TJ Halverson Is Sold on Sunflower
Tuesday, October 20, 2020
filed under: Irrigation/Water Use
Farmers are always learning and looking for new and better ways to grow their crops. For one northwestern North Dakota producer, that means irrigation and data collection.
This summer, once a week like clockwork, TJ Halverson walked into his fields of confection sunflower, searching for clues about how the plants grew.
“My curiosity got the best of me,” Halverson admits.
Early in the summer, when the sunflower plants were first emerging, he marked them with flags. He used a different color every 12 hours. Once the plants emerged, he could see the difference in emergence dates compared to the sunflower head size.
He was also interested in the leaves. Every week, Halverson gathered leaves from 10 to 15 different sunflower plants, being careful to take each leaf from the same spot on the respective plants. He collected leaves from different locations in the 160-acre field, put them in a bag and overnighted to a lab in Georgia. “They analyze them and tell me the quantity of the nutrients in the plant leaf,” he explains.
That information from the weekly tissue tests gave Halverson a glimpse into the overall health of his crop.
“The reason we’re doing it is to better manage the crop and keep the plants healthier. Healthy plants have less disease. We want to optimize production and try not to overuse fertilizer. My goal is to supply the plant with what it needs,” says Halverson.
So far, he’s been a little surprised by the results.
“We don’t have typically high nitrogen levels in our soil. But we do in these plants. I can’t totally answer that yet, but it’s definitely eye-opening,” he says.
“We’ve seen our organic matter increase significantly with sunflower. We are using more of the growing season, and our goal is to have something living in the soil as long as possible. Sunflower is one of those crops. It uses the whole growing season and has made a big difference in our soil.
“And sunflower does a nice job of going deep and getting to those nutrients deep down in the soil,” Halverson adds. “It’s unbelievable, really, from a nutrient mining perspective; that’s a lot of workers in a sunflower root — and, that’s part of why our soil is in good shape after planting sunflower.”
Cover crops are another tool Halverson has implemented to improve the health of his soil. What he use for cover depends on what seed he has available. This year, he planted a mixture of 14 different species on his harvested winter wheat ground. He says anything is better than nothing.
“Growing something, anything on this land is good. It helps the soil. no matter what the cover crop is,” Halverson states.
As for sunflower specifically, it’s a crop fairly new to Halverson.
“This is probably only our 10th year growing sunflower. It has been an interesting journey,” he says. “I first planted sunflower because I had taken over some new land; and when I did soil tests on that land, I noticed I had a lot of real deep nutrients in the soil. Exorbitant amounts of nutrients were about two feet down in the ground. The shallow-root small grains and pulse crops I was planting wouldn’t go deep enough to get those nutrients.”
So, he decided to give sunflower a shot. He had heard about sunflower’s deep roots and ability to tap into deep moisture and nutrients.
“It worked, but that first year was an interesting year,” he recalls. “We seeded a little light, and we had oil sunflower heads the size of basketballs. The stalks were really thick, and it took us a long time to combine. But we’ve gotten smarter, and every year we’ve improved our sunflower crop.”
Hours and hours of research during the winter months have definitely been part of Halverson’s formula for success. He says the National Sunflower Association website quickly became his most visited source.
“I found out about the NSA after I had seeded sunflower for the first time,” Halverson recalls. “So much of my wintertime research was dedicated to learning more about sunflower. The NSA was a big help. I was trying to figure out what to do for a header and learn more about seeding rates and nutrients. I think I probably looked at the NSA website daily for a few years. It is a very good tool for both new and experienced sunflower growers.”
Now, Halverson is a member of the NSA Board of Directors and the North Dakota Oilseed Council; he was elected sunflower representative for District 6 in April 2019. Halverson represents the northwestern North Dakota counties of Bottineau, Burke, Divide, Renville, McHenry, McLean, Mountrail, Ward and Williams.
Halverson has also joined a group called DCI Next Level, a large group of farmers nationwide working together to share information. The group has challenged Halverson to take a closer look at emergence. That’s where those flags he placed in his sunflower fields last spring once again come into play. Prior to the 2020 harvest, Halverson had already noticed substantial differences in plant emergence and head size. His winter research this year will focus on more-efficient seeding and more-uniform emergence.
Halverson upped his 2020 acreage to around 1,400 acres of oil and about 160 acres of confections. It’s the first time he’s tried confection sunflower.
“I got a call from a guy who wanted me to try them. There is a difference in price, but there [also] is more risk. I just thought, ‘Why not? I’ll give them a whirl!’ ”
Like many North Dakota farmers, Halverson was late getting his crops in the ground this year. He didn’t get his first acres seeded until May 15; usually he’s in the field by late April. This year’s sunflower fields weren’t planted until the end of May. It was a cold spring followed by a dry summer; Halverson says he recorded only about four inches of rain all summer.
“I think we’re going to be okay,” he observed in early October prior to harvest. “I am excited about the confections, and I know the oils will be good, based on our emergence this year compared to last year. I’m hopeful for the confections.”
Part of Halverson’s optimism comes from his ability to irrigate his fields. Only about one percent of North Dakota’s farmland is irrigated, with corn and soybeans being the most commonly irrigated crops. Halverson has irrigated each of his crops, including sunflower. He irrigates about 1,200 acres of his farm and has another 2,500 acres of dryland. He says in the 10 years he’s been growing sunflower, he’s noticed a big difference between his irrigated and dryland fields.
“Sunflower has a tremendous yield response to moisture. We’ve seen as much as double production,” Halverson says. “Some of the research in other areas — especially for the oil crops — [indicates] you want to have adequate moisture; but once you get to the later flowering, early maturity areas, that’s when the ’flowers really build up oil content. They call it ‘laying down oil.’ That’s when we pour the water on. We want to keep oil content high, and we have seen an increase in oil percentage because of that.”
During most of the 2020 growing season, Halverson applied about an inch a week on his sunflower through the pivot. Toward the end of bloom, he increased that to about two inches a week.
Halverson says one downside to irrigating sunflower in his area is that harvest is pushed back to November or December. “It just doesn’t work to harvest our irrigated sunflower in October. They’re not dried down enough,” he explains. “We’ve combined every month of the year. This year we finished in April! But we aim for November.”
As he’s become a more-experienced grower, Halverson has made some adjustments and investments to make his sunflower crop an even-more profitable addition to his rotation. Those changes include switching from solid seeding with an air drill to investing in a row planter (30” rows) and a new Fantini sunflower header.
“That row planter helps us control the head size better,” he explains. “Our seeding rates on our irrigated fields are 27,-28,000. We were at 22,-24,000 when we were solid seeding, and we had big heads on big plants and the drydown was terrible. We had a hard time drying them out enough to harvest.”
One fact his hours of research have already proven: sunflower definitely works in the northwestern corner of North Dakota. Halverson has replaced his canola acres with sunflower. “I like them that much better,” he says.
He intends to keep sunflower a regular part of his crop rotation, which also includes wheat, barley, durum, corn and soybeans. Halverson also runs about 200 head of cattle.
“Sunflower just works here in our soil and our climate. We don’t have blackbird pressure in this area. Our biggest issue is logistics. We are pretty far away from all the sunflower markets. We have one local elevator about 35 miles away that will sometimes take them; but most of the time we have to travel significant miles with our sunflower.”
Most of his sunflower crop is trucked 300 or more miles away, either to eastern North Dakota or into Canada. This year, his confections are contracted to go to Fargo. He expects most of his oils will go to either West Fargo or Enderlin, but he has exported to Canada in the past for the bird food market.
“Sometimes we have a better market in Canada than anywhere else. Mileage is about the same, so we just go with where we can get a better price.”
Those are miles TJ Halverson is willing to travel if it means being able to keep sunflower in his yearly rotation.
— Jody Kerzman