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Sunflower Assists in Fallow Elimination, Transition to No-Till

Sunday, March 1, 1998
filed under: Planting Systems

Taken literally, the term “Middle America” applies to Kent and Cindy Stones as much as anyone: These north central Kansans farm within (sunflower seed) spitting distance of the geographic center of the continental United States.

When comes to their farming operation, though, the Stones are hardly content to sit back and take the middle road. That progressive bent is exemplified by their adoption of site-specific farming techno-logies — and by their transition into no-till and continuous cropping.

Traditionally, crop rotations around Lebanon, Kan., have consisted of wheat, milo and summer fallow. The Stones have brought sunflower and corn into the mix, with their eventual goal being to establish a five-crop rotation without a fallow period. No-till, Kent believes, can make that a reality. “We’re in a 22- to 23-inch rainfall area, so we can actually store moisture in an average wheat year,” he relates. “Then, if we can grow wheat two years, we can come back with corn — a high-dollar crop — followed by beans or ’flowers, in a five-year rotation.”

His transition toward a no-till began in 1995. “It has been a process for me,” Stones explains, “because we were already raising good crops with our more-conventional methods. I didn’t want to just trash a system that was working.” So why move into no-till? “I really like it for soil and moisture conservation,” he replies. “And I think economically it’s going to be quite competitive — maybe the system of choice.”

Stones is counting on his GPS-generated data to aid his cropping system transition — even if it suggests that no-till is not the answer for his operation. “I want to monitor my transition, making sure we’re going in the right direction,” he observes. “I’m not ‘married’ to no-till at this point. If I am moving in the wrong direction, I want my precision monitoring to identify that early on so I can re-adjust.”

One definite success to-date has been Stones’ practice of drilling no-till wheat into sunflower stubble immediately after the sunflower harvest, thereby eliminating a fallow period. Since he plants his sunflower in mid-May, he’s usually able to take off the crop by early September. “If we can catch one decent rain in September, by no-tilling we can get the wheat germinated,” Stones remarks. “And if we can get one spear and a healthy root system in the fall, we can make a pretty good wheat crop.” He views his John Deere 1850 no-till air drill, with its minimal soil disturbance, as a key to the process.

Stones’ wheat-after-sunflower yields bear him out : an average of 40-plus bushels during the four years he has drilled wheat into just-harvested sunflower ground. “This year (1997), our ‘sunflower wheat’ made about 55 bushels per acre,” Stones reports. “It’s definitely our most profitable wheat, because our expenses are so low.

“We need sunflower because it’s a warm-season broadleaf,” he concludes, “and very well adapted to no-till.” Sunflower yields often averaging a ton-plus per acre add to the crop’s popularity for this High Plains producer. — Don Lilleboe
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