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Seeing Double — And Liking It

Saturday, December 1, 2012
filed under: Planting Systems

Sometimes, seeing double while having a vision can be a good thing. Just ask Chad Vander Vorst and Karl Esping.

The two sunflower growers farm several hundred miles apart — Vander Vorst in south central North Dakota and Esping in east central Kansas. What unites them is an enthusiasm for twin-row production of sunflower and other row crops. It’s a system that is catching on with an expanding number of Great Plains corn and soybean producers — and now sunflower as well.

The twin-row concept of crop production takes the population of a single row — in a field of standard 30-inch rows — and “splits” it into two staggered rows that are 7.5 to 8 inches apart. That leaves about 22 inches between each set of the offset twin rows.

Great Plains Manufacturing, headquartered in Salina, Kan., has been a leader in the development of twin-row planters and promotion of twin-row crop production. Among the advantages of the twin-row system, says Great Plains, are the following:

• It utilizes a higher percentage of each acre. At a plant population of 38,000, the company says the area of an acre of corn used for root growth and moisture gathering is increased from 14.4% on single 30-inch rows to 44.5% with twin rows.

• Twin rows allow for more root mass. The more-equidistant spacing between plants, compared to single rows, encourages increased root development. Larger root systems, in turn, maximize nutrient retrieval and moisture absorption.

• The twin-row configuration optimizes utilization of sunlight and helps reduce evapotranspiration. More lower-level leaf surface is exposed to the sun, and more of the field surface is shaded, compared to single rows.

• Twin rows allow for increased populations. While this is more of an issue in corn compared to sunflower, the same “equidistance principle” applies. Great Plains points to twin rows as “the most effective way to maximize the distance between corn plants.”

• Twin rows enhance standability. “Larger stalks and increased root mass result in a plant that is stronger and better prepared to withstand high winds and storm damage,” Great Plains notes.

• Twin rows can be harvested with a conventional row-crop head — or, in the case of sunflower, with pans.

Great Plains Manufacturing currently markets twin-row planters ranging from four rows all the way up to 24-row units. It’s not the only company in the twin-row business, however. John Deere offers its 1700 twin-row planter series as well as the 1720 CCS twin row, and Kinze Manufacturing has a 16-row twin-row unit on the market for 2013. Also, Case IH has introduced a twin-row line for 2013, with row options ranging from eight to 16. (The Case planters are built by Great Plains.)

While corn and soybeans constitute the biggest acreage base for twin rows, the system’s agronomic advantages carry over into other crops — like sunflower, says Tom Evans, vice president-sales for Great Plains Manufacturing. “The precise depth control insures uniform emergence. Couple that with twice as much distance between seeds in the rows with twins over single 30s, and [it] gives each plant more area for root mass to build a bigger, healthier plant,” Evans observes. “Also, with more distance between plants, light is captured more efficiently and uniformly.”

Of course, for the producer, it all comes down to yield and net revenue. Chad Vander Vorst, who farms near Strasburg, N.D., planted 100% of his corn acreage to twin rows in 2012, along with about 80% of his sunflower and 60% of his soybeans. The remainder of his sunflower acreage was solid seeded. While Vander Vorst hasn’t been dissatisfied with solid-seeded ’flowers, he says he’ll likely be completely twin row in 2013.

“Solid-seeded ’flowers look really nice once they’re all canopied; but you still have your clusters — and I think that’s where you see the real advantage of twin rows: the more-precise singulation and seed placement,” Vander Vorst remarks. “And I think the twin rows have even more of an advantage in dry years like this one (2012), because you’re getting more root mass per plant.”

The Emmons County producer has bumped up his corn populations significantly with the twin rows. His twin-row sunflower count was about 23,000 last spring, compared to 26,000 on the solid-seeded. “You don’t see the yield response on ’flowers when you increase your population like you do with corn. Sunflower is more ‘forgiving’ when it comes to population,” he affirms. “With sunflower, I’m just going for a healthier plant.”

Vander Vorst has been using a 16-row Great Plains unit equipped with “AirPro” seed metering to plant his twin-row crops. Due to the number of acres he needs to cover, he’s planning on either adding another 16-row unit or going to a 24-row for 2013. “Since the AirPro came out, we’ve been totally impressed with [seed placement] accuracy,” he says.

All of Vander Vorst’s 2012 sunflower and soybeans went in on no-till ground, while the corn acreage was strip-tilled. He hopes to place at last part of his 2013 sunflower crop under a strip-till program “if we have time” for that spring tillage pass. “I’m a big believer in strip till,” he explains. “That’s where you can cut fertilizer, because you’re placing it right in the row, six inches below the seeds. With ’flowers you utilize your nitrogen so much better because those plants don’t need it until they’re hitting that depth anyway.”

It’s working. In 2011, Vander Vorst’s average sunflower yield, across 1,200 acres, was 2,850 lbs. “And I think we put down 100 lbs of nitrogen.” His average yield during the dry 2012 season ended up at 2,400 lbs on his twin-row fields — which was approximately 200 lbs higher than the average for the solid-seeded sunflower acreage.

Karl Esping farms near Lindsborg, Kan., only about 20 miles from Salina. Esping, who serves on the National Sunflower Association Board of Directors, was asked by Great Plains Manufacturing to use a prototype twin-row unit in 2012 to plant sunflower specifically. Except for some irrigated ground, all of his fields are under no-till.

Esping likes both the concept and the results behind his twin-row tryout. “The whole theory is to get more sun exposure to the leaves,” he points out. “When you’re in a straight line, the leaves are more compacted, and the sunlight doesn’t get well utilized by maybe more than a third or half of the plant.

“Also, it’s about root development. When you have plants in a 30-inch row every nine inches, those roots are jammed; where are they going to go? With the staggered plants in twin rows, those roots have access to more cubic inches of soil.”

Esping also is attracted to the ability to spray postemergent herbicides and insecticides with a ground rig, given the 22-inch space between each pair of twin rows. “I feel the ’flowers canopy quicker, too, so I’m going to have less weed competition,” he says.

The main challenge to date with the twin-row experience for Esping has been with fertilizer application. “I’m a sidedresser,” he notes. “I like to put my nitrogen on when the ’flowers are up so that I can see what kind of stand I have, the crop’s potential. This year, I wasn’t able to drive between these rows, though, so my nitrogen had to be applied preplant.”

Esping hasn’t invested in his own twin-row planter yet. “But I am fired up about this twin-row approach,” he affirms. That enthusiasm was bolstered further by the time he finished harvesting his 2012 sunflower crop in early November. The twin-row portion — which constituted about 25% of Esping’s ’flower acreage this year — outyielded the standard-row portion by about 220 lbs/ac.

— Don Lilleboe
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