Crop Year Review
The 1997 U.S. sunflower crop had to follow an impressive performance in the form of a 1996 crop that averaged 1,435 pounds per acre. A cool, wet spring this year didn’t help, as the crop went in late and then contended with cooler-than-normal temperatures during the emergence and early growth period. The result was a diverse range of crop stages in both Northern Plains and High Plains sunflower areas as of midsummer.
Favorable weather spurred overall progress, however, and by September the Dakota/Minnesota crop was maturing ahead of the five-year average. Developmental phases were more varied in the High Plains, depending upon planting date. Most fields had plenty of time to achieve physiological maturity, though, and harvest was virtually complete in the Northern Plains by the end of October. An unseasonably early snowstorm temporarily halted the High Plains harvest that month, but the sunflower crop was not hurt significantly by the interruption.
USDA’s October projection of 1997 average sunflower yields was 1,334 pounds per acre. That preliminary figure could be lower than the final tally, however, given the fact that the late-harvested portion of the crop — which typically is lower in terms of weight and quality — was actually quite good this year. Test weights of both oils and confections appeared to be consistently above average, though some locales indicated the oil-types were out-yielding the confections by a wider-than-usual margin.
USDA will be updating its 1997 sunflower yield estimates in January.
A spot check of several Northern Plains sunflower locales affirmed the mixed nature of the 1997 growing season.
Mike Tyrrell, South Dakota State University extension agent for Hand County (central part of the state), says sunflower acreage there was up by about 20 percent over 1996. A late planting for corn correspondingly pushed sunflower seeding back into the first half of June, with some fields being planted as late as the third week of the month.
Overall stands were excellent, however, stimulating predictions of numerous ton or ton-plus yields. Some fields did attain those marks, with 2,300 pounds being the highest yield of which Tyrrell is aware. However, the late planting and some substantial blackbird depredation did pull down the average to a somewhat disappointing — though still quite respectable — 1,600 to 1,700 pounds, according to Tyrrell.
In northeastern South Dakota, Codington County agent Chuck Langer says his county came off three consecutive years of excess moisture and then ended up with a ’97 spring in which some locales were actually too dry while others were about right. It was an extremely good year for corn, while both sunflower and soybeans had a more-average season. Langer estimates sunflower yields in the mid-teens “for those who didn’t have any big problems” such as serious blackbird damage or Sclerotinia infections.
Nearly 200 miles to the northwest, Mike Hanson calls sunflower “the shining star” for farmers in Emmons County, N.D. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we had a 1,500-pound average for the county,” says the NDSU extension agent. That would compare with a recent five-year average of about 925 pounds.
One big reason for sunflower’s strong showing in Emmons County, Hanson believes, has been the movement toward minimum tillage and increased stored soil moisture. “Sunflower took advantage of the deep moisture,” he says, adding that the number of producers planting sunflower with air drills has been growing — especially in the northern half of his south central North Dakota county. “We also have guys in the south end who are [using] the John Deere 750 no-till drills” for sunflower, Hanson relates.
Les Stuber is extension agent for Barnes County, N.D., one of the state’s leading sunflower production areas. He says 1997 was a “mixed bag” for this crop, with infestations by the sunflower midge being the big downside. The midge was a particularly serious problem in the eastern part of Barnes County, where some fields were worked under while others yielded very poorly. Sclerotinia also hurt yields of some growers whose rotations have been getting tight.
“[But] we had some excellent yields, too — well over a ton,” Stuber remarks. “So we had the widest range of ‘best’ to ‘worst’ that I’ve ever seen.”
To the north, Eddy County agent Randy Mehlhoff says 1997 was an excellent year for sunflower, in contrast to a poor season for other crops in his area of central North Dakota. Whereas the average wheat yield typically runs around 30 bushels, for example, it was only 18-20 this year. Dry edible beans also were well below average. Sunflower, however, ended up close to 1,600 pounds on average, Mehlhoff estimates — some 200 to 300 pounds higher than the historic figure. Ton yields were not uncommon.
The Eddy County crop year began with ample soil moisture, but then the spigot turned off. Rain was nonexistent in May and June. “We had two inches on the fourth of July; no rain the rest of July; then no rain in August,” Mehlhoff reports. While that scenario really hurt small grains and other row crops, sunflower held up well. “The ’flowers pulled a lot of guys through this year,” he affirms. “It was a very disappointing year [overall], but I saw smiles on a lot of guys for the first time when they were harvesting their sunflower.”
Bottineau County, hugging the Canadian border in north central North Dakota, also enjoyed a strong sunflower season, says county agent Tim Semler. A dry spell toward the end of the spring seeding period hurt the emergence of some late-seeded crops, but planting sunflower deeper into moisture resulted in generally good stands. Rains during the latter half of June helped the crop catch up.
Cutworms and wireworms did thin out some stands early in the season, and parts of the county were hit by hail in mid-July. The crop had plenty of time to mature, however (which is not always the case in this northern county). For those locales not suffering significant hail damage, Semler says there were numerous yields between 1,500 to 2,000 pounds and with good test weights and high oils. “For sunflower, I think most of the guys are smiling,” he summarizes.
That wasn’t the case eastward across the border in Minnesota, where the traditionally strong sunflower area around St. Hilaire (Pennington County / Red Lake County vicinity) has been experiencing declining yields and acreage. Phomopsis is a major reason why.
The disease contributed to a poor sunflower year, says Ben Bjerken, merchandising manager for Northwest Grain of St. Hilaire. “In general, we had an extremely poor crop through our trade area,” he indicates. Bjerken estimates that at most, sunflower yields averaged in the neighborhood of 1,000 to 1,200 pounds — and this in an area where ton-plus yields were quite common in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Midge hurt yields in some pockets, but Phomopsis has, by far, developed into the major headache for sunflower in the area, he notes. Bjerken expects more soybeans and fewer sunflower acres in 1998.
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