40+ Consecutive Years of Sunflower
Friday, January 25, 2019
filed under: Rotation
Travel into southwestern Nebraska’s Banner County, and you’ll find significantly more dryland acreage farmed in strips than you will irrigated fields under center pivots. Strip farming has been commonplace in the area for many years, dating back to when most producers were in a straight wheat-fallow rotation.
Charles Ivan Anderson and his son, Charles Edwin Anderson, decided to diversify their wheat-fallow regimen in the mid-1970s. Their choice for a second crop? Sunflower. “The first year out, they planted 2,000 acres of oils,” recounts Charles Laif Anderson, Edwin’s son (and whose own son is named Charles Elliott). Their success with that first sunflower crop set them on a path that has continued unabated to this day. The Anderson farm has had sunflower on it every year for the past 40-plus years — ranging between 2,000 to 4,000 acres annually. “We’ve never not grown sunflower in my lifetime,” Laif affirms.
When his dad and grandfather decided to get into this row crop, they went to their John Deere dealer and purchased an eight-row 7100 MaxEmerge planter. Though Laif also runs vacuum planters, that 7100 remains in use, seeding between a fifth to a fourth of the Anderson sunflower acreage each spring. “That old 7100 finger unit still handles the different sizes of seeds better than any plate or vacuum planter that we’ve used,” he states. “We’re repeatedly happier with the stands. With some minor adjustments, we can make that 7100 — now more than 40 years old — plant anything. On real large seeds, we will tweak this old 7100 finger unit to do the planting — and it will do so when nothing else will.”
They can cover about 120 acres a day with the 7100 eight-row unit, so they use two 16-row vacuum planters on the remainder of their sunflower acreage. While the majority of Anderson acreage is in no-till, the 7100 is teamed behind an eight-row Orthman 1tRIPr strip-till unit. “We’ve found the strip till improves our seed-to-soil contact, and we get a lot better germination,” Laif observes.
One year, due to poor emergence and hail, the Andersons replanted a field on July 7 — and still ended up with an exceptional crop. “But if I could pick an ideal date for our area, I would say around June 10,” Laif says. “That usually allows us to get the crop emerged quickly and eventually mature without any frost concerns.”
That’s not a hard and fast date, of course; weather, field conditions and workload obviously play a big role in sunflower’s actual planting date in a given year. “We have a saying around here: ‘We plant corn up until the insurance cutoff on the 25th [of May]; then we dump the hoppers and fill them with ‘flowers. So the planting doesn’t stop. We don’t really have a transition period.”
A typical rotation for the Andersons is wheat, sunflower, then either corn or oats — followed by a fallow season — and back to wheat. “For our no-till ground, I really like sunflower because that taproot seems to loosen up the soil,” Laif observes. And where they do strip till, “between the strip till and the sunflower root, we have a very mellow planting field.”
Sunflower in the rotation also contributes to a reduction in wheat stem sawfly problems, Laif says — and helps break up certain grassy weed cycles such as cheatgrass, goatgrass and Feral rye.
As to weed control for his upcoming sunflower crop, Anderson starts with a fall application of glyphosate and 2,4-D. “Then, in early spring (April), we’ll put on 8 oz of 2,4-D again with a full rate of glyphosate.” That’s followed by an application of Spartan at or immediately after planting over the top. He’ll reduce the Spartan rate on hilltops to avoid burning young sunflower plants.
While generally quite satisfied with the level of weed control in his ’flowers, it’s not uncommon to still need to cultivate 300 to 400 acres, Laif adds, using heavy no-till cultivators.
The Anderson sunflower fertility program consists of 5.0 gallons of 10-34-0 at planting, followed later by 40 lbs of nitrogen. If the field shows strong yield potential and soil moisture is good, he’ll commonly add 1.0 gal/ac of controlled-release nitrogen in a tank mix while spraying for sunflower moth and seed weevil in early bloom.
Late season, similarly to most High Plains producers, Anderson contends with seed moisture contents that can drop rapidly during harvest — well below 10%. So he’ll begin harvesting his ’flowers at around 15-16% moisture and then dry those seeds in the bin. “But we often run out of bin space and then end up waiting and switching over to corn, because we can harvest a lot more than what we can dry.” He installed additional natural air drying bins in 2018 to help mitigate that situation.
Laif has focused on confection ’flowers rather than oils for several years. While he plans to do so again in 2019, he says he’s been discouraged by the plantability and germination qualities of certain hybrids he has used, and thus is opting for different selections this season.
And while he understands that customer preferences have driven the confection industry’s movement toward larger seed size contract stipulations, he maintains this development has simultaneously made it more challenging to optimize profitability on the farm.
“I actually think our yields are improving,” he remarks. “But I don’t think it’s [due to] seed quality. I think it’s because we have our production more ‘in tune.’ We’re better agronomically: weed control, fertilizer usage, moisture utilization. Stand establishment can go either way — and that boils down to seed quality.” Seed drop on his dryland confections typically runs around 15,-16,000.
Anderson definitely is not among those who view sunflower as detrimental — in terms of moisture and nutrient depletion — for the succeeding crop in the rotation. “We’ll follow sunflower with corn if we have a fairly wet winter,” he says. “And our corn will yield within five to 10 bushels of corn [planted] in wheat stubble. If you’re running an adequate fertility program, sunflower is not detrimental to your production at all.
“I believe too many producers use sunflower as a ‘catch crop,’ and they don’t put down enough nutrients to sustain their system,” he continues. “Our dryland confection sunflower yields have been in the 1,100- to 1,200-lb range for the last five years.” (His 2018 sunflower yields ranged from 400 lbs/ac, due to poor emergence, up to more than 2,000 lbs.)
“We don’t treat our ’flowers like they’re going to ‘scavenge’ for everything,” Anderson concludes. “We treat them like they are one of our major cash crops. We put as much fertility into them as we do our dryland corn — and it pays.”
— Don Lilleboe