growing season. Even though sunflower has a high water requirement, it has a deep root system that will make use of the soil profile moisture.

Kandel says probably the number one issue with sunflower will be the difficulty farmers may have in establishing a good plant stand in heavy residue on CRP acres. The sunflower crop survey that he coordinates each year has pointed toward inadequate plant stand as the number one yield-limiting factor. “This is, in my mind, the key issue,” he says. “From the survey, we know that plant stand within the row and plant population are major production issues. Having a lot of residue will increase the risk of planting seeds that will not be able to germinate.”

This is an important factor when considering tillage methods on CRP acres. While conventional tillage may look attractive to battle weeds and heavy residue, this is not ideal, for many reasons. Tillage will promote erosion — which is quite possibly the reason the land was placed into the conservation program in the first place. Full tillage would help warm up the soil; but it likely would also result in a considerable reduction in soil moisture, which is needed for optimal crop growth.

Byron Richard adds that with the advent of vertical tillage, he has had no problem establishing a good sunflower stand despite the heavy residue in the CRP acres. “The vertical tillage has changed things, allowing us to manipulate the residue without degrading the soil,” he says. “With this method, we’ve been able to come in with a hoe drill or planter with no problem getting our sunflower planted. And we’ve ended up with average to above-average yields.”

Each crop brings advantages and disadvantages when it comes to a choice for CRP acres. The cons associated with numerous crops, including sunflower, are: fertilizer requirements, soil insects and perennial broadleaf weeds.

• Fertilizer requirements — With nearly every crop going into CRP acres, fertilizer needs are of great importance. While sunflower is known for its taproot going after soil nutrients deep in the soil profile, the existing grasses also have long roots that are able to mine the nutrients. Nitrogen almost certainly will be low — and, with the high levels of residue with high carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, will be released more slowly than when following a crop without added N. “With no nitrogen having been applied in maybe 10 years or more on CRP ground, a farmer will typically see low levels in the soil,” Kandel explains. “Fertilization will need to take place.”

This is why a soil test is a must, with application of NPK likely required on most fields. “Producers could go back to pre-CRP records and see what soil fertility issues there were at that time,” Kandel states. “These same issues will still be there. Most nutrients that were available were probably used by the CRP vegetation.”

The 2008 NDSU publication recommended that farmers consider adding 20 to 25% more N than to normal cropland. Phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) levels are not likely to be reduced substantially from that before the land was placed in CRP, as there has been little removal by harvesting a crop. But the nutrients may not be readily available to the crop planted after breakup of CRP.

The guide goes on to state that if the CRP was hayed during drought years, significant P and K removal may have resulted from forage removal. Applying sufficient N for a crop like sunflower can be a challenge when no-till is used because the needed rate will be high and surface applications are not recommended due to the high risk of loss through volatilization.

• Insects — When it comes to insects, as with any sunflower ground, scouting and watchful diligence are the best forms of defense. Broadspectrum insecticides are recommended to control pests.

• Broadleaf Weeds — While grasses are of greatest concern in CRP, broadleaf weeds are also a problem — especially early in plant establishment. Cultivation alone will not give satisfactory control of CRP vegetation. Herbicide application in the fall and spring should also combat these weeds. For a good source for information on herbicides for sunflower to kill weeds in CRP, see the NDSU weed science document: Weed Control Guide.

While making plans for the switch from CRP back into cropland, it’s important to recognize that there will be a yield drag as the land is coming into production. Kandel cautions growers to be aware that they will not get 100% of their potential yield; so when doing cash flow projections, this should be a consideration.

Transitioning land that has been idle in CRP — even if it was hayed or seeded with a cover crop — is similar to breaking up the prairie. There is no easy answer to the question of the best way to do it. Each situation will come down to the farming system utilized in each operation and the moisture conditions of the soil at the time.

Not all states are in the same boat when it comes to land conditions and moisture levels. In Northern Plains states, as well as Kansas and Nebraska, rental rates have spiked recently from farmers eager to develop more land and take advantage of the high commodity prices. In those states, renters are lining up to take over land, and landowners will not be as likely to attempt to re-enroll their land into CRP.

However, in states like Texas and Oklahoma, where drought conditions are severe, renters aren’t as willing to take the risk and pay more for land rent than the CRP program offers. In these states, landowners may re-apply to the CRP program and not be as motivated to put land back into production due to the dry conditions.

Whatever the situation, one of the goals should be preserving as much organic matter as possible for the overall health of the soil. Farming practices have come a long way since much of this land went into the CRP program. Thanks to the management practices noted above and the refinement of no-till and minimum-till practices, farmers are better equipped to maximize acres coming out of the program than ever before.

— Sonia Mullally
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