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Yield & Test Weight

Thursday, January 3, 2019
filed under: Optimizing Plant Development/Yields

R&B Growers partners Mike Berg- eron (left) and Jon Ross (right) pause during planting of their 2018 sunflower crop near Fisher, Minn.
       Like any sunflower operation, R&B Growers focuses on two things — yield and quality — to make the bottom line as attractive as possible, come year’s end. But oil content isn’t in that “quality” category (they grow strictly confections), nor is seed size (the large-seed human in-shell market is not their target).  Instead, for R&B Growers partners Jon Ross and Mike Bergeron, “quality” comes back to test weight.
       Ross and Bergeron farm at Fisher, Minn., in northwestern Minnesota’s Polk County. There are not nearly as many sunflower fields dotting Polk County as a few decades ago; but for Ross and Bergeron, it is definitely still a profitable crop — one that rewards them handsomely for the inputs and management they invest in it.
       R&B Growers contracts with D&D Commodities of Stephen, Minn.  D&D retails several lines of premium products for the bird food market, including Wild Delight®, 3-D® Pet Products, L’Avian™ Plus, Better Bird™ and Backyard Delight™.  The company also offers private-label services and products for caged birds, small animals, wild birds and other outdoor pets.  Much of the R&B Growers’ production ultimately ends up in the larger caged-bird (e.g., parrots) product category.
       “We’re basically paid on test weight” with the D&D contract, Bergeron affirms. “With confections, most people are going for seed size; we’re going for test weight.”  They need at least a 23-lb test weight to meet contract specifications, but they’ve regularly been able to achieve around 25-26 lbs.  
       Ross and Bergeron take a multi-faceted approach to meet their test weight requirements.  
       • First, they plant a hybrid with a proven strong test weight (Nuseed’s Panther DMR was their choice in 2018); plus, they use the highest labeled rate of Dynasty® seed treatment.  
       • Second, they seed at a higher rate (22,000/acre) than they would if growing for the human in-shell market. “That’s to keep [the plants] a little closer and keep our seed size down, while ending up with a more-plump kernel,” Bergeron says.  
       • And finally, they fertilize for top yields — typically 3,500 lbs/ac.  While they’ve not yet topped that mark, 2018 was the closest they’ve come. This past season’s crop ended up averaging 3,280 lbs/ac.
       Sunflower follows sugarbeets in the R&B Growers rotation.  Ross does the fall soil sampling, in zones.  AGVISE Laboratories of Northwood, N.D., conducts the compilation and analysis to develop fertility recommendations for the upcoming sunflower crop.  Beet top imagery taken prior to harvest provides an indicator of relative nitrogen levels in respective field areas, (e.g., dark areas on the images could indicate 30 units of soil N; lighter spots, perhaps 10 units).  “The soil test then gives us the ‘ground truth’ reading to find out how much N is actually there for the sunflower,” Bergeron notes.
       Soil variability was, not surprisingly, greater when they initially began using zone-based applications.  “Fifteen or more years ago, when we first started using zone, we had anywhere from 60 to 80 units of N variance between zones,” Bergeron says.  “Now we’re a lot tighter — 20 to 25 units difference at most.”
       There’s no skimping when it comes to fertilizing for the upcoming sunflower crop, he emphasizes.  “We push the envelope a little on nitrogen; and with the P and K, we push even harder. Our philosophy is, ‘Why short yourself on fertility — especially if growing conditions are highly favorable?’ We’re not going to ‘lose’ that fertility in the soil.  We don’t have much leaching, as our soils are pretty tight.”
       Seedbed prep for the sunflower crop begins the previous fall. “We usually give it one tillage pass just to get out the ruts from the sugarbeet harvest,” Bergeron notes.  Fertilizer goes on with their air seeder in either the fall or spring, depending on conditions and available time; and a strip-till pass immediately before planting provides the final step toward an excellent seedbed.
       While Ross and Bergeron want their sunflower in the ground by the first week of May at latest, they emphasize that soil conditions — not the calendar — dictate the planting date.  They prefer to wait until soil temps are around 52-55 degrees before pulling the sunflower planter into the field.  “Our goal is to capture as many growing degree days as possible,” Bergeron states. Across two decades, they’ve never lost any ’flowers to a spring frost — even though they have planted as early as April 25.
       Their sunflower is seeded in 22-inch rows, the standard for sugarbeets in the Red River Valley.  That row width fits in well with their 22,000 seed drop and a resulting in-row spacing of about 12.5 inches between plants, Ross explains.  Planting on sugarbeet ground also gives them an early season edge over cutworms since they apply Counter® insecticide for that insect’s control in beets.
       For all their row crops, Ross and Bergeron have been using a 2003 24-row JD MaxEmerge™Plus planter, changed over in 2006 from its original meters to Precision Planting’s eSet meters.  They also installed the 20/20 SeedSense monitor and, a few years later, the AirForce pneumatic air bag system for more-consistent depth control.
       For 2019, they have switched to a new 24-row high-speed JD ExactEmerge™.  Its hydraulics will give them significantly faster execution of upforce or downforce, along with individual row flexibility.  Individual-row electric motors also facilitate shutoffs for planting irregular shapes and filling in field ends.  “With the new seed brush delivery system of the ExactEmerge, we will be able to achieve higher planting speeds without sacrificing seed spacing,” Bergeron adds.  While Deere says 10 mph ground speed is feasible, “we would be just fine with the 7-mph range.”
       Though sunflower is a compensating plant, Ross stresses that he and Bergeron still place great emphasis on consistent seed spacing — in part because of their end market.  “Population and spacing directly affect the final seed size,” he points out.  “We produce for a niche market; and for their packaging, they need to have that 23-lb test weight.”
       While they would welcome additional herbicide options for the sunflower crop, Ross and Bergeron are generally quite satisfied with their weed control — with 2018 being an especially good season in that regard.  Building on strong control in their other rotational crops (e.g., Roundup Ready® sugarbeets and soybeans), they count on Spartan preplant and Select, if needed, for grass control.  They’ll also cultivate once shortly prior to canopy closure.
       A tank mix of insecticide (mainly for seed weevil and banded moth) plus fungicide (split application of 2/3 Headline and 1/3 Folicur) goes on at about 15% bloom. Both fungicides are effective on rust; plus, “Headline is more of a preventative plant health [product]; and Folicur is so inexpensive,” Bergeron points out.  
       They’ve largely been able to avoid serious late-season Sclerotinia losses due to their extended rotation (sunflower only once every five or six years) and — in 2018 especially — weather unconducive to the disease’s development. A harvest-aid glyphosate treatment in early September once the seeds are at 30-35% moisture also helps them get the crop off sooner and reduce Sclerotinia problems.
       Ross and Bergeron prefer to harvest their sunflower at 12-14% moisture to get the crop out of the field and to minimize shatter loss; they’ll then bin-dry the seeds until delivery to D&D Commodities.  The warmer drying air of early to mid-September is another benefit of harvesting the crop during that time frame, they affirm.
       Wheat always follows sunflower in the R&B rotation.  They’ll work the ground upon harvest with a Degelman Pro-Till®, which they say does an excellent job on the sunflower stalks and gives them a very satisfactory seedbed for the next year’s wheat.  “We always have good bushels of wheat off sunflower ground,” Bergeron says, “unless it’s a very dry year.  I also feel there’s less disease pressure in the wheat because sunflower [deals with a different group of diseases].”
       It’s apparent sunflower is treated as a top-tier crop by R&B Growers — and that it responds accordingly.  “We definitely put our inputs into it,” Bergeron affirms.  “We’re very strong on fertility.  I can’t stress that enough.
       “We’ve found, through the years, that if we put enough money into the crop, we’ll usually get it back out — and then some.  Plus, the fact that we’re in a specialty market makes a big difference.”
       Bergeron adds one final point — a point that should surprise no one:  “Timing is everything.” — Don Lilleboe             
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