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A ‘Phenomenal’ Season

Wednesday, March 29, 2017
filed under: Marketing/Risk Management

Mark Keller
     Mark Keller farms on the flat southeastern edge of the Red River Valley, near Tintah, Minn.  He’s surrounded by square and rectangular fields of corn and soybeans (both of which he produces), as well as sugarbeets and, to a lesser extent in recent years, wheat.  After a big presence in the late 1970s, sunflower largely disappeared from the area in the early ’80s, though the occasional ’flower field still could be found across the ensuing decades.
       Although he has sold sunflower seed to other farmers during the past 15 years through his dealership, Keller Ag Services, Keller did not grow the crop himself until 2015, when he planted one field of oils.  Part of his reasoning: “I thought, ‘You sell it.  Why don’t you plant it?’ ” 
       Then, in 2016, the Traverse County grower jumped in with both feet, planting a quarter section of oils and a half section of confection sunflower.  The motivation was, not surprisingly, both economic (attractive contracts on each type) and agronomic.  He had some ground with iron chlorosis, high salts, high pH.  “Soybeans often don’t do well there,” Keller notes, “and we knew ’flowers could mine some of that.”
       Mark Keller’s 2016 foray into sunflower turned out to be an excellent decision.  His oil-type ’flowers yielded 2,750 lbs/ac with oil content averaging above 45%.  The 310 acres of confections ran 2,500 lbs-plus with a 20.2-lb test weight and 51.6% above 24/64 seed size. 
       “Phenomenal,” is Keller’s one-word summation of last season.  On the oil-type sunflower field, given its yield and oil content, “I figured out that my return was comparable to 60-bushel beans.”
       Keller initially had intended the half section of confections to go into corn in 2016, so had fertilized accordingly with P and K the prior fall.  He didn’t apply any fall nitrogen “because we don’t want any of our N to leach.”  After deciding to go with the confection ’flowers, he spring applied 50 lbs of N.  “I backed down about 20 lbs from the recommendation,” he says, “ because I knew my 12-inch and two-foot soil samples were high (in N).  I wanted the sunflower to mine that — tried to save some money and have the ’flowers ‘do what they’re supposed to do.’ ”
       In another twist, he opted to have Monty Wiertzema plant his confections.  Wiertzema, who farms near Campbell, Minn., just down the road from Tintah, also is a district manager for Premium Ag Solutions, a Precision Planting dealer. 
“I couldn’t get my planter as accurate as Monty’s on the [test] stand; and I knew with the confections, I’d need high placement accuracy for [optimum] seed size,” Keller explains.  Wiertzema likewise asked to conduct a test plot in Keller’s confection field to measure the effect of utilizing Precision Planting’s DeltaForce™ and vDrive™ systems.
       Wiertzema employed four approaches across the three-replication 0.9-acre test plot:  (1) 0 lbs static downforce; (2) 125 lbs static downforce; (3) 250 lbs static downforce; and (4) DeltaForce Automatic.  A factory combine yield monitor weighed harvested results. 
       On the low side, the “0 lbs” downforce yielded 2,608 lbs/ac, while on the high end, DeltaForce Automatic yielded 2,874 lbs.  The “125 lbs” yield was 2,793 lbs/ac, while the “250 lbs” downforce came in at 2,779 lbs.  Based on Keller’s contract price, they calculated the revenue difference between the “0 lbs” downforce and the DeltaForce Automatic to be $69.33/ac.  (DeltaForce Automatic was used across the remainder of the half section.)
       “As much as the downforce helped, I think the metering (vDrive) had just as much to do with [Keller’s confection field spacing accuracy and final yields],” Wiertzema adds.  “We used the corn plate; Mark told me what he wanted for population, and we just dialed it in.  It was a checkerboard.
       “It’s simple agronomics.  Are the plants going to do better if they have equal spacing between all of them?”
       Helping weed suppression is one of the benefits of a consistently even plant population, Wiertzema and Keller point out.  “A lot of what we see around here (in terms of hard-to-manage weeds) is a result of resistance to glyphosate,” Keller states, referencing kochia, waterhemp and ragweed specifically.  “I think that’s another opportunity for ’flowers: getting a different chemical program out there, a different mode of action.”  A pre- application of SpartanElite®, aided by a rapidly developed crop canopy, provided good weed control on Keller’s oil-type sunflower acreage.
       The confection field was seeded to a Clearfield® hybrid.  Along with the Beyond® herbicide, the confection ground also received two insecticide treatments (the second by plane), as well as Headline fungicide for overall plant health.  Keller likewise treated the confections with hydrogen peroxide (35% food grade formulation), of which he is a certified retailer.  He also had the aerial applicator include some peroxide when the field was desiccated prior to harvest.
       Mark Keller’s 2017 planting season will, not surprisingly, again include sunflower.  His oil-type acreage, contracted with Cargill, will be down slightly from last year due to rotational considerations.  As in 2016, he’ll place sunflower on some of his higher-salt, higher-pH ground.  Monty Wiertzema will plant Keller’s confection sunflower crop again this year. 
       But agronomics aside, Mark Keller’s motivation for growing sunflower, like everyone else, comes down to anticipated net revenue.  “It’s the dollars at the end of the day,” the western Minnesota producer affirms.
Don Lilleboe                    
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