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Extra-Early Planting Provides Higher Oil - And More

Friday, January 1, 1999
filed under: Planting Systems

There's the story, apparently true, of a university agronomist some years back who was not a friend of sunflower. When asked at a meeting for his recom-mendations on how to grow the crop, he suggested the following steps: Plant in December, at a population of one seed per acre - and use atrazine for a herbicide.

Vance Neuberger is a friend of sunflower. In fact, the Clark, S.D., producer is past president and the current chairman of the National Sunflower Association. Neuberger does not use atrazine on sunflower ground, and he does plant at a population considerably higher than one seed per acre.

He also waits until spring to plant his sunflower crop.

But just barely.

This past season, Neuberger seeded his first sunflower field on April 24. In 1999, if soil conditions allow, he plans to have a small portion of his acreage in the ground by April 1 "just to see" what transpires.

The east central South Dakota grower's trend toward ever-earlier planting dates has been ongoing for several years. He believes the practice provides several important benefits for his operation:

Higher Oils - This is the reason for Neuberger's initial decision to advance his sunflower planting dates. "Every time I've moved my planting dates earlier, my oil has continued to go up," he reports. "I really believe that if you're using a high-oil hybrid, the earlier the

planting, the higher the oil."

Neuberger says his best oil to date was a 1995 field's 51-percent reading. There have been years where he's averaged between 48 and 49 percent (10-percent moisture basis) across his entire crop.

Along with planting high-oil hybrids, the South Dakotan believes his exceptional oils are the result of the sunflower plants being able to build optimum oil levels under the most favorable weather conditions. In 1998 his conventional 'flowers (part of his crop is no-till) were

done blooming by the 4th of July. "In a normal year, our heat in this area doesn't peak until mid-July and on," Neuberger explains. "So I think they're picking up that extra oil prior to the extreme heat."

Early Harvest - This past fall, Neuberger harvested his first sunflower field on September 3. He was completely finished with his 'flowers one week later. The uncommonly early harvest has at least four key advantages, Neuberger explains.

o First, it spreads out the fall row-crop harvest workload. "We've had years where we've virtually been [combining] soybeans, 'flowers and corn at the same time. That's obviously not a good situation," he remarks.

o Second, it allows him to escape damage from migrating blackbirds. Clark County is in the center of a major flyway, and Neuberger has spent countless hours and large sums of money battling the winged marauders over the years. Local bird populations are minor compared to the

migrating flocks that move through the area in mid-September and October. Any unharvested sunflower field will incur serious to severe depredation during that period unless aggressive measures are taken to protect it, Neuberger explains.

o Third, an early harvest can allow the grower to take advantage of attractive market opportunities. That was the case for Neuberger in 1998. Ironically, though his high oil contents would have provided a significant premium, he found he could generate even more revenue by

selling into a hungry early September birdseed market. "We sold some 'flowers at 14 cents and averaged over 13 cents for the entire crop - simply because we planted and harvested early," he reports. "So whether you're looking at oil or at the birdseed market, there are advantages

either way."

o Finally, for many South Dakota growers, an early September harvest date provides sufficient time to seed winter wheat on sunflower ground - if soil moisture is adequate. That was Neuberger's intent in 1998, but a dry spell during September blocked the plan. He does, though, hope to accomplish it next fall. He'll seed the wheat directly into standing sunflower stalks. Neuberger won't work the stalks first, believing that practice comprises needless "recreational tillage."

Though still planting part of his crop under conventional tillage, Vance Neuberger's eventual goal is to be entirely no-till. Due to the ground taking longer to warm up, his first no-till sunflower field in 1998 was not planted until May 4 - about 10 days after the initial conventional 'flowers went in. Those no-till acres averaged approximately 1,600 pounds, while the earlier-planted conventionals ran nearly 2,100 pounds per acre. "I attribute part of that difference to planting date; but part of it also was due to soil type," he indicates.

Once the seed was in the ground, Neuberger says there was little difference between his conventional and no-till 'flowers in time required for germination and emergence. He runs trash whippers on his planter, placing them at soil level to clear away a narrow band of residue from the seed row. That bare strip of soil thus warms up more quickly, aiding emergence.

Weed control on the no-till sunflower consisted of a pre-emergence burndown with Roundup, followed by a postemergence application of Poast for grass control. (The Roundup went on with liquid 28-0-0, thereby saving Neuberger about $4.00 an acre in application costs.) Except for some drowned-out spots, the no-till 'flowers were very clean. Getting a quicker plant canopy cover between his 30-inch rows also helped with weed control, he adds.

Neuberger has not yet experimented with a shallower planting depth as a means of further spurring crop emergence and development. "But we may want to do that if we get an especially cool spring," he agrees.

For now, the most dramatic change for 1999 will be to move that planting date to early April on some of his 'flower acreage. "I want to see how far I can push oil [and other key agronomic responses] before there are diminishing returns," he states. "I want to find out where the 'breaking point' is. So far, I haven't found it."

Neuberger adds that he's never been nipped by frost on his progressively earlier sunflower plantings, though he concedes that becomes more of a possibility with each step closer to March. The more-immediate risk, he jokes, "is that your neighbors think you're totally nuts.

"But they weren't laughing this fall when I was getting 13 and 14 cents." - Don Lilleboe

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