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Ron Meyer: A High Plains Sunflower Pillar

Monday, October 22, 2018
filed under: Research and Development

       Ask anyone “in the know” about sunflower across Colorado and the High Plains in general whether they recognize the name Ron Meyer, and it’s very likely they’ll reply affirmatively.  Ask grower and industry leaders in the region to pick a “varsity team” of those who have most impacted the crop’s viability, and the name Ron Meyer will almost certainly make everyone’s list.
       Meyer, a North Dakota native and son of a carpenter/farmer, emigrated southward 850 miles in 1989.  Across the ensuing three decades, the Colorado State University extension agronomist has been a stalwart in sunflower research and education.  While his “official” position encompasses five eastern Colorado counties (Kit Carson, Yuma, Washington, Sedgwick and Phillips), his travels often carry him beyond those Golden Plains Area boundaries, into other Colorado counties, a chunk of Kansas, the Panhandles of Nebraska and Texas, and even back to North Dakota in frosty January for the annual National Sunflower Association (NSA) Research Forum. He has made sunflower presentations in 15 states and one foreign country.
       Though by nature a very modest individual, Meyer has plenty of admirers who have benefited from both his in-depth knowledge of sunflower and his inviting personality.  Karl Esping, current NSA president and farmer at Lindsborg, Kan., initially became acquainted with Meyer when they both were serving on the NSA High Plains Committee. “His expertise in sunflower production is unsurpassed,” Esping says, “and his ability to talk to producers on any level — in meetings or one-on-one — is a pleasure to witness.  He is a great asset to the sunflower industry.”
       Mike Williams of Lubbock, Texas, is managing director of procurement and Southern operations for Red River Commodities.  He also is an NSA board member and serves as the current chairman of the NSA High Plains Committee.  “Ron has been a member of the High Plains Committee for as long as I can remember,” Williams observes.  “When there is a task or the need to speak on behalf of the sunflower industry, Ron will always ask, ‘How can I help?’  He has made many presentations on growing sunflower and looks for ways to educate growers, as well as industry, on best practices.  He’s an excellent listener and teacher — a dear friend to farmers, industry . . . and myself.”
       Brad Warren, a producer from Keenesburg, Colo., and chairman of the Colorado Sunflower Administrative Committee (CSAC) for the past four years, is another Meyer fan. “Ron is the nicest guy you could meet,” he affirms.  Meyer, who has served as executive director of the CSAC since its formation in 2001, “actually offered to take a cut in travel expense reimbursement and covered those costs personally at a time when we weren’t bringing in much funding,” Warren recalls.
       “He’s the guy we go to whenever we have questions on insects, weeds or other issues — and he’s someone who always wants us to keep trying new things, keep pushing forward.”
North Dakota to Colorado
       Meyer split his youth between Minot, N.D., and the family’s farm near Karlsruhe. “Dad was a carpenter, as he needed off-farm income.  We’d live in town (Minot) during the winters; summers we’d move out to the farm,” he says.
       Following high school, where he was a state wrestling champion, Meyer attended Bismarck State College on a wrestling scholarship.  Upon earning an associate degree in agricultural business, Meyer headed east to Fargo, continuing to wrestle at North Dakota State University and eventually earning a B.S. degree in agricultural economics (minor in agronomy) in the spring of 1980.  In part because he had worked summers on an irrigated farm near Karlsruhe, the superintendent of the NDSU Carrington Research Extension Center, Howard Olson, hired Meyer to operate and manage the center’s irrigation program. 
       A couple years later, Meyer and his wife, Linda, decided if he wanted to continue working in agriculture, he needed to get an advanced degree.  Linda, an NDSU grad and social worker in Carrington, simultaneously wanted to earn a degree in elementary education.  “So we moved back to Fargo.”  The station held Meyer’s job, and they went to school winters, returning to Carrington during the summer months.  After receiving his M.S. degree in agronomy from NDSU, Meyer continued working at Carrington (total of nine years) until being hired by Colorado State University in 1989 and moving to Burlington.
       What prompted the move to Colorado?  “I wanted to work for extension,” he recalls.  “I was 100% research at Carrington, and the most enjoyable part about that job was talking to farmers about what we were finding.”
       After sending out his resumé to a number of institutions, the decision came down to offers from Iowa State University and Colorado State University.  “The Iowa job was on campus, and it just didn’t feel like ‘home’ to me.  This one (CSU) had a rural setting, and I loved living in a rural town.”  
       There were certain adjustments.  “I still remember my first winter (coming to eastern Colorado from North Dakota),” Meyer chuckles.  “I didn’t wear a jacket, and the people here looked at me like I was nuts.
       “I’d never seen open water in January until I got here!”
Envisioning Sunflower’s Potential
       As an area extension agronomist, Meyer always has worked with several crops. When he arrived in Kit Carson County, wheat and corn were chief among them (and remain so today).  Sunflower was definitely a minor one.  There had been a small acreage grown in the area earlier in the ’80s, but when he asked growers about their sunflower experience, their answers were consistent:  “They told me, ‘I sold them for a nickel a pound, and I couldn’t get paid.’ So there must have been some independent contractors who shipped the seeds out — and then did not pay the growers.”  Northern Sun/ADM had not yet started buying and crushing sunflower at its Goodland, Kan., plant as of that era, nor had most current confection processors yet initiated operations in the High Plains.
       Having come from North Dakota and being familiar with sunflower, Meyer saw solid potential for the crop in that part of the High Plains.  But there wasn’t much local research to draw upon at the time. So he and CSU entomologist Stan Pilcher initiated sunflower trials.  
       “In science, early discoveries are found quickly, and we answered a lot of basic questions about sunflower production in the High Plains with our on-farm trials,” Meyer recalls.  “In addition, sunflower was a new enough crop in the area that I had to plant some of our on-farm sunflower research into pinto bean fields.  That shows the patience and support some of our growers had with my research requests.” 
       Date of planting studies came first.  “We started planting in early May and finished up right before the 4th of July, having no clue which ones would be better,” Meyer recalls.  Their studies showed the period between the third week in May to the second week in June as most suitable for eastern Colorado plantings. “The next question I asked was, ‘Do earlier plantings enhance or degrade yields?’ ”  The answer was neither: May 1st plantings didn’t hurt or help, compared to latter May/first half of June.  “But we did find that with planting dates of about June 10 or later, yields — and quality — started to drop,” Meyer says.
       Meyer and Pilcher likewise discovered that first-half-of-June planting dates resulted in fewer insect problems (head moth and seed weevil), compared to earlier plantings.  “And then, the later you planted, you had almost no bug issues.”  Taking the insect factor into account narrowed that wide optimum-planting window down to the first couple weeks of June.  The window worked nicely for corn producers, who were done planting corn by mid-May.
       Additional early research looked at topics like seed size (smaller sizes emerged better in eastern Colorado’s dry, hot planting-time environment), plant populations (one management category where the Northern Plains recommendations transferred well), planting depth (2.0 inches was best), fertility and weed control.
       “We were full tillage back in the early ’90s around here,” Meyer adds.  “That’s another thing we found out:  wheat stubble makes the best seedbed for any crop other than wheat.  So the wheat-sunflower-fallow rotation really worked nicely with no-till.”  The evolvement of planting equipment that cut through heavy crop residue was, of course, another big factor in the movement toward minimum- and no-till.
       Annual sunflower variety trials became another key facet of Meyer’s work with this crop, as he and his team placed trial sites around the five-county area and beyond.  “We don’t have an experiment station close to me, so most of my trials are performed on-farm. Some years I have 20 sites with various crops,” he notes.
Growth in Markets, Interest
       As the CSU group developed more sunflower data, they shared their findings with growers at winter meetings and summer field days.  Struggling corn market prices helped spark more interest in sunflower, as did the establishment of new High Plains outlets for the crop. Northern Sun (ADM) began crushing oil-type sunflower at Goodland in the early ’90s.  Confection processors started contracting in the region, as did, later on, Colorado Mills, a crush plant at Lamar.  “The interest was building, and those companies also saw the potential here. Once they moved in, the ‘sell’ got easier because there were ready markets — strong markets,” Meyer observes.  “That helped tremendously in terms of interest in growing sunflower.”
       That’s not to say there weren’t setbacks or that acreage rose consistently.  A sunflower rust epidemic in the mid-1990s, for instance, devastated numerous confection fields, souring growers’ confidence. Still, Colorado’s planted sunflower acreage climbed from 63,000 in 1991 to 270,000 in 1999.  Since then, it dropped to 100,000 as of 2006, way down to 46,500 in 2014 — and popped back up to 90,000 in 2018.  “There is a core group of sunflower growers in the state who have the crop in their rotation strategy,” Meyer observes.  
       Strong corn prices played a key role in the lower sunflower acreage of recent years, Meyer affirms.  So too has the entrance of Roundup Ready® corn and the biotech traits built into the newer corn hybrids for insect control.  Also, “as with any new crop, if growers don’t have a good experience the first year, ‘it’s the crop’s fault,’ and they’re hesitant to come back,” he says. “That took place for quite a few guys (with sunflower); for whatever reason, yields were off and/or bug numbers were up.”
       “However, recent genetic improvement has improved yield performance tremendously,” Meyer adds.  “In fact, a couple of years ago I was able to harvest 4,998 lbs/ac off an elite irrigated trial.  That got everyone’s attention about crop potential.”  
       The well-documented declining levels of the Ogallala Aquifer have also played into sunflower’s fortunes, to a degree.  Back in the early ’90s, the Ogallala was still in decent shape, Meyer says. “But irrigating growers were looking for ways to cut (pumping) costs — and you could apply less water on sunflower. Around here, sunflower takes about 20 inches of water a year; with corn, you start at about 22 and need to go to 26 inches.”
       While pumping capacity on most wells back in the ’90s was around 700-750 gpm, “many of our wells are now less than 600 gpm,” Meyer notes.  That reality has prompted more growers to go to split pivots. “Corn is their choice,” he states, “because we have feedlots all around us.  We’re a net corn importer, and sometimes our basis for corn is positive just because there’s a strong market locally.
       “But while corn is a really important crop here, it takes a lot of water.  Our yields have been dropping on corn because we don’t have quite enough water to support the big yields anymore.  As you go north into Yuma County, they still have good water; but we’re kind of the ‘beach area’ (in Kit Carson).  Our water is receding.”
       As a result, some local growers don’t have enough water for a full 130-acre pivot of corn.  “Some wells are now down to 2.0 gpm per acre.  That’s just not enough.  So some producers are splitting pivots, growing a low-water-use crop on one side and corn on the other,” Meyer relates.  “That low-water crop can be wheat or sunflower.  With sunflower, the strategy usually is to prewater the sunflower ground and then plant into good moisture.  Then the rest of the year, their irrigation is focused on the corn.”
Sunflower’s Challenges
       Competing with corn and maintaining healthy market prices are obvious challenges as sunflower acreage dips and rises across eastern Colorado and adjacent districts of Kansas and Nebraska.  
       Production-wise, what are some of today’s main challenges from Ron Meyer’s perspective? “Plant stands,” he replies.  “I tell folks, for me the toughest part about growing this crop (particularly under dryland conditions) is getting a strong stand.  We have ‘slopped in’ wheat and it emerges.  With sunflower, you have to put it into moisture: you need to be 2.0 to 2.25 inches deep, and the weather has to cooperate.
       “We know small seed sizes emerge better than large, so I tell folks: If you’re planting confections, order early, get the smallest seed size you can.  And if you have to plant large seed sizes out here, bump up your planting rates.”
       Then there is broadleaf weed control.  “We’re a bad kochia area.  It loves it here — a perfect environment for kochia,” Meyer emphasizes.  The registration of Spartan® on sunflower was a huge development, he affirms, “because with corn, you can go in and rescue for broadleaf weeds; with sunflower, there was no rescue treatment.” With most kochia in the area now resistant to glyphosate, Spartan has taken on a special importance.
       Still, for growers following wheat with sunflower, “the time to take out broadleaves is when you have wheat, because there are a lot of broadleaf products available in wheat.  Clean up your field, and then come back with sunflower.  If you have a grass problem you can apply pre- or postemerge products. Grasses are easy to take out of sunflower; broadleaves aren’t.”
       As to insects, primarily the head moth and seed weevil, “we’re in good shape,” Meyer professes.  “We have a big list of available insecticides, and they’re working.  I tell folks, ‘Everything’s working.  We haven’t found resistance to products, so pick an economical one and run with it.
       “The good news is, we’re not using the same product every year.  They’re not spraying very many insects in corn, and in wheat we have the Russian wheat aphid but no sunflower bugs.  So I think there’s enough rotation and products that we’re OK from an insecticide resistance standpoint.”
A Satisfying Career
       Meyer left his CSU position for three years (2007-10) to become a local field advisor for Monsanto.  The ability to remain in Burlington was a major consideration in taking that job, and he enjoyed the new challenge.  A reorganization within Monsanto, however, meant he would have to leave the area to stay with the company.  Ironically, CSU had never filled his five-county extension post during his absence, and the university invited Meyer back.  He accepted without reservation; no retraining required.  “I opened my office desk drawer, and the pencils were right where I had left them three years before!” he quips.                                            
      While a big portion of Ron Meyer’s professional career continues to focus on corn and wheat, sunflower remains an important component — and one that he continues to enjoy and appreciate. Since it’s a relatively small industry, he’s able to interact with other researchers from across the spectrum, both public and private.  Those relationships have increased since he became a member of the National Sunflower Association Research Committee.  “I’ve learned so much from other researchers,” Meyer affirms.  “It’s so worthwhile to talk to these people first-hand, whether it’s about bugs, diseases or herbicides.  There’s a lot of expertise out there.”
       Meyer also remains a central figure on the Colorado Sunflower Administrative Committee (CSAC).  He was in the small group — mainly growers — that originally promoted the idea of a checkoff organization back in the late ’90s, and it became a reality in 2001. Meyer has served as its executive director ever since.
       The main impetus behind the CSAC’s formation was to garner more funding for sunflower research, and that remains its top priority.  About 60% of Colorado checkoff monies are forwarded to the National Sunflower Association, which combines those contributions with that from other states to fund a broad scope of research (based upon recommendations from the NSA Research Committee).  “Much of that research also works back this way, toward our growers here in Colorado,” Meyer emphasizes.
       Kit Carson County, Meyer’s home base, remains the top wheat county in Colorado with 300,000-plus acres.  “But we’ve never shied away from sunflower work,” he stresses.  “This crop is important to this county, it’s important to eastern Colorado — and it’s important to the High Plains.  
       “Plus,” he smiles, “I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it,”  
 — Don Lilleboe                                    n
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