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Double-Crop ’Flowers & Companion Crop

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

Shane (left) Svitak and his father, Randy (right), planted about 1,500 acres of sunflower double cropped after wheat in 2018. Most of those acres also have a companion cover crop on them for winter grazing.
       Though it is home to current National Sunflower Association Board Chairman Karl Esping, east central Kansas is not exactly the epicenter of High Plains sunflower production.  But about 40 miles to the southeast of Esping’s Lindsborg farm, father and son Randy and Shane Svitak have developed a valuable niche:  sunflower double cropped after wheat.  In 2018 they had about 1,500 acres of ’flowers — and they anticipate expanding that number in the future.
       The Svitaks farm near Marion, with wheat, soybeans, milo and corn as their main full-season crops.  They’ve never considered soybeans as a viable double-crop option due to their typically very dry summers; and while they’ve tried milo in the past, success was marginal.  However, their experiences with sunflower over the past decade — despite some challenges — have earned the crop a consistent slot in their no-till farming operation. They view 1,200 lbs as a good average crop, but “we’ve had as high as 2,600 lbs — and as low as 200,” Randy notes.
       The Svitaks have always grown oil-type ’flowers, with most of their crop in recent years being sold to the Colorado Mills crush plant in Lamar, Colo.  Their double-crop ’flowers usually produce a good oil content (average of 44% in 2017), so that resulting oil premium obviously bolsters the bottom line.
       A companion cover crop has shared much of the Svitaks’ harvested wheat ground with sunflower for the past several years.  The diverse companion mix includes, among others, kale, cabbage, buckwheat, turnips and rye.  This cover crop is grown on the acreage they plan to graze over winter.  “So we end up cutting the ’flowers for the cash, graze the companion crop — and then also benefit from the soil health aspect,” Randy points out.
       Early on, the Svitaks experimented with adding their sunflower into the cover crop mix and then seeding that combination with their drill.  But they saw a yield drag in the sunflower — in part due to plant spacing inconsistency.  The other problem, Randy says, was that in order to get the sunflower planted into moisture, they ended up with the cover crop being seeded too deep.  Their solution has been to seed the cover crop with their drill at an appropriate rate and depth — and then come right behind with the sunflower planter (a Case IH 1255 equipped with residue managers).
       The Svitaks prefer to plant their double-cropped ’flowers in the first half of July.  It varies, though, depending upon when the wheat gets harvested — and, importantly, on soil moisture conditions.  “This year (2018), we were so dry we didn’t have any moisture to put them into at wheat harvest,” Shane relates.  “We had just 3.5 inches of moisture from the time we planted wheat last fall (2017); other than a light dusting, we had no snow at all.”  So they waited until July 15 to begin planting sunflower and did not plant their final acreage until early August.  While their typical population has been 20,000/acre, they dropped it to 18,000 this past summer due to the dry conditions — and will probably stay at that rate in the future.
       A preplant glyphosate treatment is aimed at controlling any volunteer wheat. They’ll usually apply 70 lbs of nitrogen in the row at planting.  “But his year we cut it to 50 because it was so dry,” Randy says.  “And, our wheat did so poorly we were thinking there’d be some residual N there.”
       The Svitaks have had no sunflower moth infestations in recent years, though they do continue to scout for them. Their late planting date is a major reason for the insect’s absence, they believe.
       They use a home-built header for harvesting their ’flowers, having installed nine-inch Lucke pans on a 35-foot Case flex-head.  Though they prefer harvesting at 13-14% seed moisture, a lack of on-farm drying/storage facilities restricts that.  They do plan on adding more storage.
       Due to the late planting date for some of their sunflower this summer (early August) — coupled with an early frost and some late-fall rains — the Svitaks still had a portion of the crop standing as of early December.  They remain optimistic, though, for a decent yield and quality on those acres.  “We had some ’flowers one year that got frosted,” Randy recalls.  “We gave up; were just going to pasture them.  Then in February we were putting up a fence to graze them.  We checked — and they had dried out.”  Deciding to harvest that acreage, the result was a 900-lb/ac yield with good oil.
       The Svitaks’ confidence in the viability of double-cropped sunflower on their farm is underscored by their decision to, in 2019, reduce their corn acreage, plant more wheat — and follow the wheat with second-crop sunflower.  
       “We’ve been in a 100-year drought here,” Randy emphasizes.  “We can’t plant soybeans in a double crop, and milo doesn’t work for us, either.  Sunflower is our best option, the most drought hardy.” — Don Lilleboe
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