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1996 Crop Year Review

Sunday, December 1, 1996
filed under: Harvest/Storage

Given the late planting period imposed by Mother Nature on the 1996 U.S. sunflower crop, a 1,255-pound national average yield didn’t sound too bad back in June. But by late autumn, that figure — which happens to be USDA’s October projection — was widely regarded as too conservative. Many industry insiders fully expect the January USDA yield estimate to run from 100 to 200 pounds higher for each state (with the exception of Minnesota). Warm temperatures during much of the growing season, coupled with generally excellent harvest conditions, were major reasons for the crop’s rising star between May and November.

The ’96 sunflower crop was slow coming out of the blocks in the Northern Plains, as cool, wet conditions delayed seedbed preparation and planting of most crops. As of early May, planting of small grains and corn in Minnesota and the Dakotas lagged well behind the five-year average. The High Plains spring-planted crops were off to a running start, however, because of a dry April and early May.

Sunflower planting finally got rolling during the latter half of May, though all three Northern states continued to lag: Just 17 percent of South Dakota’s ’flowers were in the ground by the first of June (compared to the “normal” 41 percent); for North Dakota, it was 34 percent (71 percent); and Minnesota, 44 percent (compared to the five-year average of 86 percent for that date). The High Plains’ dry conditions were alleviated by ample rains over Memorial Day weekend, and that spurred sunflower plantings among those who had been holding off due to lack of topsoil moisture.

Northern sunflower growers covered a lot of ground during the first couple weeks of June, and nearly all sunflower acres were seeded by mid-month. Planting of High Plains sunflower (except for double-crop fields) was generally finished by the end of June. USDA’s June national planted acre-age estimate was 2.8 million — 20 percent below 1995. (Confection acreage actually was up slightly.)

Though the extended planting period resulted in substantial growth stage varia-bility among fields, the nation’s sunflower crop was in generally good shape as of July. By mid-August, the progress of North and South Dakota’s crop had caught up and actually passed the five-year average. Most of the Dakota crop was rated in either good or excellent condition, though the situation was less positive in Minnesota.

Fortunately, Mother Nature’s freeze machine didn’t sweep into most sunflower areas until early October, by which time virtually all fields had matured and could use a hard frost for plant drydown. Excellent weather spurred on the harvest and reduced the amount of mechanical drying. Ninety-plus percent of the nation’s sunflower fields had been combined by the end of October.

How did the ’96 crop perform from area to area?

Jeff Bechard, superintendent of Mueller Grain Company at Goodland, Kan., affirms the importance of those late-spring rains across much of the dry High Plains. “Everything was on hold; but once it finally started raining, planting moved along well,” he says. “On average, the ’flowers were planted ahead of schedule. When they were still fighting rain in the Dakotas, we had the crop in the ground.”

There didn’t appear to be widespread insect problems in High Plains sunflower during 1996, according to Bechard. The big story — especially in the confection areas of northeastern Colorado — was rust. A large percentage of confection sunflower fields had very serious rust problems, and even some of the oil-type fields displayed significant infection. “Where the rust was severe, we were looking at yields as low as 200 to 300 pounds,” Bechard relates.

Region-wide, though, the ’96 sunflower crop came through in good shape. Bechard says yields in the upper ’teens were commonplace, with ton-plus ’flowers not uncommon. Oil contents were around 42 to 43 percent, he estimates — better than average. Some fields (e.g., in north central Kansas) attained the 50-percent oil mark.

A couple states to the north, Delane Thom, general manager of Potter County Co-op at Gettysburg, S.D., says 1996 was an excellent season. Area sunflower acreage was even to or slighter higher than 1995. Farmers were able to plant the crop on a timely basis, “and it showed up in yields,” Thom says. The station average for his co-op (which has been handling 30 million pounds of ’flowers annually) was over a ton per acre, with a few growers approaching 3,000 pounds.

“It was just the right kind of year,” Thom concludes, adding that a general lack of insect problems saved growers money while contributing to those exceptional yields. Oil contents probably averaged around 42.5 percent, he says — slightly lower than in 1995.

To the east, excess moisture was, for the third straight year, a big problem for South Dakota’s Codington County. The wet spring conditions have particularly impacted earlier-seeded crops like corn or small grains, notes SDSU extension agent Chuck Langer, with some county fields having gone unplanted for all three years. On other fields, farmers have had to plant abnormally late and/or deviate from desired rotations.

Still, 1994 and 1995 were good sun-flower years in Codington County; and while not as strong as its two predecessors, the ’96 sunflower crop came through fairly well, Langer reports. “Some of the sunflower went in late, so we didn’t get the yield we wanted. But the fields that went in earlier yielded quite well.” He estimates an average yield in the upper ’teens on the earlier-planted fields; closer to 800 or 900 pounds on late ones. Along with the very wet spring, the other production concern of note was Sclerotinia in some fields.

John Cisinski of Berlin Farmers Elevator in North Dakota’s LaMoure County (southeastern part of the state) can identify with late-planted ’flowers — but due to frost, not excess spring rains. One local soybean field froze out and was replanted to sunflower on about June 24. It ran over a ton per acre with 44-percent oil.

Given the area’s typical frost date, that won’t be the result in most years, Cisinski knows; but it reflects a year in which even late-planted ’flowers in the area generally performed very satisfactorily. As to production problems, Cisinski reports varying levels of Sclerotinia in a number of fields — a situation perhaps heightened by considerable dry bean acreage in the area.

In east central North Dakota, Brian Henderson of Evergreen Grain Company at Tower City says there were numerous ton-per-acre fields in his trade area, with a solid station average of around 1,600 pounds. A warm fall and favorable harvest conditions aided yields and lowered foreign material. Oils ran about 43 percent on average, when figuring in that of late-planted fields.

One production concern this year was the sunflower midge, Henderson reports. A number of fields showed evidence of midge infestation; some were severely damaged.

About 120 miles to the northwest, the Wells County, N.D., area enjoyed a fine sunflower year in ’96, reports Dave Mack, merchandiser for the Harvey Farmers Elevator. He estimates about three-fourths of the area’s sunflower acreage was in oil-types; the other quarter in confections. The confections probably averaged around 1,800 pounds, with test weights between 25 and 28 pounds. Oil-types, typically planted slightly later, came through with an approximate 1,600- to 1,700-pound aver-age, Mack indicates, and an overall oil content around 43.5 percent.

Parallel with yields well above the area’s historical average, 1996 also was a year with virtually no insect problems. Mack adds that the percentage of solid-seeded fields in his trade area continues to rise, probably accounting for about 25 percent of sunflower acreage this year. He expects that percentage to increase significantly again in 1997 as more area farmers incorporate air seeders into their grain and sunflower operations.

Compared to other states, the picture wasn’t quite as rosy in northwestern Minnesota — though the final average statewide yield should still be well above that of 1995.

Paul Gregor, field agronomist for Northwest Grain at St. Hilaire, notes that area growers like having their sunflower crop seeded by mid-May. That target was not attained in 1995 due to a wet spring; and the scenario was similar in ’96. Some fields were planted in late May, but the majority went in during the first 10 days of June, Gregor reports.

Yields were variable in that corner of the region. Gregor estimates the average for earlier-planted fields in the mid- to lower-’teens; for late fields, significantly less. As in 1995, Phomopsis was present in a number of area fields, in varying degrees. The sunflower midge was in a number of fields — and particularly damaging in the Warren vicinity. — Don Lilleboe
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