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‘More Interested In Sunflower Now Than Ever’

Thursday, January 3, 2019
filed under: Research and Development

       Sunflower has grabbed the attention of North Dakota State University Extension soil health specialist Abbey Wick.
       “I’m more interested in sunflower now than I ever have been before in seeing how it works so well in rotation when transitioning to a reduced-till system,” Wick explains.
       And many producers in eastern North Dakota, where Wick has focused her work the past several years, are making that transition. When she started with NDSU six years ago, Wick focused her attention on the southeastern corner of North Dakota, where NDSU does not have a research extension Center.  She’s gradually extended her research to the northeast corner of the state, as well as west toward Jamestown.
       “Most of my work has been done within a two-hour radius of Fargo,” Wick notes. “I’ve really worked to focus my attention on producers who haven’t had as much support as those in other areas have when it comes to soil health.”
       What she’s discovered is that sunflower does a good job of helping to improve soil health and making the transition towards no-till.
       “We’ve been ‘playing around’ with cover crops and sunflower,” Wick says.  “We’ve been growing sunflower with a cover crop at the same time.  Goals of this approach are to bring in beneficial insects, reduce weed pressure on the sunflower stand — and build up the soil in that phase of the rotation.
       “We’re still testing it, and my results at this point are just preliminary.  But it looks like sunflower and using cover crops in small areas could be a good crop for these farmers.”
       Wick has not tested any of her work full-field yet; so far, the studies have been done in replicated strips 60 feet long and 40 feet wide.  She says she’s not ready to take the project full-field yet because she’s not sure how the cover crops will affect yield and oil content. This practice may never be suitable for full-field application.  What she is sure of, however, is that sunflower is working well for some farmers in the Red River Valley.
       “Sunflower is a deep-rooted cash crop; and when a producer is transitioning that high clay soil to no-till, it’s really important to develop that soil with some depth and manage the moisture.  It can provide an easy residue to plant in during the transition to no-till.”
       Wick points out that there are still many full-till operations in eastern North Dakota, especially compared to western and central North Dakota where the majority of producers are now no-till. But, she says, the overall trend has been heading in the no-till direction.
       “Sunflower is a good crop for producers here to include in their rotation,”?she affirms.  Farmers, commodity groups, consultants, researchers — we all know that crop rotation is the best possible way to manage disease, weeds, to build our soils, and reduce erosion.  All of those things come from a solid rotation.  I’d be excited to see more farmers here growing sunflower.  We need another crop in the rotation.”
       The NDSU soil health specialist explains that a crop like sunflower with deep tap roots is key to building soil structure. 
       “Often in the high-clay soil here, if you’re growing shallow-rooted crops such as wheat and soybeans, consistently the soil structure just isn’t there.  A deep-rooted crop like sunflower builds that soil structure to a deeper depth and gives water a place to drain.  Drying out the soil seems to be really important. Farmers who have corn or sunflower in their rotation seem to be managing moisture well.”
       Wick is also excited about the renewed interest in growing sunflower in eastern North Dakota.  She calls sunflower an important tool in the soil health toolbox. 
       “We need to hit it from all angles. We’re seeing a huge amount of interest in sunflower. We have sold out our annual Conservation Tillage Conference and have a waiting list this year.  I’ve been doing Café Talks with farmers around the area, and those are maxing out, too. We went from having maybe seven people attend those to nearly 80 people at some talks.
       “It’s a two-way street though. I’m learning as much from those farmers who attend these events as they’re learning from me.” — Jody Kerzman                 
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