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Dryland Confections In a Dry Environment

Wednesday, January 29, 2020
filed under: Rotation

       As was the case in large portions of the Dakotas and western Minnesota, 2019 proved a very abnormal year, moisture-wise, on Josh Lechman’s farm in the northeastern tip of Colorado. But whereas the Northern Plains got doused during the latter part of the growing season, Sedgwick County received its largest amounts of precipitation in July and August — nearly double the long-term averages for those two months.

       For Lechman’s dryland no-till confection sunflower fields, that was good timing on Mother Nature’s part.  While growing confections under a dryland scheme in this normally moisture-short corner of Colorado can be risky, Lechman has made it work.  His historical yield for dryland confections runs around 1,200-1,300 lbs/ac.  In 2019, though, several of his fields averaged around 1,800 lbs/ac.  “Some fields were around 1,400 lbs; it just depended on which rainstorms they caught,” he reports.  

       Seed quality also was generally good on those 2019 dryland confections, averaging around 80% plump.  However, the dryland test weight, averaged around 18 lbs — certainly lighter than desired.  Lechman believes insect damage (sunflower moth and seed weevil) on some acreage, stemming from aerial application issues, was a factor behind the lighter test weights.

       After a decade of being strictly dryland, Lechman placed about 10% of his 2019 sunflower acreage under center pivots.  That portion yielded around 2,100 lbs/ac, with generally smaller seed size (about 40% plump).  Test weight, though, was up around 21 lbs.  But the 2,100-lb yield was well below his goal for the irrigated ’flowers, and Lechman is re-evaluating whether to go with a similar percentage of irrigated in 2020 and, if so, what modifications he may want to make in his fertility and irrigation management.  

       Lechman’s 24-row 1770 NT John Deere is set up for no-till dryland planting.  “I took off all the fertilizer attachments, and just dribble on top of the ground in a 2x2,” he explains.  “The planter’s bubble coulter blades don’t open a big slot; just enough to cut.”

       His standard seed drop for dryland confections is 14,000/ac, though in 2019 Lechman increased it to 16,000 due to 
anticipated lower germination with a particular variety.  (When planting oil-type sunflower in previous years, 16,000 was his preferred population as well.)  On his 2019  irrigated ’flowers, the Sedgwick County producer employed a population of 22,000.

       “Weed control went very well this year, even though it was wet in our area,” Lechman reports.  Resistant kochia has become a serious problem, though.  “To help combat it, I go out as early as possible and spray dicamba in the cheapest form I can find and the highest (labeled) amount, depending on how long I have until planting date.”  The dicamba is tank mixed with Spartan (3.0-oz rate).  A pre-emergent burndown, consisting of Buccaneer Plus Glyphosate along with Zidua (1.95-oz rate), plus Ladem and Class Act® NG® also went on this past spring.

       Palmer amaranth and other pigweeds are becoming increasingly problematic for Lechman as well, “which is why I added the Zidua,” he says. “I’m thinking  I will put it with the early pre-emergent with the Spartan (in 2020) to try to get ahead of the germinating weeds.

       “I told my guys last year that we’re going to need to strive for a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy with Palmer.  Even with the small ones, you think you’ve got them — but they’re still putting on seed.”  Controlling Palmer amaranth throughout the rotation is critical to managing the weed in sunflower, he emphasizes.

       His rotation is key to making confection ’flowers work in his semi-arid area, Lechman affirms.  “Sunflower likes heat and ‘dry feet,’ ” he states.  “That’s why they work in my rotation behind corn.  Corn likes ‘wet feet,’ so I plant wheat, then come back with corn into the wheat stubble.  Then, the next year, I’ll split that corn row with sunflower.  The wheat straw is almost broken down, but those corn stalks are there, holding the ground.

       “The challenging part comes in getting something growing on [harvested] sunflower ground.  But the corn stalks winter very well, and I’ve also been surprised by how much snow the sunflower stalks have been catching.”

       Lechman plants millet into harvested sunflower acres as soon as possible the following spring.  In 2019 he had his local co-op blend the millet with dry fertilizer and spread the mixture — and the results were effective.  After the mixture spread, “I went through with a vertical till machine to work those sunflower stalks down and get the millet off to a good start.”  Millet has been Lechman’s standard crop after ’flowers for several years.  “It’s shallow rooted, so if we do get a big rain, it will actually recharge underneath,” he says.

       Ironically, it was an “epic fail” with millet one year in the late ’90s that led to Lechman’s initial entry into sunflower production.  “We had it swathed, and then it rained.  Laid there for 60 days before it got picked up,” he recalls.  Looking for another cropping option, he secured a confection sunflower contract and planted the crop between corn stalks.  

       Lechman, who grew up in Julesburg, worked for his father-in-law, Eugene Bauerle, at that time.  Since then, he has purchased part of the Bauerle farm and considerable additional ground as well.  The two remain partners.  “My father-in-law has been a very important mentor to me,” Josh affirms.  “Years ago, he told me, ‘If you take care of your crops, they will take care of you.’  I’ve tried to live by that advice.”

       As to dryland sunflower specifically, “I feel it is among the best-fitting crops for this area, as it does a great job of compensating to its environment.  ’Flowers will utilize what they have to work with.

       “I also feel it’s a great rotation crop. I like that it can root deeper and pull up some nutrients that the rest of my crops can’t reach and get them back into the system.” 
— Don Lilleboe      
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