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'Flowers Take Root in Kiowa

Monday, December 1, 1997
filed under: Rotation

Southeastern Colorado hasn’t exactly been a hotbed of sunflower production over the years, so Burl Scherler didn’t have much local experience to draw upon when he planted his first ’flower crop in the spring of 1995.

The Sheridan Lake grower’s initial 160-acre experiment provided plenty of its own challenges, too. Unusually heavy late spring rains crusted his sandy loam soils and prompted a replant. Then, about the time the replanted crop was emerging, Mother Nature turned off the spigot and kept it shut the rest of the season. Toss in some head moth damage, and the result was a mediocre 900 pounds per acre.

Still, those 900 pounds generated as much net revenue as the corresponding 30-bushel ’95 milo crop. Despite a less-than-sterling beginning, sunflower had earned another chance on the Scherler farm.

On the heels of a rainless fall and spring, part of the 1996 Scherler sunflower crop went into a field following a failed wheat crop. Right after planting, a hard four-inch rain fell, hurting sunflower stands once again. The preplant herbicide couldn’t do its job — but the weeds loved the ample moisture. Helped by a follow-up herbicide rescue treatment, that field ended up averaging 1,500 pounds.

The eye-opener for Burl Scherler, though, came in the form of a second ’96 sunflower field that was planted into no-till wheat stubble in mid-June. The stand was excellent, and those dryland ’flowers averaged a whopping 2,500 pounds per acre. With land in western Kiowa County selling for $250-$275 an acre, Scherler had “bought” that field with a single crop.

No-till yields in 1997 ran between 1,400 and 1,800 pounds per acre — still a good crop for the area. They were out-shown, however, by nearby Scherler minimum-till fields (swept with an undercutter for herbicide incorporation) which went more than a ton.

Three years after introducing sunflower into his rotation, Burl Scherler has developed several observations regarding the suitability of this crop for his traditionally wheat/fallow locale:

• Sunflower ground does not automa-tically blow. That reputation has helped hold back acreage in his area, Scherler affirms. It’s obviously not true under no-till conditions; nor does it necessarily apply even under a more-conventional till system.

Referring to both his own experience and studies done at the USDA-ARS Central Great Plains Research Station at Akron, Colo., Scherler underscores the effectiveness of standing stalks to cut wind erosion and trap snow. “If you have 16,000 plants out there of the right variety and with healthy stalks, they’ll stand like fence stakes all winter. And if we have some big winter snows, they’ll really trap it,” he affirms. “They’ve gotten a bad rap over the years. If you leave them standing, [the field] is not going to blow.”

Residue from preceding milo and wheat crops provides an effective insurance policy for Scherling’s no-till sunflower fields (see photo on page 22). Between the sunflower stalks and trash from previous crops, erosion on sunflower ground has been a non-issue for this dryland Colorado producer.

• Sunflower is an excellent rotational fit. Milo was the only dependable row crop Scherler had ever produced prior to sunflower. His three-year rotation of wheat, milo and fallow was encountering rising populations of grassy weeds (particularly field sandbur), and the cost of trying to control those species was increasing along with them. “The ’flowers fit so well because it’s easy to get the grasses in sunflower [with herbicides such as Prowl, trifluralin and Poast],” he remarks.

Most of the sunflower grass herbicides also work well on sandbur (his worst weed problem), Scherler observes, adding that the insertion of a summer broadleaf into the rotation has helped his weed control in milo by fracturing cycles of some species (such as sandbur) which had proven troublesome to control.

Rainfall patterns are another reason sunflower fits this area. Scherler’s own farm records dating back to the early 1980s indicate that the majority of moisture typically arrives during the May-August period — which is ideal for sunflower but somewhat late for the winter wheat. (Historical data from the weather station at nearby Brandon confirm that pattern, indicating that two-thirds of the area’s 13 inches of annual precipitation comes during this four-month period.)

• A good stand is essential. Sunflower is often touted as a “forgiving” plant, meaning its head size compensates for adjacent open space and makes up for at least some of the “missing” yield. But that’s of little comfort to Scherler. Along with optimizing yield and uniformity of drydown, he views the plant canopy generated by a consistent stand as an important ally for weed control — especially in no-till ’flowers.

“Weeds and stand establishment work hand in hand,” he states. “If you don’t have a good stand, you’re going to have weeds.” Herbicides buy time for the sunflower crop, allowing it to close over the row. “If we can get a thick canopy out there early, we’re all right,” Scherler ventures. He’ll seriously consider replanting if his emerged stand is less than 14,000 — a luxury which more-northerly producers may not have due to their shorter growing season.

Scherler’s 1997 seed drop, incidentally was about 19,200 in 30-inch rows.

• No, sunflower won’t ruin your ground. Though decades of experience elsewhere refute that contention, it has been another misconception in traditional wheat/fallow areas such as Kiowa County. Scherler has found some of his better crops have come following sunflower, including a 1997 milo field that averaged 75 bushels per acre. (Fifty is typically considered a good dryland milo yield in this vicinity.)

Like many other newer producers, however, Scherler has quickly discovered that as with any crop, one cannot skimp on fertility on sunflower. He believes insufficient nitrogen was a key factor in his 1997 no-till ’flowers not yielding more than they did. An excellent ’96 milo crop “took so much out that there wasn’t any reserve,” he says. “Sunflower and milo are both good ‘miners;’ they’ll take what’s there, so you have to put it back in.” Fertility management for both sunflower and milo has developed into a fast learning curve, this Kiowa County grower affirms. — Don Lilleboe
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