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Double Cropping Pays Off for These Kansans

Wednesday, March 1, 1995
filed under: Planting Systems

The average sunflower producer could be excused for turning green with envy upon hearing the yield Steve Kramer needs to break even on his crop: less than 500 pounds per acre.

There is, however, an extenuating circumstance not applicable to most of the nation’s sunflower growers: Kramer is talking about the yield off a double-cropped field.

The Nemaha County, Kan., resident is one of a small — but apparently expanding — number of eastern Kansas/southeastern Nebraska farmers who are producing sunflower under a double-crop scheme following wheat. Some, like Kramer, grow full-season ’flowers as well. He reports that under both scenarios, the crop is helping him bust up problem weed cycles in his wheat, allows more-efficient use of land, machinery and labor — and funnels additional profit into the farm’s coffers.

Brothers Steve and John Kramer own and operate J-Six Farms near Corning. Much of the Kramers’ time is focused on their large hog operation (including 2,400 sows); but they simultaneously grow wheat, soybeans, sorghum and now sunflower. In partnership with another individual, they also own and operate a pair of area elevators — one at Seneca and the other at Fairview. A third Kramer brother, Troy, is a merchandiser for the elevators.

The Kramers’ addition of sunflower to their cropping rotation evolved out of their elevator ownership. Several years ago, they hired a grain merchandiser who had come from the sunflower regions of western Kansas. He convinced the Kramer brothers and their partner that sunflower could be another profit center for their northeastern Kansas elevators; so the elevators began handling and marketing ’flowers for other producers in the area, selling into both the crushing and birdseed markets.

The Kramers quickly saw the potential for sunflower in their own farm’s cropping rotation and grew their first 400 acres in 1991. Though it was a very dry year, those double-cropped ’flowers still averaged 700 pounds and, more importantly, netted the Kramers approximately $25 per acre. “In our area, $30 to $40 an acre is about what we’re going to average in profit on full-season crops,” Steve indicates. “So that got our attention in a hurry.”

In 1994 the Kramers planted 400 acres of full-season sunflower and another 250 acres of double-cropped ’flowers behind wheat. Their direct input costs for the double-cropped portion — delivered to the elevator — amounted to $47 per acre. “And that includes a burndown herbicide treatment which we probably would have had to do even if we hadn’t planted sunflower on those fields,” Steve points out. “So you could back about $8 off the $47.” With the double-cropped yields averaging 1,350 pounds per acre, their breakeven price was just 3.5 cents per pound when based on the $47 figure.

There are two obvious prerequisites for the success of a dryland double-cropped sunflower venture: adequate moisture and a sufficiently long growing season. Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas may have the first, but they don’t have the second; western Kansas has the second but not the first. Eastern Kansas typically enjoys both ingredients, with annual precipitation in the low to mid-20s and the first killing frost not arriving until early to mid-October.

Quick and vigorous crop emergence, resulting in a strong and uniform plant stand, is the key to double cropping, Steve Kramer emphasizes. After the late-June wheat harvest, he’ll apply the burndown herbicide (Roundup) to eliminate any weed competition at planting. “Then we’ll plant the sunflower as soon as possible,” he notes. To aid with sunflower seed-to-soil contact, the Kramers have “trash whippers” on their 12-row Cyclo planter, clearing the seed row of wheat stubble. That likewise helps warming of the in-row band of soil, contributing to faster sunflower germina-tion and emergence.

Fertilizer for the sunflower crop also goes on at planting. The previous fall’s soil test, the size of the just-harvested wheat crop and the anticipated sunflower yield together determine actual application levels. Typically, the Kramers add between 30 to 40 pounds of nitrogen, plus some 10-34-0 “to get the sunflower ‘up’ so it has a chance to get ‘down’ ” in order to utilize the lower-profile N, Steve relates.

The Kramers’ seed drop on their full-season sunflower (30-inch rows) has been around 22,000, while that of the double-crop ’flowers has been closer to 24,-25,000. That’s higher than normal, Steve concurs, but says they had a handful of reasons for going with this population: (1) the fact that they’re seeding in a no-till situation and anticipating slightly lower emergence rates; (2) their desire for smaller heads and quicker fall drydown because of their late seeding date; and (3) having more sunflower plant canopy for ground shading and weed suppression. They do plan to drop the double-crop population down to that 22,000 level in ’95, however.

What prompted the Kramers to go with no-till cropping in an area which generally enjoys very adequate rainfall? Reducing water erosion on their nonterraced fields is one important reason, Steve replies. The time savings they gain by omitting crop tillage operations is another advantage — particularly given the heavy demands of their hog operation. Since the Kramers hire a custom cutter to harvest the sunflower, their own labor commitment essentially consists of spraying, planting and scouting the fields for any insects.

So far, the program has worked extremely well — particularly in 1994: Along with full-season fields running between 1,800 to 2,400 pounds per acre, the Kramers enjoyed an excellent double-crop year, as those fields produced from 1,200 pounds on the low end to 1,600 on the high side. With direct costs of less than $50 an acre on those double-cropped ’flowers, it’s not hard to see why the Kramer brothers are enthused about this “sunny” fixture in their northeastern Kansas rotation.
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