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Early Northland Planting

Monday, February 5, 2018
filed under: Optimizing Plant Development/Yields

       Back in 1967, the University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension Service published a bulletin titled The Sunflower Crop in Minnesota.  Its lead author was Robert Robinson, longtime UM agronomist and pioneer sunflower researcher.  Under the section titled ‘Planting Time,’ Robinson and his co-authors wrote:
       “Sunflowers grow well under a wide range of planting dates. A satisfactory time for most years is from May 1 to May 25.  June is too late for highest yields.
       “Seasons and locations vary as to optimum planting date.  A good guide is to observe a field where sunflowers were planted the previous year.  When volunteer sunflowers are sprouting, it is time to plant.”
       Much has changed in the world of sunflower, of course, in the half century since that Minnesota extension bulletin was published.  Growers planted open-pollinated varieties back then, while hybrids rule the landscape today — hybrids whose yield potential and quality traits are far superior to anything available in the mid-1960s.  Modern-day seed treatments suppress seedling disease and protect against early season insect pests. Chemical weed controls for sunflower were virtually non-existent then; now, sunflower producers have access to excellent herbicide options (though their number is modest compared to that of large-acreage row crops like corn or soybeans). 
       Yet even with these advanced early season production tools, an early May planting date does not fit into the regimen for numerous northern sunflower growers — particularly in portions of North Dakota.
       How many northern growers do plant their sunflower in early May versus latter May?  While across-region numbers are subject to debate, Moorhead, Minn.-based Mycogen Seeds agronomist Bruce Due estimates that sunflower planting dates across Minnesota and North Dakota break down roughly this way:  5% prior to May 1; 25% between May 1-15; 50% between May 15-31; and 20% June 1 or later. 
       As to why even more producers don’t plant sunflower earlier than May 15 on average, Due suggests four main reasons:
  1. The ground is not ready, due mainly to cold and/or wet soil conditions (particularly in more-northerly locales).
  2. Growers are busy putting in other crops (wheat, corn, sugarbeets) that definitely respond to earlier planting, so sheer workload pushes sunflower’s delay.
  3. Concerns about spring frost potential and having to replant due to seedling frost damage.
  4. Stand establishment concerns stemming from unsatisfactory planting conditions and cold soil.
       Northwestern Minnesota producer Mike Bergeron does plant sugarbeets, wheat and corn.  But he’s also intent on planting sunflower as early as field conditions and soil temperatures allow.  That varies from year to year, of course.  While Bergeron and his R&B Growers partner Jon Ross prefer getting their confection ’flowers in the ground by no later than the first week of May, they “plant the conditions, not the calendar,” he emphasizes. 
       “Sunflower will germinate in 40-45° soil, and usually we wait until the ground is in the 52-55° range before we ‘pull the trigger,’ ” Bergeron says.  In 2012, they actually planted ’flowers on April 25 — but soil temperatures at the time ran 55° at the 4” depth, with continued heat in the forecast.  (The earliest planting date for crop insurance eligibility for sunflower in Polk County, Minn., is April 21.)
       Bergeron and Ross, who farm near Fisher, Minn., believe the risks that come with having their sunflower crop still standing in the field into October or later far outweigh any risk stemming from an early planting date.  On that back side, there’s the very real threat of inclement fall weather, resulting in stalk breakage, winds causing heads to bang against each other, seeds shelling out, and the like. 
       Also, Sclerotinia is a common problem among the area’s sunflower fields.  During August and September, under full canopy, the disease is spreading quickly until the first killing frost or the application of a desiccant.  “Our theory is, the sooner we can reach seed maturity, the sooner we can desiccate the sunflower to stop the spreading of the disease,” Bergeron states.  “We have been able to reach maturity (30-35% seed moisture) usually around the last week of August to the first week of September.  We feel by planting earlier, we are able to trim close to a month off ‘prime conditions’ for the disease to spread and infect the plants.
       “Our goal is to capture as many growing degree days as possible,” the Polk County producer concludes.  As to the threat of spring frost hurting the emerged crop, “sunflower is a pretty hardy plant,” he states.  “It can handle a frost very well in the early cotyledon stage.  We’ve been doing this (planting in late April/early May) for 20 years, planting as soon as conditions allow.  And we have yet to lose any to frost.”
       Fred Parnow and Luc Remillard agree.  “In more than 30 years, I haven’t seen frost-damaged sunflower in the spring to where they’re killed off,” says Parnow, who is Canadian business lead and U.S. processor relations lead for Nuseed. “It’s very rare.”  Remillard, who farms and operates Remillard Seed Farm near the southern Manitoba community of St. Joseph, plants sunflower the first week of May to optimize the shorter growing season at that latitude.  “I can’t remember the last time anybody [in the area] froze off because they seeded sunflower too early,” he says.
This photo of one of Luc Remillard's 2017 southern Manitoba sunflower fields was taken on June 4. The field had been planted on May 7.
      Tom Dowdle, who farms about 20 miles south of the Canadian border near Kennedy, Minn., likewise does not worry about emerged sunflower getting damaged by a late spring frost.  And, like Due, Bergeron, Parnow and Remillard, he points to several benefits at the other end of the growing season.  “By planting early, we get mature sunflower, we get the pounds we need, we avoid blackbirds — and we avoid bad fall weather,” Dowdle observes.  “And, the ’flowers dry down well out in the field.” 
       Plus, should high-temp or natural air bin drying be needed, it’s a lot easier to lower seed moistures in September than in late October or early November, he points out.  Finally, by harvesting sunflower in mid- or latter September, there’s the opportunity to take advantage of any market price opportunities if old-crop ’flowers are in short supply
       Dowdle, who also is a Minnesota Sunflower Council board member and Pioneer seed rep, says his customer base generally opts for an early May planting.  “As soon as the ground is fit, they get in and plant sunflower,” he relates.  “Years ago, when I first started farming, sunflower was typically the last crop planted in the spring.  But with the new hybrids we have, getting higher yields and oils along with a little better tolerance to frost when they first emerge, it’s just conducive to get them in as early as you can.” His preferred planting
range is within the first 10 days of May. 
       For oil-type sunflower producers, Dowdle also points to oil content as another component benefiting from an earlier planting date.  “Typically, when we plant later, our oil percent tends to drop off a bit,” he says.  And for those who are growing high-oleic ’flowers, there can be an effect on the oleic percent, he adds. 
       Nuseed’s Parnow believes that the benefits of earlier planting can extend into southern North Dakota as well as South Dakota.  “Growers who plant early in the Dakotas and Minnesota have changed their yield expectation,” he states.  “Farmers should have a minimum expectation of 2,500 lbs, with a target of 3,000 lbs.  People who plant early certainly do achieve these yield levels on a regular basis.”
       While readily acknowledging that the huge expansion in soybean acreage across northern North Dakota and Minnesota has pressured sunflower — both in terms of competing for acreage and waiting behind soybeans to be planted — Parnow believes sunflower still has much going for it across the northwestern Minnesota, northern North Dakota and southern Manitoba region.  “The return on investment for sunflower in a lot of these areas is better than for soybeans, provided you treat the crop right,” he states. 
         “Give it the focus you would give a high-value crop like edible beans, potatoes or sugarbeets.  If you give it that kind of management, you’ll be rewarded.”  And, he adds, nudging the planting date forward whenever Mother Nature allows can be one more step in achieving that reward at season’s end.
— Don Lilleboe
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