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A Sunflower Homecoming

Tuesday, October 26, 2021
filed under: Rotation

combine in field
Photo credit: Don Lilleboe
Homecomings can be fun; but they’re also reminders that nothing stays the same forever.  And that’s okay.
        Jon Aakre has been enjoying a homecoming of sorts when it comes to producing sunflower: until the 2020 season, he’d been away from the crop for a quarter century.  Coming back has definitely been a different management journey — and in a good way, in terms of both yields and net profit.
        The west central Minnesota producer, who farms midway between Hawley and Pelican Rapids — at the juncture of Clay, Becker and Otter Tail counties –  was a very conventional sunflower producer back in the 1980s.  Along with his father, James, he produced dryland confection ’flowers, managing weeds with the then-standard treatment of incorporated Treflan or a derivative.  Tillage was a given.
        The Aakres were simultaneously focused on their sizeable dairy operation.  “I enjoyed crop farming,” Jon says.  “But we were cutting ourselves a bit too thin.  And in those years — given prices and the weather challenges we faced — dairy was subsidizing the crop farming.” 
Jon Aakre
Jon Aakre pauses during the harvest of his 2021 west central
Minnesota irrigated sunflower crop.

        The Aakres had been renting about 600 additional acres. But when James retired, Jon and wife Jana decided to focus on the dairy.  They cut back to about 150 acres of cropland, growing hay, corn silage and feed grains for their dairy herd.
        Part of the ground they’d been farming went into CRP, placed there by Jana’s father, John Anderson.  An area potato farmer rented that acreage once it came out of CRP and installed a center-pivot irrigation system with corners.  The field’s predominantly sandy to sandy loam soils were ideal for potato production.
        In 2007 Jon and Jana had the opportunity to buy the center pivot when the contract expired.  “Irrigation was always attractive to us,” he recalls, “since it provided better guarantee of feedstuff yields and quality.”
        Then, five years later, in 2012, the Aakres sold the dairy cows and concentrated on cash crops.
        Fast forward nine years, to 2021, and that center-pivot field had sunflower on it for the first time.  The Aakres, by now partnering with son Jayson, were drawn back to sunflower in 2020 for the most pragmatic of reasons:  attractive pricing.  But lots had changed since the 1980s in terms of how they grew the crop.
        Hybrid seed quality was the first thing that Jon noticed.  The yields achieved by other local farmers with whom he had visited were notably better compared to a couple decades earlier, as was disease resistance. The Aakres opted to go with a high-oleic oilseed hybrid in this new chapter.
        Their tillage program was dramatically different, too, from the days of their previous sunflower experience.  The Aakres had moved into a strip-till system in their corn and soybeans, and adopted that for sunflower as well.  They employ a 12-row 22-inch modified Ag Systems 6200 unit, making the fertilizer/strip-till pass in the spring “because with our light ground, we want to make sure the nitrogen is there when the crop needs it.
        “Ideally, we try to make that strip-till pass 10 days to two weeks before planting — let the ground firm up a bit.  The best scenario would be to get a shot of rain in there, too.” 
        Aakre points to several benefits with the strip-till regimen compared to conventional tillage on their light ground: minimizing wind erosion, savings of both time and fuel — and aid with between-row weed suppression.  “We still have a fair amount of acreage that’s dryland; and with every pass we can skip in the spring, we can pick up an inch or more of moisture,” he notes.
        Weed control in sunflower is now built around a Spartan® and glyphosate  pre-emerge application.  Their 2021 Express®Sun sunflower post- treatment also included Select® in the tank mix.
        And, of course, there’s the irrigation component on the one field.  That proved a major benefit in the very dry 2021 growing season.  “We planted into the strips with adequate moisture.  Then we gave the ’flowers a half inch of water to ensure good germination,” Jon recounts.  The rest of the total seven inches of irrigation came during the pre-bloom through seed fill phase.  “We knew the ’flowers could use it this year,” he says.  “They’ll give you a good run for the money when you’re short on moisture; but in an exceptionally dry year like this one, on these light soils, they really shine with irrigation.”
        The results bore him out, as the irrigated field ended up averaging 2,500-plus lbs/ac with an oil content of nearly 44%.

wheat field
This 2021 Aakre wheat field will be in sunflower next year.
A healthy cover crop growth is there this fall, comprised of radish, turnip,
oats, hairy vetch and clover.
The current Aakre rotation runs wheat, sunflower, corn, soybeans and then back to wheat, “unless we decide to bring some alfalfa back into the rotation.”  The center-pivot field will go into corn next year.  All of the Aakre 2022 sunflower acreage will be dryland, hopefully nursed along by a more-bountiful rainfall pattern.
        It will also benefit from another change compared to the 1980s:  the addition of a cover crop. 
        In 2020 the Aakres seeded a cover crop mix into their sunflower; but their best results have come from doing so in wheat stubble.  The mixture on a field adjacent to the 2021 center-pivot sunflower field consists of radish, turnips, oats, hairy vetch and a couple types of clover.  “We get a lot of growth,” Jon affirms.  “Then, next spring that ground will be strip tilled and planted into sunflower.”

sf seed from combine into semi
Seeds from combine being unloaded into semi at edge of field.

          All in all, the “homecoming” back into sunflower production has been a very positive move for the Aakres.  And there’s every sign it will be an annual affair for years to come.

Don Lilleboe
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