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Does 2019 Weather  Portend More ’Flower Acres in 2020?

Wednesday, January 29, 2020
filed under: Optimizing Plant Development/Yields

Clark Coleman (left) and Kevin Capistran
       National Sunflower Association President Clark Coleman and former NSA president and current board member Kevin Capistran live about 300 miles apart.  Their cropping systems are pretty distant as well.  Coleman, who farms in central North Dakota north of Bismarck, is almost exclusively no-till; Capistran, farming in the Red River Valley near Crookston, Minn., is a conventional tillage producer.

       But the two shared something in common with thousands of other North Dakota and Minnesota farmers this past year: excessive late-season rainfall.

       Capistran quips, with tongue only partly in cheek, that it was “biblical.”  September precipitation in the Crookston vicinity totaled nearly 7.0 inches, some 4.5 inches above the long-term average.  August rainfall ran about 4.75 inches, nearly 1.5 above normal.  “As of August 10, we were trying to get the wheat off, and it rained every three days,” he recalls.  It didn’t saturate — but then, during the third week in September, parts of the area got 7.0 inches.  That was the tipping point.”

       In Coleman’s case, the August rainfall total for Bismarck was about 3.0 inches above normal.  September’s 5.75 inches was the year’s wettest month— and about 4.25 inches above the long-term average.  October followed up with nearly 3.5 inches, more than 2.0 inches above normal.  “We didn’t get the 3.0-inch downpour, but we got plenty of 0.2, 0.3, 0.4 days,” Coleman says.

       Those kinds of precip totals come as no surprise to other growers across the Northern Plains — many of whom received even more rainfall (and snow) during the latter part of the 2019 growing season.  That translated into additional disease (e.g., Sclerotinia in sunflower), little or no fall tillage being accomplished, plenty of ruts from combining, little or no fertilizer being applied, some crazy propane bills, and lots of acres — corn in particular — remaining unharvested as winter set in.

       While there certainly are reports of higher incidence of Sclerotinia and Phomopsis in sunflower stemming from the wet fall, Capistran says his own central Red River Valley experience wasn’t too bad.  “The Phomopsis hit late, so test weight was still there,” he observes.  “We weren’t anywhere near last year’s (2018) yield — but then again, last year was a record crop.  So this year we ended up ‘slumming’ it at 2,500 lbs.

       “But,” he adds, “we were well past bloom when the water started coming down.  It could have been worse had the rainfall started earlier.”

       With Sclerotinia, “I would say my worst field was 2 to 4%,” Capistran says.  “And all of that ‘hit the deck’ (lodged).  The samples were clean — some of the nicest samples we’ve delivered in a long time.”

       The Crookston producer harvested his sunflower wetter than desired due to concerns about the plants remaining standing once additional wet weather saturated the ground.  While in retrospect it was the right decision, “we also made lots of ruts that never got filled in.”

       Coleman adds that “in a no-till situation, ruts can be devastating.  In one swipe, they can undo 20 years of what I’ve been trying to do.”
       For many Northern Plains producers, the trials and tribulations of the 2019 harvest season and its aftermath have them taking another look at their planned rotations for 2020.  While there’s still a long way to go before growers enter their fields this spring, that does bring up this question:  Will the 2019 experience open the door to more sunflower acres in 2020?

       Coleman and Capistran would like that to occur, but likewise caution it is too early to know with any degree of certainty as of mid-January.  “I think in our area, guys want to be ‘corn and soybeans,’ ” Coleman says.  “But they’re also realizing that’s not going to work.  I’ve had a handful of guys come to me and say, ‘How can I bring sunflower back and get rid of some of those soybean acres?’

       “It’s not rocket science,” he continues.  “They’re already doing 99% of what they need to do.  It’s mainly a matter of picking the right hybrid and getting the correct pre-emergent herbicide down.  They can’t do sunflower without a pre.”

       Capistran believes 2020 could see more sunflower acres being planted in his area.  “For me, I’m going to be up in [sunflower acreage] this year, and I like it because everything I do this spring will take longer.  So if I’m out to Memorial Day (for planting sunflower), I’m fine with that.  But I don’t feel as good planting soybeans at that time.”  Along with small grains and soybeans, Capistran’s rotation also includes sugarbeets — a crop that needs a well-prepped seedbed, early planting, and solid early season weed control.

       Unsurprisingly, both Capistran and Coleman believe that “price” is the key to any significant increase in sunflower acreage region-wide — especially if that increase were to come at the expense of soybean acres.  “People are going to be looking at these prices, pushing the numbers,” Coleman states.  “Depending on your history, you can probably get as good crop insurance now on sunflower as you can on anything.  Nineteen-cent oils and 29-cent confections, times an 1,800-lb proven yield . . . those numbers work.”

       Fertilizer inputs can also enter into growers’ decisions this spring.  “If you haven’t had a deep-rooted crop on that ground for a number of years, your fertilizer requirements with sunflower are probably going to be significantly less,” Coleman observes.  “Sunflower will go after and use those deeper nutrients.  That may play a role in cropping decisions, too.”

       “If we do pick up sunflower acres in our area, it’s going to be in place of another oilseed (soybeans) — which wouldn’t necessarily be seeded early anyway,” Capistran says.  “But I think sunflower’s tolerance to a difficult seedbed might be a better factor than just ‘when you can get out there and plant.’ ”  In the end, though, like Coleman, he believes price will be the biggest determinant of whether sunflower acres will be up significantly in 2020. 
— Don Lilleboe   
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