Early Planting and High Oils
For sunflower producers, pulling in those high oil contents at harvest is bit like getting a great gift at Christmas. Oil contents pay big time at the crush plants, with the premium of 2% of price for each point of oil over 40%.
Oil contents in the Kansas/Colorado/ Nebraska region traditionally have trailed Dakota/Minnesota averages by two to three percentage points. Low oils have been a concern to the crushing plants in the High Plains, since oil is what everyone is after when growing and processing oil-type sunflower.
Oil content is usually a combination of a hybrid’s genetics and the specific growing season. Another contributing factor may be date of planting. Studies conducted by Colorado State University agronomist Ron Meyer back in the 1990s indicated that earlier planting dates resulted in higher oil contents.
That project was conducted in eastern Colorado, near Burlington. Plantings were spread over five dates in May, June and early July. Meyer’s work indicated that the earlier plantings resulted in higher oil content, test weight and yield in all three years of the study.
Significant advantages were found for sunflower seed yields during the 1992, 1993 and 1994 growing seasons in the early planting. In 1994, three planting dates in May did not differ significantly — but their yields were significantly better than the June plantings. The earliest planting dates also had the highest test weights.
In 1992, the earliest planting — June 3 — had a 51.4% oil content, compared to the last planting of July 6, in which oils came in at 43.3%. The first planting date in 1993 — May 20 — produced an oil content of 45.6%, compared to 43.7% for the June 13 planting date. The numbers in 1994 were 44% on the first planting date (May 13) and 40.2% with the last one (June 17).
But early planting in the High Plains also has meant potentially more problems with the head moth and stem weevil. Later planting dates have been advocated as one way to potentially avoid the full brunt of these insects. That advice apparently has been taken by many growers, as the average sunflower planting date for the region is the first half of June, according to USDA weekly progress surveys.
One grower who has bucked the trend toward later planting is Tom Bargen of Nora, Neb., which is located near the Kansas border in southeastern Nebraska. Bargen, who has been growing sunflower for more than 20 years, has always planted early. Make that very early — i.e., late March or early April. His oil contents generally run in the high 40s to low 50s, and have never been below 48%. Bargen, who farms in a 17- to 20-inch annual precipitation area, also garners strong seed yields with early planting.
One reason Bargen plants early is his rotation, which includes planting winter wheat for seed production after sunflower. “We generally harvest sunflower around Labor Day, and go right back into the sunflower stubble with our winter wheat,” he indicates. The overall rotation typically consists of two wheat crops, milo, sunflower and then back to wheat.
What about insect pressure? Bargen says he usually plans for one insecticide treatment for the sunflower moth. Occasionally, he has sprayed twice. Stem weevils are not a concern, but Dectes (long-horned beetle) is on his mind. He has used Furadan, but that product will no longer be available due to EPA action.
Despite the research results showing that Furadan has minimal impact on the Dectes, Bargen’s own experience made him a loyal customer. The Dectes numbers have increased along with expanded soybean acreage in his area. However, Bargen harvests early (at approximately 17% seed moisture), so the insect likely has not migrated to the base of the sunflower plant. That’s where it grinds out its overwintering chamber and makes the plant prone to lodging. Despite his commitment to the now-absent Furadan, Bargen’s early harvest should avoid that problem, suggests Kansas State University research.
A 50% oil nets Bargen a 20% price premium on his sunflower crop. “If I have an $18.00/cwt price, I pick up an additional $3.60/cwt for oil content premium on a 2,000-lb yield,” he points out. “That’s an additional $72 an acre. I can do a lot of insect control with that kind of money.”
The Nuckolls County producer starts by planting hybrids with good oil content potential. His weed control package includes Spartan, which takes care of his Palmer amaranth. He also tries to control troublesome broadleaf weeds in his rotation prior to going back to sunflower. His fertility program depends on soil test results, with a goal of 100 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre. He injects the nitrogen along with sulfur prior to planting. Bargen’s operation is entirely no-till.
Harvesting at 17% seed moisture is not a problem, given Bargen’s air drying setup. “Temperatures in my area in early September are warm enough to air dry that seed down to storable levels in a short time,” he notes.
Dr. Rob Aiken, crops research scientist with the Kansas State University Northwest Research-Extension Center at Colby, is another advocate of early sunflower planting dates.
Planting date studies at that location usually point to higher oil content for earlier-planted sunflower. Dryland plantings at Colby in crop year 2000 indicated greater oil content with the early planting date; however, the 2001 test showed inconsistent results. Irrigated planting date studies in 2002, 2003 and 2004 all showed highest oil content with the earliest planting dates (generally mid-May).
In Aiken’s view, there’s great opportunity in planting longer-season hybrids in the High Plains. “We have the growing season here to plant longer-season hybrids like those that the Argentines are using,” he says. Longer-season sunflower should translate into additional yield potential and more oil production per acre. Aiken notes, however, that moving to longer-season hybrids will require earlier planting. An earlier planting date brings more risk of stem weevil damage, so that insect needs to be controlled.
Aiken adds that early planting will be easier in the High Plains once hybrids resistant to the stem weevil become available. He is a key researcher working in cooperation with USDA-ARS Sunflower Research Unit scientists in screening breeding material for stem weevil resistance at the Colby site. Progress is being made, with more information on that project to be provided in an upcoming issue of The Sunflower. — Larry Kleingartner
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